Friday, June 18, 2010

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO LUNCH - December 1968 (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father)

This outing has also been posted on my website at www.senensky.com

Last October in my posting for THE MASK MAKERS on DR. KILDARE, I ended by saying:

"This was my second DR. KILDARE assignment. I was booked to return in the fall for another assignment. And unbeknownst to me there was a visitor on the set who seven and a half years later would have a very strong effect on my career."

As I wrote in my last posting, I was without employment after the debacle of THE THOLIAN WEB. It seemed as though I had moved to the top spot of a Hollywood black list. Then in November I received (finally) a call from one of my agents. I was to go out to MGM (my old home studio) and meet James Komack. JImmy at that meeting informed me that he had visited his friend, Carolyn Jones, several years before when she was guest starring in an episode of DR. KILDARE. He had been a working actor in Hollywood for about eight years. He had gone back to New York to appear in the smash Broadway musical, DAMN YANKEES, and later appeared in the screen version of that production. He had recently moved behind the cameras to pursue a career directing and producing. He told me he had been impressed with the way I directed Carolyn; that any discussions I had with her were done quietly and confidentially, out of earshot of everyone else on the set. As an actor he appreciated that. He was now producing a new series for MGM, THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER, a transferrence of the popular MGM feature starring Glenn Ford, Shirley Jones and Ronny Howard, into a potential weekly television sitcom. But he had other aspirations for the series; he did not want to use sitcom directors. He invited me to come aboard. I readily accepted his offer.

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I don’t know what the actual commitment was between MGM and ABC. Although the series would not go on the air until the following September, it was already in production filming six or seven shows. My guess was that the network had the option after viewing these first productions of ordering more episodes or canceling. After filming was completed on these initial episodes, Jimmy planned to go out with a skeleton crew (no sound) and film a large series of sequences involving Eddie and his father, with Bill Bixby cast as Tom Corbett and seven-year old Brandon Cruz, an absolute newcomer to the profession, in the role of young Eddie. Later short vignette-type scenes would be written, recorded and laid in over the wide angle shots he had filmed. These were to be the opening and closing for each episode.

Except that’s not how it was done on this episode. I filmed a scene with the dialogue you just heard where Eddie speaks to his father, who is dressing to go out for the evening. But the edited film was long, so the dialogue as recorded for that scene was used over a shot Jimmy filmed later at the beach. Here is the scene from that script, GUESS WHO’S COMING TO LUNCH, written by Jimmy, that ended up on the cutting room floor (except for the dialogue).




I recently, in preparation for revisiting Eddie and his father for this posting, viewed the feature, directed by Vincente Minnelli. I was amazed at the difference in tone between the feature and the television series that evolved under Jimmy Komack's guidance. The film with Glenn Ford and Ronny Howard seemed to stress the conflicts in their relationship; Tom Corbett, a recent widower still in the throes of grief, showed a lot of impatient anger toward his young son, who did not like the current lady in his dad's life and could not hide his disapproval. Eddie is finally vindicated when the lady he wanted as his mother is the one Tom eventually marries. Komack's interpretation of the relationship for the small screen was a different kind of love story. Although early episodes in Komack’s version had Eddie “shopping” for Tom’s future wife, the main courtship of the series was between son and father.

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In the nine episodes I eventually directed for COURTSHIP, this was the only one that drew from material in the original film. In that film, Eddie (Ronny Howard) had a serious conversation with his father about girls with skinny eyes and big chests; in the television film, skinny became squinty.

The other standing set for the series was Tom’s office where his magazine was produced. And of course Tom had a secretary. In January, 1968, LAUGH IN debuted on NBC. It was an immediate success, and one of its shining stars was Goldie Hawn, who giggled a lot. Since imitation is the greatest compliment that can be paid, thank you LAUGH IN for Tina, the secretary as played by Kristina Holland.

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This was not a series being developed along the usual guidelines employed in Hollywood. How was this possible? I think the recent move of Herb Solow from head of production at Desilu Studios (where under his command STAR TREK and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE were developed) to MGM, where he was now the head of production, was a major factor. Herb had an open mind when dealing with creative people; he was willing to tread where many others feared to go. And he was a very nice, kind man. He made it a point to come and welcome me to the studio, at which time he said, “When Jimmy requested hiring you to direct for the series, I did not object.” I knew he was very aware of what had transpired with me on STAR TREK after he left Desilu.

And Jimmy’s choices for stories were not following the usual sitcom patterns.

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Today the opening of that door would not produce much of a ripple. But for television forty-two years ago -- it was BOLD! This was a reunion for Cicely Tyson and me five and half years after EAST SIDE WEST SIDE. And this time there was to be no pushing her into the background because of the color of her skin. Black was beautiful!

I’m sure you have noticed by this time two things that alternately pleased and annoyed me. Let’s get the annoyance out of the way first. The laugh track. It was bad enough to have laughter on the track when the show was being performed in front of a live audience and being photographed by four cameras ( I LOVE LUCY e.g.) where performances were aimed at producing those laughs. But this show was being filmed on a studio set without any audience. The laugh track was machine-made later and frankly was an intrusion. (Who are those strange unseen people in the living room who are laughing?) Many times I felt the insertion of the laughter not only didn’t help provoke laughter from the tuned in audience; it got in the way and lessened the comedic effect we were going for.

Now for the good! Not only did Nilsson and George Tipton compose a charming music background score, but Nilsson wrote and sang bits that commented on the action in the scene -- sort of a musical one-man Greek chorus. Another of the innovative Komack touches.

I think the casting of Miyoshi Umecki as housekeeper Mrs. Livingstone was inspired. Miyoshi was the first Asian performer to win an Academy Award, which she did for her performance a decade earlier in the Marlon Brandon starrer, SAYONARA. In her low key style, she was an amazing performer. 

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I think this was Brandon Cruz’s very first film job. He was seven years old, but incredibly professional for one so inexperienced. And lucky. The child actor is a breed unto itself. I had worked with many children (and hordes more were in my future). In the mid-fifties I directed a play in Hollywood and cast a twelve-year old to be in it. I’ll call him Jackie (not his real name). Jackie at twelve was already a Hollywood veteran. At a younger age he had been a running character on a very successful situation comedy that was now off the air. But Jackie had a very ambitious stage mother. Money was being poured into recording sessions to launch him as a teenage singing star. It wasn’t until after the stage production had concluded that one of the members of the cast told me that Jackie, each evening as he sat in front of the mirror applying makeup for that night’s performance, had tears streaming down his face. The recording career never developed. When Jackie reached the age to make his own decisions, show business became a part of his past. That’s why I say Brandon was lucky; he had Bill Bixby. Bill from the first day was his anchor. But let’s let Brandon tell it in his own words:

"Well, when you're around the guy known as 'the nicest guy'
in show business. You learn a lot and you're in awe, an awful
lot of the time. Bill was such a professional, such a giving
actor, and caring person that it didn't even seem like work.
It seemed like I was hanging out with my best friend. It was
corny, but he was so wonderful to work with, you could not
pay anybody to say a bad word about Bill. He was giving to a
fault, basically."

Two years after Bill Bixby died in 1993, Brandon named his first son Lincoln Bixby Cruz.

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You may take the man out of acting, but you can’t take the actor out of the man. Producer James Komack cast actor James Komack as Norman, who works for Tom on his magazine. Later in the run, (and I worked on and off on this show for a year, doing nine episodes) Jimmy told me that when he was the director of an episode, he never left the set. But when he was acting, during the time that a scene was being lit he returned to his dressing room. When the director of photography was ready, a buzzer was rung. Jimmy said he heard the buzzer, but he waited in his dressing room until the assistant director came to notify him they were ready for him to film. Interesting!

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It was so nice to be back with people who scheduled by the reality of the situation. This episode was filmed in three days. Most of the episodes I did later went three and a half or four days. It all depended on how many scenes involved Eddie (and in several instances, friends of Eddie) all of whom had to spend three hours a day in school; and the work day for a minor ended nine hours (allowing an hour for lunch) after they arrived in the morning. The three hours of schooling did not have to be consecutive. It was worked into those times the youngsters were not involved in filming. Sometimes the kids could go to school for an hour, or two hours; and sometimes they might have to go to school in twenty minute increments. I was always impressed with the concentration those young people could bring to the set, considering those circumstances.

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Another major problem in filming for television was the final running time of the film. Because the tv networks had adopted the scheduling of radio, prime time programming was either a half hour in length or an hour. That was the overall time; from that you deducted the time for the commercials, the network station break, the opening billboards and credits and the closing credits. This had been an even bigger problem during the live television era. They literally had to be timed to the second. Script girls (and most of the script personnel were women) were absolutely expert at the craft of back-timing. There is a great legendary story from the Golden Age of live New York television. Because I can’t be absolutely certain it really happened, I will give my director another name -- Jake. Jake arrived for the first reading of the hour length show. After the reading his script girl said, “Jake, I think the script is long.”

Jake replied, “No, I don’t think so. I’m planning to play this at a very fast pace. I think we will be okay.”

Rehearsals took place. After the first runthrough, the script girl again came to Jake with her concern that the script was long. Again Jake said the cast was not yet playing at the tempo he envisioned. He was confident they were going to be okay. Came the move from the rehearsal hall into the teleivision studio for camera blocking. The next day after the first runthrough on camera, again the script girl’s concern; again Jake’s assurance.

Dress rehearsal. Script girl’s concern; Jake’s assurance.

On air. I mentioned back timing before. It was a complicated system that I never could truly understand whereby the script girl could tell the director at any point as they were on air whether they were on time, long or short. Halfway through the show Jake called out, “How are we for time?”

Script: “We’re long, Jake.”

Jake: (to his associate director) “Take over.”

Whereupon Jake left the control booth, went out to the stage where the filming was taking place, got down on his hands and knees and crawled onto the set where the the two performers were acting. He jerked at the actress’s skirt and the actor’s trousers and whispered, “Cut every other line.”

As I’ve said several times before, when there is a difference between the legend and the fact -- print the legend.

Filmed television had one intervening factor in its favor -- the editing room. When the film was assembled, if it was long cuts could be made to bring it down to proper length. That happened on this show. Here is the script (outlined in pink) of a scene that was filmed but ended up on the cutting room floor.



And here is the scene that ended up in the film. I think everything necessary that was said in the excised dialogue is still understood because of the performances of Bill and Cicely.

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One last comment. Jimmy Komack, with his concept for the short vignette scenes between Eddie and his father to begin and end each episode, had provided himself a cushion in case an edited film came in short. All he had to do was lengthen the vignettes.

Since it’s not fair to leave a plot unfinished, let’s take a look at the morning after.

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If I seem to have neglected Bill Bixby, let’s just say I was saving the best for last. He was everything Brandon said about him-- but ten times more. Never any temperament, always cheerful, extraordinarily talented, and a real mensch! This was a very good place for me to land after my experience in outer space.

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