Lovers And Strangers

FILMED November-December 1976

My string of “family” shows away from Waltons Mountain continued, scheduled in between helming more episodes of THE WALTONS. After THE FAMILY KOVACK (an unsold movie-of the week/pilot filmed partially in Chicago) and THE FAMILY NOBODY WANTED, I directed two episodes of THE FAMILY HOLVAK, a lovely series at Universal starring Glenn Ford and Julie Harris that after only thirteen episodes was cancelled much too soon. The next entry in the home-sweet-home sweepstakes was for Spelling-Goldberg, and that series was titled just plain FAMILY. I was eager to do that series because it was a double reunion. The producer was Nigel McKeand with whom I had a long history. Nigel had acted in three productions I directed, before he turned in his make-up kit and took up a screenwriter pen. He had written one of my all-time favorite films, THE MARATHON for THE WALTONS. And Carol Evan McKeand, Nigel’s wife and a fabulously talented lady, had been the story editor on THE WALTONS.

I remember when the Burbank Airport first came into existence. It was the mid-fifties, and what had been the landing field for Lockheed Aircraft became a two-gate airport, just a little larger than what passed for an airport back in Mason City, Iowa. I think round-trip airfare to San Francisco was $39.00. Now two decades later it was a thriving big city operation, but still easier to use as a film location than the Los Angeles airport. Our fourth day of filming was at the airport with nine pages of exterior scenes and interior lobby sequences. The coffee shop was a set at the studio.

Elizabeth Ashley was a dynamic diva. On Broadway in the sixties she won a supporting actress Tony for her performance in TAKE HER, SHE’S MINE. According to Broadway lore, Neil Simon was so taken with the new star, he wrote the lead character in BAREFOOT IN THE PARK for her. Major roles in film followed. But the stage, interspersed with roles on television, proved to be her first love . She told me she was so happy to read our script, THE WEEKEND (as it was titled then); it was intelligent, literate and adult in contrast to most of the television Movie-of the-Week scripts (ABC’s weekly series of ninety minute movies made for television) submitted to her, which were usually women-in-peril films.

Elizabeth Ashley didn’t start filming until our third day at the airport. Some time that morning Gary Frank came to me, disturbed. He told me that Elizabeth had invited him to do coke with her. He had refused. Now at that time, coke was part of our social fabric. A veteran casting director I knew told me of an incident when he was being interviewed for a job by a young producer and blatantly laid out on the producer’s desk was a display of his drug paraphernalia. Gary’s concern was for his performance. In our story his character, Willie, is immediately smitten by Ashley’s Elizabeth and falls desperately in love with her. Gary was a very sensitive, subjective actor, and he was concerned that his negative feeling about the invitation might affect his performance.

The film we shot on the Monday (Elizabeth’s first day of filming) was viewed in dailies on Tuesday, the day we were away from the studio on location at the airport. Early Wednesday morning Elizabeth came to me on the set before her make-up was even completed and she was in total emotional disarray. Someone in the make-up department had told her that they had been at the dailies the previous day, and they had found fault with her screen appearance. Some how I calmed her down, reassured her, and we completed our current day’s work as scheduled. Thursday morning, our sixth and final day of filming, Elizabeth arrived a few minutes late, again in a disturbed state, and emotionally apologized to me, claiming she had been held up by traffic. I assured her there was no problem, that her delay was not affecting our day’s work. She returned to make-up, as I recognized the pattern of what was occurring – the repeated early morning emotional turmoil that soon vanished, replaced by an energetic and strong serenity that produced a powerful presence before the camera.

We were scheduled for two days of filming away from the studio, the second day in the Wilshire Boulevard-Ambassador area for interior and exterior locations.

Let me get something stated right now; executive producer Leonard Goldberg, who was overseeing the production, and I did not see eye-to-eye on film. After seeing the previous scene in dailies, he sent word to me through Nigel his objection to the placement of the bodies. Elizabeth should not have been on top. This was not the first disagreement, and there were more to come.

That was the kind of scene that gave me the most pleasure to direct. As written it could have been staged for the theatre; it could have been staged (as in the past) in a live television production. But it was not the kind of scene that was being written for television in 1976. I never met the author of the script, Leonora Thuna. I did not read the script’s original publication on white pages. The script I worked on was comprised totally of pink and blue pages, which meant there had been a lot of rewriting. Which leads me to Carol McKeand. As I’ve written before, Carol was the story editor on THE WALTONS. I directed her first script (THE GIFT) to be produced, and I was aware of the rewriting she did while on staff of the other Walton productions I directed. You know, nineteen-year old Willie Lawrence was nineteen-year old John-Boy four decades later. There was in his character the same sensitivity, the same strength, but there was a modernity to the situation in which he was involved that interestingly reflected the difference between teenagers in the thirties and teenagers in the seventies. I guess what I’m trying to say is how much I respected, admired and appreciated what I was sure was Carol’s involvement in creating this script.

On our sixth and final day we filmed the four scenes, ten pages, between Willie and Elizabeth in her hotel room. It was like doing a one-act play of their affair. Because the day before we had filmed the exterior night scenes at the hotel entrance and in the park and allowing for the twelve-hour turnaround, we did not start our final day until 9:00 am. (That was the morning Elizabeth arrived, distraught over being late.) Beulah Bondi was giving a small dinner party that evening, followed by a viewing of the initial airing of THE PONY CART. I had been invited, but because of having to film that evening, I had tendered my regrets. We didn’t get to that final rejection scene until after our evening meal. I had staged the scene to be filmed in two master shots with two cutaways. The second master shot ended across Willie’s body to seated Elizabeth’s close-up, and as we neared the end of what had been a perfect take, Gary said the wrong line. Since he was actually off-camera, since only his arm was in the shot, he should have continued by saying the correct line so that Elizabeth, who was at the last couple of speeches of what had been a long emotional scene, could have finished her close-up. But he didn’t do that. He actually stepped out of the shot, and I had to call “Cut.” I was annoyed and sharper in my reprimand than usual. I did realize it was close to ten o’clock, it had been a thirteen-hour day, and Gary’s subjective involvement in his role had him exhausted. It was Elizabeth who came to the rescue. Elizabeth, who twelve hours earlier at the beginning of the day had been so emotionally distraught, was now calm, in total control, as she assured Gary and me that there was no problem. We did a pickup shot to film the rest of her close-up, did the two other shots to finish the sequence and that was a wrap for the episode.

That scene, filmed the first day, was the first disagreement between Leonard Goldberg and me. I had chosen to do the scene from Willie’s entrance at the top of the stairs in one long take, with just one cutaway to Kate as she answered the phone. After dailies the following day Nigel told me that Leonard wanted close-ups filmed. On a six-day schedule when those added close-ups could be filmed presented a problem. There had been an air of excitement on the set when we filmed. The crew liked the challenge of the long take; Gary, James and Sada loved playing the whole scene from beginning to end rather than in short pieces. There were several takes needed before we got our final technically perfect one, and I remember that during the reset time while lighting was being adjusted, Gary would disappear. I realized that he was going off into some dark corner of the set to stay in character. We never did get those added unnecessary close-ups filmed.

If this had been a movie for television, or if it had been a film for an anthology series, the next and final scene would have been about Willie, an elaboration of his reaction to Nancy’s question, “How was your weekend?” when he responded, “Memorable.” It would have shown him picking up the pieces of his life and continuing, ending what was a bittersweet love story, a May-December version of Noel Coward’s BRIEF ENCOUNTER. But the series was FAMILY, and the bitter had to be made better.

I had been booked to direct four episodes of FAMILY. After I delivered my director’s cut, Nigel told me Leonard’s message was, “Fine but next time, more close-ups.” I decided I was not going to be boxed into delivering a film of “talking heads.” I told Nigel I thought it was better if we just terminated the contract now. A couple of days later Sada Thompson phoned me. It was a nice call, reminiscent of Gene Roddenberry’s call after my STAR TREK firing. The unfortunate aspect of the situation was that I never saw or spoke to Sada again, the same with James Broderick. Nor did I have any direct contact with Gary Frank. I did see Gary’s wife, Carol, who had been an associate producer on FAMILY and a production supervisor on THE WALTONS. It was at some wrap party and she was there with their daughter. When Carol introduced me to her daughter, she said, “This is Ralph. He directed daddy (Gary) in the show that won him his Emmy.” When Gary had been nominated, he submitted LOVERS AND STRANGERS as the show for the committee to judge. The night he won was the same night Beulah Bondi won an Emmy for her performance in THE PONY CART, the show that was airing the night we filmed the final sequence of LOVERS AND STRANGERS.

The journey continues

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9 Responses to Lovers And Strangers

  1. Jason Johnson says:

    Pretty steamy for 1976…lol Thanks MJ & I enjoyed it on this quiet day at work.

  2. Phil says:

    Okay, let me get this straight. In a 1976 TV show, the exec. producer wants 1950s close-ups…and he thinks Elizabeth being on top of Willie is bad. Now it’s time to hit my forehead with the heel of my hand. I hope his business partner Aaron Spelling didn’t have the same archaic viewpoints.

    There’s a line that struck me. When Elizabeth finds out the two strangers she runs into on the street are Willie’s parents, she says, “If I put this on film, I’d be laughed out of the business.” I guess you could call this an inside joke!

    In the first and second videos, Willie and Nancy make remarks about being stuck in Pasadena. As a life-long Mid-Atlantic guy, why is this so bad?!

    *****

    FYI – last month, someone posted to Youtube the beginning scenes from two of your ‘Insight’ episodes, “The Poker Game” and “The 7 Minute Life of James Houseworthy.” This was done to advertise the sale of the complete episodes. If you plan to write about at least one ‘Insight’ episode, I would suggest “The Poker Game” – the cast around the poker table looked like a Hollywood all-star team!

  3. Ralph says:

    About Pasadena: It was a great city, but kind of staid, old world. No night clubs. An exciting night in Pasadena was going to the Pasadena Playhouse. And regarding THE POKER GAME on INSIGHT: At the first gathering of the cast I think it was Peter Haskell who said, “There isn’t a show on television that could afford this cast.”

  4. Phil says:

    Ralph, I have a question about the Pasadena Playhouse that may test your memory banks to the limit.

    This past August, I attended the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention outside of Baltimore. They had many celebrity guests and one of them was Sherry Jackson. At a panel interview with Shirley Jones and Veronica Carlson(which is on Youtube), Sherry said she did a play at age 5 (probably 1947) at Pasadena Playhouse. She didn’t mention the name of the play, but described it this way:

    “…that one was about all these children bigger than myself and there was like an outhouse on the stage and I had to go into the outhouse for like five or eight minutes and listen for my cue, my dialogue cue. My mother was always terrified I was going to fall asleep! So, I always got my cue and I remember that I had a dress and I had to undo the bow in the back and I remember being very embarrassed having to walk back out and then having to tie my bow.”

    Do you know the name of a play that had this scene? If yes, were you involved in the play’s production in any way?

    • Ralph says:

      In 1947 I would have been in my first year as a student. As a first year student I was not involved in any production on any of the theatre’s five stages, so I definitely did not have anything to do with the production. During that year I think I saw every production on four of those stages (Mr. Brown’s personal Playbox was a fifty seat theatre only attended by subscription members). And finally I don’t remember any production with an outhouse on stage, although I do remember some productions whose destination should have been an outhouse.

  5. Harvey Laidman says:

    Ralph,
    Interesting about Len Goldberg…
    I did an episode with a basketball game one-on-one with Gary. Len told Nigel to have me reshoot it. I asked why, but Nigel was unclear, so I sat down with Len. He took the script and he drew a circle on a slip of paper, with numbers, like a clock.
    “On this line, ” he said, “the ball bounces off the basket at 3:00 o’clock.
    “On this line,” he said, “the ball hits the backstop and goes in at 11:oo o’clock.” and so on.
    I have that slip of paper somewhere.
    I redid the scene, it took a whole day, and I don’t believe I did any more episodes.

  6. Phil says:

    Youtube has every episode of another series Ralph directed (eps. #3, 5, & 7), ‘Paper Dolls’, which had L. Goldberg as the Exec. Producer. I watched the first three eps. – not quite my cup of tea (got the axe after 13 eps.), but I’ll have to watch # 4 to see if the loan sharks try to whack Richard Beymer or Mimi Rogers.

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