The Night Of The Big Blast

FILMED May 1966

Three months after I finished THE NIGHT OF THE DRUID’S BLOOD, during which time I filmed THE PLUNDERERS for THE FBI, I reported back to Studio Center in Studio City to direct THE NIGHT OF THE BIG BLAST. I found that Gene Coon had left and former executive producer Michael Garrison was now producing. I also found that THE WILD WILD WEST had gone to color, the final admission of defeat in the battle of the conflicting color systems that CBS had been waging with NBC. The verdict by the FCC had given the nod to NBC’s electronic system. NBC of course was most anxious to further their cause, so they began programming series in color earlier than the other networks to encourage America to buy color sets, which they also produced under their RCA label. There was one week (and I don’t remember in which season it occurred) when NBC’s entire evening schedule was in color. The NBC series (like DR. KILDARE) that were still filming in black and white shot one show in color to be aired during that special week. By 1966 it was inevitable that color was the future, so CBS finally joined the parade.

To save money during those early conversion years, not all of the daily rushes would be printed in color. For each sequence only one shot (usually the master shot for the scene) would be printed in color. The rest of the takes for that sequence would be printed in black and white. Therefore the work print of the film would bounce back and forth from color master to subsequent setups and close-ups in black and white. It wasn’t until the final answer print that we got to see the entire film in color. To compensate for this, each day a batch of color filmstrips would be delivered to the director of photography by the lab. These filmstrips were 5 or 6 inches in length and there would be one strip for each setup filmed the previous day. The purpose of this delivery was for the director of photography to view those color strips to see if there was anything of which he disapproved.

Any similarity between that sequence and the lab scenes in FRANKENSTEIN was purely intentional.

I remember Bob Conrad saying, right after the shot of his body twitching on the gurney, “I studied acting at Northwestern University for this?”

There was a change made in the opening billboard beyond converting to color. Here’s the black and white billboard from Season One. Pay attention to the action between the Cowboy and the Dance Hall Lady.

In the black and white version she taps him with her parasol, and then as she attempts to stab him in the back, he kisses her passionately, tips his hat and walks off as she swoons against a post. In the color version she knocks his hat off with her parasol, and as she attempts to stab him in the back, he kisses her passionately, then he socks her and as she falls to the ground, he picks up his hat and walks off. There is more information concerning the opening billboards that is too good to ignore. The series was originally called THE WILD WEST. The original black and white billboard included the more violent action between the Cowboy and the Dance Hall Lady that was later used in the color billboard. At the time the decision was made to rename the series THE WILD WILD WEST, it must have been decided the action of striking the girl to the ground was TOO violent and the more subdued action of her merely swooning was substituted. Now I wonder if Michael Garrison, who created the series, was the one to have approved the more violent action in that first billboard only to have it rejected by the network. And since Michael Garrison was back at the helm at the beginning of the second season when the show converted to color, I wonder if he was the one responsible for reestablishing that violent sock in the new billboard.

The lab scene was the initial sequence that we filmed on our first day. The crew reported at the usual 7:30 am; filming was scheduled to begin at 8:00. Five minutes before 8, Ida Lupino reported to the set, in costume and makeup, ready to film. At 8:25 our Miklos, Bruce Manning, arrived; at 8:50 Robert Conrad showed up and we were able to start filming. Although these late arrivals were not standard practice throughout the television industry, they also were not sole occurrences. I think it was symptomatic of the change in Hollywood from the days of the studio system to the then present day of television production. A few years later David Frost interviewed the four stars of the then smash Broadway musical, FOLLIES. Helen O’Connell, who was interviewed first, was ecstatic in her praise of Alexis Smith, with the emphasis being on Alexis’ professionalism. Later when Miss Smith arrived on the stage, David Frost told her of O’Connell’s words. Alexis then told a story. She was very young, recently arrived at stardom, when she was cast opposite Clark Gable in a film. One morning with an 8:00 shooting call, Alexis was still in the makeup department. On the set Clark Gable looked at his watch, noted the time and announced to the director and crew, “Thank you, gentlemen. I’ll see you tomorrow.” And he left. Alexis said she was never late for a set call again.

The professionalism of the actors of that earlier time was a result of the studio system. Young prospective talent was sought by studio talent scouts and put under seven-year contracts with option periods every three months. The threat of having ones option dropped was sufficient to make the contractee toe the line. That and the example set by the already established stars at the studio who had had that professionalism drilled into them on their way to the top. But studios and production companies in the age of television were at a disadvantage. Once an actor was established as a bona fide star of a successful network series, they seemed to hold the stronger hand. If the studio fired Vince Edwards, how would BEN CASEY continue on the air? Or Peter Falk on COLUMBO? Or Robert Blake on BARETTA? It was a different world. I know of a show (which shall remain nameless) where the producer challenged the conduct of one of the show’s stars. Guess who was the one dismissed! I remember the stunned look on the face of the show’s story editor when he came into the office of the production manager (I was present) and announced, “I’ve just been made the producer.”

The morning after we filmed the lab sequences I invited Ida to come view the dailies of the first day’s work. She graciously declined, telling me that she couldn’t bear to watch herself on the screen. She told me of the year she won the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actress of the Year for her performance in THE HARD WAY. She and her mother were in New York and her mother said, “This is ridiculous. You’ve just won this award; you’re great in the film. You are going to go see it.” So Ida and her mother traipsed down to the Broadway theatre where the film was playing. Ida said she lasted about fifteen minutes; then she told her mother she would meet her in the drug store across the street. She left the theatre and drank coffee for the next couple of hours. She had not been able to bear watching herself, even in an award-winning performance.

I filmed the fight sequence with two cameras. (I had also filmed Carmen’s dance with two cameras.) Since Conrad did his own stunt work, it was just a matter of Bob and the three stuntmen working out the routine and then filming it with camera one covering the action for the master angle and camera two providing a closer angle on Bob. Doing it this way we only had to do the sequence once with the added advantage that any cuts between the two takes would always match. Later sequences, involving Ross, Ida and Bruce Manning, were more complicated.

Ross Martin was very good for THE WILD WILD WEST and THE WILD WILD WEST was very good for Ross Martin. On the one hand he was the comedy relief, the inept partner of the show’s hero, sort of a handsome Chill Wills. But his wide range as an actor proved invaluable for Ross to assume many various identities. In this episode he had the rare chance to be the romantic hero, since Jim West has seemingly been eliminated from the story.

The casting for this episode was reminiscent for me of the way PLAYHOUSE 90 was cast. Get as many star names as possible. I was one of the production supervisors on PLAYHOUSE, and one of my chores was to break down the scripts for casting director, Ethel Winant. Depending on the size of the role, I would chart when each character should report to the studio. Many was the time I would have a minor character coming in for the final few days of rehearsal, and Ethel would cast a star name and that actor would report on the first day. I remember that happening with Peter Lorre being cast in what was basically a very minor role. All it took was a lot of imagination on Ethel’s part and the willingness of CBS to cough up the dough.

In addition to Ida Lupino as our female Dr. Frankentstein, there was the role of Ross’ paramour to cast. We selected Mala Powers, the lovely actress who had been Roxanne to Jose Ferrer’s Oscar winning CYRANO. Ida and Mala were close friends; Mala had appeared in the feature film, OUTRAGEOUS, that Ida directed. Unfortunately the two did not have any scenes together.

And then there was Patsy Kelly. What an original. Patsy had been in films at this point for thirty-five years, having come to Hollywood in 1931. Five years after this gig she was still going strong and would win a Tony on Broadway for her featured role in NO, NO NANETTE, the musical that brought Ruby Keeler back to the Great White Way. There is no other way to say it. They just don’t make them like that any more.

When directing someone like Ida Lupino, you really don’t do much more than block in the action. But I couldn’t resist offering one suggestion. I thought Dr. Faustina, beyond her joy at the suitability of the corpse for the new project she is about to undertake, she might also get an appreciative thrill as she ran her hands across his torso. Ida was delighted.

Ross was not the stunt man that Bob Conrad was, so I didn’t film the following fencing sequence with two cameras. For the master shot a stuntman photo double for Ross (and he was a very good photo likeness) did the sequence with Jerry Sommers, the first musketeer, who was an actor-stuntman-fencer. I then did three close angles on Ross duplicating the actions. The script called for only one of the musketeers to be eliminated on the balcony with two musketeers fencing Artemus into the ballroom. I decided to eliminate the second musketeer on the balcony so that the final battle was just Artemus against one musketeer.

Ida Lupino was one of the giants of the profession. Born in England to a show business family, she made her first film appearance in 1931 at the age of thirteen. She came to the United States in 1934 and was signed to a contract by Paramount Pictures. At one point she was set to star in their all-star production of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but that assignment did not happen. She made seventeen films in the next five years, most of them for Paramount but with a few assignments loaned out to other studios. Like Bette Davis earlier at Warner Bros. she was discontented with the roles she was being assigned. Learning of a major project being prepared at Paramount and unable to secure a screen test for the role, Hollywood lore has it that she donned the required wardrobe and stormed into director William Wellman’s office and forced him to watch her perform a scene she had prepared from his upcoming project, THE LIGHT THAT FAILED. She got the part and she was on her way. Signed by Warner Bros. the following year she was the backup to their top woman star, Bette Davis. Her first assignment under her new contract was THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, a partial remake of an earlier Bette Davis film, BORDERTOWN, in which she climaxed her performance with a mad scene in the witness seat in court. In later year she referred to herself as the poor man’s Bette Davis. Later she moved behind the cameras and became the only woman director in Hollywood, starting in the late forties and continuing for two decades. (Dorothy Arzner had been the sole woman behind the camera in the thirties, directing her last film in 1943). At this point Ida referred to herself as the poor man’s Don Siegel.

The final sequence in the lab, unlike the dueling sequence at the ball, required MANY stunt doubles. In fact only Conrad didn’t have to be doubled. And I want to acknowledge the tremendous contribution to that sequence, in fact to all of the sequences in the lab, in fact to all of the sets for this production, of art director, Al Heschong. It was a lush, impressively extravagant production, filmed by Teddy Voigtlander unbelievably in only six days.

Even Patsy Kelly had a stunt double and it took a man to fill her gown.

Michael Garrison wanted me to stay on and direct more episodes of THE WILD WILD WEST, but I was not available; I had signed a contract with Quinn Martin Productions for the 1966-67 season for multiple assignments on THE FBI. Michael pleaded with me. He said Sammy Davis Jr. was signed to guest star and I could have that assignment. I repeated that I was already contractually obligated. THE NIGHT OF THE BIG BLAST was my last THE WILD WILD WEST. Three months later Michael Garrison died after a fall in his home.

The journey continues

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12 Responses to The Night Of The Big Blast

  1. Daniel Rudolf says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts on cinematography. Star Trek: The Next Generation is a great (and sad) example of this trend. At the start, Roddenberry hired camerman Edward R. Brown for the series, I think because of his similarity in style to Jerry Finnerman. And Brown actually did a similar work, using artistic lighting, cross-lights, a lot of shadows, and all. But it angered producers: they complained about the shadows and the images being too dark, not illuminating the set and the actors “properly”. By the time the third season came, Rick Berman completely took over control of the series, and fired Brown. He was replaced by Marvin Rush, a cinematographer from “the next generation” (no pun intended), who basically did the exact opposite of Brown’s work: now the series looked like a daytime soap opera, with light thrown in everywhere, sterile, flat and lifeless visually. But that was what the producers wanted…

    On the brighter side, it’s always nice (and fun) to see a Hungarian in an American film, even if he’s the assistant of a mad scientist.

  2. Phil says:

    Thanks, Ralph. Hmm…colorization of stock footage. I never thought of that. I guess it wouldn’t have been that hard to do, since the particular scene I mentioned was mostly in the dark. I had assumed they found color film from an outside source and printed it in B&W during the first season.

    FYI, a first season episode of ‘The Big Valley’ called “The Last Train to the Fair” borrowed the first WWW interior train set, and you can see it in color at hulu.com. The doors, walls, and decorative molding were all brown and there were no gas lamps on the walls. The second WWW interior set replaced the brown with beige, added green gas lamps (changed to blue in seasons 3 & 4), removed the foyer partition, and added a fireplace(!). The green curtains with gold tassels were used on both sets.

    You were right to honor your QM/FBI contract and turn down Mike Garrison’s offer to do more episodes in season two. But, maybe it was an unlucky break. You probably would have had more fun on ‘TWWW’ and none of Q.M.’s picayune rules. BTW, be glad you didn’t do the Sammy Davis Jr. & Peter Lawford WWW episode…ugh, it was a truckload of Ham and Cheese!

  3. Phil says:

    Ralph, you said the train set gave you “interesting angles to shoot.” Take a bow after saying that. Only TWO of 104 episodes in the series had shots down the length of the train car corridor. I can recall only ONE episode with a shot through the closet door towards the outer caboose door. These shots fire the imagination of the viewer: How long is the last car? Is there more than one compartment behind the main “living” room? Is the corridor the only way to get to the next car?

    An honorable mention should go to Virgil Vogel, who also used the corridor when ‘The Big Valley’ borrowed the train once in ’65-’66. He never directed ‘TWWW’, but maybe he should have.

    Another rarity is the government building in the 5th video (2:15). For whatever reason, ‘TWWW’ almost never used it. I think Mr. West may have walked past it in a close-up during the first season, but I can’t recall seeing it after the second season. In the last video (2:44), the explosion lights up a nearby white building, which could pass for a modern apartment complex!

    In case you didn’t know (or maybe you knew), IMDB says Ross and Mala were dating in real life at this time, or maybe they started after this show. As Lily said at the end of the 6th video, “Who’s acting?” Ross is genuinely adored by many fans today and “TNOT Big Blast” is their favorite episode.

    • Ralph says:

      Phil, I don’t remember the details of the train. So let me tell you a great story about Virgil Vogel. I think it was in 1971 or 1972, Virgil and I were alternating on THE FBI. One day I had lunch with Virgil and our assistant director, Paul Wurtzel, and I was raving about have viewed on television the night before A TOUCH OF EVIL. I had seen it years before when it was released, but something about the reviewing really blew me away. Paul contributed to the conversation, telling me Virgil had been the film editor for the film. He said that Orson Welles was having a difficult time with his editors; he kept firing them. It was at Universal where Virgil, having moved on from editing to directing, was busy at the latter trade. The powers that be at the studio came to Virgil and begged him to come to their rescue. Would he go back into the editing room and work with Welles. Virgil agreed and then he told me about the great sequence where the Charlton Heston character was trailing Welles and Joseph Calleia, taping their conversations. Welles shot that sequence without dialogue. He told Virgil to editt the sequence for the visuals; they would lay in the dialogue later in post. And that’s what they did, and the film is truly a masterwork.

      • phil says:

        I saw ‘Touch of Evil’ once a few years ago on TCM – that was the 1998 restored version, which incorporated changes Welles requested in a long letter he sent in vain to the Universal bosses. So I assume you re-watched and discussed the “original” (carved up) version 40+ years ago. Did V.V. have any comments on what Universal did to it? From what I’ve read, they also inserted new footage filmed by another director.

        I vaguely recall the scene you described, but I don’t remember a lot about the movie in general. The film is definitely worth seeing again. Several people have posted the amazing continuous opening scene (3 min., 19 sec. long) on Youtube.

  4. Steve Chung says:

    I especially enjoyed the alley fight because West’s doppleganger’s fighting style differed from Jim’s, emphasizing the creature’s brute strength, and single-mindedness about letting nothing get in its way. The sequence where the secret service agent tries to vouch for Artie’s doppleganger really gets my attention in these post-911 days. Just as the Wild Wild West combined the western and spy genres, it did a great job with this variation of the classic horror theme. I watch this episode every Halloween. 🙂

  5. Phil says:

    I have a theory about that white structure at 2:44 of the last video. After checking out the CBS Studio Center website (cbssc.com), my guess is that I was looking at dressing rooms. If you click on Studio Facilities, then click Dressing Rooms, you’ll see an outdoor picture of today’s dressing rooms, which looks similar to that 1966 building.

    This particularly area of the backlot was rarely used by ‘TWWW’, but ‘Honey West’ used it frequently the season before. You get a good look at the white structure in an ep. called “A Neat Little Package”. However, it looks different…I think they might have installed panels over certain spots to obscure its real function.

  6. Phil says:

    Steve Z. is right about Mickey Golden as the corpse. IMDB says he did 23 episodes of ‘TWWW’, but I can think of two eps they missed, “TNOT Bubbling Death” and “TNOT Kraken”. It also lists two credits for ‘Columbo’, but they missed “An Exercise in Fatality” (w/ Robert Conrad).

    Per IMDB, one of the all-time great stuntmen, David Sharpe, doubled Ross Martin in the sword fight. He looked quite spry at age 56. His first stunt was in 1922…in later years, he was hit by a car in ‘The Mod Squad’ and dragged by a horse in ‘Blazing Saddles’. Youtube has some highlight reels.

    In a reunion of sorts, two more old-timer stuntmen did “TNOT Big Blast” (uncredited), George DeNormand (Sec. of War) and Chuck Hamilton (Sec. of State).

  7. Steve Z. says:

    Ralph,

    Ross Martin was more of the lead in this episode was because the week this episode filmed, Robert Conrad wanted to and wound up going to the 1966 Kentucky Derby.

    • Ralph says:

      But the script would have been in development MONTHS previously and Ross Martin was the CO-STAR of the series.

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