Sixth Sense

FILMED  February 1980

Wasn’t that impressive? That was Vail, Colorado about the third week in January, 1980. Had I not turned down the assignment to direct that episode, I would have been the one standing out in the cold beside the camera calling “Action.” Fortunately I was in warm southern California at the 20th Century Fox studio, prepping SIXTH SENSE, the show that would film when the frostbitten company completed the work in Colorado and returned to the west coast.

As you can see, SIXTH SENSE was a show minus the coolness provided by the snow banks of Vail but with the promised heat of a genuine thriller.

I had worked with Peter Coffield (the gentleman having his fortune read) three years earlier when he guest-starred on an episode of EIGHT IS ENOUGH. In that show he was romancing one of the five daughters, a role far less grim and sinister than the present one, but he was performing with the same serious intensity he is here exhibiting toward the Tarot cards. When I asked him to lighten up, to smile, he confided something to me. An acting teacher in his earlier years had told him NEVER TO SMILE. She told him his smile was unattractive. I convinced him that had been a ridiculous instruction, and it pointed out to me the dangers and harm that can be caused by bad acting teachers.

The production was scheduled for 3 days of local locations and 4 days on soundstages at the studio. The locations were found quickly, so I was prepared for an easy 6-day prep period. It turned into an easy EXTENDED prep period. The expected 6 days turned into 17 days. My prophecy (WITHOUT the benefit of Tarot cards) for the Vail location turned out to be uncomfortably true. Beset by winter Colorado storms, the stay in Vail went an extra 11 days.

For you astute followers of my website, did you recognize that exterior of the mansion? It was the same location in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles that I had filmed a year and a half before as Heidi’s girl school in Switzerland, the scene where we had the bubbly snow that looked like soap suds. I filmed the interiors for both productions at that site, but the home was so large and magnificent, I used different rooms for each film.

That’s a scene you couldn’t have seen in the original THE THIN MAN. Because of the production code that began being enforced the year that film was made, Nick and Nora slept in TWIN BEDS, and if the married couple had wanted to share one bed, it could only be done as long as one of the occupants kept two feet firmly planted on the floor.

Women members of the Directors Guild of America were still a rarity. I had a woman assistant director on THE NEW ADVENTURES OF HEIDI, and I had a woman production manager on an independent film I don’t acknowledge. The only time I worked with a woman production manager on a series was when I worked with Blair Gilbert on HART TO HART, and she was great, in addition to which she introduced me to biorhythms. She had a gadget (and I don’t know what else to label it) in her office, and I started each of my 17 prep days with a visit, so I could check my biorhythms for the day.

It had been sixteen years since I had worked with Joe Mantell (Al Teresi). He had been absolutely sensational playing a stool pigeon junkie in my production of FUNNY MAN WITH A MONKEY on ARREST AND TRIAL But Joe was mostly ingrained in my memory for having uttered one of those immortal lines that became a part of Hollywood lore: like Gable’s “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” and Bogart’s “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” I remembered Joe saying to Ernest Borgnine in MARTY, “What do you wanna do, Marty?” But once I wrote this, something told me to google the website to be sure of what I was presenting. That was fortunate. It was Talia Shire who said that famous line.

That was the last time I worked with Paul Bryar (Gordon, the custodian). We filmed the exterior of Maggie’s apartment on the third day, the interior on the fifth day. I insisted that Gordon would be seen opening the door for their entrance into the apartment (it could have been faked). That meant Paul, who might have been paid only one day for his scene on the ladder, would be paid for three days. It pays to be a friend of the director, but he was more than a friend; he and his wife Claudia were part of my west coast family. Our friendship dated from 1955, when they appeared in MY THREE ANGELS at the Players Ring, the first play I directed on my return to the west coast. He and I worked together a lot – on DR. KILDARE, EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, THE FBI, HIGH CHAPARRAL, NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR, but his performance that I most cherish was his Willy Loman in the production of DEATH OF A SALES MAN we did at the Morgan Theatre in Santa Monica in the mid-fifties.

I don’t remember exactly where we filmed the alley with the fire escape; I think it was in the Hollywood area. What I do remember was the angry, disgruntled resident in one of the apartments above who was not happy with the disturbance we were causing by our filming. I remember threats, angry threats being yelled down from above. When filming a thriller, not all of the excitement, not all of the danger occurs before the camera. Fortunately we completed our filming, and the only casualty was poor Al Terisi lying in front of that large truck.

One day during my 17-day prep period I was with production manager Blair Gilbert in her office when Executive Script Consultant Mart Crowley appeared in her doorway, a stunned expression on his face. “I’ve just been made the producer,” he said. At our urgent prodding he continued and told us that producer David Levinson had some argument with Stefanie Powers, and in situations like that it’s a no-brainer to figure out who’s going to lose. Because our show was already in production, although it hadn’t yet started to film, Mart did not receive screen credit as producer for this episode. I didn’t direct any more episodes that season, and by the time I returned to the series in the fifth season, Mart was long gone. I never got to work with him again, for which I am deeply sorry.

Blair told me that she had a call from business affairs. Somebody in that office had suddenly realized that I was on salary, although I had not begun filming. They wondered if I was going to have to be paid more because of the length of the prep period. Blair’s answer to them — “He’s reported to the studio every day, he’s here now. Yes – he must be paid.”

That was the last time I worked with Eduard Franz. The first time had been in 1963-64 on the series, BREAKING POINT. A missed opportunity was later when Eduard was cast, but didn’t play the 100-year old Indian in THE WARRIOR, the infamous episode of THE WALTONS that I discuss in my post of that series. I still remember Will Geer with a mixture of affection and annoyance; he had been the instigator of the demand that a true Indian had to be cast in the role of the 100-year old. That missed opportunity was 36 years ago, and I am still sad when I think of how much Eduard would have enjoyed playing the role and of how great the film would have been with him in it.

Stefanie was a remarkably good actress – equally good in drama or comedy. I thought she was also a throwback to those great silver screen queens of the thirties. It was said of Marlene Dietrich that she could take her position in front of the camera, and without looking up or around she was able to tell if there was a spotlight missing. I don’t know if Stefanie could do that. I do know that one morning I had to speak to her about something, so I went to her dressing room, where I found her doing her own makeup. In preparation she had applied a dark grease paint to her cheeks, emphasizing the beautiful bone structure of her face. Over that she would add the makeup base and all of the finishing touches. I knew that Hollywood makeup people had developed their craft to a fine art. I had witnessed some of them at work. This was the only time I saw a performer doing her own makeup, and doing it with the skill and professionalism of the best of them.

The journey continues

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4 Responses to Sixth Sense

  1. Phil says:

    Some actors are really good with accents and impersonations…and Robert Wagner is NOT one of them!

    Nelson Welch as the butler in the 11th video – I had him pegged immediately, but from where? I finally had to “cheat” and look him up in IMDB. Yes, he had a pair of bit parts in ‘The Wild Wild West’.

    Nice costume from Barnum & Bailey for Joe Mantell! Was that his choice or someone else’s?

    FYI – a fan of Peter Coffield posted his scenes from your ‘Eight is Enough’ episode, “Hit and Run”, and he cracked a smile:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVnoDHF51tE

  2. Jeff Burr says:

    I always thought Joe Mantell was a genuinely damn good actor. Loved him in MARTY of course, but also he did an amazing job with an early Twilight Zone episode called “Nervous Man in a four dollar room” written by Serling. Just wondering what kind of actor he was to work with? Was he difficult in any way? And did you spend any time with him off the set?

    • Ralph says:

      I worked with Joe twice, but can’t say I knew him. He was an excellent actor — a total professional who showed up knowing more than his lines and how to hit his marks. Joe worked only 2 locations and a day at the studio, so there wasn’t much time to socialize.

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