Narcissus On An Old Red Fire Engine

Filmed March 1963

The producers of ROUTE 66 had a unique procedure in laying out their schedule. As I understood it, they would select a state to film a group of episodes — say eight or ten. They would select cities within the state and send an advance man to make the necessary arrangements: city hall for permission and permits; a motel or inn to house the production office and the company. Many times the writer for an episode would then go to the city before writing his script. That was very much the case in the evolution of IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK, my first ROUTE 66. It was custom tailored to be filmed in Corpus Christi, Texas. And it was also the way my next assignment, NARCISSUS ON AN OLD RED FIRE ENGINE, was created. It too was to be filmed in Texas, in Galveston, and a very strange adventure — before and behind the camera — it turned out to be.

When I reported to the studio, the script was still being written by Joel Carpenter, whom I never met. At a meeting with Bert Leonard and Stirling Silliphant I was told that Carpenter was very slow in writing. I had the impression that Joel was probably a novelist, new to screenplay writing. I have since learned Joel Carpenter was Arnold Manoff, a feature film screenplay writer who was blacklisted during the McCarthy House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. After the blacklisting days waned, he returned to writing, but now it was for television and under the name of Joel Carpenter, a name  he had used during his blacklisting and which he continued to use. Since Stirling was doing some rewriting on Carpenter’s script as his pages came in, consideration was given to the idea of having Stirling take over completely and finish the script on his own, but that idea was almost immediately rejected. They wanted Carpenter’s original input. So they were waiting patiently for him to turn in pages, which Stirling would immediately rewrite; and I was leaving for Texas with fewer pages of script than when I went the first time.

I flew from Los Angeles to Houston, where under the direction of James Sheldon the company was completing filming the first show to co-star Glenn Corbett, the actor selected to replace the departed George Maharis. From Houston the company was scheduled to move down to Galveston, again on the Gulf. Joel and Stirling had been in Galveston when this story was conceived and had discovered a Greek night club that became an important colorful ingredient in the script. But the club was too small to accommodate filming, so another larger club was found and turned into our Greek night club. And that was where our story began.

One of the standard rules in creating a script was, when possible, to have the boys employed somewhere in the community of the week’s episode. In Corpus Christi Todd had worked on the ferry boa; in Galveston Todd and Linc were employed at the local Cotton Baling plant. A decade before I had had some experience along these lines. The spring of 1953 I was still in Mason City, Iowa. Bob Carson, owner of a local radio station and eager to move into the newly arrived industry of television production, approached me with a project he had in mind. It was to be a weekly series called THIS IS YOUR TOWN. The plan was for me to go with a local photographer into Iowa’s small towns and film, documentary style, a profile of the community, its industries, its people. All of this to be accomplished in just a couple of days. And then I was to write (before the film had even been assembled) the script, based on the footage I had filmed. Well I only had to visit one town to realize what an impossible mission the project was; to be a combination advance man, production manager, assistant director, director, script supervisor, screenplay writer of a half hour film to be completed in two days was beyond what I was capable of doing, and I baled out. With my leaving the project died. But filming some of the industries in that one town provided me with some insight into how to film the sequence of the boys at work in the Cotton Baling Plant.

The Cotton Baling plant was our first day’s location, and it was the first filmed confrontation between Linc and Janie. It became obvious very soon that the usual attempt to film the episode in six days was not going to be attempted. This was part two of the introduction of Glenn Corbett as the series’ new co-star, sort of a pilot, and the dailies were viewed with a heightened scrutiny, almost microscopic.

The word from Hollywood when they saw this scene was that they thought Glenn needed more ‘energy’. I wasn’t sure what they meant by that, but I talked to Glenn and we reshot the scene — but in a different location because we had left the Cotton Baling plant. Again they complained that he lacked energy. We reshot the scene for a third time, this time back at the original location. I didn’t really know what they wanted. Later in hindsight I realized what the problem was. Glenn had a low-key personality, not unlike Martin Milner’s. Here he was replacing the rougher-edged, street-smart George Maharis, and obviously they expected another George Maharis. Well Glenn wasn’t George Maharis, but he was a very charismatic, fine actor.

The live locations I had shot up until now did not prepare me for shooting in a motel room. Alma’s house in IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK, which had been small, was three times the size of Linc’s motel room. I never was able to film a master angle showing all four characters; the room wasn’t large enough.

Anne Helm was at a real disadvantage. Janie was a very complex character, and as new pages of the script arrived, as the story slowly unfolded, new facets of her disturbed personality were revealed. When we began filming we had the opening scene in the Greek bar and the next meeting of Linc and Janie. It was sort of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but we didn’t have the overall picture; we didn’t really know where we were heading. I remember discussing with Anne my feeling that her boyfriend Bill, to whom she frequently referred, was a figment of her imagination, a phantom lover, and that was the premise on which we based her character.

We had music tracks for the Greek dances, but no track had been furnished for when Janie invites Linc to dance American style. The sound crew had a tape of Nelson RIddle’s ROUTE 66 theme song, and that was what they danced to when we filmed. I was disappointed when I saw the final film that Janie’s dancing to the music they used to replace the show’s theme song (and I knew that they would replace it) was not as exciting nor as sensual as what we had filmed.

We filmed in the local jail. I had to do one shot of Martin Milner being released from his cell. It was fortunate that we didn’t have to do more; the stench was unbearable.

Then we arrived at a scene that I considered a vital collision of Linc’s libido and Janie’s problem. I staged it on a miniature golf course with strange, exotic animal figures. When Janie said, “Who are you not to listen?” sometime virginal Janie was again seductively coming on to Linc, and he responded. He embraced her, holding her tight and kissing her neck, while she kept on talking about Bill. Behind them was the head of a large black whale with a white eye. It was very sexual and Daliesque, with nothing that I felt network censorship could object to. It never got to the networks. Bert wanted it reshot, and it ended up just a lot of intellectual talk in place of sensual action.

The other major location selected by the author to include in the script was the Amusement Center on Pleasure Pier. And what a wonderful location it turned out to be.
It came with wonderful mirrors and an antique red horse-drawn fire engine

The Amusement Center was later destroyed by a hurricane. A hotel, the Flagship, was build on Pleasure Pier, but it too was recently destroyed during Hurricane Ike. The current owner announced he is going to put a Pleasure Pier-like Amusement Park on the pier. I’m not sure what happened to the red fire engine.

About the fifth or sixth day of shooting Anne came to me, all excited. She had had a chance to read the new script pages that had just arrived, which I hadn’t yet seen. “Guess what! There really is a Bill. He shows up.”

The stunt double for Linc in the fight scene was not a very good likeness. A more experienced director would have shot the master angles from further away.

I have a confession to make. At the time I was filming these two Herbert Leonard series, my favorite was ROUTE 66. I liked the poetic romanticism, the literate dialog — qualities that were rare even then in film and have all but disappeared from our current entertainment screens.

 

It takes less time to write an action sequence than to film it. The length of the scene on paper from the time Linc exits the amusement center until the two stunt doubles dove into the water was three eighths of a page. By my normal allotment of an hour a page that would allow about twenty-two and a half minutes to film it. It took four and a half hours.

Both Glenn and Anne had to go into the water for the closer angles rescue part of the sequence. When we did the final scene of them on the beach, they had to be watered down before each take. We had a fire nearby and lots of blankets to keep them warm between takes. But it was COLD.

We completed filming I think on a Wednesday. The film had taken ten days to shoot, which was not surprising because of the scenes that were reshot and the fact we didn’t begin filming with a completed script. No one was disturbed by this. The film was in essence a pilot, presenting a new leading man, to secure a renewal of the series for another season, and CBS did renew ROUTE 66 for its fourth season. The company was scheduled to leave Texas and go to Florida for another group of episodes. I was booked to direct the next episode in Florida, the start date of prep to be the following Monday. I was exhausted. I had directed four shows (two ROUTE 66’s in Texas and two NAKED CITY’s in New YORK) in about nine weeks. Factor in the travel, and I think I was entitled to be tired. I requested permission to go to Florida from Texas rather than returning to Los Angeles. I figured the three or four days of down time was necessary. For some reason the production office refused. I then asked to be released from the commitment to direct the next show because of fatigue. They agreed, and I returned to Los Angeles, ready to give myself a break. What I didn’t know was just how short that break would be.

The journey continues

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17 Responses to Narcissus On An Old Red Fire Engine

  1. Marcia Rodd says:

    Loved it. You’ve had lots of fascinating adventures, haven’t you? Hope to see you again one of these days.

    All the best.

    Marcia

  2. Pat Renella says:

    I was “Paul” the Greek Dancer and enjoyed shooting this!
    Best,
    Pat Renella

  3. David Carpenter says:

    I am told, The Old Red Horse Drawn Fire Engine is currently inside the Central Fire Station of the City of Galveston. It would be a wonderful attraction on the new Pleasure Pier.

  4. Phil says:

    A spaced-out chick and Greek mythological mumbo-jumbo…thumbs down!

    IMDB says the stunt double for Glenn Corbett’s dive (last video) was Fred Stromsoe. I can’t tell if it’s him, but I’m certain he’s Bill’s brawling friend in the white jacket and white sneakers (10th video). He played thugs many times on ‘The Wild Wild West’.

    If the Hollywood office wanted Stanley Kowalski-lite for Tod’s partner, why didn’t they hire such an actor? New York was full of them! You directors get dumped on for everything – you’re expected to change Glenn C.’s acting style?!

    From an artistic perspective, I’m not sure they needed to replace Maharis. I’ve seen three episodes that had only Milner and all of them were better than this one. I’m not crazy about Milner as an actor, but he’s enough to get by because the bigger star is Silliphant.

    Regarding the home movie made from this episode (the URL is in the comments from your other ‘Route 66’ posting), I’m amazed by how close this guy got to the action. Was he a VIP? He was almost at the balcony level during the motel fight…did he have his own crane? Later, he had to be on the pier to capture the stuntwoman jumping into the water. But, I don’t see him in the actual episode…maybe he was using some freaky lens, so he was not as close as his film would indicate. Did you notice this person and did he ever get in the way?

    • Ralph says:

      To answer you final question first, I was not aware of anyone filming other than our camera. To reply to your earlier comments, the whole procedure by which Glenn was cast was the problem. The decision for who would be Milner’s new partner was made by the network, the persons at the network making that decision were never revealed.. As I described above clip #3 was reshot three or four times. Leonard’s objections to what he was seeing were never clear to me then. Now I realize the scene had been written for the George Maharis character, and Glenn Corbett, who was really a fine actor, was different than George. That ill-advised approach to casting was rampant in the industry at that time.

      • Rick Dailey says:

        I believe that it is more precise to say that CBS *approved the selection* of Glenn Corbett to replace Maharis rather than having been responsible for the decision. The decision was made by Bert Leonard when forced into resolving contractual obligations to CBS after Maharis’ departure.

        During the time you spent directing this episode there was an enormous amount of activity going on behind the scenes, activity that I have researched in great detail. CBS had just ten days earlier effectively cancelled the series by renegotiating the terms of its contract with Screen Gems to purchase only a thirteen episode half-season. Reinstatement of the original twenty two episodes specified by the contract for the fourth and final season would not come until October as a result of legal wrangling over the George Maharis situation.

        Additionally, the episode was being filmed at a point in time when Bert Leonard was dealing with a significant loss of rights to CBS via the terms of the contract which were defined if Leonard were unable to supply either Milner or Maharis for four consecutive episodes. The contract specified that after those four consecutive episodes CBS would gain the power to terminate the agreement until such time that Maharis returned or a suitable replacement was found (the exact wording was “require contractor to furnish a substitute reasonably satisfactory to CBS”).

        At this point, it would be easy to say that the decision was made to replace Maharis, but it’s not as simple as that. CBS wanted a replacement – primarily to satisfy the demands of the advertisers – but Leonard was still in the process of attempting to force Maharis to return. Maharis was, after all, in default of his five-year contract with Leonard. Since Leonard was just beginning a legal battle with Maharis he agreed to search for a temporary replacement, but his understanding of the situation was at odds with the understanding by CBS.

        In January, 1963, Glenn Corbett’s NBC series “It’s A Man’s World” had just been cancelled after being on the air for only a half season and it is virtually certain that Corbett’s brief exposure and current contractual situation – not to mention his general physical resemblance to Maharis – was a primary factor in Leonard’s decision to approach him. I have found no evidence in any of the documents I have examined that would suggest CBS was responsible for selecting Corbett.

        On February 8, Leonard hosted a screening in Hollywood of for CBS executives who had flown in from New York of clips from Corbett’s series and tests made specifically for Route 66. Although those network executives included Michael Dann, Oscar Katz, William Hylan, Frank Shakespeare and Alan Courtney, it was primarily network president James T. Aubrey, Jr. who had the final say. Aubrey did give his approval for Corbett immediately after the screening.

        On his way to the screening in Hollywood from his office at CBS in New York, Aubrey had made a stop in Detroit for a meeting with General Motors’ advertising agency where he got an earful about their concerns over the Maharis situation. Their number one concern was ratings and any change made to the series to resolve this issue would fall under intense scrutiny. Aubrey’s approval of Corbett was based on his decision that a replacement for Maharis was the best solution to appease General Motors.

        But Bert Leonard did not share this opinion. Shortly after the February 8 screening he drafted a press release announcing the changes to Route 66. Rather than complying with CBS’ request for a Maharis replacement, Leonard titled his release ‘Third Man Joins the Cast of Route 66.’ Leonard’s primary concern was getting Maharis to return after which time Corbett would presumably be released.
        Leonard’s wording of the press release strongly supports this theory: “the new role will be cast with an actor who is youthful and two-fisted, but there the similarity stops and the personality takes on an individuality of its own.”

        Based on all of the evidence, it is clear to me that Corbett was never intended by Leonard to be a permanent replacement for Maharis until well into production of the fourth season when he gave up his legal battle. However, to keep CBS satisfied Leonard probably balanced his own plans with the requirements of CBS and compromised to some extent so that Corbett would appear to be a replacement.

        The question of whether or not CBS had the power to dictate if Corbett should be required to act, dress and talk like Maharis is unclear as the contract gave Leonard virtually one hundred percent control in creative matters. But in sworn affidavits in the case of Lancer v. Maharis, Aubrey and the others insisted that’s exactly the assurance they were given by Leonard.

        In the end, I think that Bert Leonard was a very strong-willed individual who saw George Maharis as his biggest success and his obsession with holding Maharis to the terms of his contract (in addition to his demands for creative control) in the face of opposition from CBS was the most important factor in this “ill-advised approach to casting.” I can’t really blame Leonard though as he and Stirling Silliphant were responsible for one the best television shows ever.

        • Ralph says:

          Thank you, Rick, for all of this great information. I of course knew of none of it. I did not know that Glenn had tested. In fact it was only after I started this website that information came in via this COMMENT section that on IN THE CLOSING OF A TRUNK, the reason given to me for the late arrival of the script — I was told Stirling had been in Corpus Christi working out the plot, that he had returned to LA, the plot had been worked out and he was going to start writing the script and all of this a day before I was to leave for Texas, 3 days before I was to start filming — was totally false. The true reason was that Leonard was still trying to make George return to film TRUNK. I wonder if anyone on the set, Milner in particular, knew of any of this. Not a word was ever said.

          • Rick Dailey says:

            Although I did have in mind that earlier post I made on “In The Closing Of A Trunk” I didn’t think it necessary to make a tie-in here. There was a common thread though as you note. Everything happening with Route 66 at the time was still being colored by the Maharis issue.

  5. 63kraft says:

    “Janie was a very complex character, and as new pages of the script arrived, as the story slowly unfolded, new facets of her disturbed personality were revealed. ” – I think this is the problem with Route 66. I enjoy the show, but it often appears confusing, inconsistent and sometimes implausible. When the script is being written and rewritten on the fly, the characters are not fully developed in the writer’s mind until after filming begins. It is hard under those circumstances for the actors and the director to know how best to portray those characters.

    I think this finally hurt RT 66 in the ratings. I don’t think Glen Corbett was a worse actor than George Maharis, but when something major changes in a series, the audience is taken out of its “comfort zone.” With the comfort zone destroyed, the audience takes a fresh look at what it is watching. At that point, flashy cars, cool music, pretty girls and smart dialogue are not enough to compensate for plots that are less than tight and consistent.

    The technical aspects of this show were flawless, even by today’s standards – even more so in some cases. Shows of the 1970’s were filmed in boxes – apartments, offices, etc. – requiring no location work and little technical creativity (by comparison). You have good reason to be proud of the work you did on RT 66 (and other series).

    I will add also that I liked the Florida episodes (to which you briefly alluded) very much – especially the plots. Which episode did you decline?

    • Ralph says:

      I don’t know for sure. Something about a swimmer.

      • 63kraft says:

        There was a Florida episode about a mermaid that came ashore and met Tod. That one was one of my favorites. I would have loved to have read your recap and thoughts on filming that episode. But I guess everything worked out best for you and everyone else as it was.

  6. Richard Y says:

    I did some research on the horse drawn Steamer used in this episode and I spoke with Jeff Smith, Galveston Fire Chief in 2012, the Steamer is an 1891 American LaFrance and at the time in very poor condition. It went underwater (while on display) at the railroad museum during Hurricane Ike (Sept 2008). “The museum did not tell us about it”, Chief Smith stated. “They left it outside for 2 years and parts were stolen for scrap. It is heavily rusted. It needs about 50K of work”. The steamer is currently inside the Central Fire Station of the City of Galveston at 2514 Sealy, Galveston TX.

  7. Peter Morley says:

    Ralph this was a fascinating account! You may be aware that there is existing “behind the scenes” color footage of the filming of “Narcissus”. A link to that is included in the description of this brief youtube video I put together, interspersing some of that footage. I also replaced the “twist” dance sequence music from “Narcissus” with the Route 66 theme, which you indicate in your blog was what Anne Helm was actually dancing to. I hope you have a chance to check this out:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qwSEP9BO34Y

    • Ralph says:

      Bravo Peter! Beautifully done. And I was right. The Route 66 theme really was better in the dance than what ended up in the film. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

  8. Peter Morley says:

    Thank YOU, Ralph. What a treasure trove, going through your blogs. No one except those who were there would ever have known the story about that dance scene had you not offered it. You’re primary involvement with all these iconic shows (really formative in so many viewers lives) makes this website a resource that’s kind of unmatched, I think. Not something you have to do at all, so again thank YOU for giving us the benefit of recounting all your amazing experiences!

    • Ralph says:

      And after I wrote my previous reply to you, I found the link to the original behind the scenes footage. There are two quick shots of me. One in the night club and one entering the plane. So I thank you for that, Peter.

  9. Peter Morley says:

    Glad to read you found a little lost footage of yourself, Ralph. All the people on that set in such a distant time and place. Amazing!

    I love the brief scene in “Narcissus” when Linc and Janie drive the Corvette into the daybreak, (and the Gulf of Mexico). I screen-grabbed it here with a couple of captions.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UpfzdB0tat0&feature=youtu.be

    I wonder if that scene was at all an inspiration for this more over-the-top sequence in “Terms of Endearment”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NIrF-rsXWJM

    Finally, just for fun, I took the Narcissus “amphibious” scene and replaced the music – again with the Warren Barker cover of the Route 66 theme.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0tosCWTuITs&feature=youtu.be

    Nick at Nite ran a promo using some of this back in the 80’s, which gave me the idea. Nelson Riddle’s original cue was much more apropos of what was going on in the story at that point, but taken out of context, that theme music gives the scene a whole other spin.

    This might arguably be the most beautiful shot in the whole series.

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