Wednesday, December 30, 2009

THE ASSASSIN - June 1966 (The FBI)

The start of the 1966-67 season found me doing something I had never done before and would never do again. I signed with QM Productions to direct every other THE FBI for the season, a total of thirteen productions. That meant I would be starting to prep a new assignment the day after I finished filming the previous one with no time off between shows. THE FBI was no stranger to me, and this was my third season of working for QM. I had directed four episodes of THE FUGITIVE, four of TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, and three of THE FBI the previous year during its first season on the air. It was for me a comfortable association. But I’ll tell you right off I only lasted through eight productions. That was not a pace I could endure, nor was it a pace I wanted to maintain.

I stated when I started this blog that I would “add posts as time and memory permits.” After four months of doing it I find there is a third factor entering the equation. These excursions are like visits for me, and where I FEEL like visiting is playing a very large role in my selections. So today I’m going back to drop in on THE ASSASSIN, the fifth episode of THE FBI series that I directed and my second episode under my new contractual agreement. To get started let's drop in at the US Embassy in Manilla.

You were expecting maybe a nice little visit like at the Waltons? The Manilla street incidentally was on the backlot of Warner Bros. studio.

This scene provided another justification for me to have insisted on the right to be in the editing room. The editor in assembling the sequence of the killing used only the shot from inside the van moving away. I also wanted the second shot with the body falling in the foreground as the van is driving off. He didn’t argue the point, but he did think it was unnecessary.

The casting of Anton, the assassin, was a very interesting journey. John Conwell, who had been an actor, then a casting director for TWILIGHT ZONE (he cast PRINTER’S DEVIL), was now the executive casting director for QM Productions. John was just great. He knew actors, he knew about acting. He was the best. My first choice for the role of the assassin was slightly built, blondish David Wayne. He proved unavailable. John then suggested George C. Scott. Now this was not in line with my concept, but I had worked with George and who could say no to him. But he too proved unavailable. I then suggested Gig Young, dark-haired but at this point in his career mainly a light comedian. (It would be three years later that Gig would win an Oscar for THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY?, definitely a non-comedic  role.)  But he also was not to be had. John along the way had suggested Fritz Weaver. I thought Weaver was a fine actor, but he was exactly the dark-haired ‘heavy’ image I was trying to avoid. I said no. I had seen an actor in one of the John Houseman produced theatre productions at UCLA (the group that eventually metastasized into the Mark Taper Forum) who filled my original vision of the role when I sought David Wayne. He was William Windom. Bill had been around for a long time, a very working actor in television starting back in the live days in New York. There were no great objections to him, but there was not great excitement either. Then John called me one day and said if we wanted Fritz Weaver, we would have to decide right now because he had another offer pending. I again said, “But I don't want Fritz Weaver, I want William Windom.” And I got William Windom.

Alex Brewis was one of the smaller agents in Hollywood. Alex would regularly drop by my office at QM, seeking work for his clients. He had some very talented people, many young ones just starting out. Alex had been touting a young Tom Skerritt to me for some time. There just hadn’t been a role that he was right for. This time there was. So we hired Tom Skerritt to play the idealistic young college student caught up in the cause.

There is a glaring director’s goof in that scene. Did you catch it? I didn’t at the time, but it has bothered me every time I have viewed it since.

Anton, when he took the dead pilot’s pulse, left his thumb print on the wrist watch. And this scene ending on the wrist watch stressed that point. But nothing came of it. My goof!

The FBI’s investigation just couldn’t match the dramatic intensity of the criminal’s side of the story. Much of the time those scenes took place in FBI offices or were telephone conversations. The following scene, greatly enhanced by the beautiful photography of Billy Spencer, was a rare exception.

Dean Jagger, whom we hired to play the pacifist Bishop John Atwood, hadn’t worked since the end of his television series, MR. NOVAK. (I vaguely remember that there might have been some illness during that period.) He was like a young colt prancing to get out of the starting gate. He showed up at the studio several days before the start of filming for the usual wardrobe fittings; but he also wanted discussions about the role. He was excited, anxious and I think a little nervous. The following scene with Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist) was the first scene we filmed and his first time in front of the camera in a couple of years. As we began rehearsing and then filming, that same actor’s nervousness was still in evidence. It was amusing that it only took a couple of takes, and Dean, confidence now restored, was making suggestions to Efrem about his role. Efrem looked at me with a knowing smile. It was great to welcome this Academy Award winner back to where he belonged -- in front of the camera.

I’ve mentioned before about the parallel story form of so many of the episodes of THE FBI -- the criminals’s story and the investigation. In this case we had three parallel stories -- the assassin's, the victim intended for assassination's and the FBI investigation's. It was nice to get Efrem out of the office and off of the telephone.

Atwood’s arrival in San Francisco was filmed after his previous scene with Erskine, although it preceded it in the story. Meeting him was Dean Sutherland in the person of Rhys Williams. Rhys earlier that year had been in an episode of THE WILD WILD WEST that I directed. And notice a very debonair Ted Knight just four years before he joined THE MARY TYLER MOORE show.

Young filmmakers come out of film schools today with a broad knowledge of the camera. Billy Spencer was my film school. I knew very little about the camera during the early years of my film directing. I knew what I wanted my picture to look like, but that was it. We didn’t have a zoom lens yet except for the small Arriflex camera, which was not encased and could not be used if sound was being recorded. So everything was filmed with flat lenses. The first TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH that I directed had a different director of photography because Billy was away filming a pilot for QM. This cameraman asked me at the beginning of filming if I minded if he shot everything with a 30mm lens. What did I know! I said sure, go ahead.

When I started working with Billy I adapted to his methods. He would stand directly behind me, looking over my left shoulder (fortunately he was just a minuscule tad shorter than I was) as I had the actors walk through the staging. Very soon I started asking him which lens he would be using. By the time we arrived at the current production, I was telling him (with a question mark) which lens I thought he would be using. Billy would beam as he nodded that I had called it correctly. I think he was a little proud of his film student

Billy was an artist, but he painted with light. He had won an Emmy the prevous year for his black and white photography on TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH. Now he was filming in color, and he hated it. He told me that when he watched color tv, he turned the color off and watched it in black and white. But his color photography was magnificent, because he lit it the same way he lit black and white. One of the things I had learned working with Billy was that when the camera moved into the set, that hampered what he could do with his lighting. For the following scene in Dean Sutherland’s study I told Billy to go ahead and paint. The camera was staying out of the set; the actors would be moving toward the camera.

I really liked the freedom and expanse of the location filming in Texas on ROUTE 66. New York City was an incredible place to film NAKED CITY. As long as you don’t aim directly into a building, and if you shoot with the wider lenses, there is no such thing as a bad shot. But even more exciting for me is to explore inward into the human being, especially if the inner man has, deep under his skin, hidden crevices filled with dark boiling emotions.

When series episodes went into syndication, there was a good and a bad. The good was the residual income. The bad was that further cuts were made in the shows to provide room for more commercials. The scene above was cut from those early syndicated airings. This was disturbing for me, because I felt it was one of the strongest scenes in the film.

Adrian Samish was a nice man. I had very little direct contact with him. He had been an executive at ABC, and when he joined Quinn Martin Productions in 1965 or 1966, the rumor running through the company was that he would not be around for long; that it was an accommodation between Quinn and ABC for ABC to unload him. Obviously there was no truth to the rumor, because Adrian stayed on at QM Productions for several years. What I am going to write now is not complimentary to Adrian. And I don’t like writing negative things about people. But some of the things relating to Adrian are just too juicy and humorous to ignore.

This script was one of the rare times when I was protective of the script rather than asking for changes. Charles Larson, the producer and person most responsible for this script, knew this and alarmed me one day during the prep period when he told me he had received Adrian Samish’s notes requesting changes in the script. We went through Adrian’s notes, one at a time, and Charles kept saying there was no problem; that complaint could be easily fixed without hurting the script. But then we came to the note about the previous scene. Adrian found the scene ridiculous; he felt that Anton had not convinced the young Hastings to commit the assassination. Charles thought for a moment and then said, “Adrian is a fisherman. Let’s put this stage instruction -- (hooked like a fish) -- before Hastings says, “Do you really have to ask that?” And we did. That was the only adjustment we made in this scene. There was no further complaint from Adrian.

Arthur Fellows, who rarely came down to the set, came down the day after we filmed the sequences in Anton’s room. He had just been to the screening of the rushes, and he made the trip to tell me that he was absolutely fascinated with the film he had just viewed.

Shooting on the New York street on Warner Bros. backlot always presented the possibility of seeming false. The streets were too narrow, and big city streets are usually filled with more people than our television budget could accommodate. The person in charge of directing the extras who would populate this street was the assistant director, in this case Paul Wurtzel. Paul had been the assistant on most of the QM productions that I directed for TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH and THE FBI, and he was also my neighbor, living just a half a block from me. Paul belonged to one of the true Hollywood dynasties; his father had been Sol Wurtzel, during the early thirties the head of production for Fox Studio. Paul told the story that when he was about eight years old, his father would take him to the screening room where he would view Fox’s latest films due for release. Sol would ask the young Paul for his opinion on the films. And I got the impression that young Paul’s opinions were not taken lightly. Paul also was great to have on a set; he had a lethal sense of humor.

The format for THE FBI was a prolog, four acts and an epilog. Up untill this time the main story had ended at the end of Act IV. The epilog was just a meaningless tack-on. I wanted all the time I could get to do this story, so I suggested to Charlie that we play the following scene as the epilog, rather than squeezing it into the end of Act IV. He agreed.

John Conwell told me the day after THE ASSASSIN aired, he had many phone calls commending the show and raving over his casting of William Windom in the title role.

And I personally think Bill Windom gives an amazing performance as the assassin! I shudder to think what this same script would look like if produced under the Aaron Spelling banner.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

THE TRAIN - February 1967 (Mission: Impossible)

You hear that driving pulsating beat of the theme song for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE? That’s the way I remember it felt like when I was directing THE TRAIN, which assignment could almost have been labeled an impossible mission. But let’s take it step by step.

The series' first season was drawing to its end, and the company was in the process of making plans and changes for its continuance. Steven Hill, the head of the Mission: Impossible team, had had his troubles with the studio, or was it the other way around. For the current production he had been demoted, he would only make the assignments. Martin Landau was joining the team and would be performing the role in the mission that Hill would normally do.

I would like to state here that I found Steven Hill to be charming, cooperative and totally professional. And I think he’s a hell of an actor.

Casting was easy. William Windom as the evil heir apparent had earlier that season been in what I consider the best of my sixteen THE FBI’s. Also in that cast was Rhys Williams, who would be playing the ailing prime minister. Rhys, the previous season had also been in THE NIGHT OF THE DRUID’S BLOOD on THE WILD WILD WEST, which I had directed.

The production was scheduled to be filmed in seven days, six days in the studio, one day on location, but what a day that was. Here is the Shooting Schedule for our day at the train.

The day started bright and early.

The interior of the warehouse would be created back at the Desilu Studio. Within that warehouse set would be the set for the train’s interior. Film making is not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. Each shot is like a piece of a puzzle; put them all together and you have a film. In the case of MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, most of the pieces were just shorter than usual and definitely more plentiful. And shots in a sequence were not always filmed at the same time or in the same place. For instance in the following clip the shot with Greg Morris and Martin Landau in the foreground looking through the door window was filmed at the train site. The reverse angle two shot of them intercutting with that shot was filmed later at the studio. The shot of the doctor and guard inside the train car was filmed at the studio. The shot of the exterior of the train as the window shade is raised was filmed at the train site several days prior.

Barry Crane was the associate producer-production manager for MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE. (He also was a world class bridge player.) When we scouted the train location we both knew that although the page count for the day came to just under eight pages, the amount of work being scheduled was impossible. To help alleviate this problem a second camera was added, and it was decided that Barry would shoot (with that second camera when I wasn’t utilizing it) any shots not requiring sound. In the following clip the shots of Willie (Peter Lupus) climbing the switching tower and operating the switches were storyboarded by me and directed by Barry.

This sequence was a challenge. It was like filming a sequence for a silent film without the caption cards to help explain the action, which was that the mission of the Mission Impossible team was to get the prime minister and his entourage on board, disconnect his car from the rest of the train and have the train pull out, have Barney (Greg Morris) connect his engine to the prime minister’s car and switch it to the tracks that will allow him to push the car into the warehouse.

You’ll notice the prime minister (Rhys Williams) did not exit the car. Rhys was plagued with crippling arthritis. It was not only uncomfortable for him to exit the car, it would have been painful to watch.

Did you notice the pink sky in that last clip? That shot was filmed late afternoon. Now in our story the whole sequence from the time the first trucks arrived until the prime minister’s car was pushed into the warehouse should have spanned about an hour at most. A feature film with a proper budget would have scheduled the train sequence for three days. But this was television. So hopefully you and the millions of viewers didn’t notice this slight discrepancy.

Have I roused your curiosity as to why they are taking the train and the prime minister into the warehouse? Well you’ll just have to wait a few more minutes. Can you believe we haven’t finished our location filming yet? What ever is going on inside requires Willie to stand guard outside. And here again our television schedule forced Willie to stand guard at night. If we had had a feature film budget he would have stood guard in daylight.

A good location day would be 25 to 30 setups. With Barry Crane’s help (I think he shot 13 or 14 second unit setups) we triumphantly returned to the studio with 69 setups in the can.

Back in the old days there would be one advance screening at the network (in this case, CBS) for the representatives from the ad agencies representing the sponsors of the program. I always tried to go to those screenings of shows I had directed. In those days before tape and DVD’s, there weren’t that many chances for me to see the final results of my efforts. The agency screening of the answer print and the show’s airing were it. The sponsors’ representatives were very impressed. One of them asked me how many days we had spent filming on location. There was general amazement from all when I answered, “One.”

And now welcome into the warehouse. I’ll write about it after you’ve had a chance to look around.

Everything i had filmed outside of the warehouse had been totally real. My job was to transfer that reality to film. Inside the warehouse it was a different situation. I have written before of rear projection. That’s what you are seeing here. Rear projection as seen through the lens of a camera photographing it (the two cameras are synchronized) is very believable But to the naked eye it is not. The human eye looking at a rear projection screen sees a movie screen with all of its flickering. My assignment was to ignore that fact.

Now we have an added problem for our Mission: Impossible team.

I think our writers, Woodfield and Balter, must have been carried away by what they had been viewing. I can’t say this for sure because I don’t think I ever met them, although they were around the studio. But about this time I received pages of new scenes they had written. If the sound system breaking down could create an exciting sequence, wouldn’t it be even more exciting to have the film in the rear projector break. Film spewing out of the projector all over the place. I agreed it would IF there was not a limitation on the running time for the completed film and IF there was not the problem of adding new material to an already overloaded shooting schedule. I pled my case to producer Joe Gantman, a friend from our CBS days, and he agreed with me. The added scenes were not added to the already overloaded filming schedule.

And now the exciting part, both behind and before the camera.

How about a hand for those Hollywood crews of old who NEVER saw a request they couldn’t fill!

And now I’m going to let the film tell you the rest of the story.

Since this episode was filmed near the end of their first season, it was only a short time until the Emmy nominations for that year were announced. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE received a nomination as best television series. When a show for any series was nominated, the producers selected one episode that was submitted to the Television Academy. The Academy then had panels of Television Academy members assemble to view the five nominees in each category. Their vote decided the winner. I was told by a member of the production staff that MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE submitted THE TRAIN as their entrant. It won! MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was awarded the Emmy as the best television series in its first season on the air.

At the beginning of the following television season when directors were booked for assignments for the season, my agents called to tell me there was a request from MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE for me to do six episodes. I turned it down. It was a marvelous show, but it was a killer. And not too long after the following season began, Desilu Studio was purchased by Paramount Studios. The new bosses imposed even more stringent demands on the shooting schedules. I never regretted my decision to say no.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

THE JACK IS HIGH - August 1964 (Suspense Theatre)

I might not have written about THE JACK IS HIGH this soon if I had not received an e-mail from a producer-director of independent films. Let me share that note with you.

Oh for those wonderful days past when weekly anthology dramatic series reigned supreme.

In an ideal episodic-television world a perfect script would be delivered to the director’s home three days before he is due to report to the studio to start preparation for the production. This would be in accordance with the DGA-Producer’s Guild contract. Once at the studio the six days of preparation and seven days of filming would go without unpleasant incident or bloodshed. This would probably result in better television, but it sure wouldn’t help in providing material for a blog. Fortunately for this blog, it was not an ideal world into which THE JACK IS HIGH was born.

A script was never delivered to my home, which was not unusual. In fact, contract or no contract it was quite normal. So I reported to the studio on the appointed day in August, figuring the script would be awaiting me there. When I arrived I was told there was a script, but ... well actually there wasn’t exactly a script. The film I was to direct was a caper movie, a story of an armored car robbery by a group of five men. The robbers all wore masks of Snow White’s dwarfs. And the studio had just found out that Walt Disney OWNED the rights to anything connected to Snow White. Therefore the script was going to have to be drastically revised. So with six working days before the beginning of filming, with loads of location scouting to do, I was relegated to the side lines awaiting the script’s arrival.

Fortunately the casting department was able to go into action. They probably had read the Dwarf version, so they just had to take off the masks and cast what was behind them. I’m just assuming this, because this being Universal, I didn’t even know in which building the casting department was deposited. But they did come up with a pretty impressive group.

Pat O’Brien. I loved working with screen legends I had watched as a kid. And I had met Pat briefly nine years before. My friend, Paul Bryar, had a role in a movie starring Pat, and one day he took me with him to a small studio at the east end of Sunset Boulevard. Paul had just been in a production I directed at the Players’ Ring of MY THREE ANGELS. In fact it was on that production that I met Paul and his wife, Claudia, who also was in it but not one of the ANGELS. I guess Paul had told Pat about the production, because Pat and his wife were going to be doing MY THREE ANGELS in summer stock that year, and we spoke about the play.

And then there were three actors with whom I had already worked, and I liked that. Henry Jones had been one of the stars of the series BANNING. I had directed an episode of that series a couple of years prior. Wait until I get around to writing about that one and the incident of the white concert grand piano. It too was at Universal. Harry Bellaver of NAKED CITY. And good old Bill Bramley. After his delivery of the line, “Honey, you wanna ride on my bulldozer!” in THE BULL ROARER, I always figured he was like money in the bank. The new kid on the block was Edd Byrnes, Kookie from 77 SUNSET STRIP, his career still warm from having been in that series.

Well finally the script arrived, well at least part of it. They still hadn’t figured out the ending, of how to stop a speeding gasoline tanker. But my starting concern was robbing the armored car. We were going to film it on the Universal backlot at night. We had decided on our needed hilly, country dirt road, and on the appointed day the company assembled there very late afternoon to prepare to shoot as soon as it was dark. The various crews were at work preparing for the evening’s filming. When filming on rough terrain we used a jeep crane, a jeep with a camera crane mounted on its rear. The jeep driver was slowly driving up the fairly steep incline, a member of the gaffers crew holding and guiding the end of the very long arm of the crane which extended off the body of the vehicle. The camera was of course not installed on the crane at this time. Two thirds of the way up the hill something went wrong with the jeep. The engine stopped, and the vehicle started to roll back down the hill. The jeep driver hit the brakes of the vehicle, but they didn’t work. So the vehicle gained speed. The man holding the end of the crane had to let go, and as the vehicle plummeted down the hill, the crane arm swinging wildly, members of the company who were spread out over the hillsilde, scrambled to get out of the way of this lethal weapon. The driver to his credit (he could have jumped out of the careening vehicle) stayed at the wheel trying to steer it down the hill. At the bottom of the hill, the jeep rammed into something, and the driver was thrown from the vehicle. We all assembled there, the medical person on the set was summoned. The driver was rushed to the hospital. Filming for the evening was, of course, called off. Two or three days later we learned the driver died.

A day or so later we reassembled at the same spot to shoot what you are now going to see -- the sequence for which a man gave his life.

We were scheduled to return to the same location on the back lot the next morning to film the sequence of the beginning of the investigation. I had qualms about what the next morning would be like. How do you go back to the scene of a tragedy and carry on as if nothing has happened? It is amazing what a night’s sleep and the morning sunlight will do. It was not the nightmare I expected. At this point, of course, we knew the driver had been injured, but he was still alive in the hospital. And then there was Pat O’Brien, the consummate pro.

Take notice of the opening shot, a rising crane shot filmed with the camera mounted on a different jeep crane.

We actually filmed the aftermath of the robbery BEFORE it happened. We still had to return to this location later to film the opening sequence.

Since we were filming on location away from the studio the first few days, I didn’t have the opportunity to attend the viewing of the dailies. But I would receive a report from the producer about them. After the first day’s work, his report was very positive. I relayed this information to the cast. Pat O’Brien said, “That’s what they used to say to Jimmy Cagney and me. Cagney’s response was, 'If the dailies are so good, why don’t you just release them. Why bother to put the picture together.'”

The director of photography for this production was Walter Strenge. Walter, a contract cameraman at Universal, was the one who replaced Lionel Lindon on ARREST AND TRIAL. Walter had explained to me the previous year on that production that the coming of color was going to simplify filming. No longer would there be a need for the cross lighting of black and white cinema. Just put two arc lights, one on either side of the camera and say "action." Walter was not one of the artists of the profession. Well he was not going to be able to use large arc lights on the 'guest room' set they had provided for me on this production.

Now let’s be frank right from the start. This script was no great character study. It was a caper with five stock characters. When casting stock characters the goal is to select actors whose personalities will flesh out the thinly drawn people in the script. Henry Jones was a fine choice for the English professor, with that underlying quiet sinister quality that had been so brilliantly utilized in THE BAD SEED, first on Broadway and then in the film. Larry Storch as the comic and William Bramley as the professional criminal -- need I say more? Harry Bellaver was a good choice for the sickly welder. The weak link was Edd Byrnes. Nice capable actor, who could have been a war hero. But our story is going to have him in a physical confrontation with Bill Bramley. In defense of the casting department, it’s possible they didn’t have the full script so they would know about this confrontation. Another reason to have a finished script before beginning production. But even then that might not have made a difference. Did you notice who got top billing on the opening credits. Ralph Meeker would have been a better choice. But at this point in their careers, Edd was the ‘hotter’ actor. And that’s the way Universal and the networks cast.

We spent several days away from the studio on location on California highways. When filming exteriors there was always the problem of extraneous noise -- airplanes above, cars in the area -- and Universal had a policy: Keep filming and print what you shoot. Don’t kill a shot because of airplanes or other noise. This applied to exterior work on the back lot as well, which was especially noisy because Universal Studio was very close to the Burbank airport. The sound department would then prepare loops of each line of dialog. The actor would report to the sound proof looping stage, be handed a set of earphones and would then listen to the loops and rerecord the dialogue, line by line until the sound engineer felt he had a perfect match. Most studios waited until the film was edited before calling the actors back to loop defective dialogue. But that meant paying the actors another day’s salary. Universal had the actors report to the looping stage on their final day of employment, but since the film had not been edited yet, that meant they had to loop EVERY LINE OF EVERY PRINTED TAKE THAT HAD BEEN FILMED. I was not in favor of this policy. These looping sessions paid absolutely no attention to performance. The engineer’s only responsiblity was to get a sound track that would match the filmed image. So if I heard an airplane or an automobile or any other sound that I knew would be affecting the sound track, I would find a performance or camera technical problem and kill the take. Imagine the following scene with Larry Storch and the police officer if you were seeing it not in Larry’s actual performance but in a technically manufactured one, assembled line by line from the results of a loopiing session.

And now for the confrontation between Kober and Mueller. Casting is more than fitting the right actor into the right role. In this case Edd Byrnes could be a good fit to play a war hero, and William Bramley a good fit for a bullying criminal. It’s the pairing of the two that is wrong. As I wrote before, Ralph Meeker would have made a good opponent for Bramley (they faced off in THE BULL ROARER on BREAKING POINT), but a smaller toughie would be needed opposite Byrnes. So what’s a director to do when it comes to staging a mismatch like this.

And finally the final pages of the script arrived with the solution of how to stop the speeding tanker.

I am in a perpetual state of amazement that series’ episodes like this, created close to half a century ago, are still around, that they are fondly remembered by people who viewed them then and that they are still relevant to younger people who have seen them since, first in syndication and later on the profuse cable outlets. They’re like old generals; they never die, they just go into reruns.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

GIRL IN THE NIGHT - November 1967 (Ironside)

Although this was the ninth production I directed for Universal (including a couple when the MCA talent agency first moved into production with their purchase of Revue Productions and were still called Revue Productions) it is the first one I’ve written about on this blog. So let’s get something clear right off the bat. I didn’t like working there. MGM, the Bert Leonard group at Columbia, Desilu, all had a familial feeling about them. Universal was a factory. I was never sure whether we were turning out films or hot dogs. I used to say that as I drove through the gates onto the lot, I felt as though I passed through electronic beams that sought to drain the creativity out of me. And now that I’ve said that, I have to admit that directing GIRL IN THE NIGHT was a pleasant experience.

The script was written by True Boardman, an actor turned writer with quite a background. True’s father was a silent film star, and True as a youngster, six or seven years old, had also appeared in film. He even made a film with Charlie Chaplin. I didn’t meet True until some time after completing this project, but we became friends and I would often play bridge with True and his wife. Thirty-five years later when I left Los Angeles and moved to Carmel, I discovered that True lived on the Monterey Peninsula. Our friendship reignited, and we ended up forming a Hollywood ex-patriot group that met every other week for lunch. The group included the two of us, Lamont Johnson, Don Hanmer, Kit Parker (a local film distributor who actually was the one who instigated formation of the group) and Shan Sayles. I have to tell you a favorite story. One lunch, after we had been meeting for several years, I arrived anxious to tell them that I had had a pacemaker installed since we had last met. True looked at me disdainfully and said, “I’m on my fourth.”

Four years earlier in 1963 I had directed the first ARREST AND TRIAL, a ninety minute drama with a nine day shooting schedule. The director of photography had been Lionel Lindon. Now four years earlier when I reported for that assignment, I only had eleven film directing credits on my resume. I was just coming off the five Bert Leonard productions (ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY) and I was not the most secure or confident member of the Directors Guild of America. And Lionel Lindon was indeed a force to be reckoned with. I had not had this sort of association with a cameraman up to this time. I would carefully lay out with him (as I was accustomed to doing with my director of photography) the planned set-up that I wanted. I was very clear and meticulous in my explanation. Lionel would look at me as if I were a recent graduate of the local high school drama department, take a rag out of the rear pocket of his trousers, throw it to the ground and gruffly say, “Put the damn camera here.” To put it bluntly, he had me totally intimidated. On the sixth day when we were shooting away from the studio on location, Lionel was involved in a dispute with a member of the transportation group and made an anti-Semitic remark. He was removed from the production. But before he left, he came over to say goodbye to me and to wish me well. Nothing was said about the incident, the reason he was leaving the production. It was just a warm, unexpected gesture so that now I was totally confused. When one reported to Universal for an assignment, one never knew who the cameraman on the production would be. (I will be discussing Universal’s way of handling department assignments in a moment.) But on the seven intervening shows that I had directed at Universal since ARREST AND TRIAL, I always planned that if Lionel Lindon was the director of photography, I would request either a change in cameramen or my release. But this was four years later. I decided it was time I met up with Goliath again, even if he owned an Oscar for his work on AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS.

Tisha Sterling, a Universal contract player and the daughter of Robert Sterling (we had done two productions together), was cast as Elaine. I faintly remember meeting Tisha concerning the portrait of her that would have to be painted. And then I was notified that Tisha was out. She had been cast in a major feature, COOGAN’S BLUFF, and Susan Saint James would be our Elaine. At Universal I found I was very very rarely consulted about casting. In this case Steve Carlson, a contract player was cast as Johnny, and the rest of the cast was just cast. But it turned out to be a very fine group. Donnelly Rhodes, Oscar Beregi, Mort Mills and Simon Scott.

And now we arrive at the kind of moment that seemed to occur more often at Universal than at other studios. I left the studio Wednesday after my last day of prep, prepared to commence production the following morning. Soon after I arrived home, I received a phone call from my producer, Cy Chermak. He told me I was to report to the studio the following morning as scheduled, but I would not be filming. This gets interestingly complicated. You know, George Washington eons ago was not in favor of political parties. He felt politicians would find that their allegiance would be to their party, not the government they were serving. (And hasn’t that come true!) Universal wanted the various crew people’s allegiance to be to their studio department, not to the production to which they might be assigned. So NO SHOW HAD A PERMANENT CREW. Each department (Camera, Lighting, Gaffers, Props, Make-up, Hair, Wardrobe, Script) had its crew units. When a unit finished an assignment, it went to the bottom of its department's crew list. As each new production started, the unit at the top of the list would be assigned. This way no crew person ever stayed on any one show long enough to form an emotional attachment to it. Raymond Burr was not happy with this arrangement. He wanted to have a set crew. He wanted to have the same make-up person, the same hair dresser. He wanted exactly what the studio didn't want. He wanted a team. He had complained. The Black Tower had acknowleged his complaints, but nothing changed. So Cy told me to come to the studio prepared to shoot, but there would be no filming because Ray would not be showing up. He had a scheduled meeting with the black suits in the Black Tower that afternoon to resolve this problem, once and for all. I don’t know what happened at that meeting. I’m sure the black suits said, “No problem, anything you want, Ray baby.” But I know that I reported at 7:30am on Thursday morning, by 8:00am I was back home. I reported again at 7:30am on Friday morning and filming commenced.

Detective stories present a problem. There is the more interesting story of the “crime” story, and then you have to deal with the dull police interrogation. This script actually alleviated a lot of that problem. For one thing, Ed, a member of Ironside's team, was personally involved in the crime story. This was one of the better film noir scripts I had the opportunity to do. So let’s look at how the script puts out the hook I’ve talked about.

Raymond Burr had had a long association with Gilmor Brown and the Pasadena Playhouse. Not only had I graduated from the school at the Playhouse in1948, between 1955 and 1958 I had directed six productions in Mr. Brown’s personal theatre, the Playbox. I assumed this might be some sort of bonding between Burr and me. No. He was respectful of it when I told him, but Ray was a cool, aloof man, at least as far as my association with him. Very very professional, but very very impersonal.

Raymond Butt was a master at something I’ve never seen any other performer do. I’m sure it started on PERRY MASON, when the amount of dialogue to be memorized each day had to have been overwhelming. Ray used teleprompters, but he used them so creatively, it never showed. And he used more than one. In the wider master shots, a teleprompter would be place outside of camera range behind each actor in whose direction Ray would look. When doing an actor’s close-up, the fellow actor in the scene stands next to the camera. In this case the teleprompter was placed where the actor would stand. Ray would look at the telepromter, while the actor stood to the side of it. If there was more than one character in the scene, a teleprompter would be placed where each of those performers stood or sat. If Ray wanted to look away, say glance down at the ground, a telepromter would be placed there also. It was totally ingenious.

This show provided another first for me. It was the first time I directed a production using flashbacks to tell much of its story.

The search for Elaine leads Ironside and Ed back to the bar where he met her. There a waitress offers to meet them with some information about Elaine. Which leads to another first for me -- a character lip-sync singing to a pre-recorded playback of another singer's recording.

Cy Chermak told me that GIRL IN THE NIGHT was a rewrite of a WAGON TRAIN script. I told the cast this one day, including Oscar Beregi, who was cast as Stefan.
Oscar smiled and said, “Yes, I know, I was in that production.”
“Oh,” I replied, “what role did you play?”
Stilll smiling, Oscar said, “The same one.”

Ed next takes Ironside back to Stefan’s restaurant, where he had gone with Elaine that night.

It was always a little nerve wracking to be handed studio contract players. Many of them were placed under contract mainly because of their physical beauty. Whether they could act or not didn’t seem to matter. I lucked out on this production. I had already worked with Don Galloway four years prior when he had a supporting recurring role on ARREST AND TRIAL. Susan, who was only twenty-one when we filmed this episode, was awfully good, as proved by the series she starred in later -- McMILLAN & WIFE and KATE & ALLIE. And twenty-four year old Steve Carlson rounded out my winning hand, as you’ll see when Ed and Ironside finally track down Johnny Foster.

I am asked many times, “Just what does a director do?” An easy response is, “I say ‘Action’ (although I usually preferred to say, ‘Go’), I say ‘Cut’, and on rare occasions I get to say, ‘Print’.”

But since on this blog I am committed to telling the whole truth, I have to admit I usually did more. Directing could entail more than just getting the words on the pages of the script onto film. Here is the script for the following scene in Johnny’s dressing room. You can read it and then compare that to what you see in the film clip.

I had known Simon Scott, who played Jim Cardoff, since, 1955 when I did the lighting for a stage production at the Players’ Ring in Hollywood of Maxwell Anderson’s SATURDAYS’ CHILDREN. in which he starred. But I knew him as Danny Simon. Danny was a marvelous actor, and I used him many many times during our careers. He was the gentlest of souls, but he certainly could play evil.

Remember what I wrote at the beginning of this posting about Lionel Lindon? Well this was a totally different experience. I never saw Lionel without a hat on his head, so I’m not sure where his nickname, Curly, came from. But on this show he was Curly and all smiles. Our set was a constant ball. And boy was he a good cameraman -- and fast. One day at about 3:30 in the afternoon I got wind of the fact that we were going at such a great pace, there were plans to have us move to another stage and start work on the next day’s schedule. I went to Curly and asked him if he wanted to move to another stage when we finished our work on this one.

“Heavens, no.” he said. Except he didn’t say “Heavens.”
“Well then for God’s sake, slow down because that’s what they’re planning.”

So Curly slowed down, we finished around 5:30, which was a nice early end of the day for us and not enough time to move to another stage to continue shooting for them.

Perry Mason usually (if not always) resolved his cases in the court room. Ironside had more imagination. This case ended at a lake; except it was more like a pond on the Universal back lot. I didn't dare photograph it; there wasn't enough water there to drown her.

Saturday, December 19, 2009


(If you have not read Part One of A DREAM FOR CHRISTMAS, I suggest you go to the December archives to the right of this column and read A DREAM FOR CHRISTMAS - October-November 1973 before you continue here.)


Not all of our location work was situated in southwest Los Angeles. To meet the man who was going to tear down the church to build his shopping center Will went to Bunker Hill in down town Los Angeles.

The secretary in the developer’s office was Amentha Dymally, the mother of the beautiful little boy I had cast in NEVER TROUBLE TROUBLE TILL TROUBLE TROUBLES YOU on BREAKING POINT.

I’m very proud of the scene Max wrote between Will and Briggs. It was written thirty-six years ago, and it was quite bold writing at that time.

Los Angeles as late as the early fifties still had the Red Car, a trolley running all the way from Pasadena to Long Beach and all stops in between. When I was a student at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1947-48, I remember riding the red car from Pasadena to Santa Monica. By the time I returned to Los Angeles in 1954, the Red Car had been replaced by buses.

The production staff of our show told me that there was a company that had restored the Red Cars, mounted them on tires, and these cars were for rent. All I would have to do when filming them was prevent the tires from showing.

In our story Sarah and Grandma, against Will’s wishes and with Cousin Clara’s help, secure employment doing domestic house cleaning.

Mr. Briggs is a dead end, Will’s sold the family car, and his wife and mother have hired out as domestic help. This was the scene we used when we did the two tests for the network. Of course, at that time our sets weren’t constructed yet, so the sets for the test were improvised.

The juveniles in our cast all had to attend school for three hours each day. If their filming schedule permitted, the three hours could be in one straight period. Many times if they had a heavy filming schedule, they might go to school in increments as short as ten or fifteen minutes.

In this next scene Emmarine’s break down in the living room was filmed on the thirteenth day of our schedule. The scene in her bedroom was filmed on the sixteenth day. That day she was also in three other scenes; but she only had to cry in one of them.

When the meeting with Mr. Briggs doesn’t proavide any positive results, Will takes to the streets. And I learned a very valuable lesson. In the last scene in this section our little baby was a happy baby who just didn’t want to cry. We tried everything short of child abuse. The social worker assigned to our set took me aside and taught me how one can make a baby cry. Just make soft crying sounds, and the baby will respond. I did find out it only worked (at least for me) if the crying sounds were made by a woman.

Wiill and Joey scavengered around and created a basketball court next to the church to attract the youths of the community.

This sequence offers proof of why a director needs to be involved in the editiing of his picture. In the editor’s first assemblage, he had not cut back and forth between grandma’s collapse and the basketball game. The camera moving into Grandma as she lay on the floor was one long continuous shot. And it worked, it was still effective. But I had envisioned it the way you just saw it. I thought this way worked even better.

When I was directing a production starring Lloyd Bridges (a fine actor and a true gentleman) he always took the time on the first day a new actor joined the company to bring the actor over and introduce me to him. As they moved away, I would hear Lloyd quietly say, “He likes actors.” And I confess I do. I am awesomely impressed with their ability to lose themselves so completely in the scenes they are performing. And this awe is amplified when the performers are fifteen and six respectively.

Grandma doesn't die. And finally -- the big day!

The filming schedule was completed, but there was one final scene in our script that hadn’t been scheduled to be filmed. I suspected that Neil Maffeo, the executive production manager, had visions of it’s not being filmed, of saving the expense the sequence would cost.

There was a screening of the assembled footage. It of course at this point had not been scored musically. But I remember that evening very well. Lee Rich, the co-founder of Lorimar Productions and the Executive Producer for this production was there. After the screening he enthusiastically declared, "This a brilliant film." (You see why I remember the evening so well) And HE WAS THE ONE WHO ORDERED THE FINAL SHOT BE MADE.

I was in the helicopter when that shot was filmed. We did five or six takes. There was a telephone line that the pilot had to avoid.

The dreams of the Sweet Clover family all came true. The dreams of the producers of this production did not. A DREAM FOR CHRISTMAS did not become a series.

It originally aired on Christmas Eve, 1973. As we approach Christmas Eve, 2009, I wish you a very Merry Christmas and I hope all of your dreams may come true!

Monday, December 14, 2009

A DREAM FOR CHRISTMAS - October-November 1973

In my posting on THE FIRE STORM, I discussed my coming to Lorimar Productions. I directed THE CHICKEN THIEF for THE WALTONS in August, 1973. Soon after I completed that assignment, Lorimar booked me to direct a two-hour movie-pilot for television, CHRISTMAS DREAMS. I figured it must have been because they were pleased with my work; othewise why would they book a Jewish white man from the north to direct a Christmas show about a black family from the south.

The line producer assigned to the project was Walter Coblenz. Walter and I had worked together before when he was still an assistant director. Since that time he had risen in the ranks to produce THE CANDIDATE starring Robert Redford; and he had recently completed producing THE BLUE KNIGHT starring William Holden, a Lorimar-produced movie for television. I had just barely completed reading the script (I hadn’t had time to prepare my usual requests for script changes) when Walter came into my office and said, “We have to do something about this script. Why don’t we bring in Max Hodge to do a rewrite.”

I have forgotten how Walter knew Max, but I had known Max since we were fellow classmates at the Pasadena Playhouse School of the Theatre in 1947. He was probably my closest friend. I know that professionally he was my oldest. After leaving the Playhouse I had produced and directed a production in Mason City of Max’s A STRIPED SACK FOR PENNY CANDY, a lovely play he wrote for his thesis at the Playhouse. He had returned to Detroit, where he wrote-produced-directed Oldsmobile industrial musicals for General Motors. There was a fifteen year lapse in our contact. In 1963 when I was directing BREAKING POINT, Max recontacted me. He had left General Motors, returned to the west coast and was prepared to storm the gates of Hollywood. During the following year he did the usual knocking on doors. Some time early in 1964, influenced by my contacts with the DR. KILDARE production company, he started working on a script for that show. Over that summer I was able to help him because of my familiarity with that show’s format. That fall I was back directing the final DR. KILDARE episode that I would do. I was in post production when on a Friday I gave Max’s completed script to Doug Benton, associate producer for the show. Doug read it, loved it, bought it, and put it into production starting the following Monday. Max wrote more DR. KILDARE’s, and when Doug Benton left that show to produce THE GIRL FROM UNCLE for the same company, Max was the associate producer.

I don’t know what transpired between Walter and the powers at Lorimar, but the next thing I knew Max had been hired and the two of us set about redoing the script. I was not unaware that we were treading on thin ice. CHRISTMAS DREAMS had been written by John McGreevey, a much admired writer at Lorimar. But John had taken the story (in my mind) in a strange direction. The basic plot was of a black minister from the south who moves in the fifties with his family to Los Angeles. He has been hired by a church, but when he arrives he finds out the church is in financial difficulties, and is in fact scheduled to be torn down to make way for a shopping center. John’s script had the minister’s mother get a job with a white upper-class Beverly Hills family as a housekeeper. And a lot of the script was spent in the the white Beverly Hills family home.

Max and I screened THE HOMECOMING several times. This was the original two-hour movie that spawned THE WALTONS. We wanted to capture the charm and the drama of that family in our teleplay. And where THE WALTONS reflected the trials of the depression years that a family faced, we wanted to reflect the trials a black family faced when it moved from the rural south to a big city in the north. Our working format was simple. I was in one office, and I would plot and outline the sequences. Max, in an adjoining office, would write the sequences. And we each were a check on the other’s work.

We completed our first draft in twelve days.

Then began the chore of casting. I think we saw every black actor and actress in Hollywood, and that included everybody from age six to still breathing. Beah Richards was a shoo-in for the Grandmother. I knew of her work because of THE AMEN CORNER, a play she had performed in to critical acclaim in the Hollywood area. And of course she had been Sydney Poitier’s mother in GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER.

Hari Rhodes was our unanimous choice for Will Douglas, the minister. For Sarah Douglas, the mother, we knew we wanted Lynn Hamilton. Lorimar favored her because she had a recurring role on THE WALTONS, and I knew her work because I had directed her in a play in the Los Angeles area. But for some reason (and only for this role) the network, ABC, required that we film and submit test scenes -- and of more than one actress, so they could be the one to make the final choice. We selected a dramatic scene from the script between Will and Sarah, and I directed Lynn and one other actress in fully produced tests on film. Hari played Will with both actresses, and we shot it with full coverage, which was then edited. We did everything except provide a background music score. When the two tests were completed, we notified the network to come view them. The network executive assigned to this project didn’t come. He sent his young assistant to view the tests and make the selection of who would be Sarah Douglas. I must interject here that there really was no choice. Lynn was far superior. But the assistant chose the other actress. We were stunned. This reaction went all the way to the top of Lorimar. It was my understanding at the time that Lee Rich called Fred Silverman, the head of ABC, and told him that unless Lynn Hamilton was approved by the network, we would not make the film. Whether that phone call actually happened I can’t swear to, but Lynn Hamilton was cast as Sarah Douglas. And the young assistant shortly after this went to another network, where he took over as head of comedy development.

There were close to fifty speaking roles, and we were able to cast with the cream of of the black acting community.

The length of the script was 113 pages. Fifty pages occurred in the Douglas home and would be filmed on a set at the Warner Bros. studio. The balance of the script would be filmed on locations in southwest Los Angeles. That meant a lot of location scouting. Walter was acquainted with the area because of the location work in his production of THE BLUE KNIGHT. And it is Walter who introduced me to Japanese food. On our location scouting days, he took us to Tokyo Kai Kan, a restaurant in Little Tokyo, a section of Los Angeles close to where we were scouting. My cocktail of choice at that time was a perfect Rob Roy on the rocks. Our little group would crack up every time I ordered one. They thought I was doing it as a put-on to the Japanese waitress, because many Japanese have trouble with their r’s. It could come out as a perfect Lob Loy on the locks.

But our story started in Sweet Clover, Arkansas. And where did we go to find Arkansas? Why we went to where the big boys used to do it back when they really knew how to make movies -- the back lot of Warner Bros. Studio.

You’ve just met our four remarkable youngsters. George Spell was Joey. As was the fashion in the seventies George had a very bushy Afro hairdo. But that was not the hair style in the fifties, when our story took place. And George wouldn’t even consider trimming it, even if it meant losing the role. So we agreed that nightly he would soak his hair with water and pull a silk stocking knotted into a cap over his head and sleep that way. It worked! Our Emmarine, Taronce Allen, was a joy. She could shed tears on cue, and you will see she shed a lot of them the next seventeen days. Our Becky, Bebe Redcross, had less to do than the others, but she was a lovely child. And little Marlon Adams, our Bradley, only six years old and already a scene stealer.

I want you to see the opening credits of our retitled effort so you can hear the lovely music theme David Rose composed.

Our scouting trips in southwest Los Angeles took us to probably every church in the area. When we finally found the one we wanted, it was truly a miracle come true, as Grandma says in the scene. The minister of the church told us that his church had serious financial difficulties, and the money they would be making because of our filming was going to solve their problems.

Dorothy Meyer, who played Cousin Clara, had less experience than most of the actresses who auditioned. But she had been in the cast of THE CHICKEN THIEF earlier that year, and she had a wonderful robust quality and energy.

The actual church did not have a parsonage attached. But as long as I didn’t photograph the rear of the exterior of the building, no one would know. And by duplicating the double doors in the church in the design of our studio set of the parsonage, our actors were able to move from the church (in southwest Los Angeles) to the parsonage set (in Burbank) with no difficulty.

The two church deacons who come to see Will were played by Joel Fluellen and Clarence Muse. Joel and I had worked together several times already. Clarence was truly a Hollywood veteran. He was eighty-four years old when we did this film. He told me he had come to Hollywood in the early thirties heading his own classical theatre stock company. He was a highly educated man, Phi Beta Kappa, but when he auditioned for the movies, he had to learn to talk and sound less educated in order to be cast. He appeared in over a hundred and fifty films in a film career that spanned fifty-eight years. He made only three more film appearances after this one.

I really appreciated the staging possibilities provided by Perry Ferguson’s set and Frank Phillips’ photography.

I wanted to see big city Los Angeles through our childrens’ eyes -- thus the sequence of their seeing the city on their way to their first day in school.

This film was a period piece. Costuming the principal actors presented no major problem. But the sequences on the street, and especially the sequences at the schools with the multitude of bodies did. Patricia Norris, our costume designer, had a wardrobe truck packed with clothes of the fifties -- boys, girls and in all sizes. All of the students you see were wardrobed by her at the location.

Good writing, good actors, and I told you she could shed a tear!

I have a confession to make. Directors are known to have ‘themes’ that they return to. I don’t think this is a theme, but I seem to have used the overheard conversation many times.

Charles Walker, the second assistant director on the show was a black man. I had known Charles from his DGA apprenticeship days on STAR TREK. He took Max and me (at my request) to a Sunday service in a black church. I was fascinated by the ad lib vocal response of the members of the congregation.

To be continued