Tuesday, November 9, 2010

ORDEAL - June-July 1963 (The Nurses)

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RALPH'S CINEMA TREK: A Journey in Film
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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. 


  1. Great insight!

    This production originally aired the week before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, TX, in November of 1963. Everything changed after that.

    Brandon deWilde had less than 9 years of life left at that point. To learn more about BdW's short run visit:


  2. I found your site when searching on the Web. Interesting post.

  3. Then you should visit my website at http://senensky.com/

    This blog was sort of the warm-up for the main event. The website incidentally is going to receive a major facelift in the very near future.