Anatomy Of A Prison Break

FILMED  August 1966

Just like in the old days, the time has come to leave the blue skies of INSIGHT and return to the reelity of reality.

Because of the competition between networks, it was desired that shows start with strong scenes to hook the viewing audience, hopefully to discourage their changing channels. I have long felt that demand on television directors provided an important lesson in directing, and I adopted that requirement for strong openings as a discipline in directing for any medium. I have to admit accomplishing that when directing THE FBI was easier. Each episode always began with a crime, and as in the crime enactment you just witnessed, acts of crime can be fascinating to watch. I must add further, they can be fun for the director to stage.

Little did we realize that a year later Stephen Brooks as Jim Rhodes would be gone, replaced as Erskine’s assistant by the man behind the desk, William Reynolds. Whether this was a demand by THE FBI or the ABC network was never disclosed, nor was the reason for the dismissal. Known in this episode as agent Kendall Lisbon, Reynolds would be agent Tom Colby when he reappeared.

ANATOMY OF A PRISON BREAK was my fifth assignment under my exclusive contract to direct 13 of the episodes of the series’ second season. There was an unexpected (for me) major change in the organization. Director of Photography William Spencer was leaving to serve as director of photography for Quinn Martin’s feature film, THE MEPHISTO WALTZ. What I didn’t realize at the time was that his departure was the first snag in the unraveling of my association with Quinn Martin Productions.

An episode of THE FBI consisted of two parallel story lines: 1) the original crime followed by the criminal’s or criminals’ nefarious plans for the future and 2) the FBI’s involvement in the case and their tracking of the criminals to apprehend them. But there was an added aspect beyond the caper. I found the most interesting stories were the ones that explored the emotional relationships of the criminals. In the present story it was the conflict created by the desire of the James Broderick character to make up for the lost eight years and give his wife, Sassy, “the biggest car, the longest fur coat;” and Carol Rossen’s wife who only wants to keep her husband, Frank – for him “not to make any more mistakes.”

This episode had an added twist, one that occurred in only three other episodes that I directed. In ORDEAL Stephen Brooks’ Jim Rhodes went undercover as a truck driver transporting a load of nitroglycerin. In SPECIAL DELIVERY Efrem Zimbalist’s Erskine went undercover in pursuit of a criminal trying to leave the country. In THE MAN WHO WENT MAD BY MISTAKE Erskine went undercover as a patient into a neuropsychiatric  institution in pursuit of a criminal.

Our third day of filming was at a federal correctional institution, where after we hung our MASONRIDGE FEDERAL PENITENTIARY sign on their fence, we filmed the exterior establishing shots of the front entrance to the prison, the arrivals there, the recreational area where the murder took place and the interior sign-in desk at the front entrance. Shades of ROUTE 66, a location like this gave the production a true documentary feeling of reality.

This was my first opportunity to work with James Broderick. I would direct him again a decade later in the series FAMILY, where he appeared as the father, Doug Lawrence in probably his best-known role.

My one regret was that the scenes in Erskine’s cell could not be filmed at the prison. The cell itself was all right, but of necessity and even though it was designed by the incredible Richard Haman, that set looked more like a city or county jail, not a federal prison.

There were only two stuntmen on camera in the shower room fight — the doubles for Erskine and Moline, and they were used very sparingly. The small area where the fight took place again presented the problem of not being able to shoot wide-angle. I am pleased to say I don’t think the use of the doubles is evident. As for the four principle actors, to do the action in the fight was difficult; to do it under the turned on showerheads and on a wet, slippery floor made it dangerously so.

This was my second outing with Carol Rossen  — our first was six years before when we filmed COLOR SCHEMES LIKE NEVER BEFORE in and on NAKED CITY. I marveled then, and I am still impressed with the infinite detail and nuance in her characters – in this case the southern accent for Sassy, the young wife’s sense of being under-educated, her fierce determination to protect her husband and always the character’s vulnerability.

I was told that at the screening of the dailies the following day, Adrian Samish, one of the executives in charge of production, got very excited after he saw this scene. He proclaimed the close-up of the melting of the lead an amazing shot. I didn’t hear that he had any reaction to the scene that followed.

We didn’t have to travel too far to the location of the Vesco Metal Supply warehouse. It was filmed in the grip room on the Warner Brothers lot. There were many such work areas like that at the studios. It was always amazing to me the wide variety of things that were produced within the confines of a film studio.

Forty-eight years later I would like to rewrite the end of that scene. I don’t like Frank’s “Sassy, you’d have come with me, wouldn’t you?” How much more effective and characterful if he had simply said, “ Sassy – I’m sorry.”

Director of photography Billy Spencer’s leaving truly affected me. During the previous year and a half we had worked together on nine productions. He had been director of photography on six THE FBIs. Billy used to stand behind me, looking over my shoulder when I described the shot I wanted. What he produced was if he read my mind and then improved on what I requested. There was such a relaxed atmosphere when working with him. That was not so with his replacement. I remember being very annoyed when I would lay out an over the shoulder shot and return to find the cameraman had moved the actors into a fifty-fifty two-shot. There was tension, a lack of communication; it simply no longer was fun.

The journey continues



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7 Responses to Anatomy Of A Prison Break

  1. Scott Weaber says:

    Thanks again for another informative post, Ralph. When I see this episode in the near future, I’m going to take into consideration the last line you now would’ve given to Sassy by Frank. There’s a lot of things you can see in a characters’ face with a simple “.. I’m sorry”. James Broderick had the face and talent to say a thousand words with a look. It’s no wonder he was nominated for an Emmy.

    • Ralph says:

      It would have been his admitting that his chosen path had not been the right one and have been more considerate of Sassy.

  2. I loved the series and was never disappointed with story content.
    The lead in showing the crime committed,and stop action which
    announced the charges to be leveled was exciting and drew you

    • frank denardo says:

      classic show of J. Edgar Hoover’s finest. Met a retired Marine who use to give weapons instruction to new FBI agents at the academy in Quantico, Virginia. Both the Marine Corps base and FBI Academy are joint tenents.

  3. ERIC R. PLEASANT says:

    No matter what others might contend about QM’s productions, they were all very well produced and I have always felt that the FBI never got its proper due especially nowadays with so many FBI-oriented shows on. This one started it all. Thank You Ralph!

  4. frank denardo says: In the end credits. there is a black colored 1967 Ford Mustang convertible that is the same used in the sales brochure.

    This is my favorite show which shows J. Edgar Hoover’s finest in action. QM(Quinn Martin)Always used Ford cars and trucks in the show.

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