Sunday, July 25, 2010

THE ROAD TO YOU-KNOW-WHERE IS PAVED WITH YOU-KNOW-WHAT, THE PROMISE- November/December 1969 (The Courtship Of Eddie's Father)

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


The next two episodes of the final foursome were a little darker in tone, a bit more serious than the previous two had been.  The first one, THE ROAD TO YOU-KNOW-WHERE IS PAVED WITH YOU-KNOW-WHAT, was written by Blanche Hanalis, who would later create the much loved series, LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE.  I didn’t meet Hanalis at the time I directed this episode, which was not unusual in television.  I met very few of the authors whose works I directed.  I didn’t meet her until 1981 when I directed a pilot she had written, BIG BEND COUNTRY.  That was a short association; the pilot didn’t sell.

For the first seven COURTSHIP episodes I left the MGM lot for a location only once -- the few exterior shots at the Culver City police station for THE LIBRARY CARD.  This episode called for extensive location filming.  In fact there was so much (and most of it involved Brandon), it was listed on the schedule as EXTERIORS TO BE DONE AT A LATER DATE.  When that later date arrived, there proved to be not enough work for a full day’s outing.  So I ended up doing some Peanuts-style footage of Bill and Brandon to be used for the opening and closing vignettes.  The following clip includes some of that film.  As before the dialog was written later, recorded and laid in over the footage.

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When I left the Pasadena Playhouse in 1948, there were two plays at the top of the agenda of plays I wanted to direct:  Maxwell Anderson’s WINTERSET and Ibsen’s THE WILD DUCK.  So far I haven’t directed either one of them.  But THE ROAD... did touch on the same theme as the Ibsen play.  Our Miss Bristol, like Ibsen’s Gregers Werle, disturbed the lives of friends by her meddling.  For Miss Bristol I wanted Bette Davis.  This was not the first time I had sought to cast her in a production.  Three years before when I was directing Quinn Martin’s THE FBI, the script for THE COURIER had as its main protagonist a woman, something unusual for that series.  I submitted the suggestion of her casting to John Conwell, casting director for the show.  John told me what had occurred the previous year, the first season THE FBI was in production.  J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI at the beginning of production on the series had insisted on approving EVERYONE associated with the show.  John explained to them that approval of the entire cast would be very difficult.  There were those smaller roles cast late in the preparation period that, because of the time factor, would make getting that approval an impossibility.  The agency relented and agreed to limit having approval pre-filming of just the stars.  Once the show was produced, the rest of the cast would be checked out and anyone not acceptable would be banished from future appearances.  

Bette Davis’ agent notified John that she liked the show and would like to appear on it.  Midway through the first season a script came to John’s desk that had a role that he thought would be right for her.  It was not the star part; it was a cameo role, but a good one.  The excitement of getting Bette Davis for the series was overwhelming.  John immediately sent the script to Miss Davis’ agent with a firm offer.  Only then did he realize he had not gone through the formality of having her approved.  There was an FBI agent assigned to the series as technical advisor and John asked him to get the necessary agency approval.  Later that day the answer came back from Washington; Bette Davis did not have the agency’s approval.  John Conwell at that point began to sweat.  What would he do if his offer to Bette Davis was accepted.  Fortunately he did not have to face that problem.  The answer came back from her agent that Bette Davis was not available and John Conwell heaved a huge sigh of relief.  After hearing this story I was not deterred.  John and I conferred with Ed, our resident FBI agent; we pointed out that Bette Davis was the First Lady of the American Film, that it would be an honor for the series to have her appear on it.  We urged him to relay this information back to Washington in the hope of getting their approval.  Ed did as we requested.  The answer was “No”.  No explanation of why, just “No”.  Now three years later I did not have that problem to cope with.  With the producer’s approval an offer was submitted to Bette Davis’ agent.  Unfortunately she was not available.  Disappointed as I was, I must admit that our next choice, Ruth McDevitt, may have been a boon for the production.  Many times the presence of a dynamic star like  Miss Davis can distort a project.

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When we viewed the rushes for the following clip the day after filming, JImmy Komack wanted to know how much added construction had been needed to create the set.  It was explained to him that no construction was needed; we just took out the back wall of the closet in Tom’s bedroom.  Voila!  A new never-before-seen camera angle in the apartment.  

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In postproduction when they viewed the assembled footage, it was decided that the scenes of Miss Bristol suggesting to Eddie and Tom (separately) that they spend too much time together  - - that those scenes came too abruptly.  A little more preparation for those confrontations was needed.  So a scene between Eddie and his father was written, recorded and laid in over  Peanuts-style footage, some of which I had filmed in Century City.

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And now well-intentioned Miss Bristol sets out to correct what she sees as a faulty situation.

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We all know that stealing is considered a crime.  Well watch a master at work.  Watch Miyoshi Umecki -- master thief!

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The thing that amazes me even more now than at the time I was filming is the incredible communication between Bill Bixby and young Brandon Cruz.  That’s what true acting is all about.

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Here is the script (starting with scene 33) for the Sunday activities of Tom and Eddie.










The scenes involving Tom were no problem.  It was decided to eliminate scene 35 and confine Tom’s activities to his office.  And I chose to confine his office activites to his inner office.  The less activity he had, the more lonely he would be. 

As for Eddie, I filmed scene 33 of Eddie at his fish tank.  The scene was eliminated in editing, but Eddie’s recorded dialogue was used as part of the onscreen narration.  The confining of Eddie’s activities to the Century City location was made for reasons artistic even more than budgetary.  It was not likely Eddie would be able to travel to the various locations suggested:  a wooded area, a park to fly a kite, railroad tracks.  Beside which I liked the visual of the small figure surrounded by the large, cold, gray buildings.  I truly don’t remember when we filmed the sequences with Eddie in Century City.  Looking at them today I feel they must have been shot on a Sunday; how would it have been possible to get those empty vistas in Century City on a weekday pre-Christmas.  However they were obtained, I am very proud of what I feel is the poignant heart of this episode.  And Jimmy’s addition of dialogue from previous scenes as narration that was added in postproduction was inspired.   

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The following scenes of Eddie looking for a Larry are not in the script.  They are not in the film schedule.  I can see that they were filmed on the MGM lot, using various buildings as locations.  They look like scenes I would film, but I can’t truthfully say I remember shooting them.  If you look closely, you will see one of the children is Max, Eddie’s friend from GUESS WHO’S COMING TO LUNCH.

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I do remember filming the shot of Tom on the overhead walk discovering Eddie alone.

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Resolving a situation as serious as this one is very difficult.  Miss Bristol has truly been a meddling old fool.  And like Ibsen’s protagonist she has come close to causing some real harm.  I think the team of Komack-Hanalis-Dick did a nice job of ending it logically and for this show, pleasantly.

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Before we move on, let me confess that this is my favorite of the nine THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER shows I directed.

Again I had no prep period; I just stayed on the set and filmed the fourth and final show of this last batch.  This one had another new billboard and credit opening.  

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This final show, THE PROMISE, was probably the darkest of my COURTSHIP films.  And how do you begin a dark film?  As lightly as possible.

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LIke Mrs. Livingstone’s flunking her English test in AN F FOR MRS. L, her possible deportation in this episode, THE PROMISE, was a Hitchcock-like  McGuffin.   

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As you can see, both James Komack and Peggy Chantler Dick shared writing credit with Bob Rodgers to create the roughest road the relationship between Eddie and his father took while I was at the helm.  

Meg Wylie was, like me, out of the Pasadena Playhouse.  We alumni, when possible, did stick stick together.  And at this late date I have to commend the secretary in the next scene; she was an extra but performed her duties sans dialogue like a pro.  She even got a laugh from the infamous laugh track!

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There are times when a director has to realize there are some scenes that are immune to directorial embellishments.  This was one of them.  Fine words.  Adult content.  Two extremely talented actors.  That’s when he needs to sit down in his director’s chair and keep out of the way. 

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And that’s what this episode is all about.  It’s not about Mrs. Livingstone’s being deported.  It’s about that critical time when a young boy’s faith in his father is assaulted, when he discovers that his father is not all-powerful, and in this instance it happens with that deadliest of sins -- a broken promise.

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I always find the laugh track objectionable.  In this instance, frankly I am outraged at its inclusion.  Eddie’s packing was not a funny scene.  It was a situation of a father very intelligently and sympathetically dealing with a critical moment in his seven year old son’s life.  That was not a laughing matter.

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I wasn’t usually in favor of young television star heroes being the ones who always saved the day, solved the difficult problems their elders couldn’t -- James Kildare on DR. KILDARE, John-Boy on THE WALTONS, Ben Casey, Danny Bonaduce on THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.  But I think the trio of writers on this episode found the only feasible exit out of this difficult predicament.

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And thus my COURTSHIP days came to an end.  I was no longer persona non grata in the industry.  I moved on but retained a special affection for THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER; for Jimmy, Bill, Miyoshi, Peggy -- all now  deceased; for Brandon, himself now a father to a son whose middle name is Bixby.  Wouldn’t it be nice if this small effort on a website could stir enough interest for this series to be pulled out of the vaults and released to the public on DVD; so that those who loved it in the past could reacquaint themselves with Eddie and his father, and those too young to have known it before could meet what I think is one of the forgotten gems of classic television.


Saturday, July 10, 2010

THEY'RE EITHER TOO YOUNG OR TOO OLD, THE MOD COUPLE - August 1969 (The Courtship of Eddie's Father)

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

Between August (when I completed filming GENTLEMAN FRIEND) and November, I was very busy. I directed three more episodes of THE BILL COSBY SHOW and made a return to the hour-long format, an episode of THEN CAME BRONSON which I filmed in Phoenix, Arizona for producer Robert Justman, formerly associated with STAR TREK. An amusing story at this time. Remember what I wrote about Tony Spinner’s formula for creating a new series -- do the same thing just a little differently. David Victor, former producer of DR. KILDARE (for whom I had directed four episodes) was now producing a NEW series which he had created for Universal Studio. It was a doctor series, a DR. KILDLARE lookalike, but the main character was the OLDER doctor. Dr. Gillespie was finally getting his chance to take center stage, only his name would be MARCUS WELBY. One of my agents tried to book me for the series; David said no; his reason: “But he’s directing comedy now.”

The romantic triangle had been a staple of fiction for eons. In film Joan Crawford made a career of deciding between Clark Gable or Robert Montgomery in FORSAKING ALL OTHERS; between Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young in THE SHINING HOUR; between Robert Young and Franchot Tone in THE BRIDE WORE RED. Claudette Colbert had a similar problem: Fred MacMurray or Ray Milland in THE GILDED LILY; Ray Milland or Brian Aherne in SKYLARK. And Ingrid Bergman in that classic of classics -- CASABLANCA -- had to choose between Humphrey Bogart and Paul Henreid. Of course there was the variation on that plot -- the one where Man A wants Woman who wants Man B. That of course was the formula in the greatest romance of them all -- GONE WITH THE WIND where Clark Gable’s Rhett Butler chased Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara who pined for Leslie Howard’s Ashley Wilkes. Why do I bring this up? Well believe it or not, that was the basic plot of my next COURTSHIP. On the way to getting to that, this episode had a new billboard with credits after the opening vignette.

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Now that you’ve met two corners of the developing romantic triangle, it’s obvious Glori is our Scarlett O’Hara. But can it be? Is Eddie going to be our Rhett Butler?

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There's the third corner of our triangle -- Tom is our Ashley Wilkes. I remember Peggy Chantler Dick being especially excited by this sequence after we viewed it in dailies. And in the original script the prologue did not end here; it continued withl Glori dashing into the living room and picking up the newspaper as Tom entered. I guess this was too good a moment not to end on. Although Peggy did not have any writer credit on this episode, I felt her fingerprints were all over this script.

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According to the IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) this was (surprisingly) Sherry Lynn Diamant’s first film role. She made two more screen appearances and then disappeared from the profession for nineteen years, when she made one more film.

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Scarlett had her Mammy to confide in. Guess who our Mammy is!

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Now for the crucial Rhett Butler moment. Fortunately our Scarlett didn't require a green velvet gown made out of the draperies. Carol Burnett's television budget could include it; ours couldn't

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It seems our Scarlett is just as devious as the original one was. Now let’s watch our Mammy enter the picture.

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I particularly like this next sequence with the inscrutable Miyoshi. As I stated before, in her quiet unassuming way she was an amazing performer.

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Again I had no proof, but I really felt Peggy had made a major contribution to the next sequence -- a beautifully written scene about helping a confused young girl.

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For a later assignment on COURTSHIP I did a location day in Century City. Because the required scenes to be filmed did not make up a full day’s work, I shot some Peanuts-style Tom and Eddie sequences to be used in the opening and closing vignettes. The closing for this episode includes some of that footage.

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I think its pretty obvious, that was an easy, pleasant shoot. I liked the script; I liked the cast; my only complaint was that I didn’t have anything to complain about.

Miyoshi Umeki began her career as a singer in Japan. She moved to the states in 1955, where she appeared for one season as a regular on the ARTHUR GODFREY AND HIS FRIENDS television show. This catapulted her into being cast in the Marlon Brando starrer, SAYONARA, where, playing opposite Red Buttons, she became the first Asian to win an Academy Award for her performance. She then conquered Broadway in her Tony nominated performance in the musical, FLOWER DRUM SONG, a performance she repeated in the film version which followed. The following sequence was the only time I was to put this musical talent on film.

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Finally I got to direct a script written by the fabulous Peggy Chantler Dick, for which she received screen credit.

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Now are you ready for a shocker? That was the opening for the funniest script for this series I was ever handed. The show was titled THE MOD COUPLE, COURTSHIP’s borrowing from the furiously funny Broadway play, THE ODD COUPLE. The easy way to have done this would have been to have Tom do the neurotically neat Felix with Eddie as the little slob version of Oscar. But that was not the road taken. Beautifully groomed Bill Bixby, with never a hair out of place, always clothed as if he had stepped out of the pages of the men’s fashion magazine GQ, Bill, as Eddie’s father, was to be the slob. The script (scene 6) of the following morning sets the scene with its description of the setting and the reason for the disarray. You can see by the note in parenthesis from P.C.D. that Bill Bixby was concerned with explaining this switch in his character.



But I was faced with what I thought was an even bigger problem. The opener had been a real tearjerker. I felt I needed something bold and startling to change course radically into a comedic mode. I used all of Peggy's words. I just changed the visuals that accompanied those words.

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I have refrained from commenting on Brandon’s enormous growth as an actor in a mere year. Directors can create performances if they have to by filming everything in closeups. But comedy plays best in two-shots. For that the actors have to play the comedy timing at the time of filming. Watch this seven year old matching Bixby’s performance at every turn.

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I always wondered how much Jimmy, who was a very fine comedy writer, contributed to those scenes he was scheduled to perform. And incidentally Peggy solved the problem of how to transform impeccably garbed Tom into an Oscar-like slob -- she made it a weekend when he could dress less formally.

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Surprisingly many actors have trouble doing business with props -- making it seem real. Fortunately young Mr. Cruz was not one of them.

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The following bachelor lesson that Norman delivers in the kitchen was one and three quarter pages. My usual average of a minute a page would have had this scene come in at a minute and forty-five seconds. In my preshooting preparation I had planned a master and three closeups. But once I started filming, I cut the closeups (my preference to play comedy in masters) and concentrated on getting a good master. I don’t remember exactly how many takes we filmed, but I know it was over twenty-five. But the final scene that I printed was one minute and thirteen seconds. There certainly aren’t any actors’ pauses slowing things down.

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As we near the end, I’m sure the next clip will not come as a surprise.

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These were the first two of a foursome that I directed in November. Again I filmed them back to back with no prep periods between. I just went on the sound stage and stayed for over three weeks. And again no problems, no complaints. If this kept up I was facing the possibility of having to give up the name David Victor had bestowed on me -- ‘boy storm cloud’.

Friday, July 2, 2010

AN F FOR MRS L, BULLY FOR YOU, GENTLEMAN FRIEND - July 1969 (The Courtship of Eddie’s Father)


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

Six months after completing THE LIBRARY CARD, I returned to MGM to direct three more episodes of COURTSHIP. Two seasons before I had directed an episode of INSIGHT for Father Elwood Keiser at Paulist Productions. This was a series of inspirational half-hour films that he produced every spring when the Hollywood studios were on hiatus. The attraction for me was that they were done live on tape. The fact that I had spent four years at CBS on the production staff of PLAYHOUSE 90 and later a daytime half-hour soap opera without getting to direct in that medium had always felt like unfinished business. So when Bud (he was a six foot five Catholic priest, but he responded to “Bud”) called to check my availability, I was only too happy to accept. In fact I did three in a row; it was like a crash course in directing multiple camera live television on tape. It wasn’t for the money. I returned the fee that was offered.






And there was more work. Years earlier when I was still just a secretary at CBS, I knew Bernie Grossman, who also worked there. Years later Bernie was the ad agency representative for MISSION IMPOSSIBLE when I directed THE TRAIN. I mention this because Bernie at this time was the agency rep for the new THE BILL COSBY SHOW. No, not the one about the Huxtable family, the earlier show where he played a gym teacher. It seemed that they were having director problems and Bernie recommended me. So I also directed an episode there during the time between COURTSHIP assignments. I’ll be writing about that series soon.

Six months can produce changes in a production company as I had already learned. This time the changes were improvements. Ralph Riskin had come on board as associate producer. He was another prince in Hollywood royalty; his father was producer Everett Riskin, his uncle was the legendary Robert Riskin, screenplay writer of IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT, LOST HORIZON, MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN and most of the classic Frank Capra films; and his aunt was Fay Wray, KING KONG’s great love.

But the addition that I think brought a great new dimension to the series was Peggy Chantler Dick, the new story editor. I loved her card in the closing credits.


And that she did -- everything that was right with the show, with her typewriter she made even righter.

Half hour shows were filmed in different ways. Some were performed before a live audience. They rehearsed three or four days, then filmed a performance before a live audience with multiple cameras. Before the advent of tape, film cameras were used and then the film would be edited. After tape entered the picture, the director edited during the performance as had been done during the live television era.

Filmed half hour television shows did it differently. THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, which I shall get to eventually, did one show a week. Monday was a reading day, that was seldom used. The next three days were devoted to filming the show. Fridays were used as a pickup day; many times the musical sequences were not completed in the three days and these would be filmed on those Fridays.

Still other half hour shows followed the same kind of schedule as the hour shows. They were filmed with one camera; when filming was completed, a new show started the following day. This was going to be another first for me. I filmed the three shows back-to-back; there was no prep time between shows. You know, filming a show in three days -- well it seemed to end just as I was getting warmed up. The ten and a half days it took to complete the three episodes gave me a chance to get my engine revved up. And an added excitement was how different the three shows were from each other. The first one was AN F FOR MRS L.

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Although most of my stage directing, before entering film, had been in comedy, only two of the sixty-six television shows I directed before COURTSHIP had been comedies. They were episodes of DR. KILDARE and NAKED CITY. In both instances my challenge had been to fit what were very broad comedies into the dramatic mode of the respective series. Here the problem was the reverse. Mrs. Livingstone’s situation was very personal and very serious. Not to acknowledge that, to treat it strictly comedically would diminish its importance. The script provided me with the approach to take.

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Mrs. Livingstone’s flunking her exam was a Hithcock MacGuffin to get us into the main story -- of what occurs when a seven year old boy’s imagination encounters a frightening circumstance.

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I think a big contribution Peggy Chantler Dick made was the fleshing out of the character of Mrs. Livingstone. And as I had discovered six months earlier with the first two COURTSHIPS, I was finding more true human drama in this sitcom than I had been finding in many of the dramatic shows I had directed.

Are you as annoyed as I have been with the opening billboard credits on television series -- the same one week after week. Another of Jimmy Komack’s innovations. He didn’t change them every week, but he did change them.

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Although Peggy Chantler Dick would not have any writer’s credit on this show or my previous episode, I sensed an added dimension in the characterizations for this show, BULLY FOR YOU, that I attributed to her. There was a deeper sensitivity to the people in what was actually the broadest situation comedy of my first four outings..

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And now, let’s meet Joey.

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Did you recognize her. That was six year old Jody Foster, six months younger than Brandon. Jody’s mother came to the set with her, as was required by law. But unlike many other sound stage mothers, I was not aware of her presence; she stayed in the background, as good sound stage mothers should have done.

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Once Joey started serving the dinner, those two youngsters, the seven year old and the six year old, had all the business; Bill and Miyoshi were relegated to the side lines to react. There was a hysterically funny moment that taught me as a director a valuable lesson. When Eddie asked for more tea and Joey responded, “Get it yourself”, the script called for Joey to hit Eddie and Eddie responded by hitting her back. I carefully staged the scene, cautioning both of them to pull their punches, no one was to actually get hit. Well on the first master two shot of the business Jody carefully socked Eddie without touching him. Brandon however ended up walloping Jody in the shoulder. Jody paused, turned to me standing by the camera and with the greatest comedy timing and an even greater reading of the line she said, “He hit me.” I and the crew exploded in laughter as I cut the take. Only then, too late, did I realize that reaction could have been used, with some judicious rewriting, in the continuation of the scene. As I said, it was a valuable lesson. A few years later when I was directing THE FAMILY NOBODY WANTED, there was another incident of something unexpected happening during a take. That time I was able to keep the “accident” in the film.

And finally I wonder how the feminists of today are reacting to the Japanese customs of forty-one years ago.

For my third and final episode in this outing, again a major change in style, both in the script and visually. First let’s take a look at this episode’s opening vignette.

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I don’t remember what the ratio of rewriting was required for the rewriter to receive screen credit. But whatever it was, Peggy Chantler Dick obviously surpassed it, because this time she was credited as the co-writer. This first scene between Tom and Mrs. Livingstone is loaded with Peggy. As I stated above, she brought a dimension to Mrs. LIvingstone that humanized her beyond being just the housekeeper.

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Imported Japanese films came to the States in the fifties with the production of RASHOMON. I wanted to use their visual style as much as I could. I felt this story called for that kind of treatment.

The following script, scene 8, is our introduction to Mrs. Livingstone’s gentleman friend, Mr. Sato.


Miyoshi, George Takei (our Mr. Soto, a reunion for me with STAR TREK’S Mr. Sulu), the camera crew and I went to MGM’s back lot #3. There we filmed a Peanut’s-style (Jimmy’s description) sequence like the many Jimmy had done with Bill and Brandon. This is what we came back with.

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No scripted dialogue. All improvised.

And I have to say, regarding the next sequence, MGM still did the best sets in town.

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Eddie’s opening line, “Mrs. Livingstone, how come that lady had a pack on her back?” was not in the script. When Brandon and Bill came on the set and Brandon saw our waitress garbed Japanese style, he asked Bill that question?  I heard it and knew it had to be in the film.

Now what actress who had an Academy Award and was now appearing in a successful television series would seriously consider giving it all up for a marriage destined to take her back to Japan. Again first the script, then the rest of the outing on MGM’s lot 3.



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Obviously not this actress. And again no scripted scene; all improvised.

I was booked to return to direct four more episodes (again back-to back) in November.