Saturday, October 2, 2010
TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY, PARTRIDGE UP A PEAR TREE - December 1970 (The Partridge Family)
Do you remember the Swiss village in THE NEW ADVENTURES OF HEIDI?
Eight years before I filmed that, I filmed the same location on the Columbia ranch in Burbank to open the second episode that I directed of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.
Michael Lembeck, who played Marc, had been in a production of DAN AUGUST that I directed a couple of months earlier. When he came in to audition for the producers, he asked if the role of Marino had been cast. It hadn’t been at that point. Michael was the one who suggested his father, Harvey Lembeck for the role. Harvey was a wonderful actor and comedian. Remember him as one of the prisoners in STALAG 17? Michael Lembeck several years later moved behind the cameras to become an Emmy award-winning director.
I was told that one of the directors (who shall remain nameless) of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY came into the producer’s office on his first day of prep, tossed his script on the producer’s desk and said, “Okay! What are we going to do with this whale shit?” I never did that. Besides, on this script I would have been limited to, possibly, a very large tuna. But from here on this script did present a problem. Laurie, because of her friendship for Marc, refuses to perform. And everything comes to a standstill. Drama is action, doing something. Sitting around refusing to do something isn’t very exciting. Then riding to the rescue is the least believable savior, young Danny. He locks Marino and Marc in the office and conducts a binding arbitration meeting. But this drama is behind locked doors, off camera. That could have been a funny scene. Finally they reach an agreement and the Partridges are able to open -- on the same small nightclub set I had silently objected to on WHEN MOTHER GETS MARRIED, with the same red drapes although they were hung differently, and with 13 extras plus the 5 standins as the packed house audience attending the Partridges’ debut.
The following week the script for PARTRIDGE UP A PEAR TREE was definitely an improvement. It had a totally believable situation involving Keith and the family. And importantly, it was a situation with promising prospects to be funny.
The exterior of the Partridge house was on the Columbia Ranch, same area in Burbank as the exterior club setting of the previous episode. And I have to add, I was happy to direct an opening teaser that hooked its audience without a violent killing like those I had staged on all of the FBI episodes I directed.
Keith’s “I’m thinking, I”m thinking...” came from one of the classic comedy bits of all time. On the Jack Benny radio show in the thirties Jack was at the race track when a race track tout (I’m sure it was Sheldon Leonard) accosts him with “Your money or your life.” Silence. Again, more insistently, “Your money or your life.” Again silence. Then “I said your money or your life.” And Jack’s response, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.” I have to admit, I remember listening to that original broadcast.
If you’re going to steal, steal from the best. Remember Orson Welles’ opera sequence in CITIZEN KANE? I had another musical number in this episode, and this time I stated I wanted no set. Which meant no audience. Which meant no extras. I think it was probably the no extras that did it. I had no trouble getting that approved.
I admit, I’m old-fashioned. I like my stories to be entertaining, but I also appreciate when they include a small moral lesson.
I also enjoy a happy ending.
I want to put in a word in defense of the producers. Theirs was a formidable task. There were twenty-five episodes of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY their first season, twenty-four their second. The series lasted four seasons for a grand total of ninety-six episodes. True the number of shows per season had shrunk since 1961, when thirty-two episodes of DR. KILDARE were produced its first year on the air. I don’t think the lesser number was created at the studio based on their ability to deliver. I’m certain it was a decision at the network, where they realized they could make more money by ordering fewer shows.
But the staff responsible for delivering these scripts was small. Besides creator Bernard Slade (and I don’t know how involved he was) there was Executive Producer Bob Claver, Producer Paul Junger Witt and Story Consultant Dale McRaven; and only one of the three was a writer. The scripts were written under their supervision by free lance writers. That was a lot of plot, a lot of funny lines to keep churning out. No one ever started out to write a bad script. But many times what began as possibly a good idea in a one-sentence pitch, just didn’t evolve as hoped for. One time when I was griping because I had just finished directing one of those literary miscarriages during the season I directed every other show on THE FBI, producer Charles Larson said to me, “There are going to be some lemons; you have to accept your share.” Those weren't his exact words, but the meaning was clear. I think the amazing thing was how few sour ones ended up in the basket.
Next on RALPH’S TREK -- the Partridges keep singing.