Part I

FILMED June-July 1978

I completed filming GRANDMA COMES HOME on THE WALTONS in February, 1978 and was booked to direct the opening episode of that series for the following season. What should have been a restful two or three-month hiatus proved to be anything but. I flew back to Iowa where on March 21 my mother passed away after a two-year battle with cancer. The following month, after my return to the west coast, Robert Jacks, former producer of THE WALTONS, phoned me. He said he didn’t want me to learn in the newspapers that Will Geer had passed away on April 22. Soon after that Andy White, the current WALTONS producer, phoned. Since I was to direct the opening episode for the next season, he wanted to tell me their plans. They were going to make that first show a memorial to Will Geer’s character of the Grandfather. He said the episode would start with the family gathered around his grave, as they reminisced about the past. It did not take long for me to realize that the combination of my mother’s recent passing and my relationship with Will could make that a very painful situation. I explained my feelings to Andy, and I was very sympathetically released from the commitment.

A short time after that my friend, Charles FitzSimons, called to tell me he was producing a two-hour film for television for Pierre Cossette Productions. It was to be another stab at retrieving one of literature’s seemingly indestructible characters, Heidi, but this time in a modern setting. Did I want to come aboard? I had known Charles FitzSimons since our CBS days. Charlie and I were really so much alike. We were both Taurus, with birthdays just a week apart. I was a year and a week older than Charlie, but I somehow seemed to look up to him as the senior. The chance to work with him again produced a resounding “yes”. As we began prepping around the first of May, Charlie told me he thought we should turn the John McGreevey script into a musical. I never questioned him as to his reasons; I suspected he felt just another telling of that often-told story, even in a modern setting, wasn’t quite going to justify doing it yet again. I agreed. I had dabbled in musical sequences (THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, the burlesque theatre sequences in one of THE WALTONS, a lip-synced song on an IRONSIDE) but a book musical — that was a new challenge. I liked the idea. So Charlie and I went to work reconstructing the script, eliminating sequences to make room for the musical interludes we planned. Charlie hired Buz Kohan, one of the fine comedy writers in Hollywood, noted for his contributions through the years to so many Award Shows. But Buz was also a composer, although his musical involvement through the years had been secondary to his comedy writing. Charlie and I met with Buz and told him where in the plot we wanted songs and what we wanted the songs to be. We sent him home to start composing — music and lyrics. Now I must finally tell you what a daunting task we had set for ourselves. There were twenty roles to be cast, five of them actors who also had to be singers. There would eventually be eleven days of location filming in Los Angeles; those locations had to be scouted. There were ten days of distant locations. Ideally any Heidi production should be filmed in the Swiss Alps, but this was television. An acceptable substitute was our own Rockies, and those locations had to be scouted. And there were over twenty-seven pages of interiors, for which sets had to be designed and arrangements made to film them in a Hollywood studio. All this with our projected start of filming just six weeks away.

We hired my friend Jim Merrick, one of the best casting directors in town, to cast our production. The Grandfather was easy — Burl Ives. We had three youngsters to cast: Heidi; her friend in the mountains, Peter; and the runaway she meets, Elizabeth. Both Heidi and Elizabeth were going to have to be able to sing. To start, Jim brought in three young people to audition: twelve-year old Katy Kurtzman for Heidi, Sherrie Wills for Elizabeth and Sean Marshall for Peter. We were thrilled with all three and immediately cast them, thereby antagonizing the community of agents who represented child actors. They demanded that we give their clients a chance to audition, but time was short, and we were more than satisfied with our selections.

Two other principal roles were Daniel Wyler, Elizabeth’s father, and his secretary, Mady. They too had to be singers. Again the secretary was easy — my friend, Marlyn Mason (who had appeared in Hollywood theatres in some of the Billy Barnes Revues and had starred on Broadway in HOW NOW DOW JONES); although to get her cast I remember a phone call from some phantom body at the network and my having to explain to him who Marlyn Mason was. Daniel proved a little more difficult. We checked the availability of a couple Broadway singing stars (I think Len Cariou was one), but they were not available. I don’t know who knew that John Gavin was a singer — Charlie or Jimmy. But he ended up being Daniel Wyler. There was a large supporting cast, but that too was no problem. Most of them came from my list of preferred performers, and I trusted Jimmy’s opinion on those few people he recommended with whom I had not worked.

As difficult as it may be to believe, Charlie and I did not go to Colorado to scout the mountain locations. We sent our production manager and production designer to Aspen to do that. Their main chore was to select a scenic location where Grandfather’s alm hut would be constructed. Charlie and I went to work finding the local locations for the first two weeks (ten days) of filming which were going to be in Los Angeles.

For Daniel Wyler’s New York hotel we chose the Hotel Bonaventure in downtown Los Angeles. The hotel was very modern, and totally circular. The representative who guided us on our tour of inspection told us of an incident when a patron of the hotel had come to her and asked where he could find a pay telephone. She said, I told him there was one over there in the corner. His reply was, “What corner. There isn’t a (expletive) corner in this whole damned hotel.” And he was so right. The hotel would be our base for our first four days of filming.

We were going to need a location for our Swiss village of Dorfli. Charlie and I went up to Solvang, but, charming as it was, it wasn’t suitable — too Danish instead of Swiss. We checked the MGM back lots, but they were in a disturbingly sad state after years of neglect. (I did find the building where seventeen years before I had had padding applied for Doug Lambert to bang his head in JOHNNY TEMPLE. The padding was still there.) We decided on the Columbia ranch, where their village setting with some renovations could be converted into our Swiss village. This pleased me, because I had done a lot of filming at this site, mostly on THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY.

In an incredibly short time Buz Kohan came in to play and sing for us the songs he had composed. We were astonished at his speed and pleased with his results. Now if this had been a feature film, the next step would have been to score his work for orchestra and then have a recording session with the orchestra and the singers. Those recordings would be played back on the set at the time of filming with the actors lip-synching to them. (I was familiar with this process, having done it on sequences on IRONSIDE and THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY). But that could not be done in the short time before we were scheduled to start filming. So it was arranged for Buz to have individual sessions at a piano with the five performers who would be singing (Burl Ives, Katy Kurtzman, Sherrie Wills, Marlyn Mason and John Gavin). At these sessions he would ascertain the key in which their numbers needed to be played and the tempo. Buz would then be recorded playing those numbers on a piano, and those recordings would be used as a playback for the actors to sing to in a live performance before the camera; after which Allyn Ferguson, who was to compose the music score for the film, would orchestrate and conduct the musical arrangements that would be joined with these original sound tracts at the final dubbing of the film. But when Allyn Ferguson heard Buz’s recordings, he rebelled. To put it bluntly he didn’t want his musical orchestration to include Buz’s piano playing. Charlie and I put our heads together and came up with the solution. Rather than having Buz’s accompaniment played back on speakers, which the sound track would record, we would have a small speaker (the size of a hearing aid) that the performer would wear in his ear — the ear away from the camera. The actor would hear the music to sing to, but the sound department would not be recording it. At dailies and in all of the assemblages up until the final orchestrated sound tract was created, the singers would appear to be singing with no accompaniment. And that’s how we did it.

We commenced filming in Los Angeles on Monday, June 12 and filmed for ten days. Saturday morning, June 24, I flew to Aspen, Colorado, and spent the weekend scouting the many mountain locations I would be filming. One of the areas I found was an enchanting lake surrounded by high peaks. I thought it would be an ideal location for the opening sequence in the film.

But there was a problem. Guided tours went through there starting at 9:00 am, and we would have to be finished and cleared out of the area by that time. My opening sequence was a musical number, almost a minute of which occurred at this location. I had planned six camera setups for the sequence at this site plus two more setups for the ending montage. My normal average was three setups an hour. With a 5:15am crew call to start filming at 7:00am, that was cutting it very close, but I decided to go for it.

There were three days of filming the interior of Grandfather’s alm hut that were done at the old Selznick Studio in Culver City after we returned from Aspen. More about that later.

I had filmed the village on the Columbia Ranch for the opening of TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY on THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY. It was the setting for the club where the group was booked to perform.

With some repainting of the buildings, the addition of a fountain and, in postproduction in the lab, some magical addition to the skyline, the same location became a Swiss village.

I used a steadicam for the first time for the shot tracking Grandfather through the village into the building to the telephone. That was a shot that could have been done with a crane or, with the laying of a lot of track, with a crab dolly. Using the steadicam was faster. But the harness mount we had for the camera then is a far cry from the lightweight easily maneuverable ones they have today. The one we used was a very heavy contraption. I know, I tried it on to get the feel of it. We had to hire a special steadicam operator to do those shots. When we got to the mountains I planned a more ambitious shot, one that could not have been done with either the crane or crab dolly. As Heidi and Peter ran away from the Wild Man, I wanted the camera to chase them down the hill.

That sequence looked like it had two steadicam shots running down the hill. That was the genius of Gene Fowler, our great film editor. The take as filmed started aiming up the hill as the several kids, two-legged and four-legged, came over the crest; the camera then chased them down the hill, when it was cut short when the camera operator, running over the rocky terrain with the heavy equipment, tripped, fell, and he and the camera went crashing to the ground. The alert camera assistant saw the camera door spring open. He quickly slammed the door shut, protecting the exposed film and saving the shot. The end of that take as the camera fell to the ground was of course unusable. And there was nothing to cut to. So Gene started with the second part of the shot (running down the hill), and just before the camera veered to the ground, he cut to the first part of the shot with them coming over the crest of the hill. Thus he used every frame of film that survived to maximum advantage. There would have been no take two. The steadicam operator broke his ankle when he fell.

When I was preparing to film my first wide establishing shot of Grandfather’s alm hut, I went with the camera crew down the slope to where I felt the camera would be set up. As I turned back to the alm hut, I was stunned. There was no roof. I was told the production designer had said I wouldn’t be needing one. We didn’t get the wide establishing shot that day. A roof was soon built, installed and then I got my shot.

Katy Kurtzman cried very easily in her scenes. I had witnessed the shedding of many tears in the two weeks of Los Angeles location filming and the two weeks in the mountains. As we prepared to shoot an emotional scene early in our story at the Selznick Studio, I did not want a lot of tears. Since the news she was about to hear could easily make her cry, I suggested to Katy that Heidi would not want to upset Grandfather. “You must not cry. You must not let him see you cry!”

On our second day at the Selznick studio when we went to the projection room at noon to view the rushes for our first day’s work, we were handed a big surprise. The film projectors wouldn’t work. No matter what the projectionist tried, he couldn’t get them to function. I wasn’t too disturbed by this; in fact I thought it was kind of exciting. Just think — those projectors were obviously so old they had probably been used to screen the GONE WITH THE WIND dailies. Talk about ghosts of the past. By the following day new projectors had been installed, and from then on we were able to view our dailies.

Both Burl and Katy were singing to the piano accompaniment they were hearing in a small receiver in their ear. Their individual solos had respective individual tracks; but for their duet they were singing to the same track. If this had been a feature with the singing prerecorded, they would have sung together on the recording stage, and everything would have been in sync. But each part of the duet was filmed separately and put together later in the editing. I was concerned when I first saw it by the fact that they were not in sync and asked our editor, Gene Fowler, if there was any way to pull up the film to put them in sync. Gene, whom I trusted implicitly, assured me there was no reason to make any adjustments. And he was so right. Heidi and her Grandfather at this point are not in sync; the fact that their singing is not in sync adds to this. Only when they sing “Amen” are they united in prayer.

To Be Continued

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