The Tyrant

FILMED  October-November 1974

From the beginning of the major studios’ involvement with the new television industry, a constant source of inspiration for series to sell to the networks was in their own film vaults. I can attest to that because my entry into filmed television was the transference of the 1930’s DR. KILDARE film franchise starring Lew Ayres and Lionel Barrymore into the long-running 1960’s television series starring Richard Chamberlain and Raymond Massey. Other successful conversions followed: 12 O’CLOCK HIGH, PEYTON PLACE, THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER, NAKED CITY, FLAMINGO ROAD, MASH. But some attempts to convert a successful motion picture into a weekly series didn’t fare as well, many times going down without even completing a full season: THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH, LONG HOT SUMMER, GOING MY WAY, CASABLANCA (in several attempts), EXECUTIVE SUITE, SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS. One of the most ambitious, possibly unrealistically ambitious conversions was at Twentieth Century Fox. In 1968 the studio had released the Franklin Schaffner directed PLANET OF THE APES, a brilliantly realized transference to the screen of the French novel by Pierre Boulle. It was so successful, that four sequels were produced, and then in 1974 the studio contracted with CBS to produce a weekly one-hour series starring one of the stars of the original feature film franchise, Roddy McDowall.

(Click on the square to the right of the numbers for FULL SCREEN VIEWING)

When my agents called with an offer to direct an episode of the new series, beside the challenge of doing something far out of the norm, there were other factors that made it impossible to turn down. The executive producer was Herbert Hirschman; I had worked as his assistant when he was the original producer on DR. KILDARE, had directed my first film (JOHNNY TEMPLE) for him on that series and later PRINTER’S DEVIL on TWILIGHT ZONE, which he produced. I had met the series producer Stan Hough the previous year when I directed a Hollywood Television Theatre Production of WINESBURG, OHIO, which brought his wife, Jean Peters, out of retirement. (The story behind the production of that show is one for the books, but it’s a story that may not be told, since I don’t have a copy of WINESBURG, OHIO. Anybody reading this have a copy?). Stan had been present at several of the taping sessions. And finally the director of photography was Jerry Finnerman. We had stayed close friends, but this was the first time we had worked together since he left STAR TREK six years before.

Not realizing in 1974 that I was going to be writing a website in 2012, I did not keep my daily call sheets. The shooting schedule, which I fortunately did keep, shows that the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th days were to be filmed at the 20th Century Fox Movie Ranch in Calabasas.

I also kept a daily record of how many pages had been committed to film and the script girl’s timings.

Analyzing those records today I realize that in order to complete the assigned work, I must have returned to the ranch for the fourth day, or at least part of the fourth day.

Unlike MGM whose back lots 2 and 3 were adjacent to the main studio lot, only one of the back lots for Twentieth Century Fox had been adjacent to its main studio lot. That lot, due to the calamitous costs of the production, CLEOPATRA, was sold in 1961 and became what today is known as Century City. Their other lot, the Twentieth Century Fox Ranch, was in Calabasas, within the 30-mile limit, so cast and crew reported to work at the ranch rather than reporting to the studio to be bussed to the location. The crew and I arrived at the ranch in the dark at an early enough hour so that the first shot would be ready to be filmed as morning light arrived. The human cast reported to make-up at the ranch early enough to be ready for that first shot. The apes and the make-up crew did not have it that easy. The number of apes to be made up determined the number of make-up men required. Each ape, as I remember, took about three hours in the make-up chair, so the make-up crew reported and started work on the first wave of simians at about 2 am. Roddy was the last due in for an ape conversion, and again, as I remember, there was a special contractual accommodation that provided him transportation from his home to the studio in the morning and a return home at the completion of the day’s filming.

The three sequences at Janor’s barn were filmed on the second day at the ranch, with the final scene after the barn had burned being the first to go before the camera. We didn’t really burn the barn. With the camera aimed in the same direction, the smoking remains of a burned barn was a new set created in the area to the right of the barn. When that sequence was completed, the debris was cleared, and the two earlier sequences that included the barn were filmed.

Almost two years earlier I had cast James Daughton (the young Mikal) as one of three students involved in a murder on a BARNABY JONES. He was represented by Maureen Oliver, one of those small independent agents I considered friends and one whom I had known for twenty years, since my early days at the Players’ Ring Theatre in Hollywood. Knowing his work, I saw no reason to audition him, so I asked casting director Marvin Paige to set him for Mikal. I was surprised when Daughton reported to the set and told me that Marvin had called him into his office, and HE had auditioned him before contracting him for the role.

I recognized back then that the series was a reenactment of early America’s history with slavery, with the humans being the enslaved. What I didn’t recognize, but do now, is how much the format of PLANET OF THE APES bore a very strong resemblance to that of THE FUGITIVE. The two astronauts and Galen, like Kimble, under constant pursuit by the law, would become emotionally involved each week with some person or persons, and the following story would proceed from there. But regarding this script, the two compelling characters with whom they became involved were dropped at the end of the first act; young Mikal was killed and Janor just disappeared. Might it not have been interesting and emotionally involving to pursue the story of the conservative older man, now newly awakened to the possibilities of rebellion by the slaying of his younger brother, as he was involved in an adventure of revenge abetted by Galen and the two astronauts? And if the climax of the story was his death at the hands of the apes, Galen and the two Astronauts were again reminded of the futility of trying to rebel against those in power and still faced a future of constant flight on a planet ruled by apes. But that’s not where this story went!

During the interim between his departure from STAR TREK and PLANET OF THE APES, Jerry Finnerman was the director of photography on three films starring Sidney Poitier. He told me that at the start of production on the first one, he had filmed some screen tests of Poitier, and in that test he did something he had discovered while photographing STAR TREK: he used a straw-colored filter which he had found to be very complimentary when photographing Afro-Americans. He said the result was their faces “popped” off the screen. I think Jerry used those same filters when photographing the apes. I thought the shots of Percy Rodrigues (Aboro), Joe Ruskin (Daku) and Mark Lenard (Urko) were stunning. I also was very impressed with their ape performances. Sometimes prosthetics applied to an actor’s face can become an immovable mask. I felt the three of them avoided that trap, and that their facial muscles did move.

THE TYRANT was the first time I worked with Joe Ruskin (Daku) in film, but it was not the first time we had worked together. A dozen years before Joe had played Fuseli, the fight promoter, the role Elia Kazan had played in the original Group Theatre Broadway production of GOLDEN BOY. But what I remember most about working with Joe on this production, one day on the set he told me that the El Torito Mexican restaurant in Sun Valley, a community northeast of Los Angeles, had added crab enchiladas to their menu. I motored out to Sun Valley the first chance I got, and crab enchiladas, which is now almost a staple on all Mexican restaurant menus, is one of my favorites.

What I said above about the three actors’ applied triply to Roddy. He was a remarkable actor, multi-talented like Mickey Rooney and like Rooney he had been acting since he was a lad. He played his first role in an English film when he was ten, came to this country at the beginning of World War II, and at the age of thirteen played a major role in John Ford’s HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, the film that won the best picture Academy Award in 1941. We had several conversations on the set. I was honored that he spoke so effusively of my production of WINESBURG, OHIO. But do you know, I never saw the real Roddy McDowall; I never met Roddy out of make-up.

Because we were filming at the ranch in late October early November, daylight hours were shorter. That and the physical action in the scheduled sequences necessitated the extra time at the ranch to complete them. When we returned to the studio on the 6th day, there was still 25 pages of script to shoot that had been originally scheduled for 3 days, and it looked like we were going to go an extra day. I was not aware then, as I am now because of what I have read about the situation, that there was pressure from the network because of the low ratings the show was getting, and the studio, fearful of an early cancellation, wanted to avoid extra costs. Stan Hough came to me at the beginning of the sixth day of filming and in a very gentlemanly way asked, since the remaining scenes to be filmed were all in the Prefect’s office, would it be possible to complete the film in the next two days. With the enormous help of Jerry Finnerman and a remarkably professional cast, we completed 15 pages on that sixth day and wrapped production the following day on schedule.

The above sequence at the exterior and interior of Urko’s tent was not filmed at the ranch; it was filmed on a green set on Stage 14 at the studio on Pico Boulevard and was the very first thing to be filmed on our first day of shooting,

With my suggestion above of how this episode might have developed, I am not discounting the power of the political chicanery that did prevail. I just think there was material for two different stories: the one that didn’t get made — a personal emotional story centered around one of the white humans, and the one we attempted — a political thriller.

When photography was completed on November 4, Stan Hough told me they were going to move it up to an earlier air date. Remembering the night I had spent with Bert Leonard when he oversaw the final editing of NO NAKED LADIES IN FRONT OF GIOVANNI’S HOUSE on NAKED CITY, I suggested we do the same thing. As soon as the first assemblage had been accomplished, we put three moviolas and three film editors in a large room, and one by one we checked and made changes to each of the six reels of film. The one thing we didn’t do was ship each reel off to postproduction as we completed it. There was a final viewing on a big screen, and then the film was shipped to the other departments: music, sound effects etc. THE TYRANT aired on November 22, just 18 days after completion of photography, the tenth episode to air. It would be nice if I could report that the airing was such a sensational success, that a renewal of the series was assured. Alas that didn’t happen. Three more episodes aired, and then with still another episode completed and ready to air, CBS cancelled the series.

Because THE TYRANT was filmed in the late fall, I did not experience the difficulties of filming at the ranch in the intense heat of the summer. Reports I have since read tell of the company working in temperatures over 100 degrees. Roddy and the other actors playing apes were kept in air-conditioned shelters, when they were not before the cameras. The apes, because of the prosthetics, were not able to eat solid foods and subsisted on liquid meals sipped through a straw. Jerry Finnerman, in his Archives of American Television interview said it was the most difficult show he had ever filmed, and that he was not sorry to see it end. That abrupt early cancellation unfortunately was not a rarity in television. Again a series that was not a clone of an established hit needed time to adapt, to improve, to allow its characters to flesh out. Premiering in September with the avalanche of new shows, it needed time for viewers to find it, for new fans to spread the word, but after all the effort that was expended to produce the fourteen hours, that needed time was denied. It had happened to STAR TREK earlier, but circumstances extended its run to three seasons, and it became what is fast approaching a fifty-year franchise. But STAR TREK was that rare exception. About the others, what a waste!

But that was not the final death knell for the PLANET. Since fourteen segments was not enough to send the show into syndication, ten of the shows were selected and paired off in twos to create five television movies. THE TYRANT was combined with THE HORSE RACE, retitled TREACHERY AND GREED ON THE PLANET OF THE APES and today still plays occasionally on the Fox Movie Channel. Thirty-eight years later I still receive residuals for the endeavor. They’re not large, but they are cashable. The most amusing check I received was for an amount less than the forty-four cents the Director’s Guild had to pay to send it to me. The net amount on the check? Thirty-seven cents.

The Journey Continues

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16 Responses to The Tyrant

  1. Kathy Tasich says:

    The first act with Janor seeking revenge for Mikal’s murder would have been much more cxciting. I would like to have seen “meek” Janor(Michael Conrad)get some courage by going after the apes responsible for his brother’s death.I agree with your ideas of how the story could have been developed, Ralph. Too bad you couldn’t have changed the script your way. Oh well, that’s show biz!

  2. Phil says:

    For the folks who loved the BIG scenes in the ‘Apes’ movies (Ape City, the Forbidden Zone, the gorilla army on the march, C. Heston & M. Evans exchanging verbal grenades, etc.), well, the TV series must have been a letdown.

    I remember what a huge build-up this series got before it went on the air. Unfortunately, I think my family TV was tuned in to ‘Sanford & Son’ and ‘Chico & the Man’ on Friday nights…multiply that by millions and you’ve got a doomed series. When it was cancelled, I seem to recall a story saying this was a hideously expensive series to produce. If I remember something that mundane at the age of twelve, it was probably true!

    Look up this series on Ebay and you’ll get an avalanche of vintage merchandising…action figures, puzzles, board games, paperbacks, comic books, bubble gum cards, lunchboxes, etc. I think that’s why this episode went down the path of ‘Mission: Impossible’, instead of ‘The Fugitive’. The producer of the ‘Apes’ movies, Arthur P. Jacobs, died in 1973. Would he have produced the TV series differently?

    Ralph, what did you think about the two human regulars, Ron Harper and James Naughton? Their acting roles were somewhat thankless…how do you not get blown off the screen by talking apes?!

    • Ralph says:

      You are absolutely right, Phil. That was why I compared this series to THE FUGITIVE, where Kimble interacted each week with someone he was trying to help, which fleshed out his character and humanized him. Ron and James were saddled with roles making them impersonal robots. I read an article where Ron said it got down to the place each week where one of the three was captured and the other two spent the hour trying to free him, and it boiled down each episode to which one was captured. Part of this was the network’s pressing for MORE ACTION. I think more would have been accomplished if they had followed the old Irving Thalberg mantra to make movies that made people FEEL. But then doesn’t that also apply to most of what both big and small screens are giving us today?

  3. Phil says:

    Regarding ‘Winesburg, Ohio’, it’s in the UCLA archives, if that helps.

  4. Daniel Rudolf says:

    The series was never broadcasted in Hungary, yet the “TV movies” compilated from it were. I remember, one of them was advertised on TV as if it was originally a feature film, “Planet of the Apes SIX”.

  5. Mark Rogers says:

    Dear Mr. Senensky:

    Thank you for sharing this. I have been enjoying all your articles for some time now (especially the insights into such classics as NAKED CITY, EAST SIDE WEST SIDE) but I must confess I have been hoping you would detail your time on the PLANET OF THE APES because… I love the show. At a time when TV was dominated by detectives, it was *different* – and I thought the three leads were engaging characters and found the world they inhabited fascinating.

    At the risk of sounding sycophantic (!), I thought your direction was wonderful. The opening scene is beautifully paced and really evokes that sense of wonder the show could evoke – the gorillas slowly riding through the forest, and there’s a moment where we see the steam from the horses’ nostrils caught in a ray of sunlight…

    Magical!

    Finnerman’s work on the show was interesting, I thought. He used a stroboscopic effect for the action sequences that I’ve never seen done anywhere else, and it gave those moments a very hard-hitting credible air.

    As an aside, Joseph Ruskin has said that Percy Rodrigues enjoyed the experience immensely, finding the appliance incredibly liberating – something Roddy McDowall has always stated.

    Lastly, shamefully exposing my “fannishness”, in regard to the script, in the original draft one of the farmers (I think it was the character of Janor) was a woman. I can’t recall if they were brother and sister or husband and wife, but that would have added a very interesting dimension to the story.

    Also, in regard to your comments about the fact that Janor disappears after the beginning of the story: Even in one of the later drafts (possibly the FINAL), his character did feature more prominently, and had to be prevented by the astronauts from making his own attempt on the life of Aboro at one point – and was present in a “tag” scene.

    Again: thanks for taking the time to share your experiences – and I hope all this waffle was of some value, also!

    Best regards to you and yours,

    Mark.

  6. Phil says:

    Perhaps you did see Roddy M. out of make-up…but many years earlier. Youtube has the ‘Playhouse 90’ version of “Heart of Darkness”, which credits you as the Production Supervisor.

  7. Daniel Rudolf says:

    This was the 10th episode to air, but actually the 13th and penultimate one to be made. There was only one episode, directed by John Meredyth Lucas, to film after this one. Did you and/or the cast and crew know during this assignment that the series has been cancelled? Or the decision was made so quickly they never realized it until the last episode was finished?

    • Ralph says:

      I don’t remember if anything was known definitely about cancellation. They could have been waiting for word of being picked up after their original 14 episode buy. I do know it was being rushed into airing, as I related with our assembling in a large room with SEVERAL editors working, something I had seen Bert Leonard do on NAKED CITY. The 6 or 7 movies created by joining two episodes together are still airing. I get an occasional 37 cent residual check.

  8. Shirley Lanham says:

    I loved Planet of the Apes. That’s why I watch the new Planet of the Apes

  9. Jason says:

    Mr. Senesky,

    Just rewatched the Apes episode you helmed and I must say it stands out as the best of the 14. The casting was excellent, script was great, but the scenes were blocked very effectively. Your choice of camera angles and pacing of cuts made even the fight of the week tense and unique. The ep stands out as a professional effort that was done in earnest. Unlike some of the other cartoonish entries, you pulled genuine “human” performances from the performers. Percy Rodrigues did an amazing job acting like an ape… actors on the show often didn’t make an attempt to be ape like and I doubt they were sent to “ape school” as actors in the new films have been. Did Percy bring that himself or did you and he work on that?

    Great work.

    • Ralph says:

      To answer your question — Percy brought his performance to the set, which is how it’s done. The director stages, creates the framing that will be comfortable for the actor (after blocking every scene before filming I always asked, “How does it feel?”) and with actors like Percy, that is the collaboration that produces the result. Only when an actor doesn’t come as prepared as Percy does the director need to step in with “suggestions.”

      • Jason says:

        I had a feeling. His movements were brilliant, right down to somehow making his arms appear as long as a gorillas. That submissive stoop he did at the end when his character’s treachery was discovered and you shooting it in profile was excellent.

        Anyhow, to expand on my earlier comments, the episode is shot in ways that subtly elevate it: close ups, shooting the apes in profile (that is really how they look the most convincing), having the candle flame at the edge of the frame to add some vibrance, dutching the camera to show Daku’s pov as the grain cart is being stolen… these make it better than what usuallu comes off the episodic tv assembly line.

        It’s wonderful of you to read and answer our questions!

  10. Jeff says:

    Hi, I just discovered your website. The Apes TV show meant a lot to me as a kid and the whole franchise has continued to be a favorite, including those new movies. Having it revolve around an ape society gives a lot of room for social commentary and how history evolves.
    I enjoyed what you wrote except I disagree with your comment about following the humans. What I liked about this episode (probably in my top 3 of the TV series with “The Legacy” and “The Trap”) was it didn’t follow the formula of the show. It’s assumed the leads will help the human guest stars as they always do but instead one of them is suddenly killed, which gives this world some weight (yes, people are in danger of being killed!). Then the story instead is about a gorilla (Percy is fantastic) but even though it’s the usual gorilla bad guy, his character is interesting and not just another gorilla lunkhead.
    So this episode has always stood out to me for being different from the formula. I definitely would’ve welcomed an episode about Janor’s revenge, though, and maybe if the series had continued he could’ve returned. There were a lot of unmined opportunities with this show. Too bad. It would be interesting to see what could be done with it today, with the emphasis on shorter runs, and higher production value (such as “Game of Thrones”). Science fiction gets more respect now (though it still, as always, comes down to writers and directors).

  11. Daniel Rudolf says:

    I’ve just found this rare CBS promo of the series with Herb Hirschman, I thought it might be interesting for you: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rkP_s0MqrVA

    • Ralph says:

      Thank you, Daniel. I had not seen this. Did you know that I was Herb Hirschman’s assistant on DR. KILDARE, that he produced the first DR. KILDARE I directed and that he produced the TWILIGHT ZONE (PRINTER’S DEVIL) that I directed.

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