Johnny Temple

Filmed October 1961

That was the opening scene of the first television show I directed, JOHNNY TEMPLE, an episode of DR. KILDARE. As I think back to the last leg of my journey to that moment in 1961, it seems almost surreal. To retake the last leg of that journey let’s dissolve (just like in the movies) back to December, 1960. I was completing my fifth year of employment at CBS. PLAYHOUSE 90, on which I had served as a Production Supervisor was long dead. My six months as an Assistant Producer on FULL CIRCLE, a daytime soap opera, was a thing of the past. CBS Television had almost no in-house productions, so I was assigned to service a pair of outside package game shows using CBS facilities. Nothing to do with the production of the show itself. My main function was to be sure the required commercials were received at the studio from the advertising agencies and to oversee with the film editors their mounting on reels in the proper sequence for airing. BORING!

Outside of the studio, I had had a very successful year directing theatre. This was done evenings and weekends while still fulfilling my commitment to my job at CBS. I had directed a production of Paul Osborne’s MORNING’S AT SEVEN for Equity Library Theatre West of which James Powers wrote in his review in the Hollywood Reporter:

“If one production were needed to justify Equity Library Theatre’s existence here, its presentation of Paul Osborne’s “Morning’s At Seven” would do it. Ralph Senensky, who directed the charming comedy, has seen in the gentle fable all its shining gold and extracted it so carefully that it glistens with a healthy sheen and cannot be mistaken for the more customary comedy brass. Senensky…tries for, and achieves, a gentler technique that gives the lines their genuine value, and appreciates the real situations, proceeding naturally from natural sources, not built backward from a laugh to a setup. Senensky achieves a rhythm and flow that is the greatest trick in such comedy.”

Next came a production of Somerset Maugham’s THE CIRCLE starring Estelle Winwood on the Pasadena Playhouse main stage, followed by another production there of Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s GOLDEN FLEECING. They too received rave reviews. The total financial payment for these three productions came to a paltry two hundred dollars. The advancement to my career was even scantier. Zilch! To put it as civilly as possible, I was frustrated and discouraged.

A very close friend at CBS, Louise Paulk, secretary to one of the executives, had been a long time supporter of my aspirations. She told me of a woman in Santa Barbara, whom she frequently went to see. This lady, I’ve forgotten her name, so because of her location let’s call her Barbara. Louise told me Barbara gave horoscope readings — wonderful readings. She thought it would help if I went to see her. I figured why not! I contacted Barbara, gave her the necessary information regarding my birth date and birth place and made an appointment to see her the following month. On a Saturday morning in January I motored up to Santa Barbara, met Barbara and sat down with her for my session. Before she told me what the future foretold, she did a personality analysis of me that frankly startled me. She seemed to know me better than my immediate family and closest friends. And then she said, “I know what you want, but it can’t happen now. You must be patient. It can’t happen until October.” I returned to Los Angeles and CBS only slightly encouraged.

Soon after that Allen Parr, the head of Personnel for television, summoned me to his office. This was sort of a replay of a similar scene two years earlier. At that time I had just been promoted from secretary to Russell Stoneham, an Assistant Producer on PLAYHOUSE 90, to the position of Production Supervisor on the same show. (Russell had been elevated to Associate Producer so I was taking over his previous duties, but with a lesser title.) At this point I was earning a miniscule $150 a week, the same salary I had been paid as a secretary. Bill Larson, with whom I shared an office, was the alternating Production Supervisor on PLAYHOUSE 90 and was earning three times that. I told Russell I thought I should have a raise. He agreed and set up a meeting with Allen Parr. The offer Allen presented me was an insulting ten dollar raise, and I would have to sign a five-year contract. Now I had no intention of signing any contract; I still had dreams of making it as a director. So I said I’m sorry but I won’t sign any contract. Allen shrugged, indicating no contract, no raise and said, “You’re the one who asked for the raise.” My answer to that was, “I asked for a raise, not a tip.”

The $150 salary was still my wage when I was summoned to see Allen after my Santa Barbara trip. He told me they were restructuring the Table of Organization for the department. My position and my salary would have to conform. In other words I would be gaining a considerable increase in earnings, but I also would be required to sign a five year contract. I still had no intention of signing any contract because of my continuing aspirations as a director; besides which at this point I thought, if I sign a five-year contract, that could make me ineligible for what Barbara told me about October. So I again refused to sign a contract. Allen said I had to sign it, at which point I gave him my two weeks notice. Two weeks later I left CBS after five years. No job. No prospects. I wasn’t even eligible for unemployment insurance for six weeks because I had quit.

Norman Felton was an executive at CBS. I had been in and out of his office almost daily during my tenure as a Production Supervisor on Playhouse 90. Whenever a request from a show in production came to my desk for additional money, I would take it to him for approval. One morning when I went in with such a request, Norman (or Mr. Felton as I knew him then) was reading the Hollywood Reporter. In fact he was reading James Powers’ review of my production of MORNING’S AT SEVEN. Holding up the newspaper he asked, “Is this you?” I said it was. He questioned me about my theatre background, the Pasadena Playhouse, my four years in community theatre in Iowa. He told me he too had started in community theatre. He had directed live television in New York and had produced ROBERT MONTGOMERY PRESENTS, a weekly live television show. He didn’t come to see MORNING’S AT SEVEN. And in the following five months he didn’t come to see my productions of THE CIRCLE and GOLDEN FLEECING, but he did acknowledge both of them and commented on their favorable reviews.

In the spring of 1961 Norman Felton left CBS to go to MGM, where he formed his own production company, Arena Productions. Their first project was to adapt the old Lew Ayres-Lionel Barrymore medical show, DR. KILDARE, into a television series. And I ended up going with him. He told me the table of organization for his production (oh those tables!) didn’t have a job for me; there was only a producer and an associate producer, so he created a job of assistant to the producer. He apologized that the salary would not be all that great; in fact it would be the same $150 I was making at CBS. And that’s how I got to the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio. I started there on my birthday, May 1.

MGM was my film school. I went to dailies each day at 1. (Dailies for you civilians reading this are the printed takes of the previous day’s work.) I spent as much time on the set observing as I could. I spent a lot of time in the film editing rooms with our three film editors. Eventually I even got to direct some insert shots on an insert stage. I went to the music spotting sessions with Herb and Harry Sukman, my favorite music composer. Then I went to the music recording sessions, and finally the dubbing sessions when the original sound track, the background music track, and the special effect tracks were all blended together into one master sound track. I did whatever Herb Hirschman, my producer, requested. Herb incidentally was a lovely man. I had known him before, when he had come from New York as the associate producer for Herb Brodkin on the episodes of PLAYHOUSE 90 that Brodkin produced. Hirschman had also directed a couple of PLAYHOUSE 90’s. I must have being doing something right. One day walking with Norman between the production office and the sound stage he told me he thought I would make a very good producer. I responded that my goal was to be a good director.

One day in August Herb invited me to go with him to a screening. He was going to view an independent film, a first time directorial effort by a new director on the East Coast. We saw the film, Herb liked it and hired the director to direct a DR. KILDARE. The director, who shall remain nameless, having come from the independent film world proved to be far less disciplined than the previous lineup of directors. In fact he drove the camera and sound crews crazy. One day after his film was completed, I confronted Norman as we walked from the production office to the sound stage. I said, “Norman, you know that I want to be a director, and I’ve been very patient. I haven’t bugged you about it because of the experienced directors that you’ve been hiring. I know you’re aware of what happened on the sound stages last week. Well I think if you’re going to start handing out charity, charity should start at home.” Norman listened to me, then said that he would see what he could do. A couple days later he called me into his office. He said the people at the network, where he would have to get the approval to assign me to a film, were a little nervous at this time. We were still a few weeks away from our opening air date, and the network people were not totally happy with a show directed by our producer, Herb Hirschman. They were being extra cautious about whom they would approve. Norman said just be patient a little longer until we get on the air, when he would then be able to make an assignment without seeking network approval.

DR. KILDARE debuted September 28, 1961 to positive reviews and high ratings. One week later on Friday, OCTOBER 6, I was handed the script of JOHNNY TEMPLE to direct.

JOHNNY TEMPLE was the story of a seventeen year old boy supposedly attacked by a street gang and knifed. Although that sequence (which you viewed in the clip above) was an exterior day scene filmed on MGM’s back lot, and exterior scenes were usually shot first, we also had night exteriors in our story. Night exteriors were usually scheduled for Fridays. That was to accommodate the turnaround clauses in guild contracts. Actors had to have twelve hours between the end of a filming day and their return to the studio the next day; crew members had to have ten. (Incidentally Directors had no such protection.)  By scheduling night work for Friday, the weekend provided the buffer that allowed the following Monday’s crew call to start at the regular 7:30 am. Therefore our filming began on the soundstage in Dr. Gillelspie’s office. The first scheduled sequence involved Johnny’s parents and Dr. Gillespie. Johnny had been brought by the police to Blair Hospital, and his parents had been notified.  This being the first scene I had ever filmed, I nervously wanted to be overly well-prepared. I had started my six day prep on Friday. By the following Thursday I had the action of this first scene blocked and camera angles planned. I took my marked-up script to Jack Kampschroer, the film editor assigned to this episode. Jack, because I was a member of the company, was extremely protective of me and had already given me some pointers. The most important one was the instruction to always have characters enter and exit film setups. Jack checked my work and gave it his okay. Friday morning I was back in his editing room. I had replanned the whole thing and again wanted his okay. And again he gave it. Saturday morning I called his home. I had redone the scene again. Could I bring it out to his house for his approval? He graciously said I could; I did; he checked my planned work and again okayed it. Monday morning we started filming. Raymond Massey, Virginia Gregg and Peter Whitney plus Richard Chamberlain and Karl Weber as non-speaking observers in the scene. It all went off without a hitch. By noon I had shot twenty setups and felt like a veteran Hollywood director. By the end of the day I had 39 setups in the can and was right on schedule. (A solid day’s work is 25 setups.) The next day at 1 pm we watched the rushes of the first day’s work. After the screening Jack, with a big grin on his face said, “What happened?” You guessed it. Sunday I had replanned the scene for the fourth time, and that was the version I filmed.

Earlier in the story (but later in the filming schedule) Johnny was brought to Blair Hospital. I never had any problem filming scenes out of sequence. I know my theatre experience contributed to this ease; but I’m sure the fact that when I did my homework, planning my staging and camera angles, I did that in sequence.  My aim from the beginning was to have the entire show prepared before I commenced filming. I also established a procedure on this show that I continued for several years; I arranged to be admitted to the studio on the weekend so I could plan my staging and camera angles right on the sets I would be filming.

Several yearsl later the push-in from the two shot of Johnny and the officer into the closeup of Johnny could be done with a zoom lens.  But this was several years before the zoom lens would be available for the BNC cameras. This shot was done with a flat 40mm lens, which meant the dolly grip was very slowly pushing the dolly and at the same time very slowly booming down, a complicated operation. An interesting side note: the camera dollies at MGM squeaked when the crane was rising, making it impossible to boom up if there was dialogue.

There were only six one-minute commercials in a one hour show, and there would only be one, maybe two sponsors for the entire show. That meant the sponsors had a great deal of influence on what went on the screen. In the following sequence the original script had Johnny pouring cigarette ashes from an ashtray into the older man’s soup. But one of our sponsors was a cigarette company. One phone call from the advertising agency, and the scene was changed.

I met Anthony Hopkins a few years earlier at a party. He was at the time playing Bruno Hauptmann in a television drama about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Hopkins said people extol the brilliance of English actors, but he was in awe of American actors; he felt they were superior. He told me that when he reported to the studio, the company was already several days into shooting, and he visited the set to watch the filming. He said he was impressed with the actors he observed. They would have a short runthrough rehearsal; then after the scene was lit, the camera rolled, and they immediately gave terrific, truthful performances.

I too am in awe of good actors. And I am fascinated by what I consider to be the (I think unacknowledged) film actors’ contribution to the development of realism in acting. In the early thirties a group of successful Broadway actors on the east coast united to form the Group Theatre. Their goal was to bring to theatre a realism in acting that according to reports was being developed at the Moscow Art Theatre under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavsky. In pursuit of that goal several of the group went to Russia to observe and study the work being done there. Upon their return the Group Theatre did bring a new kind of realism to Broadway acting. In the forties many of these actors became our leading acting teachers. Eventually this led to the formation of the Actors Studio, and we know what that has given us.

But I have a theory that an unheralded parallel movement was taking place on the west coast. With the advent of sound on film, the broad style of silent film acting no longer would suffice. (Although even back in the silents there were those few performers who were working in a more realistic mode: Lillian Gish, Greta Garbo, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Richard Barthelmess) The realism in acting that the Group Theatre strived for was also being developed in the early years of sound because the CAMERA DEMANDED IT. Some of our great stars achieved it very quickly, almost intuitively: Spencer Tracy, Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck James Cagney, Beulah Bondi. Others had to learn and adapt: Norma Shearer, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Jean Arthur.

This abillity for an actor to bring total believability to whatever they are asked to do is especially valuable when the material they are given to enact is not the best. And that is a fact of life that has been with us since the beginning of theatre. I’ve always believed that a major reason the gigantic Hollywood superstars of the thirties and forties (Cagney, Gable, Mitchum, Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, and on and on) came into being because they more often than not had to deliver performances that rose above the inferior quality of the words in the script. That necessity prevailed even into televison in the sixties.

My cameraman, Harkness Smith, like film editor Jack Kampschroer, wasn’t going to let me make any mistakes that he could avert. After all I had been a member of the company as assistant to the producer for five months. I was a member of the team. From the first day Harkie insisted that for every sequence, I stage the entire scene with the actors for him to see before I broke it down into film setups. That was to prevent me from doing something that would create a film editing problem later. Do you know that twenty-six years later when I directed my last film, I was still doing it Harkie’s way.

In fact I was surrounded by people in the company looking out for me. I remember the day I scouted the New York Street locations on one of MGM’s back lots for the opening sequence where Johnny was knifed . Charles Hagedon, the art director for the series, was guiding me around. At one point he said to me, “Remember the words of John Ford: ‘Move the actors, not the camera.'”

In my early years, cameras still had the parallex viewer attached to their left side. The view through the parallex was different from the view through the lens. It was needed because when the camera racked over for shooting, the view through the lens was covered up. The operator looked through the parallex during the filming, making the adjustment for the difference of the two views. From day one when I would check a setup before shooting, Harkie drilled into me, “Look through the lens.” And on a more amusing level MGM at that time used an electronic marker instead of the more visible clapper to synchronize picture and sound. Camera would roll, the sound mixer would call out “Speed”, and there would be a loud electronic ‘beep’ as a mark was put on both film and sound track for later synchronization. All of this took several seconds. Many was the time I would be seated on the front of the crab dolly, my mind already thinking about the next shot. Sound called out “speed”, the electronic beeper beeped, and when nothing came from me, Harkie, standing next to me would quietly whisper, “Say action.”

When Johnny returned home, there was a strange but powerful scene coming up that I was not sure had been totally prepared for. There had been the incident at the hospital involving the knife on his breakfast tray that Johnny hid, and the scene between Johnny and the psychiatrist. One of the benefits of my coming to the studio on the weekend to plan my staging in the actual sets where they would be performed was I discovered camera angles I might not have seen working off a floor plan on paper. Here was an example of such a case; I found an angle and bit of business that I thought visually and strikingly showed Johnny’s problem was more serious than his parents realized. A small request to the art department and the set was dressed to give me the shot I wanted.

This film provided me with a first: the first time I staged a shot involving a mirror. And I planned a very difficult one. The shot was to be filmed with a long lens (I think it was a       75 mm or a 100 mm). We started filming, and take after take was spoiled because the focus puller kept missing. It wasn’t his fault. It was an extremely difficult shot. I was concerned with the time it was taking to complete the scene. I finally suggesed to Harkie that we simplify it, shoot it with a wider angle lens. Harkie very calmly said, “No. We’ll get it.” And we did.

I must interject here and say that in the following twenty-six years, I don’t think I ever  met a mirror on a set that I didn’t use.

In the original script when Johnny’s father got a phone call from the police that made him realize Johnny was mentally ill, he confronted Johnny, and Johnny shot him. I didn’t like that. In our story Johnny had been supposedly knifed; in the hospital there had been the incident involving a knife; Johnny’s room was filled with knives; and Johnny had envisioned himself as a surgeon holding a scalpel. Why in a scene in his bedroom surrounded by knives  would he use a GUN! I wanted to do the scene with a knife as the weapon. I pointed this out to Herb Hirschman. He was concerned the network would object to Johnny stabbing his father. (BUT IT WAS OKAY TO SHOOT HIM?) I asked, “What if I make the knifing accidental?” Herb agreed to that. But on the sixth and final day when we shot the scene, Herb was on the set, checking.

A decade earlier when I was still in Mason City, Iowa, the younger son of close friends, Andy,  was mentally retarded. (I know today that term is unacceptable; he would be described as mentally challenged.) His mother, Maggie, told me that when he was younger, four, five, six she took him everywhere with her. He appeared to be just a normal young boy. But by the age of seven or eight, he said he didn’t want to go with her any longer. When she asked him why, he responded, “People look at me.” When I knew him he was a beautiful boy of twelve with the mind of a five year old. Andy would get occasional but severe headaches. I observed him at such times when he would bang his head against a wall, trying to get rid of the pain. Johnny Temple wasn’t retarded, but because of his headaches, I wanted to use this. On the back lot of MGM at the site I selected, I had some padding attached to the building. Andy had long since passed away. This was my Andy moment!

Seventeen years later I scouted MGM’s lot 2 for a television movie I was directing. The padding I had had installed on the building for this sequence was still there.

It was said of Irving Thalberg: He didn’t make movies for people to see. He made movies for people to feel. Boy, do I believe in that!

Doug Lambert, who played seventeen year old Johnny Temple, was twenty-five years old at the time. Richard Chamberlain was only two years older. I saw Doug just one time later when he auditioned for a role he didn’t get. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, Doug died in London at the age of fifty.

Because they were pleased with my work, I was booked to direct another DR. KILDARE the following spring. I continued my duties as Assistant to the Producer; but a few weeks later Lamont Johnson, who was booked to direct a current production, was signed to direct a Broadway play. A switch was made, and I was moved up into his slot and he was set to take my later slot. I don’t remember the name of the script they handed me; I just remember it was a ridiculous story that had Jim Kildare being involved with a rodeo. I worked on the script for a couple of days and realized that I was not capable of pulling it off. It was not a good script. Very little of it took place at Blair Hospital; most of it was at the rodeo. And all of of this on a six day schedule. I voiced my concerns to Herb Hirschman and asked to be relieved of the assignment.

I now faced a major moment of reckoning. I was in another situation like that one I had escaped at CBS. I had a job, but it was not directing. And since the directors for the balance of the DR. KILDARE schedule were booked, I feared losing what little momentum I currently was experiencing. Norman Felton had very kindly and graciously arranged for me to be represented by one of the top agencies in Hollywood. I decided it was time to cut the umbilical cord once again; I arranged to leave MGM and DR. KILDARE and set out as a free lance director, an out of work free lance director, but a director. And that was what I did. A year after I had departed CBS with no prospects, I was departing MGM, and the prospects were still very iffy.

The journey continues

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9 Responses to Johnny Temple

  1. CECE says:

    WOW.LOTS GOIN ON HERE!!!I REMEMBER DR. K I WAS 10 YEARS OLD AND FELL I NLOVE WITH HIM I ACTUALLY WANTED TO MARRY HIM!!….. CRAZY EH? I LIKE YOUR REPLY ABOUT THE RAISE NOT A TIP!.. WORK, WORK, WORK, LENSES, MIRRORS, MOVE THE PEOPLE NOT THE CAMERA…….THANK YOU!

  2. Ralph says:

    Cece you weren’t the only one. One day my cousin came to visit the set with her 15 year old daughter. We were standing in the hospital corridor set, talking when Richard Chamberlain appeared walking toward us. The 15 year old at the sight of him collapsed, and fell against the wall of the set. It was amusing and charming.

  3. Daniel Rudolf says:

    Surely, not the only one. My mom also fell in love with Richard Chamberlain when she was a girl.

  4. robert freese says:

    I loved the Kildare stories.. was 14..and still watch the dvd racks for it. What a marvelous insight you give of those days behind the camera. Looking for an old(50s)movie I found a rare treasure-accidentally!..thankyou

  5. Moira says:

    Ralph, thanks for this fascinating look at the care and detail that went into crafting a show back then. I am particularly impressed with the authority of Raymond Massey and the versatility of Peter Whitney and Virginia Gregg in roles that were somewhat unusual for them–sympathetic, overwhelmed parents! I have only recently discovered your blog and am loving every post. You mentioned elsewhere on the blog that television depicted characters with considerable depth in this period, which is only now beginning to be fully appreciated, imho.

    I wish I could have seen your stage productions of “Mornings at Seven” and “The Circle” with Estelle Winwood! They sound great. Thanks for posting these accounts of your experiences.
    Cheers,
    Moira

  6. Phil says:

    A knife nut using a gun…now THAT’s funny!

    I have a weird question regarding MGM. It was prompted by an unusual comment made on a documentary regarding the TV series ‘Combat!’ To save money in its final season (1966-67), the series moved its interior filming from MGM Studios to CBS/Studio City. Director Michael Caffey didn’t like this change, because MGM’s soundstages were wooden and CBS’ were concrete; working on concrete was more physically taxing on your feet, lower back, etc. Did you ever “feel” this difference while working?

    It seems weird, but it kind of makes sense. At a gym, the aerobic training floors are made of wood, because they give a little.

    • Ralph says:

      Now isn’t that strange! I don’t remember MGM’s soundstages having wooden floors. I’m remembering concrete floors, and no, I don’t recall having any physical problems because of the concrete floors. But you have given me cause to wonder — in the past thirteen years I have had two back surgeries.

  7. Steve Z. says:

    Ralph,
    Since you directed Johnny Temple, who filled in for you as the assistant to the producer? Nobody was listed in that episode’s ending credits. Also, the ending credits on the pilot episode 24 hours have you listed as assistant to the producer. That episode was filmed months before you started working on the show. Was that a mistake by whoever did the titling of the end credits?

    • Ralph says:

      Regarding JOHNNY TEMPLE, thank you for noticing my omission. Nobody filled in, and I guess they didn’t feel I should have two credits on the show. As for the pilot, I wasn’t there for the filming, but I was there during the summer months for the followup. There probably wasn’t an assistant on the pilot when it filmed. In fact, thinking back, I know there wasn’t, because Norman Felton told me the staffing of the show did not have an assistant to the producer, and he created the post so he could hire me.

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