The Sound Of Sunlight

FILMED November 1976

That was the opening sequence of THE SOUND OF SUNLIGHT, an episode of a new medical series that debuted on ABC the night of March 15, 1977. I directed that debuting show. The normal preproduction preparation for a one-hour television show was six days. I prepped that one-hour production for over thirty-two days. Here is the rest of the story and the intriguing story about the filming of the story!

In the early years after the bulk of television production moved from the live studios in New York to the film studios in Hollywood, medical series became one of television’s staples, starting in 1961 with the resounding successes of DR. KILDARE and BEN CASEY. Following in the tracks of those two hits were THE NURSES, MARCUS WELBY M.D., MEDICAL CENTER, BREAKING POINT, THE ELEVENTH HOUR, GENERAL HOSPITAL, THE INTERNES, THE BOLD ONES: THE DOCTORS. The list is never ending. Sometime during the summer of 1976 I was booked to direct four episodes of another new medical series.

But things can happen between the time of booking and the date of reporting to the studio to start preparation. And it did! I don’t remember if it was a change of management at ABC with a new head of programming, or if it was a case of the current head of programming being dissatisfied with the development of WESTSIDE MEDICAL, but the producer of the series was fired and replaced by Alan Armer, former producer of the hit ABC series, THE FUGITIVE. I had worked with Alan a dozen years before on THE FUGITIVE, but unlike those earlier times, there was no script awaiting me when I reported to the studio. In fact there were no actors cast to play the doctors at WESTSIDE MEDICAL. No script! No actors! All I knew was that I would be paid, but what my services would be was undetermined.

The network wanted tests made for the roles of the three doctors staffing the medical center. It was further decided that the tests would be made on tape, not film. Since I was at the studio preparing, and I had experience directing tape, I inherited the task of directing the tests. I had directed tests before: for two of the roles in THE LONG HOT SUMMER series and the role of the mother in the television movie A DREAM FOR CHRISTMAS; but those tests had been made on film. This would be my first venture directing tests on tape. Since we were doing a medical series, it was decided the tests would be made at the ABC studios in Hollywood, utilizing one of the sets for their daytime soap opera, GENERAL HOSPITAL. A scene between the three staff doctors, Sam, Janet and Phil was selected, and casting went to work lining up aspiring candidates. I don’t remember how many days I spent in the ABC studio directing the tests; I know it was more than one, that the tests were spread out over a period of time, and as I remember there were at least five tests a day, which meant I was testing as many as fifteen anxious actors on each testing day.

When doing the test with each of the teams of three actors, I blocked and rehearsed the scene, had a dress rehearsal adding the three cameras, and then the scene was taped. In order to complete each day’s testing, it was necessary that the blocking for all of the scenes be the same. On one of the testing days, one of the stage crew, probably the assistant director, commented to me, “It’s interesting how these actors come in with their individual ideas, but the scenes all end up with the same blocking.” Well there was one snag. One of the actors wanted to change the blocking and start the scene lying on the couch. That would have required changing the camera and possibly even the lighting, and if I did that for one actor, I would have had to make similar adjustments for each team, and there just wasn’t the time. I had to insist we stay with my planned blocking. The actor was not happy, but only until the following May, when he appeared in the first STAR WARS in the role of Han Solo. The unhappy actor was Harrison Ford.

You know, that might have been the scene we used for the tests. Interestingly none of the actors we tested were cast.

James Sloyan, who played Sam, was the only one of the medical trio with whom I had worked. Two years earlier he had appeared in THE FAMILY KOVACK, a movie for television/pilot I directed, which didn’t get picked up. Later that year his wife, Deirdre Lenihan, played Daisy in THE MARATHON, one of my two favorite episodes of THE WALTONS.

Jane Wilk, who played Millie, the principal, was deaf. I think she was associated with the school where we got the deaf children. This was her only film performance.

Linda Carlson (Janet) was almost like a Greek chorus. In the scenes with Nan and Millie, as they signed their speeches, she spoke them. In addition she had to sign her own speeches as she spoke. Her body language as she did that was exemplary. She was truly acting to her very fingertips.

And now we come to the incredible Season Hubley. As with all roles, Season had to learn the lines and her emotional involvement in the scenes. But she also had to learn to sign her speeches. And it was even more complex than that. Once the character of Nan gained her hearing and started to speak, she had to show the difficult progress of a person learning to speak for the first time. A technical advisor was assigned to Season. She lived with her until the end of filming, so that each night after working a twelve-hour day filming, Season and her coach would rehearse for the next day’s shooting. Scene by scene the technical advisor guided Season into the appropriate level of proficiency of speech needed for each of the scenes to be filmed.

Meanwhile Chris, the young boy injured when he fell from the slide, remained in a coma.

There was a saying in the early days of Hollywood, “A tree’s a tree, a rock’s a rock. Shoot it in Griffith Park.” And that’s what we did, but we could have added to that old mantra, “…and a merry-go-round’s a merry-go-round.”

Worley Thorne, the teleplay author, did something I thought was very commendable. Beyond his extensive research into life in the deaf world, he didn’t settle for giving Nan her hearing and letting her live happily ever after. Fourteen years earlier I directed THE MASK MAKERS, an episode of DR. KILDARE with Carolyn Jones playing Evy, an unattractive lady with a large nose, who had plastic surgery that turned her into a beautiful woman. But moving into the new world to which her beauty now gave her access did not provide the happiness she expected. So it was with Nan. With hearing she entered into a new world, but that new world offered, in addition to its wonders, problems she had difficulty facing. I thought that made the drama even more relevant.

My prep period for WESTSIDE MEDICAL continued through the first two of my four contracted commitments. And then I had a call from THE WALTONS. I had committed to directing THE PONY CART for them. It was a sequel to THE CONFLICT, the two-hour episode guest starring Beulah Bondi that I had directed two years earlier. The original plan had been to film THE PONY CART in early summer, but those plans had to be changed. Eighty-five year old Beulah Bondi was going on an African safari. In October I received a call that they were ready to film. I really wanted to direct that production, and fortunately WESTSIDE MEDICAL was still not prepared to begin filming. So I traipsed back out to the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank and directed Beulah in the production for which she won an Emmy. By the time I finished, WESTSIDE MEDICAL was finally ready to begin filming.

I returned to the Hollywood General Studios on North Las Palmas Boulevard in Hollywood where we were to film, did my prep and began filming on Tuesday, November 2. But I have a difficult confession to make. It was not a happy time for me, and I didn’t know why. Was it because Warner Bros. Studio, which was always a favorite, was so lush, and the studio where we were filming was one of the old rundown lots of early Hollywood? Was it because THE PONY CART was the eighth THE WALTONS I directed, and everything was so in place, whereas THE SOUND OF SUNLIGHT was as I remember the second episode of WESTSIDE MEDICAL to go before the cameras, a series still searching for its identity? Or had I been waiting too long for the series to get under way? I don’t really know. Although the cast was fine, I had no complaints about the crew headed by my friend Jack Woolf as director of photography, I had the feeling those first four days of filming that nothing was going right, that the film I was shooting was not up to my expectations. I was in a dark, depressed mood. Going to work was supposed to be fun, and it wasn’t. That weekend I made a determined resolution. I had three days left to complete the film. Monday morning I resolved that I was going to leave my dark feelings at home. I was going to work to have fun.

Happily I reported to our location, one of the regal homes on West Adams Boulevard. We would film only the exterior of the grand home, which in our script would represent ROSSMORE CENTER FOR THE DEAF. Ironically it was next door to the John Tracy Clinic, established by the wife of Spencer Tracy because their son was born with a hearing loss. Our first scene of the day was the opening sequence of the film. The playground equipment had been delivered and was sitting on the lawn, awaiting my arrival so I could arrange their placement, which I quickly did. Once the units were in place, the grip crew proceeded to anchor them with spokes driven into the grass-covered ground. As I remember the first piece to be anchored was the swings, and as the first spoke was pounded into the ground, a geyser of water shot up. The spoke had hit the main water line to the house. I could only respond by laughing, thinking, “Okay. I give up. I won’t be happy.” In order to eliminate the geyser and prevent the lawn from turning into a quagmire, we had to shut off the water to the house. The occupants of the house were most understanding. We filmed the opening sequence involving the runaway tractor-mower and two short scenes. At the end of the day when we left, the damaged water main was mended, and water to the house was restored.

Who knew! Ernest Thompson (Phil) seemed to have it all. Looks? Movie star time! Ability? He was a fine actor. But there was more. I didn’t know until later, but the following year Ernest wrote a play. It opened off-Broadway the following year. The year after that it opened on Broadway and ran for more than 400 performances. Two years after that it was transferred to the screen. Ernest wrote the screenplay, for which he won an Academy Award. The film also received an additional nine Oscar nominations. Ernest’s screenplay provided the role that won for Henry Fonda his long-overdue Oscar. It won for Katharine Hepburn her FOURTH Academy Award. The film was ON GOLDEN POND.

The young boy playing Christ was nine-year old Reed Diamond. He was a professional actor and was not hearing impaired.

On the sixth day of filming, Season came to me on the set in tears. There was a three-page scene scheduled with Nan and eight of the hearing impaired children, climaxed by a speech by Nan to Millie. Season was also scheduled that day to film four other scenes totaling another seven pages. Her problem? She just hadn’t had the time to learn the speech to Millie. Don’t forget, learning a speech involved learning the words, the emotion, the signing and the degree of proficiency of speech required. I calmed her tears and told her what we could do. We would do the master angles involving the children and their coverage. For the speech to Millie we would do that close-up of her the following day, our final day,

Thirty-seven years later I have made my peace with THE SOUND OF SUNLIGHT.

WESTSIDE MEDICAL could not even claim to be a one-season failure. It was cancelled after only thirteen episodes.

The journey continues

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10 Responses to The Sound Of Sunlight

  1. Jim says:

    Wonderful story Ralph – I thought I was a connoisseur of 50-80s TV but I could not place West Side Medical – I’ll have to check what its time slot was and see what other programs were opposite it.

    I’m a big James Sloyan fan – if I see he’s starring in something, I’ll make it a point to tune in – great actor with great range……….

  2. Phil says:

    Per ‘Variety’ on 3/23/1977, Paramount TV acquired the overseas rights to WESTSIDE MEDICAL. I’ll bet more people in Europe saw this series compared to the U.S. – I don’t remember this one at all.

    I wonder if this might have been the first medical series where you did not have an old doctor like Zorba or Gillespie hovering over the young doctors and dishing out advice (needed or not). On that difference alone, this series deserved a better fate.

    Based on some online digging, I assembled this messy timeline:

    It was one of three new shows that debuted on Tue., 3/15/1977 as part of ABC’s “third season” of the 1976-77 season. In the Miami market, EIGHT IS ENOUGH was at 8:30 PM, THREE’S COMPANY was at 9:30, and WESTSIDE MEDICAL was at 10:00. “The Sound of Sunlight” was up against a KOJAK episode that also had Season Hubley!

    IMDB says ‘WM’ debuted 3/17/1977, but that can’t be right – ABC showed the George Foreman/Jimmy Young boxing match that night and I remember it well.

    I came across a couple of markets that did not show “The Sound of Sunlight” – Milwaukee ran a personal health docudrama and Tuscaloosa ran a GUNSMOKE ep.

    Then ABC put THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO in cold storage and ran the next four episodes of ‘WM’ on Thursdays at 10 PM (March 24 thru April 14). The ratings were not encouraging – the direct competition, BARNABY JONES, hit its season-high on March 24 (per Variety).

    Then ABC mothballed ‘WM’ and defrosted ‘TSOSF’ for its last six episodes. Then ‘WM’ returned on June 30 and burned off its remaining episodes. The number of eps. broadcast is debatable. IMDB says eight were shown from June 30 thru September 8. However, says only six more were broadcast (thru August 25) and I think they’re right – there’s no ‘WM’ in the newspaper TV listings for Sept. 1 & 8. On top of that, IMDB lists a 14th episode, “Bridget”, with no broadcast date and no cast details, except for writer Howard Dimsdale. Maybe this ep. is only an unfilmed script…who knows?!

    • Ralph says:

      You are correct. I used the IMDB opening of 3/17/77. I should have checked my own records which had the show debuting on 3/15/77/.

    • GMJ says:

      Re: IMDb page
      I’ve searched two TV listings through my local library’s website (NY Times and Seattle Times) and confirmed that March 15, 1977 was the show’s debut. The correct information has been submitted and, hopefully, will be updated on IMDb in a few days.

      Mr. Senensky, thanks again, not only for your insight but the videos have been very helpful with updating show information on various web sites including IMDb. I’m looking forward to reading your new post about your final “Breaking Point” episode.

  3. Phil says:

    Ralph, any chance you’ll be covering your CITY OF ANGELS episode? I assume it’s entombed at Universal, but some private collectors have it. That’s another show I didn’t watch, but I remember the promotion for it…Wayne Rogers in 1930s threads was on the cover of the TV section of my Sunday newspaper. Someone posted the opening credits from that series on Youtube four months ago and nothing else. I’ve come across some interesting comments from the show’s star back then and now about ‘COA’.

    • Ralph says:

      I have a copy of it. The film is faded, but you can follow the story and watch the performances. I’m working my way through some of those oldies now. Next up: my final episode of BREAKING POINT, a series I really revered.

  4. Jon says:

    Hello, Mr. Senensky. You’ve had a great career directing a lot of great shows, including several of a nice show from my childhood, The Partridge Family.
    I’m watching one of your shows now on Me-TV, Night Gallery’s “The Miracle at Camafeo”. Will you be reviewing this show soon or eventually? I see that it was another experience working on a Rod Serling show after The Twilight Zone, and working with the likes of Harry Guardino must’ve been interesting too.
    Have a wonderful rest of 2014!

  5. Phil says:

    FYI, ‘The Family Kovack’ was recently added to Warner Bros. streaming service:

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