The Courier

Filmed October 1966

There had been a major change in the production staff for THE FBI series in the month since I had completed filming ORDEAL. Director of photography William Spencer had departed for Twentieth Century Fox to photograph Quinn Martin’s first theatrical feature film, THE MEPHISTO WALTZ. That was a major loss for the series and for me. In the twenty months since January, 1965, when I worked with Billy for the first time on 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, we had collaborated on ten films. He was my advanced film school and I didn’t want to graduate. My first episode following his leaving wasn’t the debacle that THE DEATH WIND had been, but it had its problems. The first one, Erskine went undercover as a convict in prison in a plot similar to a 1939 Warner Bros feature, EACH DAWN I DIE, when innocent reporter James Cagney was framed and sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Zimmy was there officially on a case, but he didn’t fit into the role of a tough convict as convincingly as Cagney had. He talked tough, but he couldn’t lose his distinctive sophisticated urbanity. Number two and more critically the new cameraman was no Billy Spencer. Gone was Billy’s dynamic film noir imagery, replaced by flat lighting. More to the point I would stage an over shoulder two shot, check it through the camera lens and return after he had completed lighting to find he had moved the actors into an easier to light fifty-fifty two shot. Quite frankly he drove me slightly crazy. Fortunately when I began my next production, THE COURIER, he had been replaced by William Cline. The script for THE COURIER found me mired in the world of espionage and communism, a favorite topic of the series but one that I had so far managed to avoid. Communism had surfaced before in THE ASSASSIN and ORDEAL, but only peripherally. This time it was a full all out spy story.

The Communist Captain Cheiu was a small role, but it proved difficult to cast. Today with the large number of fine oriental performers, it is strange to remember that back then in Hollywood, although there were many filling oriental roles in film and television, there were very few good actors. I remember John Conwell and I discussing this problem. We were lucky to cast sixty-two year old Keye Luke in such a small role. His filmography was endless starting with the role of Charlie Chan’s number one son in the first Chan films of the thirties.

The Archive of American Television, a division of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, recently did an extended on camera interview of me. Rather than writing about the casting of the role of Juliet and with the Archive’s gracious consent, let me tell you about it.

John then suggested Colleen Dewhurst. I thought Dewhurst was a sensational actress, but there had been one show the first season of THE FBI, THE BABY SITTER, whose main protagonist was a woman and Colleen Dewhurst had played her. So I resisted his recommendation and asked for Ruth Roman, with whom I had worked on ROUTE 66. She was quickly approved by Quinn and was cast.

THE COURIER was one of the few times producer Charles Larson, who did extensive rewriting on practically every script that was filmed without receiving credit, was awarded sole teleplay credit.

Quinn Martin Productions was departmentalized like no other production company in town. Producers did not participate in casting, editing or postproduction decisions. Casting was supervised by John Conwell, Assistant to the Executive Producer, with final approval for the guest stars coming from Quinn Martin. Arthur Fellows, Executive in Charge of Production, oversaw the editing and all postproduction matters. Producers did not attend pre-shooting production meetings. Because of television’s voracious appetite for scripts, the majority of series had writers as their producers, but QM Productions was the rare place where the producer’s duties were restricted to providing the material to film.

Warner Bros. like MGM had the facilities to provide wonderful sets. I was impressed with the size and completeness of the airport set, although I doubted that Richard Haman had designed it for our production; it was too expansive, too elaborate. I was sure it was a standing set from some Warner Bros. feature film with adjustments made by Haman.

Cherylene Lee was one of a long line of Oriental girls who were brought in to audition for the role of the orphan, Linh. Her film experience was limited, but she proved to be a remarkably good young actress. She was able to shed copious tears on cue and more importantly for as many takes as required.

I didn’t know Gene Hackman. He had been acting in television since 1959, all of it until recently on the East coast. Conwell was aware of his work and highly recommended him. I took him sight unseen; I always trusted John’s suggestions, which in this case was right on the mark. Gene Hackman was just one year away from his breakthrough Oscar nominated performance in BONNIE AND CLYDE and only five years away from his Oscar winning performance in THE FRENCH CONNECTION.

Phyllis Love was from Des Moines, Iowa, and like two other Des Moinesians, Cloris Leachman and Neva Patterson, had acted at the Des Moines Playhouse. I had directed at that playhouse the year before I returned to California in 1954. I had directed Neva Patterson in one of my NAKED CITYs, but my closest ties were to Cloris Leachman, whom I had met but I had not worked with her. Her father, ‘Buck’ Leachman had been on the board of directors at the playhouse and her younger sis, Claiborne, had appeared in two of the six productions I had directed there.

As I stated, there were two FBI agents assigned to the production. One was on the set to provide technical assistance whenever we were doing a scene involving agent activity.

I became aware of Charles Larson’s special talent on the second production that I directed of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, THE TRAP. At that time he was the associate producer and series’ story editor. He was the one doing the final rewrite on that script, an intense character study of five people trapped in a cellar during a London bombing. I witnessed how he fleshed out what had been cardboard characters as his writing probed into their emotional psyches. Most importantly the dialogue he wrote was playable. I am sorry now that I never discussed with him the evolution of THE FBI scripts I directed. I would like to know just how much information was provided by the Bureau’s files and how faithfully that information was adhered to as the teleplay evolved.

I think it was on this series that I became aware that the caliber of the scripts I was being assigned was on the decline. I remembered that the material on ROUTE 66, NAKED CITY, TWILIGHT ZONE, BREAKING POINT et al had challenged me to produce film as good as the pages on which it was based. I no longer felt that respect for the scripts I was handed.

The journey continues

 

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6 Responses to The Courier

  1. Kathy Tasich says:

    This was a fast moving, brilliantly directed episode. Ruth Roman was terrific! Gene Hackman has always been a favorite of mine, so it was great to see him in an early role before he hit the big time. I enjoyed your interview. Bette Davis must have irritated J. Edgar Hoover, but I guess we will never know. Thank you again for sharing these wonderful memories, Ralph. I look forward every week for your next post!

  2. GMJ says:

    I noticed that Phyllis Love, who recently passed away, played a character named Phyllis. Was that a coincidence?

    On another matter, reading your blog is like going to a history class on television production. As a person who used to work at a network affiliate for 16 years, I do understand the process you went through as a director. I look forward to reading more about your experiences.

  3. Ralph says:

    To start with, the fact that the character Phyllis played was named Phyllis was totally a coincidence. The character was written and named long before Phyllis Love was cast.

    Living so far out of the eye of the storm, I was not aware of her recent passing away. I worked with Phyllis on four of the seven days of filming. I have not seen her since, a small comment on the fragility of relationships in this profession.

  4. Is Great!!!. Greetings Ralph

  5. Mark Speck says:

    In response to Kathy’s comment about Bette Davis and J. Edgar Hoover, the full story is mentioned in Jonathan Etter’s great book, Quinn Martin, Producer (which features a great deal of input from Mr. Senensky).

    Jon mentions in the chapter about The FBI that every actor considered for the series had to be thoroughly screened by the Bureau, the exception being made for some of the lesser actors on the series, as it would have interfered with their ability to work, and there was limited time for those actors to work.

    Anyhow, Bette Davis wrote to the show, mentioning what a big fan she was. Could Quinn find a part for her? He got to work right away and decided that this role would fit her just fine.

    Then the Bureau stepped in and declined her…what was the problem? Seems she had been a suspect in the 1938 murder of her husband. Though she was cleared, the FBI still took a pass on her, and Ruth Roman was cast.

  6. Kathy Tasich says:

    Thank you, Mark, for clearing this mystery up for me. I researched more and Ms Davis said she didn’t know how her husband hit his head. The inquest ruled accidental death. Obviously, the FBI could not let it go.

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