Plus Time Served

TAPED May 1979

On my INSIGHT post for UNFINISHED BUSINESS, using photos I described the process of taping a show. In film the camera was mounted on a crab dolly with seats for the camera operator and the assistant cameraman who ran focus, all of this pushed around by a dolly grip. But in live and tape production there was no camera dolly, no dolly grip and no assistant cameraman. The camera was mounted on a camera mount that the standing cameraman pushed around, while he also was responsible for running the focus. Here I can actually take you onto the set to see what we were doing. If you paid close attention as Cummings and Kay walked through the studio, a sound boom rolled through the shot behind them. That was the same equipment used on a film set. The brief shot in the control room showed the director, the crew and the monitors. I was the director, and that white spot on my head was not a bandage. I wore a set of headphones, but I only kept one receiver to my ear. I needed the other ear clear to communicate with the people in the control room.

I never directed any of Fr Kieser’s introductions. They were taped at a later date, and I think on a day devoted to producing several of them. If I had directed them, I wonder if I would have critiqued him. I thought his camera charisma was dynamic, his message delivery right on. But oh, those hands! I had learned something nineteen years earlier when in 1960 I directed a production of Somerset Maugham’s THE CIRCLE at the Pasadena Playhouse. Our star Estelle Winwood had appeared in the 1921 Broadway debut of the play. She was now fulfilling a dream by portraying the older character played in that original production by Mrs. Leslie Carter. Appearing with her in our production was my dear friend, Rachel Ames. Rachel had a habit when acting of punctuating her speeches with her forehead. Miss Winwood, one never shy to express an opinion, told Rachel she should practice her lines in front of a mirror with a book balanced on top of her head. That way the energy going into the thrust of the forehead would instead be diverted to her speech. I never forgot that, but over the years I expanded it to include ALL movements actors make when acting. In Fr Kieser’s case, it’s not only the energy going into the waving hands, but also the visual distraction of the movement of those hands. A viewer’s attention always goes to the moving object – in this case to his hands, rather than to his face.

I think it is very evident that I liked to cast actors with whom I had previously worked. In this case I had previously directed only one of the six performers in the cast – Walter Brooke. But our friendship extended way back before my directing him. I met Walter in 1952, when I was the assistant director at the Chevy Chase Summer Theatre in Wheeling, Illinois (a community north of Chicago). Walter was featured along with Betsy von Furstenberg and Irene Manning in a package production of THE SECOND MAN starring Franchot Tone that I stage managed. Walter was very kind to this young aspiring director in his first employment in a professional company. I remember we had long talks about the profession. Walter told me that he had been one of the two final contenders for the role of Biff in Stanley Kramer’s film, DEATH OF A SALESMAN, which had been released the year before in 1951. He said the choice between him and Kevin McCarthy was to be determined by the final casting of the role of Willy Loman. With the choice of Fredric March to play Willy, it was Kevin McCarthy who was cast as Biff.

Taping a dramatic show was an amalgamation of live production and filming. I think live production of drama was an admired complex, unique art. I must not be the only one to feel that way. In 1997 the highly esteemed program, ER, announced they were going to schedule a special event: a LIVE broadcast of one of their episodes. I thought that was adventurous and admirable, and I eagerly anticipated the evening that episode would air. Unhappily I was disappointed with what I saw. As I remember, each scene was shot with only ONE camera. There was no intercutting of two-shots, close-ups. There was none of the intricate elaborate camera work that I remembered from PLAYHOUSE 90, such as Franklin Schaffner’s magnificent production of SEVEN AGAINST A WALL, where he directed 79 actors, using 7 cameras in sets spread out over two of the cavernous studios at CBS Television City. I fear that live production of drama is an admired complex, unique art that has been lost.

In film production the script supervisor is the person responsible for overseeing “matching.” Whatever actors physically do from set-up to set-up must be the same, so that later when the editor is creating a sequence from the several different setups, the action will match. If an actor is scratching his head in the master, he must be scratching his head at that moment for all the other setups in the scene. In live television production matching was not a problem, since multiple cameras were filming the action. In live television production the script supervisor’s major problem was “timing”. Script supervisors timed everything from the first reading of the script through to the final dress rehearsal. And their timing was not just “over-all” timing. They made a mark every 10 or 15 seconds in the script (here I’m not positive, although, based on my marked-up director’s script, I was often thought to have been a script supervisor). Based on those numbers, they were then able to “back-time” (and that is something I tried to learn, but never mastered) so that when broadcasting on air, at any time, when the director asked, they could tell him whether they were going to be on time, long or shot.

There is a wonderful story that is part of television lore. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it’s such a good story, it could be true. A famous director, who shall remain nameless, because I can’t positively authenticate this, was told at the first reading by his script supervisor that the script was long. She felt the script needed to be cut. His response was that he intended to direct the production at a faster pace, so he did not foresee length as a problem. At the end of each rehearsal the script supervisor again voiced her concern. Each time she reiterated her suggestion that cuts in the script be made, and each time his response was that the cast was still not playing at the pace he wanted. Final dress rehearsal – same scene! She suggested cuts in the script; he felt a faster performance would solve the problem. They went on the air. Half way through, the director asked the script supervisor (based on her back-timing) how were they doing on time. She responded – we’re long. The director turned to his associate director and said, “Take over,” as he got up and left the control room. The director went out into the studio where the actors were performing in front of the cameras. Getting down on his hands and knees he crawled into the set, below view of the cameras. He tugged on the skirt of the actress in the scene; he tugged on the trousers of the actor and whispered, “Cut every other line.”

Live television production of dramatic shows was exciting, but it was also perilous. There were no “Take Two’s”. I remember a PLAYHOUSE 90 being directed by Frank Schaffner. On air during the final climactic scene in a home for unwed mothers actress Susan Harrison was descending a stairway carrying an infant baby (which of course was a doll wrapped in a blanket), when she stumbled, regained her balance, but dropped the baby. I was in the control room and saw director Schaffner, aghast as he viewed the monitors. Frank just sat back in his chair, stretched his arms heavenward, literally implying, “God, it’s in your hands.” Onscreen Susan quickly picked up the baby, emotionally exploded in a fit of hysterics, as she descended the stairs and somehow finished the scene.

I was not present, but later heard of an incident on a SUMMER STUDIO ONE being directed by John Frankenheimer at Television City. Early in the production one of the four cameras failed. John and the technical director managed on air to improvise, ad lib, and work their way through the balance of the show with the three remaining cameras. Folks watching at home were never aware of the stunning work by that crew of pros.

The journey continues

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6 Responses to Plus Time Served

  1. detectivetom says:

    Thank you for your insights on this episode which was my first opportunity to see.

  2. Phil says:

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/55487943/Insight-Episode-Guide

    The above link is a scanned copy of an undated episode guide for ‘Insight’. I’m guessing this document was sent out to TV stations and schools. The index shows about two-thirds of all ‘Insight’ episodes, mostly from the late ‘60s and after.

  3. Phil says:

    I recently stumbled over an ep. of ‘Marcus Welby MD’ on COZI-TV with Don Stroud. For a guy who began his career as a surf double and stand-in on ‘Hawaiian Eye’, he became a decent actor in sympathetic roles (like this one)…he didn’t always play heavies. BTW, I once heard Robert Conrad say on his weekly radio show that Don was hired by Warner Bros. as Troy Donahue’s bodyguard “to protect him from the honeys”.

    It occurred to me that you had a cast reunion, of sorts: three actors (Farentino, Belford, Stroud) were regulars at Universal Studios in the early ‘70s. I wonder if anyone has ever tried to do an in-depth study regarding Universal’s army of contract players in the ‘60s & ‘70s. Many of the actors in the Warner Bros. camp in the late ‘50s – early ‘60s eventually got into fights with management, but I haven’t read any stories of discord with Universal’s contract system.

  4. Steve Z. says:

    Ralph,

    In the control room scene is that technical director Dick Woodka in the red shirt sitting next to you?

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