Shadow Of A Starless Night

Filmed January 1964

After completing filming FUNNY MAN with Mickey Rooney I was pleased to learn I would be returning to Desilu Studio for another episode of BREAKING POINT, my favorite series of that season. Desilu was a pleasant place to work. It was smaller than MGM, less regal and very warm and friendly. It was originally the RKO Radio Studio and like MGM fairly reeked of its past. That was where Katharine Hepburn in 1932 had made her film debut in A BILL OF DIVORCEMENT and had won her first Academy Award the following year in MORNING GLORY. It was where she had played Jo in LITTLE WOMEN, Alice in ALICE ADAMS and where she and Cary Grant had taken screwball comedy to dazzling heights in BRINGING UP BABY. It was where Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had danced through nine of their ten films together. It was where three years later I would soar into space in the Starship Enterprise on STAR TREK.

Director Guild rules required that the script for an assignment be delivered three days before the director reported for preparation, but that very seldom happened. Hopefully the script was waiting for the director when he reported to the studio. But in the case of this assignment I became involved in December, about a month before my report date. Jean Holloway, who was going to write the script, had done an enormous amount of research and found that in the United States there were six or eight practicing physicians who had been born with sight, been blinded, but returned to the practice of medicine. She interviewed all of them by telephone, then blended that material into a story about a young doctor, who in an automobile accident is blinded, and the story of his eventual rehabilitation. The project (originally titled IN THE DARK ALL CATS ARE GRAY) was exciting and I was thrilled to be involved in it so early.

Jean was a very unusual lady. Most writers having an assignment went home and had no contact with the producer until they turned in their script. Not Jean. She had an office right at the studio and consulted daily with producer Richard Collins, who had been promoted from associate producer. George Lefferts now was the executive producer.

Jean learned that I was going to San Francisco to visit family for the holidays and she suggested that I contact the Guide Dogs for the Blind organization in San Rafael. Hopefully I would be able to visit them and get information that she could include in her script. So while I was in San Francisco, I called the school, made an appointment and traveled across the bridge to their magnificent establishment in the rolling hills east of the Bay. Bill Jones, the executive in charge, gave me a tour. I learned that they bred their own dogs: three breeds — golden retriever, German shepherd and black Labrador. When the puppies were six or eight weeks old, they were put out to foster homes, where they could be indoctrinated to relate socially to people. Then they were brought back to the school, where the staff of trainers turned them into Guide Dogs for the blind.

The next step in their process was to train the blind. A class of twelve or fourteen accepted pupils would arrive to receive and be trained to use a guide dog. I was told that they were going to be starting a class of new students the following Monday. I was invited to audit those classes. I accepted the invitation, and starting the following Monday I attended all of the classes for the next five days.

Why I had taken a short-hand class in high school to this day I can’t explain, but on more than one occasion it certainly came in handy. This was one of those occasions. I daily traveled across the Bay (fortunately gasoline at that time was priced more reasonably), attended all of the classes, taking voluminous notes, which I would relate to Jean Holloway each evening in extended ninety minute telephone calls. Jean was thrilled with the material I was providing, so that what originally was going to be a short interval in her story ended up being a full act — one fourth of the script.

I returned to southern California and in January reported to the studio, where I found a very fine script (now titled SHADOW OF A STARLESS NIGHT) by Jean awaiting me. Casting for the show was simple. Bradford Dillman was cast as our young doctor, Peter, and Dianne Foster was cast as his wife, Debbie. I do remember that we submitted the script with an offer to Barbara Rush to play the role of the wife. Barbara turned it down, but did say she would be willing to accept if the wife could be the blind one. The dominant psychiatrist in this script was Dr. Raymer, the Eduard Franz role. He was the Dr. Gillespie of this series. Jean’s script was very intriguing, because she presented, beside our young doctor’s dilemna in coping with his blindness, the problem faced by his older psychiatrist friend who doesn’t know how to help him. The fact that Paul Richards had been relegated to the sidelines with no involvement in the case at first glance was not unusual; this show like DR. KILDARE needed to give the series co-star some time in the limelight.

I also did some research into the blind. I especially remember reading the autobiography of  Elena Zelayeta, a lady born in Mexico who was raised by two parents who ran an inn. She moved to the United States as a girl, married, had two sons, opened a restaurant and then went blind. She has since, in addition to her autobiography, written several acclaimed Mexican cookbooks. The inspiring story of her rehabilitation provided me with a map for how to handle the recovery of our Dr. Phillips. First came the patient’s realization of his condition.

Then his acknowledgment of his condition.

Did the elevating of Eduard Franz to take over the case have more implications? As the director of this episode I was not privy to deeper motivations higher up at the studio and at the network. But I had reasons to suspect there were other plans afoot when Jean’s script introduced a new character, Dr. Watkins, a young psychiatrist, a new arrival at the hospital. For this role we cast a fresh new face, Charles Robinson. Was this casting done with an eye to getting a renewal for the series for the following year? If so was this character going to be an addition to the hospital staff or possibly a replacement for the star of the series?  I’m afraid that Paul Richards, a fine actor, had not turned out to be another Vince Edwards or Richard Chamberlain.

Jean’s script attacked a problem not only facing psychiatrists, but a problem facing this series – low ratings. Psychiatrists need to avoid becoming emotionally involved with their patients. Bluntly speaking Paul Richards’ Dr. Thompson tended to do just that. That was information that I considered when trying to guess what ABC had in mind as to the future of this series when they added Charles Robinson to the cast.

There was a role I found easy to cast. Nine years earlier when I was connected with the Players Ring, one of the Hollywood area theatres, I directed the soda fountain scene in OUR TOWN for a show case. At the time I just knew the two young actors I was directing as Jimmy and Judy. One day when we arrived at the theater, we found there was no available rehearsal space. Judy said, “We can go up to my house to rehearse.” I asked, “Where is that?” and she answered, “Just up the street.”

So up the street we traipsed to a large house on the corner of Fountain. When I entered, I felt as if I were entering the set of an MGM movie. Marble floors, tall white columns. I had never seen anything like this in Mason City, Iowa. And then I saw an Academy award statuette up on a shelf.

“Whose is that?” I asked.

Judy replied, “My mother’s.”

“Who’s your mother?”

“Loretta Young.”

And I don’t know why, but I blurted out, “But you don’t look like her.” (Although actually she does.)

And Judy said, “I’m adopted.”

After the rehearsal I returned to the theatre, eager in my naivete to tell anyone who would listen about this exciting occurrence. And that was when I learned that Judy was really Miss Young’s daughter, the child of a liaison between Loretta Young and Clark Gable during the making of the film, CALL OF THE WILD. Many years later when I read Judy Lewis’ wonderful book, UNCOMMON KNOWLEDGE, I realized that I knew the facts of her parenthood before she did.

The Jimmy in the soda fountain scene was Jimmy Hayes and I cast him as the young man in a sequence of this production.

One of the joys of Jean’s script was that, unlike too much television, her scenes weren’t filled with dialog describing what was happening being spoken by ‘talking heads’. Peter’s return home from the hospital is a good example. And you will see, I paid attention when Charles Hagedon told me John Ford’s advice to “move the actors, not the camera.”

Jean’s research covered not only the emotional problems of the blind patient and the psychiatrist but also that of the third party involved in the situation – the wife.

And Jean’s research, all by telephone, also produced facts that not only contributed to the drama, it also provided unusual details that were informative.

I would have loved to have gone to the school in San Rafael to shoot the show, but with a television budget, that was not possible. We ended up at a Girl Scout camp in one of the canyons of Los Angeles. It was more wooded than San Rafael, but it was very scenic, very beautiful. It was Bronson Canyon, a canyon that I would return to for THIS SIDE OF PARADISE on STAR TREK. And once we posted our Guide Dogs For The Blind sign, only those people who had been to San Rafael would know of our duplicity.

So because we couldn’t go to the school, the school came to us. Bill Jones came to southern California for the shoot, bringing several dogs and one of the staff trainers. Bill proved invaluable as an uncredited technical advisor. Further casting involved the blind people in the class. These were not speaking roles, but they were obviously very important. Bill Jones offered to contact graduates of the school who lived in Southern California. He did, we cast and that’s how our class was put together. And each one came with his own Guide Dog.

Our filming began at the camp location. There we did the exteriors and the interior of a very large glassed-in room that we used for indoctrination and dining scenes. We aimed to reproduce as accurately as possible what I had seen the month before in San Rafael. There was the first class devoted to getting the blind to move more freely, not fearfully.

The trainer in that scene was played by a fine actor, Don Hanmer. Don was a member of the famed Actors’ Studio. He told me of an incident years before in one of his classes. The assignment was to perform an activity using sense memory. Don chose to eat a banana. Seated in his chair in the classroom he pantomimed picking up a banana and slowly starting to peel it. At that moment Cloris Leachman arrived late. She quietly slipped in and took a seat directly behind Don and took a banana out of a sack for her late lunch. Don, engrossed in his pantomime, suddenly looked up and said to Lee Strasberg, “I’m so into this, I can actually smell the banana.”

When we did the first dining sequence I asked the blind actors to remember the first time they had a meal in San Rafael and to eat and talk just as they had then. If you listen carefully, you will hear one of them say, “I see we have carrots; I understand carrots are good for the eyes.” Jean didn’t write that line. It was an incredible ad lib.

There was a second dining room sequence that unfortunately did not survive into the final cut of the film. Once the members of the class had received their dogs, the dogs joined them at the dining table. All of the dogs were under the table, each one at the feet of his (or her) new master.

Before they received their dogs, the class had to learn how to handle the leash and commands. The trainer became their two-footed dog. At one point I checked with Bill Jones to make sure Don’s performance as the trainer was technically authentic. Bill smiled as he replied that the performance was fine, but the trainer who accompanied him from San Rafael had noted that if Don’s trainer walked as much as the trainers did in San Rafael, he would be a lot slimmer.

Eddie Rissien, one of the executives in the production company, knew a young actress, Marcia Blakesley, who was blind. He asked if we could fine a role for her in the film. Jean and I were only too happy to do that and she became our Nancy.

Bill Jones told me the dogs were not randomly assigned. The staff tried to match up dog and future master based on their personalities.

I left San Rafael after five days. I had seen the basics of the training. The class stayed on for twenty-three more days, long days of walking their dogs on public streets.

One day I sat talking to Bill Jones about the climatic scene in the script when Peter returns home from the Guide Dog School to find his wife has left him. I was excited about the potential power of the scene. Bill just smiled as he told me of an instance when a graduate of the school returned home to find, not only had his wife left, she had taken all of their furniture. Like in the comic strips and Superman on film, a light went on over my head. Sitting there I visualized the scene. Full shot of the door in the foyer to the apartment as Peter enters with Kurt. It is night and there are no lights on in the room. As he moves to the archway into the living room he calls out, “Debbie, Debbie I’m home.” The camera slowly pulls back and up to a high wide shot of the bare living room. No answer. As Peter leans over to release the leash on his dog, he calls out again, “Debbie.” No answer. The camera pans him as he slowly crosses into the living room, tilting down to see him bump into something in the center of the floor. It is the reel to reel tape recorder we have seen earlier when it sat on a table. He kneels and turns it on. The camera moves in to a close shot of the winding reels as Debbie’s voice tells him she has left him. And that was what I filmed. Richard Collins, who was now producing the show (George Lefferts having left for New York, although he still was listed as executive producer) was on the set when we shot the scene. Without giving me any reason for his request, he asked me to shoot an alternate version of the scene WITH the furniture. So we did. And it was the alternate version that ended up in the final film. Several months later when I was working with Suzy Parker, Brad’s wife, she told me that when Brad saw that scene the night the show aired, he almost threw something through the television screen. I wonder, if George Lefferts had still been producing, which version would have ended up in the final print; in fact I wonder if George had still been producing if there would have been an alternate version.

Kurt was a guide dog, not an actor. We got him to knock Brad over, but we had trouble getting him to lick Brad’s face. That is until we put chocolate syrup on it.

One of life’s final ironies. I learned years later that Bill Jones, who was in charge of the school, in his later years lost his eyesight.

The end of the 1963-64 television season was not a happy time. BREAKING POINT joined ARREST AND TRIAL and EAST SIDE WEST SIDE, all debuting shows six months earlier, on the list of shows cancelled by the networks.

The journey continues

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6 Responses to Shadow Of A Starless Night

  1. Ande Kindryd says:

    Ralph enjoying heaps. Please have a look at my Facebook page: Andreea Kindryd. I will be in touch.

  2. detectivetom says:

    Very interesting. Thank you for this story.

  3. candace says:

    that doctor guy means well but he does not know what it feels like to be blind when all your life you could see.

    • Ralph says:

      I think I share your sentiments. Jean Holloway, who wrote the teleplay, did a tremendous amount of research. I have forgotten how many doctors she interviewed; doctors who had been sighted, lost their eyesight and then returned to the practice of medicine. That statement that the young doctor made about blindness was something she learned in her interviews.

  4. Phil says:

    It’s best to watch the videos FIRST before reading your comments, especially for obscure programs I’ve never seen before, like this one. The ending took me by surprise, but the real shock was reading how an ever better ending got tossed in the garbage.

    I never heard of Richard Collins before, until I read his obit last month online, which was quite interesting.

    Ralph, IMDB says this series was filmed at Delisu’s Culver City studios. I assume that’s the particular Desilu location you’re referring to. Did you ever direct any TV shows on the adjacent “40 Acre” backlot or in front of the Selznick mansion/office?

    • Ralph says:

      It was not filmed at Desilu’s Culver City lot. It was filmed on the main Desilu lot (the old RKO lot at Melrose and Gower). I worked Desilu Culver again later on THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH and much later on THE NEW ADVENTURES OF HEIDI. I worked neither the back lot nor the front of the Selznick mansion/office.

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