The Portrait

FILMED August 1978

Last week after I posted THE MONEY FARM, an episode of JUDD FOR THE DEFENSE, on my website, I received the following e-mail from a friend:

We just finished watching/reading The Money Farm and loved it. Sure wish there was more TV like this, actually works the brain cells…

I especially liked, actually works the brain cells…” More importantly, it shed light on something I am slowly coming to understand. Viewers are interested in shows that, because filming them was not a happy experience and/or because at the time of production I was dissatisfied with the end product, I have discounted. That was true early in the history of this website, when I did not include RETURN TO TOMORROW in my reporting on STAR TREK. After entreaties from viewers, I relented and did a post. There were more responses left in COMMENTS for that show than for any other of the STAR TREK episodes except THIS SIDE OF PARADISE. Last March I did a post on ENDS OF THE EARTH, an episode of SEARCH, although it was a show unfortunately in the tank as far as my estimation of it. In this month’s tally of visits, ENDS OF THE EARTH ranks in the top 25 posts, well ahead of and outdrawing THIS SIDE OF PARADISE by 81.5%.

So with my changing evaluation of those shows not included on My Films I Am Proud Of list, I am going to write about yet another I considered a major disappointment.

Surprised to find an episode of THE WALTONS on my disappointment list? So was I! THE PORTRAIT was my twelfth THE WALTONS. It had been six months since I directed GRANDMA COMES HOME, and some major changes had occurred in the company. Producer Andy White had left after two seasons and been replaced by Rod Peterson, with Rod’s wife, the charming and talented Claire Whitaker taking over the story editor desk. Rod and Claire had been a very productive writing team for the series; they had written three of the eleven episodes I directed including their brilliant script, THE FIRESTORM and GRANDMA COMES HOME, the highly acclaimed return of Ellen Corby to the series after her stroke. Director of Photography John Nickolaus had also left and was replaced by Serge Haignere, who had been John’s operator. Also missing and very sorely missed was Will Geer, who passed away the previous April.

In the beginning of my interview for the Archive of American Television I was asked what it was like directing THE WALTONS. I responded it was like putting on an old pair of shoes. Creator Earl Hamner and I are the same age, well actually I’m 71 days older, and we were raised in similar rural environments; he was in Virginia, I was in a small town in Iowa. He lived in a mountainous area; land didn’t come any flatter than where I was raised. He spoke with a southern accent; I was taught to sound a hard ‘g’ when saying words that ended in ‘ing’. But putting those differences aside, we both were raised in the depression, and I think our basic values were very similar.

I had worked with Jared Martin (Derek) eight years earlier when he played the grandson of Walter Pidgeon in THE LAW, an episode of DAN AUGUST. Jared came from an artistic family and began acting at the age of thirteen. I’ve learned from the IMDB that the reason for this early start was because his parents gave him the choice of acting or learning to play the piano. He was an excellent actor, theatre trained, but even having directed him in two shows, I never really knew him. He was very serious about his work, and on the set he tended to stay in character at all times. As you can see, his Derek was brooding and uncommunicative. The intensity in his performance was very much like the intensity in his personality.

Seventeen-year old Mary Beth McDonough, like her character of Erin, was a beautiful young girl. The interesting thing for me was that when I first worked with Mary Beth, she was twelve-years old, and I had watched her developing beauty, even been a very small part of her growing up. When she was fourteen we did THE FIRESTORM, when Erin’s developing beauty was causing problems. She was frustrated because she felt she had no talent like her siblings, John-Boy and his newspaper, Jason and his music and Mary-Ellen’s nursing, and her desire to enter the Jefferson County Day beauty contest was being forbidden by her father. In the current episode it was Erin’s beauty that was again contributing to the pain. I wondered how much identification Mary Beth had with her role of Erin.

Art Director Ed Graves, who had designed the Walton home plus all the other Walton sets through the years, also provided the surrealist art produced by Derek, our young disturbed hero – both the vast mural on the wall and Derek’s framed paintings. I remember Ed fondly. I remember the day we were scouting Frazier Park for locations for THE PONY CART, when driving through the forest, Ed saw a rattlesnake in the middle of the dirt road. He very carefully ran over the snake, crushing it, and then backed up the car and went forward over the snake again, insuring the snake had been killed. We then went to the forest ranger station to report our actions. The rangers thanked us. I also remember his great ingenuity in creating a field of wild flowers at a fork in a dusty road on the Warner Brothers backlot. That was where we staged Beulah Bondi’s death scene in her Emmy-winning performance as Martha Corinne in the above mentioned THE PONY CART.

There was a normal attrition that set in on any long-running television series. The assembly line task of churning out scripts on a weekly basis was the major contributor to this problem. THE WALTONS contract with CBS called for twenty-four films a year. As of the beginning of the seventh season, Earl Hamner and company had produced 142 films for the network. That’s a lot of plots, a heap of dramatic situations, reams of pages of dialogue. Change of producers had occurred. New cameramen had arrived to relieve weary departing ones, but THE WALTONS had one advantage to lessen the attrition not shared by a lot of series. Many creators of series launched their effort, and when the show proved to be a success, they turned the series over to others to produce, as they went off to create another moneymaker. Earl Hamner did not leave. He stayed for all nine seasons.

But THE WALTONS had a departure that, if it didn’t cause the cancellation of the series, in my estimation affected the very foundation of its structure. Richard Thomas left at the end of his five-year contract. He said that was his intent at the time he signed onto the project. He was now 25 years old and had been acting since he was 7. Concerning his career this was not the time to continue plowing through plateaus; it was a time to continue climbing mountains, just not Walton’s Mountain. The series continued successfully without John-Boy’s presence for another four years. Audiences loved it. THE WALTONS was a family whose characters had endeared themselves to our nation and to nations worldwide. I saw it as a television version of a weekly radio program I had avidly listened to in the 30’s – ONE MAN’S FAMILY.

I directed only four episodes after John-Boy left. I missed him. When Henry Fonda turned down the offer to play John Walton in the series, his reason was – it’s the boy’s show. And it was! Based on the eight shows I directed in which John-Boy appeared, I found them to be the collective memoir of a developing young artist’s passage into adulthood. With his departure this young artist’s memoir had to continue without the young artist.

Earlier in this post I stated I considered THE PORTRAIT a major disappointment. Let me start addressing that issue. For openers I did not like the parallel plot or double plot scripts that so many series used. They were utilized because of the increased number of people in the running casts, and the need to keep them involved. When used appropriately, it could be very effective. In THE FIRESTORM, plot #1 involved John-Boy’s announcement that he was going to publish in his newspaper an article including excerpts from Hitler’s MEIN KAMPF. That aroused the community’s violent opposition. Plot #2 was Erin’s desire to enter the Jefferson County Day beauty contest and her father’s objection. The reason it worked was the two plots collided in a very dramatic way. In THE PORTRAIT, getting Grandma’s bird to sing was charming, and it was great having Ellen back before the camera, but there was no collision with Erin’s involvement with Derek, in spirit it wasn’t compatible with Erin’s main plot, and it took 6 scenes totally 6 minutes and 39 seconds to tell its story. By 1978 the allotted running time for THE PORTRAIT (excluding opening billboards and closing credits) was 46 minutes. That left only 39 minutes and 21 seconds for the complex Erin story. My problem? I felt as scripted Erin’s story was not complete.

I can’t remember why I took the problem to producer Rod Peterson. On THE CHICKEN THIEF, my first assignment on THE WALTONS, after I read the script I went to Earl Hamner and told him there was a scene early in the show where John-Boy told Ike he was a very fascinating character, but there wasn’t any further mention of the subject. The next day Earl presented me with a new scene he had written. The next time John-Boy came into Ike’s store, Ike presented him with a box filled with his memorabilia. He was excited and couldn’t wait until he read what John-Boy was going to write about him. It was a charming scene: Ike’s enthusiasm and John-Boy’s embarrassed chagrin, and the two actors played it to perfection. The following season I was assigned the two-hour THE CONFLICT, which starred Beulah Bondi in the first of the two episodes in which she appeared as Martha Corinne, Grandpa’s sister-in-law. Martha-Corinne was going to have to leave her home in the mountains because of a federal highway that was going to be constructed. Martha Corinne, her son, her grandson, Grandpa and John-boy staged an armed resistance to the government. When John-Boy was wounded in the gunfire, Martha Corinne gave in and conceded defeat. The original script ended with her leaving the mountains to happily take up residence in a home in the flat lands that the government provided. Again I went to Earl. I pointed out to him that we were missing a dramatic opportunity. Earl then rewrote a new ending scene. The wagons were packed and John-Boy went back to the cabin to fetch Martha-Corinne. He found her sweeping. She was going to leave the place the way she found it when she arrived there many years before as a young bride. Earl’s scene was pure poetry, and Beulah and Richard played it beyond perfection.

But I didn’t go to Earl with my concerns about THE PORTRAIT. I went to Rod. I told him I had a problem with the script, but I didn’t get a chance to go any further, to tell him my feelings about what I thought the script was lacking. Rod said there wasn’t a problem. In plain words – that’s the script — shoot it! He seemed annoyed that I was bothering him. At that moment I was angry. It wasn’t until later that I understood. My first association with Rod and his wife, Claire, was THE FIRESTORM. I don’t think we even met on that one. The only fault with that script was there was too much of a good thing. It just needed to lose the montage of the games and contests at the Jefferson County Day Fair. Our next joint venture, GRANDMA COMES HOME, their script bringing Grandma home a year after Ellen Corby’s stroke, was different. I had a major concern. Grandma didn’t arrive home until a quarter of the way into the story. I thought we should start the film with her arrival, as we had started THE PONY CART with Martha Corinne’s arrival at the Walton house. We met in Earl Hamner’s office: Earl, producer Andy White, Rod and Claire and me. My suggestion of eliminating the first 13 pages and starting with Grandma’s arrival was immediately rejected. We then started the laborious task of discussing each of the many short scenes having to do with preparations for her arrival: scenes at the Walton home, in Ike Godsey’s store, at the Baldwin sisters’ home. Every suggestion to lose a scene was rejected. Now I consider myself to be mild-mannered, soft-spoken, in spite of the fact that David Victor on DR. KILDARE dubbed me ‘boy storm cloud’, and I was told Andy White said, “Ralph will drive you crazy, but he cares.” Frustrated, I finally lost my cool and said, “Well we’d better lose something, because the first thirteen pages are just (expletive) dull. There was a hushed silence in the room. Then wonderful Claire with a wry smile said, “Well I guess that’s pretty definitive.” Some trims were made; I made additional trims in my director’s cut. And I had been wrong. Once those opening scenes were shortened and speeded up, they provided a build-up to Grandma’s arrival and more importantly to Ellen’s return after her long absence because of her stroke.

Interestingly the final voice-over narration by Earl Hamner was completely rewritten.

What was my problem? I felt it was a strong story, but it didn’t feel like THE WALTONS. I don’t think I was the only one who felt that way. I remember seeing Lee Rich, Executive Producer and co-founder of Lorimar Productions after a screening of the film. I sensed that he really didn’t like it. What was missing? There wasn’t the fabric of family surrounding the central story. The film should have been bigger, a coming of age story for Erin taking her first tentative steps into womanhood as she moved on from her young girl fancies. How to do that? I didn’t know. That’s what I wanted to talk to Rod about.

And there certainly was another contributing factor to our thorny relationship. Beyond that first script meeting there was an additional circumstance concerning rewrites that I realized had affected Rod, the scene in GRANDMA COMES HOME now known as the ‘green bean scene’.

Talk about history repeating itself. In this case unfortunately it didn’t!

I never directed another episode of THE WALTONS. I never worked for Lorimar again.

And now it’s time to say goodnight.

The journey continues

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5 Responses to The Portrait

  1. Jim says:

    Thanks very much for this post Ralph – we appreciate you sharing with us both the pleasant and less pleasant experiences of your career. I thought this was an enjoyable episode, but agree with your observation that it lacks the family dynamic that was the basis of the show.

    I thought Jared Martin gave a very good performance – in fact, I thought all of his performances were well crafted. He certainly had an interesting career – lead in two sci-fi series and his most recognizable role on Dallas. He seemed to have tired of the Hollywood scene and went back to the east coast to the theater and to teach acting.

    On Lorimar and Rod Petersen’s decision not to offer you more work after The Portrait given all the many superb Walton episodes that you directed, it was certainly their, and our, loss………

    No matter how many times I see the “green bean scene”, I can’t help but tear up…..and I’m no softee (28 year military veteran)…….

  2. John Dayton says:

    Mary McDonough in her autobiography LESSONS FROM THE MOUNTAIN writes of this time in her life. “…one day, Ralph Senensky, a wonderful director, brought me to my ultimate choice. Ralph and I had discussed whether children should learn to act, or if it was enough to be a kid. Ralph believed when you got to a certain age, it wasn’t enough just to act like a kid anymore; you actually needed to learn the craft…he explained it was like walking up to a bridge and deciding whether to cross over into the grown-up world, where the challenges were tough and the expectations high, or staying on the “safe” side. Ralph knew I had been working to bridge that gap between the cute child actor and an adult with believability, depth, and scope. I respected his knowledge and sensitivity toward my serious effort.”

  3. Phil says:

    Speaking of Lorimar, I assume you don’t have a copy of your episode from ‘The Blue Knight’ to write about. That series is really buried…Youtube has the opening credits and that’s it. Perhaps Warner Bros. will make it available one day on its online streaming service or as a burn-to-order DVD.

    Ralph, any chance you’ll cover “The Beguiled” episode of ‘The Waltons’?

    • Ralph says:

      You’re correct. I don’t have a copy of THE BLUE KNIGHT. It was the only “cop” show I directed for Lorimar. As for THE BEGUILED — I am torn. I think the show is a charmer. Nothing intense like most of the episodes I did for the series. It was the first time I worked with Willie Aames (later THE FAMILY NOBODY WANTED and an episode of EIGHT IS ENOUGH), but the problem is there were no problems — little of interest behind the camera.

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