Printer’s Devil

Filmed November 1962

The first time I saw that opening was sometime in 1959 when I was still on staff of PLAYHOUSE  90. One of my colleagues invited me to a screening of a yet-to-be-aired CBS pilot. The film was Rod Serling’s WHERE IS EVERYBODY?, the beginning of this classic television series. I remember being blown away by the film. Little did I realize then that three years later I would receive a call from my agent telling me that Herbert Hirschman, the original producer of DR. KILDARE who was now producing a group of one hour TWILIGHT ZONES, had put a ‘hold’ on me to direct an episode of the series. (A ‘hold’ was a way of signifying interest without making a firm contractual commitment.) I was excited by the prospect of doing the show. But a couple of days later the agent called again and said that the hold had been withdrawn. The assignment would have been to direct a script by Rod Serling. As creator of the series and supplier of a prolific number of scripts Rod had director approval of those scripts he wrote. I’m guessing it was because of my limited lack of film directing experience that he had withheld approving me. But it was not too much later that Hirschman called again, this time with a firm offer to direct a non-Rod Serling script. I happily accepted. The assignement was a script by Charles Beaumont, PRINTER’S DEVIL, based on one of his short stories, THE DEVIL, YOU SAY.

I reported to MGM for my prep, and it was like going home. This was the studio where I had served as Herb Hirschman’s assistant for eight months on DR. KILDARE. It was the studio where I had directed my first television show, and where I had directed three of the four shows that at that time was my filmography. To complete the pleasant picture the casting director was John Conwell, an old friend and a fine actor who had recently moved into casting. John was wonderful. Having been an actor himself he understood, respected and LIKED actors. (You would be amazed at how many casting directors disliked and resented actors.) We ended up with an impressive cast headed by Robert Sterling in the role of Doug, the small town editor whose newspaper is in deep, dark trouble; Patricia Crowley as Jackie, his assistant and girlfriend; and Burgess Meredith as the mysterious stranger, Mr. Smith.

I had been associated with Burgess before, but in a totally non-personal way. In 1957 when I was still employed on PLAYHOUSE 90 as a secretary, Burgess had co-directed their production of THE JET-PROPELLED COUCH. (He staged and directed the actors, James Clark directed the cameras.) On PLAYHOUSE 90 the original scripts would be printed in the mimeograph department. But there were daily script changes, and these were typed and then printed by me on ditto machines. The thing that made this situation unusual was that Stanley Roberts, the author of the original teleplay, would turn in his daily script changes, which I typed and printed. Then Burgess, unbeknownst to Roberts, would rewrite the rewrites. These I also typed and printed. Each set of changes was produced on a different color paper. And dated. And annotated as to whose changes they were. This went on for a solid two weeks. If it sounds confusing now, think of what it was like when it was happening.

The set for Doug’s printing establishment was great. I was very impressed but not surprised, after all this was MGM. Everything there was always done top-grade. It was a very large set that included an entry area, a big printing room and Doug’s office, a comfortable space that looked out onto the printing room through large glass windows. The set was painted a dingy gray. That proved to be a problem. When George Clemens, the director of photography, came to examine the set, he pointed out to the art director that his contract stated that all of his sets had to be painted green. (Even though the show was being filmed in black and white.) And so when I arrived at the studio the next day, I saw a dingy green printing establishment. Again I was impressed but not surprised.

The day in pre-production when Burgess came to the studio for his wardrobe fitting was an exciting day for me. Remember what I wrote about the MGM prop building. We went to the MGM wardrobe building. Ditto there. And the wardrobe people were prepared. They had rolling racks hung with trousers, shirts, vests, ties, belts, hats. They had canes and cigars, all sizes, all shapes. Watching Burgess in front of a full length mirror, examining different combinations was an experience, because with each change of wardrobe, his whole demeanor changed. He didn’t just drape different garments on his torso; he put them on, and his body reacted. He FELT them. He literally became another person with each change. I lost count of the number of different Mr. Smith’s I saw that day. But I relished the one that eventually was born.

The opening sequence with Doug and Jackie had one other character, the old linotype operator, Andy Praskins. For this role I cast Charles Thompson, who had been a member of the cast in my Equity Library Theatre West production, MORNING’S AT SEVEN, the show that had started all of this for me. Charles, in a very fine cast, had been a major spark that provided some of the funniest comedy in the show. Interestingly midway through the run Charles character stopped being funny. I went backstage after the disappointing performance to talk to him about it. He said that he had reevaluated his character and felt that psychologically he had been on the wrong road; he felt his character was much more serious. I managed to convince him that, psychologically what he had been doing was not incorrect and was very valid. He easily slipped back into his original characterization for the balance of the play’s run.

I had filmed on the New York streets on MGM’s Lot 2 for JOHNNY TEMPLE. The day I scouted the lot with art director Charles Hagedon to select my locations for that show, he gave me a tour. It was exciting to see the Andy Hardy Street, the MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS family house up on a hill, sites I remembered from movies I had seen years before. I don’t remember on that day seeing the location I would be using a year later on PRINTER’S DEVIL. It was a magical bucolic lake with a magnificent bridge, amazingly just a short distance from the brownstones and Park Avenue buildings I had filmed on my first DR. KILDARE.

That was not the way I envisioned the scene on the bridge. Since Doug left the car headlights on, I wanted that to be the light source. Doug would be harshly front lit, and the stranger, Mr. Smith when he appeared, would be back lit. Mysterious! A feeling of danger. Not until he lit his cigar after Doug headed back to the car, would we see the face of the devil. I presented my concept to George Clemens, the director of photography, and his response was that he didn’t see it that way. We took our disagreement to Herb Hirschman, who listened and (unfortunately for me) sided with George. The scene still works because of Meredith’s bravura performance; maybe it even works better because you can see his face. And it is helped by the post production addition of the fog. But his vocal performance was so great, I still would have liked to have filmed it my way.

The business of Mr. Smith’s finger bursting into flame was set the day Burgess came in for his wardrobe fitting. Once the wardrobe had been selected, the special effects man took over. To demonstrate he stuck his finger in a coffee can of ice. When it was sufficiently cold and numb, he doused it with lighter fluid. He then attached a wire to his finger, threw a switch and voila — fire! He went through the procedure a couple of times before it became Burgess’ turn. First he ran the wire up Meredith’s pant leg, on up under his shirt and down his shirt sleeve, ready to be attached to his finger. Then his index finger went into the ice. As Meredith had his finger in the can of ice, I assured him that the special effects man had guaranteed the process would not burn him. His response: “I’m not worried about getting burned. I’m more concerned with freezing to death!”

On the 37 acre Lot 2 each street (and there were dozens of them) had a name. Each structure had a name. (The structures were of course just facades.) Some of the names referred to past MGM productions; there was a Wimpole Street, a Copperfield Court, a Waterloo Bridge. The exterior of the Half Moon Bar and Grill was on Dansburg Street, (Doug’s newspaper was the Dansburg Courier); but the bar interior (another larger than anticipated set) was on Stage 3.

Actors like Burgess Meredith fascinated me with the preparation they brought to their roles. They didn’t just memorize their lines. As Beulah Bondi once said to me, “After the lines are learned, that’s when the work begins.”  I’m sure Burgess took his cue for how to work at the linotype machine from one of Jackie’s lines: “If he doesn’t play Chopin’s Polonaise, I’m going to be disappointed.”

And Mr. Smith’s nose for news delivered. As a reporter he got scoop after scoop, and always a very short time after the occurrence. Outrageous stories. A building collapsing. Drowning. Murder. And finally the burning down of the Gazette, their newspaper competitor. At this point Beaumont’s script had a wonderfully written six and a half minute scene between Doug and Mr. Smith. In anticipation of that scene I had the set designer install window shades in Doug’s office. I wanted to be able to shut out the large printing room, to create a claustrophobic, entrapment feeling as we enacted a climactic scene of our modern day version of Faust.

There was a little old man, a printer in Culver City, who had loaned us printing equipment. For that we allowed him to come visit the set and observe our film making. Well the day after we shot the sequence when Doug fired a pistol at Mr. Smith, when we went to view the rushes, who should appear peeking over Burgess’ shoulder in his closeup but this little old man, standing a distance behind him in a doorway. No one had seen him during the filming. I hadn’t seen him; obviously from where I was standing he was blocked by Burgess’ head. The camera operator hadn’t seen him; we were stilll using a camera with a parallex viewer so that the operator was not seeing the same picture that was being photographed. And obviously no one else on the set had noticed. It was eerie, almost ghostlike. Naturally we refilmed Mr. Smith’s closeup the next day.

I always preplanned everything. Ideally I would have staging for the the entire show with camera coverage marked in my script before the first scene was shot. My script looked very much like that of a script person. In fact many times I was asked if I had been a script clerk. If time and circumstances did not allow for this, I at least had everything prepared through the Friday filming. I never came home after a long day to face having to prepare the next day’s work. On PRINTER’S DEVIL I didn’t have the final day’s work completed before we started. But I had a weekend to plan it. That was when I became aware that there was a problem. If Mr. Smith had ‘adjusted’ the linotype machine so that whatever was typed on it came to pass, all Doug had to do was sit down and type a different ending than the one Mr. Smith had planned. We had to create a stumbling block. I called Herb Hirschman and went to his home. He agreed we had a problem. So we solved it.

If I seem to be ignoring Robert Sterling’s contribution to this production, it’s not because I don’t admire and respect it. And the same goes for Pat Crowley. Sterling and I worked together again three months later on NAKED CITY in New York. When I write about that show, he will be center stage. We won’t have the devil then to distract us.

It was a decade before I saw Burgess Meredith again. I was directing an episode of a terrible series, SEARCH, and Burgess had a thankless supporting role in it. A total waste of a magnificent talent. We talked about PRINTER’S DEVIL. He told me that the night it aired, he received a congratulatory telegram from John Huston. Forty-eight years later PRINTER’S DEVIL is still aired; I think it’s the Sci-Fi channel on cable that stages TWILIGHT ZONE marathons.

The assignments were still few and slow in arriving. Now as the end of 1962 approached, the journey that in 1961 had finally gotten on track, still seemed to be meandering down back country lanes. What I didn’t know was what was awaiting me just around the next bend in the road.

The journey continues

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12 Responses to Printer’s Devil

  1. Dave Eversole says:

    Fantastic glimpse behind the scenes, Mr. Senensky. This is easily one of the top two or three hour-long Twilight Zones. People always remember Burgess Meredith in the one about (I’m terrible with titles) the little man who wants nothing but the time to read, only to have his glasses broken in the twist, but I think his best Twilight Zone acting is right here, in PRINTER’S DEVIL.

  2. John Nelson says:

    Ralph, another great piece. I’m fascinated with the stories you can tell about not just the obviously great actors we all came to know well like Burgess Meredith, but also someone who’s name we never really knew like Charles Thompson. Your anecdote about him and how he approached a role psychologically is great to hear because it shows even the smallest part actor has a method to what they do. As old as Thompson was, he continued to work until 1972 and died in 1979 at 88. Keeo these stories coming!

  3. JUDY LITMAN says:

    Ralph! Terrific story and clips from the show. Burgess Meredith has always been a favorite of mine. And now I understand why. I remember him in one of my favorite comedies, the film FOUL PLAY, and of course, many TV shows. Thanks for a behind the scene glimpse of what is involved in the business. I just returned from Culver City yesterday. They still make many shows there.

  4. Phil says:

    A couple of years ago, PBS had a four-episode documentary on various TV show genres (westerns from the 50s & 60s, along with crime shows from the 70s, were a couple of them). Pat Crowley had many comments on it, but all I could think of was, “who is this lady?” After looking up her filmography, it seemed she worked a ton, but missed all the shows I watched! That was a loss on my part.

    Ralph, regarding the indoor sets, I looked at the scenes where the camera is pointed towards the front door from inside the office (2nd video at 3:26) and from inside the bar (4th video at 0:45). Would an art director use an indoor façade or a painted wall to represent the buildings across the “street”? In the first video, it really looks like there’s light coming through the front doors of the drug store. Did they fool me?! Also, I assume that was the real newspaper car parked outside in both scenes.

    Lastly, Molly’s waitress uniform had four sets of three parallel white stripes – anyone seeing this today will say one word: Adidas!

    • Ralph says:

      Regarding the sets: As seen through the doorways, I’m sure they were more than painted backdrops. I think they were facades, that would have been light coming through the drug store doorway and yes that was the station wagon parked outside the bar.

  5. John Eighmey says:

    That was my favorite Twilight Zone episode. I grew up on Crescent Drive, and it was such a delight to see your name in so many credits.

  6. Phil says:

    Last month, Warner Bros. announced the DVD release (MOD – Manufactured on Demand) for the series ‘Search’. After watching the 3-minute preview clip WarnerArchive posted on Youtube, I see your point regarding Burgess Meredith.

  7. Fred Hamilton says:

    Just watched this terrific episode again today. And I started thinking about how amazing it is that a “neighbor” of mine (I’m in Pacific Grove) in 2016 once worked with an actor born in 1891, and their collaboration in 1963 is now available in a glorious, high-res, blu-ray recording that people will still be enjoying in 2091…Sometimes it feels like time machines are real!

    Ralph, while you were making this and the Star Trek episodes, did you have any inkling that those shows would become as immortal as Shakespeare?

    • Ralph says:

      Correction: PRINTER’S DEVIL was filmed in 1962. To answer your question about an inkling: the answer is “No.” I can add to that. Today in 2016 I can honestly say I still have trouble believing it!

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