Saturday, November 28, 2009

THE PONY CART - 1976 (The Waltons)

In the fall of 1976, I was on the back lot of Warner Bros. studio on the front lawn of the Walton house. It was the first day of filming THE PONY CART, a new episode of THE WALTONS. A small figure in a long dress wearing a poke bonnet came around the corner of the house and waved to me.

Two years earlier at the time I completed filming THE CONFLICT, I purchased my first VCR machine; and when the show aired, I taped it. During the following two years, I saw much of Beulah Bondi socially. She came to my house. I went to hers. And I remember that when I was with her personally, I could not see any trace of Martha Corinne. I would watch the tape of the show, and the actress and Martha Corinne were so different, I couldn’t see anything of the Beulah I had come to know.

Now on the back lot the small figure in the poke bonnet came rushing across the lawn, a big smile on her face, to greet me. And I smiled right back. It was Martha Corinne. And we greeted each other as two people would who had not seen each other in two years. I swear, that’s the way it happened.

Ten days earlier I had taken Beulah to lunch one day, and then we went to the studio. Beulah was scheduled to go to the Warner wardrobe department to select her costuming for the new production. And then she requested a screening of the second hour of THE CONFLICT. After the screening I asked her what she thought. Her answer: “Very interesting lady. I hope I can get her back.”

When I returned her to her home, I asked, half-jokingly, “Well Beulah, have you learned all of your lines.?”

She replied, “Not yet. I’ll have them by Thursday. Then my work will begin.”

She did have a few requests for minor dialogue changes, which I made note of and took to Earl. Amazingly I had no script changes to ask for.

The story was very simple. Martha Corinne showed up at the Walton home for a visit.

This was a very interesting project for me and different from anything I had done before. It was truly a one-woman show. Martha Corinne did not share scenes. She took over. The scene in which she doled out the gifts was a good example. She was the engine that not only drove the scene, she was the engine that WAS the scene.

Dining table scenes at the Walton’s always presented a minor problem. Because of the number of people involved around the table, because of the youth of more than half of them, and because of the familial exuberance they felt for each other -- it was difficult to get a quiet run-through of a scene until camera rolled for take one. During a break when they were lighting another set-up, Beulah and I were seated on the sofa in the living room. Beulah looked at me with a wry smile and quietly said, “It’s not like the old days.”

Will Geer came from a far different school of acting than Beulah. I was very amused the day we did the following scene between Beulah and Will. As she came into the shed and tapped him on the shoulder, Will spun around with such energy and velocity that Beulah stopped in her tracks and then turned and stared at me, with a look that said, “What are you going to do about this?” By the time camera rolled, Will, as always, had his performance pulled back into the realm of reality.

In THE CONFLICT Martha Corinne’s dominance and forcefulness was easily explained -- she was a victim and was fighting back. That same take-over personality as a guest in the Walton home could very easily turn obnoxious and unpleasant. And for most of the family it did. But you don’t want the audience to react to her as the family did. Watch how Beulah navigated those treacherous waters.

As John Springer wrote of her in his book, THEY HAD FACES THEN, "...she was so real, she was frightening.” But she also was not without humor.

I heard rumored at the time that Michael Learned had an arrangement with the writers that if she didn’t have dialogue in a scene, she was not to be included. I sympathize with actors in supporting roles in series who are not always used to best advantage, who are just wasted. (i.e. Joan Blondell in BANYON, Burgess Meredith in SEARCH, Phil Abbott in THE FBI). What I think Michael didn’t appreciate was the power of her presence in a scene.

The night THE PONY CART aired, Beulah had a small dinner party for friends, who would then watch the show with her, Mary Jackson (one of the Baldwin sisters), Amzie Strickland and some others. I was invited but could not attend because I was finishing filming an episode of FAMILY. I was told that during the ‘planting’ scene you just viewed, Beulah exclaimed, “She’s stealing the scene!” Mary Jackson reassured her, “No she’s not stealing the scene, Beulah.”

Irony of ironies, that year when Beulah won an Emmy for this performance, Gary Frank won an Emmy for his continuing role in FAMILY. The episode he submitted to the Academy was the one we were filming the night THE PONY CART aired.

Ed Graves (art director) and I scouted the locations in Frazier Park for this production. It was far simpler than it had been for THE CONFLICT. We only needed two sites -- the place where the home had stood and the grave yard. And it would only be for one day, no overnight. Only Beulah and Richard would be performing. As we started back, Ed spotted a rattle snake in the middle of the road. I don’t think I had ever seen a rattle snake before, and no, we didn’t get out of the car to look at it. Ed rode over it, crushing it beneath the tires, as he maneuvered the car back and forth, back and forth. We then went to the ranger station to report the location of the remains.

The magic of the editing room. There was the first part of this scene, when Martha Corinne and John-Boy moved away from the car, that we wanted to cut. It was where Martha Corinne pointed her staff at a log. The cut was made to a close-up of a second log she pointed to. That shot then tilted up to a close-up of Martha Corinne. The problem was we had 'crossed the line.' Martha Corinne in this close-up was looking camera left, when in the master shot she was looking camera right. So Gene Fowler flopped the film. But Richard’s matching reaction couldn’t be flopped because the part in his hair would give it away. Easy solution. Just use one of the close-ups of Richard when his look was in the correct direction. Do I have you sufficiently confused so we can move on?

The small creek where John-Boy gets water in the rusty can was not filmed in Frazier Park. It was shot on the back lot of Warner Bros. studio. And I vaguely remember that Richard had a sprained ankle when we filmed this sequence. No major production problems here, so just sit back and appreciate two consummate performers at their peak.

“I hate to be as stubborn as you are.” A favorite line. Beulah and I were both Tauruses. I remember when we went to see Baryshnikov at the Hollywood Bowl, Beulah insisted on paying for the parking, and I insisted she shouldn’t. That line was said that night, I just don’t remember who said it.

Martha Corinne returns to the Walton home with John-Boy. Grandma is unhappy, until Olivia finally gets John-Boy to explain the real reason for the return.

And so Martha Corinne helps Ben finish his pony cart, including painting it for him.

The location for the field of daisies presented a challenge. Our only filming off the lot was Frazier Park, and with the ninety mile commute to and from, even if we could have found a place to film, lack of time would have prevented it. So Ed Graves, the art director, had to create it on the Warner Bros. back lot. There were no fields of daisies back there. Unlike MGM’s back lot, there were no fields. It was all wooded areas and dirt roads. So Ed found a place where there was a fork in the dirt road. Where the fork led off to the right would be the path for the pony cart. Where the fork led off to the left, he created our field of daisies.

And again I was allowed to alter the usual “Good Night” ending.

Beulah the night she won the Emmy.

It came with the picture

Beulah told me of her two great professional disappointments. The first was when she was cast as Aunt Polly in David Selznick’s production of TOM SAWYER, and then was replaced by May Robson. But the bigger disappointment was when in 1939 she was contacted by 20th Century Fox Studios and asked to do a screen test. By this time in her career, Beulah did not do screen tests. She had been in Hollywood since 1931 and had had two Academy Award nominations. But this was a request from John Ford. He would be directing the test, and Beulah was assured she was the only person being tested. The role was Ma Joad in THE GRAPES OF WRATH. Beulah agreed to do the test. The script for the test was sent to her, and after she read it, she called the studio to request a delay of a week before testing. They agreed. Beulah had a plan. She dug into her personal wardrobe to put together a suitable costume. She told me she went into her yard and dug her hands into the ground to get dirt under her finger nails. She called a friend, who agreed to drive her on her little expedition. They traveled to northern California, where Beulah ’visited’ the Okie camps, camps that were set up to accommodate the vast number of people from Oklahoma arriving in California, the source for the material in John Steinbeck’s acclaimed novel. I asked Beulah whether she was ever recognized; after all by this time she was a screen celebrity. She said only once, and she made a hasty retreat. She visited several camps, and then returned to Los Angeles to prepare, as only Beulah prepared, for her screen test. The day of the test arrived, and Beulah reported to the studio, where Mr. Ford directed the several scenes. As she was leaving, the actor who had appeared with her in the test, in saying goodbye said, “Miss Bondi, I know my opinion doesn’t mean anything, I’m just a contract player here at the studio, but I just want you to know that I think you’re the best of all the actresses who have tested for this role.” Beulah said that she knew then she would not play Ma Joad, that it woud probably be portrayed by an actress under contract to the studio.

A loss of a role for the actress. A greater loss to film art of what would have been a legendary performance by a true screen immortal.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

THE CONFLICT - 1974 (The Waltons)

My first contact with Beulah Bondi was in 1957. I had directed a production of Andre Gide’s THE IMMORALIST at the Horseshoe Stage, a ninety-nine seat theatre in Hollywood. My leading lady was Rachel Ames, daughter of the legendary character actress, Dorothy Adams. Doro, as I came to know her, brought Beulah Bondi to see the production. I didn’t get to meet Bondi then, but I asked Doro if it would be possible for me to speak to her on the telephone. Doro made the arrangements, and I phoned Miss Bondi. That conversation was the first time I heard her mantra: acting is BEING, not SEEMING.

The beginning of the 1974-75 season saw me returning to THE WALTONS to do a two hour epic -- a story of Martha Corinne, Grandpa’s elderly sister-in-law, a mountain lady who with her family was being evicted from her property to make way for a big highway. It would be very Hollywood to say that I remembered her kindness in talking to me that time long ago. But that was not the way it was. What I really remembered was the impressive mountain lady, mother of Henry Fonda, in the first outdoor Technicolor production, THE TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE, produced in 1936. Once her name was suggested, it was just a matter of the casting director making the deal.

For the role of Wade, Martha Corinne’s grandson, we did a lot of auditioning. NIck Nolte impressed us enough that I went to see him in a production of PICNIC at one of Hollywood’s small theatres. But the following day Richard Hatch came in to audition. Richard gave a dynamic reading. I remember that he didn’t just sit and read. He moved all over the office. After he left Bob Jacks looked at me and said, “That’s it!” I couldn’t have agreed more

As I’ve written before, it was the custom to hold a cast reading of the script before filming began. But it was decided to hold the reading at six in the evening, at the end of the filming day. It was too long a script to squeeze into the usual lunch hour period. Bob Jacks and I discussed the possibility of including Beulah in that reading. However, to book her for the reading would have meant her salary would start on that day. So I was assigned the task of telling her of the reading, and welcoming her if she would like to attend. She accepted most graciously.

The scheduled evening arrived, and I went to Bob’s office, where a very large tray from the local Jewish delicatessen (owned and operated by Chinese) was spread out on a coffee table. I was greeted with the news from Bob that the reading was being postponed because of conflicts in Will’s, Michael’s and Ralph Waite’s schedules. Only Richard and Ellen were available. This had been such a last minute decision that Beulah Bondi had not been told. She was on her way to the studio as we spoke. All of the others would be coming to the office from the set before leaving for their respective appointments. Were you ever in a situation where you just wanted to wake up and find out it was all a nightmare? But as everyone started arriving, I knew the nightmare had to play itself out. Introductions were made; this was after all my first physical meeting with Miss Bondi. “Beulah,” she said. She was to be addressed as Beulah. (The giant mountain woman of TRAIL OF THE LONESOME PINE was barely five feet tall.) Will and Beulah of course knew each other. And as we sat around, Bob explained to Beulah the circumstances, and the fact that the reading would be postponed. Will interjected that his conflict that evening was the opening at the Hartford Theatre of a play starring Henry Fonda. Beulah answered, yes she knew about that. She had tickets for the opening, but she thought the reading was more important. You could have heard a marshmallow drop on thick carpet.

Later Will encouraged Beulah to tell us about Beulah Bondi’s summer gesture. It was in 1929 that Beulah was in the cast of Elmer Rice’s STREET SCENE. Because it was a somber drama with a large cast and heavy sets, it did not have the budget to allow for a pre-Broadway tryout tour. It was opening cold in New York, with just four or five preview performances. Beulah had worked out a piece of business, which she said she would have used if they had had an out of town tour. But she decided she would not use it in the preview performances. So on opening night Beulah’s character was seated on the steps of a New York brownstone tenement. It was hot and she had a folded up newspaper which she used to fan herself -- face, neck, under her arms, all the while carrying on a conversation with a character leaning out of one of the building’s windows. At one point she was to stand and turn upstage to look up at the woman in the window. As she rose and turned, she reached behind and pulled at her skirt and her underwear beneath it. You see the gesture? Beulah said as she did that, she heard this roar of laughter from the theatre. And it went on and on and on. It stopped the show. Beulah said she stood there frozen, figuring she would be fired and had ended her Broadway career before it had gotten started. After the show, expecting the worst, she saw Elmer Rice, the show’s director, when he came backstage to her dressing room. He told Beulah to keep the business in her performance. STREET SCENE was the show that brought Beulah to Hollywood in Samuel Goldwyn’s 1931 production, directed by King Vidor. The summer gesture stayed on in the movie. But Beulah was not happy with the way Mr. Vidor handled it. He had a low angle close-up of her 'summer gesture'.

THE CONFLICT, being a two hour show, should have had a thirteen day shooting schedule. It was scheduled to start on a Friday. The following week we were to film on location in Frazier Park, an area ninety miles north of Los Angeles. Location shooting allowed for a six day week. Then we would return to the studio to complete photography. But there was not going to be time enough for six more days. All filming in Holllywood was scheduling for the possibility of an industry strike; I forget whether it was writers or actors. So in that eventuality I had to finish on Friday -- my twelfth day. But one more snag hit the fan. The production filming ahead of me was running behind. It also had to be finished before the possible strike. I ended up beginning my show at 2:00pm on Friday, which meant I had to complete this epic in eleven and a half days.

Soon after we commenced filming, Beulah told me there was a book coming out soon dedicated to her. The book was THEY HAD FACES THEN by John Springer.

It is a magnificent book that includes mini bios of every actress who had an English speaking role in any film released in the 1930’s.

John Springer wrote in this book: “When you are speaking of the most moving movie scenes of all times, certainly you’re going to choose several from Leo McCarey’s MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW. There’s the heartbreaking final moment when the old man is going away and the old lady is at the train station to see him off. He doesn’t know -- but she does, and you do -- that they will never see each other again. ...There is the absolutely devastating scene when the old lady gets a telephone call from her husband so many miles away -- and pours out her love and loneliness to him, oblivious of the annoyed, then ashamed, then strangely touched guests at a card party in the room where she is on the phone. Try to see that without choking up.

“I yield to no one in admiration for Victor Moore, but the person who tore you apart at all of those moments was the beloved Beulah Bondi, surely the mosts versatile character actress on all levels the movies have known. She wasn’t one of those darling lavender-and-old-lace ladies. Her Lucy Cooper in MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW could be a cranky, cantankerous old girl. But she was so real, she was frightening. Academy Oscars ceased to have their full value the year she did not get a nomination for MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW.”

I today have Beulah's copy of Springer's book with the following inscription:

On location there was a long, long trailer called a honey wagon with several small dressing rooms for the stars. At the end of our first day of shooting, as we prepared to drive back to the motel where we were staying (about twenty miles), Beulah told me she had left her script in her dressing room. I immediately became concerned with getting it before the honey wagon left. Beulah then assured me it was no great catastrophe; she knew her scenes for the next day. What I finally learned was Beulah knew all of her scenes for the entire picture.

Now to get on with the show. The Waltons get word that Grandpa’s sister-in-law and her family are in trouble. They are to be evicted from their property to make way for a big highway. They load into their truck and head for the mountains. If you notice little Elizabeth getting one of the few close-ups in the scene, it was because she was ill the day we filmed it. If you pay strict attention, you will see that she is missing in the master shot when everyone gets out of the truck. We picked up her shot after she recovered.

The morning we prepared to shoot the sequence with Martha Corinne’s feisty pigs, Judy (Mary Ellen) informed me that her character wouldn’t behave as written; she wouldn't run away and climb a tree. Bob Jacks was available, and Mary Ellen suddenly saw the light.

Beulah told me about her experience on the movie, THE SNAKE PIT, starring Olivia de Havilland and directed by Anatole Litvak. The movie was well into production by the time she reported to the studio. She was greeted with dire reports from other character actresses who had been working. They told her that Litvak was impossible, overly demanding; nothing any of them did seemed to please him. Beulah responded she couldn’t understand that; she had worked for ‘Toley’ before (THE SISTERS with Bette Davis at Warner Bros.), and she had never had any problem with him. She was warned, just wait, you’ll see. So came time for Beulah’s first scene. She reported to the set in make-up and costume, was greeted by Mr. Litvak, did a brief rehearsal and then prepared to film. Camera rolled, action was called, and Beulah did her scene. Litvak called “Cut, let’s do it again, please.” The warning actresses on the side lines gave Beulah nods of the head that said, “See, what did we telll you?” Beulah did take 2. Again “Cut, let’s do it again please.” More nodding heads and smirks. Take 3. Take 4. Take 5 and finally “Cut, Print.”

Beulah, never a shy one (she was a Taurus) went up to Litvak. “Toley, may I ask you a question?”

Litvak: Of course, Beulah. What is it?

Beulah: You never said, so what was wrong with those earlier takes?

Litvak: Nothing, Beulah. I just like to watch you act.

Let’s watch Beulah act as Martha Corinne has returned to the Walton home and talks to the family about the past.

And the next morning Martha Corinne was taken to inspect what could be her new home. At one point the script said Martha Corinne turns a light switch on and off. See what Bondi makes of that little direction.

Saturday, the sixth day on location in Frazier Park found me with a ton of work to complete. And it had to be completed that day. Frazier Park was too far from the studio to return to. And the last two sequences were locations that couldn’t be duplicated in the Los Angeles area. We finished filming around Martha Corinne’s home by about 3:00 pm. The final location was a distance away, an area I had selected because of its openness. The move (as usual) took about an hour. We arrived at the area by about 4:00 pm, and I had to do some fast revising. There were about five pages left to film, really about a half day’s work. The first sequence was between John-Boy and Wade. I retained my planned staging, but I eliminated a lot of the coverage. And you know what? I liked what I filmed better than what I had planned.

Russell Metty was my salvation. Because of the remoteness of the location he could not bring in arc lights. He had to light only with reflectors. And in the scene between John-Boy and Grandpa, we filmed with two cameras. To complete the professionalism the four actors, and especially Richard and Will in their long dualogue, turned in fine one-take performances. We filmed a half days work in just about three hours. We were returning to Los Angeles with our full six day’s of location filming completed.

We resorted to using stock footage for a short sequence showing big bulldozers at work on the encroaching highway. I recognized a couple of the shots, because I had filmed them myself three years earlier for an episode of THE FBI. That episode, GAME OF TERROR, had guest starred Richard Thomas.

Martha Corinne returns to her mountain home and takes charge of defending her property.

In planning my coverage to show the various family members during the time of waiting and preparing, I had Martha Corinne seated on her porch. But one day filming an earllier sequence I saw where Beulah was sitting, waiting for her next scene. That’s where I filmed Beulah for the opening shot of this sequence.

Beulah was 85 years old when we filmed this production.

Carol McKeand voiced an objection to John Boy’s taking the rifle. Richard and I felt John-Boy would be emotionally drawn into the family situation, and it made what followed even more effective.

But first, another “I like to watch her act”.

The man who fell out of the marshall’s truck -- that was an accident, it wasn’t planned. But since it did (luckily) happen, I added the extra shot of him scurrying for cover. It added to the excitement.

Richard wanted his being shot to look like he was shot by a rifle. No crumbling to the ground for him, so we attached a strong wire to him from behind. When he was fired at, the wire was strongly yanked back, pulling him off balance into a fall.

When I received the original script, I had only one major objection. In that earlier version Martha Corinne got to stay on in her home. I went to Earl Hamner with my thoughts. Number one it wouldn’t have happened that way. But more importantly I thought we were missing an opportunity for a more dramatic close to our story. So Earl rewrote our final scene. I contributed this bit of information to his book, GOODNIGHT JOHN-BOY, but with his usual modesty he eliminated the fact that he wrote the closing scene. But Earl, you can’t edit my blog. You wrote it superbly and poetically. It was a joy to film.

When I read the closing voice-overs for the final exterior shot of the Walton house that always ends the show, I went to Bob Jacks with a request that I be allowed to alter their usual ending. I told him what I wanted to to, and he gave it his okay.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

THE GIFT - 1973 (The Waltons)

I have a confession to make. My favorite screenplays to direct are dramas of the human condition. During the early sixties when television drama was changing from the live STUDIO ONE’s and PLAYHOUSE 90‘s to film series like NAKED CITY, ROUTE 66 and DR. KILDARE, there was a prevalence of such material. But those series ran their course and disappeared. Their replacements tended to be more action oriented. Lots of crime and police dramas. And I did my full share. And they broadened my capabilities. But I did miss that which had departed. It was eight and a half dry years from THE TRAP on TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH to my second THE WALTONS. I was ready to bring on the tears.

Bucket loads were about to be provided by my second assignement on THE WALTONS, a beautiful script by their talented story editor, Carol McKeand. If memory serves me right, it was her first produced screenplay. Carol incidentally was married to Nigel McKeand, who had acted in a production I directed a decade before. He was now a writer (the following season he scripted THE MARATHON), soon to be a producer. The script was titled THE GIFT, and I considered it similar to what would be, in music, a tone poem. The subject was death; in my mind I sub-titled it THE WALTON FAMILY FACES DEATH.

I requested of the production department that I be allowed to shoot a day of exteriors in Franklin Canyon, a wonderful location with a large reservoir lake that I had filmed several times. It was located in the heart of the Beverly Hills hills. Neil Maffeo, head of production for Lorimar agreed, if I would agree to film the production in six days rather than the six and a half days usually assigned. I agreed. I felt with the serious topic I would be dealing with, I wanted to open the show in a pastoral setting beyond what the Warner Bros. back lot could provide.

This was the first (and last) time I worked with Ron Howard. But when I was on staff of PLAYHOUSE 90, casting director Ethel Winant cast five year old Ron in one of the productions. The kid was great. The following week a PLAYHOUSE 90 production in rehearsal was experiencing difficulty. It too had a role for a five year old, and the director was unhappy with the boy who had been cast. Ethel put in a hurry-up SOS call, and little Ron was brought in as a replacement. Quite an achievement for a five year old -- back-to-back PLAYHOUSE 90’s, the most prestigious program on television.

Incidentally, it was while we were in production for THE GIFT that Ron received word that the pilot he had filmed had been picked up by the ABC network and was going to series. The pilot was for HAPPY DAYS.

One of the joys of THE WALTONS were the traditions of the past that the series brought to life -- the big family dinner which occurred nightly, not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And the family gathered around the radio to listen to AMOS AND ANDY, JACK BENNY, FIBBER MAGEE AND MOLLY or THE GRAND OLE OPRY.

The boys went out to get the wood for Jason's recorder, again on location in Franklin Canyon.

Considering the scene to be played, we thought it ironic to cast Rance Howard, Ron’s father, as the doctor.

Some backstage information for the civilian readers: the arrival home in the truck was filmed on the Warner Bros. back lot. Seth’s run through the woods was filmed in Franklin Canyon. The Franklin Canyon scenes were filmed the same day as the fishing and fainting sequences; and they were filmed prior to the back lot scenes. And although all of them were night sequences, they were filmed in the daytime.

Carol’s script included a reaction to death for almost everyone of the Waltons -- except the two youngest, Jim Bob and Elizabeth. A simple two-shot took care of that.

One day during each shooting period the five adults in the cast (Richard, Ralph, Michael, Ellen and Will) would gather during the lunch hour in Bob Jacks’ office, where they would read aloud the following week’s show. Then any problems the actors had with the script would be discussed with Earl and Carol, who would do the necessary rewriting before filming began. This was done to avoid the onstage delays caused by discussions for script changes. Imagine my surprise the first day of filming on THE GIFT, on the Franklin Canyon location, when Richard and Ralph announced they had rewritten the scene we were about to film. Their rewritten scene was the one we shot. The next day Carol was understandably upset that her scene had been rewritten.

A day or so later back at the studio on the back lot Richard arrived on the set and told me he was unhappy with the scene we were about to film with him and Ron Howard. I guessed what the problem was. Ron had all the dialogue, and Richard had to sit on the swing with him and listen. Remember what I wrote about the engineer having to take over driving a train in full flight. This was Richard’s forty-second WALTONS episode. It was the third day of my second one. And I didn’t want a repeat of the reaction to the Franklin Canyon situation. I placed a telephone call to Bob Jacks, who came down to the set. I was not unsympathetic to Richard’s problem. Just as no soldier wants to go into battle without ammunition for his rifle, no actor wants to go into a scene without his ammunition -- strong lines to contribute to the drama being performed. Good actors don’t just show up and recite lines. Scenes are really duels. And I can’t keep count of the actors who have raved after playing a scene that the excellence of their performing partner had made their performance better. But if there were going to be any more script revisions, I wanted them authorized by the powers above. I don't know what happened between Richard and Bob Jacks, but after their talk, Richard reported to the set, and we filmed the scene. Ron did a sensitive job with the beautiful words Carol had provided. But thirty-five years ago it was John-Boy's reaction that moved me to tears, and today nothing has changed. For me, with very few words, Richard stole the scene.

But nobody stole the scene that followed from Ron.

Again Carol had provided some potent material. The rift between two friends -- Jason and Seth -- because of Seth’s condition and Jason’s inability to face that mortality.

Carol had also provided an insightful scene about death from two points of view -- the young and the old.

In Earl Hamner’s fine book, GOODNIGHT JOHN-BOY, Jon Walmsley wrote, “Ron...told me that “The Gift” was his favorite episodic performance, and that he had landed a starring role in THE SHOOTIST, John Wayne’s last film, as a result of the producers’ watching “The Gift.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

THE FIRESTORM - 1976 (The Waltons)

When I returned to THE WALTONS in 1976, Andy White had replaced Robert Jacks as producer, Jacks having moved over to produce the new Lorimar series, EIGHT IS ENOUGH. I ended up with one of the best scripts I was ever to direct, but under unusual circumstances. A script was delivered to my home a couple days before my report date, and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t a bad script. I just thought it was a dull script. It seemed to be nothing more than a weekly pleasant drop-in visit to the Walton family. And having directed 155 productions in fifteen years I think I was a little burnt out. I told them I would rather not do the show; I was perfectly willing to step aside and be replaced. They in answer sent me the script for THE FIRESTORM. That script lit a fire. It was beautifully written by Claire Whitaker and Rod Peterson, and it was definitely about something. I reported very willingly on schedule.

I couldn’t resist adding a line for Jim-Bob. The line was, “We’ve only seen the movie once.” When I was Jim-Bob’s age in Mason City, Iowa I went to the Cecil Theatre every Saturday afternoon, and I always sat through the movie TWICE.

The theatre owner was Jason Wingreen, another fine actor. I have a lovely story about Jason and his wife, Scotty. A decade before she had been a devoted fan of the DR. KILDARE series based in Blair Hospital. And I mean avidly devoted. Scotty was in the hospital, awaiting the birth of their son. And she was having some difficulties. She rang for the nurse, but no one came. She rang again to no avail. She was getting more upset by the minute. She rang again. Again no answer. Jason, very calmly said, “Scotty, you just have to realize, there is no Blair Hospital.”

As you can see, this script was not a weekly, pleasant drop-in visit to the Waltons.

And you can also see what a fine dramatic actor John Ritter was. THREE’S COMPANY has left an indelible remembrance of him as a brilliant farceur. But the boy could do it equally well on the other side of the street.

I did have a minor suggestion on the script. Mary Ellen at this point had a fiance, David Spencer, portrayed by Robert Woods. I knew that in the coming episodes, preparations for their wedding would be under way when Mary Ellen would meet and fall in love with another boy. I wondered if it wouldn’t be of use to make more of his appearance in this script. (Also Bob Woods was a friend. I had given him his first Screen Actors Guild job. Don’t think it doesn’t help to be related to or a friend of a director. Another scene would give him a couple of days more salary.) Earl wrote the following charmer.

I probably shouldn’t be writing about rumors I heard at the time. But I will. And the rumor I heard was that David Spencer had been scheduled to marry Mary Ellen, but there was some network reservations about Robert Woods. And so the switch was made, and David Spencer was jilted. Robert Woods ended up going to New York, where three years later, on a different network, he joined the cast of the daytime soap, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, as Bo Buchanan. He won an Emmy and thirty years later is still part of that cast.

Because of Reverend Fordwick’s sermon, John Boy had a late night visitor.

When a director has great words and great performers, keep it simple. Stay out of the way.

One of the things I admired about THE WALTONS was that each member of the family had such a strong individual personality. One of the difficulties of having such a large continuing cast was the need to keep as many characters involved in the story as possible. Many times there would be two parallel story lines to solve this problem.

As you can see, this story line provided a lighter tone to balance the seriousness of John Boy’s situation. That’s called good script writing.

The exterior of the movie theatre was filmed on the Warner Bros. back lot, and it was filmed in the daytime. The night effect was accomplished by the use of night filters and some expert knowledge by John Nickolaus, who had replaced Russell Metty as director of photography.

There was one place I did have to request some changes in the script, but not for lack of quality; rather for too much. For the fair sequence that was the finale of the story Rod and Claire had written a series of fair activities -- races, competitions, etc. There was just too much to film on a six day schedule and too much to cram into the limited air time the show would have. I had to ask for some cuts, which were graciously given.

And here at the fair is where our two plots met -- or should I say crashed into one another.

The only production problem I had was the final sequence. We had scheduled the whole fair sequence (beauty contest and evening gathering around a campfire) for one day. I couldn’t finish it in the allotted time. Fortunately it was filmed on the Warner back lot, not a location, and I finished it the following morning. Again it is a night sequence filmed in the daytime. Pay attention to Olivia’s reaction. I shall talk about it after you view the sequence. So now fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

After each shot the job of the assistant cameraman was to open the film case to check that the film was rolling correctly. He then checked the lens aperture. After the two shot of Olivia and John when he checked, he found a hair in the aperture. We didn’t know when it arrived. I knew the portion of the shot that I wanted to use -- her reaction to Mrs. Brimmer, so we filmed a second take, but I did not print it. I put a ‘hold’ on it. Fortunately the next day when we saw dailies, the hair didn’t appear until after that portion of the shot I intended to use. Which was fortunate. In the second take MIchael’s reaction was NOT as reactive, it was acted.

I was not always so lucky. There was a production once where as we broke for the lunch break, the director of photography told me we would have to redo the entire morning’s work. The camera assistant had neglected to open the film case after ANY of the morning shots. When he did at the noon break, it was discovered he had neglected to thread the film through the camera. During the whole morning’s work, the film had rolled from one reel to the other without going through the camera. And I was helpless to do anything about it. The camera assistant was the director of photography’s son-in-law. Screaming doesn’t help. Just reshoot it!

THE WALTONS have been beloved world wide. Interestingly that was not always so in the Hollywood film community. In the mid-eighties when my career was winding down, my agent notified me that I would need a demo reel of my work for them to submit to producers who might hire me. This after a quarter of a century of experience. I prepared a reel for them, made up of what I considered some of my best work It included the book burning sequence you just viewed and the elimination dance sequence from THE MARATHON. I can’t describe my reaction to the agent’s request that I ELIMINATE the scenes I had included from THE WALTONS. All I can say today is, where are those genius producers who were requiring this. And as for THE WALTONS, almost forty years later -- out on DVD and still playing on cable television -- to paraphrase the words of Stephen Sondheim’s classic song from FOLLIES, They’re still here!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

THE MARATHON - 1974 (The Waltons)

The summer of 1973 I was hired to direct THE CHICKEN THIEF, a charming comedy that was an episode of THE WALTONS, a series going into its second season. Usually reporting to direct an episode in a series well under way could be a nervous event. It was kind of like boarding an express train in full flight and having to take over as the engineer. But in this case I felt very comfortable with the material. I remember that my biggest problem was trying to sort out those damned kids. I didn’t have any problem with Richard Thomas. I had directed Richard two years earlier when he guest starred on THE FBI. I knew he was John Boy. But I spent a half a day drilling myself to learn that Jon was Jason, Eric was Ben, David was Jim Bob, and the real killers-- Kami was Elizabeth, Mary Elizabeth McDonough was Erin, and Judy was Mary Ellen. I didn’t like to go on a set and have to say, “Hey, you!”

Naturally it didn’t take me too long to find something in the script to fix. At least in this case it wasn’t major. I went to Earl Hamner, the show’s creator and the one who each week gave the script its final polish when he Waltonized it. I pointed out to him that the script started with a charming moment when John Boy comes into Ike’s general store, stops near the entrance and just stares at Ike for a long moment. He explains he did it because he doesn’t really know anything about Ike, even though he comes into the store almost every day. When Ike offers to tell him about himself, John Boy says he doesn’t have time, he has chores to do. And nothing more was made of this in the script. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a follow-up to this scene. Well Mr. Hamner did indeed do a follow-up. The next day he presented me with a scene where John Boy comes into the store again, and Ike excitedly greets him by handing him a big box. In the box are his baby picture, his high school annual, his army discharge papers and all kinds of stuff for John Boy to use when he writes about Ike. It was wonderful closure to the situation, and when we filmed it Richard Thomas took full comedic advantage of John Boy’s embarassing plight, as he tries to explain to Ike that he hadn’t really intended to write about him. (I would like to show clips of these scenes, but the copy of THE CHICKEN THIEF that I own is encrypted to prevent this.) With this kind of rampant creativity I knew Walton’s Mountain would be a place I would like to revisit.

Well I didn’t have to engineer a revisitation. I just never left. I stayed around for the rest of the season, directing two more episodes of THE WALTONS and a two hour movie for Lorimar (the producition company of THE WALTONS). I’ll write about them anon.

It was some time during the year that Robert Jacks, the producer of THE WALTONS, invited me to a screening. We watched Sydney Pollack’s production of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?. Bob told me that he had tried very hard to option the Horace McCoy novel upon which the movie was based, but to no avail. I didn’t think anything more of the situation. The following season I returned early in the summer to direct a two-hour episode of THE WALTONS, and then I found out the reason for that earlier screening. Jacks had commissioned a script for THE WALTONS, where he could make up for the loss of the option for McCoy’s novel. The script was THE MARATHON by Nigel McKeand. It was so simple. THE WALTONS took place in the depression years of the early thirties. The marathons took place in the depression years of the early thirties. Just have the two meet. And I had been selected by Bob to introduce them.

What a lucky break for me. But you know something -- it was also a lucky break for Bob Jacks. What he didn’t know was that when I was ten years old, a marathon was staged in the Armory building in Mason City, Iowa, and I went with my parents every Friday night. I was totally caught up in the entertainment and the excitement of it. I called the Armory every morning to see which couple or individual might have been eliminated the previous day. Friday evenings they staged an amateur contest. At that time I was studying piano, and I entered one Friday and won first prize -- fifty cents. It was the depression years, don’t forget. I had many many memories of that marathon to bring to the current production.

Incidentally there was a possible script discrepancy I chose to ignore. I don’t believe marathons were ever staged for a limited length of time, certainly not as short as a week. They were entertainments geared to bring in paying audiences. The longer they ran, the more interest was built up in the community. The contestants literally became celebrities. You don’t close down a little gold mine churning out a profit, especially during a depression. But since John Boy only had a week off from college, I chose to ignore this discrepancy. I wanted to go to this marathon

The clever thing about Nigel’s script was the way it used John Boy’s entering the marathon as a way to discuss a mother's acceptance of her son's growing up. I remember reading a review of this production when it aired that commented on John Boy’s rebellion, that it was unusual but nice to see this darker tone in the series.

Two extraordinary talents contributed to the look of THE MARATHON. Ed Graves, the art director was faced with the task of designing the huge hall that would be necessary to stage such an event, but he had to do it on a television budget. So there were no walls in his set. He hung a large black circular cyclorama curtain and then erected set pieces within it: a band stand, columns, arches and bleachers. All of this surrounded the dance floor where the entertainment would take place.

Russell Metty, our Academy Award winning director of photography, then was faced with the task of lighting it. Russell was a true Hollywood veteran. His early years were spent at RKO studios where he was the cameraman for such classics as Katharine Hepburn’s BRINGING UP BABY, John Barrymore’s THE GREAT MAN VOTES, Henry Fonda’s THE BIG STREET, Fred Astaire’s THE SKY’S THE LIMIT, Ginger Rogers’ TENDER COMRADE, and Loretta Young’s THE STRANGER. He later moved to Universal Studios where he photographed many Ross Hunter productions, Orson Welles’ classic TOUCH OF EVIL and Kubrick’s SPARTACUS for which Russell won his Oscar. Forgive my name dropping, and I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg. Russell told me that he hadn’t expected his life to turn out as it had. He had married a much younger woman, fathered a little girl, and made all the necessary arrangements for them to be cared for after his passing. But it was his young wife who preceded him in death. And now at the age of 68, he had to keep working to insure his daughter’s future. On all of THE WALTONS’ episodes I had directed thus far, Russell did his masterful work without rising out of his tall chair. He had a great lighting crew, but he was in charge. And this on a six and a half day shooting schedule for what really were small feature films. But on this show I saw Russell working most of the time on his feet. I’m not sure you will truly appreciate in the small, faded clips the gigantic achievements of this man.

I remembered that there was always singing and dancing, because many of the contestants were ex-vaudevillians. Sound film had hastened the death of vaudeville, and the dance marathons provided a place to work during those depression years. With this in mind I cast Lennie Weinrib and Joyce Jameson as Spanky and Helen. Lennie had been in my second Equity Library Theatre West production of GOLDEN BOY many years earlier, although in a non-musical role. But I had seen him and Joyce in many of the BILLY BARNES REVUES, theatre productions staged in the Hollywood area. These revues were great entertainments; some of them ended up on Broadway.

We hired somebody’s sister, who was a dancer, to choreograph our dance numbers. That didn’t work out, so Joyce and Lennie ended up doing their own choreography. And even Richard got into the act, which wasn’t difficult because both his parents were dancers.

Every day at one o’clock we viewed the rushes from the previous day’s filming. The production staff was joined by Lee Rich, one of the co-founders of Lorimar Productions. There was excitement at the screenings from the first day. Half way through the schedule it was Lee Rich who ordered more extras to fill the bleachers; he said they looked too empty. That was all it took for the tight budget to be loosened a bit.

I spent a day in pre-production on the recording stage with a small combo recording the music for the various dance numbers. For the elimination run, another contribution out of my memory of the past, I had selected CALIFORNIA, HERE I COME as the music to be played. We recorded it in several increasingly fast tempos. Incidentally in Mason City the elimination run was staged every night. That was the major way of eliminating contestants. And it almost became our way of eliminating some of our runners, who were Hollywood extras. We spent at least a full half day doing this sequence. With two cameras we photographed the runners in the increasingly fast tempos. Looking at the film today I would say we ran at least five four or five minute runs for each tempo. At one point I saw a pair of really knowledgeable extras drop out because of exhaustion, and they did it at a point where they knew they were off camera.

The smallness of the set created a problem. In the large area of the Armory in Mason City, the runners were spaced out so that they really ran fast. In our smaller space they couldn’t do that without bumping into another couple. Watch and see what Michael McCroskey, our fine film editor under the supervision of the incredible Gene Fowler Jr., accomplished.

The Warner Bros. back lot was not as large as MGM’s. But it had many visually interesting areas. That’s where we filmed the exterior of the Walton house. And there was a bridge that I returned to many times.

When I was in the editing room working with the editor on my director’s cut, I suggested cutting Ellen and Will’s walking away a couple of steps after they started. I guess I thought I was still in the Quinn Martin THE FBI editing room where we worked to keep things moving. It was Gene Fowler who convinced me to stay on them for the long walk away. You never stop learning.

I had the set dressing department provide me with rolling tall tables for the eating sequence. Carol McKeand, Nigel’s wife, the story editor for the series and a very fine writer, had some reservations about this. I think she thought it was not real, that it was inhuman to make the contestants eat standing up. I insisted that if that’s the way they did it in Mason City, Iowa, that’s the way they should do it on Walton’s Mountain.

Deirdre Lenihan was an unknown quantity when our casting director, Pam Polifroni, brought her in to audition. She is another example of the vast pool of exceptional but undervalued talent that existed in Hollywood during this time. The producers of THE WALTONS loved her. They brought her character Daisy back later for five more appearances. Here she is in one of my favorite scenes, sensitively written by Nigel McKeand.

One of the amazing things about the great cameramen of the past was, not only were they good, they were FAST. They could do amazing things with very few lamps properly placed.

The only disagreement Gene Fowler and I ever had was over the final moments of that scene. I don’t remember just what Gene’s objection was. In fact I didn’t understand it at the time. It had something to do with the time frame in which it took place. All I knew was that scene had been created from the gut, from the selection of I’VE GOT A RIGHT TO SING THE BLUES as the music to the intercut dolly-in close-ups of the two principals. We took our disagreement to Bob Jacks. I prevailed. And the friendship between Gene and me wasn’t even dented.

Carroll Newman was a production coordinator on THE WALTONS. I met her again at a social gathering many years later. She had been a close friend of Bob Jacks and had stayed in touch with him after he left THE WALTONS. She told me of the ninety-one episodes he had produced for the series, THE MARATHON was his favorite.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

THE THREAT - February 1965 (12 O'Clock High)

THE THREAT was another change of pace for me. It was the first time I got to direct a Hitchcockian suspense thriller. Unhappily it was also the last time. It was a genre I really enjoyed. That was one of the nice things about directing film episodic television in those early years. Since almost all series were more or less like an anthology--each episode stood alone as a separate, not a continuing, story--a director had the opportunity to work in many different genres. On 12 O’CLOCK HIGH alone I directed a love story, an intense character-driven human drama, a Hitchcockian suspense story and an out-and-out conventional military tale. A situation not unlike that of the Hollywood major studio directors of the thirties and forties. Oh and by the way, remember what I said about hooking your audience early!

John Larkin was one of the stars of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. He played General Savage’s (Robert Lansing’s) superior officer, General Crowe. But on THE THREAT John provided a ‘backstage’ story like I had never encountered before nor would ever (fortunately) meet again.

The process stage on the lot west of Western Avenue was unlike anything I had experienced. All of the process I had filmed until then had been on LARGE stages with ample room to place the process screen behind the set with the rear projector behind it. The process stage on the old Fox lot felt like a closet. In one corner on an elevated platform was the camera. I swear the camera operator's rear end was touching the wall. I squeezed in next to the camera as best I could. In the opposite corner, also elevated was the set for the cockpit. Behind it was the process screen and behind it was the rear projector. All were placed with enough room to provide the necessary requirements for filming. How Billy Spencer managed to obtain the results he did is one of the magic mysteries of filming.

When episodes like this one went into syndication, additional cuts were made in the film to allow for more commercials. The copy of the film that I possess today is one of those abbreviated versions. The scene cut was a short night sequence on the base where General Savage is nearly accidentally run down by a jeep. This was followed by what originally was the climactic end of Act II. General Savage is alone in his office. He looks at his wrist watch. It is midnight. He crosses to his desk, and on his desk calendar he tears off the top sheet, revealing it is now Friday the 13th. To photograph this I had Billy Spencer place the camera up in the grid, a scaffolding walkway suspended from the ceiling that followed the contours of the walls of the set. This was where lamps that lit the set were placed. Since there was no dialog in this setup, we used the Arriflex camera with a zoom lens. The shot was a high angle straight down on General Savage in his chair. It followed him as he rose and crossed to his desk, and as he tore off the sheet of his desk calendar, the shot slowly zoomed into the number 13. Music crescendo. Cut to next scene. I’m sorry I can’t show you the shot. Maybe some day I’ll get a copy of the film that still includes it.

From the beginning I had a concern about the script. I wasn’t happy with the fact that the identity of the spy wasn’t revealed until the final act. I felt there was a benefit to knowing his identity earlier. I took my concern to Charles Larson. He agreed and wrote an additional sequence. The following was our new ending for Act II.

The dangerous day of the thirteenth arrived. My chore was to establish and keep the suspense and tension high. Guards. Guns. General Savage must be protected.

Now I think you will see why I wanted to have Gilly revealed as the spy early in our story.

We had a technical advisor on the set to guide us in how to shave with a straightedge razor. The hand without the razor holds the skin taut., while the straightedge carefully slices away at the beard. Our Gilly, that fine actor Laurence Naismith, had some difficulty coordinating his movements. (And I shudder to think of the hundreds of filmed shaving scenes I have seen since where the skin was not stretched taut. Thankfully oceans of blood did not spurt from the screen.)

I had storyboarded this sequence extra carefully. Storyboarding is a process whereby a drawing is made for each camera setup. The unusual fact here is that I can’t draw worth a damn. So over the years I had devised a method of describing in words my vision of what I wanted to film. As I commented in one of my earlier postings, many was the time I was accused of having been a script boy. Here is an example out of my script of the shaving scene for THE THREAT. The explanation of the setups is on top. The script with the camera setups is below.

The shaving sequence was four pages long. My general rule of thumb was to allow three setups per page. A ten page schedule for a day’s work was a good average, thus allowing thirty setups for the day. (Feature films shot as little as four or five setups a day.) As you can see there are ten camera setups on this page alone. What I’m trying to point out is that this was an overloaded setup sequence; it was scheduled on Laurence Naismith’s final day of shooting; and it was evident I was not going to complete it that day. Suggestions were made that I should eliminate some of my planned setups. I was not in favor of doing this. And neither was Robert Lansing. He immediately stepped in and said HE WOULD PAY Naismith’s additional day’s salary in order to complete this sequence the way I had it planned. The company relented and hired Naismith for the following day without Lansing having to pay his salary.

It was not unusual for colored pages of script revisions to be delivered to the set. It was my habit to give them a cursory glance before depositing them in the back of my script. One day my quick glance gave me a moment of confusion. I recognized a revised scene as one we had already filmed. But I didn’t give it more than a quick thought. That day as we neared completion of filming, Frank Glicksman (producer) and Charles Larson came to the set. After I called “cut -- print” on the final take, Frank called for everyone’s attention. He announced that John Larkin, our General Crowe, had had a fatal heart attack and died that day. That explained the mysterious script revision. The original scene had John crossing through the outer office. We would be reshooting it with Harold Gould, a very fine actor who was in the cast as Colonel Reed. The scene that followed, which had not yet been filmed, had been rewritten with Colonel Reed now replacing General Crowe. I did wonder how much time elapsed between their learning of Larkin’s death and the delivery to the set of the revised script.

While I was still preparing, there was something else in the script that disturbed me. Axis Sally had made such an important point about the number 13. Our script had placed great emphasis on the 13th. But I felt there was no closure. Once Friday the 13th became Saturday the 14th, 13 disappeared. Max Hodge, a fine writer and a friend since our days at the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre, came to visit the studio one day. Over lunch I shared my dilemma with him. Maxie immediately came up with a solution. I excitedly took it back to Charles Larson, who then wrote it into the script. I had the closure on 13 that I was seeking.

I don’t think there is any doubt that actors appreciate being praised for their work by their directors. What may be less evident is that directors appreciate being commended by their actors. That appreciation can be expressed in different ways.

One summer in the late fifties Sandy Meisner conducted a series of acting classes on the west coast. There were four classes, each of which met for two three-hour sessions a week. The course lasted six weeks. It was possible to sign up to audit these classes. Although I was still working at CBS on staff of PLAYHOUSE 90, I did and took my usual copious shorthand notes. The evening classes offered no problem. Auditing the day classes presented a slight one that I solved by taking three-hour lunch breaks. The classes were conveniently conducted very close to CBS Television City, and PLAYHOUSE 90 was conveniently into summer reruns. I audited the master teacher for twenty-four hours a week for six weeks. As a result I tried to direct actors subjectively, working from their insides out.

I remember a very special moment for me on this show. We were filming a scene between Bob Lansing and Laurence Naismith, and we were doing Bob’s close-up. After a take I said we would need to do it again. I pointed out to Bob that there was a moment where he was thinking and I told him what I thought he was thinking. I suggested a different thought. Bob looked at me with a startled expression. Again I read his thoughts. He was saying, “Are you a mind reader?” And then softly with a slight smile he said, “You son-of-a-bitch!” You don’t get nicer compliments than that.