Tuesday, November 9, 2010

ORDEAL - June-July 1963 (The Nurses)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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