The Fire Storm

FILMED July 1976

I seemed to have skipped Season Four of THE WALTONS and when I returned for Season Five there were several changes, starting with a new billboard to open the show. The previously acceptable start-at-the-beginning-and let-the-program-unfold-in-its-natural-way was no longer acceptable, so (probably at the “suggestion” of CBS) highlights from the dramatic climaxes in the story were now front and center to hook the audience. That to me was like telling the punch line of a joke before telling the joke. In addition producer Robert Jacks, after four seasons and ninety-two episodes, was gone, having moved over to produce the new Lorimar series, EIGHT IS ENOUGH. The new producer on board was Andy White. Story editor Carol McKeand had moved with her husband, Nigel McKeand, to the Spelling production company to produce FAMILY. And Earl Hamner, in addition to his credit as “Created by”, was also credited as Co-Executive Producer. A couple days before my report date to start prepping a script was delivered to my home, and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t a bad script; I just thought it was a dull script. It seemed to be nothing more than a pleasant drop-in visit to the Walton family. I told them I would rather not do the show; I was perfectly willing to step aside and be replaced, but they sent me another script — THE TEMPEST. I thought that script, beautifully written by Rod Peterson and Claire Whitaker, was great. I reported very willingly on schedule.

The production was THE TEMPEST all through filming. Later it was retitled THE FIRE STORM.

I couldn’t resist adding the line for Jim-Bob, “We’ve only seen the movie once.” When I was Jim-Bob’s age in Mason City, Iowa I went to the Cecil Theatre every Saturday afternoon, and I always sat through the movie TWICE.

The theatre owner was Jason Wingreen, another fine actor I had known from the fifties when I think he was one of Ethel Winant’s rehearsal actors on PLAYHOUSE 90. I have a lovely story about Jason and his wife, Scotty. She had been a fan of the DR. KILDARE series that was based in Blair Hospital, and I mean an avidly devoted fan. Scotty was in the hospital awaiting the birth of their son, and she was having some difficulties. She rang for the nurse, but no one came. She rang again to no avail. She was getting more upset by the minute. She rang again and again no answer. Finally Jason, very calmly said, “Scotty, you just have to realize, there is no Blair Hospital.”

That was Barry Cahill’s first appearance as Buck Vernon on THE WALTONS, but not our first time working together. My first remembrance of Barry was when he appeared almost twenty years before as one of the seventy-nine actors in Frank Schaffner’s production of SEVEN AGAINST THE WALL on PLAYHOUSE 90, a reenactment of the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre in Chicago in 1929. I was the production supervisor on that production and I remember that on the Monday when about thirty of the cast assembled for the first reading, I went to the CBS prop department and (against union rules) smuggled prop guns into the rehearsal hall and placed one at each chair of the long table around which the reading would take place. I wanted the gangsters to be properly armed.

I did have a minor suggestion. In the original script Robert Woods as David didn’t appear until the Jefferson County Day sequence that ended the show. Since he had only appeared in one episode before this, I thought it would be beneficial to see him earlier, to reestablish his character and relationship to Mary Ellen. I also knew that in the coming episodes, preparations for their wedding would be under way when Mary Ellen would meet and fall in love with another boy and that was going to be the end of David Spencer. I wondered if it wouldn’t be important in preparation for the coming events to make more of his appearance in this script. I made this suggestion to Earl, who wrote the following charming scene for Mary Ellen and David.

I probably shouldn’t be writing about rumors I heard at the time, but when has that ever stopped me. The rumor I heard was that there was network reservation about Robert Woods and that was why the switch was made for David Spencer to be jilted. So David Spencer was dropped, Robert Woods went to New York, where three years later, on a different network, he joined the cast of the daytime soap, ONE LIFE TO LIVE, as Bo Buchanan. He won an Emmy and was on the show until it was cancelled in 2012.

THE FIRE STORM was John Ritter’s thirteenth appearance as Rev. Fordwick on THE WALTONS. The following spring a new series, THREE’S COMPANY with John cast as Jack Tripper, would debut as a mid-season replacement. The show became a ratings hit and John was recognized as a brilliant farceur. People sometimes forgot what a fine dramatic actor he was.

One of the traps in series television was the sometimes over-deification of its youthful stars. Young Dr. Kildare many times solved cases beyond the capabilities of a young interne. There was the opportunity for that to happen on this series. As Earl Hamner reported in GOODNIGHT JOHN-BOY, Henry Fonda, who had played his father in SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN, the film about his family that preceded THE WALTONS, turned down the offer to star in the series saying, “It’s the boy’s story.” I think under Earl’s guidance there was some deification of the John-Boy character, but it was a justified deification. It was not unusual for poor and middle-class parents to want to provide a better education for their children than the one they had received. It was not unusual for their offsprings while still in their teens to develop intellectually beyond them. That is the quality that I think was exploited to full advantage in the development of John-Boy’s character and in his relationship to his family.

From what Will said, I was aware there had been a previous script involving Grandpa with a statue at the bridge and that he felt the situation had been left unfinished. He wanted some closure.

The Warner Bros. backlot was not as extensive as MGM’s, so many times structures had to be reused. I recognized that the duplex for Zuleika Dunbar and Mrs. Brimmer was the same house I had filmed in THE CRADLE as the residence for Mrs. Breckenridge and what had been Mrs. Breckenridge’s sun porch became Zuleika’s sitting room.

One day on the set Will Geer and I were talking and he said, “You know, you’re one of the pioneers of television.” Suddenly it was the eighteen-year old who thirty-five years before had blurted out, “Oh, I could never do that,” when Miss Oulman had said, “You could be a director,” who responded, “Oh no, I’m not one of the pioneers.” I thought they were those people on the east coast who, starting in the early fifties, had created the medium. But now looking back from 2012 I’ve come to recognize that Will may have been more correct than I realized.

Adding the earlier new scene for Mary Ellen and David and rewriting a later scene to include them created a problem. Because the script was already long, we had to cut a scene to make room for the new additions and the only scene we could cut that didn’t affect the plot was between Grandma and Grandpa. Ellen Corby was not happy to have her scene cut. The problem was exacerbated because in the later new scene she had to say, “BYPU.” She thought that was a very bad joke until we explained it was about the Baptist Young People’s Union.

There was one place I did have to request some changes in the script, but not for lack of quality, rather for too much. Rod and Claire had written a montage of activities — races, competitions, etc — for the Jefferson County Day sequence that was the finale of the story. There was just too much to film on a six and a half day schedule and too much to cram into the limited airtime the show would have. I asked for some cuts, which were graciously given.

One of the pleasures of doing a show like THE WALTONS was watching the kids grow up on camera. When I directed THE CHICKEN THIEF in 1973, Mary McDonough was a slightly gawky pre-teenager. Three years later at age fifteen she had blossomed into a very beautiful and talented young actress.

The main production problem I had was the Jefferson County Day sequence. The complete day’s work (beauty contest and evening gathering around a campfire) totaled 9¼ pages, both of which were large gatherings which required extensive camera coverage. Even utilizing two cameras I couldn’t finish it in the allotted one day. Fortunately it was not a location; it was filmed on the Warner backlot (filming day for night) and I finished it the following morning.

After each shot the assistant cameraman opened the film case to check that the film was rolling correctly. He then checked the lens aperture. When he checked after the two shot of Olivia and John, he found a hair in the aperture. We didn’t know when it arrived. I knew the portion of the shot that I wanted to use — Olivia’s reaction to Mrs. Brimmer’s reading the Bible — so we filmed a second take, but I did not print it. I put a “hold” on it. Fortunately the next day when we saw dailies, the hair didn’t appear until after that portion of the shot I intended to use. Because Michael and Ralph were not included in any of the master angles of the scene between John-Boy and Mrs. Brimmer, they were viewing the scene for the first time when we filmed their two-shot. Michael’s response in take one was totally spontaneous and wonderful. Her second take was good; it just wasn’t as good.

Take One

I did a shorter posting of THE FIRE STORM on my earlier blog, RALPH’S TREK, in November, 2009. The following Comment was posted in July, 2011:

I watched this episode last night with my family (two young daughters) on DVD. Incredibly powerful! Brilliant acting and directing. After watching it we had a discussion, it was a springboard to learning about free speech, ignorance vs knowledge, the nature of totalitarianism….issues which are still alive and present today. Thank you for this excellent, timeless work which is still more than relevant today!..and puts to shame the present era of television.

 

And another Comment posted in March, 2012:

I just watched this episode today, 3/14/2012. It’s my favorite for so many reasons. I loved The Walton’s and The Carpenter’s (Karen & Richard) in the 1970’s. Funny how “uncool” both were among their peers at the time, but both have stood the test of time. Makes me wonder what we might be missing today because the arrogant majority sees it as “uncool.” … Thank you very much for what you brought to this art form.

The journey continues

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8 Responses to The Fire Storm

  1. jUDY LITMAN says:

    THANKS, RALPH, I LOVED THAT SHOW, THE WALTONS, YOU HAVE DONE A GREAT JOB WITH YOUR MANY EPISODES. I TOO WENT TO THE CECIL EVERY SATURDAY AFTERNOON WITH MY BROTHER ED, WE WALKED TO THE CECIL AND BACKK HOME AGAIN. OF COURSE THERE WERE TIMES WE WENT TO THE PALACE, (DOUBLE FEATURE) AND MAYBE (!) SHOCKINGLY TO THE STRAND.

  2. John Dayton says:

    When I saw the close-ups of Richard and Nora Marlowe in dailies, I cried – so did Earl Hamner. Now when you are part of a crew and under the stress of getting a script shot, and you know it’s all an illusion, a mechanical thing in a way, certainly to an A.D. — well, it’s really a miracle when you are swept into a scene. When Richard says, “…lord, I wish there were someone here who could read German” and Nora steps forward, well, that moment cut right to my heart — that scene is Feature Film worthy on a two-bit tv schedule and budget.

    Nora did many episodes – this, to me was the best – I think her last was “The Grandchild” which you directed, Ralph. I could be wrong as my mind gets fuzzy about dates. She, as I recall, passed somewhat unexpectedly in 1977.

    I hope you will give us some of your thoughts on working with her — she was a lovely woman, a real pro, absolutely no ego, and a delight to work with.

    • Ralph says:

      I have just checked the IMDB. Your mind is not as fuzzy as you think, John. Nora did die in 1977 and THE GRANDCHILD was her last THE WALTONS. She was in three other episodes of this series that I directed and I agree with you that this was her best performance, but then this was the best role she was given. I knew Nora socially, she was very connected to Tom and Mavis Palmer. She was married to James McCallion, a sensational actor. I always wondered but never discussed it with her what her background in acting was. I don’t think she schooled. But she was great. And of course it’s because she was REAL! And she LISTENED.

  3. Donna Allstaedt says:

    Your comments about the shows give me much more insight into the making of The Waltons.
    Now after all these years the show means even more to me, thanks for sharing.

  4. Phil says:

    Yeah, I can’t stand previews at the start of a TV episode. ‘The Waltons’ audience was well-established; nobody was going to change the channel!

    Jason Wingreen – he popped up everywhere! I spotted him in the “Heart of Darkness” ep. of ‘Playhouse 90’…one of the sailors giving Roddy McDowall a hard time early on. IMDB has no record of this, but I assume they have a lot of omissions from that series.

    While recently watching the closing credits from ‘The Big Valley’, I noticed the names of Nora Marlowe and James McCallion. I had to play back the ep. (“Last Train to the Fair”) to find them…they played a married couple on a train, about one line of dialogue for each.

    • Ralph says:

      Re: the opening preview scene: I’m sure that was a network demand.
      Jason Wingreen popped up all over PLAYHOUSE 90. He was one of the actors casting director Ethel Wynant used as ‘stand-ins’. Not all of the actors were hired for the complete 14 days it took to rehearse and air a PLAYHOUSE 90. Only the stars were hired to report from the first Monday. The’ stand-ins’ played those supporting roles in the rehearsal hall until the hired actors reported. They were then used in even smaller roles for the airing.
      As for Nora and James on THE BIG VALLEY: A day’s work was a day’s pay.

  5. Phil says:

    I was watching the movie ‘Soylent Green’ at my parents’ house the other day…about half way through, I pointed at the screen and yelled “there’s Nora Marlowe!” Uncredited, she was there for about three seconds in a jam-packed outdoor market selling bags of Soylent crumbs! Your blog has given a second life to many character actors I would otherwise overlook.

    I had a similar reaction watching the movie ‘The Great White Hope’…Don Hanmer is in the opening scene as a reporter…one of many uncredited actors in that flick…IMDB lists many of them, but they missed Don. Likewise, James McCallion popped up during a recent viewing of my favorite movie ‘North by Northwest’…didn’t realize before that he was the bellhop who delivers a dry-cleaned suit to the room of “George Kaplan”.

    • Ralph says:

      There was that great army of wonderful character actors playing those small roles. That is why American films were so great!

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