Death Chain

FILMED October 1970

APRIL FOOL — even though as I write this, it’s the middle of August. Why April Fool? I never directed a film titled ONCE IS NEVER ENOUGH. I didn’t direct that opening teaser sequence (although if I had, I would be proud to admit it; Virgil Vogel directed it and stunningly) and yes, this post is definitely going to be about a film titled DEATH CHAIN. To solve this discrepancy we must fast forward to spring 1971, the end of the 1970-71 season, when because of less than through-the-roof ratings, ABC cancelled DAN AUGUST. Fast forward again to July 30, 1972, when Warner Bros. released the feature film, DELIVERANCE starring Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds. The film was an immediate smash hit. Burt’s much lauded performance coupled with several dynamic appearances with Johnny Carson on THE TONIGHT SHOW put the Quinn Martin production company in a quandary. They only had twenty-six one-hour episodes of DAN AUGUST, which was far from enough to send the show into syndication. But DAN AUGUST starred Burt Reynolds, who had become the hottest star in the country. Those twenty-six reels of film were too valuable to be buried in the vaults. Television in addition to airing series programming also had a voracious appetite for movies. Why not turn the DAN AUGUST episodes into a group of DAN AUGUST movies. For instance take the episode PROGNOSIS: HOMICIDE, hook DEATH CHAIN onto its rear end, replace the early billboard with a new movie-style opening credit announcing its new title, ONCE IS NEVER ENOUGH and include the casts for both shows, both directors and in this case only one writer’s credit, because the writer had written both episodes, and then do the same thing at the end of the show, redoing the end credits. And that’s what they did, I’m not sure how many times, but I do know that they turned out at least seven movies. And Burt’s credit changed. The opening billboard for the series had announced DAN AUGUST starring Burt Reynolds. In the reconstructed movies it was Burt Reynolds in DAN AUGUST. He had ascended to that desired pinnacle for actors: his name was above the title.

To make the transition, to give continuity to the segue from the first crime story to the second, the teaser for DEATH CHAIN, (a scene where the young girl was picked up by four unidentifiable boys) was eliminated and replaced by a newly written scene of George Untermeyer (Richard Anderson) phoning Dan August. Untermeyer referred to the Serling case (of the first crime story) as he gave August a new assignment. Richard Anderson was then brought back to the studio to film it, and since I was long gone, I did not direct the new scene.

I would like to show you how the original episode opened and how it compared to the reconstituted version, but I do not have a copy of DEATH CHAIN; I only have the reconstruction.

This is was the fourth (and last) time I would work with Gerald O’Loughlin. I am still in awe of his talent, of the way he brought such energy, such sensitivity, such intelligent insight into his creations of men who were basically crude, working-class Joes.

In the DEATH CHAIN episode, Lawrence Prescott, the bookstore manager, appeared in the opening teaser scenes that were cut for the movie.

For fans of THE WALTONS, the role of Lawrence Prescott was played by James McCallion, the husband of Nora Marlowe, who played Mrs. Brimmer on THE WALTONS.

Santa Luisa was a fictitious town created to be the base for DAN AUGUST. Oxnard, a coastal town thirty-five miles west of Los Angeles, was chosen to be our Santa Luisa. The town was small enough, there was less traffic to contend with, permits to film were easier to obtain, and it was more expedient to stage some of our action sequences there than in Los Angeles, plus the people of the town were more positively responsive to a film company invading their community. I remember going to a house I had selected as a possible choice to film, and  I explained to the lady who answered the door what I needed to do: we would be filming the exterior of the house, and there would be a scene at the front door so an actor would be inside the doorway. She agreed. I further told her what we would be paying her, and her response was, “You mean I get paid for this?” I swear I think she would have been willing to pay us. The population of Oxnard at the time was about 72,000. Today that population has grown to almost 200,000. And Oxnard had a fine courthouse that we used as our exterior for police headquarters.

Just one day of filming was scheduled for Oxnard. Three other days of location filming were done in the Los Angeles area. For the large church we needed, we picked one in Burbank near the Warner Bros. studio.

Usually when there was night filming, it was scheduled for Friday, so the weekend could provide the cushion for the actors’ turnaround. But since we had 8 1/8 pages of night filming for this production, three nights were scheduled. Starting Wednesday, our second day, we started around noon and worked into the night until we finished. That first night’s filming was the sequence discovering the girl’s body that opened this part of the movie. Thursday started ten hours after we completed Wednesday night’s work. We had two sequences totaling 5 3/8 pages to film at night at a swimming pool. Since that would have taken an all-night session to complete in one visit, we filmed the first sequence Thursday night and the second sequence Friday night.

We filmed the pool sequence at a lovely home in Coldwater Canyon, and the kids were just great. The pool was heated, but October nights in Los Angeles can be bitterly cold, and that one was. I remember that I was wearing a heavy coat and gloves, but the kids were in bathing suits. When they came out of the water between shots, we had towels and blankets for them to wrap themselves in, and big cans of fire to warm them. Fortunately Friday night was easier.

I made a slight misstatement in my post for THE LAW. I said that every episode had a sequence in a cemetery. In DEATH CHAIN the sequence was in the funeral home, not the cemetery.

Thinking back, the number of actors I have directed from behind the camera is mind-boggling. I remember believing in 1961 when I directed my first film (DR KILDARE) that if I ever worked with an actor, I would never forget him or her. Fast forward to 1974; I was in preparation for an episode of THE WALTONS, and I was down on the set observing the production currently filming. An interesting actor, Victor French, whose work and name I was familiar with, was in the scene. After the take he came out of the set, saw me and enthusiastically came over and gave me a great greeting.  I had forgotten I had directed him in a SUSPENSE THEATRE in 1963. In 1979 my family came to visit. I picked them up at the airport and my two young nieces were all excited. One of the stars of ALICE had been on the plane with them. He had played Mel, the owner of the diner. They didn’t know his name and asked me who he was. I wasn’t much help. As we were leaving, Vic Tayback, the actor in question passed us, saw us and came over and gave me a great hug in greeting. We had worked together on THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY in 1971. Last year my friend Marlyn Mason wrote, produced and starred in an independent short film which has won many awards at film festivals. Starring with her in the film was Peggy Stewart. I saw her film many times, but it wasn’t until I worked on this post that I realized I had worked with Peggy Stewart. Forty-two years ago she played the mother of Ronnie, the boy who was shot when swinging.

I had an incredibly lucky break early in my training. For years Gilmor Brown, the founder and artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, had taught the course in directing in their School of the Theatre. A change was made as I was entering my second year at the Playhouse. When it came time for me to take the directing course, it was to be taught by Dick O’Connell. O’Connell, a young writer-director, already noted for his translations from Spanish of the plays of Garcia Lorca, was a graduate of Yale. Like my wonderfully talented Myrtle Oulman, he had taken the same directing course at Yale instructed by Alexander Dean and was a disciple of Alexander Dean’s magnificent textbook, FUNDAMENTALS OF PLAY DIRECTING. That textbook was the basis for the course O’Connell guided us through that year. It was a very disciplined and analytical approach to directing. I was taught to prepare EVERYTHING before beginning rehearsals, and I assiduously through the years followed those guidelines. But from the beginning as I worked as a director in theatre, I was aware that I had instinctual feelings toward my script and in rehearsal found myself following those feelings and deviating from the blueprints I had planned on paper. The strictures imposed by filming under television’s restrictive time certainly limited my flexibility in making changes on the set. But there were times that I did. The scene with Burt, Jan-Michael, and Norman at the car was one of those times. My original planned staging had them at the side of the car for the entire scene with coverage being the master three shot and then coverage on each of the three. But as we worked on the scene, I realized I needed a break, time in the scene for a major emotional transition, so I gave Burt the line, “Get into the car.” Once the three were in the car I cancelled the individual close-up coverage of the three. I wanted the balance of the scene to play in the master angle. In some companies the lack of those close-ups would have caused some consternation, but I had no negative feedback.

Location filming, especially at those times of the year when there was the possibility of inclement weather, was always scheduled at the beginning, and distant locations (like Oxnard) were usually at the very beginning. We went to Oxnard on our first day of filming. The very first thing we filmed there that day was the final rooftop shootout.

The Journey Continues

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24 Responses to Death Chain

  1. Robert Dahl says:

    Ralph, I’ve always been curious about the practice of combining two TV episodes in order to create a faux TV movie.

    On the one hand, frankensteining two TV shows together usually results in a TV movie that is an incoherent mess.

    On the other hand, this might be the only chance to see some really obscure shows. Who would have remembered THE SIXTH SENSE without those horrible frankensteins with NIGHT GALLERY?

    In this day and age of niche dvd markets and manufacture-on-demand, at least some of these one-season shows are finally getting a chance to be seen again.

    Stephen Bowie’s excellent CLASSIC TV HISTORY BLOG has an illuminating entry on the frankensteining of the first season of McCloud — http://classictvhistory.wordpress.com/2012/02/25/procrustes-comes-to-syndication/

    Cheers,
    Robert

    • Ralph says:

      A slight correction. On NIGHT GALLERY those weren’t “frankensteins”. That was the format of the show, to do episodes of varying lengths (the length determined by the individual stories) and then combine them together in one-hour packages.

      • Robert Dahl says:

        Ralph, we’re talking about different things. Yes, that was the ORIGINAL format of NIGHT GALLERY.

        But then these episodes were cut down to half-hour length and combined with edited episodes of THE SIXTH SENSE so as to create a syndication package with the magic number of 100 episodes. These are the frankenstein episodes to which I was referring.

        Sorry for any confusion, perhaps I should have made myself more clear in my original comment.

        Best regards,
        Robert

  2. GMJ says:

    Your post clarifies the discrepancy on the number of “Dan August” episodes that were produced. A number of websites incorrectly lists some of the TV movie titles as part of the original series.

    FYI, IMDb lists 28 episodes. Two TV movie titles, The Jealousy Factor and The Trouble with Women, are erroneously listed as episodes that aired during the show’s 1969-70 season. I’ve submitted corrections to IMDb with little success.

    Do you know what year these TV movies were released? I’ve had little success finding the titles in old newspaper clippings.

    Thanks for the information. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    • Ralph says:

      The date on the main titles of the movie reconstructions is MCMLXXX (1980).

      • GMJ says:

        FYI:

        Following up on my comment from 2012, IMDb now lists 26 episodes of “Dan August” instead of 28. In addition, three of the Dan August reconstructed TV movies are listed on the IMDb with a 1980 release date.

        I look forward to reading you future essays.

        • GMJ says:

          “I’m looking forward to reading your future essays.”

          What I would give to have proofreading button before clicking the Post Comment button.

  3. Kathy Tasich says:

    Since you did not direct “the teaser” episode, I would assume you will not show it with commentary. Darn! It was a fascinating opening. I think the drunk who was poisoned was former cowboy actor Don Barry. Could I possibly be right this time, Ralph?

    • Ralph says:

      You just may be, Kathy. There is a Donald Barry listed in the end credits, and although when I checked Don “Red” Barry on the Internet Movie Data Base there is no listing for his having performed in a DAN AUGUST, his picture on his bio there certainly looks like the drunk in this film. So you’re now batting .500.

  4. Mark Speck says:

    I’m a little puzzled here…you say it’s the last time you worked with Gerald S. O’Loughlin, yet you went on to direct several Rookies episodes.

  5. Phil says:

    This series was definitely a stuntman showcase. The leaps down to the tarmac (video 11) were sick! How about the tumble down the stairs (video 12)? He made sure his head and neck were never in danger.

    Ralph, I was wondering if you had an old call sheet that could fill in numerous gaps on the cast. Maybe the closing credits from the movie can help. Online sources such as IMDB and ctva.biz are full of holes, due to the obscurity of this series. They are further fouled up by the compilation movie, which incorrectly show some actors in BOTH of the TV episodes that were cobbled together.

    You already named two, James McCallion and Peggy Stewart. I spotted two more: Barney Phillips as Santa Luisa’s exhausted coroner (video 2) and Bartlett Robinson as the military school dean (video 5).

    The rest I don’t know: Henry the cop (video 2), Troy Steadman’s dad (video 5), Griff Whitaker (video 5), Harriett the book clerk (video 7), Brenda, the girl w/ Griff (video 8), Kim, the girl in the water (video 8), Ronnie (video 9), Kevin Colter’s dad (video 11), and Inspector Tompkins (video 11).

    Lastly, the big question: who played Sherry Lazar/Manders? I hope she matched the description in the script…every guy on this show got lightheaded just from talking about her! Thanks and have a Merry Christmas.

  6. Phil says:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCh7w_-e-H4

    Someone recently posted all of “Once is Never Enough” on Youtube (above). For whatever reason, the title on this copy is “Double Jeopardy”. The poster also said his uncle, Forrest Compton, played Kevin Colter’s father in the “Death Chain” segment. I think Virgil Vogel had the better script, “Prognosis: Homicide”, in this cobbled-together movie.

  7. Jim says:

    Ralph,

    Just going back and re-reading/re-watching some of your entries – I missed it the first time but noticed Michael Lembeck had a small role in this one – and as you know, he has become a very successful Director; I believe he won an Emmy for directing a “Friends” episode. Just curious if Michael expressed any interest to you in directing or shadowed you while you were working?

  8. Vinnie Vinson says:

    Hello, Ralph…

    I know you directed several “Star Trek” episodes. I was wondering if you’re aware of the high-quality fan films based on the show. Some of them are fantastic! There are at least THREE standing sets across the country. I think there are a couple in other lands, too.

    New adventures are produced. Some use the familiar characters while others introduce new names and faces. Everything is based on the series.

    Some stars and writers of the original show have joined in on the fun. All involved do it for the love of the phenomenon. Of course, no one can profit from these efforts. CBS, the current owner to the rights, has been very kind to fandom.

    Far more people own replicas of Captain Kirk’s famous chair. There have been a couple of commercial runs of them. Lots of people make their own, as I’m doing. These homemade chairs are BETTER than the original prop. We fans won’t stand for little defects which were OK for the show. We don’t like scuffs, scratches, etc. Oh, the fan-made chairs actually WORK. Our lights can be turned on without the studio electrician. The chairs make their own sound effects.

    If you’d like a link to a fan-made show, let me know.

  9. David says:

    Hello. My name’s David, and I’m an author and film journalist.

    I’m doing a book on the life and career of Jan-Michael Vincent, and I was wondering if you could share with me a recollection, if you have any, of working with Jan on the episode of Dan August?

    Thank you.

    • Ralph says:

      Hi David: I would be most happy to share, but my recollections of Jan are pretty skimpy. As I wrote in my most recent post, EPILOG: I’m remembering the actors I worked with, and I’m realizing I didn’t get to know most of them personally. Because of the pace of television, the time I spent with any one of them on the set was NOT with him or her, it was with the character he or she was portraying.

      There were the 4 boys in DEATH CHAIN and they each worked in separate sequences, which meant I probably spent a part of 3 days with each of them. I remember Jan as being very attractive, professional and that I was completely satisfied with his work.

  10. David says:

    Hi it’s David.

    Yes, Ralph, I understand. Ralph, from what I’ve seen of the episode, was Jan’s character a suspect in the murder of the girl – Sherry Manders – or was he directly involved? I saw the scene where Burt is arresting Jan at the airport.

  11. Ralph says:

    As I remember the case was to find all of the boys who were involved. They were all suspects.

  12. Brian Coffey says:

    Let me say that I find your chronicles of your “adventures in film and television” both richly entertaining and extremely generous. Having grown up with TV as one of my best friends, I have always wondered about who did all that work and how shows were put together. So THANK YOU! It’s actually hard to find such explication of the actual process, the backstories, and the details like you provide.

    So now I’m going to dive in and read some of your adventures. Perhaps I’ll have a few questions after I do so, but I wanted to make sure at the outset that I really appreciate your efforts to let the world know about your work.

    B.

  13. John B. says:

    Thanks so much, Ralph, for your kind words praising the talents of the criminally underrated Gerald S. O’Loughlin. Having seen him in a few episodes of TV series and a handful of movies I’ve become convinced that he was an actor born to appear in Eugene O’Neill plays, maybe better suited even than Jason Robards. O’Loughlin could be tough, empathetic, wounded, stoic, humorous and was above all Irish.

    Just my take.

    Best Wishes, John B.

    • Ralph says:

      You take well! If you haven’t done it already, check out my post ORDEAL on THE FBI. It was the first time O”Loughlin and I worked together and it was the best role I was able to offer him. (And I totally agree with your O’Neill comment!)

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