Highland Fling

FILMED  October 1983

I had directed three episodes of HART TO HART in their first season. I returned in 1983 as they were continuing into their fifth season, and as expected I found many changes, the most major being the studio where the series was being filmed. That first year they had been based at the 20th Century Fox lot on West Pico Boulevard, the home for Spelling Productions. I’m not sure when HART TO HART became affiliated with Columbia Studios, but I now found myself reporting to the very familiar to me Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank. However it was no longer known as Warner Bros. Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. had reached an agreement to share the studio space, so Columbia had packed up and moved from their poverty row facilities in the heart of Hollywood out to the valley to what was now loudly proclaimed on the studio water tower as The Burbank Studio.

I was also not surprised to find changes had been made in the opening billboard. The inclusion of new film clips was something I thought should be done more often, but I did wonder who had requested the alteration in Lionel Stander’s voice-over that changed the earlier “ … I take care of them, which ain’t easy, because their hobby is murder.” to “…  I take care of both of them, which ain’t easy, because when they met, it was murder.”  Sounds like network thinking to me!

The script for scene one of the screenplay was an eye-opener.

castle 1

Where in the world were we going to find a castle in the LA area? In the old movie days the exteriors would have been created on the studio back lot, and the interiors would have ben designed and built on studio sound stages— all at great cost. But this was television, a world where cost was as dirty a four-letter word as any that existed in our vocabulary. As it turned out, there was such a castle in the hills of Malibu overlooking the ocean, and I’m certain the screenplay writer knew about its existence at the time he wrote this script. It proved to be an ideal location for our exterior scenes, but the interior of the building had me referring to it as a “tract” castle. However with some judicious selecting of filmable areas and our art department redressing the furniture and furnishings in the rooms selected, the castle managed to fulfill our needs.

That first season, executive story consultant Mart Crowley had been elevated to producer status just as I was completing my third venture. He had now departed, according to IMDB records, having served as producer through season four. Leigh Vance, the new producer had some interesting information for me about the development of the screenplay for HIGHLAND FLING. In the original script, Ramsay and MacBridger had murdered Sir Gavin by drowning him in a swimming pool. Leigh told me that RJ came to him disturbed by that. Natalie Wood had drowned off Santa Catalina Island just two years before. Leigh told me he was embarrassed and ashamed and quickly had the sequence rewritten.

Chuck Henry was a local newscaster for, as I remember, the NBC outlet. I went to him while he was in make-up to tell him that we had prepared cue cards for his long exposition; he was seen on the screen speaking for a long period with the sound turned off. He thanked me, but told me he had it all memorized. A real pro!

It seemed like I knew Bill Erwin (Sir Gavin) professionally forever. I first became aware of him when I was a student at the Pasadena Playhouse and saw him on the main stage starring in a production of THE REMARKABLE MR. PENNYPACKER. HIGHLAND FLING was our third collaboration on film. But our most challenging and rewarding venture came two years later when Bill played Grandpa Vanderhof in a stage production I directed of Kaufmann and Hart’s YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. Bill may have been the most dedicated actor I ever knew. Stage, movies, television – Bill loved to act – and he did it to the end. He almost died with his boots on. His last television appearance was in 2006; he was 92 years old. He died four years later.

The lovely blond lady is Georgann Johnson. It had been eighteen years since we had worked together on WHEN THE WIND BLOWS on THE FUGITIVE.

Our second and third days of filming were at the Griffith Park Equestrian Center. Strangely, considering the location, there was not to be a horse in sight, but the expansive grounds provided us the areas we needed for the many varied sequences in our story.

Frankly I don’t remember, but I don’t think Gary Stevens (Alec Seton) was an actor. I have checked the IMDB, and this episode of HART TO HART is his only acting entry. He obviously was versed in the art of weight tossing.

That was what we filmed our first day at the Equestrian Center – the first day of the Highland Games that the Harts attended. We had the advantage of access to stock footage of a Highland Games; I’m don’t know if that footage had been filmed at the Equestrian Center. The Scottish dancers were from that stock footage. Now on to the second day of the Harts’ adventure, this time in costume!

Not everything that is filmed ends up in the final show. The following is a charming exchange between the Harts that ended up on the cutting room floor because it detracted from the main purpose of the scene, the danger to Jennifer.



So let’s get on with the excitement!

Ron Rondell was one of the best stunt coordinators in the business, and I was always impressed and amazed at the complexity and completeness of his preparation for a stunt like the one you just witnessed. Behind a raised patch of grass he had a triangular ramp for the right wheels of the vehicle to ride over, which would cause the car to spin over in the air and land upside down. It was all planned and executed meticulously, it always worked, but I have to admit, sequences like this last one always made me edgy and fearful.

This was the first time I worked (but with a qualification) with Mitch Ryan, a superb actor. In 1977 Norman Felton and Stanley Rubin were the executive producers for a series at MGM that they had developed in a night-time soap format from the studio’s major film success, EXECUTIVE SUITE. Mitch was one of the stars of the series. I was booked to direct Episodes 19 and 21. Episode 18 ended with a violent cliffhanger scene between Mitch and Sharon Acker, which would be resolved as the opening scene in my following episode. I was at the studio preparing the first of the two assignments, and so I was on the set the day that scene under the direction of Michael O’Herlihy was shot. I started filming the day after that episode wrapped. As I remember, the scene with Mitch and Sharon Acker was scheduled for my fourth day. At the end of the third day of filming, producers Buck Houghton and Rita Lakin were on the set with grim expressions on their faces. They announced they had just received word from CBS that EXECUTIVE SUITE had been cancelled. I never completed the episode I was filming, and I had to wait six and a half years before finally working with Mitch Ryan.

I filmed the dancing with two cameras, with several takes, following different people at different angles. RJ Wagner was not totally prepared for what he had to do; his Jonathan was continually at a loss as to what his next dance step was to be, but he was brazenly toughing it out. RJ USED it brilliantly. And it was FUNNY. The crew loved it. Imagine my surprise when viewing the first assemblage the following week to find all of the fun was gone; it was a dull sequence. I questioned the editor as to what had happened. He thought the frivolity was a mistake and had carefully eliminated it as he put the scene together. He reedited the scene, reinstating cuts of RJ and his difficulty dancing, but you know what – the final scene was not what it could have been, what it should have been, had it been assembled at the outset with the focus on Jonathan.

You know, as I remember the original THIN MAN films, William Powell as Nick usually assembled all of the suspects in a room at the end, and using his intelligence he identified the guilty party. Brain superseded brawn. I don’t remember his having to sock the person. Is that where television has taken us? Not only television. The violence emanating from our big screens today speaks for itself; it needs no further comment.

The journey continues

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5 Responses to Highland Fling

  1. Steve Alvin says:

    Great work on this! I also agree with you on the editing in the dancing scene.

    Thanks for all your hard work over the years!

  2. Steve Z. says:

    Spelling-Goldberg productions sold Hart To Hart to Columbia Pictures Television in the spring of 1982. The final two seasons were done there.

  3. Phil says:

    What a fascinating tidbit regarding ‘Executive Suite’. I’ve seen the movie, but I have no memory of the TV series at all. Upon further research, it appears that the TV show was up against ‘Monday Night Football’…that explains EVERYTHING! Upon further reflection, I should have flipped over to CBS during the half-time highlights to check out Sharon, Madlyn Rhue and Trisha Noble.

    IMDB and Wikipedia are patchy on episodic details with respect to directors and writers (Michael O’Herlihy is not listed as one of its directors). Both sources agree that the series went off the air after 18 episodes. However, Wikipedia lists two more episodes as “unaired”. Perhaps they were partially completed as you described. Number 19 is called “The Topless Towers of Illium” and Number 20 is called “A House Divided”.
    This series is buried deep. Youtube has only one 30-second CBS promo for it and the UCLA archives have nothing.

    • Ralph says:

      I cannot be sure that I was assigned the two numbered episodes I cited. I knew that 18 aired. I assumed they aired everything that had been filmed.

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