To Taste Of Terror

FILMED July 1972

By the beginning of the 1972-73 season I was back doing hour-long shows exclusively. I should have said back doing hour-long DETECTIVE shows exclusively. After DAN AUGUST I stayed on at QM for another batch of THE FBI, which fundamentally was a detective series with Special Agent Lewis Erskine being its Sam Spade-styled protagonist, followed by a trio of episodes for a now forgotten private eye series set in the 1920’s, BANYON. It was just a year longer than a decade since I had first said “Action” and the variety of genres of shows being produced for television had narrowed precipitously, when I was booked to direct an episode of a new series for Aaron Spelling that wasn’t a detective show.

True THE ROOKIES wasn’t a detective show. It was a crime show with a trio of lead characters who were young rookie policemen who happened to bear a strong resemblance to a trio of lead characters who were young crime fighters in a Spelling series then in its fifth season.

As Tony Spinner once said to me, “Television wants its new shows to be the same thing with a little difference.” So was it a coincidence that Michael Ontkean bore a strong resemblance to Michael Cole and that Georg Stanford Brown looked a bit like Clarence Williams III? Were Sam Melville and Kate Jackson the required difference?

This was my first personal contact with Aaron Spelling, although I had been well aware of him professionally for some time, starting with when I was still a secretary on PLAYHOUSE 90 and they mounted a production of THE LAST MAN, a script that he had written. On my many trips to Stage 30 during the four days the company was working on camera I remember seeing the thin young scriptwriter lurking nervously in the shadows as the people and words he had created were being rehearsed in preparation for telecasting across the nation. Fourteen years later I was in his home near the Beverly Hills Hotel when I dropped off some script changes for Carolyn Jones who was guest starring in THE MASK MAKERS on DR. KILDARE. By this time he was a successful producer at Four Star Productions and Carolyn was Mrs. Aaron Spelling. But it was not until TO TASTE OF TERROR that we met face-to-face.

I cannot remember ever filming an original script without changes. On PLAYHOUSE 90 in the days of live television scripts were amended as rehearsals that showed where the changes were needed were taking place. But filmed television didn’t have rehearsal periods, so changes had to be made before the actors even assembled. The following is the opening of the original script.

Producer William Blinn had written the television movie, BRIAN’S SONG, winner of the Peabody Award and the Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Drama – Adaptation the year before. I don’t really know how much Bill contributed in rewriting (a la Gene Coon) to TO TASTE OF TERROR, but since there was a fine sensitivity in the characters in his award-winning show that I found present in this script, I suspected it was major. I’m positive he wrote the added scene that opened this episode; it was published six days before the beginning of photography, long after the original writer was off on another assignment.

The sequence of the chase and the arrest was filmed in Long Beach, but the close-up of Mike and the two-shots of Terry and Willie were filmed later against a brick wall back at the studio. It was not unusual to do that. In the case of the close-ups of Barbara Stanwyck on THE BIG VALLEY it was done because the added control of lighting on a soundstage would provide her with a more attractive portrait. Here it was done because eight and one-eighth pages in three different locations were scheduled for the day and since this was the second sequence on the day’s schedule with another company move and a planned forty plus setups for the day, it was the expedient thing to do.

This was my first time working with Andy Robinson. He had scored a smashing success the previous year playing the Scorpio killer in DIRTY HARRY. The amazing thing about Andy was that DIRTY HARRY was only his second appearance on film, his first having been an episode of N.Y.P.D. There were a couple other television appearances in 1972 after DIRTY HARRY, but I’m not sure if they were before or after THE ROOKIES. What I’m trying to say is I don’t know whether his appearance in this show was his third, fourth or fifth film appearance. I have read in an interview of Andy that when he reported to the set of DIRTY HARRY, he didn’t have a clue as to how to act the role so distant from his own personna. That this gentle man could create the character of the Scorpio vouches for his intelligence, sensitivity and artistry.

I loved Emlyn Williams play NIGHT MUST FALL from the time I saw the MGM film with Robert Montgomery as Danny, the bellboy. I was fourteen years old and saw it one unforgettable night in the summer of 1937 in Clear Lake, Iowa, a resort town, where my aunt and uncle had a summer cottage, ten miles from Mason City. I went with my cousin Arlene (then eleven years old) to the Lake theatre where we viewed that highly suspenseful movie. When we exited the theatre we discovered there had been a heavy storm and as we walked back through the dark streets, we found there were downed power lines with police cars and fire engines guarding the area to protect passerbys like us from the live wires lying on the ground. That was as scary as the movie we had just viewed. Thirteen years later in my first year as artistic director for the Mason City Little Theatre I included NIGHT MUST FALL as one of the productions that I directed. Then and here, as in the casting of William Windom in THE ASSASSIN on THE FBI, I wanted a Lee Borden who was visually innocent. There is an added advantage when the perpetrator of crime is not unattractive. For an audience evil can be seductive.

TO TASTE OF TERROR had the same elements in its structure as NIGHT MUST FALL: a baby-faced seemingly innocent but dangerous protagonist, a woman in perilous danger and a familiar lilting song (“Mighty Lak’ A Rose” in the play) whistled ominously.

I guess that scene impressed Aaron. Two years later the Spelling Company booked me to direct a Movie-Of-The-Week, DEATH CRUISE, a sea-going take-off of Agatha Christie’s TEN LITTLE INDIANS. Aaron’s instructions to me when I reported to the studio were to capture in this movie the suspense of the scene in THE ROOKIES when Kate Jackson found the leg-of-lamb in her cupboard.

The following is the first scene filmed on that first day in Long Beach. It was a scene that could have been filmed in Los Angeles, closer to the studio. The opening chase sequence was the reason for bussing the company the extra distance. It was harder to find areas in Los Angeles where we could get the permits to film speeding cars through the streets. Long Beach was still willing to issue those permits.

On the third or fourth day as we walked back after viewing the dailies, Aaron asked me how I felt about directing an episode of THE MOD SQUAD. I politely said I didn’t want to. He asked me why. I responded that I knew the stories of the behavior of the three stars of that series. That was the kind of booking I tried to avoid. I found the cast of THE ROOKIES to be remarkably professional. Georg Stanfod Brown was a fine actor and although he was seven years younger than Sam Melville, they began in film the same year. Michael Ontkean was from Canada and although he was the youngest rookie, his film career began seven years before theirs. Georg and Michael were actually supporting characters in this episode; the main action involved Sam, Kate and Andy. I had seen situations like this before, when those actors with lesser roles would “phone in” their performances. Not Georg and Michael. Sam Melville at thirty-six was the oldest of the trio, just as his Mike Danko was the oldest rookie. He seemed less like an actor than his two compatriots, but looks can be deceiving. He brought a fine sensitivity to his no-nonsense character. And then there was Kate! Only twenty-three years old she actually had more film credits than any of her three co-stars. I thought she was like a young Barbara Stanwyck, but softened by her Alabama upbringing, without the hard edge of Stanwyck’s New York background. Emotional scenes came easily for her, and like Stanwyck she brought a sly sense of humor – almost cynical — to many of her reactions. Kate was the original choice to play Dustin Hoffman’s wife in KRAMER vs. KRAMER, but had to turn it down because of her commitment to CHARLIE’S ANGELS. Meryl Streep replaced her and won her first Oscar. And finally Gerald O’Loughlin. This was our third time working together. Gerald like Sam didn’t seem like an actor, but in a way that was one of his greatest strengths. He was a very gifted actor, totally dedicated to his craft and he brought a deep sensitivity to the workingman characters he was usually assigned.

The garage scene was the final sequence that first day. Since it was an interior we didn’t have the problem of losing the light. It made for a very heavy day’s work, but our second and third days were also heavy location days and moving that sequence to the third day (it would have been impossible to add it to the second day when we filmed the finale) would have made that day even heavier.

My concern with the final action sequence was to keep it real. I didn’t want it to turn into a visually exciting Demolition Derby as was happening with so many action sequences in television. I knew of a producer who had a template for his scripts, plotting out the number and length of the action sequences and the connective story scenes, but the emphasis was on the action. I relayed my feelings to the stunt coordinator. There was no disagreement.

In the days of the major film studios it was a regular practice to take nearly completed films to neighboring communities where a sneak preview was held. There was no cost to the studio; the theatres were thrilled to be able to hang out a banner announcing SNEAK PREVIEW TONIIGHT. Patrons were then able to see the current feature at the theatre plus an unknown surprise film, usually a coming blockbuster. I remember going to sneak previews in Westwood back in the fifties. At the end of the showing cards were handed out to the audience so they could write down their reactions to the film. These cards were studied back at the studio and many times changes were made in the film based on what was written on them. A sequence of such a sneak preview is in the Judy Garland starrer, A STAR IS BORN. Television had added a new wrinkle to the process. There was an institution on Sunset Boulevard a couple blocks east of Fairfax Avenue called the Preview House. Production companies were invited to bring an episode of a new series to be viewed by an audience of non-Hollywood folk. In 1966 I went with my friend, Max Hodge, who was the story editor for a new series, THE GIRL FROM UNCLE. I saw the process and it was quite different from the old sneak preview. There was a large screening room with possibly fifty seats, each location equipped with an electronic dial. The viewers as they watched the screen were to turn the dial according to their reaction to what was being viewed. A far turn to the right meant extreme pleasure; a turn in the opposite direction voiced disapproval, and the dial could be set at any position between the two extremes. All of this was being electronically recorded, sort like an EKG. The members of the production company in attendance were feted in a large lounge where they too watched the scrrening, but without any dials to turn. After the screening about twenty members of the audience were invited to participate in a round table discussion of the program they had just viewed. This was done in a large room around a long table with a  television camera relaying the scene to the producers in the lounge. The panel were asked their opinions on various parts of the film, what did they like, what did they dislike, what did they think could be done to make the film better. Later all of this would be compiled into a report that would be sent to the producer. I mention all of this because when I returned in the fall to direct a second episode of THE ROOKIES, Bill Blinn told me that during the summer TO TASTE OF TERROR had been taken to the Preview House. When the report was sent back to the studio, one of the producers (it wasn’t Aaron Spelling, it wasn’t Bill Blinn) took the long report into the editing room and had the film editor make the changes that were recommended. Bill said when they viewed the reedited film, it was a total disaster and he had to go back into the editing room to work with the editor to restore it to its original version. The company of course had paid the Preview House (and I’m sure it was a tidy sum) for their enormous help.

The journey continues

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2 Responses to To Taste Of Terror

  1. Jeff Burr says:

    Hey Ralph..just wanted to say great post..very informative and it brought back a memory. When I first got out to Los Angeles, walking down Hollywood Blvd, a friendly guy gave me a free ticket to a top premiere screening…the location, THE PREVIEW HOUSE. I was so naive at that time that I thought I was going to be snuck into APOCALYPSE NOW and be able to tell Francis what I thought to make it better! What happened was I was ushered in with a whole lot of other suckers with time on their hands, and we we forced to watch commercials and turn those dials as to what we didnt like, did like, etc, and it went on forever. Then finally, the big moment came, and they announced the premiere. It was the first episode of a show called SALVAGE 1, with Andy Griffith. You could have heard a pin drop in that auditorium when the title was announced. Also a note to you about Andrew Robinson…I was a friend of his in the 80s-early 90’s, and directed him in a low-budget horror film in 1993. I really loved working with him, and to this day I think he is one of the most intelligent, inventive actors around. I am glad he is teaching at USC, but I also wish he would do more film work. I saw him onstage in WAITING FOR GODOT and he was truly brilliant. And speaking of brilliant, please keep up this blog. You are doing a great service for working and aspiring directors. There is always a nugget of information to glean in all of your posts. Hope you are doing aok these days and spring is treating you well!

  2. Daniel Rudolf says:

    Bob Justman and Herb Solow write about the Preview House in Inside Star Trek: The Real Story, and how television shows were tested, and the big bucks NBC and Desilu paid them for it. Needless to say, Star Trek got disastrous results from them. Also, Sidney Lumet writes kinda ironically about test screenings in his book, Making Movies.

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