Friday, January 29, 2010

THE CASHIER AND THE BELLY DANCER - November 1982 (Casablanca)

What a difference a few weeks can make!

When I completed photography on WHO AM I KILLING?, the feeling in the company was very positive and hopeful. It was the second show in the can of a five episode limited series, and the feeling was very optimistic that CASABLANCA would be on NBC’s schedule for the following season. (The fact that it was being produced by David Wolper’s production company was an enormous plus.) I stayed on at the studio, finishing my director’s cut, at which time Charles FitzSimons asked me to direct the fifth and final episode of the series. I don’t know what created this vacancy; one director had been booked to direct episodes 1, 3 and 5; I had been booked to direct episode 2; and a third director had been booked to direct episode 4. As I said, I didn't know why the vacancy but there was no hesitation on my part to saying yes. Directing WHO AM I KILLING? had been a very positive, pleasant experience.

I noticed immediately a change in the atmosphere. WHO AM I KILLING? had gone over the eight day shooting schedule by one day. I don’t know if there were overages on the other episodes (I'm positive there were) and if so what they were, but Charles told me the studio was no longer as confident of having the series picked up by the network, and they wanted the last episode to be completed in the allotted eight days. They didn’t want to add to the deficit spending they had so far experienced. Since the new show did not have a difficult location action sequence like the Indian Dunes sequence in WHO AM I KILLING?, I didn’t foresee any problem.

The chances of casting a trained belly dancer with the necessary acting chops for the role of Queenie were several levels below probable. We met Melinda Fee who could dance, hired an accomplished belly dancer to choreograph the routines, and filmed the closer angles from the neck down on the photo-doubling belly dancer herself. (The set wasn’t large enough for me to photograph the real belly dancer in wide angle shots.) So before we get to the Blue Parrott where the belly dancer is performing, let’s drop in again at what has become one of my favorite night spots, Rick’s Cafe Americain.

During one of our casting sessions for this production, the name of Isabella Rossellini was suggested to play Queenie. David Wolper rejected the idea. He felt it would be tasteless; it woud seem that we were using her to capitalize on the fact she was Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, and we all know Bergman’s connection to CASABLANCA.

We only had one song to prerecord for this episode, but it was a good one; especiallly with the great Scatman dishing out the vocals!

Does anyone remember Astrid Allwyn? She was a movie star (mostly in B movies but some small roles in A features) from the early thirties till the early forties. Melinda Fee, our gambling-losing belly dancer was her daughter.

Now we’ve arrived at the major problem in this script. This movie (and I thought of them as short movies) was a caper film. What does a director do when the plan for the caper is more than unrealistic? I was faced with that same question many years earlier when filming THE TRAIN on MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. (You can read or reread about it in detail in the archives to the right of this column.) Well my method of dealing with the dilemma is to cast aside all doubts, BELIEVE that IT IS POSSIBLE, and then put that belief on film as realistically as possible.

Claude’s ‘pacing’ the Banque de Maroc (the exterior) was a return to the Disney studio. As is the next sequence. But I still didn’t get to eat in the Disney dining room.

One producer I worked for wanted everything covered in closeups. Now in the early days of television with the smaller screen sets, there may have been some justification for this overuse of the closeup. I certainly liked to use them, but with discretion. There was a trick I learned during my many years at Quinn Martin Productions. Quinn had been a sound editor before becoming a producer, and he was an absolute fanatic about sound overlaps. When filming a closeup, the people in the scene not being photographed are also not being recorded on mike. So if the actors in the scene talk as people normally do, overlapping each other, there can be a problem editing the dialog. In scenes played at a faster pace and in emotional scenes, people don’t wait until the other person is done speaking before they talk. So the pacing in scenes filmed in closeup is left to the discretion of the film editor. I wanted to set the pacing of the scene. So I realized that when I did an ‘over shoulder’ shot, since both people were on camera and on mike, the overlapping of dialogue was allowed. If I tightened that shot so that I was photographing as little as the ear of the person in the foreground, the overlapping of dialogue was allowed and I was getting a closeup; actually many times a more interesting shot than a closeup.

In the case of the following scene, where I wanted to play it in an uninterrupted shot without any coverage closeups, I was fortunate to have in Charles FitzSimons a producer who understood the language of film. In addition to the dialogue revealing Claude’s explanation for his involvement with Senorita Inez, we visually see him as if trapped in a cage with Rick ominously encircling him.

The change in atmosphere I referred to earlier in the production offices, did not affect the attitude on the set. There the enthusiasm and dedication to quality were as high as ever. Rick had a table in the cafe where he played chess and which he used almost as an in-house office. The following is a scene from WHO AM I KILLING?

Joe Biroc came to me and excitedly told me there was an angle in the set that had not yet been filmed. He showed me where a wall could be taken out, giving us a much more interesting view of Rick and his table. You just can’t beat that kind of enthusiasm.

You would have thought that after directing film for twenty-one years, there wouldn’t be any more ‘firsts’ for me. Well, you would have been wrong. Midway through production my friend Charlie threw me an inside curve. Our script was running long, and in order to finish on schedule some possible cuts needed to be made. Since the scenes that could be cut were scenes in which Rick appeared, Charles and Harold Gast were fearful this might become an issue of contention with David. The potential cuts were pointed out to me. They would remain in the published script, but I needed to plan my filming as if they weren’t there. But if time allowed, they would be filmed, so I also needed to plan for their inclusion. I always planned my ‘bridges’ from scene endings to scene beginnings very carefully. So now in those places where a scene might be cut, I had to plan an ending of the preceding scene that could match either of two beginnings. Fortunately the following scene was not one of the potential cuts.

Rick’s place is wrecked by the Nazis searching for clues to his involvement because of the bricks of gold. Before the scene when Queenie comes to see him, Melinda came to me, concerned about her make-up. It was very bold, and if worn on the street would look like the make-up of a streetwalker. I said, “Let’s go show Joe.” We did, and Joe gave it his approval. The make-up man on the show was “Shotgun” Britton, one of the real old-timers in the profession. He was loaded with great expressions, one of which I have stolen and have used for years. When describing a person of lesser mental capabillity, “Shotgun” would say of him, “He’s two bricks short of a full load.” “Shotgun” certainly wasn’t missing any bricks, as you’ll see from the closeups of Queenie in the following scene.

And you can bet on it too. Rick shows up at the Blue Parrott. Incidentally, so does the belly dancer -- both of them!

Oh that Joe Biroc. His enthusiasm, his ingenuity, his knowledge of his craft never ceased to amaze me. We had a short thirty-five second scene at the main entrance to the Banque de Maroc, when the bank manager is unlocking the door for the Nazis. To film the door in its normal position was too restricting, so Joe took the door and its frame out of the wall and angled it to provide a more interesting composition that included three of the Nazi officers.

There were two safe doors to the room where the gold was stored. Two time Academy Award winner Preston Ames had designed the set according to specifications of research. The first safe door was a smaller door and the safe door into the final chamber was a very large door. Harold Gast, Supervising Producer for the series, came to inspect the sets. He thought the larger door should be the first door. Preston explained to him what his research had revealed. Harold was not to be convinced. He didn’t think it looked real. I remember that moment as being very painful. Preston Ames, a seventy-six year old man who had been a giant in the movie profession, a man whom I considered it a privelege and an honor to work with, a man whose knowledge and taste should have been revered, he was being forced to redesign the set to please Harold. If this seems as if I’m picking on Harold Gast, I’m not. Harold was my friend and I really liked him. But he like so many of the television writers who were elevated to producer status, did not have the background in production to prepare them for their new duties. And he, like so many of his contemporaries, didn’t adjust and adapt to his new role as producer.

Abby Singer was an assistant director, then a production manager, then a producer, but always one of the nicest people in the profession. As the filming approaches the end of a day’s shooting, it is the assistant director who calls out, “This is the last shot.” When Abby was an assistant director he constantly, after his last shot had been completed, would say, “Oh, there’s one more.” So what had been intended to be the last shot turned out to be the next to the last shot. As a result the next to the last shot of the day came to be known as the “Abby”. He is known internationally. Film students from around the world would come to Universal Studio to meet the famous Abby. So in honor of Mr. Singer, may I now present the “Abby” for this production.

And now the last shot.

CASABLANCA did not become a weekly series. Why not? From the advantage point of twenty-seven years later I now wonder if the very thing that launched the project may have ended up being the thing that sank the ship -- the name CASABLANCA. This was not the first attempt to make a series out of the screen classic. Warner Bros. had tried and failed in 1955. And it was not the last. Twenty-two episodes of a series called CASABLANCA were filmed in 1998 in Argentina.

There are some screen classics that defy being remade. When will Hollywood learn to let them rest in peace. And if you have to remake something, how about remaking some of those that weren’t successful. Maybe this time they’ll get it right.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

WHO AM I KILLING? - October 1982 (Casablanca)

CASABLANCA was a limited series produced in 1982 by David Wolper in lieu of a pilot to secure a booking as a weekly series on NBC. I have been reading what scant material there is on the internet about this series. I have learned that 4 episodes were filmed, that 6 episodes were filmed, that 7 episodes were filmed. So let me set the record straight right off the bat; 5 episodes were filmed. I know. I was there. I directed the second episode and the fifth and final episode. The limited series aired in April, 1983. After only three weeks, it was cancelled. The other two episodes finally aired in August, 1983, during the dead summer season. The series was a total bust, a complete flop, a clunker. Then why do I remember it so fondly? Let me count the ways.

It was the final time I would work with my close friend, Charles FitzSimons, whom I had known since our early days in the late fifties at CBS. Charles and I were very much alike. We were both Taureans with birthdays just a week apart, but birth dates a full year apart. I was a year and a week older than Charles. Charles hailed from Dublin, Ireland, where he was a practicing attorney. He told me the story of why he left the practice of law. He was prosecuting a case against a defendant, and he won the case that he felt he shouldn’t have. The defense attorney’s inadequacy was the determining factor. This so disturbed him he resolved he would never practice law again.

Charles was the younger brother (by four years) of actress, Maureen O’Hara. He told me the charming story of how Maureen got her stage name. She had been discovered by Charles Laughton and cast in his film, JAMAICA INN. Before this she had appeared in two films under her birth name, Maureen FitzSimons. One day Mr. Laughton came to Maureen’s dressing room and announced, “Maureen, you’re going to change your name.”

Maureen, her red haired Irish temper rising said, “I am not going to change my name. I am perfectly happy being Maureen FitzSimons.”

But Laughton persisted “Yes you are. You are going to be a great star, and you can’t be a great star with the name, Maureen FitzSimons.”

The Irish temper went up a notch. “There’s nothing the matter with that name. Barry Fitzgerald didn’t have to change his name. Geraldine Fitzgerald didn't change her name.”

“Well there is a difference between FitzSimons and Fitzgerald. And besides, you’re going to be a bigger star. So you have a choice. You will be either Maureen O’Mara or Maureen O’Hara.”

And that’s how Maureen FitzSimons became Maureen O’Hara.

When John Ford came to Ireland to film THE QUIET MAN with Maureen and John Wayne, Charles was cast as an actor in the film. Ford took a liking to him and convinced him he should come to Hollywood and pursue a career as an actor. Charles did, but (and this is just my interpretation of what happened) he was actually too smart to be an actor. Thus he became one of the smartest producers in the coming field of television. He was the line producer for CASABLANCA, and I know it was his requesting me that brought me into the project. You will hear more about Charles as we wend our way through CASABLANCA. He was a very hands-on producer, but not the kind of hands-on aimed at controlling and restricting the director; he was always there as a collaborator, a fixer, most of the time out in front of the problem, ready to erase it before it arrived.

It was the second time I would work with production designer, Preston Ames. He had designed a pilot I directed the previous year for Norman Rosemont Productions. But his resume reads like a history of Hollywood. He won Oscars for art direction on GIGI and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. He was nominated seven other times for AIRPORT, THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN, LUST FOR LIFE, BRIGADOON, and THE STORY OF THREE LOVES. Some of his shows that didn’t receive award nominations were BELLS ARE RINGING, THE BAND WAGON (it’s hard to believe this show was not recognized), KISMET and DESIGNING WOMAN. His sets for CASABLANCA were the talk of the studio, if not the talk of the town. Visitors stopped by daily to see Rick’s Cafe Americain. Many were the photos taken at the main entrance to the club under Rick's Cafe Americain sign.

And now we come to Joseph Biroc, Little Joe -- a true Hollywood story. Joe told me he had been a late starter. The route to being a director of photgraphy started with being a second assistant cameraman, then up to assistant cameraman, then camera operator and finally director of photography. His contemporary Russell Metty was a director of photography at thirty. Robert Planck made it in his late twenties. Charles Lang, Jr. was in his mid-twenties, Robert Surtees was thirty-six, Stanley Cortez was twenty-eight and James Wong Howe was twenty-four. Joe was forty-three years old and he was still a camera operator. Then in 1946 he was operating on a major feature film when one day the director set up a shot and the director of photogrphy declared he couldn’t do it. The director took exception to this statement, turned to Joe Biroc and said, “Can you make this shot, Joe?” Joe answered, “Yes, Mr. Capra, I think so.” So Joe became the director of photography not only for that shot, for the balance of the feature. And when it was released the Directors of Photography credited were Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc. The film was IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, the James Stewart classic that has become an annual must-see every Christmas. And now, at the age of seventy-nine with an Oscar and several Emmy’s on his mantel, he was still going strong.

So how about joining me and let’s drop in at Rick’s Cafe Americain in CASABLANCA.

No, I didn’t go out to sea for the parachutist and the soldier washed up on the beach. That was stock footage from some movie, probably a Warner Bros. film.

Before every shot in the club, special effects would come in with their bee smokers to give the club that smoky look. By the end of the second day I was having doubts about my future as a director. This was a return to work for me after an extended hiatus. And I was beginning to think that as I approached the age of sixty, possibly the directing grind might be more than I could cope with. Then the third day we went to the Disney studio where we filmed exteriors all afternoon and into the night, and I realized it was not age creeping up on me; it was those damn bee smokers. Starting with day two, David Wolper would comment at the end of the screening of the dailies from the previous day, "More smoke!" So we added more smoke. The next day -- "More smoke!" Finally David Soul spoke up and told Wolper, "David, for God's sake, we can't breathe now."

Our only major casting chore was for the role of Celia Havard, an English woman attractive enough to be a leading lady, capable of playing some pretty heavy dramatic scenes, and oh yes, she had to be able to sing -- a lot. There was a long line of of auditioners. Lorna Luft, Judy Garland’s daughter and Liza Minnelli’s sister, was one of them. One of the stars of the original Broadway production of one of my favorite musicals, A CHORUS LINE, came in. She had won a Tony for that production. And then Trisha Noble showed up. She was Australian and appeared to meet all of the needed qualifications. She got the part. That was Trisha seducing the table of Nazi officers in the clip you just viewed.

One of the fun things I got to do for this production was select the songs we would use from the Warner Bros. catalog. I also was present on the recording stage the day the singing was prerecorded. I’ll tell you more about that later. And a really exciting day was when we filmed Scatman at the piano as he sang AS TIME GOES BY for his closeup in the introductory billboards.

And that hunk in the red jacket behind the bar, that was a very young, very handsome Ray Liotta, four years before his breakthrough performance in SOMETHING WILD.

So how about an encore from Trisha, Scatman and Ray, all set to music.

One of the things that always amazed me was that I never directed anything for the Disney studio. They had an exterior street that was perfect for some night sequences in our story. But that would hardly make a day’s work, and it would have been impractical to move to their lot for such a short time. So rather than creating the internment camp we needed with the Warner Bros. tan sound stage buildings in the background, Preston Ames erected his wire fences with the Disney Studio tan sound stages in the background. And I got to film something on the Disney lot. But I still didn’t get to eat in the legendary Disney commissary that I had heard so much about through the years.

One of the fallacies of television was calling a program like this a one hour show. True it filled an hour of time when it was aired. But deducting the time for the commercials, for the opening billboard credits, the closing credits and the station break at the half hour left just under forty-seven minutes for the drama to unfold. This story had a great deal of plot and a great many characters. It’s hard to grab an audience emotionally when you’re steamrolling in so many directions.

In order to get Rick to secure sulfa for the wounded English flyer, Sam feigns illness so that Rick thinks he is getting the drug for him. Rick goes to see Ferrari at the Blue Parrot. Both the exterior of the Blue Parrot and the interior were on a Warner Bros. sound stage.

More plot. When Rick brings the sulfa to Sam, Sam admits he was faking, that the drug is for the English flyer. Rick immediately suspects that it was Celia who instigated the plan to get him to obtain the drug. (See what I mean about TOO MUCH PLOT.)

And now some more plot (which also helps keep the very large resident cast involved and happy.) It also is an added chance to see the opportunities Preston Ames’ sets gave me for interesting coverage. I’m referring to Rick’s being able to overhear and see what the Major is planning.

The original script for the following sequence took place only in the sitting room of Celia’s hotel suite -- the scene between Celia, the Major and Sacha, who soon leaves. The danger of the English flyer in the bedroom was to be shown only by Celia’s nervousness. I thought the scene needed to be more dangerous. This was more than a matter of staging. Since it involved another set and two other actors, I coudn’t just do the additional staging on the set. It involved the scheduling of the other two actors. I presented my idea to Harold Gast, the Supervising Producer in charge of script and he approved of what I wanted to do.

I was impressed with the presentation of the musical numbers in the film, CABARET. I liked the strong spotlight directly behind Liza that silhouetted her with the flares projecting from her body. I needed a strong opening for the following song by Celia, and I asked Joe Biroc to do the first setup in a back lit profile. Little did I realize I was going to get something even more impressive than what I had envisioned.

The day we prerecorded the music for the show, Peter Matz, the music director for the film, declared after Trisha sang this song, “That is the best rendition of that song I have ever heard.”

When we screened the first cut, David Wolper (and I never really understood the reasoning behind his request) asked that we shorten this number. Harold Gast was concerned that we would have to do another recording session and possibly a refilming of the sequence. Fortunately enough of my previous music background enabled me to take out eight bars of song and footage without destroying a sequence I was very proud of. And Harold was relieved and appreciative of my effort.

I screened the original CASABLANCA today. The powerful romantic story I think is what has made that film an enduring classic. (And of course the presence and performances of Bogart and Bergman, which are several degrees above powerful.) With only forty-seven minutes we were limited. But we tried.

The following sequence was the main reason we utilized the Disney Studio. For the shot from the top of the stairs as the three people go down, after they exited and the camera panned back to see the arrival of the Germans, I asked Joe Biroc could we please have the shadows of the troops appear before they did. It took all of twenty seconds and I had my shadows.

The final five pages of the script presented a location problem. The truck with Rick, Celia and the flyer in it is parked behind a grove of trees in an isolated area. The plane arrives and the action continues. The only available site near enough to the studio to avoid an overnight location trip was Indian Dunes. (It was the site incidentally where the recent freak accident on the set of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE had resulted in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two children when a helicopter crashed on top of them.) But it had no grove of trees for our truck to hide behind. We reported this back to Harold Gast, and his reply was, “I guess you’ll just have to find another location.” But there was no other location. Remember what I said about Charles FitzSimons. I don’t know what magic formula he used on Harold, but in a day or so revised script changes came out that had the plane waiting when the truck arrived.

David Wolper had a request. He definitely wanted to see the plane fly off at the end of the sequence.

Those five pages ended up as the final three minutes (excluding the tag epilog) of the drama. It took the whole day to film and we just barely were able to comply with David’s request. The light was definitely fading as the craft took off and the Nazis stood over Celia’s dead body.

These episodes were not being filmed on the usual schedule for episodic television. Because the five shows were taking the place of a pilot, more time was being allotted for their production. WHO AM I KILLING had been scheduled to film in eight days; the reality was that it took nine days to complete. But there were no complaints. I had been booked to do just the one show. In my next posting I’ll tell you about my staying on to direct the fifth and final outing on CASABLANCA.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

METAMORPHOSIS - May 1967 (Star Trek)

This posting can also be viewed

and extended) on the

website RALPH'S TREK at

Thus began my second voyage on the Enterprise, my favorite voyage of the seven STAR TREKs I directed. It was written by the incomparable Gene Coon and was spooky and eerie and had a potent message. I was really anxious to make this voyage.

When you look at the lineup of my voyages, it seems as if I just went from one trek to another. Actually there was a three month lapse between THIS SIDE OF PARADISE and METAMORPHOSIS. Part of that time was television’s annual spring hiatus. I also managed to squeeze in the impossible mission of THE TRAIN. After that jarring trip I was ready for the sanity of outer space.

METAMORPHOSIS had no location work. The planet we would be visiting would be created on the studio soundstage. This actually was the usual standard operating procedure for the show. Of my seven ventures, only two left the studio for location filming, THIS SIDE OF PARADISE (my first) and upcoming BREAD AND CIRCUSES. But the planet created for this production, I think, was one of the finest of the whole series. And it was the director of photography, Jerry Finnerman, who was most responsible for its unique look. A cyclorama for the sky was the backing for the set pieces that would be placed in front of it. It was Jerry who decided that the sky would be purple. It was also Jerry who introduced me to the fish eye lens, the wide angle 9mm. The soundstage we would be shooting on was not very large; it was one of the smaller soundstages I had ever worked on. In fact neither of the two stages for STAR TREK (one for the Enterprise and one for the swing sets) was large.

For our opening sequence on this foreign planet, the use of the 9mm lens made the shuttlecraft on the ground seem a great distance away. But use of this lens posed a problem; we were shooting off the set. In fact we were seeing the ceiling of the soundstage. So Jerry brought in large rocks in the foreground to mask the overshoot. When Cochrane enters the foreground and then runs toward the group at the craft, we had to cut away to other angles of his approach. If we had stayed on the fish eye lens, it would appear that he had on seven league boots and was covering the football field distance in about five paces.

There was another problem connected with this set. The sky cyclorama was not a complete circle; it was 180 degrees max. So any reverse angle shots had to be done against the same cyclorama. That meant we shot everything toward the shuttlecraft before we created other backgrounds with rocks and trees against the same cyclorama for those reverse angles.

In the clips that you will be viewing, the sky is not always the deep purple I have described. These clips are from an old off the air transcription that time has not been kind to. There are a few shots where the purple has survived, so use your imagination. I do think even faded, Jerry Finnerman’s photography is exemplary.

Once all of the scenes involving the shuttlecraft were filmed, that set was struck. Cochrane’s home, exterior and interior, was erected and the grounds surrounding the house were relandscaped. Again all of the shots toward the house were done first; then the reverse angles were filmed as had been the case with the scenes involving the shuttlecraft.

I was and still am very impressed with Gene Coon’s script. Two years prior to this he was producing and writing THE WILD WILD WEST. I had directed two shows for Gene on that series, and at that time he told me that he didn’t have time to write all of the shows, but that show was so special as was STAR TREK that he needed to write them. So what he did was have writers come in with their ideas which he would buy, and he would have them write their script. That gave him a first draft which he would then rewrite. I don’t think that he took writing credit for this work. METAMORPHOSIS was not a rewrite, it was an original Gene Coon scriipt as was THE DEVIL IN THE DARK. Compare the wild comic lunacy of THE WILD WILD WEST with the subdued dramatic intensity of the following scenes -- I guess what I’m trying to say is the man was talented!

Jerry Finnerman also contributed another effect for the set. He thought our sky should have clouds, so when we were ready to film, the doors to the soundstage were closed, the fans were turned off, every person was instructed to stand perfectly still, there could be NO movement. The special effects people then came in with their bee smokers and wafted smoke up above the trees. Presto -- we had clouds. It’s a beautiful effect that added to the reality.

The Companion was going to be a matte added in post production to what I shot. The producers asked me to plan my shots to avoid the necessity of a traveling matte, which would be an added expense. For you civilians let me explain. If I shot a very wide shot that would have Cochrane standing at one end of the frame, the Companion would be added to the other end of the frame; and if then the Companion moved across the screen to envelop Cochrane, that would be a traveling matte. Instead I shot a full figure wide shot of Cochrane, panned the camera left across the set and stopped, held frame long enough for the matte to be superimposed in the center of the frame, then panned back to the original shot of Cochrane. The Companion, centered in the frame, now enveloped Cochrane.

But then came a sequence where there was no way to avoid the traveling matte.

I was not present in post production when an actress recorded the speeches of the Companion. But I was there to view the film after her speeches had been integrated into the assembled footage. And nobody disagreed with me when I declared the performance, which had been uttered in a robotic monotone, was unacceptable. Another actress was hired, and this time I was present to direct the performance. And the approach this time was to play the MEANING of the scene.

At the viewing of the dailies the day after we filmed the previous scene, Gene Coon spoke, “And that’s why we pay him the big money.”

When in the arts you copy someone, that’s plagiarism. Unless you copy a large amount, then it’s a tribute. What is it if you steal from yourself? Because that’s what I did for the final sequence in this episode. The genesis for the opening shot was an episode of THE FBI (THE ESCAPE) that I had filmed the previous year. In that lakeside scene, the girl, having made love to her fugitive lover, looks at him through a pink chiffon scarf. Maybe life from now would be rosier for her. I needed something to get into this scene between Cochrane and Nancy. I decided I would have this cloud, recently turned into a human, look and marvel at the scarf that Nancy had in her possession. I admit, not knowing at that time what the Companion was going to look like, that I had no further motivation in my choice of this action. That the vision of him through the scarf was as she was used to seeing him when she was a cloud at that point had no significance for me. As it turned out it was an added unforeseen bonus. You can read about THE FBI episode in my archives to the right of this column.

One day walking back to the office after a screening of the completed film, Gene Coon said to me he was just amazed; how did I know to have the scarf and the Companion look alike. And I had to admit it was just one of those freak wonderful accidents that can happen. Now from the vantage point of forty-three years later, I can wonder when did the lab start working on the effect for the Companion. We didn’t shoot the Cochrane-Nancy scene until the final day; in fact I think it was the last scene to be filmed. Did the lab start work on the Companion before or after that sequence was in the can? Did they see that scene before or after? We’ll probably never know. But who cares! It worked!

There was another question I will never know the answer to. Gene Coon told me one of the advantages of being on STAR TREK was that he was able to deal with issues that he couldn’t do on any other series. For instance he had written an episode that emananted from his own anti-Vietnam War feelings. The race issue was a major issue of the sixties. I never asked Gene, but I have since wondered if the cloud-man love story in METAMORPHOSIS was his way of dealing with that issue. I’ll never know.
There was something else I didn't know then but was to learn about when I returned for my next flight. Desilu Studios had been sold to Paramount Pictures, a new regime was about to take over and life in outer space was going to take a sharp turn for the worse.

You can hear my telephone interview on METAMORPHOSIS on the StarTrekHistory website at:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

THE EASTER BREACH - Spring 1965 (Suspense Theatre)

Recently through the interest, kindness and generosity of David Lanza's Kraft Suspense Theatre blogsite at, I received a much better transciption of this show than the one I published in January, 2010.  So here are new film clips.

Late morning the second day of filming THE EASTER BREACH I received a telephone call from the producer. He had just viewed the first day’s rushes and was calling to tell me how pleased he was with what he had seen. He was especially impressed with Richard Beymer’s performance. As was my custom I immediately went over to where Richard was seated to relay this information. He looked up at me with the saddest eyes and said, “That’s what they told me on WEST SIDE STORY."

I was back at the factory to film my third and last SUSPENSE THEATRE. The script was an intelligently written love story by Leon Tokatyan about the difficult escape from East Berlin of an elderly couple. It was decided the story would be even more poignant if it were a young couple, and I had just the young couple in mind to play it. Earlier that season I had directed a FUGITIVE guest starring Diana Hyland and a 12 O’CLOCK HIGH guest starring Keir Dullea. I thought they would make an ideal pair to enact this story, and relayed my wishes to the casting director, Bill something-or-other. That was the last I heard until I was informed that Richard Beymer and Katherine Crawford (daughter of Universal producer Roy Huggins and wife of Universal executive Frank Price) had been signed to star in this Universal production. There is no other word for it -- I was pissed. I decided I was not going to break my back over this little venture. The script was okay. I scouted the necessary locations on Universal’s backlot. I visited the various sets assigned to the project. But not one pencil mark of staging or camera instruction was entered into my script. I was going to wing it, start to finish. Then came the first day, and Richard Beymer showed up impressively prepared. He had a fine German accent; he was totally committed in attitude and preparation, and the excellence of what he was doing lifted my spirits and pulled me in. I still was committed to not doing any homework, but because of my feelings of responsibility to the actors, I would still function to the best of my ability on the set.

The staging of the flight at the beginning of the story presented a bit of a problem. We were to film it on the Universal backlot, and the wooded area selected just wasn't long enough. So we filmed the same short distance several times -- first in a two shot, then a close-up of Richard, and a close-up of Katherine; thus I was able to prolong the sequence in the editing process. The director of photography for this show was John Russell. We had worked together once before on the ARREST AND TRIAL episode starring Mickey Rooney, FUNNY MAN WITH A MONKEY.  And oh yes, he was the director of photography on Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO!

Where MGM was letting their backlots deteriorate, Universal was improving theirs. Because of the Berlin location of our story, I was able to use their European streets to good advantage. Werner did not die; he was rescued and brought to a West Berlin hospital.

After a couple of days working with Richard, I was compelled to pose a question to him. I said, “Before meeting you, I did not understand how you could have been cast as Tony in WEST SIDE STORY. Now that I’ve worked with you, my question is ‘What happened?’”

He told me. He did not go to view the dailies, but he was praised each day by the director for his work. Near the end of the filming, when he had completed what he considered the main and difficult part of his role, he went to a viewing of the dailies. He was horrified by what he saw; he was even more disturbed that at that point there was nothing he could do to correct it.

  I’m afraid because of the possible nepotism involved in her casting, I underestimated Katherine Crawford’s talent. When Werner, while visiting an art museum sees a woman who looks remarkably like his wife (she should, she’s played by the same actress), I was going to need a certain reaction from Katherine as she looked at him on the ground. So at the end of her close-up, instead of saying “Cut, print,” I tore the page out of my script, dropped it to the floor and said, “Well, I guess we’ve got that one in the can.” Watch the reaction that ends the art gallery scene.

The producer for this episode was Norman MacDonnell.  A decade before this, when I first started working at CBS in the radio mimeo department (yes, I was a lowly typist, cutting stencils for CBS radio shows).  One of them was GUNSMOKE starring William Conrad in the role that James Arness later portrayed in the television series. The mimeo department was next to a viewing booth that looked down on the studio where GUNSMOKE was recorded.  I watched many of them in production.  I became acquainted with the script supervisor on the show and even sat in on some of the rehearsals.  I didn’t meet him at that time, but Norman was the producer.  

I really didn’t have any idea of what a checkpoint between East and West Berlin looked like. But even if I had had a detailed drawing, there was no chance the studio would build it, not on a television budget. So we found a tunnel-like structure on the European street on the backlot, put up some signs and we had our checkpoint. Actually it looks pretty effective.

An added plus was the restaurant set being located on the backlot adjoining the exterior street. So now for some nefarious business!

Werner finds Liese; they are in line at the checkpoint to go to West Berlin. In the scenes that followed both characters portrayed by Katherine were involved. However, since they did not have a scene together, I did not have to cope with the problem of the split screen, but I did need to use a photo double. First in the wide angle shot where Werner walks away from Liese and sees Victoria -- Victoria, with her back to the camera is a photo double. And then the final shot of the sequence when Werner and Liese on the West Berlin side of the wall exited the two shot and you see through to East Berlin as Victoria was taken away by the police, that Victoria was a photo double.

It would be a year shy of two decades before Richar Beymer and I would work together again (ignoring a test I directed of him for a role in the pilot for DYNASTY). And that later project, through no fault of Richard’s or other members of that cast, was a miserably grievous experience for me.  I think Richard was aware of the problems, because one day when we were lunching together, he looked at me very wisely across the table of the booth we shared, and with a twinkle in his eye he said, “You appear to be a gentle poodle, but I can see the pit bull ready to pounce.”

As I explained before, I did no pre-planning in my script for this show. In fact when I checked my files for a script for this production to help me with this posting, there was no script. I had thrown it away, page by page, as I completed filming each scene. It is the only script missing of the almost two hundred productions I directed. So did I then decide, “Boy this is the way to go. You can do this job without all that laborious homework.” I’m afraid not. Now that I knew I could wing it and get by, I made the decision and never wavered from it -- NEVER AGAIN!

Monday, January 11, 2010

THIS SIDE OF PARADISE - January 1967 (Star Trek)

This posting can also be viewed
(extended and revised) on the other RALPH'S TREK at

STAR TREK was indeed a phenomenon. I directed six and a half episodes of the original series. I would guess (and I’m sure my guess is very close to being accurate) that I worked a total of ninety days on the series. I worked more days than that on just the pilot of DYNASTY. I directed twice as many episode of THE WALTONS and two and half times as many episodes of THE FBI; I directed more episodes of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY and more episodes of THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER than I did of STAR TREK. And yet today if you google-search my name on the internet, you will think I spent most of my career directing STAR TREK. As I said, STAR TREK was indeed a phenomenon.

How and when did this phenomenon involve me? It was early December, 1966 when one of my agents called to ask me if I would like to direct an episode of STAR TREK. I had not seen the show and I was not into science fiction, but I also was not one to turn down a challenge, so I said, “Yeah, go ahead and book me.” They did and the studio sent me a script, THE DEVIL IN THE DARK by Gene Coon, which was scheduled to be filmed in early January, 1967. I liked that script a lot. I then packed my bags and flew back to Iowa to spend the holidays with my family. A few days after my arrival, I received another script from the studio with a note telling me that they had switched scripts and I would be directing one called THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. I have to say I was disappointed. THE DEVIL IN THE DARK was a strange, eerie script, where THIS SIDE OF PARADISE seemed almost like a modern love story. But the die was cast, so I went to work on the new script.

After the holidays I returned to the west coast and reported to the Desilu studio to prep. Desilu was the old RKO Radio lot at Melrose and Vine, and I was happy to return there. That was where I had filmed BREAKING POINT, and that had been such a good experience. Our first order of business was casting. For Leila we got the exquisite JIll Ireland, and for Sandoval, the leader on planet Omicron Cetti III, we cast an old buddy from TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, Frank Overton. The big problem facing us were the buildings of the colony. There was neither the time nor the money to build, so we were faced with the problem of finding something standing that could fit the bill. Our search of the area produced only one possibility, the Disney ranch, and to use that we had to do some creative rationalizing. The ranch certainly did not look like it belonged in the STAR TREK century. But what if the settlers on this planet went to the past for their inspiration -- back to early Americana. Good idea? It had to be; there was no other choice.

We were scheduled for three days at the Disney ranch. The first two days went swimmingly. We completed over eight pages each day, were right on schedule, and it all seemed as if I was filming a rustic love story, the only difference being that the guys were dressed in funny suits and one of them had funny ears. Then came day three. We reported to the ranch as usual in the dark, so that we would be ready to film with the first light of day. But before the first light got to us, the news did that Jill Ireland would NOT be reporting to the location; it was feared that she had measles. We then went to work, completing all the scenes at the ranch that did not include her; after which we packed up, moved back to the studio and finished the day filming on the Enterprise. The next day we learned Jill did not have measles and would be returning to finish the show. However we hit a new snag. The Disney ranch was no longer available; it had been booked by another film company. The fortunate thing for us was that all of the scenes that involved buildings at the ranch had been completed, so arrangements were made for us to complete our location filming in Bronson Canyon, an area in the hills close to the studio and an area with which I was very familiar.

I was amazed then, and now inching toward a half a century later, I am still in awe of those studio magicians who in answer to a request for a 'garden' in the middle of a pristine green landscape could fulfill my request.

This was my first film with cameraman Jerry Finnerman, and it was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted over forty years. Jerry later told me that it was the following scene that made him sit up, take notice and decide that I was a director he really wanted to work with. That feeling was reciprocated.

There was another first for me on this production (and I think probably a last). I had a scene blocked, lit and ready to shoot and I was not happy with what I was seeing. To forestall any possible other recollections of what occurred, let me produce some archival evidence. First the script for the scene. Read scene 53. You will note it is set in an Exterior Open Field. (To enlarge the illustration just double click twice on the image; the page of script should then fill your computer screen. To return to normal size, click on the arrow in the upper left corner that returns you to the last page.)

Now read my pre-planned directions for filming the scene. You will see that shot 53 was a five shot.

Fifty yards away I had spotted a very inviting limb. I asked Jerry if we could break the set-up and move the scene to another location. He readily agreed. So we moved everything the fifty yards and filmed the scene as you may remember it and will now see it.

Jerry Finnerman, director of photography, was a master at lighting. He had learned his craft from a giant in the film industry, Harry Stradling. Jerry was the assistant cameraman on Stradling’s crew, and then he became Stradling’s operator. His close-up of Jill Ireland in her first scene in this film I think is a master work. Jerry placed a small baby spot directly behind Jill’s head. Her movements had to be very restricted or the lamp would show.

In the following two clips of Kirk alone on the Enterprise, note not only the overall beauty of his photography, but also the light changes in the close-ups of Captain Kirk.

This was a very good outing for Leonard Nimoy. Mr. Spock had said, "Emotions are alien to me. I am a scientist." But here he was in love, playful and in a climactic confrontation with Kirk he showed great anger. I personally liked the comic touch of Kirk’s last line, on his back with Spock towering over him, “Had enough?”

The crew is back on board, the love affair is over, and all that Spock has to do is participate in my favorite final scene of the STAR TREK episodes I directed.

And a very nice note from Mr. Spock.

I was no longer disappointed that THIS SIDE OF PARADISE had been substituted for THE DEVIL IN THE DARK. What I didn’t know at that time was than an even stranger and better script than DEVIL (and also written by Gene Coon) would be my next STAR TREK assignment.

You can hear my telephone interview on this episode by going to the Star Trek History website at:

Friday, January 8, 2010

THE ESCAPE - May 1966 (The FBI)

June is a notoriously bad month to film exteriors in Southern California. Fog. Overcast days. A sun in absentia. I learned that with a vengeance in 1965 when I was booked (it seemed more like I was condemned) to direct the first episode of a new series, LONG HOT SUMMER. It was a production of 20th Century Fox, attempting to turn their blockbuster Paul Newman starrer into another PEYTON PLACE. But it was being filmed at the MGM studio, just down the road in Culver City. This was my first real association with 20th Century Fox. True the year before I had directed TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, which was their co-production with Quinn Martin Productions, but that show had been totally under the command of QM. LONG HOT SUMMER had a lot of exteriors, to be filmed on the MGM backlots, which I suspected may have been the main reason to choose that studio as the base for production in the first place. The edict from the Fox production office was, sun or no sun, keep shooting. Which we did. The following day when the rushes were screened, the eternal complaint was, “But it doesn’t look sunny.” Added to that were the constant phone calls to the set every twenty or thirty minutes from the Fox production office to check on the status of the shooting schedule. I was not used to that. I put enough pressure on myself to complete the day's work without Big Daddy standing over me. In addition to the present production, I was committed to direct three more episodes. I decided I really didn't want to face another nine weeks of the current situation. I called my agent and asked that he get me out of the balance of the contract. He did and mercifully my LONG HOT SUMMER was shortened.

My first assignment in May of the following season under my new The FBI contract was THE ESCAPE, a hard-boiled love story. Our first day’s location was the Santa Monica Airport. Although this was the last week of May, June weather had already settled over the area, and it was a dismal dark airport that greeted our early morning arrival at the location. We didn’t have the problem I had had the previous year on LONG HOT SUMMER. This sequence didn’t have to look sunny. But it was too exciting a sequence to end up looking drab and dreary. Billy Spencer amazed all of us the following day when we viewed the dailies. I don't know what magic he applied, but the rushes he delivered had a surprising and welcome amount of light and color that had not been evident when we shot it.

The original script for THE ESCAPE was a very disjointed one with scenes that pulled in all directions. Charles Larson did some remarkable work to pull it together, shape it and flesh out the people and the relationships. But I was amused and amazed at his reaction to Roy Thinnes’ acceptance of the role of Larry. (Roy, I think, was already under contract to QM Productions to star in THE INVADERS, which went into production the following year.) Charles said Roy had turned down two other FBI scripts; he didn’t understand what there was about this script that was better than the other two. Without seeing the other two scripts, I still felt I knew what there was about our script that appealed to him.

I first became aware of Marlyn Mason when she was fourteen years old and was playing Heidi in a children’s musical based on that classic story at the Player’s Ring Theatre in Hollywood. I was able to cast her in two of my early television directing ventures, and then we lost track of each other for awhile, which is not unusual in Hollywood. In 1964 I bought a house on Sunset Plaza Drive in the hills overlooking the Sunset Strip. Some time within the next year I received a forwarded letter with writing on the envelope. The letter had been delivered to the same house number as mine, but on Queen’s Road. The occupant at Queen’s Road had very kindly forwarded it on to me. It was Marlyn. We’ve never really lost contact since. More about her later.

Roy Thinnes had been the star the previous year of LONG HOT SUMMER. Neither he, Edmond O’Brien, nor Ruth Roman contributed to my reasons for departing that show. I was very happy with his decision to accept our offer to guest star in this production.

Now are you thinking, “Boy, they really had a big budget on this episode to be able send a car over a cliff!” Wrong! A film clip was found in stock footage of a FORD going over a cliff. Then Tom, our agency rep for Ford conveniently found a duplicate of that car for us to use in our filming.

Coming up is Bill ‘You wanna ride on my bulldozer, honey’ Bramley. And if you have been trying to figure out why he looks familiar, where you might have seen him on the big screen in theatres, Bill played Officer Krupke in the 1961 Oscar-winning WEST SIDE STORY.

The third brother was Steve Ihnat. I didn’t know Steve’s work, and I don’t remember if it was Bert Remsen or John Conwell who recommended casting him. An excellent actor, and I was especially pleased with his pairing as a brother to Roy Thinnes. I thought the two looked like they really could be brothers. I have just checked Steve out on the IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base). He was born in Czechoslovakia, arrived in Hollywood when he was twenty-four. He died in France six years after filming this episode of a heart attack at the age of thirty-eight.

And in both the clips you’ve just viewed and the ones coming up, I hope you appreciate Charles Larson’s scripting. His writing gave the actors room to fill in the crevices BETWEEN THE LINES!

This was the show that introduced me to Franklin Canyon, a beautiful wooded area with a large reservoir in the hills above Beverly Hills. I scouted it on a lovely sunny day. The sun was filtering through the trees, reflecting off the water of the reservoir, it was truly enchanting. The morning we arrived to film was a different story. The June blues had settled into the weather, and there wasn’t a ray of sunshine within miles of the Canyon. Billy Spencer saw my disappointment and concern. He told me not to worry, the soft, diffused light was very good for filming. Oh, how right he was. (I told you he was my film school.) I think the sequence gains by not having the sunlight, by having the soft light which Billy utilized to the nth degree, especially in the long close-up of Marlyn when she talks about her past.

One other thing I must mention about filming for Quinn. He insisted on process photography for his traveling car shots. No towing or using car camera mounts. He wanted the REEL thing.

There were no problems filming the scenes between the other two brothers back at the studio. So just sit back and enjoy the sight of two fine actors providing a good lesson in film acting.

To open the scene at the lakeside after the couple have made love, I decided to have Pat look at the world around her through the pink sheer kerchief she had worn on her head; for the moment life did seem to take on a warmer, rosier glow. Two years later I stole from myself and opened a scene the same way in METAMOROPHOSIS on STAR TREK. You can hear a discussion of this in my oral interview on the STAR TREK HISTORY website at:

The day of location work at the reservoir started with a sequence in a nearby heavily wooded area. It was very early morning, and it was very very dark. Because of the overcast skies and the large trees it seemed more night than day. And it was too large an area to light, even with our huge arcs. Again it was Billy Spencer who said “Not to worry.” He gave instructions to the lab to force the film when developing it, and I don’t know what else he did, but we got the results we needed.

It was also Billy who gave me the ‘trick’ telephone dial for the shot of Larry calling the FBI. I thought then and I think now it is an interesting shot, but I tend to stay away from gimmickry that calls attention to itself.

It is so inviting when acting a melodramatic scene to play it to the hilt. How much more effective and dangerous to avoid the ranting and raving and keep it simple.

The big location problem on this show was finding where we could film the ending. The original script had Larry and Pat going to Cliff Side, where agent Rhodes of the FBI finally tracks them down. Then Steve arrives on the scene, armed with his rifle, and a gun battle ensues. Rhodes climbs down the side of the cliff and works his way around to a position behind Steve to end the battle. Howard Alston, production manager for the series, and I drove the coast of Southern California, seeking a spot where I would be able to stage this action. We found nothing that would work. It was Howard who remembered a deserted recreation area in the San Fernando Valley, and he took me there. With the addition of a big CLIFF SIDE LODGE sign, we converted the Valley into the Coast. And I really liked the opportunities for staging that this unusual setting gave me.

Unlike the heroine she portrayed, Marlyn Mason has not found herself in any traps. Last year she wrote a very short story that she turned into a screenplay for a ten minute film. Entitled MODEL RULES it was entered in seven or eight of the top film festivals in the country and won three major awards.

Not satisfied with this success, the Madame from Medford, which is what I dubbed her once she became an Oregonian, went to work and wrote another screenplay. This too has been filmed and at the present time is being edited. Entitled THE BAG, plans are to submit it for entry into the country’s independent film festivals later this year. Since I’ve thrown a party for her each time she won an award, I am already saving my money for this coming season.

Some things DO IMPROVE with age!