Saturday, October 9, 2010

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

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

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

And what replaces character?  Slap stick!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. How uncanny! Wallowing in nostalgia, I bought the 4 seasons of the Patridge Family and found myself actually looking for the Director's name in the credits of the episodes you mentioned, because I was struck by the skill you employed when making them. Congratulations, Mr. Senensky!
    Admittedly, I am a novice when it comes to film production but your episodes stand out and I've enjoyed reading your blog. Thank you

    1. Not sure if you are online but so so so enjoyed the blog. One doesn't realize what is involved in directing and all that thinking. Thanks for sharing.