Who Am I Killing?

Filmed October 1982

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ricks

What do you do as a director if you are offered a chance to direct a new version of CITIZEN KANE? Fortunately I was never faced with the need to respond to such an offer, and as far as I know, no one else was either. What do you do as a director if you are offered a chance to direct a new version of GONE WITH THE WIND? Fortunately again I never had to decide, but there are some unfortunate souls who did receive the offer and accepted. What do you do as a director if you are booked to direct a new version of CASABLANCA? In 1982 I received such an offer. CASABLANCA was a planned limited series of five episodes to be produced by David Wolper in lieu of a pilot to secure a booking as a weekly series on NBC. I was offered a chance to direct one of the five episodes. I accepted the booking. The series turned out to be a total bust, a complete flop. Then why do I remember it so fondly? Let me count the ways.

It was the final time I would work with my close friend, Charles Fitzsimons, whom I had known since our early days in the late fifties at CBS. Charles and I were very much alike. We were both Taureans with birthdays just a week apart, but birth dates a full year apart. I was a year and a week older than Charles. Charles hailed from Dublin, Ireland, where he was a practicing attorney. He told me the story of why he left the practice of law. He was prosecuting a case against a defendant, and he won the case, a case that he felt he shouldn’t have won. The defense attorney’s inadequacy was the determining factor. This so disturbed him, he resolved he would never practice law again.

Charles was the younger brother (by four years) of actress, Maureen O’Hara. He told me the charming story of how Maureen got her stage name. She had been discovered by Charles Laughton and cast in his film, JAMAICA INN. Before this she had appeared in two films under her birth name, Maureen Fitzsimons. One day Mr. Laughton came to Maureen’s dressing room and announced, “Maureen, you’re going to change your name.”

Maureen, her red haired Irish temper rising said, “I am not going to change my name. I am perfectly happy being Maureen Fitzsimons.”

But Laughton persisted “Yes you are. You are going to be a great star, and you can’t be a great star with the name, Maureen Fitzsimons.”

The Irish temper went up a notch. “There’s nothing the matter with that name. Barry Fitzgerald didn’t have to change his name. Geraldine Fitzgerald didn’t change her name.”

“Well there is a difference between Fitzsimons and Fitzgerald. And besides, you’re going to be a bigger star. So you have a choice. You will be either Maureen O’Mara or Maureen O’Hara.”

And that’s how Maureen Fitzsimons became Maureen O’Hara.

When John Ford came to Ireland to film THE QUIET MAN with Maureen and John Wayne, Charles was cast as an actor in the film. Ford took a liking to him and convinced him he should come to Hollywood and pursue a career as an actor. Charles did, but (and this is just my interpretation of what happened) he was actually too smart to be an actor. Thus he became one of the smartest producers in the coming field of television. He was the line producer for CASABLANCA, and I know it was his requesting me that brought me into the project. You will hear more about Charles as we wend our way through the production. He was a very hands-on producer, but not the kind of hands-on aimed at controlling and restricting the director; he was always there as a collaborator, a fixer, most of the time out in front of the problem, ready to erase it before it arrived.

When I moved to Carmel over twenty years ago, I had to make a strange adjustment whenever I dined in a restaurant. The waiters and waitresses didn’t look like the waiters and waitresses in Southern California. The southern version had all looked like movie stars, aspiring actors waiting in the wings. One of my favorite restaurants was Butterfield’s on Sunset Boulevard in what had been the guesthouse of John Barrymore’s home. David Mauro always waited on me. David was the watch salesman you just saw. The first time David acted for me was in 1966 in an episode of THE FBI.

The Disney studio had an exterior street that was perfect for the night sequences in our story. But those night scenes did not add up to a full day’s work, so rather than creating our internment camp with the tan Burbank studio soundstage buildings in the background, production designer Preston Ames erected his wire fences with the tan soundstages of the Disney studio in the background, ergo I had a whole day filming on the Disney lot. But I still didn’t get to eat in the legendary Disney commissary that I had heard so much about through the years.

Before every shot in the club, special effects would come in with their bee smokers to give the club that smoky look. By the end of the second day I was having doubts about my future as a film director. This was a return to work for me after an extended hiatus, and I was beginning to think that as I approached the age of sixty, possibly the directing grind might be more than I could cope with. Then on the third day we went to the Disney studio where we filmed exteriors all afternoon and into the night, and I realized it was not age creeping up on me; it was those damn bee smokers. Starting with day two, David Wolper would comment at the end of the screening of the dailies from the previous day, “More smoke!” So we added more smoke. The next day — “More smoke!” Finally David Soul spoke up and told Wolper, “David, for God’s sake, we can’t breathe now.”

Our major casting chore was to find our Celia Havard, an English woman attractive enough to be a leading lady, capable of playing some pretty heavy dramatic scenes, and oh yes, she had to be able to sing – many songs. There was a long procession of ladies who came in to audition. Lorna Luft, Judy Garland’s daughter and Liza Minnelli’s sister, was one of them. She had appeared in GREASE 2, which had come out earlier in the year, and her audition seemed as if she was auditioning for GREASE 3. One of the stars of the original Broadway production of one of my favorite musicals, A CHORUS LINE, came in. She had won a Tony for that production, but she wasn’t right for Celia. And then Trisha Noble showed up. She was Australian. You know, I don’t remember if we had her sing, but she got the part.

Okay! I can’t hold off any longer. Let’s talk about director of photography Joseph Biroc, Little Joe — a true Hollywood story, a true Hollywood legend. Joe told me he had been a late starter. The route to being a director of photography started with being a second assistant cameraman, then up to assistant cameraman, then camera operator and finally director of photography. His contemporary Robert Surtees was thirty-six when he became a director of photography; Russell Metty made it at the age of thirty; James Wong Howe was twenty-four; Charles Lang Jr. was in his mid-twenties; Robert Planck made it in his late twenties, and Stanley Cortez was twenty-eight. When Joe was forty-three years old, he was still a camera operator, working on a major feature film. One day the director set up a shot, and Joseph Walker, the director of photography, declared he couldn’t do it. The director took exception to that statement, turned to Joe Biroc and said, “Can you make this shot, Joe?” Joe answered, “Yes, Mr. Capra, I think so.” So Joe became the director of photography, not only for that shot, but for the balance of the feature. When it was released the Directors of Photography credited were Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc. The film was IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, the Frank Capra-James Stewart classic that has become an annual must-see every Christmas. And now, at the age of seventy-nine with an Oscar and an Emmy on his mantel (he would win another Emmy for this series), he was still going strong, and I had the supreme honor, the incredible privilege of working with him.

WHO AM I KILLING? was the second time I worked with production designer, Preston Ames. He had designed a pilot I directed the previous year for Norman Rosemont Productions. His resume reads like a history of Hollywood. He won Oscars for art direction on GIGI and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. He was nominated six other times, those shows including LUST FOR LIFE, THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN, BRIGADOON, AIRPORT, and THE STORY OF THREE LOVES. Some of his shows that didn’t receive award nominations were BELLS ARE RINGING, THE BAND WAGON (it’s hard to believe that show was not recognized), KISMET and DESIGNING WOMAN. His sets for CASABLANCA were the talk of the studio, in fact the talk of the town. Visitors stopped by daily to see Rick’s Cafe Americain. Many were the photos taken at the main entrance to the club under Rick’s Cafe Americain sign, usually with the visitors standing next to executive producer David Wolper. CASABLANCA was the last production bearing the credit “Production Designer Preston Ames.” Preston Ames died in 1983. He was nominated for an Emmy posthumously for CASABLANCA.

In adapting CASABLANCA for television two changes were made in one of the characters in the classic film. His name Sascha in the movie was respelled Sacha, and In anticipation of the series being bought by the network, the character became younger and more handsome. Twenty-seven year old Ray Liotta was given a striking red jacket as he took his position to tend bar — four years before his breakthrough performance in SOMETHING WILD.

The original script for the next sequence took place only in the sitting room of Celia’s hotel suite. The danger of the English flyer in the bedroom was to be shown only by Celia’s nervousness. I thought the scene could be improved. I told Harold Gast, the Supervising Producer in charge of script what I wanted to do, and he approved.

One of the fallacies of television was calling a program like this a one-hour show. True it filled an hour of time when it was aired. But deducting the time for the commercials, for the opening billboard credits, the closing credits and the station break at the half hour left just under forty-seven minutes for the drama to unfold. This story had many characters and a great deal of plot. It’s hard to grab an audience emotionally when you’re steamrolling in so many directions.

These episodes were not being filmed on the usual schedule for episodic television. Because the five shows were taking the place of a pilot, more time was being allotted for their production. WHO AM I KILLING? was scheduled to be filmed in eight days – six days on the sound stages at the Burbank studio, one day for exteriors at the Disney studio and one day of exterior locations at Indian Dunes.

When the previous scene moved onto the balcony, David announced that he didn’t want to kiss Trisha. That was totally rewriting the intent of the scene. I had been involved in a situation like that before, so I called Charles Fitzsimons, told him the problem, he came to the set, spoke with David privately, and we filmed the scene as written. I think now I may understand what was happening. The original CASABLANCA had been one of the great love stories of all time, ending with Rick sending Ilsa, his loved one, away. WHO AM I KILLING? was only the second episode to be filmed. I wonder now if David felt that a love scene with Celia in a relationship that had been totally adversarial was too sudden. And frankly as written it was too sudden.

I liked that I got to select the songs we would use from the Warner Bros. catalog. I was present on the recording stage the day the singing was prerecorded. That day Peter Matz, the music director for the film, declared after Trisha sang HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON, “That is the best rendition of that song I have ever heard.”

When we screened the first cut, David Wolper (and I didn’t agree with his request or understand the reasoning behind it) asked that we shorten Trisha’s singing of HOW LONG HAS THIS BEEN GOING ON. Harold Gast was concerned that we would have to do another recording session and possibly reshoot the sequence. Fortunately enough of my previous music background enabled me to take out eight bars of song and footage, lessening the impact of the scene without destroying a sequence I was very proud of. And Harold was relieved and appreciative of my effort.

Finally a really exciting day for me was when we filmed Scatman at the piano as he sang AS TIME GOES BY for his closeup in the introductory billboards.

For the final four and a half pages in the original script we needed a location that looked like Africa where a plane could land and also take off. (David Wolper had requested that he definitely wanted to see the plane fly off at the end of the sequence.) The truck with Rick, Celia and the flyer was to be parked behind a grove of trees, awaiting the arrival of the plane. I was taken to Indian Dunes and found it had all of the requirements except for the grove of trees where the truck could be hidden. (Incidentally the area was adjacent to the site where the recent freak accident on the set of TWILIGHT ZONE: THE MOVIE had resulted in the deaths of Vic Morrow and two children when a helicopter crashed on top of them.) We reported back to Harold Gast that we had found a location that worked for everything except the grove of trees to hide the truck. His reply was, “I guess you’ll just have to find another location.” But there was no other location. Remember what I said about Charles Fitzsimons? In a day or so revised script changes came out that had the plane waiting when the truck arrived rather than the truck waiting for the plane. I know that Charles did the rewriting.

Those four and a half pages ended up as the final three minutes of the drama. It took the whole day to film, and we just barely were able to comply with David’s request. The light was definitely fading as the plane took off, and the Nazis stood over Celia’s dead body.

Well I think I’m done counting the ways, but unexpectedly my stay in CASABLANCA was not coming to an end. That’s what I’ll write about next as …

The journey continues

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3 Responses to Who Am I Killing?

  1. Jim says:

    Great post Ralph. I especially enjoyed your insightful comments on Charles Fitzsimons and Joe Biroc. Your post jogged my memory and I remember watching this or one of the other four episodes back in 1982. I can recollect my first impressions, which unfortunately, weren’t that positive – pretty similar to the description you used in your first paragraph – “flop” and “bust”……..

    Looking back on it now, a couple of “what ifs” pop into my mind;

    – What if the producers had taken the innovative step and filmed it in black and white, further enhancing the period mood…..

    – What if Ray Liotta had been 10 years older and had been cast as Rick – Ray had/has that ability to intimidate/sense of danger that Bogey had, that I thought David Soul, though a fine actor, just didn’t possess.

  2. Hi, Ralph. I recently bought the CASABLANCA TV series on DVD, and a group of six of us watched the first episode, which you directed, this evening. We’re all huge fans of the original movie, and we all found much to admire here — it was an honest and charming effort. Just wanted to let you know that this part of your work is still being enjoyed 34 years later!

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