The Easter Breach

Filmed Spring 1965

Late morning the second day of filming THE EASTER BREACH I received a telephone call from the producer. He had just viewed the first day’s rushes and was calling to tell me how pleased he was with what he had seen. He was especially impressed with Richard Beymer’s performance. As was my custom I immediately went over to where Richard was seated to relay this information. He looked up at me with the saddest eyes and said, “That’s what they told me on WEST SIDE STORY.”

It was near the end of the 1964-65 season and I was back at the factory in Universal City to film my third and final SUSPENSE THEATRE. The script was an intelligent and well written love story by Leon Tokatyan about the difficult escape of an elderly couple from East Berlin. It was decided the story would be even more poignant if it were a young couple and I had just the young couple in mind to play it. Earlier that season I had directed an episode of THE FUGITIVE guest starring Diana Hyland and a 12 O’CLOCK HIGH guest starring Keir Dullea. I thought they would make an ideal pair to enact this story and I relayed my wishes to the casting director, Bill something-or-other. That was the last I heard until I was informed that Richard Beymer and Katherine Crawford (daughter of Universal producer Roy Huggins and wife of Universal executive Frank Price) had been signed to star in this Universal production. I had just completed a very difficult and emotionally trying project on the Universal lot (I still haven’t decided whether I will be discussing it on this journey) so my reaction to this bit of casting behind my back can only be described by saying — I was pissed. I decided I was not going to break my back over this next venture. The script was okay, no script changes to be requested. I scouted the necessary locations on Universal’s backlot. I visited the various sets assigned to the project. But not one pencil mark of staging or camera instruction was going to be entered into my script. I was going to wing it, start to finish. Then came the first day of filming and Richard Beymer showed up impressively prepared. He was totally committed in attitude and preparation, and the excellence of what he was doing lifted my spirits and pulled me in. I still was committed to not doing any homework, but because of my feelings of responsibility to the actors, I would still function to the best of my ability on the set.

The staging of the flight at the beginning of the story presented a bit of a problem. We were to film it on the Universal backlot and the wooded area selected for the couple’s running through the woods just wasn’t long enough, so we filmed the same short distance several times — first in two-shots, then in  close-ups of Richard and close-ups of Katherine. Thus I was able to prolong the sequence in the editing room.

The director of photography for this show was John Russell. We had worked together before on the ARREST AND TRIAL episode FUNNY MAN WITH A MONKEY starring Mickey Rooney. And oh yes, he was the director of photography on Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO.

The problems at Universal were not with the creative people: the directors of photography, the art directors, set dressers, wardrobe and makeup and later the film editors and post production personnel – they all gave 110 % in their efforts. It was the structure for studio operations created by the production overseers. It was a structure with a main purpose to control cost, a structure that paid little attention to the quality of the final product.

But where MGM was letting their backlots deteriorate, Universal, because of their feature films, was improving theirs. Because of the Berlin location of our story, the European streets on their backlot brought a feature film big screen quality to this production.

After a couple of days working with Richard, I had to say to him, “Before meeting you, I did not understand how you could have been cast as Tony in WEST SIDE STORY. Now that I’ve worked with you, my question is ‘What happened?’”

He told me that he did not go to view the dailies, but he was praised each day by the director for his work. Near the end of filming, when he had completed what he considered the main and difficult part of his role, he attended a viewing of the dailies. He was horrified by what he saw; he was even more disturbed that at that point there was nothing he could do to correct it.

When Werner, while visiting an art museum, sees a woman who looks remarkably like his wife (she should, she’s played by the same actress), I was going to need a certain reaction from Katherine as she looked at him on the ground where he had just fallen. I’m afraid because of the possible nepotism involved in her casting, I may have underestimated Katherine Crawford’s talent. So at the end of her close-up, instead of saying “Cut, print,” I tore the page out of my script, dropped it to the floor and said, “Well, I guess we’ve got that one in the can.” I got the reaction I wanted.

Several years before Albert Szabo, who played the waiter who brought Werner the note from Liese, had delivered a brilliant performance on PLAYHOUSE 90 in their production of JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. He played the role that Montgomery Clift later portrayed in the Stanley Kramer all-star film. In my humble opinion he gave by far the superlative performance.

A decade before this, when I first started working at CBS in the radio mimeo department, I was a lowly typist cutting stencils for CBS radio shows. One of them was GUNSMOKE starring William Conrad in the role that James Arness later portrayed in the television series. The mimeo department was next to a viewing booth that looked down on the radio studio where GUNSMOKE was rehearsed and recorded. I watched many of them in production. I became acquainted with the script supervisor on the show and even sat in on some of the rehearsals. I didn’t meet him at that time, but Norman MacDonnell was the producer. The same Norman MacDonnell was the producer for this episode.

I really didn’t have any idea of what a checkpoint between East and West Berlin looked like. But even if I had had a detailed drawing, there was no chance the studio would build it, not on a television budget. So we found a tunnel-like structure on the European street on the backlot, put up some signs and we had our checkpoint.

Usually backlots had only the exterior facades of buildings. When characters entered a  building, the interior where they ended up would be filmed on a set on a soundstage. The European street on the Universal backlot had a restaurant interior set adjacent to the street. This had obviously been built for some feature film, and had been retained as a standing set. Thus I could film Werner leaving the restaurant and see the completion of his exit without the camera ever leaving the restaurant.

I think ideally two actresses should have been cast for Liese and Victoria. There was supposed to be just a resemblance between the two, they weren’t supposed to be identical. Under the circumstances I think makeup and wardrobe did a fine job on Katherine to give her two different appearances.

In the final sequence at the checkpoint both characters portrayed by Katherine were involved. However, since they did not have a scene together, I did not have to cope with doing a split screen, but I did need to use a photo double. First in a wide angle shot when Werner walked away from Liese and saw Victoria — Victoria, with her back to the camera was a photo double. And then the final shot of the sequence when Werner and Liese on the West Berlin side of the wall exited the two shot and and the view through to East Berlin was Victoria as she was taken away by the police, that Victoria was a photo double.

It would be a year shy of two decades before Richar Beymer and I would work together again (ignoring a test I directed of him for a role in the pilot for DYNASTY). And that later project, through no fault of Richard’s or other members of that cast, was a miserably grievous experience for me. I think Richard was aware of the problems, because one day when we were lunching together, he looked at me very wisely across the table of the booth we shared, and with a twinkle in his eye he said, “You appear to be a gentle poodle, but I can see the pit bull ready to pounce.”

As I explained before, I did no pre-planning in my script for this show. In fact when I checked my files for a script for this production to help me with this posting, there was no script. I had thrown it away, page by page, as I completed filming each scene. It is the only script missing of the almost two hundred productions I directed. So did I then decide, “Boy this is the way to go. You can do this job without all that laborious homework.” I’m afraid not. Now that I knew I could wing it and get by, I made the decision and never wavered from it — NEVER AGAIN!

This was not only the final SUSPENSE THEATRE I would direct; it was my last time directing a segment of a weekly anthology series, a type of programming that had been part of the entertainment landscape from the days of radio with the LUX RADIO THEATRE and the MERCURY THEATRE through the live television era of PHILCO PLAYHOUSE, STUDIO ONE  and PLAYHOUSE 90. That format was coming to an end and the only ones to mourn its passing were the artists and craftsmen who saw their attempts to create something artistically meaningful while earning their weekly pay checks being callously erased by the networks in the search for more $’s.

The journey continues

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2 Responses to The Easter Breach

  1. Phil says:

    Sixth video: “So again…the end justifies the mean.” Yikes, is there a worse insult for a German?

    Ralph, the 8th video doesn’t work. This section is not on your old blog, but I was able to see it on Youtube.

    Overall, it was a good show. I’d give you a do-over on one scene. In the 2nd video, my Dad and I yelled “Dummy!” at Werner for standing up when the spotlights were directed upon him.

    It seemed like all the actors attempted a German inflection to their dialogue, except for Katherine Crawford (aside from saying “Verner”). Or maybe she did try, but it didn’t work. Of course, accents were secondary to the story, and since the production was for an English-speaking audience, does it really matter?

    Regarding the European backlot at Universal, it got a real workout when ‘McHale’s Navy’ was “transferred” to Italy. Also, I saw a lot of those arches and steps in ‘It Takes a Thief’. BTW, one ‘Suspense Theatre’ episode (“Four into Zero”) used the base of the Black Tower for an exterior scene (doubling for Chicago). I think you could have safely eaten food off the sidewalks and streets surrounding that building.

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