Ordeal

Filmed June-July 1963

One day in the mid-seventies on the set of THE WALTONS Will Geer said to me, “You’re one of the pioneers of American television.” My response was to deny that. I thought the pioneers were those on the east coast who were involved in what is now referred to as the Golden Age of Television, that exciting period in the early fifties when Broadway caliber drama, created in the small television studios of New York, was brought to the farthest ends of the country via the nation’s tv screens. But as I think back to June, 1963, as I completed filming my first ARREST AND TRIAL and headed back to New York for another assignment, I have a different perspective. Now what I report is not that of a research historian; I definitely am not that. I was just one of the soldiers on the television battlefield, and make no mistake, television production was a battlefield.

As I headed east I was like a soldier coming out of basic training. The coming season was unlike anything I had confronted up to that time. There were no longer going to be the long intervals between assignments. In the next three months I would work on five different shows for five different companies, on both coasts, going from show to show with no time break in between. There was a difference in the way each studio operated. I had already experienced working for MGM, a studio whose various departments didn’t seem to realize that feature film production as they had known it was history. They treated our episodes of DR. KILDARE with the same care they would have lavished on a Vincent Minnelli production. Universal was a different story. When MCA bought the studio, and their Revue Productions took control, they imported the production people from Columbia Studio to run it. Columbia Studio was the Poverty Row studio of the major seven Hollywood studios. The people coming over to run Universal brought with them the same stringent, demanding rules that had been used on Poverty Row. True Columbia was the studio that produced ROUTE 66 and NAKED CITY, but those two productions were filmed on location, away from strict studio surveillance. And with their demise, when did that studio ever again produce a series as superb as those two?

In my return to New York I was going to discover even more differences. I did not find the same approach to film production I had had on NAKED CITY. And I realized there was a reason. NAKED CITY, although filmed in New York, was a product of the west coast film industry. THE NURSES was an offspring of the east coast live television era of the Golden Age, with scripts constructed in a manner that would have been appropriate to filming in the live television studios of a decade earlier. Filming for THE NURSES was at the old Pathe Studios on East 106th Street. The facility was a distinct improvement over the so-called studios in lower Manhattan used by NAKED CITY, but they were a far cry from the MGM studios in Culver City. The sound stages were much smaller than those on the west coast; they did not have the overhanging grids on which lighting instruments could be placed; and the hospital set was far less inclusive than the extensive hospital set for DR. KILDARE. Part of this, I’m sure, was due to Executive Producer Herbert Brodkin. During this production I had little direct contact with Brodkin, but he was no stranger. He had been one of the three rotating producers who replaced Martin Manulis on PLAYHOUSE 90 when Manulis left. I was aware then that Brodkin had been an art director and had a philosophy for television production that stated: the medium is a small screen; large sets are not needed; play the scenes in closeups. This had worked well for him on the excellent series, THE DEFENDERS. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! And when directing in Rome, do as the Romans do!

Why am I writing all of this? My aim from the beginning of this journey, as I stated on my Home Page, was to take you onto the sets where all of this occurred. Because the television shows of this era have achieved the status of Classic Television, current critics are reviewing them with microscopic eyes, as if they had been produced with the time,  technology and budgets available today. When I was a student at the Pasadena Playhouse, I had a class, one hour a week, on Shakespeare taught by a white-maned  Englishman, Frayne Williams. I don’t remember much of what I learned about Shakespeare, but I remember what was one of the most important things I learned in my two years at the Playhouse. One day Mr. Williams told us “Great art is a sublimation of limitations.” Now I don’t claim that all of the television of the era that is now considered classic is great art. But the fact that it has survived, either as memorabilia or possibly art, can certainly be attributed to the fact that it was produced by the sublimation of limitations.

I looked forward to this assignment on THE NURSES because it would be a reunion with a buddy from MGM. Two years before when I had reported to MGM to join the DR. KILDARE production staff, Buzz Berger was working in the studio casting department, casting extras for their productions. But Buzz was smart…and ambitious. He told me at the time that he was remaining at the studio in the evening after the day’s work was completed to study the casting files. Casting entails so much more than just matching performers to roles. In a sense there was a caste system to casting actors. There were the stars, each of them with his (or her) price and also the information of which ones would and which ones might do television. There were featured players, again some who would accept television assignments, some who would not; and each of them carried a price tag. And then there were hordes of day players, again each with a price. Some were available only for roles of at least a week’s work; others at least two or three days; and then the many available for a day’s work. All of this, Buzz said, he was memorizing; plus the evaluation of the performers’ talent. He felt he needed to know all of this in order to advance to being a casting director of more than just extras. Within the year of my arrival at MGM Buzz left for New York to join Herbert Brodkin’s production team, at that time producing THE DEFENDERS. Buzz had become the casting director for their new show, THE NURSES.

For our young leading man we cast twenty-one year old Brandon de Wilde.  I had seen Brandon a dozen years before when the National company of THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING with Ethel Waters played in Chicago. It had been his Broadway stage debut when he was seven and a half.

Brandon made his feature film debut when THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING was transferred to the screen. In the following years he also appeared on screen in the classic western, SHANE, and the  Oscar nominated Paul Newman starrer, HUD. If that isn’t impressive enough, he also made two other feature films and guest starred on thirty-eight television shows, including a season of a series in which he starred. This episode, ORDEAL, was my thirteenth film.

This was the first of my fifteen collaborations with twenty-one year old Stephen Brooks, a semi-regular on the series. Two years later he would be on the west coast as Jim Rhodes on THE FBI. And five years later we would work together on the most well-known of our collaborations, OBSESSION, on STAR TREK.

After almost a decade of living on the west coast, having escaped from the hot, humid summers of the midwest, I was taken back to those midwest days at the end of every day when I left the air-conditioned studio and confronted New York City in the summertime. The ride back to my hotel in a studio driven car, always with no air conditioning, seemed never-ending. As did my future stay in New York. I knew that when I completed this film, I was booked to stay on in New York City for an additional three weeks to direct an episode of EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE.

Earlier I stated, “When directing in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I preferred to use the ECU, the extreme closeup, for climactic moments in scenes, not for more casual moments or when characters were delivering exposition. However their constant use was a style set by the other Brodkin produced series, THE DEFENDERS. I used to say jokingly that in a Brodkin production closeup, if you could see the chin or the actor’s hair on top of his head — that was a wide shot.

I was excited when I reported to start casting to find that Buzz was trying to get Pert Kelton for the role of Nurse Harmon. I remembered her for her screen appearances in the thirties; and then more recently, like just the previous year, for her role in the film version of Meredith Willson’s paean to Mason City, Iowa (although he called it River City) — THE MUSIC MAN. (In case you’ve forgotten, I’m from Mason City, Iowa.) But Pert Kelton was not available. Now as I’ve said before, the talent pools are very deep. So Buzz delivered Jan Miner. Jan was Madge, the manicurist in the Palmolive soap commercials, one of the longest ongoing product endorsement relationships in TV history. She did it for twenty-seven years.

Nonogen-405 was, of course, a fictitious drug. The initial version of the script named the drug “Nucleogen”. I don’t know whether the change was made because “Nucleogen” was more difficult to pronounce or whether there may have been an actual drug called Nucleogen.

THE NURSES was in its second season. It had debuted on CBS in 1962, one season after the great successes the previous year of DR. KILDARE on NBC and BEN CASEY on ABC. CBS obviously felt they needed to jump on the medical series bandwagon, but I guess the network figured that the squeaky clean KILDARE and the renegade CASEY had covered all of the doctor bases, so their medical series would focus on nurses That plan may have proved more limiting than anticipated; the third season for the series was called THE DOCTORS AND THE NURSES.

We filmed in 35mm, but television screens at that time did not show the full frame. A television aperture in the shape of a television screen was inserted into the camera showing the picture that would be viewed. Sometimes the mike would drop into the part of the film covered by the aperture, which kept it from being seen by the camera operator. But no harm was done. It also would not be seen on the tv sets across the country. Here is an example of that happening. Watch the top of the picture.

And in case you missed it:

One of the problems in writing stories for THE NURSES was that the nurse’s involvement in a case was very rarely crucial to the recovery of the patient. For this ORDEAL author Harold Gast managed to find a way to involve her.

One of the pluses for me in working on location in New York was the opportunity it gave me to attend the Broadway theatre. And I took full advantage of it. There was no time to do it during the filming period, but during the preparation time I made it a rule to go to a show every night. Some time previous to filming this episode I had seen a play starring Van Heflin and Larry Gates, so that when his name was submitted for the role of Dr. Wakeman, I enthusiastically gave it my endorsement. Larry Gates was a gem of a performer. If he had been born earlier, he would surely have been under contract to one of the major studios, MGM, Paramount or Warner Bros. But his career began in the early fifties when the studio system with their long list of contractees was coming to an end. So he carved a similar career as befitted those times. Live television, Broadway, feature films, filmed television, even a soap opera — GUIDING LIGHT. He did them all. And he did it with distinction

Television in the early sixties was still pretty much devoted to the happy ending. Uncompromising stark reality intruded very rarely. It certainly did in the ending of FUNNY MAN WITH A MONKEY, which I would film four months later, although I have already discussed it. But even then it served a moral purpose. Hoagy’s first degree murder conviction emphasized the futility of the country’s current drug laws. Harold Gast very wisely and deftly painted Paul Marker’s future not as black, not as white but in a hopeful gray. And it gave me an opportunity to revisit the goal of Irving Thalberg: He didn’t make movies for people to see, he made movies for people to feel.

I never worked with Brandon de Wilde again. In fact I never saw him again. Nine years after we filmed ORDEAL, Brandon was killed in an automobile accident in Denver, Colorado. He was thirty years old.

The journey continues

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8 Responses to Ordeal

  1. Phil says:

    Ralph, does the boom microphone operator have a copy of the script to know when and where to move the mic?

    In the 8th video, the boom mic is over the head of the nurse when old Mr. Marker asks, “Is Dr. Kiley here?” Then it moves over Mr. Marker’s head when the nurse answers, “No”. Then it moves back over the nurse’s head when Mr. Marker asks, “Would you take a message to Dr. Kiley?”

    Should I assume that spoken sound waves are picked up better by the mic if it’s a couple of feet ahead, instead of directly overhead?

    Larry Gates did two memorable performances in my book: First, as the naïve bleeding heart in ‘The Sand Pebbles’; second, as the rich redneck from ‘In the Heat of the Night’ who exchanged slaps with Sidney Poitier.

    Don’t assume IMDB is complete and accurate. It doesn’t list the familiar face who played old Mr. Marker – Frank Marth. That guy did almost every TV series under the sun!

    Finally, I was saddened to read about Zina Bethune’s death from a hit-and-run auto accident in Feb. 2012. The details are too horrific to write about. I don’t know if the case is still open.

    • Ralph says:

      You know, Phil, I don’t specifically remember, but I think the boom had a place for the boom operator’s script. Your assumption about the position of the mike for best results is correct. The fact that the boom shadow shows in these clips does not mean it showed on the tv screen when aired. These clips are full framed, but tv screens in those earlier days did not show the entire frame. There was a tv matte inserted into the camera showing what of the picture would be seen at home. The shadows we are seeing here were in that part of the film cut off by the tv matte.

  2. KC says:

    Wasn’t there originally a comment from someone in Seattle who had talked to Mr. Brooks after his retirement from acting included after this?

    • Ralph says:

      You have a good memory, but you’ve mixed up the location of where you saw it. I had an e-mail from someone in Seattle, and I included those comments in my writing the posting for ORDEAL on THE FBI (Yes, I did two different Ordeals). Here is what was written:

      Mr. Senensky, thank you very much for your message.
      Your story are very interesting!!!
      I knew Mr Brooks in 1998 in Seattle. I met him at the Volunteers Park only for two hours I think and we talked. I remembered of him because I watched “The interns” when I was Young. It’s a long story. Then, when I came back home I received a post card from him. He was not very good. He was alone, so thin and I supposed he was drinking a lot.
      His story is very sad. He was found dead in his apartment and died for a brain aneurism.

      The world is very very small.

      Thank you for your attention

      He died in 1999 at the age of 57 of a massive heart attack, an attractive, gifted performer who was truly a victim of Hollywood.

      • I don’t know the age of the above article, I am writing in 2014.
        I was very much impressed with Stephen Brooks when he was on the FBI. I thought he was a fine actor and had a special freshness. I am now a writer and am interested in finding out more about his life after retirement at a comparatively young age. The above info is very disturbing and I feared it might be something like that. I am still in the market for more news of him as I would like to tell his story in a most sympathetic manner. I wish he could have known that he had many admirers. Rest in peace Stephen. I hope to see you again on the other side!

  3. Charlene says:

    I am 60 years old and haven’t seen these shows since 1962, when I was 7. I didn’t remember the plots, but did remember the shows themselves, although I wasn’t sure why. Now I know, they were brilliant. What I don’t understand is why they are so inaccessible. I have been trying to find copies of The Defenders (no luck so far), Breaking Point, The Eleventh Hour, Way Out (the Roald Dahl show), the Nurses, Insight and other early 60s Sunday morning morality plays/religious programming for years. I have seen a few of the Way Outs and a couple of the Breaking Points also on obscure sites w/ obscure video players embedded. Kudos to you Mr. Senesky. I was an early Star Trek fan (obsessed as an adolescent) and met Mr. Jeffrey Hunter, who was a friend of the family, in 1967. I also had the great experience of watching one of the best Star Trek episodes being filmed (Amok Time) thanks to Mr Hunter. I have had “This Side of Paradise” completely memorized since it was first aired (audio cassette taped it and played constantly) and actually watched it again recently. I loved seeing what looks like Hunter’s last performance in the Insight film you directed. After years of waiting, Dr. Kildare is finally available on DVD, also The Loretta Young Show. These shows did more than amuse me, they taught me about right and wrong and the power of a story with genuine characters and a message about what it is to be human, and I was lucky enough to have seen these shows as a young child and have these morality plays shape my thinking and ultimately my life as an adult. When I watch them now I understand their powerful effect, they are true art (sublimating the obstacles of the early tv medium). Why are these shows so difficult to see now? They are the best of the best and the kids of today need them more than ever. Thank you for taking me back to what was a simpler time in my life through these complex stories, which I finally have the opportunity to understand and appreciate. charlene

    • Ralph says:

      Charlene: You have made my day! Thank you for taking the time to express your feelings. I too feel television in the 60s and 70s was a special period, and I am so grateful I was a small part of it.

  4. Jill says:

    This was very interesting to me as I remember my puzzlement at the disappearance of Stephen Brooks from “The F.B.I.”. At the time there were two blind items in the fan magazine columns. One was something along the lines of “what young co-star of…” and went on to describe Mr. Brooks to a “T”. The columnist went on to say he was let go for either drinking or coming to work late as a result of drinking (memory as to the exact wording fails me). A different columnist hinted that J. Edgar Hoover wanted him gone – no explanation given. Knowing that items like these were often planted for all sorts of reasons, I checked the online file vault of the FBI and found nothing. Such a sad loss. If he did have such problems, I hope they were behind him by the time of his early death.
    Thank you for writing of this era in TV. Episodes of various series written by Sterling Silliphant and Alvin Sapinsley have stuck with me since I was a little girl. Weren’t we lucky to be viewers/participants in an era when there were really excellent scripts out there? Good things stick with you.

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