Thursday, May 13, 2010

THE NIGHT OF THE BIG BLAST - May 1966 (The Wild Wild West)

Only three months had passed from the time I finished THE NIGHT OF THE DRUID’S BLOOD and when I reported to do THE NIGHT OF THE BIG BLAST. For my part I had worked in another (my third) episode of the new Quinn Martin series, THE FBI, but much more had happened out in THE WILD WILD WEST.

Gene Coon had left and former executive producer Michael Garrison was now the producer. As you will see in a moment his credit now read CREATED and Produced by Michael Garrison.

THE WILD WILD WEST had gone to color, another in the final admissions of defeat by CBS. Earlier NBC and CBS had conflicting color systems vying for approval by the FCC. NBC’s electronic system won. But for some time there were not enough color sets in the country to warrant the added expense of filming series in color. NBC of course was most anxious to further their cause, so they began programming series in color earlier than the other networks to encourage America to buy color sets (which they also produced under their RCA label). There was one week (and I’m afraid I don’t remember in which season it occurred) when NBC’s entire evening schedule was in color. The NBC series that were still filming in black and white shot one show in color to be shown during this special week. By 1966 it was inevitable that color was the future, so CBS joined the parade.

To save money during those early years of filming in color, not all of the daily rushes would be printed in color. For each sequence only one setup would be printed in color (it was usually the master shot for the scene). The rest of the takes for that sequence would be printed in black and white. Therefore the work print of the film would bounce back and forth from color master to black and white closeups. It wasn’t until the final answer print that we got to see the entire film in color. Each day a batch of film strips would be delivered to the director of photography from the lab. These film strips were 5 or 6 inches in length and there would be one strip for each setup filmed the previous day. The purpose of this delivery was so the director of photography could view those setups in color for his approval.

So hop on your horses and let’s travel west!

Any similarity between this sequence and the lab scenes in FRANKENSTEIN was purely intentional.

I remember Bob Conrad saying, right after the shot of his body twitching on the gurney, “I studied acting at Northwestern University for this?”

There was a change made in the opening billboard for the show beyond adding color. Here’s the black and white billboard from Season One. Pay attention to the action between the Cowboy and the Dance Hall Lady.

And now another look at the color version of the Second Season.

In the black and white version she taps him with her parasol, and then as she attemlpts to stab him in the back he kisses her passionately, tips his hat and walks off as she swoons against a post. In the color version she knocks his hat off with her parasol, and as she attempts to stab him in the back he kisses her passionately, then he socks her to the ground as he picks up his hat and walks off. Now I wonder what genius at the network requested that improvement.

(A couple of days after publishing this posting I viewed some material at the beginning of THE WILD WILD WEST DVD for the first season. There was some information concerning the opening billboards that is too good to ignore. The series was originally called THE WILD WEST. The black and white billboard included the action later used in the color billboard. At the time the decision was made to rename the series THE WILD WILD WEST, it must have been decided the action of striking the girl to the ground was TOO violent and the more subdued action of her merely swooning was substituted. Now I wonder if Michael Garrison, who created the series, was the one to have overseen the more violent action in that first billboard. And since Michael Garrison was back at the helm at the end of the first season when the show converted to color, if he was the one who reestablished that violent sock in the new color billboard.)

The lab scene was the initial sequence shot on our first day of filming. The crew reported at the usual 7:30 am; filming was scheduled to begin at 8:00 am. Five minutes before 8, Ida Lupino reported to the set, in costume and makeup, ready to film. At 8:25 am our Miklos, MIchael McCloud, arrived; at 8:50 am Robert Conrad showed up and we were able to start filming. Allthough these late arrivals were not standard practice throughout the television industry, they also were not sole occurrences. And I think it was symptomatic of the change in Hollywood from the days of the studio system to the then present day of television production. A few years later David Frost interviewed the four stars of the then smash Broadway musical, FOLLIES. Helen O’Connell, who was interviewed first, was ecstatic in her praise of Alexis Smith, with the emphasis being on Alexis’ professionalism. Later when Miss Smith arrived on the stage, David Frost told her of O’Connell’s words. Alexis then told a story. She was very young, recently arrived at stardom, when she was cast opposite Clark Gable in a film. One morning with an 8:00 am shooting call, Alexis was not on the set; she was still in the makeup department. On the set Clark Gable looked at his watch, noted the time and announced to the director and crew, “Thank you, gentlemen. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And he left. Alexis said she was never late for a set call again.

There was a professionalism about the actors of that earlier time that I am sure was a result of the studio system. Young prospective talent was sought by studio talent scouts and put under a seven year contract -- with option periods every three months. The threat of having ones option dropped was sufficient to make the actor toe the line. That and the example set by the already established stars at the studio who had had that professionalism drilled into them on their way to the top. But studios and production companies, in the age of television were at a disadvantage. Once an actor was established as a bona fide star of a successful network series, they seemed to hold the stronger hand. If the studio fired Vince Edwards, how does BEN CASEY continue on the air? Or Peter Falk on COLUMBO? Or Robert Blake on BARETTA? It was a different world. I know of a show (which shall remain nameless) where the producer challenged one of the show’s stars. Guess who was the one dismissed! I remember the stunned look on the face of the show’s story editor when he came into the office of the production manager (I was present) and announced, “I’ve just been made the producer.”

The following morning I invited Ida to come view the dailies of the first day’s work. She graciously declined, telling me that she could not bear to watch herself on the screen. Then she told me of the incident the year she won the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actress of the Year for her performance in THE HARD WAY. She and her mother were in New York and her mother said, “This is ridiculous. You’ve just won this award; you’re great in the film. You are going to go see it.” So Ida and her mother traipsed down to the Broadway theatre where the film was playing. Ida said she lasted about fifteen minutes; then she told her mother she would meet her in the drug store across the street. She left the theatre and drank coffee for the next couple of hours. She had not been able to bear watching herself on that silver screen, even in an award-winning performance.

I filmed the fight sequence with two cameras. I tried to add the second camera whenever possible as a time-saving procedure. This was a fairly simple sequence. Conrad did his own stunt work, so it was just a matter of Bob and the three stuntmen working out the routine and then doing it. With the two cameras we only had to do the sequence once. Later sequences, involving Ross, Ida and Michael McCloud, were a little more complicated.

Ross Martin was very good for THE WILD WILD WEST and THE WILD WILD WEST was very good for Ross Martin. On the one hand he was the comedy relief, the inept partner of the show’s hero, sort of a handsome Chill Wills. But his wide range as an actor proved invaluable for Ross to assume many, various identities. In this episode he had the rare chance to be the romantic hero, since Jim West has allegedly been eliminated from the story.

I think the casting for this episode was outstanding, reminiscent for me of the way PLAYHOUSE 90 was cast. Get as many star names as possible. I was one of the production supervisors on PLAYHOUSE, and one of my chores was to break down the scripts for casting director, Ethel Winant. Depending on the size of the role, I would chart when each character should report to the studio. Many was the time I would have a minor character coming in for the final few days of rehearsal, and Ethel would cast a star name and that actor would report on the first day. I remember that happening with Peter Lorre being cast to fill what was basically a minor role. All it took was a lot of imagination on Ethel’s part and the willingness of CBS to cough up the money.

In addition to Ida Lupino, Ross’ paramour for the show was Mala Powers, the lovely actress who had been Roxanne to Jose Ferrer’s CYRANO. Ida and Mala were close friends; Mala had appeared in the feature film, OUTRAGEOUS, that Ida directed. Unfortunately the two did not have any scenes together.

And then there was Patsy Kelly. What an original. Patsy had been in films at this point for thirty-five years, having come to Hollywood in 1931. Five years after this gig she would win a Tony on Broadway for her featured role in NO, NO NANETTE, the musical that brought Ruby Keeler back to the Great White Way. There is no other way to say it. They just don’t make them like that any more.

Old comedy films taught me a valuable lesson: comedy should be played in masters and two shots, not closeups.

When directing someone like Ida Lupino, you really don’t have to do much more than block in the action. But I couldn’t resist offering one suggestion. I thought Dr. Faustina, beyond her joy at the suitability of this corpse for the project she is about to do, she might also get an appreciative thrill as she feels his torso. Ida was delighted.

Ross was not the stunt man that Bob Conrad was. So the following dueling sequence had to be filmed taking that into consideration. The first musketeer was Jerry Sommers, an actor-stuntman-fencer. The other two musketeers were stuntmen. And a fourth stuntman was a double (and I think a very good photo double) for Ross. The script called for only one of the musketeers to be eliminated on the balcony. Two musketeers fenced Artemus into the ballroom. I decided to eliminate the second musketeer on the balcony so that the final battle was just Artemus against one musketeer.

I considered Ida Lupino one of the giants of the profession. Born in England to a show business family, she came to the United States at the age of sixteen and was signed to a contract by Paramount Pictures. At one point I believe she was set to star in their all star production of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but that assignment did not happen. Hollywood lore has it that she donned the required wardrobe and stormed into William Wellman’s office and forced him to watch her perform a scene from his upcoming project, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED. She got the part and she was on her way. Signed by Warner Bros. she was the backup to their top woman star, Bette Davis. In fact she referred to herself as the poor man’s Bette Davis. Later she moved behind the cameras and became the only woman director in Hollywood, starting in the late forties and continuing for two decades. (Dorothy Arzner had been the sole woman behind the camera in the thirties, directing her last film in 1943). At this point Ida referred to herself as the poor man’s Don Siegel. She really was a terrific lady and I considered it an honor to have been able to work with her.

Have you been thinking that, considering Robert Conrad’s behavior, CBS was taking a stand and was using this script as a way to eliminate the character of James West, that the series was about to become THE WILD WILD GORDON?

The fight scene, unlike the dueling sequence at the ball, required MANY stunt doubles (for Dr. Faustina, Miklos, Artemus and the robot Artemus). Only Conrad didn’t have to be doubled. And I have to acknowledge the tremendous contribution to this sequence, in fact to all of the sequences in the lab, in fact to all of the sets for this production, of art director, Al Heschong.

Michael Garrison wanted me to stay on and direct more episodes of THE WILD WILD WEST. I was not available; I had signed a contract with Quinn Martin Productions for the 1966-67 season for multiple assignments on THE FBI. MIchael pleaded with me. He said Sammy Davis Jr. was signed to guest star and I could have that assignment. I repeated that I was already contractually obligated. THE NIGHT OF THE BIG BLAST was my last THE WILD WILD WEST. And three months later Michael Garrison died after a fall in his home.


  1. Miklos? I wonder when Hollywood screenwriters adapted the habit of using Hungarian names for the servants of mad scientists. ;-)

  2. Probably about the time they realized Hungarians made the most brilliant assistants :-)