The Hero

Filmed April 1965

I have chosen to group together the episodes of a series like chapters in a section of a book, to combine them and give the illusion of one extended project. That was the way I thought of it when I was directing episodic television. Although I very rarely stayed on any one series to do back to back assignments, in the case of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH I did remain at the Fox Western lot from the middle of December, 1964 until the middle of February, 1965, and in that two-month period directed TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE, THE TRAP and THE THREAT. But there was almost a two month gap before I returned to do my last flight, THE HERO. During that time I was at Universal Studio to direct PERILOUS TIMES on CHRYSLER THEATRE and THE EASTER BREACH on SUSPENSE THEATRE. But that was what directors in episodic television had to do. As we moved from assignment to assignment, we had to shift gears, reorganize the psyche and in this case psychologically and emotionally travel from the bittersweet wartime love story of PERILOUS TIMES to the imperiled lives of the separated couple of THE EASTER BREACH’s East Berlin to the wild blue yonder adventures of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH’s THE HERO.

My second and third episodes of 12 O’CLOCK HIGH had been grounded. This one sent me back up into the wild black and white yonder of TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE, back again for two days in the small process stage, and back to the airfield in Chino, this time for two days. It also provided me with a welcome reunion with James Whitmore; the previous season we had worked together on ARREST AND TRIAL’s MY NAME IS MARTIN BURNHAM. The script for my final 12 O’CLOCK HIGH had the most stereotypical protagonist of any of my four airborne adventures on the series. In the thirties and forties, James Cagney practically had a one-man franchise at Warner Bros. on the cocky, brash, undisciplined man in military service. In THE FIGHTING 69TH, HERE COMES THE NAVY and CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS he served disruptively on land, sea and in the air, but always emerged at the end as a hero. Three decades later we were about to resurrect that character.

What determined the difference between an actor becoming a major star or becoming a superstar? Joan Blondell once told me, “Bette Davis’ main concern was her career; my main concern was my family.” Actors under contract to a major studio, with its long list of contract players, often found themselves low on the list when it came to being assigned to major productions. Robert Young at MGM received roles when Robert Montgomery or Robert Taylor weren’t available. It wasn’t until television that he emerged into the bright glare of superstardom with FATHER KNOWS BEST and MARCUS WELBY. Some actors never quite achieved that. James Whitmore received a Tony on Broadway and a Golden Globe and Oscar nominations in Hollywood. Was he a superstar? Probably not! Was he a superlative actor? Absoposolutively! He came to the set totally prepared to bring nuances to his character beyond the wildest hopes of the writers who had created them. Beulah Bondi, a superlative character actress about whom I shall write in the future, once told me of her experience on the movie, THE SNAKE PIT, starring Olivia de Havilland and directed by Anatole Litvak. The movie was well into production by the time she reported to the studio. She was cast as one of the patients in an insane asylum and she was greeted with dire reports from other character actresses who had been working. They told her that Litvak was impossible, overly demanding; nothing any of them did seemed to please him. Beulah responded she couldn’t understand that; she had worked for ‘Toley’ before (THE SISTERS with Bette Davis at Warner Bros.), and she had never had any problem with him. She was warned, just wait, you’ll see. So came time for Beulah’s first scene. She reported to the set in make-up and costume, was greeted by Mr. Litvak, did a brief rehearsal and then prepared to film. Camera rolled, action was called, and Beulah did her scene. Litvak called “Cut, let’s do it again, please.” The warning actresses on the sidelines gave Beulah nods of the head that said, “See, what did we tell you!” Beulah did take 2. Again “Cut, let’s do it again please.” More nodding heads and smirks. Take 3. Take 4. Take 5 and finally “Cut, Print.” Beulah, never a shy one (she was a Taurus) went up to Litvak. “Toley, may I ask you a question?”

Litvak: “Of course, Beulah. What is it?”

Beulah: “You never said, so what was wrong with those earlier takes?”

Litvak: “Nothing, Beulah. I just like to watch you act.”

One of the pleasures interspersed with the labor of producing these postings is that I view the film clips many times. And I say with great enthusiasm regarding James Whitmore, “I just like to watch him act.”

Our first day of filming was at the airfield in Chino. It was the last day of March, but April showers were already threatening. Our schedule for the day listed the sixth day’s work as our cover sets in case of inclement weather, but the decision had been made in the production office that the rain was a possibility, not a surety. And so we commenced filming; the conditions for creating the look of England in winter were visually excellent.

But as the work on that sequence progressed, the weather conditions worsened; small raindrops started spitting, but not enough at first to halt filming — until we were setting up the final setup of that last sequence, the shot under the plane’s wing…

…when Billy Spencer and I agreed it was time to call a halt. Paul Wurtzel, our assistant director, disagreed. “You’re under the wing. You can’t even see the rain,” he said. Billy pointed to behind Lansing and Whitmore where a sheet of water was cascading like a waterfall off the wing. His point was made. We wrapped the location, returned to the studio and finished the day working on interior scenes from the sixth day’s schedule. The following day when the weather had cleared, we returned to Chino and picked up where we had left off.

I want to commend the film editors of this episode (Marston Fay) and TO HEINIE. WITH LOVE (Jerry Young). Beside selecting the required film for our rear projection from their miles of stock footage, they were the ones who from that same stock footage prooduced the fleet of planes in flight, planes taking off and landing and the extended air battles. The scenes in the script marked (STOCK) were what the screenwriter envisioned — the editors then had to find the film that created the described action.

I like doing action sequences. They are exciting to do; they are exciting to watch. But I have to confess, I’m even more challenged and fulfilled confronted with a good dramatic dialogue sequence if it’s intelligently written, built on a strong conflict and if I’m fortunate enough to have actors like Robert Lansing and James Whitmore to play it.

One of the things I learned early on DR. KILDARE was that when there was technical information being dispensed, it was imperative to present it as carefully and clearly as possible. That was even more important on 12  O’CLOCK HIGH when presenting plans for a coming mission. It was important that the viewing audience assimilate the information as completely as the men at the briefing so that they would understand the events that follow.

On one of the days Frank Overton reported to the Chino location at the crack of dawn, he filmed two sequences and was then dismissed and sent back to the studio. Seconds after his vehicle left, assistant director Paul Wurtzel realized Frank was not finished, that he still had another sequence to shoot. Today, with cell phones, there would be no problem. The vehicle carrying Frank back to the studio would be phoned in transit, and he would be returned to the location. But those were ancient B.C. days (Before Cellphones). All Paul could do was phone the studio and notify them that when Frank arrived, he was to be sent back to Chino. I think that was a day Frank wished we could have been doing STAR TREK (which he did do for me a couple years later) so that he could just say, “Beam me out to the location, Scotty.” Being the trouper that he was, he did the scene that ran only fifty seconds in the final film and with not a word of complaint.

The first time I directed Nigel McKeand was two years before this in an episode of THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH. In THE HERO Nigel portrayed the radio operator in General Savage’s plane on the final bombing mission. Nine years later Nigel had switched hats and he wrote THE MARATHON which I directed, one of the best of THE WALTONS, one that producer Robert Jacks said was his favorite episode in the four years that he produced the series. Two years after that I directed an episode of FAMILY, produced by Nigel. And eleven years later the last film I ever directed was an episode of BLUE SKIES, which Nigel produced.

I’ve read about the difficulty actors today have doing scenes in blue screen, scenes where they act with unseen elements that will be digitally added later. I don’t think the actors in this show had it any easier. As in TO HEINIE, WITH LOVE, a third of the filming was in the plane on the process stage with rear projection. That meant the actor being filmed was playing very short scenes, many of them with the script clerk reading the off-camera lines. The actor being filmed also had to react to attacking airplanes that weren’t there and wouldn’t be there until the film editor integrated the stock footage days, even weeks later as he edited the film.

Our American culture has a peculiar attraction to the celebrity of heroes.  I liked what this script had to say on the subject.

And that brought an end to my involvement with 12 O’CLOCK HIGH. Robert Lansing’s contract was not renewed; he was replaced by Paul Burke. I did not know whether Quinn Martin or the network was responsible for this action. I have recently learned from someone who was high in the QM organization that it was ABC that demanded the change, a change that Quinn unsuccessfully opposed. The network’s reason for the recasting was to attract a younger audience. Thirty-two episodes were filmed the first season of the show. Awards were won. Twenty-nine episodes were filmed the second season (and filmed in color). The third and final season was shortened to seventeen episodes. As for the rest of that brilliant group William Spencer with his camera crew, assistant director Paul Wurtzel, art director Richard Haman and casting director John Conwell moved with associate producer Charles Larson, now elevated to producer, to Warner Bros. Studio to work on Quinn’s newest series, THE FBI. 12 O’CLOCK HIGH was not Quinn’s most famous series. I think THE FUGITIVE was. It was not his most successful series. THE FBI ran for nine seasons. But it was my favorite of the QM series I directed.

A little more than a week ago, over forty-six years after this episode first aired, the following Comment appeared on the posting of THE HERO on my blog (RALPH’S TREK).

I still feel this is a series that could work today. The scripts were solid, the premise intriguing and with today’s CGI, come on. It would be easy.

The journey continues

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11 Responses to The Hero

  1. Daniel Rudolf says:

    James Whitmore was indeed a great talent. I remember him as the old prison librarian in the 1994 drama, The Shawshank Redemption. He continued to act well into his 80s. It must’ve been great to work with him again after My Name is Martin Burnham. And I guess he also welcomed the opportunity to work with you again. So sad, you couldn’t get him for that episode of Dr. Kildare.

  2. Thomas Vinciguerra says:

    Dear Ralph,

    On the 45th anniversary of the debut of the original series on NBC, I wish to congratulate and thank you for all of the joy you have given me over the years.

    I’ve written a number of pieces about the series for the NY Times; it’s been my pleasure to be in touch with such folks as Bob Justman, Herb Solow, Dorothy Fontana, Charlie Washburn, Joe D’Agosta, and other key personnel in that connection. Anyway, I would be happy to share the stories with you if you would care to share your e-mail.

    Thank you again, and live long and prosper.

    All best,
    Thomas Vinciguerra

  3. Ralph says:

    Thomas: You have been in touch with people I have very fond memories of. You can reach me at: senensky@gmail.com

  4. Kathy Tasich says:

    There is an old saying, and please excuse my grammar being an English teacher, but “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” Robert Lansing was superb and after he left, the show went downhill. He had a gentle toughness and experience that Paul Burke lacked. Even Quinn Martin knew it was wrong. I always wondered why he was replaced and thanks for telling the reason, Ralph! What a colossal blunder you made ABC executives! You ruined a great show.

  5. Gary says:

    a great drama series one of the best
    Remember WWII. wish they could make this tv show again

  6. Paula Guenon says:

    I just found this website. It is great to get inside information from a Director. I re-discovered this series and became a fan of Robert Lansing. I agree with Kathy Tasich regarding ABC executives in removing Lansing. If you read the book, you can see Lansing’s version of Savage is closer to the book.

  7. Jim says:

    Mr Senensky,

    Another insightful and very entertaining post (as they all are…)……

    Of all the QM Productions, 12 O’Clock High was my favorite also, though I have a soft spot for The Invaders……. As a nine year old in the mid 60s, I sat mesmerized for the entire first season. A great deal of that was due to the performance of Robert Lansing – for me, he just had a resonance on-screen that few other actors had – the only one who I thought had more was Vic Morrow. When they were on-screen, you couldn’t take your eyes off of them. Certainly James Whitmore had that same level of talent and quality.

    I can remember to this day my disappointment when the first episode of the second season was shown and the Robert Lansing character killed off. I thought Paul Burke was a very good actor, and did his best with the role, but was fundamentally miscast.

    I think the show played a small part in my decision many years later to make a career in the Air Force (28 years). Made it up to Colonel, just missed General, but I have to say that compared to the many Generals I met and worked for, Robert Lansing’s Gen Savage was an extremely life-like and accurate portrayal……..and as the Director who helped shape that performance, you certainly deserve recognition also.

    • Ralph says:

      If you’ve read all four of my posts for 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, you know how I felt about Lansing. He was so committed to giving a good performance. For years I blamed Quinn Martin for his being replaced. After I started my website I spoke with Howard Alston, the overseeing production manager for QM Productions, and he ;told me it was the network who insisted on the change. They wanted an adventure series.

      • Jim says:

        Thanks again for the insight – as a big fan of Robert Lansing, I continually looked for info regarding why he left the series. Like you, I found quite a bit that put the blame on Mr Martin; for a variety of reasons. It’s nice to finally know that wasn’t the case.

        Those darn network executives – seems like they caused more than there fair share of headaches to those like yourself committed to producing quality television…..

  8. Michael C. DiMassa says:

    Ralph:
    Just stumbled across your site and I am enjoying it tremendously. I am a retired Editor, so (of course) I have a couple of very MINOR comments about your entries regarding 12 O’clock High.
    In one story you mentioned General Savage having FOUR Stars. I recall him being a Brigadier General, and would have had only ONE Star. A full General wouldn’t be risked flying missions.
    You stated in this entry that the show went to Color in the Second Season; actually, the Second Season starred Paul Burke, but was Black & White. The THIRD Season was shot in Color. I was a bit too young during its original run, but, as a dyed-in-the-wool Insomniac, became a fan during its late-night tun on ME TV.

    Live Long and Prosper,
    Michael DiMassa

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