Graduation: Part II

Filmed January 1986

If you haven’t read the previous post (GRADUATION),
it might be wise to do so before continuing!

Abby Singer just might inadvertently have been the Directors Guild’s most famous assistant director of all time. Why? As an assistant director, at the end of a day of filming, he would announce, “This is the last shot.” Very often once the shot was completed, he would then call out, “Oh, there’s one more.” This happened often enough that throughout the film industry the next to the final shot of the day became known as the “Abby.” The fame of his second from the final shot of the day spread worldwide. Film students from around the world came to Universal Studio seeking out the famous Abby SInger. I was informed of this early in my career so that I too soon joined the fray. Till the very end of my days behind the camera as the filming day approached its second from the final shot, I would announce, “This is the Abby.” Why do I bring this subject up now? What I didn’t realize at the time I was filming GRADUATE was that it was my next to the final film production of my career, MY “Abby.” Having stated that let’s now return to our law school and get embroiled again with Rose’s study group.

According to the IMDB, Rob Knepper’s appearance as Haskell in GRADUATION was either his first or second film. He sent me a very nice note after we wrapped. It’s a very pleasant feeling to know I had a positive effect on a beginning career – and he’s still working!


THE PAPER CHASE: THE GRADUATION YEAR was being filmed a third of the way through my 25th year as a member of the Directors Guild of America. A quarter of a century had passed, and the profession had changed. Not so much on the soundstage! The camera crew was dynamite. Director of photography Al Taylor, working under the stringent demands I have discussed earlier, delivered impeccable results. Lighting, grips, make-up left nothing to be desired, and the cast was one of the best ensemble groups I had directed.

It was in the producer’s offices that the changes had occurred, not in the quality of the scripts they were turning out (directing a script like GRADUATION in 1986 was much like directing a quarter of a century earlier on DR. KILDARE) but in the timing of their completion. During the preparation period a production meeting was held as early as possible, at which time a representative from each crew assigned to the show gathered with the producer and the director as a page-by-page dissection was conducted of everything that would be needed when filming. I found that the (re)writing staff seemed to think that their deadline for delivering the final rewritten script was the first day of filming. When I complained, I was told we should have our production meeting based on the original script. My objections were futile. I tried to wait them out. Finally we had our production meeting, but not on the final version of the script we were to film, and it was just four days (in the twelve-day prep period) before our first day of filming.

Eleven months earlier when I completed photography on THE BIG D, the fourth and last of my commitments to THE PAPER CHASE: THE THIRD YEAR, I made a decisive decision. I turned down requests to direct television in order to return to the theatre. I directed a production of YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU for Theatre 40, a professional group based on the campus of Beverly Hills High School. Sid Conrad (Professor Gabriel, the grey-haired member of the faculty who opened the previous film clip) was an important member of that play’s cast. Sid and his wife Shelley became close personal friends. An interesting fact I discovered while writing my website, RALPH’S CINEMA TREK: A Journey in Film: While viewing a scene on THE FBI of Efrem Zimablist addressing a group of agents, I thought one of the agents was Sid. It was too small a role to be listed in the credits. At the time of the play or any time afterward he never mentioned having worked with me before, and I did not remember working with him. And now, unfortunately, I can’t check with him, because he is no longer with us.

At the time I directed GRADUATION I was aware I had not experienced during my final days at the Pasadena Playhouse a grueling pre-graduation ordeal like the one I was filming. Today with the added objectivity of almost three additional decades, I realize how special that institution’s training had been, at least for me. Coming from a very small town in the middle of the country, long before the influences of television and the Internet, I was a complete theatre novice, my experience limited to the movies (they weren’t yet called ‘films’). I was to learn later during my very short stay in the theatre department of the University of Iowa and my six month’s at Northwestern University how different the training at the Playhouse had been from those two fine schools. During my two years at the Playhouse for 24 hours a day (less the few hours allotted to sleeping) I was subjected to around-the-clock exposure to theatre, but to put it bluntly the training at the Playhouse was NOT academic, except for one class, the second year class in play direction. There I really lucked out! For the first time Gilmor Brown, the founder of the Playhouse, was not going to teach the class. Richard O’Connell, a young graduate of Yale drama department, the same university Miss Oulman, my high school drama director, had attended, was taking over. O’Connell used Alexander Dean’s Fundamentals of Play Directing as he taught the course he had received at Yale. The book became my Bible. I left the Playhouse with the solid foundation in directing to build on that course had provided, with the awareness that there were a multitude of doors that had been opened into other aspects of theatre that still needed to be traversed, and that the seed to the wonderful journey I was about to begin was my short association with the remarkable Myrtle Oulman.

Having to make a career decision so early in life can be difficult for young people. I was interrupted halfway through my sophomore year in college by 34 months service in the wartime army, so that I was 23 when I made an important change in the direction of my future life, but many complete their education and get their degree, only to find they’re not satisfied with their choice – unless …

Actors on a long running series can form familial relationships. When we filmed the scene of Hart and Ford leaving their apartment to attend the graduation ceremonies, I wondered — no I really felt that James and Tom brought additional depths of emotion to the scene because of their personal 4-season (spread over 8-years) association on THE PAPER CHASE series.

The final three days of filming were on the campus of the University of California.




The first two days we shot the earlier scenes viewed in the previous post and the pre-ceremony scenes of this post.

For the ceremony filmed on the third and final day at USC I used 3 cameras. My coverage for the final day’s work – just under 60 set-ups!

Hart’s commencement address to the graduating class was a solid 4 pages ,,,

… and took over 5 minutes to deliver. James Stephens really had his work cut out for him. Having the three cameras helped as I filmed three cameras aimed at him as he delivered his speech. But he also had to do the off camera for that endless row of reaction shots. He didn’t have to do the whole speech each time, but I believed I got better reactions having him do a portion of the speech for them to react to than if I just shot people pretending to listen.

And now I have a decision to make. Is this post the ABBY for RALPH’S CINEMA TREK?

The journey continues

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7 Responses to Graduation: Part II

  1. Tim Messenger says:

    Mr. Senensky ~

    I have enjoyed reading of your adventures. I HOPE that you will NOT stop Sharing them. I’d never heard of the term `Abby ` before … BUT in relation to your Website the term I would prefer is : Action! Please keep Writing ! Take Care.

  2. John Dayton says:

    Oh Ralph, please say it is not so – this cannot, must not be your Abby

  3. Jim says:


    First, thanks so much again for sharing with all of us the many memories from your storied career – they are invaluable and fascinating insights – I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed all your posts – I’ve read each one – most multiple times.

    You certainly deserve a break but let me add my voice to those above who would ask you to continue with more posts – and I also hope there may be a sequel to “The Right Regrets”.

  4. Phil says:

    If someone could visit Ralph’s local library and look for CD box sets of ‘Checkmate’, ‘I Spy’, and ‘Ironside’, we’ll have three potential Abbys!

  5. Dave Conley says:

    Hart’s valedictory was GREAT … a rare instance when a character who is presented to us as brilliant actually demonstrated it with his words. As a Paper Chase fan, I thought this episode provided a satisfying sense of closure — which is to say, a sense of something new starting just beyond our own vision. A shame that the episode is very hard to find.

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