Friday, October 29, 2010

TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE - December 1964 (12 O’Clock High)

A month following completion of my second THE FUGITIVE I reported to 20th Century Fox for 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, a co-production of QM Productions and 20th Century Fox.  I don’t know the exact details for this co-production arrangement, but it’s not too difficult to surmise what it was.  ABC wanted a series based on the 1949 film starring Gregory Peck.  Quinn Martin was the fair-haired boy at the network because of the huge success the previous season of his series, THE FUGITIVE.  (The network may also have been committed to buying a show from him but may not have liked what he submitted.)  So the network bought 12 O’CLOCK HIGH from 20th Century Fox and put Quinn in charge of delivering it to them. 

This was my first association with 20th Century Fox, but I did not report to their big studio on West Pico Boulevard.  12 O’CLOCK HIGH was being filmed at the old Fox studio located on Western Avenue at Sunset Boulevard.  And when I say old, I mean OLD!   Built in 1916 by William Fox, one of the pioneer creators of the film industry, the studio fairly reeked of ghosts of the past.  This was where Tom Mix became one of the early film western stars, where American born Theda Bara became one of the first International screen vamps, and where sweet little Janet Gaynor, co-starring with Charles Farrell, became a major star and won the first Academy Award for her performances in SEVENTH HEAVEN, SUNRISE and STREET ANGEL.  

I liked the feel of the studio, much as I had felt about Desilu (the old RKO Radio Pictures studio) where I had filmed BREAKING POINT.  It may have been dilapidated, it may have been small, but it was intimate and had character.  It felt friendly.  The studio straddled Western Avenue; the producers’ offices and soundstages were east of Western; a small exterior street and a soundstage for process filming were west of the street.  And there were friendly faces from my past.  Producer Frank Glicksman was an old friend from our days at CBS.  I had known casting director John Conwell forever -- from his days as an actor on PLAYHOUSE 90 to his having cast my production of PRINTER’S DEVIL on TWILIGHT ZONE and my earlier episodes that season of THE FUGITIVE.  Associate Producer Charles Larson was a new face for me, but we would be working together in fifteen productions during the next two years.  Charles was the story editor for the series and this first assignment, TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE (which I liked), was co-written by him.  

Casting was easy.  Twenty-four year old Keir Dullea had starred in two films I admired, THE HOODLUM PRIEST and DAVID AND LISA (2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was still three years in his future).  I didn’t know Jill Haworth’s work, but I trusted John Conwell (the role of Sally Bowles in CABARET on Broadway was just a year in her future).  And I also trusted him on his suggestions for the Piccadilly Lily crew; some of them were returning having appeared in earlier episodes of the series. 

The following message appeared at the beginning of the 12 O’CLOCK HIGH feature film:

The air battle scenes in this
Motion Picture were photographed
in actual combat by members of
the United States Air Force and
the German Luftwaffe.

Those same photographed battle scenes provided the stock film for our air battle scenes.  At this point I had limited experience with rear projection:  a few scenes involving automobiles, photographed on large empty soundstages.  I was about to get an advanced  crash course in the subject.  A little more than a third of this episode was to be filmed with rear projection.  QM productions were usually scheduled to shoot in seven days.  Due to the amount of stock footage that would be used, TO HEINIE was scheduled for six days, the final two days to be filmed on the process stage. 

The stage for this activity was an unusually small one.  The rear projector was set up in one corner of the stage with the rear projection screen lined up in front of it;  the section of the plane to be photographed was in front of that.  The camera was in the opposite corner of the stage.  As I remember it, there was just room for the operator to slip into his position behind the camera.  It was very cramped quarters.  Complicating the situation was the number of plane sections where scenes occurred.  Each of them was a set to be moved in and then out.  And each set had both process and straight shots.

Then figure in the number of crew in that small space:  camera, lighting, grips, props, wardrobe,  makeup, hair,  script supervisor, and don’t forget me.  Add the big lamps to light the set.  As I said, it was very cramped quarters. 


It’s an accepted fact that scenes in film are not shot in sequence.  There are factors (mostly related to budget) that determine the way a schedule is laid out.  In the case of this film, the final two days of the plane in flight and the battle scenes were scheduled for the last two days.  Those scenes would require the presence of all of the Piccadilly Lily crew.  Therefore it was financially beneficial to start them as late in the schedule as possible.  This was accomplished by starting in Savage’s office the first day; of the crew only Magill was involved.  The second day was a location on the Fox ranch with only Keir and Jill.  So the members of the crew were booked to start the third day on the location at Chino, and they worked every day from then till the completion of the film; their period of employment had been limited to four days.

Chino, about a half hour ride east of the studio, was the site of our airfield location.  The previous fight scene between Muller and Magill was filmed in process on the fifth day; the following scene was filmed in Chino on our third day -- two days before the scene that preceded it.

And the following scene, which followed the previous two sequences, was filmed on the first day.

I think the genesis for this episode came from the 12 O’CLOCK HIGH feature film, in which there was a scene where a lieutenant admits to the general that his father was a Nazi Bund member. But the subject was not pursued.  Also in the feature is a scene when a Colonal Gately reports to General Savage for a reprimand, stands at ease, and Savage orders him to stand at attention, just as our General Savage orders Magill to stand at attention.

William Spencer, the regular director of photography for 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, was away filming a pilot for QM Productions.  His replacement was Gene Polito, son of Sol Polito, one of the great cameraman of the thirties and forties, known primarily for his work at Warner Bros on such films as THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES, SERGEANT YORK, THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE, NOW, VOYAGER and on and on.  Gene asked me as we began if it would be all right if he filmed everything with a 30mm lens.  I said okay.  At this stage in my career I was not yet knowledgeable on the subject of lenses. (That knowledge was to be acquired within the next year.)  I know now that the wide 30mm lens is not the one to use for large closeups.  The slightly bloated faces in the previous scene’s closeups prove that.  But I also have to acknowledge there is a documentary feel because of the 30mm lens.  Maybe that was what Gene had in mind.

Guilt by association!  That scene could be played today with a picture of the father as a Muslim.  

The Fox ranch in the far valley was the location for our second day of filming.  It was very similar to the MGM lot #3, only not as conveniently located.  The script called for two shots of a quail running away; the shots were designated to come out of stock.  Somehow it was ascertained that they did not have stock shots of a quail running away, I would have to film them.  When I questioned just how we did that, I was assured there would be no problem; we would have a quail wrangler.

Did you see the two shots of the quail running away?  Well I set up the shot, the quail wrangler placed the bird on her mark, but when I called action the bird ran off in the wrong direction.  Take 2.  Take 3.  Take 4.  It was finally understood that the bird did not understand me.  I obviously wasn't speaking Quail language.  A piece of string tied to one of her legs corrected that and convinced her to follow my directions.  And I never placed my faith in a quail wrangler again!

At Chino we did not film planes landing or taking off.  That came from stock.  We did film planes taxiing.

Filming the men reaching up and pulling themselves into the plane could sometimes become very humorous.  The series’ regulars had no problem, but some of the guest crew had difficulty, many times necessitating cutting away to another shot and letting the audience’s imagination fill in the difficult hoist.

Again I point out, the following scene was filmed three days before the scene that preceded it.

I’m not sure why, but this episode illustrates more clearly the difficulties actors face because of film being shot out of sequence.  The following scene was filmed on the second day, ahead of the two previous sequences that preceded it.


If Daniels, the new bombardier, took his helmet off, you might recognize Jimmy Hayes.  The previous season he had played the blind attendant who wanted to help blind Brad Dillman learn to shave.  You can see that in the archives to the right in the SHADOWS OF A STARLESS NIGHT episode of BREAKING POINT.

Now on to the mission. 

Jimmie (and I don’t remember his last name) had come to Hollywood from Tennessee as a member of Elvis Presley’s entourage.  Somewhere along the line he had broken away from the group to work in Hollywood as an extra.  By the time of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH he had become a series’ stand-in.  As such he was also used as a background charaacter and when possible (to provide extra income for him)  for special business.  In the following sequence (which was very scary to shoot) he is the airman in an asbestos suit who is set on fire.


All of Quinn’s shows had the same format:  a prolog preceded the opening titles; each act was labelled: ACT I, ACT II, ACT III, ACT IV; and a final wrap-up titled EPILOG.

When I finished filming TO HEINIE..., my agent called and said they wanted to book me for three more 12 O’CLOCK HIGH's, which would finish out my season. I had a problem with this. Arthur Fellows, the executive in charge of post-production, had a standing rule; directors were not allowed in the editing rooms. I turned the offer down. I told my agent I preferred working for production companies where I would be allowed to go into the editing rooms. My agent called the next day to say that he had delivered that message to Quinn, and Quinn's answer was, "Ralph can go into the editing rooms here". And so for the next decade Arthur Fellows constantly teased me with the fact that I was the only director he allowed into his editing rooms. I liked Arthur; I had great respect for him.  He really knew film.  (Also on A FAREWELL TO ARMS he had decked David O. Selznick.) 

One more sidebar bit of information:  One day driving out to our Chino location Jack Aldworth, the assistant director on this episode, told me of an incident many years before when he was on a distant mountain location for a feature film starring Glenn Ford.  When Glenn arrived at the location he immediately began checking to be sure that all of the rules for location filming were being followed.  And he was not shy about raising a fuss if he found any instances where there were infractions of the required rules.  Jack, as the assistant director, was the recipient of these complaints, one of which was that the required medical emergency supplies were not present.  He demanded that they must be secured or he would not film.  Jack said he was pissed; the securing of these supplies fell on his already over-burdened shoulders, but he reluctantly and begrudgingly complied with Ford’s demands.  Weeks later there was an emergency; a member of the crew had a heart attack, and the medical equipment that had been so reluctantly secured probably saved his life.   That crew member whose hand was held by Glann Ford as he was carried on a stretcher and placed in an ambulance?  Jack Aldworth.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A JOURNEY TO SUNRISE - September 1964 (Dr. Kildare)

Stephen Bowie in his insightful (and at at times even inciteful) CLASSIC TV HISTORY blog recently wrote:

Also this year I’ve watched most of the fourth and penultimate season of NBC’s  Dr. Kildare, a once near-great doctor drama that slowly turned mushy and bland.  ... I can’t decide which episode is the series’ nadir: “A Journey to Sunrise,” a vanity piece that gives Raymond Massey (who co-starred as Kildare’s windbag boss Dr. Gillespie) a dual role as a dying Hemingway-esque writer, or “Rome Will Never Leave You,” a  prophetically titled, turtle-paced three-parter that contrives gooey romances for both Kildare and Gillespie during an Italian business trip.

I felt compelled to leave a comment on this posting.

Stephen, you may be being a bit hard on (producer) David Victor. True, what  you said about the fourth season of DR. KILDARE. I should know. I directed one of the shows you listed as the nadir of the series, and I agree.

Yes, I directed the series’ co-nadir, A JOURNEY TO SUNRISE.  It was my fifth and final association with DR. KILDARE.  The year before had seen my catapulting booking on Herbert Leonard’s ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY.  And my next assignment was THE FUGITIVE, the beginning of my long association with Quinn Martin Productions.  But the immediate problem was this JOURNEY, entitled at the time of production, A FAMILY OF SPARROWS.  The plot followed the usual format for the series starting with a patient being admitted to the hospital, but this patient arrived with an entourage.  I thought the family of sparrows accompanying him were a clone of the Joad family in John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, but with a time warp problem; it was as if they had lost their way out of Oklahoma in the thirties and arrived at Blair Hospital in the sixites.

The patient, Graham Lanier, was a famous author.  He was the spine of the show and casting director Jane Murray and I very soon narrowed our short list down to James Whitmore and Lew Ayres.  My choice depended on whether I wanted to portray him Ernest Hemingwayesque (Whitmore)  or F. Scott Fitzgeraldish (Ayres).  I had already worked with James Whitmore the previous year on ARREST AND TRIAL, and I had met Lew Ayres socially.  I wanted a day or two before deciding, giving me time to evaluate, to visualize the script scene by scene as it would play both ways.  Large mistake!  While I was deliberating Associate Producer Doug Benton, came up with a suggestion: “We’ve been looking for a way to give Ray Massey more to do; why not have him be the guest star.”  And the tidal wave that that suggestion created totally swept over me and quite frankly sank the show.

The McConnell parents were played by Malcolm and Ellen Atterbury.  Seven years earlier I had directed them in a theatre production of Robert Anderson’s ALL SUMMER LONG; and Ellen had also appeared in my Equity Library Theatre West production of MORNING’S AT SEVEN.  They were very close friends.  Malcolm was a fascinating man.  He was from Philadelphia.  His family owned the Pennsylvania Railroad, but he wanted no part of the railroad businesss.  He and Ellen had had their own theatre company in upstate New York, which they left when they migrated to California in the fifties.  Malcolm told me on one of his early film interviews he was asked by the casting director (in a very condescending manner) whether he could ride a horse.  Malcolm simply replied that yes, he could;  his family had had its own stable of horses.

Let me make clear right off -- this was not a happy shoot.  I don’t absolve myself of all the blame for the show’s failure, but neither do I accept all of it.  It was a difficult script, loaded with dialogue that was sometimes poetic, sometimes verbose, a script fostering a hidden dark secret.  The clues to that secret were in Lanier’s speeches, but Massey’s portrayal veered more toward the John Brown fanatic he had played in the Errol Flynn starrer, SANTA FE TRAIL than to a sensitive, guilt-ridden author.  There was not much nuance or sensitivity in his bombast.

This production was my first experience with split screen, the process by which Raymond Massey as Dr. Gilleslpie could appear in a shot with Raymond Massey as Graham Lanier.  Today’s  sophisticated computer capabilities make what we did seem very primitive, and our antiquated process was very time-consuming.   (Don't forget this was being filmed on a six day schedule.)  The camera would be locked off, everything bolted down and  I would film the shot with Raymond Massey as Graham Lanier and a stand-in actor playing Dr. Gillespie.  Then we would wait for Massey to change makeup and wardrobe so we could film the same shot with him playing Gillespie and the stand-in playing Lanier.  (We couldn't film some other scene while we waited because the camera was locked off and couldn't be moved until we completed the split screen scene.)  Later in the lab the two halves of film with Massey in them would be merged.

Contributing to the already difficult situation, Massey felt that the following scene (written as a confrontation between young Dr. Kildare and Lanier) should be between Dr. Gillespie and Lanier.  Unfortunately the front office agreed,  and a scene that would have shown Kildare trying to solve the mystery of his pain-racked patient, that would have strengthened the bonding between the author and the young doctor, the scene became just another exercise in split screen.

I cry when I think of what that scene would have been with Richard Chamberlain and James Whitmore.

Finally there was a sequence with some visual activity, not just talking heads.

The hidden dark secret in the relationship of Lanier to the McConnell family, behind what was driving Lanier to insist on suffering pain rather than receiving morphine injections -- the time had come for that secret to be revealed.  

Most of this show took place in the hospital.  That was not unusual for a series in its advanced years.  Using standing sets, limiting extra sets and refraining from location work -- all these factors contributed to lowering the budget. We filmed the final scene, which needed to be an exterior, on MGM’s lot 3.  Today that area is a mass of apartments and condominiums.

Stephen Bowie also wrote in his blog on DR. KILDARE’s fourth season:

I am also partial to Christopher Knopf’s “Man Is a Rock,” a terrifying study of a heart attack victim (Walter Matthau) forced to confront his own mortality, and “Maybe Love Will Save My Apartment House,” a zany romp by Boris Sobelman, who wrote a handful of very funny black comedies for Thriller and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

You can read about MAYBE LOVE WILL SAVE MY APARTMENT HOUSE  in the archives to the right.  I also directed that one.

And this journey brought to a conclusion my involvement with the series that had started my journey in film.  I don’t think I realized it then; but all these years later I guess I wish I could have gone out with a bang, not a whimper.  But there were more bangs ahead -- and more whimpers!

Stephen Bowie’s CLASSIC TV HISTORY blog can be read at:

Saturday, October 9, 2010

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DRIVE - June 1971 THE UNDERGRADUATE - July 1971 (The Partridge Family)

My final two bookings for THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY were not back-to-back.  There had been a PARTRIDGE episode guest starring Bobby Sherman that spurred the network to order the  development of a new series to star Sherman, GETTING TOGETHER.  The spinoff was being produced by the same Bob Claver executive-produced unit at Screen Gems doing THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY and I was booked to direct several of them.  Two of those assignments fell between the two PARTRIDGES.  More of that later. 

GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DRIVE was the most situatioh driven (as opposed to character driven) episode of the seven PARTRIDGES I directed.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing.  And that didn’t really change my approach in directing the material.  I still approached each scene with the same question:  what is this scene about?  And then planned the staging (no matter how outrageous I considered it) as realistically as possible.  If that meant I couldn’t dig as deep into the motivations and emotions of the characters as I would like to -- so be it!

And what replaces character?  Slap stick!

Again are you saying, “What’s wrong with Senensky?  Everything seems normal and real. They needed a driver.  They hired a driver."  Well hold onto your hats; we’re about to make a very sharp turn.

We never left the Columbia Ranch to film this episode.  The shots of the bus traveling down the road were lifted out of stock.  The gas station was an exterior set on the ranch.

Two years before this I had directed AN F FOR MRS. L on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER that had a similar format; Eddie suspected Mrs. Livingstone was going to commit Hara Kiri and so he spied on her.  But the mood of that piece was serious; it examined what occurred when a seven year old boy’s imagination encountered a frightening circumstance.  This outing with Danny was at the other extreme.  Danny’s suspicion about Johnny leads to his spying on him.  Danny becomes Sam Spade and the comedy was in the eleven year old’s vision of how to be Sam Spade.

Of the PARTRIDGES I directed, this episode gave the versatile Dave Madden the broadest opportunity to shine.

This was the second and final time I got to stage an all-out concert and again I requested that there be no set and no extras.  But I didn’t want to just repeat what we had done before, so I asked the gifted director of photography, Fred Jackman, if we could use star filters.  He enthusiastically said yes.

The following day the producer phoned the set to tell me how much he liked the dailies.  He said to tell Fred Jackman he was especially pleased with the photography in the concert sequence.  I suggested that it would be nice if he told Fred personally, so I called Fred to the phone.  After the call Fred told me that the producer had asked him what kind of spotlights he used.  I asked, “What did you tell him?”  Fred said, “Oh, I just told him they were some of my own personal lights.”

And after all of this (and many apologies to Johnny) it all ended in a happy ending.

I think it was during this episode that I realized one day Shirley was very nervous and edgy.  That wasn’t like her.  She told me she had just found out her son, Shaun, had arranged a performance of his band for that very night.  I don’t remember whether the performance was going to be a concert or an appearance in some club, but here was this Academny Award winniing actress, the star of one of the most popular shows currently on television, totally amazed that this twelve year old had accomplished all of this without her knowledge.  And beside that she was scared, full of stage fright, behaving like a typical, nervous backstage mother.  It was charming.

The Bobby Sherman spinoff, GETTING TOGETHER, was just going into production.  Because i was going to direct one of the early episodes (I think possibly even the kickoff first show) I was involved in casting sessions for some of the series running characters.  Millie Gussie, a true Hollywood veteran, was the casting director.  There was a long parade of talent coming through to compete.  The only one I remember was a young DIane Keaton, who auditioned... and giggled a lot.  But for some reason beside Millie, the producer and me, there were five or six writers sitting in on the sessions.  It was unusual and it was a disaster.  The writers must have thought they were in a script conference. You would have thought they were there to audition for some standup comedy show.  Their comments and one-liners made it impossible to focus on the acting talent.  I felt it was unfair to the actors to have to perform before that inattentive group.  Later when callbacks were scheduled, I told Millie I would not be attending; I considered the behavior of the group rude and embarrassing.  MIllie understood.  I had the feeling she felt the same way.

Television has never been shy about stealing from the movies.  I should know.  I’ve been involved in several of those thefts.  On DR KILDARE, when I was the assistant to the producer, Buzz Kulik directed a lovely episode, SHINING IMAGE starring Suzanne Pleshette, that was a revisit to Bette Davis’ classic weeper, DARK VICTORY.  On THE FBI I directed an episode, ORDEAL, that was a rip-off of the French film, WAGES OF FEAR.  On STAR TREK the episode OBSESSION was MOBY DICK in space.  PRINTERS DEVIL on TWILIGHT ZONE was just another version of FAUST.  I directed a Movie-of-the-Week, DEATH CRUISE, that was another version of Agatha Christie’s TEN LITTLE INDIANS that had been filmed as AND THEN THERE WERE NONE.  (Our version however only involved six little Indians.)  And then there was the series, NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR, which owed a great debt to MARY POPPINS.  But all of these shows had one thing in common -- they didn’t acknowledge their connection to their previous source.

Not so my next THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.  Direct reference was not only made to its source several times in scenes in the show, the title of the episode itself paid homage:  THE UNDERGRADUATE.

The college we chose for our location was USC, the University of Southern California.  That was my first time filming there.  Many years later I would spend a great deal of time on the campus on PAPER CHASE, which had USC representing Harvard Law School.

The magic of the editing room.  There was a scene I filmed of Shirley and Paul in a classroom that came between the scene where they meet and the scene having coffee.  We wanted to lose that scene, but there was a line by Paul at the end of the classroom scene (he offered to buy Shirley a cup of coffee) that we needed to bridge from the meeting scene to the coffee scene.  How did the editor do it?  He took that line and put it in the last shot of the meeting scene when Paul was turned away from the camera.

The day we filmed at USC, we continued after dark to film the following car scene with Shirley and Paul.

This was the only time I worked with Michael Burns, but I had been aware of him since 1962 when he had appeared in what I remember as a wonderful series, IT’S A MAN’S WORLD, produced by Peter Tewksbury.  It had to be exceptional.  It only lasted for ten episodes.  Six years after completing this current episode, Michael retired from film, returned to college to pursue his interest in history.  He graduated from the University of California and earned his Ph. D. from Yale University.  He was a professor of history for twenty-two years before retiring. Academe's gain -- film's loss!

The next is my favorite scene in this episode (starting with opening the door for the visitors).

I have to interject and say, I think the person who really makes this scene work is Norman Fell.  Imagine what this scene would be like if the father had been played leering with the sexy innuendoes.  The thought makes me shudder.

And that was the end of my PARTRIDGE FAMILY involvement.  In fact after that I only directed two other half hour comedies; I was back directing hour dramatic shows.  I guess the comedy producers were saying the David Victor line in reverse: “We can’t hire him to direct comedy; he’s a dramatic director.”

Forty years later I am still a little astounded.  What was it about this show that made it so successfu?  What was it about this show that still appeals to people all these years later, as proven by the successful marketing of the series on DVD.  I don’t have the answer.  But I do know that I too am a fan; probably a bigger admirer today than I was back then.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

THE FORTY YEAR ITCH, DORA, DORA, DORA - May-June 1971 (The Partridge Family)

During their first season THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY had a charming episode, WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE OLD SONGS, that brought Shirley’s parents to her home for a visit.  The parents were played by Ray Bolger and Rosemary De Camp.  As happened regularly in series televison, when guest star appearances proved successful, the stars were brought back for repeat performances.  It was my good fortune to guide them through their return visit.

The little blond boy coming down the stairs was the newest addition to the family, Brian Forster, who was now playing Chris .  The father of Jeremy Gelbwaks, the original Chris, had been transferred out of California and Jeremy, faced with having to choose between the Partridge family and the Gelbwaks family, departed with the family of his birth.  End of a drumming career.

It had been five months since I had directed my last THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.  I was returning to do four in a row and this recasting of Brian Forster created a minor problem for me.  To get to the root of that problem we need to flash back to a Saturday afternoon in 1960 when I received a telephone call from Stanley Smith, the casting director at the Pasadena Playhouse.  Stanley told me a production of Somerset Maugham’s THE CIRCLE starring Estelle Winwood had recently gone into rehearsal and they wanted to replace the director.  Would I be available to come in and take over.  At this point in my career, English high comedy was not one of my strong suits.  I had directed a production of Noel Coward’s BLITHE SPIRIT years before, and I considered it one of my poorest achievements.  I told Stanley I didn’t think I was the person for this assignment, and I gave him the name of someone who I thought should do itl.  A half hour later Stanley called back to say the person I had recommended was not available, would I reconsider.  My counter suggestion was that I would like to come in, meet the cast and have a read-through before making a decision.  That meeting took place the next evening.  After the reading I had only one reservation about the cast.  I told the Playhouse if I could replace the actress playing the younger woman with Rachel Ames, I would do it.  I had already directed Rachel in two stage productions, and she was well known to the Playhouse; her parents were Dorothy Adams and Byron Foulger, two fine actor closely associated with the Pasadena Playhouse.  The Playhouse agreed to my request.  The problem as it relates to THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY?  Brian Forster’s mother, who would be accompanying him to the set each day, was the actress I dumped.

In their first season visit Shirley’s father decided he wanted to go into show business, wanted to join their singing group.  Her mother thought it was a dumb idea.  It was a charming, generation gap story and the bickering parents provided an ongoing comedy background to the conflict in the foreground.  For this return visit the bickering took center stage; but it was no longer just bickering, it was out-and-out warfare heading for divorce.   The problem we faced was to prevent the audience from becoming as disenchanted with the visitors as the Partridge family was.   

The production facilities for THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY  were excellent.  Not only were the exteriors of the Partridge home and its surrounding neighborhood plus the village exteriors we filmed on TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY on the Columbia Ranch, there were also two sound stages on the lot for our interiors.  It was all very convenient.  This episode provided my first departure for a location off the lot.

For the musical number for this episode I was back in the nightclub set I so disliked, but the script necessitated the return.  At least the red drapes had been removed.  Was I unhappy?  Not on your life.  Who could be unhappy having OKLAHOMA’s Laurey, CAROUSEL’s Julie Jordan and Marian, the librariam from THE MUSIC MAN singing, while the Scarecrow from THE WIZARD OF OZ danced with the mother of that YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, George M. Cohan.  That was a day on a soundstage made in heaven.

The show had two happy endings.  Brian’s mother and I had no problem because of the previous Pasadena Playhouse incident.  The subject was never mentioned.

My second outing of the quartet, like PARTRIDGE UP A PEAR TREE from the previous season, had a plot that I thought was genuinely funny.

I don’t know who recorded the song that Robyn Millan lip-synced to, but I certainly owed her a big debt of gratitude.

Alvina Krause was a magnificent acting professor at Northwestern University.  When I was a student there, she stated something in one of her acting seminars that I found useful throughout my career; people under emotional stress take refuge in props.  In the following scene (with that lovely four-poster bed just sitting there) I made that suggestion to Shirley.


The following day after dailies the producer phoned me on the set to tell me how funny he thought that scene was.  My response:  “Phallic, wasn’t it?”

Jack Burns was an actor, writer, producer -- a jack of all trades, but in his case master of all.  He started out as half of a comedy team with George Carlin.  I thought he was proof of that adage about directing -- 90% is in the casting.


And once again a return to the set I abhorred, but this time it was a little less objectionable; it was converted into a military base auditorium.

Next: my final two treks down Partridge Lane with Shirley acting a television version of Mrs. Robinson from THE GRADUATE.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY, PARTRIDGE UP A PEAR TREE - December 1970 (The Partridge Family)

Do you remember the Swiss village in THE NEW ADVENTURES OF HEIDI?

Eight years before I filmed that, I filmed the same location on the Columbia ranch in Burbank to open the second episode that I directed of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.

Michael Lembeck, who played Marc, had been in a production of DAN AUGUST that I directed a couple of months earlier.  When he came in to audition for the producers, he asked if the role of Marino had been cast.  It hadn’t been at that point.  Michael was the one who suggested his father, Harvey Lembeck for the role.  Harvey was a wonderful actor and comedian.  Remember him as one of the prisoners in STALAG 17?   Michael Lembeck several years later moved behind the cameras to become an Emmy award-winning director.

I was told that one of the directors (who shall remain nameless) of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY came into the producer’s office on his first day of prep, tossed his script on the producer’s desk and said, “Okay!  What are we going to do with this whale shit?”  I never did that.  Besides, on this script I would have been limited to, possibly, a very large tuna.  But from here on this script did present a problem.  Laurie, because of her friendship for Marc, refuses to perform.  And everything comes to a standstill.  Drama is action, doing something.  Sitting around refusing to do something isn’t very exciting.  Then riding to the rescue is the least believable savior, young Danny.  He locks Marino and Marc in the office and conducts a binding arbitration meeting.  But this drama is behind locked doors, off camera.  That could have been a funny scene. Finally they reach an agreement and the Partridges are able to open -- on the same small nightclub set I had silently objected to on WHEN MOTHER GETS MARRIED, with the same red drapes although they were hung differently, and with 13 extras plus the 5 standins as the packed house audience attending the Partridges’ debut.

The following week the script for PARTRIDGE UP A PEAR TREE was definitely an improvement.  It had a totally believable situation involving Keith and the family.  And importantly, it was a situation with promising prospects to be funny.

The exterior of the Partridge house was on the Columbia Ranch, same area in Burbank as the exterior club setting of the previous episode.  And I have to add, I was happy to direct an opening teaser that hooked its audience without a violent killing like those I had staged on all of the FBI episodes I directed.

Keith’s “I’m thinking, I”m thinking...” came from one of the classic comedy bits of all time.  On the Jack Benny radio show in the thirties Jack was at the race track when a race track tout (I’m sure it was Sheldon Leonard) accosts him with “Your money or your life.”  Silence.  Again, more insistently, “Your money or your life.”  Again silence.  Then “I said your money or your life.”  And Jack’s response, “I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”  I have to admit, I remember listening to that original broadcast.

 If you’re going to steal, steal from the best.  Remember Orson Welles’ opera sequence in CITIZEN KANE?  I had another musical number in this episode, and this time I stated I wanted no set.  Which meant no audience.  Which meant no extras.  I think it was probably the no extras that did it.  I had no trouble getting that approved. 

I admit, I’m old-fashioned.  I like my stories to be entertaining, but I also appreciate when they include a small moral lesson.

I also enjoy a happy ending.

I want to put in a word in defense of the producers.  Theirs was a formidable task.  There were twenty-five episodes of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY their first season, twenty-four their second.  The series lasted four seasons for a grand total of ninety-six episodes.  True the number of shows per season had shrunk since 1961, when thirty-two episodes of DR. KILDARE were produced its first year on the air.  I don’t think the lesser number was created at the studio based on their ability to deliver.  I’m certain it was a decision at the network, where they realized they could make more money by ordering fewer shows.  

But the staff responsible for delivering these scripts was small.  Besides creator Bernard Slade (and I don’t know how involved he was) there was Executive Producer Bob Claver, Producer Paul Junger Witt and Story Consultant Dale McRaven; and only one of the three was a writer.  The scripts were written under their supervision by free lance writers.  That was a lot of plot, a lot of funny lines to keep churning out.  No one ever started out to write a bad script.  But many times what began as possibly a good idea in a one-sentence pitch, just didn’t evolve as hoped for.  One time when I was griping because I had just finished directing one of those literary miscarriages during the season I directed every other show on THE FBI, producer Charles Larson said to me, “There are going to be some lemons; you have to accept your share.”  Those weren't his exact words, but the meaning was clear.  I think the  amazing thing  was how few sour ones ended up in the basket.

Next on RALPH’S TREK -- the Partridges keep singing.