To Denise, With Love And Murder

FILMED March 1973

Because BARNABY JONES had been a midseason replacement, it was still filming in the spring during what had become the television industry’s hiatus. That turned out to be a plus for me. Since QM Productions had completed filming THE FBI for the season, director of photography William Spencer transferred from the Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank to the Goldwyn Studio on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood, where he took over as director of photography. We had not worked together for six and a half years.

I don’t remember where our Chandler home was located. Its magnificence would have fit in Hancock Park, an elegant section of Los Angeles just west of the center of the city, but Hancock Park was totally flat, and estates there did not have the expansive acreage of that house. My guess now was that it was in the section of Beverly Hills north of Sunset Boulevard or even more probably in Bel Air. This show, like THE MURDERING CLASS, was scheduled for five days location filming and two days at the studio. We were scheduled for two days at the Chandler home, filming both exterior and interior scenes. The interesting thing for me was that luxurious homes like this were listed with location managers as being available for filming.

Filming this BARNABY JONES presented a unique problem. The Writers Guild of America was on strike. That meant that any day that the Goldwyn studio was the one selected for them to picket, reporting for work meant crossing the picket line. That was not a problem for me. The Directors Guild contract with the Producers had a clause that if any other guild struck, directors had to honor the contract of their current commitment and report for work. Writers and actors had the same clause in their contracts with the Producers. But producer Gene Levitt, who was a triple-hyphenate (writer, producer, director) and Executive Story Consultant Robert Blees, a double-hyphenate (writer, producer) had a problem. As writers they were expected to honor the strike, but Levitt had a contract with QM as a producer, and Blees was contracted as Executive Story Consultant. The result was that they reported to the studio to fulfill those duties, but there was absolutely no rewriting done on the script.

I learned so much from Billy Spencer. I needed an establishing shot of the Chandler house for a night sequence, and I had already been exposed to one of his special techniques. While it was still light, but moving toward darkness, I set up the shot from the bottom of the rise, and he set all of his lights. Then we waited the final few minutes for what he called the “magic hour.” That was a very short span of time between a daylight sky and a night sky, when the sky was a special blue. The result was a beautiful portrait of the house. It truly looked magical!

The show was also another reunion for me. It had been almost four years since I had last worked with Bill Bixby on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. This was our eleventh outing together. The good part of it was that Bill had a role far removed from the sitcom comedy of MY FAVORITE MARTIAN or his compassionate father of Eddie. The bad part? It was the last time we worked together.

Although I knew Nora Marlowe (Martha) socially, this was the first time I worked with her, but it was not the last. I don’t think I knew at that time that she was already involved with the recurring role of Flossie Brimmer on a new series, THE WALTONS, or that I too would soon be involved on Waltons Mountain. Nora appeared in four of the episodes I directed for that series, including her brilliant performance in one of my two favorites, THE FIRE STORM. Her appearance in THE GRANDCHILD on the series was the last time we worked together. She passed away five months later.

Since there was only one interior scene in Martha’s house, we filmed it at the location where we filmed the exterior. I thought Spencer’s photography on live locations was superior. When filming at the studio there were suspended catwalks above the sets on which large spotlights were pre-mounted, but on a live location everything had to be lit from instruments on the floor. Many times this occurred in a small room (like Martha’s kitchen), but Billy’s film, shot under these adverse conditions, always had the same artistry he achieved in his work on the soundstage.

I had worked with Jack Manning (Woodford, apartment house manager) many years before. I had completed directing a production of DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the Morgan Theatre in Santa Monica and started casting a production of THE IMMORALIST at the Horseshoe Stage in Hollywood. The actor (a nonprofessional) who had played Charlie, Willie Loman’s neighbor, had given a fine, sensitive performance, especially in his long speech when he poetically described what it meant to be a salesman, and I cast him in the role of the man servant in my new production. I was about to learn a valuable lesson. It wasn’t his name, but to continue this, I shall refer to him by the name of the character he played in SALESMAN, Charlie. One time when I was raving about Charlie’s playing of that scene and commenting that considering he was a nonprofessional, what a fine actor he was, Claudia Bryar, who was playing Linda Loman, had a difference of opinion. She agreed he was effective, but she didn’t think he was a great actor. She said that speech was so beautifully written, just saying the words was enough to move an audience. Charlie’s scene in THE IMMORALIST wasn’t that well written, and I soon realized I had made a huge mistake in casting him. I wanted to replace him, but I didn’t want to fire him. So one night as we rehearsed his scene with the actor playing the leading role, a fictionalized character based on Andre Gide, I was less patient and kind than usual in my criticisms. I really wasn’t directing; I was playing a role. I had an objective, and it wasn’t for Charlie to give a better performance. Finally after yet another tirade by me, Charlie just picked up his hat and left. I didn’t have to say anything to the rest of the cast who were present. They knew what I had done and why. When it came time to recast the role, I think it was my friend, Paul Bryar, who recommended a friend of his, Jack Manning. Paul had no connection with the production of THE IMMORALIST, but he had played Willie Loman for me in DEATH OF A SALESMAN.

Quinn Martin had made a major change. Earlier on THE FUGITIVE and THE FBI, he insisted all interior shots of moving vehicles HAD TO BE FILMED IN PROCESS. Even with a cameraman as experienced as Billy Spencer, and he was a master at filming process as I had discovered with his Emmy-award winning photography on 12 O’CLOCK HIGH (which had been filmed under impossibly difficult conditions), there was a reality to filmed live moving shots that was more effective than those done before the process screen. I guess the new wave in filmmaking had gotten through to Quinn.

TO DENISE, WITH LOVE AND MURDER was the fourth time I worked with Lee Meriwether; her character was not in THE MURDERING CLASS. Eighteen years earlier Lee was the winner of the 1955 Miss America pageant. She was the second winner of the pageant I knew. Russell Stoneham’s wife, Jo-Carroll Dennison, had reluctantly won and was Miss America 1942.

In the script there were two day sequences at an airport. The normal thing would have been to film them at the Burbank airport, just down the road from the studio. But there was another night sequence in the script that took place at a different airport, and Burbank didn’t have the structure we needed to stage that sequence. We ended up filming the day sequences at the Ontario airport, but it too did not have what we needed for our night sequence. But near at hand was a solution

Bill was a versatile actor, with a prolific career. Beside his many guest star appearances, he had an impressive number of series in which he starred, starting with MY FAVORITE MARTIAN and followed by THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. The season following this murderous adventure found him headlining the series, THE MAGICIAN, which ran for only one season. A couple of years later he starred for two seasons in THE INCREDIBLE HULK, which at one time was the #1 show in the country, followed the next year by a season of GOODNIGHT, BEANTOWN. He also started directing on THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER in 1970, and in addition to his acting directed thirty-five projects until his untimely death in 1993. He was 59 years old.

It had been nine years since I first directed for Quinn Martin. THE FUGITIVE, THE FBI, DAN AUGUST, all had required extensive location filming. I was realizing a major change had occurred as we scouted for the locations for the current production, that to secure sites that weren’t urban, it was necessary to travel greater distances from the studio. What hadn’t changed was that southern California continued to be an amazing source of versatile landscapes. The location manager took me to an area I had never filmed, in fact had never visited –- Devil’s Punchbowl, a county park within the Angeles National Forest.

Not only was Devil’s Punchbowl beautifully scenic, it was a perfect stand-in for the mountains of New Mexico, and the sandstone formations were just what I needed to tell my story.

It meant a company move, but a short distance of less than ten miles from the Ontario airport was the Pomona airport with just what was needed for the final scene.

BARNABY JONES was the first QM series I directed that didn’t start with a prolog before the opening billboard and didn’t have an epilog. I thought the end of the airport scene would have been an effective end of the show, but I guess old habits die hard. Even if it wasn’t called an epilog, a final scene was tacked on to bring the story to a rosy (without aphids) ending.

The week following completion of photography Buddy Ebsen threw a party. It was for his 65th birthday, and the party was at the Mayfair Theatre in Santa Monica. I was well acquainted with that small charming theatre. At one time it was a movie theatre; I saw my ex-classmate Charles Pierce do his one-woman show there, and later that was where I would film THE GRANDCHILD burlesque sequences on THE WALTONS. But things had changed; the building was not being used as a theatre. The seats were gone, replaced by tables and chairs, ideal for Buddy’s gathering, because the stage was still there. And Buddy performed. He put on a show, singing and dancing in his own inimitable style. It was a reminder, if anybody still needed to be reminded, that there was a reason Buddy’s career actively spanned seven decades.

The Journey Continues

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16 Responses to To Denise, With Love And Murder

  1. Phil says:

    Bixby was one of the sloppiest TV murderers I’ve ever seen. Without the Writer’s Guild strike, I wonder if a script re-write would have given Jones more of a challenge.

    Regarding the scene of Jones driving his car with his client (9th video), how did this work? I assume there was a camera mounted to the outside of the driver’s door. Were you sitting in the backseat? I assume a cameraman was sitting in the front passenger seat when Jones said, “I don’t know, but I know that she went.”

  2. Ralph says:

    Regarding the scene in the moving car:
    There was a camera mounted on the driver’s side for the two shot. I was in the back seat. For Barnaby’s closeup, the camera operator sat in the passenger seat and Booth was in the back with me.

  3. John Dayton says:

    Nora is such a joy to watch — her acting was so true, I don’t know where it came from — I don’t think she ever trained — if she did, she never spoke of it — and what a joy she was to work with — I fondly recall Nora and husband Jimmy McCallion arriving on The Waltons set with trays of fresh home-baked cookies — it seems like yesterday — I was young and starving and boy they were good!

    A technical question — how did you get that great long two-shot of Barnaby and Joe walking through the airport parking lot? The steadicam didn’t arrive until, I think, 1975 — was it hand-held? There was no track, and if it was hand-held it’s the smoothest shot I’ve ever seen. I know you like to let the actors play the scene out — it worked beautifully. Did you cover it? My guess your answer would be “No, no need to.”

    • Ralph says:

      There didn’t have to be track for the dolly two shot. We just rolled the crab dolly over the cement parking lot. And of course I didn’t cover the shot. What they didn’t have, they couldn’t use.

  4. Ralph says:

    There didn’t have to be track for the dolly two shot. We just rolled the crab dolly over the cement parking lot. And of course I didn’t cover the shot. What they didn’t have, they couldn’t use.

  5. Kathy Tasich says:

    Great show and commentary as usual. Bixby and Ebsen were well-matched. It was unusual seeing him as a bad guy, but he pulled it off in style. Ralph. I noticed the character list at the end listed Vince Howard as Lt. Joe Taylor. Was it possible that might have been Ron Howard’s father? Inquiring mind Kathy just has to know!

  6. Ralph says:

    Wrong this time, Kathy. Ron’s father is Lance Howard. You can see him as the doctor in THE GIFT on THE WALTONS.

  7. John Dayton says:

    Ralph, probably a typo above — I know you meant Rance Howard (with an “R”) – he’s an old Toluca Lake neighbor and friend – we lunched at the Smokehouse recently – he’s as busy as ever as an actor – and one of the nicest guys on the planet.

  8. Adam says:

    Dear Mr. Senensky, I have admired your commentary for a long time. I’ve seen Louise Troy on a few TV appearances and always felt like she had great poise and sophistication. I was wondering what your experiences with her were like?

    • Ralph says:

      Our association was so brief, I never really got to know Louise personally. But professionally she was top grade. In doing this post I was very impressed with her work and rued that we had not worked together more often.

  9. Scott Weaber says:

    Bill Bixby was my tv hero. I absolutely loved his performances in “The Incredible Hulk”. He brought so much depth to of character to David Banner and such gentle honesty. After the untimely cancelation of “The Incredible Hulk”, Bill stepped up once again with another excellent show “Goodnight Beantown”. The chemistry between Mariette Hartley and Bill was wonderful. The show was hardly given a chance to grow. It was only within the last few years that I was finally able to see Bill’s work in “The Magician”. What a fabulous show it was too!
    This Barnaby episode, which I’ve seen over 50 times, is wonderful for so many reasons. The locations are beautiful, the sky and the attention to detail (Martha’s home and the instant feeling one gets that she is very familiar with it).
    Did Bill Bixby have any input concerning his character? I ask because he is portraying a pretty nasty guy!

  10. jamie shields says:

    hi there – your site is very enjoyable. thanks for all the info. just fyi, IMDB lists the filming location for the mansion as being 1365 S. Oakland Ave in Pasadena… thought that might jog your memory a little bit. the photo on Google Maps seems to jibe w the house’s address.
    thanks again for all the stories
    -J

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