The Mod Couple

Filmed November 1969

Just a year after I went out to MGM to meet Jimmy Komack the first time, I returned to the studio to direct another package of THE COURSTHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER, this time four episodes back-to-back. And finally I got to direct an original script by the fabulous Peggy Chantler Dick. This time there was no screen credit at the end of the show for her as the “type writer”. This time emblazoned in the opening credits the screen would proclaim: Written by Peggy Chantler Dick.

Miyoshi Umeki began her career as a singer in Japan. She moved to the states in 1955, where she appeared for one season as a regular on the ARTHUR GODFREY AND HIS FRIENDS television show. That catapulted her into being cast in the Marlon Brando starrer, SAYONARA, where, playing opposite Red Buttons, she became the first Asian to win an Academy Award for her performance. She then conquered Broadway in her Tony nominated performance in the musical, FLOWER DRUM SONG, a performance she repeated in the film version that followed.

That tender opening was the most emotionally charged of any COURTSHIP I directed. It was also the beginning of the funniest script for this series I was ever handed. The show was titled THE MOD COUPLE, COURTSHIP’s borrowing from the furiously funny Broadway play, THE ODD COUPLE. My challenge was to make the transition from that tearful opening to the farce that followed. The script of the following morning prepared for where this story was heading. Since the called for disarray in the bedroom was so contrary to Tom Corbett’s character, I guess Bill must have been concerned about it. Note the enlarged note from P.C.D. to Billy at the top of page 14.

But I was faced with what I thought was a much bigger problem. The opener had been a highly charged dramatic upheaval in the Corbett household. I didn’t believe a totally serene Eddie (as scripted) would be believable calmly walking into his father’s bedroom. I felt I needed something bold and startling to change course radically. I used all of Peggy’s words. I just changed the visuals that accompanied them.

Because we were well into the fall, Brandon was again required to spend three hours a day in school. Therefore this episode in which he figured so prominently had a four-day shooting schedule. I have refrained from commenting on Brandon’s impressive growth as an actor in a mere year. And since a picture (in this case a film clip) is better than a lengthy paragraph, let’s take a quick peek at Brandon in GUESS WHO’S COMING FOR LUNCH, filmed the previous December.

In the following scene the year’s physical growth is immediately evident. But what impressed me was his growth as an actor. Directors can create performances if actors are not delivering the desired results by filming close-ups as coverage and piecing the sequence together later in the editing room. My director’s script shows that I had close-up coverage planned. But comedy plays best in two-shots. For that the actors have to play the comedy timing at the time of filming. Brandon delivered so I ended up NOT filming the close-ups. In the following five and half page scene watch this seven-year old matching Bixby’s performance at every turn.

I always wondered how much Jimmy, who was a very fine writer of comedy, contributed to those scenes he was scheduled to perform. And incidentally Peggy solved the problem of how to transform Tom, usually impeccably garbed and without a hair out of place, into a slob — she made it a weekend when he could dress less formally.

There was an obvious way to make the transition of THE ODD COUPLE into THE MOD COUPLE. What could be more normal and comic than showing a professional man, totally immersed in his job of running a magazine, who is suddenly confronted with the problem of losing his housekeeper and faced with now having to assume the duties of a stay-at-home dad with a young son. That would have been funny with fastidious father Tom (in the Felix role) coping with a normal seven-year old Eddie (in the Oscar role). But that was not the route Peggy chose to travel. She pulled a switcheroo. Beautifully groomed Bill Bixby, always clothed as if he had just stepped out of the pages of the men’s fashion magazine GQ, Bill, as Eddie’s father, was to take over the Walter Matthau role and be the slob. And who got to be Felix?

The part of Norman’s bachelor lesson over the sink was one and three quarter pages. My usual average of a minute a page would have had this scene play at a minute and forty-five seconds. In my pre-shooting preparation I had planned a master and three close-ups. But once I started filming, I cut the close-ups (my preference to play comedy in masters) and concentrated on getting a good master. I don’t remember exactly how many takes we filmed, but I know it was over twenty-five, in fact I think it was close to thirty-five. But the final scene that I printed was one minute and thirteen seconds. There certainly weren’t any actors’ pauses slowing things down.

Some time during this shoot Jimmy told me that when he was the director of an episode, he never left the set. But when he was acting, during the time that a scene was being lit he returned to his dressing room. When the director of photography was ready, a buzzer was rung. Jimmy said he heard the buzzer, but he waited in his dressing room until the assistant director came to notify him they were ready for him to film. Interesting!

The journey continues

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3 Responses to The Mod Couple

  1. Joe says:

    Great behind the scenes information, as usual. I’ve heard that the demise of this show (which I loved….my birthday is in November so I was turning 5) was due in part to James Komack. He apprently wanted the show to be more about Norman, Tom & Eddie. Had you heard or witnessed this? I know Bill Bixby & Brandon Cruz were extremly close. Were Bixby & Komack friendly, as well? Keep the stories coming.

    • Ralph says:

      I didn’t direct the show after the first season. I too have heard the story about Komack. The way I heard it was that by the end of the third season Jimmy wanted Norman’s role (his role) to be as important as Tom and Eddie and Bill resisted and refused to stay on. At the time I was doing it, I saw no evidence of conflict between Bill and Jimmy. I think it was all unfortunate. Jimmy’s adapting the movie to television was spectacular. I think his version is better than the movie. As I’ve stated, his COURTSHIP of Eddie’s father was a father-son love story, and his style was original and unique. I too was a great fan and loved the series. If indeed the rumors we’ve heard or read are true, isn’t it too bad that Jimmy couldn’t rest on his laurels and accomplishment.

      • Joe says:

        Very true about keeping quiet. LOL!!! The show itself hadn’t even “jumped the shark” even with Eddie getting older. Most shows would always bring on a new little mop headed kid (Ricky on Partridge Family or cousin Oliver on Brady Bumch) due to the current cast of kids aging. The whole basis of The Courtship Eddie’s Father was the dynamic between the father & son. A real wasted opportunity.

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