Decisions

Filmed January 1985

The Harvard Law Review is a student run law journal published monthly from November through June that publishes eight regular annual issues of various legal articles by professors, judges, practitioners, and students. The Harvard Law Review published its first issue on April 15, 1887, making it the oldest operating student-edited law review in the United States. From the 1880s to the 1970s editors were selected on the basis of their grades; the president of the Review was the student with the highest academic rank. Since the change of criteria in the 1970s, grades are no longer the primary basis of selection for editors.

Current Supreme Court Justices who served as editors are Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan, John G. Roberts and Antonin Scalia. Justices Ginsburg, Roberts and Scalia served in years preceding the class we are currently viewing, Justice Kagan in years following.

So let’s pay a visit to the Law Review offices in that period between Justices.

I’m not sure, but I don’t think Harvard was ever designated as the law school in THE PAPER CHASE, but the inference was there. Didn’t you hear Hart say, “… news break, today, the nation’s leading law school …”?

DECISIONS was the two-hour episode written by John Jay Osborn, Jr., a graduate of Harvard Law School in 1970 and the author of the novel THE PAPER CHASE, the source for the 1973 film and the television series that followed. DECISIONS was to open the new season for THE PAPER CHASE: THE THIRD YEAR. But the sequence you’ve just viewed and the first half of this episode concerns the ending of this class’s second year.

Eighty-two-year old John Houseman was remarkable. Born in Romania, he was 71 years old when he portrayed Professor Charles Kingsfield in the 1973 film, THE PAPER CHASE, a debut performance that earned him the Academy Award for best supporting actor of the year. Previous to the film he had a highly publicized collaboration with director Orson Welles in productions at the Federal Theatre Project and in the production of what many claim is the greatest film ever produced, CITIZEN KANE.

And there you have the plot for the first hour of this film –  a group of ambitious students competing for the position of President of  Law Review. An interesting comment was posted on THE CHOICE, the first episode of the series I directed, but one that would air much later in the season:

I watched this series on CBS in ’78-’79…can’t remember any of the stories.Since I was 16, my only interest was watching Kingsfield torment his students. My mom watched it too, although her interest was probably more mature than mine.

By 1985 the important themed dramas of 1950’s live television had been drastically diluted, if not totally eliminated. But in THE PAPER CHASE there were no car chases, no explosions, no fights. Here we had just a story about a group of students competing for a revered position on the Law Review, a story not geared to attract the attention of teen-agers, but one that would hopefully interest adults.

Since DECISIONS was to be the opening show for THE PAPER CHASE: THE THIRD YEAR, it was the vehicle to introduce new continuing characters into the series. Peter Nelson as Tom, Ford’s younger brother, was the first to show up.

DECISIONS had a thirteen-day shooting schedule that commenced on December 31, the last day of 1984, the day of New Year’s Eve. I remember that day well. It normally took me about 20 minutes to drive home from the studio on West Pico Boulevard to my house in the Hollywood Hills overlooking the Sunset Strip. After we wrapped on that first day, it took me an hour and a half, plowing my way through New Year’s Eve traffic to traverse the same distance.

THE PAPER CHASE had eleven actors who received star billing in the opening billboard, but the excellence of the cast extended beyond. Three of the more visible of those supporting players were law students …

trio

… (left to right) David Paymer, Wortham Krimmer and Steve Levitt. This series was my introduction to all three of them, but I did have kind of a connection to Steve Levitt. He was the son of Paul Levitt, one of my classmate seventeen years before at the Pasadena Playhouse School of Theatre. When I returned to the west coast in 1954, Paul was co-owner of the Players Ring Theatre in West Hollywood. That was where my foray against the Hollywood studios began. I did the lighting for their productions of THE ROSE TATTOO and SATURDAY’S CHILDREN, after which Paul had me direct a production of MY THREE ANGELS.

DECISIONS was the last time I worked with Peter White.

peter

Peter has had a long auspicious career that started with a role on THE SECRET STORM when he was 17 years old. He played Linc in one of the outstanding soap operas of all time, ALL MY CHILDREN. He appeared off-Broadway, on Broadway and in the film, THE BOYS IN THE BAND. I saw him in that film, and in 1971 cast him in BULLET FOR A HERO, an episode of DAN AUGUST, and the backstory to that film surpassed what happened on camera. There was a bit of action between Peter and Burt Reynolds on our last day of filming that left Peter with two fractured vertebrae. You can read all about that on my post for BULLET FOR A HERO. In spite of that accident Peter and I have remained friends, although at this point long distance friends, these many years later.

Now you will meet Diana Douglas, another of the new continuing characters being introduced in this episode.

DECISIONS was about more than the race for the presidency of the Law Review. I’ve read that Mart Crowley (with whom I’ve worked) has stated that there was a part of him in every character in his magnificent THE BOYS IN THE BAND. I wonder if that wasn’t also true of John Jay Osborn, Jr. He was a graduate of Harvard Law School in 1970, the year his novel, THE PAPER CHASE, was published. I wonder if there wasn’t a part of him in the many varied characters he created for THE PAPER CHASE.

DECISIONS’ thirteen-day shooting schedule had one day on the campus of the University of Southern California. Because night work was involved, we filmed there on our second Friday, again utilizing the weekend accommodations of the union turnaround contractual agreements. We reported to 20th Century Fox Studio at 7:30 am, bused to the USC campus for an 8:30 am shooting call and continued until we wrapped the 8 2/8 pages scheduled for the day.

Golden’s dream was an unusual sequence for a television show. Osborn’s script for the scene was 1 2/8 pages long. We had to make some changes in the script, simplify some things for production reasons. The script called for the guards to lead the shackled Golden up a long stairway to the Supreme Court entrance. We filmed it with smoke at USC at night, eliminating the stairway and using one of the university’s buildings with our added Supreme Court sign. Osborn’s script called for a suspended window through which we saw the two litigating attorneys. We didn’t replace the window with anything; we just eliminated it. For me the key was the use of faceless mannequins. That we didn’t change, although we used the same mannequins for both the classroom students and the panel of jurists.

I had worked the year before with Andra Millian when she guest starred in THE CASHIER AND THE BELLY DANCER, an episode of CASABLANCA. Andra was Laura Kiernan, the female law student questioned by KIngsfield. On CASABLANCA Andra had played a French girl with a strong French accent – and a very good French accent, I might add, all the more remarkable because Andra was from Texas.

The story of the two-hour DECISIONS had the first hour dealing with the end of the second year in law school and the second hour with the beginning of the third year. It was almost like shooting two separate films; and when THE PAPER CHASE went into syndication, DECISIONS was separated into Part I and Part II. But the filming schedule did not recognize that split. When I was in the set for the Law Review offices I filmed all of the scenes from both the second year and the third year. That applied to the way we filmed all of the sets and the location at USC.

One of the interesting things that is happening as I write this website is the personal  information I learn about the people I worked with that television schedules prevented me from learning then. My association with Michael Tucci (Golden) was further limited because Golden was graduating as Hart ended his second year, and Michael appeared in only two of the ensuing five episodes of THE PAPER CHASE that I directed after DECISIONS. As a former student who had moved on to litigating, his roles in those two episodes were very limited. It is only now that I have discovered that Michael went to law school, passed the bar and became an assistant district attorney in New York. My friend Charles FitzSimons had been an assistant district attorney in Ireland and left the profession when he won a case that he felt he should not have won. He was disillusioned with the law because he knew that his victory was only because of the inefficiency of the opposing attorney. Michael like my friend Charles also became disillusioned with his job and career politics and changed career. The law’s loss was theatre and film’s gain.

I have read that a current director shot over 100,000 feet of film for a movie. His reasoning was that he would create the film in the editing room. We certainly worked differently in those “olden” days. I hope my memory and math are right, but I think an edited two-hour movie would run about 12,000 feet of film. The time to shoot that extra 88,000 feet, the cost of the film, the lab cost to develop the film, and the time to edit it add up to more than a tidy sum. But there was a reason beyond money. Vision and quality!

I remember that when I directed an emotional scene with an actor, I would many times not cut at the end of the scene but would say, “keep it rolling and start from the top,” as I had the actor repeat the scene. I found it was a method of obtaining a better performance. Howard Alston, the overseeing production manager at Quinn Martin Productions, requested that I not do that. It meant developing more film than if I cut and called for another take. Since I felt that doing what he requested would affect the quality of what I was doing, I did not comply.

I had a good relationship with most of the film editors with whom I worked, but early on I discovered that a director’s greatest means of insuring a film was edited according to his vision was to limit the amount of film sent to the editing room — in other words to plan staging carefully and camera cut. I might add that helping me arrive at this conclusion was viewing the films of William Wyler, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock – it’s a long list.

To be continued

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4 Responses to Decisions

  1. GMJ says:

    I remember watching the original series on CBS and when it was replayed on PBS a few years later. I did have a chance to see season 2 when it originally appeared on Showtime. Considering that seasons 2-4 were on pay cable TV, I assume you did not have to deal with Standards and Practices if the show was still on CBS. Were there any notable differences between directing a network program vs. directing a pay-cable program?

    Thanks again for posting this essay.

    • Ralph says:

      Since that was the very early days of pay-cable, it was like a return to the early days of network television which meant LESS BUDGET MONEY. As I pointed out in my post for THE CHOICE, THE PAPER CHASE was filmed in 16 mm, which was cheaper than 35 mm. The film was NEVER DEVELOPED. Only the negative was developed (again a saving) and the negative was transferred to tape, which was how the show was edited and then delivered to SHOWTIME. We watched taped dailies on a television set in the producer’s office. And finally salaries, which were lower than those being paid to people working on network programs.

  2. Joe says:

    I love reading all of your stories and great insight in directing such great shows. I’ve been a tv fan since I was born in 1964. Much to the chagrin of my parents. I was 14 when The Paper Chase first aired and I knew the show was so much smarter then me and I actually to pay attention. That said, John Houseman scared the bejesus out of me. I remember thinking if I ever had a teacher like him I would start crying right on the spot. Now, that’s good acting. LOL!! What was John Houseman like? Did you have any personal interaction with him? Was he anything like Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr.? I love your blog. I hope you continue to write more.

    • Ralph says:

      I knew John under several guises. First he was one of three signed to produce PLAYHOUSE 90 after Martin Manulis left. I was one of the alternating
      two production supervisors for the program.A few years later I co-directed a production of THE ICEMAN COMETH with him. Our closest association was on PAPER CHASE. Ours was a professional association, but even at that late stage in my career I really appreciated the respect he paid me as a director.

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