Tuesday, August 10, 2010

THE GRANDCHILD - July 1977 (The Waltons)

The beginning of the sixth season of THE WALTONS found me returning to Walton’s Mountain, where I found a major change had taken place.  Richard Thomas, his five year contract at an end, had flown the coop; which also  meant that John-Boy had left for New York City to pursue his writing career. Hereafter his character would remain a part of the series by an occasional reference to his New York advancement or when someone would say they had written to tell him of some event on Waltons Mountain. The format for the rest of the show stayed the same.  It was still the adult John-Boy (voiced by THE WALTONS creator, Earl Hamner) who narrrated the opening and closing for each episode just as if he were present to note in detail the weekly happenings on Waltons Mountain.

As I wrote before, when the series first began, each episode opened with THE WALTONS billboard.


But the demands of television to hook the audience early to prevent them from dialing to another network was difficult for a show like THE WALTONS.  Its stories started slowly and quietly, hardly competition for openings like Quinn Martin productions (THE FBI, CANNON, DAN AUGUST) that hooked their audiences by presenting violent and exciting crimes.  So THE WALTONS soon emulated another of QM’s productions, THE FUGITIVE, by opening with a climactic moment from later in the story.


Hardly as exciting as a killing, but still tantalizing.  And there were changes here too.  Michael Learned and Ralph Waite were no longer co-starring;  they were now starring.  But they still alternated weekly with whose billing came first. And did you notice that Michael Learned no longer had to be billed as Miss Michael Learned.  Obviously CBS’s fears that the audience might think the mother was being portrayed by some male in drag had been alleviated.  Also did you note the absence of Ellen Corby from the credits.  She had recently suffered a stroke and would not return to the series for another year.


THE GRANDCHILD was a two hour episode written by Rod Peterson and Claire Whitaker, Mr. and Mrs. Peterson in real life and the authors of THE FIRESTORM, an exceptional script I had directed the previous year.  THE GRANDCHILD had a thirteen day shooting schedule, an improvement over the eleven and a half days that I had had to film the two hour THE CONFLICT three years earlier.

Ralph is not as common a name as Bob or Dick or John.  So I very, very seldom had to contend with having other Ralph’s on the set.   But that was not the case this time.  Beside me there was Ralph Waite, our assistant director, Ralph Ferrin; and to add a little more confusion to the mix, the actor playing Mary Ellen’s husband, Tom Bower -- his middle name was Ralph.


This was the least typical Waltons script handed to me so far; another strange one written by the Petersons was still in my future.  That is not a complaint; nor is it a criticism.  Just a statement of fact.  Walton stories didn’t veer too often from human drama into melodrama.  Nor was I unhappy with the veering.  Melodrama is fun to do.  And challenging.


Wind machines,  Lightning machines.  Rain machines.  All contributed to the work of John Nickolaus, a superb director of photography who had replaced Russell Metty on the series.  We not only filmed several THE WALTONS together, but later in 1978 John was my cameraman on a film for television, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF HEIDI.  This was another first for me on THE WALTONS;  in fact it was an only.  The exteriors of Ab’s shack and the country road were shot night for night.  They had to be filmed that way; we could not have created the lightning effect shooting day for night.  And the rain storm would not have been as effective.     

Ab, the grandfather, was played by David Hooks.  Fourteen years earlier when he was a New York based actor, I had directed David in episodes on NAKED CITY (COLOR SCHEMES LIKE NEVER BEFORE) and EAST SIDE WEST SIDE (AGE OF CONSENT).  You can view both of those shows by visiting the archives to the right of this column.


I was a big admirer of the musical, A CHORUS LINE when the national company played at the Shubert Theatre in Century City.  I saw it six times.  So when I saw we were going to need a dancer for this episode, I asked Pam Polifroni, our casting director, to get one of the dancers from that show for our production.  She brought Trish Garland in to meet with me and she was hired.  I gave her the script and explained what I was planning.  It was agreed she would create her own choreography.

For our theatre we selected the Mayfair Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica.  Just a few blocks up from the ocean, it was a small theatre that bounced back and forth between being a movie house and a performing arts theatre for smaller productions.  It was a charmer.  Imagine my shock the morning we worked there when Trish arrived -- on crutches.  She assured me there would be no problem; she would be able to perform.   And she did.  My admiration for her knew no bounds.  It was a known fact that the dancers in A CHORUS LINE constantly experienced injuries.  If you’ve ever seen a production of that musical, you know what a strenuous ordeal those performers were put through.  But here was one performer who was not going to pass up a job (the IMDB notes this as being her first film assignment) because of some bad gams.  A real trouper in the show must go on tradition!

When Grandpa finds out where Jason is performing, he arranges a trip to the theatre.


I have to take a moment here to talk about my reaction to A CHORUS LINE.  The first time I saw it, I remember at the final curtain being totally wiped out by the message I got from the production.  Cassie, in order to get a job that she was desperate to receive, had to perform at less than her capabilities in order to qualify.  That message really resonated and disturbed me.

Remember the short teaser that began this episode?  Here is the sequence that clip came from.


If you looked closely you may have noticed the opening clip was not EXACTLY the same as the later scene.  This was a case where the opening teaser was planned and scripted.  It needed its own opening and its own closing.  Most times the scene would be selected AFTER the film had been assembled and the clip would be a duplication of the later scene.

This show gave me a chance to return to one of my favorite locations -- Franklin Canyon.  Doctor Curt goes looking for Cassie.  Her home at this time was a construction we found at the Canyon.  But our art department did a fine job of embellishing it -- articles of furniture, the torn curtains at the window (wonderful to shoot through) and even cobwebs, spun not by spiders by by our artful technicians.


Finally!  It had been a long wait from my interneship at Blair Hospital (DR. KILDARE), but I was finally going to get my chance to officiate at the birth of a baby.



If you remember, earlier I said that the script for this episode veeered toward melodrama.  Now did you think I would make a statement like that and not deliver?


I’ve spoken before about MIchael’s concern about having to be just a presence in scenes without having any dialogue.  And I’ve stated that I thought she didn’t realize the power of her presence.  But then there were those times when she was more than just a presence.


1 comment:

  1. I loved all of your episodes, but especially this one. but the one problem I have had was when Tom was not able to play Curt in Season 9. Also, I thought it was kind of misleading when you supposably brought his charactor "back to life." All in all, greatest show on television.

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