The System

TAPED April 1972

comedy (kämədē) noun
a play characterized by its humorous or satirical tone and its depiction of amusing people or incidents, in which the characters ultimately triumph over adversity

But there can be confusion sometimes as to how to create comedy.

PLAYHOUSE 90 aired on Thursday nights: 8:30-10:00 pm. Friday morning people gathered at water coolers to discuss the previous night’s performance as if it had been a Broadway opening. Newspapers across the nation carried reviews. In March, 1958, PLAYHOUSE 90 presented a production of THE MALE ANIMAL. As usual there was an all-star cast headed by Andy Griffith, Edmond O’Brien, Charles Ruggles and Ann Rutherford, but the response to the show was not good. The reviews were almost totally negative. Since I worked on alternating shows, I was not involved in its production. Lenny Horn, the associate director on the production, was in the office the next morning, totally surprised and confused by the critical response. He told me he had thought they had a fine production, a very funny show. He asked me what I thought of it. I said I didn’t think it was very good. He wanted to know why I thought that. I said, “Because it wasn’t real.” His response: “But it’s a comedy.”

Since there haven’t been many laughs in the 10 INSIGHT productions I’ve written about so far, I’ll bet you thought INSIGHT never produced comedies. Well you were wrong! If you’re going to dramatize a conflict to make a point, what stronger way to do it than by the use of laughter.

You’ve noticed THE SYSTEM was taped in black and white. Color had come to television by 1972 – but not completely. To summarize color’s long and complicated arrival: starting in the 1940s there were many different systems for color television in development. At CBS it was an all-mechanical system, at RCA – all-electronic. In 1948 the FCC put a moratorium on new licenses while considering the problem. They eventually decided on RCA’s all-electronic system. NBC, because its parent company was RCA (who manufactured television sets) was the first network to present all of its programming in color. CBS and ABC were slower to change over, but by 1972 CBS was programming in color. I’m not totally sure why INSIGHT continued to tape in black and white. It may have been because, since they gave their program to independent stations to air, and there were still many stations carrying INSIGHT that had not converted to color, they didn’t want to lose those outlets for the show’s airings.

This was the first time I worked with Richard Jaeckel, but since we were contemporaries (he was two and a half years younger than me) I had watched him grow up in front of the cameras. At the age of seventeen, when he was working at 20th Century Fox as a mailboy, he was discovered by a casting director, and with no previous training and with some reluctance to act, he accepted an important role in the studio’s war epic, GUADALCANAL DIARY. Thus began a fifty-year career as one of Hollywood’s most prolific supporting stars, a career that started with him playing baby-faced killers and graduated to western gunfighters and many more servicemen. At the age of forty-five, he was well qualified to play workingman Henry Burke. But could he play comedy? There was nothing in his filmography that answered that question. A few minutes into our first reading, and I had the answer. It was a great big YES, and most importantly he played comedy the way I wanted it played – totally real with a microscopic attention to detail.

Now wasn’t that a nice location for our bus station? But it wasn’t a location. Then how did the art director accomplish that within the confines of Studio 41 at CBS? He didn’t. He set up a couple of phone booths, some chairs, some plants, some vending machines and some signs in the hall at the entrance to Studio 4l, backed by those great windows that looked out on smoggy Los Angeles. Where was I? I was with the technical crew, running the show in Studio 41’s control booth. That was another example of Frayne Williams’ mantra about “sublimation of limitations.”

I had worked with Harvey Lembeck (Irving Irving) a year and a half earlier on TO PLAY OR NOT TO PLAY, an episode of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY. His being cast in that production was interesting. I had directed his actor-son Michael just a couple of months before that in DEATH CHAIN, an episode of DAN AUGUST. I wanted Michael for one of the boys in DEATH CHAIN, and brought him in to meet the producer. Michael asked if the role of the owner of the summer nightclub had been cast. When I said it hadn’t, he suggested his father, Harvey Lembeck. I of course knew of Harvey Lembeck because of his great performance as one of the prisoners in STALAG 17, a role he had also played in the Broadway production. I had seen him as Sancho Panza in the national touring production of MAN OF LA MANCHA. He had been a regular on Phil Silvers’ SGT. BILKO series. And I admired that he kept returning to perform in the theatre.

One of the things I discovered early in my career was that when directing a drama, look for the comedy, and when directing a comedy, look for the drama. I sometimes wonder if that doesn’t also apply to life.

My next assignment shortly after this production was BANYON, a new private eye series for Quinn Martin. Happily Richard Jaeckel was one of the stars of the series. Unhappily BANYON was cancelled after eight episodes.

More happily McLean Stevenson was a member of the cast the following fall as Lt. Colonel Henry Blake when MASH debuted on CBS. The show was an enormous success and ran for eleven seasons, but McLean left at the end of season three. THE SYSTEM was the first and only time I worked with McLean. I never saw him again, so I was not able to question him as to his reason for departing. I have since read that he left because he felt he was being underused. I have also read that he later considered his leaving a very bad decision.

While we were in rehearsal, another INSIGHT taped. As the company did on such occasions, a catered lunch was served to both casts and crews on the day of taping. Richard Jaeckel told me that one of the actors in the other cast had called for a joint meeting of both casts during the lunch hour. When he returned, I asked him what was the purpose of the meeting. He told me it was to discuss the matter of salaries, because usually many performers endorsed their checks back to the production company. When Richard heard that, his response was, “Return the check? My wife’s not talking to me because I’m doing this for scale”

And now we get to Arlene Golonka. Is it possible I’ve been saving the best for the last?  I had met Arlene several years before when she auditioned for an episode of MANNIX that I was directing. I don’t remember why, but she didn’t get the part. But I remembered her. I was impressed. INSIGHT finally brought us together. She was a devoted fan, as was I, of the primitive artist, Mike Falco. And we saw a lot of each other socially. Arlene was a superb comedienne; she had that wonderful quirky voice, and her comedy was always backed up with so much heart. And let me tell you something else – you have to be smart to play dumb.

I think I met Lan O’Kun, the writer of THE SYSTEM, but only for a brief introduction. His writing had a quirky sense of humor. His characters were real; his dialog was wonderfully easy for the actors to speak. And I liked the satirical comment of his background material. Little did we realize forty-two years ago that the activities of his Mary Burke, representative at the time of some peripheral television programming, was actually very prescient; that it would eventually turn into the Reality Television we have today. A couple of years later I got to direct another of his scripts. That one featured a character who was pixieish beyond quirky. It will be my next post.

The journey continues

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3 Responses to The System

  1. Gene Freese says:

    Mr. Senensky,
    I appreciate your comments here on Richard Jaeckel. I am working on a biographical tribute to this fine character actor and would be most interested in hearing your memories of working with Mr. Jaeckel on the TV series “Banyon” with Robert Forster. Thank you.

    • Ralph says:

      I wish I could tell you personal things about Richard while shooting BANYON, but the truth of the matter is, that was a very difficult and not pleasant production. I just remember that he was always the total professional, was not given nearly enough to do to utilize his great talent. The same could be said about Joan Blondell who also was a regular. Our major problem was that the creator of the series, and I think his name was Ed Adamson, resented the fact that ABC bought the series based on the movie-of-the-week he produced and then put the production of the series under the umbrella of Quinn Martin Productions. If you’ve read my postings on THE FUGITIVE, THE FBI and 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, you know that QM Productions was a very proficient company. Everything was micromanaged and Ed resented that. That was unfortunate because they were doing a very fine job. Producing a 1920’s show with period costumes, hairdo’s and those vehicles that always wanted to stall when they were required to move — it wasn’t easy. I directed 3 of the first 6 and Quinn personally thanked when I completed my commitment. Working with Richard on THE SYSTEM was far more fun. I recently ordered a DVD of his first film — Guadalcanal Diary. He was a very young, totally untrained actor, and still came across with great empathy and sympathy. During his long career he developed immense skills, skills that I sometimes think are missing from today’s performers.

  2. Gene Freese says:

    Thank you for sharing, Mr. Senensky.

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