FILMED November 1978
Late in 1978 I was booked to direct an episode of HOW THE WEST WAS WON, a 90-minute weekly series produced at my old stomping grounds in Culver City, MGM. The series had a fascinating gestation history. In 1962 MGM produced an epic-Western for theatrical release suggested by the LIFE magazine series, “How the West Was Won”. Filmed in Cinerama, it took three major Hollywood directors to guide the twenty-two stars headlining its five episodes. It was so successful that in 1976 MGM, continuing the story of the taming of the west, produced a 2-hour pilot for ABC, THE MACAHANS. Its airing was a ratings success, and ABC scheduled a mini-series featuring the Macahan family for the following year, but reverted to its original title — HOW THE WEST WAS WON. It too was a huge ratings success, and ABC scheduled a continuation of the saga as a regular series for the following season. When the series was renewed for a second season, a major change took place; Eva Marie Saint, playing Kate Macahan, the mother of four children, bowed out, and Fionnula Flanagan, playing Kate’s sister, Molly, arrived by stagecoach from Chicago. Aunt Molly was coming for a visit to help out the family in their time of need, but of course with the series’ renewals continuing to occur, she stayed on permanently. Interestingly HOW THE WEST WAS WON in its first two years as a regular series had a continuing story in its one-hour episodes. When the series was renewed for its third season, the format changed. Each episode was ninety minutes with a self-contained story. That was the format for THE SCAVENGERS.
Legend has it that when GUNSMOKE was being prepared as a weekly television series, that John Wayne was offered the role of Matt Dillon, he turned it down, but recommended that James Arness be cast. The legend is not true. Wayne was never offered the role, and he did not recommend Arness to the producer. He did however encourage his friend Arness to accept the offer when Arness, with an increasingly successful feature film career, was wavering. After a record-breaking twenty year run, GUNSMOKE left the air in 1975. The following year I doubt that anyone else was ever considered for the role of Zeb Macahan in THE MACAHANS, the pilot that spawned HOW THE WEST WAS WON.
In preparing this post, I viewed the original 2-hour pilot, THE MACAHANS, and the entire second season of HOW THE WEST WAS WON. I was very impressed with the feature film quality that had been produced on a television budget. I was even more moved with the sensitive approach to the treatment of the Indians. The movie westerns that I grew up viewing were far different. There the ‘Injuns’ were savages. In my maturity when I read BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE, I remember that as I finished each chapter of that magnificent tome, I had to stop and recover emotionally before continuing. By this time in my career I had directed a couple of Indian stories (THE WARRIOR on THE WALTONS and THE INDIANS on LOU GRANT) set in the twentieth century. I would have cherished an opportunity to work on an Indian story in that earlier pioneer period. But that was not my luck of the draw. THE SCAVENGERS was a good script, but it had little to do with the taming of the west. Frankly it was a romantic Gothic tale set in the post-Civil War period. At least it wasn’t another cop show.
The idiosyncrasies of the film studios were sometimes hard to comprehend. The young blond boy of the couple was my cousin, Jay Senensky. I brought him in to meet the producers and audition for the role, he passed muster, and he was cast. But one of the producers then told me MGM at that time had a policy that forbade hiring relatives. We had to change his name. Jay’s younger brother was Dale. Jay Senensky became Jayson Dale, and he was then eligible to be cast. Problem circumvented!
THE SCAVENGERS had a fourteen-day shooting schedule for a ninety-minute episode of a weekly series. That was more days than I had to film THE CONFLICT, a two-hour episode of THE WALTONS. That one was completed in eleven and a half days.
I have a confusion. My schedules and call sheets indicate that six of the fourteen days were filmed at Hunter Ranch. As I remember, we filmed those exteriors on MGM’s backlot 3, but I have checked a book about the MGM Studio, and there is no reference to an area on the backlot called Hunter Ranch. I’m going to stick with my memory. The scenes you just witnessed, the pirates at the riverbank before they boarded the paddlewheeler and their return with their captives, were filmed at the lake backlot 3, the lake where I believe the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies were filmed in the thirties. The pirate encampment, the shack where the ladies made their escape, the wooded area where they met Clay – those scenes were filmed on a green set on Stage 15.
This was my second outing with Katy Kurtzman, the young girl playing Nettie. Six months earlier, when she was twelve years old, she had been Heidi in the television musical, THE NEW ADVENTURES OF HEIDI. A birthday had occurred in September, so her Nettie was thirteen years old. I say again what I wrote on my post for the Heidi film:
Katy’s remarkable concentration and emotional involvement when she acted truly fascinated me. I once asked her how she approached doing a scene. That twelve-year old‘s answer was so simple. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “I just believe.”
I have always felt that of the many children actors I directed, Katy was the best of the little girls. Sorry Jody Foster!
That was the first time I worked with executive producer John Mantley. In fact it was the first time I met him, but far from the first time I was aware of him. Thirty-one years earlier in 1947 when I entered the Pasadena Playhouse, John Mantley was one of the renowned students in the graduate class. He was a very fine actor and, more importantly, noted for being a second cousin of Mary Pickford. Later I was aware that this Playhouse alumnus was the producer of GUNSMOKE for ten of its twenty years on the air. I never directed a GUNSMOKE, but I too had a connection to it, although an earlier version. In 1955 when I first started working at CBS in the radio mimeo department, I was a lowly typist cutting stencils for CBS radio shows. One of those shows was GUNSMOKE starring William Conrad in the role that James Arness later portrayed in the television series. The mimeo department was next to a viewing booth that looked down on the radio studio where GUNSMOKE was rehearsed and recorded. I watched many of them in production. I became acquainted with the script supervisor on the show and even sat in on some of the rehearsals. I’m also remembering another GUNSMOKE connection. I didn’t meet him at that time, but Norman MacDonnell was the creator and producer of GUNSMOKE on radio. Later Norman produced THE EASTER BREACH on SUSPENSE THEATRE, a production I directed.
I’ve known Jack Stauffer for over forty years. I knew him and his wife socially as well as professionally. At the time Jack was set to play David in THE SCAVENGERS, he told me an amusing incident that had happened to him earlier that year. Jack had a recurring role on the series BATTLESTAR GALACTICA. He told me that he had been excited when he was cast in the two-part episode, THE LIVING LEGEND, but then he read the script. Within the first ten pages his character, Lieutenant Bojay, disappeared, sort of vanished into a cloud, and didn’t reappear until the final few pages. Well I couldn’t let that one go unnoticed. Jack didn’t report to the set of THE SCAVENGERS until our eighth day of filming. By that time I was well acquainted with the crew, so I arranged a little reception for him when he reported to Stage 15 at MGM. I had a sign made that said …
MAKE-UP ROOM ONLY FOR STARS
… and I had it hung on the door of the make-up room. The make-up crew was in on the joke and cooperated in ostracizing him. Jack told me later that Fionnula was especially delighted at the prank. Well Jack was not going to let that go without a response. The following day was Thanksgiving, but when we reported on Friday to MGM’s backlot, after giving the crew instructions for the first set-up, I went to sit down in my director’s chair, but there was no chair. I looked everywhere for it. My chair just wasn’t there. Jack, standing nearby was enjoying my turmoil. He finally pointed up to one of the very tall trees. There hanging by a rope from a limb was my director’s chair.
I didn’t get to work with the actors playing the other Macahan siblings (Bruce Boxleitner, William Kirby Cullen and Vicki Schreck), but I did see their work on the pilot and second season episodes that I viewed, and I was impressed, as I was with Kathryn Holcomb’s Laura then and on THE SCAVENGERS. She always came to the set totally prepared, and her work ethic was professional to the nth degree. I would bet the other three actors behaved the same way, and I think I know why. James Arness! A dozen years before when I was directing an episode of THE WILD WILD WEST at CBS Studio Center in Studio City, I learned that Bette Davis was guest starring in an episode of GUNSMOKE on the same lot. I asked our assistant director if he could arrange for us to visit that set during one of the breaks when our crew was lighting, and he did. We went over to the GUNSMOKE set and saw an amazing sight. The cameraman was lighting a close-up of Matt Dillon, and James Arness was the one being lit, not his stand-in. Bette Davis was seated next to the camera, with Amanda Blake kneeling by her side. The assistant director told us that had been one of the easiest shows he had ever worked on. In deference to Miss Davis, none of the stars of the series ever left the set. On HOW THE WEST WAS WON a disciplined star like James Arness provided a role model for the younger actors. That had been true many years before in the Hollywood major studios. Stars like Gable, Cagney and Stanwyck were the role models for the aspiring young talent at the studio. I’m sure Arness at one time was one of those young talents, and one of the role models for him was John Wayne. He learned his lessons well.