Tuesday, September 28, 2010

WHEN MOTHER GETS MARRIED - June, 1970 (The Partridge Family)

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In the aftermath of THE THOLIAN WEB debacle (one incident being David Victor refusing to hire me to direct MARCUS WELBY because he said I was now directing comedy), an unexpected booking was to direct an episode of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.  My previous nine comedy outings on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER had really been as much “dramody” as comedy.  But by this time I had also directed episodes of THE BILL COSBY SHOW (not the later THE COSBY SHOW about the Huxtable family, his first comedy series about a gym instructor) and NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR.  And the prospect of working on a musical series was interesting and challenging.   

A technique I had been introduced to very early in my training as a stage director was to break the script down into French scenes.  A new French scene occurs whenever the number of characters in the scene changes; in plain words when a new character enters or when one of the characters in the scene exits.  It is a way of breaking the script down into manageable units.  For film I found the structure of the screenplay already had the script broken down into comparable units.  So at the start of every project I would make a chart like the following one for this episode.




The episode I was assigned, WHEN MOTHER GETS MARRIED, was written by the show’s creator, Bernard Slade.  I found him to be a very gifted comedy writer.  Now I preferred to direct scripts where the plot development arose out of the interaction of the characters, rather than those where the demands of the plot itself was the motivating force driving the plot.  I thought if the plot for this episode did not dig too deeply into the possible seriousness of the situation, that if at times it was predictable, his dialogue was very actable;  more importantly, it was funny.

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Although in the next year I would direct six more episodes of the show, this was the only one where I had any direct contact with Slade.  But my suspicions were that he continued to be directly involved with all of the scripts.  A dozen years later I would see Earl Hamner carefully Waltonizing the dialogue of material that passed across his desk on its way to the soundstage.  There was a consistent comedy quality to the dialogue on this show (and the subsequent ones I directed) that made me think Bernie was doing just that.

At this time he told me about a pilot he had just completed starring Jose Ferrer as an angel who comes to earth each week to solve some person’s dilemma.   When Ferrer showed up at the studio to start production, he wore a small pierced gold hoop earring in one ear;  he refused to remove it and that was the way the pilot was filmed.  Bernie told me that when they screened the completed pilot for the network executives, one of those present questioned, “Why was that character wearing an earring?”  Bernie’s response:  “Where else would an angel wear his halo when visiting earth.”  I told you he wrote funny dialogue.

The production schedule for THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY was unlike the other comedies I had directed.  Monday was assigned as the day for a production meeting followed by a reading of the script by the cast and then a rehearsal.  The next three days were for filming.  Friday was a pick-up day when needed; usually musical numbers that had not been completed would be filmed at that time.  So on my first Monday I reported to the studio, had the production meeting and then met with the cast for a reading and a rehearsal.  Big mistake!  The combination of light weight material and a cast with so many children didn’t work well around a rehearsal table.  That was the first and last time I tried that.  And the actors were happier with the day off.

If the material was lightweight, the guest casting was not.  John McMartin was cast as Shirley’s date.  The year before John had starred in the film version of SWEET CHARITY, a role he had created in the Bob Fosse Broadway production.  The following year he would be one of the stars of Stephen Sondheim’s Broadway production of FOLLIES, my favorite Sondheim musical.  John was a magnificent stage actor.  When FOLLIES came to the Schubert Theatre in Century City on its national tour, I experienced a rare and exciting moment in theatre.  In the second act each of the four main characters had a musical number reflecting their personal emotional problem.  For his number John danced in the center of a long line of Rockette-type chorus girls.  In the middle of the number John suddenly went out of step with the line, then stopped, frozen, as if he had suddenly lost it.  It was mesmerizing and frightening.  I truly thought John was having some sort of seizure. But he recovered, the dance continued and I realized it was the character who had the disoriented moment, not John.  When I returned to the see the show a second time several months later, John had left the production.  I waited anxiously for that exciting second act moment.  But when it came, the replacement went out of step for a moment, then picked it back up.  He had executed the stage business, but only superficially.  He had filled John’s space on the stage, but he couldn’t fill his shoes.

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I was not too happy with the set for our musical number.  I reallized that a nightclub set required fewer extras in the audience than would be needed for an auditorium set, but I didn’t think a rock group with five minors would be playing in a nightclub.  I thought they would be appearing in concert halls or on college campuses.  But I was still the new kid on the block, so I didn’t make any waves.  Fortunately the performance didn’t last too long; it became the background scoring for Shirley’s courtship montage.

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About this time I’m sure you’re thinking, “What’s the matter with Senensky?  These people are acting like a normal family.”  Well let’s visit a steam room.

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See what I mean?  All of a sudden we’re doing James Bond.  But doing it with two fine farceurs.  Dave Madden, who played Reuben, their manager, would be pretty much restricted to playing variations of this scene throughout the run of the series.  Eleven year old, precocious Danny Bonaduce was a find.  I don’t know what the original plans were for the character of Danny, but I’m sure that once Bonaduce entered the picture, those plans were expanded.  Danny had a natural, instinctive flair for delivering comedy lines.  And more importantly he did it with total reality.  He was an amazingly good actor, especially for one so young.  Incidentally that was not steam in the scene.  It was created by a bee smoker; not as warm as steam, but it always gave me a headache.

There are still more nefarious plot developments.

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Did you recognize the actress playing Tina?  That was Jaclyn Smith, six years before she became one of CHARLIE’S ANGELS.

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Now we couldn’t leave the plot hanging there; something had to be done so that Shirley remained the single parent of the five Partridge kids (single parents were very much in vogue on television), John McMartin would be free to return to New York to appear in FOLLIES,  and Dave Madden would be able to relax, knowing he was not being written out of the series.

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When I was booked to direct this episode, I was also booked to direct an episode of THE INTERNES, a new medical series being produced by the same unit at Columbia Studio.  I was scheduled to start prep on that show when I finished WHEN MOTHER GETS MARRIED.  Before I could report, I was notified the episode was cancelled.  Fred Silverman, the head of production at ABC, had told the studio the script for that episode was unacceptable.  This being a new series, that was not an unusual occurrence.   The studio’s answer was that they did not have another script ready; that they would have to close down production, which would be costly. 
Mr. Silverman asked, “How costly?”  
The studio’s reply:  “$180,000.00.” 
Mr. Silverman:  “You’ve got it.”  

Tne network coughed up the $180,000.00; production on THE INTERNES closed down, and I was paid my director’s salary and rebooked to direct another episode at a later date.  But the story doesn’t end there.  A couple of weeks later I was back at the studio on a Friday to complete filming the musical number for WHEN MOTHER GETS MARRIED.  Jim Hogan, the production manager for both THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY and THE INTERNES, took me aside to tell me that the script for THE INTERNES that had been rejected by the network was starting to film the following Monday.  The script to be filmed was the same script that had been rejected; no revisons had been made.

And finally, I was booked to return to THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY in December for a double-header, two shows to be filmed back-to--back.  Next on RALPH'S TREK!