The Plunderers

Filmed March 1966

Ford Motor Co. was one of the sponsors of THE FBI on ABC. As I remember it, they sponsored the show every other week. At that time commercials in shows were not fifteen second and thirty second spots by various companies as we have today. All of the commercials (and there were six of them in an hour show) were one minute and on the week that Ford was the sponsor, all the commercials sold Fords. Because we used a lot of automobiles in every production, having Ford as a sponsor was a boon for the show. A production meeting, held for every show midway through the preparation week, was attended by a representative from every department and the script was gone through page by page as every technical aspect of the production was discussed. A very nice man, Tom, a representative from the advertising agency that represented Ford, came to all of our production meetings. We would inform him of the cars we would be requiring — rich car, poor car, beggar car, thief — and Ford would then deliver them to us, even unusual requests. For the production of THE ESCAPE, which I would film two months later, there was a sequence where a car was pushed over a cliff.

No, we did not ask Ford for a car to be destroyed; a film clip showing this action had been found in stock footage. Our request to Tom was for a duplicate of that model that we would use in the preceding scenes. And he delivered. You see, we had only to ask and our wishes were granted. Well, not always. There was an unexpected situation in my next assignment on the show, THE PLUNDERERS. The opening of the show involved an armored car in a bank robbery sequence. The problem was that Ford did not produce an armored car, and they were not eager to use a vehicle from another automobile manufacturer. Tom’s helpful suggestion was that we use a panel truck in lieu of the armored car. We did not find that idea helpful at all and very vehemently vetoed it. Tom finally relented and we got to use a legitimate armored car for our filming.

For my first ever bank robbery we went to Thousand Oaks, where we filmed the exteriors and the main floor of the bank. Later at the studio we filmed the scenes on the lower floor (the washroom, the safe deposit department) in another of Richard Haman’s fine sets.

This was the first time I worked with Albert Salmi playing Cowboy, the driver of the truck. Albert had had a tremendous success on Broadway playing the cowboy, Bo, in the original production of William Inge’s BUS STOP, only to lose the role to Don Murray when the play was transferred to the screen with Marilyn Monroe replacing the stage’s Kim Stanley. The rest of my gang of bank robbers were all returnees. Ralph Meeker had appeared as the macho brother in THE BULL ROARER on BREAKING POINT. Young Don Quine had been one of the poor Okies in A JOURNEY TO SUNRISE on DR. KILDARE and the kid with the knife in DETOUR ON A ROAD GOING NOWHERE on THE FUGITIVE. It was on that last production, filmed a year and a half before, that I had wanted to hire Paul Bryar to play the bus driver, but when I made that request to casting director John Conwell, he told me Paul was on Quinn Martin’s “don’t use” list. Years before on a production of Quinn’s THE UNTOUCHABLES in which Paul was guest featured, Quinn had visited the set once, saw Paul joking around and had considered his behavior frivolous. It wasn’t, of course. That‘s normal behavior on a film set, keep it light and relaxed until the camera rolls. Paul had never worked in a QM production since that time. Not to be deterred on the current production I sent a request up to John to cast Paul as one of the bank robbers. Now that QM Productions had three series to produce (THE FUGITIVE, 12 O’CLOCK HIGH and THE FBI), John had been elevated to supervise the casting of all of them with Dodie McLean being the casting director for THE FBI. I don’t know what magic John used on Quinn, but this time approval to cast Paul was granted.

The beautiful lady driving was Lisabeth Hush. Fourteen months later she would be heard but not seen when she provided the voice for the Companion, the cloud that was in love with a man, in METAMORPHOSIS on STAR TREK.

When THE FBI began filming in 1965, Lewis Erskine was a widower with a grown daughter, Barbara, played by Lynn Loring, who was in love with his partner, Jim Rhodes. To humanize his character story time was given to his relationship with his daughter and his concerns about her marrying an FBI agent. That lasted for nine episodes, after which Barbara went bye-bye. It was not unusual in the development of new series for major changes to be made in the original concept. What looked good on paper and sounded effective in presentations didn’t always produce the desired results. And in the case of THE FBI, the time given to that personal part of Erskine’s life was needed to document the extensive and efficient methods the FBI used in their scientific approach to crime and to dramatize the criminals as they committed those crimes.

THE FBI  was a crime show, but not a cop show, not a detective show. It was uniquely positioned to cover a broader variety of criminal activity, to do variegated versions of the genre. My first episode on the series, SPECIAL DELIVERY, had been an intense emotional story of a young couple on the lam. THE PLUNDERERS was a caper movie, relating in minute detail the plans for a big bank robbery. With so much time devoted to the planning of the crime, the characters of the criminals were by necessity sketched in broader strokes. Time for scenes delving into their personal psychologies had to be devoted to scenes detailing the caper and just as importantly, to scenes detailing the FBI’s efforts in pursuit of the wrongdoers.

The filming of the second bank robbery was done at the studio. I don’t know if there was a standing set of the bank to be used with revisions or whether Richard Haman had to create it from scratch. The final result was a set of fine visual elegance and as with all Richard’s sets, designed for maximum opportunities in filming.

One of the important lessons I learned somewhere (and I think it was fairly early) on my travel down the road of becoming a director was that when approaching a scene of violence, having the preceding scenes lighter and humorous would make the coming violence more effective.

Before the charge can be made that the staging of the final killing of Frank Collins was not what it should have been, I plead guilty. Chalk it up to inexperience. That was a lesson I hadn’t yet learned; after all this was my first brutal assassination. What should it have been? To start with it needed more time, time for Frank to realize what was going to happen to him and time for the reactions of both Cowboy and Otto. Previously they had been somewhat sympathetic to Frank, not as cold-blooded as King. They should have been reacting to the prospect of their coming endeavor being split into thirds rather than fourths.

In the mid-sixties when this was filmed there wasn’t the demand for continuous action sequences on screen. It was not only permissible, it was preferred to have stories told in real time, not time generated to keep audiences in a constant state of titillation and excitement.

The bank manager was played by Bill Erwin. I had first seen Bill on the main stage of the Pasadena Playhouse when I was a student. I particularly remember him in the starring role in THE REMARKABLE MR. PENNYPACKER. THE PLUNDERERS was the first time we worked together, but there would be more collaborations, though the most exciting one was not on film but on stage nineteen years later when Bill played the Grandfather in my production of Kaufman and Hart’s YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU. Bill’s last acting role on film was in 2006 when he was ninety-two years old. He died in 2010 at the age of ninety-six.

THE PLUNDERERS was my first caper film. It would not be my last. It was fun to do, but I have to say I preferred the angst of the personal dramas, which would be my next THE FBI.

The journey continues

 

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8 Responses to The Plunderers

  1. Kathy Tasich says:

    This was a superb caper story. It was tense and exciting. I especially liked to watch Ralph Meeker. He was an actor whose face could express so much intensity. I was just curious about the apple that Cowboy/Albert Salmi had most of the time. Was it a directorial touch, the actor’s idea, or was it always in the script? I liked the way you panned to the half-eaten apple as Cowboy was captured in the end. Nice touch!

  2. Ralph Senensky says:

    The first couple of times that Cowboy appeared, the script said he was munching on an apple.

  3. James Quine says:

    Thanks for showing that, it was great watching my dad, Don Quine, act in that episode!

  4. Ralph says:

    Well then James check out DETOUR ON A ROAD GOING NOWHERE on THE FUGITIVE and JOURNEY TO SUNRISE on DR. KILDARE to see more of your dad.

  5. Phil says:

    Nice little touch at the end of the 5th video – the red apple is pulled away to reveal the missing red button on the jacket sleeve.

    Yes, the death of Frank was done too abruptly, but most of the blame should be on the scriptwriter for killing Frank. Once Frank died, the air went out of the balloon. All I kept thinking afterward was, “These guys are on a suicide mission. Who’s going to cover that huge bank lobby? Will Albert Salmi cover it and leave the van’s engine running?! They planned this for two years and now they’ll do it with three guys? This is crazy. They have no chance.”

    The movie ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’ (1974 version) handled this situation correctly. The gang leader (Robert Shaw) ran out of patience for one of his partners (Hector Elizondo) and blasted him…but AFTER they had collected the ransom money!!!! Of course, the movie had 104 minutes to work with, not 50.

    ****

    FYI, your episode of ‘The High Chapparal” is on Youtube. Shame on me for not spotting Paul Bryar in it, until the closing credits rolled. It must have been his French accent and facial hair – that’s acting!

  6. Phil says:

    Regarding the bank lobby set for the 2nd robbery, it was used before. A brief Youtube clip I found showed it getting robbed at the start of a first season episode (4th overall) called ‘Slow March Up A Steep Hill’. After the opening credits (which included Lynn Loring), Erskine had a big fight at HQ with his daughter because she wanted to marry Rhodes – it was dubbed in Spanish, but I think I’m correct about that. The clip also included the closing credits where Erskine drove the latest Mustang.

  7. Ralph says:

    That was a standing set at Warner Bros. The opening bank robbery was staged on location, or at least the upper level with the tellers. The lower level with the washroom and the safe area was a set.

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