Tuesday, November 9, 2010

ORDEAL - June-July 1963 (The Nurses)

Come visit my website 
RALPH'S CINEMA TREK: A Journey in Film
at http://senensky.com/

After the whirlwind three months on the road with ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY followed by a short month-long stay in Los Angeles for ARREST AND TRIAL, it was back to New York -- this time for an episode of THE NURSES.  I looked forward to this because it would be a reunion with a buddy from MGM.  Two years before when I had reported to MGM to join the DR. KILDARE production staff, Buzz Berger was working in the studio’s casting department, casting extras for the their productions.  But Buzz was smart...and ambitious.  He told me at the time that he was remaining at the studio in the evening after the day’s work was completed to study the casting files.  Casting entails so much more than just matching performers to roles.  In a sense there was a caste system to casting actors.  There were the stars, each of them with his (or her) price and also the information of which ones would do television.  There were featured players, again some who would accept television assignments, some who would not; and each of them carried a price tag.  And then there were hordes of day players, again each with a price.  Some were available only for roles of at least a week’s work; others at least two or three days; and then the many available for a day’s work.  All this, Buzz said, he was memorizing; plus the evaluation of the performers’ talent.  He felt he needed to know all of this in order to advance to being a casting director of more than just extras.  Within the year of my arrival at MGM Buzz left for New York to join Herbert Brodkin’s production team, at that time producing THE DEFENDERS and THE NURSES.  Buzz had become the casting director for the latter show.  

For our young leading man we cast twenty-one year old Brandon de Wilde.  I had seen Brandon a dozen years before when the National company of THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING with Ethel Waters played in Chicago.  It had been his Broadway stage debut when he was seven and a half.  He had made his feature film debut when the play was transferred to the screen.  In the intervening years he had also appeared on screen in the classic western, SHANE, and the Paul Newman starrer, HUD.  If that isn’t impressive enough, he had also made two other feature films and guest starred on thirty-eight television shows, including a season of a series in which he starred.  This episode, ORDEAL, was only my thirteenth film.

Filming for THE NURSES was at the old Pathe Studios on East 106th Street.  The facility was a distinct improvement over the so-called studios in lower Manhattan used by NAKED CITY.  But they were a far cry from the MGM studios in Culver City.  The sound stages were much smaller than those on the west coast; they did not have the overhanging grids on which lighting could be placed; and the hospital set was far less inclusive than the extensive hospital set for DR. KILDARE.  Part of this, I’m sure, was due to Executive Producer Herbert Brodkin.  During this production I had little direct contact with Brodkin, but he was no stranger.  He had been one of the three rotating producers who replaced Martin Manulis on PLAYHOUSE 90 when Manulis left.  I was aware then that Brodkin had been an art director and had a philosophy for television production that stated:  the medium is a small screen;  large sets are not needed;  play the scenes in closeups.  This had worked well for him on the excellent series, THE DEFENDERS.  So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  And when directing in Rome, do as the Romans do!

This was the first of my fifteen collaborations with twenty-one year old Stephen Brooks, a semi-regular on the series.  Two years later he would be on the west coast as JIm Rhodes on THE FBI.  And five years later we would work together on the most well-known of our collaborations, OBSESSION, on STAR TREK.  (See archives at the right.)

After almost a decade of living on the west coast, having escaped from the hot, humid summers of the midwest, I was taken back to those midwest days at the end of every day when I left the air-conditioned studio and confronted New York City in the summertime.  The ride back to my hotel, either by cab or studio driven car, always with no air conditioning, seemed never-ending.  As did my future stay in New York.  I knew that when I completed this film, I was booked to stay on in New York City for an additional three weeks to direct an episode of EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE. 

Nonogen-405 was, of course, a fictitious drug.  The initial version of the script named the drug “Nucleogen”.  I don’t know whether the change was made because “Nucleogen” was more difficult to pronounce or whether there may have been an actual drug called Nonogen. 

I wonder if you’ve noticed that the closeups are unusually large.  Again that was a style set by THE DEFENDERS.  I used to say jokingly that in a Brodkin production closeup, if you could see the chin or the actor’s hair on top of his head -- that was a wide shot.

THE NURSES was in its second season.  It had debuted on CBS in 1962, one season after the great successes the previous year of DR. KILDARE on NBC and BEN CASEY on ABC.  I guess the network figured that the squeaky clean KILDARE and the renegade CASEY had covered all of the doctor bases, so their medical series would focus on nurses.   Sometimes the nurse’s involvement proved to be peripheral.

That plan may have proved more limiting than anticipated; the third season for the series was called THE DOCTORS AND THE NURSES.

Early in the next sequence you will see the mike pop in at the top of the frame.  That was not a missed mistake.  What you are seeing is the full screen film, but that was not what was seen on the television screens at home.  An aperture matte in the camera designated the shape of the television screen.  The area where the mike appeared was in that area cut off by that aperture and therefore not a part of the image that appeared on home screens.  

I was excited when I reported to start casting to find that Buzz was trying to get Pert Kelton for the role of Nurse Harmon.  I remembered her for her screen appearances in the thirties; and then more recently, like just the previous year, for her role in the film version of Meredith Willson’s paean to Mason City, Iowa (although he called it River City) -- THE MUSIC MAN.  (In case you’ve forgotten, I’m from Mason City, Iowa.)  But Pert Kelton was not available.  Now as I’ve said before, the talent pools are very deep.  So Buzz delivered Jan Miner.  For those of you old enough to have been around back then, I’m sure you will recognize her --  she was Madge, the manicurist in the Palmolive soap commercials, one of the longest ongoing product endorsement relationshipos in TV history.  She did it for twenty-seven years.

Anybody want to venture a guess as to how many takes it took to get that zoom shot into the broken mirror with the five images of Brandon?

One!  Because there was no dialog involved, we could use the Arriflex camera with the zoom lens.  With the camera lens set to frame the mirror, we carefully arranged that close shot with Brandon’s five images and locked off the camera.  Brandon had to freeze his actions; any movement on his part could have lost an image.  We then rolled camera, I called action, held for a few seconds and then zoomed out.  After the film was developed we then reversed the action and printed it as a zoom in. 

Larry Gates was a gem of a performer.  If he had been born earlier, he would surely have been under contract to one of the major studios, MGM, Paramount or Warner Bros.  But his career began in the early fifties when the studio system with their long list of contractees was coming to an end.  So he carved a similar career as befitted those times.  Live television, Broadway, feature films, filmed television, even a soap opera -- GUIDING LIGHT.  He did them all.   And he did it with distinction.  As I said, he was a gem of a performer.

I never worked with Brandon de Wilde again.  In fact I never saw him again.  NIne years after we filmed this ORDEAL, Brandon was killed in an automobile accident in Denver, Colorado.  He was thirty years old. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

THE HERO - April 1965 (12 O’Clock High)

The script for my final 12 O’CLOCK HIGH had the most stereotypical protagonist of any of my four airborne  adventures on the series.  In the thirties and forties, James Cagney practically had a one-man franchise at Warner Bros. on the cocky, brash, undisciplined man in military service.  In THE FIGHTING 69TH, HERE COMES THE NAVY,  CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS he served disruptively on land, sea and air, but always emerged at the end as a hero.  Three decades later we were about to resurrect that character.

My second and third episodes of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH had been grounded.  This one sent me back up into the wild black and white yonder of TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE, back again for two days to the small process stage, and back to the airfield in Chino, this time for two days.  It also provided me with a welcome reunion with James Whitmore; the previous season we had worked together on ARREST AND TRIAL (see archives to the right).

Let me digress for a moment.  The young copilot was played by Peter Deuel.  He had little to do, but I was very impressed with him.  I remember going to producer Frank Glicksman and telling him I thought Peter was someone to note for future use.   I never saw Peter again after that one day’s work.  His future was not at QM Productions.   The following season Peter was cast by Screen Gems (the television arm of Columbia Pictures) in a sitcom that failed.  Not to be deterred Screen Gems cast him in another sitcom the following year, that one too doomed to end after a single season.  Peter was then put under contract by Universal, where he spent three years guest starring in the studio’s television productions before being cast to co-star in the series ALIAS SMITH AND JONES, a rip-off of BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID that became a huge success.  According to interviews at the time, Peter did not find fulfillment in the daily grind of that television series.  After only thirty-three episodes he ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound.  He was thirty-one years old.  Again there are eight million stories in tlhe city of Hollywood, Peter Deuel’s is one of them.  

Our first day of filming was at the airfield in Chino.  It was the last day of March, but April showers were already threatening.  Our schedule for the day listed the sixth day’s work as our cover sets in case of inclement weather, but the decision had been made in the production office that the rain was a possibility, not a surety.  And so we commenced filming; the conditions for creating the look of England in winter were visually excellent.  

But as the work on this sequence progressed, the weather conditions worsened; small raindrops started spitting, but not enough at first to halt filming --  until we were setting up the final setup of that last sequence, the shot under the plane’s wing...

...when Billy Spencer and I agreed it was time to call a halt.  Paul Wurtzel, our assistant director, disagreed.  “You're under the wing.  You can’t even see the rain,”  he said.  Billy pointed to behind Lansing and Whitmore where a sheet of water was cascading like a waterfall off the wing.  His point was made.  We wrapped the location, returned to the studio and finished the day working on interior scenes from the sixth day’s schedule.  The following day when the weather had cleared, we returned to Chino and picked up where we had left off.

I read today about the difficulty actors have doing scenes in blue screen.  I don’t think the actors in this show had it any easier.  As in TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE a third of the filming was on the process stage in the plane with rear projection. That meant acting very short scenes, many of them with an actor at a different location (a different section of the airplane or someone in a different plane) or reacting to attacking airplanes that weren’t there and wouldn’t be  there until the film editor integrated the stock footage days, even weeks later as he put together the final assemblage.

I also want to commend the film editors of this episode (Marston Fay) and TO HEINIE. WITH LOVE (Jerry Young).  Beside selecting the required film for our rear projection they were the ones who plowed through miles of stock footage to create the action footage for the sequences -- the air battles, the fleet of planes in flight, planes taking off and landing.  There were scenes in the script marked (STOCK) that were what the screenwriter envisioned -- the editors then had to find film that matched that vision.

On one of the days Frank Overton reported to the Chino location at the crack of dawn.  He filmed the following sequence and a longer scene with Lansing and Whitmore (that was edited out of the final film for time).  He was then dismissed and sent back to the studio.  Seconds after his vehicle left, assistant director Paul Wurtzel realized Frank was not finished, that he still had another sequence to shoot.  Today, with cell phones, there would be no problem.  The vehicle carrying Frank back to the studio would be phoned in transit, and he would be returned to the location.  But those were ancient B.C. days (Before Cellphones).  All Paul could do was phone the studio and notify them that when Frank arrived, he was to be sent back to Chino.  I think that was a day Frank wished we could have been doing STAR TREK (which he did do for me a couple years later) so that he could just say, “Beam me out to the location, Scotty.”  Being the trooper that he was, there were no complaints.

I like doing action sequences.  They are exciting to do, they are exciting to watch.  But I have to confess, I’m even more challenged and fulfilled confronted with a good dramatic dialogue sequence if it’s intelligently written, built on a strong conflict with interesting nuances, and if I’m fortunate enough to have good actors to play it.  


One of the things I learned early on DR. KILDARE was that when there was technical information being dispensed, it was advisable to present it as carefully and clearly as possible.  The viewing audience must assimilate the information as completely as the men at the briefing so that they will understand the events that follow.

It’s easy to stage a dramatic scene that is a direct confrontation between opposing forces.  A challenge is when the drama is a bit of exposition being related.

I couldn’t resist showing you the scene Frank Overton had to return to the location to film

The radio operator in the next clip is Nigel McKeand.  Nigel first acted for me two years before this in an episode of THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH.  Nine years later Nigel had switched hats and wrote THE MARATHON, one of the best THE WALTONS I was priveleged to direct.  Two years after that I directed an episode of FAMILY, produced by Nigel.  And eleven years later the last film I ever  directed was an episode of BLUE SKIES which Nigel produced.

Our American culture has a peculiar attraction to the celebrity of heroes.  I liked and appreciated what this script had to say on the subject.

And that brought an end to my involvement with 12 O’CLOCK HIGH.  Robert Lansing’s contract was not renewed; he was replaced by Paul Burke.  William Spencer with his camera crew and assistant director Paul Wurtzel moved with associate producer Charles Larson, now elevated to producer, to Warner Bros. studio to work on Quinn’s newest series, THE FBI.  12 O’CLOCK HIGH was not Quinn’s most famous series (I think THE FUGITIVE was).  It was not his most successful series (THE FBI ran for nine seasons).  But it was my favorite of  the QM series I directed.   

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:  http://classictvhistory.wordpress.com/

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.