The Chicken Thief

FILMED August 1973

The year following TO TASTE OF TERROR on THE ROOKIES was a bleak year professionally. I was back directing the longer form, but the days of going from a great script on TWILIGHT ZONE to another on DR. KILDARE to a ROUTE 66 to a NAKED CITY to an EASTSIDE WESTSIDE to a BREAKING POINT were gone. The work was there, but most of the work was a chore. And then I was booked to do an episode in the second season of a new hit series.

It was back to the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank, where I had directed 16 episodes of THE FBI, 4 of THE COSBY SHOW and 3 of BANYON. I liked that lot a lot, but in a way it was like coming to a new studio. I had always entered at the main gate on Barham Boulevard, but because of the location of the Lorimar production offices, this time I entered by one of the back gates, the one near the water tower.

I have read Earl Hamner’s fine Goodnight John Boy in which he relates how THE WALTONS was born, and I do not mean to refute what he has written. As I stated when I first began this long journal, I am not reporting a carefully researched historical record; I am relating the experiences of a soldier on the battlefield of early television. How I came to believe then what I did, I don’t remember, but what I believed then differs from what Earl related. Earl wrote THE HOMECOMING, a further adventure of his family that he had portrayed in his novel and later film, SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN. THE HOMECOMING was produced as a two-hour movie to be shown on CBS. Television was going through another of its periods of criticism by the public because of its excessive violence, with the outcry being so loud there was the fear of government intervention and censorship. CBS was not a network to sit around idly during a situation like that, so as the story that was floating around the soundstages of Hollywood went, they decided to turn THE HOMECOMING into a series. Their reasoning was that once this family-oriented series aired and proved a failure, they would have shown they had only been providing the television that the public was demanding. But the show did not prove to be that expected failure. It took a little time, but it found its audience and CBS unexpectedly found itself with a smash hit on its hands. Now again I state, I am not reporting fact. I am telling the story as it was believed by a lot of us down on the Hollywood soundstages. So I’m sure Earl’s facts are the correct ones. But as I’ve also stated, when there is a difference between legend and fact, which is usually the more tantalizing?

The script I had been sent was THE CHICKEN THIEF, and when I read it, I realized it was a television script unlike those I had been receiving. In the decade since I had begun directing film I had seen the early scripts that had been influenced by live television change into a more action driven style, more intent on exciting than in probing the human psyche. THE CHICKEN THIEF was a return to the study of human behavior; it was leisurely, more in the vein of William Wyler’s FRIENDLY PERSUASION or John Ford’s YOUNG MR. LINCOLN. I felt very comfortable with the material. It was a return to the kind of family comedy-drama I had directed so often in theatre, but almost never on film, the closest being THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. On stage I had directed Ruth Gordon’s YEARS AGO, Rose Franken’s CLAUDIA, Robert Anderson’s ALL SUMMER LONG, my friend Max Hodge’s A STRIPED SACK FOR PENNY CANDY, and in a darker vein William Inge’s COME BACK, LITTLE SHEBA, Arthur Miller’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN and most importantly, the show I almost didn’t do that proved so beneficial to me, Paul Osborn’s MORNING’S AT SEVEN. It was the kind of material to which I seemed to have an affinity.

THE CHICKEN THIEF was beautifully written. I was to learn the extra step taken to arrive at that high quality, a step I never found taken at any other production. Two or three days prior to the beginning of photography, the five adults in the cast (Richard Thomas, Ralph Waite, Michael Learned, Will Geer and Ellen Corby) would assemble in producer Robert Jacks’ office during a lunch-hour. A tray of sandwiches was ordered at the Jewish Delicatessen, owned and operated by Chinese, just down the street in Toluca Lake. With series creator Earl Hamner and story editor Carol McKeand present, the script was read by the five actors, which gave Earl and Carol a chance to HEAR the words of dialog. After that a discussion was held. Any objections the actors might have had were offered; any ideas for something new to be added were requested. It was a way of adding texture to an already rich script and a deterrent to possible future rewriting on the set.

Episodes of THE WALTONS were filmed in six and a half days. THE CHICKEN THIEF started at the half day, after lunch. My first scene was in the Walton kitchen with eight of the ten members of the family involved. Did I spend that final morning of my prep reviewing my plans for my first sequence of this brand new show? No. I remember my biggest problem was trying to sort out those damned kids. I didn’t have any problem with Richard Thomas. I had directed Richard two years earlier when he guest starred on THE FBI. I knew he was John Boy. But I didn’t want to go on a set and say to the others, “Hey, you!” so I spent a half a day drilling myself to learn that Jon was Jason, Eric was Ben, David was Jim Bob, but the real killers– Kami was Elizabeth, Mary Elizabeth McDonough was Erin, and Judy was Mary Ellen.

Our third day of filming was a location day. We went to the Cuddy Farm in Lake of the Woods, CA. Unlike Quinn Martin, Lorimar had no objection to filming day for night. And when it came to filming night scene exteriors like the ones we were doing, I agreed with them. I thought that filming during the day with night filters produced a moonlight effect that was more realistic than filming at night with spotlight beams projecting from behind trees. The following day we did have a major tragedy. Half of the film was destroyed at the lab during developing. No problem. We returned to the location for added filming, and I think the tab for that was picked up by the lab’s insurance.

Three camera dolly setups to film thirty-eight seconds of bantering dialog while traipsing down a dusty road — and just to remind that Ben is acting strangely! That would never have happened back at QM Productions.

Remember that first scene in Ike’s store when John Boy stared at Ike and said he didn’t know anything about him. There was no further reference to that in the balance of the script, but I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a follow-up to that scene. During my prep I went to Earl and presented my thoughts on the matter. The following day Earl presented me with an added scene he had written.

This was my first time working with John Crawford, the Sheriff. In fact it was the first time I met him. But I had been aware of him for quite some time. Eighteen years before when I had been involved at the Players’ Ring Theatre in Hollywood, John had been a founding member of that group. It had taken all those years for our paths to cross.

I identified with Ben, not because I submitted a poem to Liberty magazine, but because I sold Liberty magazines in the summer on Wednesdays starting when I was about nine years old. I had my Liberty bag and I went in and out of the stores on Federal Avenue in downtown Mason City. The magazines sold for five cents. I think I made a penny on each sale. Yes, I remember the Depression!

The little old lady who got eggs from Yancy was Marie Earle. She had made a soundtrack appearance on THE WALTONS the year before. This was her first speaking role on the series. The producers were very pleased with her. Her character, Maude Gormley, appeared another thirteen times in the following years. At the time of this show she was eighty-four years old.

There were two identical porches. One was on the exterior of the house on the Warner Bros. backlot; the other was part of the interior set on the soundstage. The one on the soundstage was used for all night sequences. The choice of which one to use for day sequences depended on whether the scene on the porch connected to activity in the yard or was connected to activity that flowed from the Walton living room.

This was only the fourth screen appearance for Dorothy Meyer, who played Mrs. Blankfort, the black lady who brought Yancy the fried chicken. She really impressed me beyond the limitations of her small role, so that I used her again in a major role in a major project that followed THE CHICKEN THIEF. And I cast her several times in the years ahead. The final time was in an episode of HOW THE WEST WAS WON, when she and Davis Roberts played slaves in a story about the deep south. We were filming the burning of the Tara-like plantation home on MGM’s backlot. Dorothy and Davis had the crew in hysterics as the two of them roamed around from person to person pleading, “Please, find us another plantation or get us our own series.”

This was the second time I worked with Meg Wylie, who played Charlie Potter’s wife. The first time was when she played the lady with icicles in her veins at the immigration office in THE PROMISE on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. She too was a graduate of the Pasadena Playhouse. And don’t feel sorry that she was playing such a small role. She had a scene at the Cuddy Farm location on the third day and a scene in the Potter set on the soundstage on the fifth day. She was paid for three days work at her rate. She may have made more money for this small role than for the role on COURTSHIP. That’s show biz!

In Martin Ritt’s THE OUTRAGE, an unfortunate remake of the Japanese classic, RASHOMON, Laurence Harvey, in relating  his version of the crime, had the line, “I tripped.” Somehow his reading of the line sounded like, “I twipped.” I remember being very aware of that as I had Richard O’Brien say the same line in his confession.

I have always considered this gentle tale one of the lesser of THE WALTONS that I directed. But in a way it was one of the most important. Upon its completion Lorimar executive producer Lee Rich immediately signed me to stay on and direct a two-hour movie and pilot for a projected series, a story of a black minister and his family from the south who move to Los Angeles in the 1950’s. Much more about that later. There’s more to do on Walton’s Mountain.

The film clip of me is from a recent interview by the Archive of American Television, a division of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation.

The journey continues

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16 Responses to The Chicken Thief

  1. Steve Myers says:

    I’m so glad you are posting on the Walton’s series Ralph. I remember some of the posts from your former site and just great to have them here.

    The Chicken Thief has become one of my favorite episodes of the series having studied many on DVD and VHS tape (I made over the years prior to DVDs). I’m always pleasantly touched by the episodes you directed as they are ‘special.’ Whether you realize it or not each of the episodes with different directors seemed to produce different responses of each character and within the given story. When you directed there was a layer of depth (I’d call confidence) the actors seemed to have in how you chose to tell (show) the story (directing each character).

    One of the things I most noticed in this episode is how relaxed the actors are and slight tongue in cheek humor that often lacked in other episodes. Reminded me of the Roger Moore films as 007 contrasted to those of Sean Connery. Connery’s direction or interpretation was a bit more ‘rough’ with women but Moore’s was a bit more humorous and lines delivered with a more likable pun. That’s what I notice now in the Chicken Thief. The actors really seemed to be having a good time I suspect because of your direction and presence on the set. Its something that lacked with other directors.

    I also find in your directed episodes I tend to go more into the ‘suspension of disbelief,’ than revert to technical issues of lighting, sets, props, and differences of the two sets (outdoor and indoor).

    In this digital age the shots are so much crisper and clearer that I often drift to shots of ceilings, walls, lighting, wardrobe, makeup, shadows, and blocking among other technical things most of the public may not even be aware of or notice.

    I’ve never really been on your level of a production having worked local television and producing spot TV commercials, promos and public service announcements. But working on longer features, in marketing, historical preservation, documentaries, educational features or oral history preservation, owning a set of Arri lights (1 1000 Watt with a Chimera Soft Kit) and two 650s) I’m more at ease looking at the episodes you directed (and your team produced) and less concerned with natural shadows appear. I saw some still production shots of the Andy Griffith Show (recently on another web site) and was in awe (of the Desilu studios) in lighting placement (through storefront windows) for street scenes with Griffith. That some creative things could transpire more easily in black and white production than color.

    I do have one question: What type of film camera equipment was utilized with Lorimar on THE WALTONS? Though the digital transfers are so much better now I believe the first season of Dallas was filmed with similar cameras. That changed as subsequent seasons went on and the show had much more of a budget. I’ve seen some stills with Panavision equipment Cameras in subsequent seasons.

    Second question is what type of film used? In HD transfers it seems Desilu used more of a scope film / lens / Camera (wider format) than WALTON’S with a more 4:3 and more earthy or washed film. (Example: Hogan’s Heroes). The HD transfers are so detailed (to the sets, photos on the walls, even the shadow of Cranes beard or stubble as the day went on). That seems much softer in the Walton’s film transfers.

    While the dolly track shots too are smooth (the walking scene with the children you mentioned) pans, tilts and zooms seem less than smooth. Was the camera and lenses more manually hard to work with for your crews?

    They are not rough but they are not smooth either – which is why I ask about equipment. In the opening shot (above) in your exceptional windows of program, the opening shot zoom to Richard and the Horse zooms in and then tilts down with some movement (noticeable). Were those shots hard to set up for the crews and were there often only one take?

    Today (and since the 80s) we have fluid heads and motorized zooms. Yet in the 70s – well It seems like a miracle the footage is so well done and edited for the process of 1972. I am in awe of the crew. But I wonder what Lorimar was using for equipment in productions?

    Finally, I will see Judy Norton next week (3/15) in Grand Prairie with the Texas Family Musicals. One of my questions post the live performances will be what directors she enjoyed working with most and what did she learn that has been applicable to her life now. She is set to start production in April on a feature she wrote.

    I often envy a little how the main cast was able to work with so many pros and talented people from cast to crew to directors and that lot/environment. Considering where production is today I was born too late for the quality you and your teams of professionals produced.

    Thank you for posting Ralph.
    Steve Myers
    DFW/Arlington, Texas.

    • Ralph says:

      As I remember the Mitchell BNC camera was used on THE WALTONS. In fact it seems to me that that was used at all companies where I worked. Oh yes, we also always had the small Arriflex as an extra where sound wasn’t required. Steve, when you get into the real technical stuff I’m afraid I can’t answer. As a director my focus always was on the visual image (the setup) and the performances. I eventually under William Spencer’s tutelage after 5 years learned what flat lens was to be used. But even there it was just for a matter of knowing. I never instructed the cameraman on how to do his job. Most of the companies i worked for used Kodak film. I was aware (through cameraman Jerry Finnerman) there was a cheaper film available, the Japanese Fuji. He hated it. So if there is a difference in the pictures of different cameraman it has to do with THEM, not the film. At QM Meredith Nicholson on THE FUGITIVE and Ben Colman on DAN AUGUST were using the same equipment, camera and film. The fact the photography on THE FUGITIVE was crisp and brilliant and photography on DAN AUGUST was murky and muddy had to do with the talents of the respective directors of photography. That opening shot and zoom in THE CHICKEN THIEF came out of stock. I did not film it. Although if it had been scripted I would have filmed it exactly as it appeared.

      • Daniel Rudolf says:

        From the late-1960s to the ’70s, the Eastman Kodak 5254 was standard in color films in Hollywood. It was a very fine negative film stock, used in many famous films, like The Godfather (with Gordon Willis’ fantastic cinematography). It replaced the Eastman Kodak 5251, which was mostly used in the ’60s. I think most of Ralph’s work was filmed with either of these two stocks. I hope it helps.

        Arriflex was used as a “MOS camera” in the US because it wasn’t soundproof, but in Europe, where all films were post-dubbed, they used it as a main camera. It was very popular with arthouse directors of the ’60s.

  2. John Dayton says:

    Fond memories – everyone together on the front porch – who would have guessed how much that set-up would mean 39 years later – thank you, Ralph, for the good times.

    Technically, as my memory serves, although I was merely a PA (the ONLY PA, not like the half-dozen or more that work series today) the stock was primarily Kodak 5247 (which I had to keep tabs on useage for Daily Production Reports – and unused film (short ends) was worth $$. There was indeed one penny-pinching season Fuji stock was used – I think it was ’74 or ’75 – everything looked green, just awful, I believe Emil Oster was DP that season (could have been Johnny Nicholas) – the Mitchells were replaced with Panavision equipment (PSRs – Panavision Silent Reflexin) I believe, in ’74 – Panaflex was occasionally used after ’76 – the Arri was ordered special for directors who requested – In “The Ferris Wheel” we actually tossed the Arri down the stairs for a POV of Kami as she fell during a nightmare – we gave it a good spin and it went flying head-over- heels – sure enough when it hit the bottom it was still humming happily away – I don’t think we’d do that with any of today’s equipment.

    As a P.S., I wish Warner Bros would have spent the money to clean up the prints before issuing the DVDs of the series. The original prints (other than the ill-fated “Fuji” season) were pretty spectacular.

    • Steve Myers says:

      My thanks to Ralph, Daniel and John for the technical and interesting information. Perhaps WB will spend the money on restorations should they become viable in a Blue Ray version at some point. Problem is, nobody seems to know what will become the standard format for the foreseeable future. Streaming seems to be the flavor of the decade and our own server devices be they DVRs, Tivo’s, AppleTV, Rocku and/or other devices.

      John, I’ll have to pay closer attention to ‘The Ferris Wheel,’ to see that POV shot (and with much more appreciation).

      In my time of the 1980s (86-88) with an NBC Affiliate (in Midland/Odessa Texas) we had a client who wanted a take on Lionel Richie’s ‘Dancing on the Ceiling.’ We had a great ownership (Chronicle Broadcasting of SF) and a great team of engineers so we were not above experimenting from time to time. We took an older TK RCA mini-cam and attempted to turn it upside down against a green screen news set weather wall to capture the effect but it would not work. So our engineers opened up the unit, took the guts out used right side up but the housing and lens upside down for the three clips at five seconds each. It was a several hour experiment that made the client very happy. Just a year later with a used DVE switcher addition we did so at the push of a button.

      The Film stock is interesting to learn about as well as the makes and models of camera’s. I think the museum in Virginia has the camera used for the series on display (have seen a photo of it).

      I wonder what was used in film stock and camera equipment at Desilu for the Bing Crosby Productions of Hogan’s Heroes? I’ve seen many film to HD transfers on HDNET and the color as well as clarity of the film is beautiful – with a more scope of 16:9 frame of film than what were other 4:3 flat prints.

      Its such a gift so many were filmed and mastered to film over what I think CBS (and others) were doing in mainly variety series Television (and late night) in live switch to 2″ Tape. I have a friend/colleague David Crosthwait of DC Video Archival Videotape Remastering, in Burbank, CA, who remastered (baked) some 2″ Ampex and 1″ IVC masters (from 71-72) to digital transfers to some magical success of preservation work. I believe he restored many of the original Lawrence Welk and Midnight Special Concert recordings. While they survive they will always be 4:3 in our Digital HD world but fillm, and in a scope format closer to 16:9 just is beautiful in conversions to HD mastering.

      With fuller frames in sharp crisp focus its like a history book to admire the work of production crews and teams from technical mechanical to artist backdrops, sets and construction. It also takes away what were masking (fuzziness of 1970s television sets) where booms or edges of sets, walls, grids or other technical issues were not seen then – and visible now.

      So for in the digital restorations appearing on the Hallmark and GMC channels I’ve not seen a boom mike or lighting but in the family living room sometimes I’ve been able to see the studio walls or metal above the windows and doorframes beyond an 8′ height in wider shots.

      Another thing I’ve noticed is the Walton’s kitchen window that was never visible other than a brightness or something fuzzy in the 70s (monitors) that in digital HD transfers now shows the scene painted backdrop and often the work of lighting the sets. Even furniture, wardrobe, makeup and facial detail of talent is exceptionally accessible to view. I’ve not yet studied the moving vehicle shots with moving backgrounds more than casually but they are a treat as well to consider.

      Sure am glad to know the MASTER PRINTS are ‘spectacular” in John’s description with a hope a future transfer in HD will add decades to the series in the digital and HD world. As to content Ralph, they are all gems of masterful work and I so appreciate your commentaries, breakdowns of scenes, challenges, successes and teaching that continues to influence those of us who love the craft.

      Sadly, most of us today have to wear three and four hats (or more) on location as DP, Lighting, Sound, and Directing in what the independent production company has become with minimal crews, funding and projects. I was 14 in 1972 caught up in the ‘suspension of disbelief’ in the original broadcasts while training in 35 mm photography and just a a year later working in local TV production for a CBS affiliate and a cable studio franchise. What I produce today in documentaries, marketing features, and advertising is built on those years in the industry (learning from the best) and what I’ve gained here on your blogs Ralph. I’ve said it before and will again, this is like a Masters Graduate ongoing seminar that is worth its weight in gold. Thank you for posting and those who follow for all of your insights.

  3. John Dayton says:

    Steve, I just read your reply, I’m a little late, but – I believe that Desilu and BCP used Mitchells – and I agree, this is a classroom here for anyone who comes on board Ralph’s journey.

  4. Phil says:

    A small fix-it required in your blog upgrade…the 5th video doesn’t work. Thanks.

  5. Phil says:

    When this series debuted in ’72, I didn’t watch it and never did during its entire run. Ten-year-old boys didn’t watch shows like this by choice. But, our sisters watched ‘The Waltons.’ Mine was two years younger, but she knew all the characters and actors names. Naturally, she liked one of the boys, either Jason or Ben, I think.

    Now that I’m older, I decided to dip my toe in the water and see what I missed. Regarding this episode, I think it left me with more questions than answers. I started watching it with a standard right vs. wrong understanding, but then it started pitching curveballs and screwballs at me.

    It’s good that I didn’t look up this episode in IMDB before watching it. I was not aware that Yancy Tucker was a recurring character that appeared in 19 episodes during this series’ duration. Had I known, I would have assumed he would beat the rap from the start.

    How much of Earl Hamner’s background was in this script? Was there really a Robin Hood excuse or attitude in 1930s Schuyler, Virginia? Were black people treated respectfully there (as depicted in this episode)? Among the regular cast members, you don’t hear any heavy southern accents, but Earl Hamner (the narrator) doesn’t have one, so I guess it makes sense. Was Walton’s Mountain an isolated enclave of America? I’ll have to watch more episodes to find out!

    Speaking of isolated, I did a Google satellite map look up of Schuyler, VA. Your filming of roads cutting through the woods to get from one house to another is how it is TODAY. That place has hardly changed in the last 80 years!

    *****

    The earlier comments on cameras and film is a little over my head, but fascinating anyway. I recently learned about a big Hollywood auction that occurred earlier this month, run by a firm called Profiles in History. One item in the online catalog was a Mitchell BNC (Serial No. 206), which did the first unit filming of ‘The Misfits’ movie in 1960. Paramount bought it new in 1956 and also used it for the ‘70s TV sitcom ‘Happy Days’. It came with a 25mm Super Baltar lens, Paramount camera cases, Worrell gear head and Movieola Crab Dolly. The catalog claims this camera was one of 364 manufactured between 1934 and 1968 and “is in good working condition.” The minimum bid was $50,000, but it did not sell or it was withdrawn prior to the auction.

  6. Kyle says:

    All the comments about the film are so interesting to me. I own some of the DVDs, and the prints look so grainy and washed out. I’ve always wondered if that was deliberate, because immediately after the show’s cancellation, NBC (not CBS) aired three two-hour episodes. Those NBC specials, which I’ve seen recently, seem crystal clear and have relatively vibrant color, while the CBS episodes from the season before look grainy and washed out.

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  8. Tim says:

    Great site Ralph! The episodes you helmed are among my favorites; I can see myself spending a lot of time here. Do you know if the farm used in this episode was the same one used in the episode “The Calf?” I wonder if it’s still around, it’s a handsome property. Did Lorimar or CBS pay the property owners a fee to shoot there?

    Kyle: I’ve noticed some image issues with the DVDs as well. The color quality of some of the episodes look too “warm,” but I don’t know if that’s faulty digital conversion or film degradation.

    • Ralph says:

      Hi Tim: To answer your questions, I don’t know if the farm used here was also used on THE CALF. And yes, when filming away from the studio, a fee was paid to the owner of the property.

  9. Ha odd when you spend your time working in an industry and it feels like you are the only one then you find a blog like this and learn that other bloggers get big processes as much as I do! Pity my friends aren’t as interested 🙂

  10. Phil says:

    Ralph, did the topic of make-up ever come up during your eps. of ‘The Waltons’? While poking around the Google News Archive for stuff on ‘Dynasty’, I came across a full-page ad in the 1/30/1987 edition of the Bangor Daily News: Hollywood make-up artist Bob Sidell had gone into business marketing his secret formula product that would make you look years younger immediately. It included this paragraph:

    Working with a pharmaceutical chemist, Bob first developed a new technique to create the “natural” look for THE WALTONS TV series. The cast had to look as though they didn’t use make-up – and before Bob’s discovery, the only way to get rid of wrinkles, lines and blemishes was heavy TV make-up – but it didn’t look natural, especially during revealing close-ups.

    I guess it worked; he received an Emmy nomination for his work during the ’72-’73 season.

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