I never met Elaine Stritch. Unfortunately I never saw her in a live performance, but fortunately there are DVDs, so I want to borrow (steal?) a line she uttered as she reached the conclusion of her dynamic Broadway one-woman show, ELAINE STRITCH AT LIBERTY, a performance that was truly a memoir of her life. She said, “What has this all been about then … this existential problem in tights?” Well I’m not wearing tights. I’m not standing in front of an applauding, adoring audience. I’m seated quietly at my computer, wrapping up the conclusion of an existential six-year exploring trek and, to start with, remembering how this exploration began.
It was 2009. I had seen the movie, JULIE AND JULIA and was intrigued by how Amy Adams (Julie) had used her computer to create and write an Internet blog. Now my computer Internet experience after two and a half decades was limited to daily e-mail correspondence, but I thought, “ I can do that.” So on September 3 I launched RALPH’S TREK with a 15-paragraph post of laboriously wrenched from my memory prose that related my experience directing IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK, my first ROUTE 66. It was only after my blog was launched that I learned I could add film clips and photos, so under the guidance of my stalwart computer guru, Michael Brenner, that’s what I learned to do and did for the next year and a half. But by then the size of the blog threatened its collapse. I was advised the blog needed to become a website, so again under Michael’s guidance, I hired James Kafantaris, recently graduated from CSUMB’s computer program division, to design RALPH’S CINEMA TREK: A Journey in Film. And here as I sit four and a half years later writing this Epilog, the 189th posting, what are my thoughts?
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. Beulah Bondi was someone I got to know away from the set, someone who became a personal friend. I’ve told this story so many times. Right after we worked together for the first time on THE CONFLICT, a two-hour THE WALTONS, I purchased my first VCR machine, taped THE CONFLICT when it aired, and for the first time I was able to view again one of my films without waiting for it to rerun on television. During the following two years I saw Beulah socially. She came to my house. I went to hers. And I remember that when I was with her, I could not see any trace of Martha Corinne, the character she had portrayed in the film. And as I viewed the tape of the show, I didn’t see anything of the Beulah I had come to know. Two years later we were booked to bring Martha Corinne back to Walton’s Mountain. I remember so vividly our first morning of filming. I was on the Warner Brothers backlot on the front lawn of the Walton home. A small figure in a poke bonnet came around the corner of the house, saw me and came rushing to greet me, a big smile on her face. And I smiled right back. It was Martha Corinne Walton, and we greeted each other as two people who had not seen each other in over two years.
That’s sort of what has happened for me as I worked on my website. I was able to reconnect with so many fascinating characters I had met in the films I directed: young emotionally disturbed Johnny Temple whom I knew when he was a patient at Blair Hospital; satanic Mr. Smith in the Twilight Zone; Spock and Captain Kirk on the USS Enterprise; Alma and her trunk on Route 66; six-year old Eddie Corbett, his father and their devoted housekeeper, Mrs. Livingston; troubled little Kenny Carter, the boy who wanted to stay with the fugitive, Richard Kimble; Anton Christopher, the professional assassin pursued by the FBI; John-Boy, Grandpa, Grandma, in fact the whole Walton family; Fallon and her troubled brother, Stephen Carrington, living in that mansion, so like the Filoli mansion in Woodside, CA; and of course some of those people involved in crime – Dan August, Lewis Erskine, Barnaby Jones. And there were so many others, all fictitious but very real to me.
In a career there are many crossroads. Which road should I take, which way should I go? I don’t think I have ever told anyone what I’m about to reveal. I directed 6 films in the 15 months from the time I directed my first DR. KILDARE in October, 1961 to the end of 1962. 1963 proved to be my breakthrough. By September I was at work on my 11th film that year. It was an episode of another new series, THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH starring Jack Palance. Frankly the script was not as good as the ones I had been receiving, and I was facing a new predicament. Jack Palance was away, promoting the show’s upcoming network debut. Since he was the star of the series, there were not enough sequences in which he did not appear to keep the cameras rolling until his return, so I was directing scenes in which he was a major character, but shooting them without him and in such a way that when he returned, I could then film his coverage. I was not happy with what I was producing. I guess because I was the “new kid in town”, because I was “hot”, because of the difficult circumstances under which I was working, the producer loved what I thought were inferior dailies, loved me. There was a lot of joking and laughing. I remember going to lunch one day with Nina Foch, (she was guest starring and had guest starred earlier that season on an ARREST AND TRIAL I directed) and I confided in her the situation in which I found myself. I didn’t want to be accepted because producers liked me. I wanted the emphasis to be on the quality of my work, for producers to respect me because of the excellence of my films. Did I achieve that? Many years later I was told Andy White, producer of THE WALTONS, said, “Ralph will drive you crazy, but he cares.”
I hear many friends in my age bracket commenting, “Where has the time gone? It just seems to have flown by.” I don’t feel that way. I look back, and I see a LONG, LONG ROAD, the one it has taken me a LONG, LONG TIME to traverse. And it has never ceased to be eventful. By 2009 when I began this endeavor, something unforeseen and unexpected had happened. Those half-hour and one-hour episodes of series long ago put to rest had somehow elevated via DVDs and the Internet and were now considered Classic Television. I have been surprised, pleased, astounded at the Comments left on my posts. Many fans of THE WALTONS wrote they still watch an episode each day. I won’t even try to explain the devotion of Trekkies or Trekkers, those fans who prevented STAR TREK from being cancelled after its first season, those fans who repeated that phenomenal act at the end of its second season, and who have been responsible for STAR TREK’S continuing on both big and small screens until today and into the future. A big screen STAR TREK 4 is scheduled to open in 2019. And then there were the messages left by adults who wrote of watching television when they were youngsters, and how they felt that their lives had been affected in a positive way by the shows they viewed. That’ll put a smile on your face.
And now I’m reaching the end of my six-year exploring trek. What next? Is this the end of the trek? But I’m still here! And very thankful that I was there!