Slam Dunk

FILMED January 1984

I loved Hart to Hart. One of my fave (sic) shows.

Hart to Hart was one of my favorite shows … brings back good memories.

I absolutely LOVED Hart to Hart. I had a crush on RJ for years before he got that role.

Robert Wagner? Possibly the man I envy the most. He was married to the woman I had the biggest crush on in my life.

Nick and Nora, what a fantasy trip it is. But then, Hart to Hart was even better, now that I look at it some more.

“Hart to Hart” was basically a riff on “The Thin Man” …  Adding Lionel Stander as a comic foil for them, kind of a cross between Lt. Guild and Jeeves, was smart. I loved the show and followed it through the entire run … the chemistry between RJ and Steffy (sic) was so good they made it work for years

Those are a few of the Comments left these many years later on my HART TO HART website posts and my Facebook page. I call special attention to the last Comment: the chemistry between RJ and Steffy (sic) was so good they made it work for years. That was so true, as it was for so many series stars. Television had brought a whole new perspective to fandom. Now those glittering stars of the movie palaces’ silver screens were entering homes around the world on a weekly basis, performing their magic on the smaller television screens in living rooms and dens, creating a familiarity that made them very accessible and more than welcome.

The casting of most of the roles for SLAM DUNK was accomplished without auditions, but we did bring young men in to compete for Doug and Dale. Most importantly they had to be able to play basketball, but I was also very influenced by the past. In the 1930’s there was a radio program out of Chicago, JACK ARMSTRONG, THE ALL-AMERICAN BOY. Sponsored for many years by the producer of the cereal Wheaties, that juvenile adventure show transformed the “Breakfast of Champions” into a major marketing phenomenon. Jack Armstrong was perfect – in looks, in manner, in capability, and that was who I pictured for the role of Doug. I found him in blond David Wallace. But I was disappointed in the auditions for the role of Dale. All of the young men who had been brought in were also Jack Armstrong types; I wanted something different for Dale – someone who was attractive, but with a contrasting look, with a sense of danger. Another casting session – another parade of young actors, and I found Kevin Bash. We were set.

The show, HART TO HART, was about Jonathan and Jennifer Hart and the crimes that seem to occur near them weekly and their adventures in solving them. But Lionel Stander, their butler, chef, all-around employee, had developed a devoted following of viewers, so that occasionally (especially by the fifth season) stories were constructed starring him, with the Harts relegated to supporting roles. Two of my four assignments the fifth season were Max stories.  I thought the scripts lacked the sophistication of THE THIN MAN, the acerbic wit of their first season. (Could Mart Crowley’s departure have had anything to do with that?) That wasn’t bad; it was simply different.

Lionel Stander was a fascinating man with a fascinating past. I wish I had known him. That may sound strange considering that I directed him in seven episodes of HART TO HART, but the pace of television didn’t leave much room for social amenities. I was acquainted with Max, not Lionel, whose professional career began in theatre while he was still in his teens, before moving into film. By the mid-thirties he was under contract to Columbia Pictures (I remember him and that gravelly voice in MR DEEDS GOES TO TOWN with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur). Strongly liberal and pro-labor, Lionel, like so many of his peers (Bogart, Cagney, Franchot Tone, Clifford Odets) was among the first to be summoned before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1940 for supposed Communist activities. He admitted to being affiliated with Communist causes, but claimed he never joined the party. His contract with Columbia was cancelled. His agent, the powerful Abe Lastvogel of the William Morris Agency said, “It’ll all blow over.” Lionel later said, “Yeah, it blew over, but it took 26 years.” During those years he continued to act – in theatre, in second-rate pictures from independent studios, in films in Italy. After fifteen years abroad Lionel returned to the states for what has turned out to be his most famous role – Max in HART TO HART.

It was not unusual for local athletes, both college (UCLA and USC) and professional (LA Rams, LA Dodgers, Anaheim Angels), to find off-season work in the neighboring motion picture studios. Some of them even moved on to stellar film careers when their athletic careers ended (i.e. O.J. Simpson). Thirty-seven year old Fred Dryer (Boyd Miller) was a former football defensive end in the Nation Football League (NFL), having played for thirteen years for the New York Giants and the LA Rams. He began making occasional screen appearances in 1980, two years before he retired from football, Some of the shows on which he appeared were LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY, CHIPS and LOU GRANT. According to IMDB, HART TO HART was his eleventh screen appearance. During the pilot season the following spring, Fred starred in HUNTER, a pilot for a new NBC television series. It was picked up by the network and debuted the following September. It ran for seven years.

When it came to needing a college campus for a film location, Southern California had a large variety to choose from. One of the newer ones was the University of California at Irvine, a large campus, established in the 1960s, and that was the one we selected for our Westcliff College. It was in Orange County and easily accessible, just off the San Diego Freeway.

Barry Livingston (Larry) was a true Hollywood veteran. His first screen appearance was in 1961 (the same year I entered film) when he was seven years old. At the age of nine he began his twelve-season run as a neighbor of Fred MacMurray on MY THREE SONS. Two years later when one of the sons, Tim Considine, left the series, Barry’s character was adopted and became one of the THREE SONS, in the process becoming the younger brother to his real-life older brother, Stanley Liviingston, who already was a regular on the series. An interesting sidebar on that show: unlike the stars of other television series who committed nine or ten months to the filming, MacMurray, an established movie star, agreed to accept the offer only if his work could be completed in three months. His “three month” stipulation meant that the writers had to have each season’s scripts ready in advance. The master angles of the scenes in which MacMurray appeared would be filmed plus his close-ups. When he left after the three-month period, the other coverage in the scenes would be filmed. Barry was an accomplished actor and a perennial youth. He was 30 years old when he played the college student in SLAM DUNK. At the age of 60 he is still working, but I have a hunch he no longer plays college boys.

Not all of the accidents occurred before the camera. Late in the afternoon on our final day of filming on the Irvine campus, a very heavy wind arose. We wrapped, and as I drove to the intersection at Sepulveda Boulevard, I found the traffic lights were not working, but there were no police officers guiding the rush hour traffic. I needed to make a left turn onto Sepulveda to drive north to my home. Cars in the four lanes on Sepulveda, both northbound and southbound, were dutifully stopped, all awaiting their turn to traverse the intersection. When it was my turn, I slowly pulled into the intersection, making my left turn, when a car in the far northbound lane came speeding through without stopping and rammed into my Volvo’s right rear side. My car spun out of control and ended up slamming into a tree. I was shook up, but fortunately not injured; AAA towed my car away to be repaired; I rented a car for the duration, and the next day reported for work to complete the film.

The reception on the Dean’s lawn and the previous scene of the Dean mowing were filmed on the Columbia Ranch. It was Columbia Studios backlot, an area I was well acquainted with because of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY. It was also conveniently close to The Burbank Studio, now Columbia’s home lot.

And now we arrive at a time in the script where I found two glaring instances of totally ludicrous activity. What does a director do under those circumstances? He just ignores that fact and stages the material with all the sincerity and believability he can muster. Can you find those two discrepancies?

Did you find them? First – if Boyd had been able to shoot and kill Doug, how did he expect to escape? And second – I know television was far entrenched in demanding an exciting action sequence to climax a case; and also demanding in having the series lead be the victor in the concluding battle. But let’s examine the facts. Robert Wagner was 5’10”; Fred Dryer was 6’6” with a football player’s physique. I rest my case.

The journey continues

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One Response to Slam Dunk

  1. Phil says:

    …and Fred was about 16 years younger than RJ!

    Max was driving MY car!…well, sort of. I had a cheapo ’84 Mustang, 4-cylinder, hardtop, 4-speed stick, silver exterior, and red interior. Looks like Max had a deluxe version…alloy wheels, ragtop, and probably a v-6 or v-8 engine. The video is too fuzzy to make out the car’s markings. Freeze the 8th video at 0:46…that dashboard is the real deal. The car outline on the lower left had an indicator light on each bumper, which would go on if you ever had a burned out headlamp or tail light.

    Perhaps you omitted it, but I wanted the gambling angle clarified. We know Westcliff was an 8-point favorite. I assume Miller bet on Braddock to beat that spread. That explains the odds dropping to pick ‘em later. Why try to kill Doug at the end? Westcliff had no chance of winning by 8 points. I guess we must assume that Miller put down a more risky bet that required a Braddock victory.

    The lecture segment (5th video) was the best part of the show. Too bad it wasn’t longer. It fit the times…and still works today.

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