What A Character! Blogathon 2019 Thelma Ritter “Always a bridesmaid and never the bride”

It’s here again, my favorite blogathon that honors those unsung actors we love to see inhabit films and most often enhance them immeasurably !

I want to thank Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon A Screen… and Outspoken & Freckled for hosting this important event that brings to light those essential personalities that populate memorable films and television programs with their own rare brilliance. This year I am honoring the great Thelma Ritter!

With her warm and weather worn face, Thelma Ritter is the quintessential expression of a working class dame, the working class mother, the everywoman. And no one can deliver a snappy quip quite like Thelma Ritter. Between her mournful tones of better days or raising a stink about this or that, you can almost see the cleaning rag over her simple brown hairdo hanging out the window in Brooklyn just chatting it up with the neighbors. Thelma Ritter, with hands on hip, spouts barbs and verbal gems from an endless fountain of every day wisdom.

And I want to make this clear from the start, Thelma is no plain, dowdy or shabby spinster, she’s a beautiful woman. So there’ll be no agism or misogynistic observations in this tribute.

“Usually looking like a cross between Mother Courage and a cafeteria lunch lady, [Mankiewicz], who would repeatedly explore the theme of the effects of ambition on his characters, was blessed with Ritter‘s presence in allegedly subservient roles as truth-tellers disguised as maids in… All About Eve (1950).” —Moira Finnie Streamline, The Filmstruck Blog

Thelma Ritter’s legacy is that of the wise-cracking and world weary characters who informs us in any role that she is just a regular gal like you or me. We feel empathy for her, and we laugh along with the sharp witted come backs she so famously utters. When ever she shows up on screen she enlivens what ever plot she was sent out in to explore with that cynical and bold approach to life offering that dialogue that had razor sharp teeth.

Ritter was one hell of a character actor/comedienne who worked on radio then quickly established herself in top billed supporting roles in post-war Hollywood. She was nominated 6 times without winning a single Oscar between 1950-1962. She tied with Deborah Kerr for the most nominated without winning the award. It is a crime that she never won a statue or a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As writer Paddy Chayefsky wrote in his New York Times tribute for her death: “She was never properly publicly recognized as an actress. […] She was a character actress, which means only that they don’t write any starring parts for middle-aged women.”

Frank Capra called her “the best of all character actresses.”

Even in her performances of the most plain of women, she exuded sophistication, often classier than the upper class people that satellite around her. She often played characters who had the answers and the gumption to say it like it is, the truth that circulates through each story, driving sanity, stability, clarity, and compassion into the narrative.

None of her roles could ever be considered ordinary. Her characters always exuded her own brand of humanity. The people she played were immediately relatable to all of us.

Thelma Ritter was born in Brooklyn New York in 1902 on St Valentine’s Day on Hart Street in South Brooklyn. Born of a Dutch immigrant father and a Scottish mother. Thelma would have to rely on her wits as the family was not of an advantaged background. Maybe that’s why she has a keen witty charm, lovable persona and a certain pluckiness and curt wisdom that doesn’t allow for quick comebacks by the other actors. Though cast as a supporting actress, her name always appears on the bill or right up in the title close to the stars often being the more memorable in the picture. She brought cracking wise to a whole other level of artistry.

She attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts, the class of 1922, but did not graduate with her class as she had to quit to earn money. She made her Broadway debut in a comedy called The Shelf, costarring with other notable character actors Jessie Ralph, Lee Patrick and Donald Meek. She appeared in 32 performances before the show closed in 1926. Then she was in Times Square (1931) which didn’t have a very long run on Broadway. She took some time off to raise her children then went back to work initially in radio. Her daughter Monica Moran is an actress, they appeared together in the 1966 road company of Bye Bye Birdie co-starring Tab Hunter.

Thelma Ritter was actually 41 at the time of her wonderful film debut as the uncredited harried Christmas shopping mother in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Ritter left such an impression on director George Seaton and 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck that they lengthened her small part in the film and decided to cast her in other pictures. This sparked a career where she wouldn’t make a multitude of films, but a film a year from 1947 until her retirement in 1969. The films she did appear in were extremely popular and received well by the critics.

Ritter’s uncredited role of Captain’s secretary in Call Northside 777 (1948) was left on the cutting room floor. The credits were left in, but she is nowhere to be seen in the film. Though again uncredited she appeared as the sharp tongued maid Sadie Dugan in director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1949 melodrama A Letter to Three Wives starring Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Southern.

In A Letter to Three Wives, Thelma Ritter plays the maid Sadie Dugan who works for an upper middle class couple George (Kirk Douglas) and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern). Kirk Douglas plays an English teacher and his wife Rita is a writer for a radio soap opera, played by Ann Sothern. Sadie ingratiates herself into the family feeling right at home telling Rita “The cap’s out. Makes me look like a lamb shop with pants on” when Rita asks her to wear a frilly hat while serving dinner to important guests. Ritter has wonderful lines that she expresses with ease. The writing was handpicked for her brand of comedy that cuts through the melodrama of the film. While describing her disdain for Rita’s radio program she comments, ”Do you know what I like about your program? Even when I’m running the vacuum, I can understand it.”

Ritter’s first major role as a lady’s companion was Birdie Coonan in All About Eve (1950). Director Joseph L. Mankeiwicz was so taken with Ritters style, that she was first choice to play Birdie, the edgy ex-vaudevillian maid to theater Diva Margot Channing (Bette Davis in her Oscar-nominated role). He claimed he wrote the screenplay with Thelma Ritter in mind. Aside from Addison Dewitt (George Sanders), Birdie is the only one who isn’t fooled by Eve (Ann Baxter). Ritter’s character has a keen understanding of the realities of life and is honest and gruff with the waif-like manipulative and ambitious Eve. Her role was so impressive that she received her first of six nominations for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

When Eve first recounts her sad background to Margot, Birdies reacts with the infamous line “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.” The original line used was ‘ass’ instead of ‘rear end.’ But Joseph Breen’s office was clamping down on “morals” and found the original word too vulgar.

All through the film All About Eve, Birdie tries to inform Margot of Eve’s duplicitous nature, while everyone else is also taken in by the ‘kid’. Margot asks, “Birdie, you don’t like Eve, do you? Birdie answers, “You looking for an answer or an argument?” Margo, “An answer.” Birdie, “No.” Margo, ”Why not?” Birdie, “Now you want an argument.”

Thelma Ritter’s most significant trademark is her sassy streetwise meddling, to offer her wisdom and advice even when not being asked for it. After All About Eve, she would be cast in strong supporting roles for the rest of her career.

The next year she would once again be nominated for the wonderful picture directed by underrated directed Mitchell Leisen’s The Mating Season (1951) co-starring Gene Tierney, followed by With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953) as Moe Williams (A film she should have won the Oscar for her outstanding performance) then came Pillow Talk in 1959 and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).

John Lund and Thelma Ritter in a scene from the film ‘The Mating Season’, 1951. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

While most older female character actresses go loveless in their films, Thelma Ritter is one who manages to not always fly solo in the story lines. She often gets to have a love interest. The Mating Season (1951) directed by M. Leisen, is a satirical look on class culture, and a hilarious story of mistaken identity. Thelma as Ellen McNulty runs a small hamburger joint in Jersey and when the bank forecloses she goes to Ohio to be with her son Val (John Lund), who has just married socialite Maggie (Gene Tierney). Maggie is not a snob, but Ritter’s son is embarrassed by his humble background. Miriam Hopkins plays Tierney’s mother and former ambassador’s wife and pretentious elitist, Fran Carleton.

Robert Osborne called The Mating Season a delightful romantic comedy that most people don’t know about. The film brought Thelma at age 48 “the closest to inheriting the mantle of the great Marie Dressler than anyone in Hollywood since Dressler’s death in 1934.”

Ellen secretly works to make enough money to buy an $18 hat to wear when she meets her daughter-in-law. The way Thelma Ritter uses the hat as a prop in the storyline adds an endearing touch in the film. Thelma drops in unexpectedly to meet her new daughter-in-law and is mistaken for a domestic that the new bride has hired to cook and serve at her dinner party. Her son’s boss, Mr Kalinger (Larry Keating) falls for Ellen after she rubs liniment on his chest while he is sick. She finds out he’s much like her dead husband— the kind of guy stray dogs take to.

Ellen –“If you’re a chicken, you can fool people about your feathers. But when you start laying eggs all over the place, they know you’re a chicken.”

Ellen: “You don’t know what it was like working with her yesterday. I felt like I was 21 again.”
Val: “Oh Malarky”
Ellen: “Look wiseguy, I didn’t feel like I was 21 when I was 21.”

“Despite the fact that she usually played variations of a Shakespearean “wise fool”, she often played a person whose keen awareness of her place in our supposedly classless society made her secure enough in it to voice her opinions without fear.” -Moira Finnie

Ritter finally receives above the title star billing in George Cukor’s delightful romantic comedy starring Jeanne Crain and Scott Brady, The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951) Another highly underrated picture. Director Cukor’s adds a sensitive touch to this endearing film creating a world with plenty of witty dialogue and quirky characters. The cast is filled with lonely hearted misfits including Nancy Kulp, Zero Mostel, and Dennie Moore. Ritter plays good hearted, wryly witted yet sympathetic matchmaker Mae Swasey who just doesn’t want anyone to be alone after her own husband had left her for another woman years before. Mae goes on a mission of mischief to fix up Matt Hornbeck (Brady) with model Kitty Bennett (Jeanne Crain) though Hornbeck initially puts up a good fight saying he has no intention of getting married… that is until he meets Kitty.

Mae to Mr. Wixted (Zero Mostel) about planning a date with Nancy Kulp, “A real live wire, low voltage but steady.”

THE MODEL AND THE MARRIAGE BROKER [US 1951] SCOTT BRADY, JEANNE CRAIN, THELMA RITTER Date: 1951

“Anybody with four pints of blood that can stand on their two feet long enough to say I do is in a position to get married.”-Mae

Dan Chancellor (Jay C. Flippen) “Beautiful up here, isn’t it? Those trees. I’ve always liked that poem that said, “Only God can make a tree.”

Mae Swasey, “Yeah, but on the other hand, you gotta figure, who else would take the time?”

As Young as You Feel (1952) Monty Wooley, Allyn Joslyn and Thelma Ritter

Following the romantic comedies Ritter appears in one of the most extraordinary and evocative noir masterpieces by director Samuel Fuller, Pickup on South Street (1953).

In Pickup on South Street 1953 directed by Samuel Fuller, Ritter plays Moe Williams the best pick pocket stoolie in the business. A police informant who sells neck ties on the street corners and wants a fancy funeral and a nice plot out on Long Island. Robert Osborne couldn’t have stated it better, “Moe Williams lives in the underworld and ekes out a living by selling secrets and information for a price. It’s a far cry from the kind of roles Thelma usually plays. More sinister than lovable.”

Moe is streetwise and world weary. She’s broken down by her years getting by on the rough streets of New York City selling ties and secrets to the police. She’s also cares about what happens to Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) one of the local petty thieves who picks pockets and chills his beer in the river.

Jean Peters is fantastic in the role of Candy, and Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street.

As Moe Williams In Pickup on South Street (1953), Ritter inhabits a darker world than we’re used to seeing her in. Worn down by life on the street as a tie hustler and informant to the law, her weakness for telling the truth puts her in harms way. It’s one of the most gloomy and heart-rending roles in any of her films as it takes a hardened dismal look at crime, postwar greed, and the fear of Communist infiltration. Throughout the picture Moe is fatalistic about her future. She is a character we feel empathy for, and I think it’s one of Ritter’s finest performances.

In a heartbreaking tour de force Ritter gives a performance that should have garnered her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Director Sam Fuller created a role just typed for Ritter’s blood, as she poured every ounce of her soul into the character that’ll make you hold your breath, then weep.

She appeared in the 1953 version of Titanic with Barbara Stanwyck. She plays affluent Maude Young who once again, is mistaken for a domestic, with some of the best lines in the picture added for the comic relief.

Maude Young: [after Richard (Clifton Webb) has rejected his son Norman and refused to play in the shuffleboard match with him] “It certainly clouded up. Well, word’ll do it faster than a hickory stick any time.”

Maude Young: “Where I come from this is either a revival meeting or a crap game.”

Maude Young: “I’ve seen that look before. He’s a runaway. Earl Meeker: From what, some woman?Maude: No, he’s running too fast for that.”

Ritter made several significant appearances on the small screen between 1953 and 1962. In 1955 she played Mrs. Fisher in The Show-off, Agnes Hurley in Paddy Chayefsky’s The Catered Affair (Bette Davis played Agnes Hurley in the film version a year later). Playwright Paddy Chayefsky was so taken with Thelma Ritter that he wrote about the 1955 television play, “The Catered Affair was an unfocused piece in which the first act was farce and the second was character comedy, and the third was abruptly drama. There aren’t a dozen actresses who could make one piece out of all that; Miss Ritter of course, did.”

The Farmer Takes a Wife 1954 as Lucy Cashdollar plays Betty Grable’s friend on the Eerie Canal Lucy Cashdollar- “Don’t forget, I’m a five time widow, and when they died they all left me everything they owned. Rest their souls.” Fortune Friendly “What do you want with me I’m broke?” Lucy Cashdollar-“Well, I figure after five rich husbands, the next one would be on the house.”

Also in 1955, Thelma Ritter played Abby in 20th Century-Fox Hour’s television adaptation of Sidney Howard’s play, Christopher Bean. Thelma is often compared to the great Marie Dressler, who played the same role in the 1933 film Christopher Bean. Thelma Ritter takes on the ironic and poignant role of a woman who’s worth is seen through the eyes of an alcoholic artist who paints a portrait of her.

Ritter finished her 6 year contract with Twentieth Century Fox in 1955, playing Alicia Pritchard in director Jean Negulesco’s Daddy Long Legs. Ritter did return in The Second Time Around in 1961.

When explaining why her contract had not been renewed, Ritter joked that “I don’t look so good in a toga.” Referring to Fox’s preference at the time for epics filmed in CinemaScope centered around all things ancient.

Rear Window 1954 Thelma plays the feisty wisecracking nurse, Stella. The scenes with Thelma and Jimmy Stewart were marvelous. Her character’s voice delivered both reason and common sense, and in their scenes we learn about Jimmy Stewart’s character. Thelma brought her comic flair to the role of Stella. As Pat Hitchcock explained “The humor that Thelma Ritter brought to Rear Window was absolutely wonderful. And my father, he loved that because he knew that you couldn’t keep going and keep going. You had to give the audience a break. You had to have them laugh at something. His whole life was the importance of having a sense of humor with whatever you do.”

Deborah Kerr rides in a jeep with Thelma Ritter in a scene from the film ‘The Proud And Profane’, 1956. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

After twenty-six years away, Thelma returned to Broadway in 1957 to play Marthy in the hit musical New Girl in Town, based on Eugene O’Neill’s play Anna Christie. For her part she won a Tony Award (in a tie with Gwen Verdon who won for Anna). This was the first time in history that two actresses won from the same show.

Cameron Pru’Homme, Thelma Ritter and Gwen Verdon –On the set of New Girl In Town

American actors Thelma Ritter (1905 – 1969) and Cameron Prud’homme (1892 – 1967) in a performance of the Bob Merrill play, ‘New Girl in Town’ at the 46th Street Theatre, New York, New York, mid 1957. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

At the Tony Awards with Robert Preston Thelma RItter Helen Hayes Ralph Bellamy

She went on to appear in the hit romantic comedy Pillow Talk (1959). She played the supportive lead with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, exchanging her usual barbs this time with Doris Day about her love life. “If there’s anything worse than a woman living alone its a woman saying she likes it.”

She continued to act in successful roles in the 1960s in films like John Huston’s The Misfits in 1961 (playing Isabelle Steers, co-starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and Eli Wallach). Then, in How the West Was Won in 1962, and then she was once again paired with Doris Day and James Garner in Move Over, Darling in 1963.

Ritter also appeared on television shows like General Electric Theater in 1960 and the popular westerner Wagon Train in 1962. She appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Presents in a very chilling, nail-biting episode called The Baby Sitter.

In director John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz (1963) Thelma Ritter delivers quite a drastic departure from any of her other roles. She portrays the numb and obsessive mother, loyal to her son Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) in one of his most lucid performances. The movie creates a claustrophobic relationship between mother and son, as she is stricken with a miopic vision of championing for him while he is locked away in prison. Axel Nissen calls it “one of the most emotionally ugly characters in her filmography she is cold and uses stillness brilliantly.”

Ritter received her last Oscar nomination or her performance as Burt Lancaster’s controlling mother. She lost to Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker.

In 1963 she was in A New Kind of Love (1963) starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Ritter plays Leena, who wears a perfume called “My Sin” and is a buyer at Bergner’s Department Store. Leena is attracted to her boss, George Tobias.

She also appeared in the disastrous Broadway production of UTBU 1966 with Margaret Hamilton and Tony Randall.

Coming full circle, Ritter made her last big screen appearance in a small role in George Seaton’s What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? 1968 In Feb 1968 she co-starred with Tab Hunter and her own actress daughter Monica in a stock production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey, before retiring. She did not live long enough to enjoy her retirement.

Thelma died of a heart attack in New York City just nine days before her 67th birthday. Thelma Ritter was very beloved amongst her colleagues and co-stars, and also critics adored her.

“On screen Ritter projected a wonderfully sanguine and calm acceptance of human frailty and need. It is this quality, combined with her rueful humor and notorious wisecracks, that give depth to her finest performances…{…} Though she played a few middle-or upper class women towards the end of her career, Ritter was obviously best suited to playing women on the lower echelons of the social ladder…{…} She represents the legion of women who keep the wheels of the world turning”– Alex Nissen

CLIPS

Miracle on 34th Street (1949) Peter’s mother

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Sadie Dugan the maid uncredited

City Across the River (1950) Mrs. Katie Cusack

Perfect Strangers (1950) Lena Fassier

All About Eve 1951

I’ll Get By 1951 Miss Murphy

The Mating Season 1951

The Model and the Marriage Broker 1951 as Mae Swayse

As Young as You feel 1952 as Della Hodges

Titanic 1953

Pickup on South Street 1954

The Farmer Takes a Wife 1954 as Lucy Cashdollar

Rear Window 1955 as Stella

Daddy Long Legs 1955

Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1956 The Baby Sitter Lottie Slocum

The Proud and Profane 1956 as Kate Connors

A Hole in the Head 1959 as Sophie Manetta

Pillow Talk 1959 as Alma

The Misfits 1961

Birdman of Alcatraz 1962 as Elizabeth Stroud

Move Over, Darling 1963

The Incident 1967 as Bertha Beckerman

FILMOGRAPHY & AWARDS

Thelma Ritter won a Tony Award on Broadway in 1957 for the hit musical New Girl in Town, for which she won a Tony in a tie with Gwen Verdon in 1958. She won an Emmy (in 1956), Nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for the Goodyear Television Playhouse production of The Catered Affair. A Golden Globe Awards Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for: All About Eve (1950) The Mating Season (1951)) With A Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953), Pillow Talk (1959) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and nominated for a Golden Globe for All About Eve, The Mating Season and Boeing Boeing (1965)

  • Miracle on 34th Street (1949) Peter’s mother
  • A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Sadie Dugan the maid uncredited
  • Call Northside 777 (1949) captains secretary uncredited her scene was left on the cutting room floor
  • City Across the River (1950) Mrs. Katie Cusack
  • Perfect Strangers (1950) Lena Fassier
  • Too Dangerous to Love 1951
  • All About Eve 1951 as Birdie Coonan —companion to theater Diva Margot Channing the only character aside from George Sanders’ Addison Dewitt who isn’t fooled by conniving Eve.
  • I’ll Get By 1951 as Miss Murphy
  • The Mating Season 1951 as Ellen McNulty
  • The Model and the Marriage Broker 1951 as Mae Swayze
  • As Young as You feel 1952 as Della Hodges
  • Radio Broadcasts 1953 Theater Guild on the Air “A Square Peg”
  • With a Song in my Heart 1953 as Clancy
  • radio shows such as Radio Broadcasts Theater Guild on the Air “A Square Peg” (1953).
  • Titanic 1953 as Maude Young playing a version of the Unsinkable Molly Brown done up to the nines again mistaken for a housekeeper or maid.
  • Pickup on South Street 1954 directed by Samuel Fuller as Moe Williams the best pick pocket stoolie in the business
  • The Farmer Takes a Wife 1954 as Lucy Cashdollar plays Betty Grable’s friend on the Eerie Canal
  • Rear Window 1955 as nurse Stella
  • Lux Video Theatre 1954 Christmas in July theatre guest
  • The Best of Broadway The Show Off 1955 Mrs. Fisher
  • Daddy Long Legs 1955 as Alicia Pritchard
  • Goodyear Playhouse 1955 The Catered Affair as Mother created the role that Bette Davis adapted to the screen.
  • Repertory Theatre 1955 The Ghost Writer as Muriel
  • Lucy Gallant 1955 as Molly Basserman
  • The 20th Century Fox Hour 1955 “Christopher Bean” as Abby
  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1956 The Baby Sitter Lottie Slocum
  • The Proud and Profane 1956 as Kate Connors
  • New Girl in Town (1957) on Broadway
  • The United States Steel Hour 1957 The Human Pattern as Ma Garfield
  • Telephone Time 1957 plot to save a boy as Mary Devlin
  • A Hole in the Head 1959 as Sophie Manetta
  • Pillow Talk 1959 as Alma plays her housekeeper who likes to drink she’s hilarious
  • General Electric Theater 1960 Sarah’s Laughter as Doris Green
  • Startime 1960 The Man as Mrs. Gillis
  • The Misfits 1961 as Isabelle Steers
  • The Second Time Around 1961 as Aggie Gate
  • Birdman of Alcatraz 1962 as Elizabeth Stroud plays Burt Lancaster’s mother
  • Wagon Train 1962 The Madame Sagittarius Story as Madame Delphine Sagittarius
  • How the West Was Won 1962 Agatha Clegg a middle aged woman looking for a husband on the wagon train heading west across America
  • For Love or Money 1963 as Chloe Brasher
  • A New Kind of Love 1963 as Lena O’Connor
  • Move Over, Darling 1963 as Grace Arden plays James Garner’s mother, a wealthy upper class woman which is an atypical character for her
  • Boeing, Boeing 1965 as Bertha
  • The Incident 1967 as Bertha Beckerman
  • What’s so Bad about Feeling Good? 1968 Mrs. Schwartz

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying you may have thought you were often only a bridesmaid but to so many of us, you’ll forever be the Queen of character actors and unrelenting quips! We love you Thelma Ritter…

MonsterGirl Asks Writer, Film & Television Historian: Gary Gerani 🎃

Gary Gerani is one of the writers of (Pumpkinhead 1988, creative consultant on Pumkinhead II Blood Wings 1993, writer on Vampirella 1996, the short story Convention 2017, and Trading Paint 2019 with John Travolta)

PUMPKINHEAD combined gritty verisimilitude with the landscape of a dark evocative allegory. “I loved the demon creature Stan Winston and his guys created so much, I actually have him created from the original mold standing in the corner of my living room!” listen once a MonsterKid always a MonsterKid” says Gary Gerani to this MonsterGirl!

“Gary Gerani is a screenwriter, author, noted film and TV historian, and children’s product developer. He is best known for his contribution as co-writer of the Stan Winston-directed horror classic “Pumpkinhead,” and his groundbreaking 1977 nonfiction book “Fantastic Television.” This book is a real treasure, and there was and still is absolutely nothing like it out there as a bountiful of info for us nostalgic fans of vintage fantasy, sci-fi and horror television!

Over the years he’s created various comic books and a record number of trading card sets, working for the famous Topps Company. His graphic novels include “Dinosaurs Attack!” (inspired by his own Topps cards) and “Bram Stoker’s Death Ship,” an untold story of the Dracula legend. He also has his own publishing unit, Fantastic Press, in partnership with the popular comic book company IDW.”

Gary Gerani also contributes his humorous and thoughtful commentaries on several television anthology Blu-ray editions for The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Boris Karloff’s Thriller.

From Top 100 best horror films intro. What makes a good horror film special?

“Let’s look at the genre itself, and how our most imaginative filmmakers have approached and defined it. Whether an artist is working in color or black and white, silent or sound, widescreen or the latest version of 3D, he faces an infinite number of creative ways to involve and ultimately terrify a movie audience. Sometimes viewers are rudely jolted by visceral shocks, as with Terence Fisher or William Friedkin thrillers, other times they are gently escorted into darkly unsettling, dream-like environs that confound, intrigue and captivate (think Roman Polanski or Val Lewton) What all these approaches have in common is that they somehow manage to replicate the fragile, visceral quality of nightmares, transcending reality and touching us intimately in a way that no other genre can.’’-Gary Gerani

From the intro by Paul H. Schulman-“As a writer of science fiction articles and a collector of television art. Gary is recognized in New York Sci-Fi circles as the last word on the subject…(…)… Fantastic Television is the most complete and detailed treatment of the occult and science fiction TV shows existing anywhere. If you caught these shows the first time around, this book will be a visit from old friends. If you were too young to stay up that late, Fantastic Television will introduce you to a world of new friends!”

Incredibly concise and informative. Gary lists the credits for each of the series episodes. Extensive and valuable to any fantasy, sci-fi horror fans. There is nothing quote like this book released at that time, nor currently. Gary Gerani’s incredible book published in 1977 Fantastic Television -A Pictorial History of Sci-Fi, The Unusual and the Fantastic from Captain Video to the Star Trek Phenomenon and Beyond is filled with wonderful images. It is a complete overview of a precious world so many of us feel a longing and nostalgia for.

This fantastic book, covers some of my favorites The Twilight Zone, Boris Karloff’s Thriller, The Outer Limits, One Step Beyond, Irwin Allen Productions, Batman, Star Trek, The Invaders, The Prisoner, Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, Kolchak, The Night Stalker, Made for TV Movies, British Telefantasy, (The Avengers ) American Telefantasy. (Dark Shadows)

Highlighting concise backstories and filled with descriptive plot summaries for each episode! Gary has added his voice to some of the most enigmatic, innovative and engaging television shows of fantastical historical relevance. Since it’s publishing in 1977 there has been nothing like this collection in print…

FANTASTIC TELEVISION -A Pictorial History of Sci-FI, The Unusual and The Fantastic from Captain Video to the Star Trek Phenomenon and Beyond…

With an introduction by Roger Corman!

Top 100 Horror Movies by Gary Gerani (Nov 9 2010)

🎃

THE STRIKING RETRIBUTION OF PUMPKINHEAD (1988)  Fairy Tale vérité

“That old woman scares the piss out of me!”

“For each of man’s evils a special demon exists…”

Directorial debut by creature creator & special effects guru Stan Winston (Winston who passed away in 2008 was a frequent collaborator with director James Cameron, owned several effects studios, including Stan Winston Digital. Winston’s expertise were in makeup, puppets and practical effects, and owned his studio which branched out to include digital effects as well… creating work in the Terminator series, Jurassic Park films, Aliens, the first two Predator movies Iron Man and Edward Scissorhands. Winning four Academy Awards for his work.)

With a screenplay by Gary Gerani and Mark Patrick Carducci, based on a story by Carducci, Winston and Richard Weinman. The origin of the story was a poem written by Ed Justin. Film Editor Marcus Manton. Cinematography by Bojan Bazelli (Body Snatchers 1993, Kalifornia 1993, Sugar Hill 1993, The Ring 2002), set direction by Kurt Gauger and music by Richard Stone. Creature effects designed and created by Alec Gillis, Richard Landon, Shane Patrick Mahan, John Rosengrant, and Tom Woodruff Jr.

Critical Reception

“A pleasant surprise is the characterization, which are well-developed for this genre… Even the teenagers, usually little more than cardboard monster horror fodder in horror movies, have shades of performance…”Louis B Parks, “Pumpkinhead brings new life to Spook Shows-The Houston Chronicle, October 14, 1988

“It does have heart. If you like your monster movies with a touch of sweetness, Pumpkinhead may be just your cauldron of blood … Henriksen has some affecting moments as the bereaved father.”–Philip Wuntch “If You Dig Homespun Horror, Check Out Pumpkinhead”-The Daily Morning News, October 14, 1988

Credits:

Cast: Lance Henriksen (The Right Stuff 1983, The Terminator 1984, Aliens 1986, Millennium 1996-1999 ) as Ed Harley, Jeff East as Chris, John DiAquino as Joel, Kimberly Ross as Kim, Joel Hoffman as Steve, Cynthia Bain as Tracy, Kerry Remssen as Maggie, George Buck Flower as Wallace, Brian Bremer as Bunt, Billy Hurley as little Matthew Harley, Lee De Broux as Tom Harley, Peggy Walton Walker as Ellie Harley, Richard Warlock as Clayton Heller, Devon Odessa as Hessie, Joseph Piro as Jimmy Joe, Greg Michaels as Hill Man, Madeleine Taylor Holmes as Old Hill Woman, Mayim Bialik as Wallace kid, Jandi Swanson as Wallace kid, Mary Boessow as Mountain Girl, Robert Frederickson as Ethan and Tom Woodruff Jr. as Pumpkinhead.

IMDb Trivia fun facts:

The dog actor, Mushroom, who played Ed Harley’s dog, Gypsy, also played Barney in Gremlins (1984).

Lance Henriksen gathered all of the silver dollars himself by visiting several pawn shops. He said that most of them fell through the floorboards of Haggis’ shack, where they may still lie.

Lance Henriksen had a set of dentures made to give him a more rural look. He also gathered all of his own props and wardrobe, including a WWII pump-action shotgun, his cap worn throughout the film and the silver dollars which he gives to Haggis.

The costume Florence Schauffler wore as Haggis weighed about 65 pounds.

The one scene that made Lance Henriksen most want to take the role was where the deceased Billy sits up and asks his father what he’s done.

Because of Stan Winston‘s request, the screenwriters made both Pumpkinhead and Haggis (the old woman), much darker than in the original script.

Stan Winston‘s two children can be glimpsed as members of the Wallace clan.

Pumpkinhead doesn’t really resemble a pumpkin. It gets its name from the fact that summoning it involves digging up a corpse that’s been buried in a pumpkin patch.

‘Fun’ was, in fact, the prevalent mood on the Pumpkinhead set. Despite many additional burdens and responsibilities, Winston brought the same sense of humor and lighthearted spirit to directing Pumpkinhead as he had to his creature effects assignments. “Stan was a blast as a director,” recalled Alec Gillis. “He was fun and completely relaxed on the set, as if he didn’t have a care in the world. I remember one day when we were in this cramped cabin set, and I was very tense and tired because Shane and I had just spent three hours applying makeup to the actress playing the witch. But then I looked over and saw Stan standing across the room, staring at me, with his glasses cocked at a weird angle on his head — just to make me laugh. There was my director, making an idiot of himself for nobody’s benefit but mine. That isn’t something most directors would do!”

From the sculpture, studio artists and mechanics created a suit and head, which was worn on the set by Pumpkinhead performer, Tom Woodruff Jr., To avoid wear and tear on the suit, Woodruff was glued into it at the start of the shoot day, and remained in the foam rubber construct for up to eight hours at a time.

The incantation:

“For each of man’s evils, a demon exists. You’re looking at vengeance. Cruel, devious.. vengeance.” Haggis (Florence Schauffler )the witch introduces Ed Harley (Henriksen) to the demon

The legacy of the demon of vengeance to be reborn with each time it’s called upon. Pumpkinhead is a meditation on vengeance, tragedy and loss within a darkly spun fairy tale.

Pumpkinhead is merely the hand of retribution and fate and a lesson in “be careful what you wish for”.  Pumpkinhead is a well written, Americana Gothic mountain magic mythology, and if you love Boris Karloff’s Thriller episode  – The Hollow Watcher– you’ll be mystified and moved by this contemporary telling of a rural boogeyman!

Pumpkinhead is a beautifully crafted story that merely illustrates what happens when the humble and quiet lives of innocent people who inhabit a world far from the city, and whose lives are shattered by the sudden intrusion of irresponsible and rude outsiders, who happen to be teenagers.

In the 1980s it is the given aesthetic that teenagers are the fodder in the slasher film or monster movie, they make for fun victims. Once again the teenagers wind up being the victims here as well with no differentiation between accountability or innocence. It is Pumpkinhead’s mission to purge the menace of outsiders.

When Ed Harley (Lance Henriksen who is a marvelous and underrated actor) was a boy in 1957 he caught sight of a mythical folklore creature called Pumpkinhead, a thing of local legend that can be summoned up in the name of vengeance. In the present, Harley wishes to call up this vengeful demon to exact retribution against the reckless teenagers who accidentally kill his little boy. When the irresponsible dirt biker Joel (DiAquino) runs down Harley’s son Billy, all hell will break free from the top of a rustic hill.

Harley pays a visit to the old witch Haggis (Schauffler) to help her bring his boy back to life. Haggis rasps and whistles as she incants using Harley’s blood to resurrect the demon, for she cannot raise his dead son, Haggis: Who are you? Ed Harley: Um, Ed Harley. I’ve come… Haggis: I’m afraid raising the dead ain’t within my power.

But she sure can conjure up the spirit of retribution in the form of Pumkinhead, who manifests the rage and wrath Harley feels. Haggis tells him to go to the old graveyard in the pumpkin patch and dig up the corpse of the body that is buried there, which she can use to embody the vengeful demon.  Be careful what you wish for, as Harley unleashes a creature that is unstoppable and leaves bodies in the wake of it’s ire. It’s a bloody night of fate coming to bear when Pumpkinhead begins to kill everyone in sight. And because Ed Harley’s blood has been infused with the creature, he feels it in his soul every time it kills, he is doomed to a sorrowful fate. Ed Harley: God damn you! God damn you! Haggis: He already has, son. He already has.

It’s too late once Ed Harley realizes that he has become transformed himself, a certain symbiosis has occurred between him and Pumpkinhead, and that his actions have consequences. Once summoned Pumpkinhead cannot be sent back to the pits of dark justice and and the hell fire of reprisal makes no distinction between the teens who are truly guilty of killing the young boy and the others who are complicit by proximity. 

Not unlike a Grimm Fairy Tale or a great rendition of backwoods boogeymen and American folklore does Pumpkinhead evoke a nightmarish landscape of cause and effect. Stan Winston’s Pumpkinhead is a superb cautionary tale that warns against being thoughtful of others but moreover not allowing our blood lust for revenge to take control of our moral guidance Lance Henriksen is a good father and mild mannered until the swell of hatred takes hold and he develops an appetite for retribution. The film contemplates the unacceptability of death and a parents inability to mourn the loss of their child. The loss becomes a monster itself that inhabits Ed’s consciousness. In that way Pumpkinhead is just a manifestation of Ed Harley’s grieving. Like Walter Pidgeon’s Dr. Morbius in Forbidden Planet (1956) Ed Harley has unleashed his rural id.

The early scenes show him as kind and gentle, quiet and peaceful, almost living a dreamy life far away from the fast pace of the city –the torrid and declining American morality of urban living. This can seen when Ed and his son Billy are sitting at the kitchen table a poignant scene that sets up contrast from the brutality to come. When it comes to invade their quiet space, it sparks the series of events that spiral out of control. 

Pumpkinhead is fatalistic law, not really about evil, or a demon, that is why he took on the face of the person who chose to raise him up for their purpose. Ed Harley has a psychic connection with Pumkinhead. The colors are a fairy tale palate of vibrant strokes. The set pieces are extremely well thought out. The film is painted with the coldest blues and the hottest reds, that lend to the grim atmosphere and fantastical alternative surrealism. Gary Gerani was truly inspired by the work of the maestro director Mario Bava!

The sets designed by Kurt Gauger are perfectly creepy and effectively moody as with the old cemetery with it’s backwoods Gothic ambience. Pumpkinhead rises from a mound of putrid grass, his rustic grave covered pumpkin patch with its gnarled torment of trees and decaying earth lend to the moodiness of the film.

About GARY’S ANTHOLOGY COMMENTARIES:

The TV SERIES commentaries, being monster kids AND Gary Gerani sounds just like Gary Gerani

Jo: I figured I’d just ask you a few things and then you called me and I thought WOW he sounds just like Gary Gerani (having listened extensively to his commentaries on dvd box sets–We both Laugh hysterically)

Gary: And we determined that’s a very good thing…

Jo: And we determined that’s a very good thing. And I get to continue to listen to you (as he referred to himself as the living commentary) talk when I just re-watch the episodes. That’s the beauty of these anthology shows is that  you know you can watch them over and over again you always get something else it just brings you back to a place that just makes you feel, you know, good and familiar.

Gary: that’s probably where it starts right… we want to be in a place where we feel comfort and at home and what ever peculiar person we are we find that place for ourselves. You know all of us who found our way into horror and monsters, let’s face it we were mostly outcasts.

Jo: We’re outsiders yeah.

Gary: We related to the monsters cause they were outcasts.

Jo: That’s exactly it.

Gary: We got Frankenstein immediately.

Jo: I sympathized with him, I knew his pain. I knew we were both ‘the other’ You know when you become the other, then you start to relate to the characters that are outsiders and that’s why we start to fit in and we put ourselves in those stories, those spaces. You know because we belong there. We found a place for ourselves so….

Gary’s enormous knowledge has a way of cutting through any extraneous detail and manages to bring you not only into the story but provide so many interesting background tidbits, making history and insight accessible. With Thriller I never knew the staff of the show used to call the graphics that open the show “The Sticks” I hadn’t read that Douglas Heyes had doubts about Boris Karloff hosting the show initially because the first episodes were more crime based. It wasn’t Richard Widmark’s Thriller it was Boris Karloff’s Thriller. And they were competing with Alfred Hitchcock’s formatted suspense series. I knew from reading Stephen Jacob’s incredible authorized biography of Boris Karloff that Alfred Hitchcock was not too happy about Thriller that much I did know.

Douglas Heyes either based episodes on Robert Bloch’s stories or episodes he wrote. Hr told them it wasn’t working (the show) because the first episodes weren’t hosted by Richard Widmark. That’s when they brought Douglas Heyes in to make the show work. To get away from Hitchcock’s province of crime/suspense. They transformed Thriller into creepy tales and it evolved into the show with it’s original macabre vibe. 1) Hitchcock was pressuring the studio. 2) Twilight Zone at the time was perhaps fantasy 3) and ratings were suffering and no one was happy with the original approach.

There was such a confusion about the identity of the show, that they producer Hubbell was upset and embarrassed. Finally they brought in Robert Bloch and what they decided on was horror tales with a supernatural underscore and violent crime thrillers. The first was produced by recruiting Maxwell Shane for the crime stories and William Frye for the horror tales. And it worked…

Boris Karloff’s THRILLER:  anthology television series that aired during the 1960–61 and 1961–62 seasons on NBC

Gary added his commentary to the following Thriller episodes…

The Prediction with Lucy Chase Williams, The Hungry Glass with Marc Scott Zicree, Well of Doom with David Schow, Trio of Terror with David Schow, Mr. George with Lucy Chase Williams, Pigeons from Hell-solo commentary, The Grim Reaper with Ernest Dickerson, Tim Lucas and David Schow, The Weird Tailor with Daniel Benton, The Return of Andrew Bentley with David Schow, Waxworks with Ron Borst, La Strega with Steve Mitchell and Craig Reardon, The Hollow Watcher with Larry Blamire and David Schow and The Incredible Doktor Markesan with David Schow.

In talking about THE CHEATERS...

I love referential commentary and analysis. Gary compares the story of The Cheaters with Winchester ’73 in the way that both stories center around an object that flows from one character to the next and their individual outcomes. How we follow those peculiar glasses and how we follow the trail of the gun in each person’s possession. It’s a fascinating point and I love how he picked up on that. You can watch a beloved episode 100 times and you’ll always find your own slight slant on it at times, but commentaries imparted to us by historians like Gary Gerani help bring an even wider perspective.

It’s obvious to me, that Gerani is a huge fan of writer Robert Bloch. But who isn’t right. So another interesting point that Gary Gerani brings out, is that Robert Bloch’s story didn’t have the alchemist in the opening, the way Thriller adapted it showing veteran character actor (with the unusually carved rock features), Henry Daniell as inventor/alchemist Dirk Van Prinn creating the lenses that would become The Cheaters. The glasses that give the wearer the ability to see the truth about themselves. They also give the wearer the power to hear the thoughts of those around them. Which winds up being not only problematic but murderously fowl!

In Bloch’s actual written story, there’s a series of accounts by the people who wore the cheaters who met their deaths by wearing them. Their accounts are virtually told from beyond the grave. Again Gerani in his artful insightful way compares it to Joe Gillis (William Holden) in Sunset Blvd. Thriller changes this perspective by working in these graveside accounts by allowing Harry Townes the writer Sebastian Grimm to tell the story. He discovers the true powers of the cheaters, and writes a book about the origin and the ultimate end to the journey of these magical lenses marked Veritas on the bridge. He tells their stories to his wife surmising exactly what happened as we see it on screen.

In addition Gary Gerani mentions that people compare The Cheaters to Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Essentially because Gray’s painting told the real story of what was lying beneath the surface of the man who never ages. It shows the truth about yourself. “And that truth isn’t very pleasant”- as Gary Gerani says. But Gerani says one of the main differences between this teleplay and “Bloch’s original story was even “bleaker” There is the same suggestion that the glasses and the painting tells the true nature of the person. “In Bloch’s story it’s much more universal, it’s made very clear it’s not just like Dorian Gray where there’s just one sinner–this is in all of us… It is perhaps the most dire perception of the human condition ever done, during a prime time show certainly here in this period…It seems to suggest that knowing thyself is knowing evil… within yourself or even the people around you…. Pretty much what Block is saying is that WE ARE THE MONSTERS… That’s essentially what The Cheaters is about-and There is no hope!

The Outer Limits original series 1960s (broadcast on ABC from 1963 to 1965)

Gary Gerani’s commentaries include:

The Architects of Fear, The Man with the Power, The Man Who was Never Born, The Zanti Misfits with David J. Schow, and The Special One with Michael Hyatt.

The Twilight Zone original Series (anthology television series created and presented by Rod Serling, which ran for five seasons on CBS from 1959 to 1964.)

One For the Angels, The Lonely, The Four of Us are Dying, A Stop at Willoughby with Marc Scott Zicree and A Passage for Trumpet.

Gary Gerani and I had a pleasant conversation on Sep 18th after I watched Pumpkinhead, I emailed him and we instantly hit it off, carrying on an exchange. Gary commented on a piece I wrote at The Last Drive In about one of the episodes of Boris Karloff’s Thriller, in which Gary has done numerous commentaries as you now know, he’s added his voice to some of the BEST television anthology box sets. We share a mutual love of Thriller as well as The Outer Limits.

A hell of a nice guy with a very keen mind and wonderful sense of humor. I wish we had known each other as little monster kids we could have enjoyed the same kinds of fantastical indulgence without me getting called MonsterGirl said with a pejorative connotation and being locked in a basement all day by a neighborhood bully! Don’t get me wrong it helped mold me into the sympathetic person I am who developed empathy for others. It’s always nice to discover another person out there who could wear Monster Kid as a badge of honor!

Gary Gerani had stumbled upon my blog by accident. and told me he was struck by the intelligence of my piece on The Cheaters. I of course was extremely flattered by this. He told me Pumpkinhead was influenced by Thriller, with the rural spookiness and atmosphere. Also The Outer Limits’ episode The Galaxy Being as Pumpkinhead also sort of gave off “psychic turbulence” very much like The Galaxy Being, with his electro magnetic windstorm.

Both are creatures who are what they are. One accidentally falls out of it’s orbit which is forbidden on his planet, as he winds up being transported on earth by radio basement scientist Cliff Robertson. Pumpkinhead however is summoned by the pain and lust for vengeance by Lance Henricksen after a band of outsiders riding their dirt bikes kill his beloved little boy. The local witch knows how to raise up Pumpkinhead who’s job it is to exact the law of revenge and judgement. He is a creature who serves the cosmic law.

I private messaged Gary on Facebook after I saw his lovely comment on The Last Drive in. I told him that I was a HUGE fan of his 1988 Pumpkinhead a moody atmospheric rustic boogeyman morality play. It had traces of our mutually inspired The Hollow Watcher for Thriller. A bucolic Boogeyman who exacts vengeance on the sinners of a small minded and tucked away rural town with it’s own creepy mythology.

I suspect Jeepers Creepers (2001) was influenced by Pumpkinhead which I believe is one of THE best dark fairy tale, cautionary tales of the 1980s. Pumpkinhead is a self contained dark little Americana Gothic story with it’s color filters that frame scenes that are at times a cold cold blue or a fiery red.

I stumbled onto the outrageously unusual film Pumpkinhead (1988) as most of us Monster kids do, we are lured by the uncanny on film since we were wee Monster folk. One of the true statements that can be said about Gary Gerani’s somber and atmospheric film, the American Gothic arcane back woods allegory is that it still embodies what made classical horror films work on an empathetic level and unlike today’s films that are like a buzz-saw to the synapse & sympathetic nervous system with all it’s pageantry of various body violations and torture. Back in the day even the gore somehow managed to set apart the artistic narratives with a story and at times the kernal of the moral message that lies withing the tale still came through. Pumpkinhead, attracts the monster lovers in us. Though Lance Henriksen regrets his brand of punishment, which cannot bring his little boy back to life, we somehow still cheer for Pumpkinhead as he acts as cathartic release for us.

I remember feeling excitement when Pumpkinhead coming to life as a little Pumpkin baby then rose out of his dirt hill grave, Stan Winston imbues him with a sort of gargoyle like smile. Does it look like Gary Gerani and Lance Henriksen  or perhaps Stan Winston — Gary supposes!

Gary-“We got really lucky with Pumpkinhead, in that everyone was on exactly the same page about what we wanted to achieve. “Deliverance in the daytime and Mario Bava at Night. Was our idea an attempt to combine gritty reality with evocative dark fairy tales. I loved the demon creature Stan Winston and his guys created so much, I actually have him made from the original mold standing in the corner of my living room!’ Once a Monster Kid, always a Monster Kid!

MONSTERGIRL ASKS:

About Stan Winston, Lance Hendricksen, and the colors of Mario Bava:

Gary: “Basically when we did Pumpkinhead originally Stan Winston wasn’t involved we had Armand Mastroianni director (He Knows Your Alone 1980, the Clairvoyant 1982, Tales from the Dark Side 1984-1987, Friday the 13th 1989-1990) he did a few other movies including several horror movies and he was our direct and it was like okay um, and one day the producers decided to go with Stan Winston partially because it was like Stan wanted to direct, we’ll let you direct this it’ll be your directorial debut just give us a state of the art monster that would normally be in a big budgeted film and if you can pull that off that would be great, well, that was part of the reason why they really wanted Stan is that they knew they would get a creature on the level of an alien or what ever. But Stan had shot second unit on Aliens and demonstrated his ability so we kind of felt oh okay he’s a great monster maker and he knows how to film too so oh so great so and then the next thing we heard was that Lance was gonna play Ed Harley. And Mark Carducci and I were ecstatic as I said anyone from The Right Stuff (1983) astronauts at any rate he was one of them and he had just been in Aliens and he made a real impression in that film so we were really ecstatic to get Lance. Uhm after that it really was finishing the script working with Stan Winston we really didn’t interact at all with Lance and not only that we were New York based at that point and uh so were our producers they were New York producers who did Pumpkinhead so we worked with Stan and he came out and we flew out and he came to see us and and we did all that and the next time that we got involved with Lance on the set of this film. Um Mark had come to L.A. to spend more time in L.A. to be around the production of the film I still had my full time job at Topps so I was limited in my time so I finally got out there at least for a week or how ever the hell long it was to at least be on the set and that’s when I met Lance and again a very very warm friendly complimentary empathetic kind of an individual.

We spent time just kind of walking with him around the set and he said uh “guys I wanted to congratulate you on the script I see a lot of scripts and this one I felt had something that really spoke to me and I wanted to tell you it doesn’t happen that often” He was saying all kinds of stuff like that. And we were so like Oh Thank you!! We were so so flattered So he instantly established himself with us as a guy that we really liked as friends and of course his performance was spectacular. Here’s the thing with Pumpkinhead this is something that has come up a few times uh there are people the people who have, the people who have problems with Pumpkinhead who have issues with it don’t really get it what we wanted and what Stan delivered was kind of an almost pseudo documentary kind of flavor and overview and almost objective and emotionally detached overview of an event of what happens when a crime occurs out in the “sticks” how do people deal with it, what goes on in this other little world? We almost wanted a procedural so we wanted the camera or the soul of the movie as it’s looking at these events to almost be impartial otherwise whenever you have a story of a man losing his son, it’s always very sentimental heavy with the emotions I said no no no no we wanted it almost to be dry that way it doesn’t slip into the pathos of the over sentimental plot it’s so easy to happen to a picture it will retain it’s dignity and be special.

And Stan, was a perfect director for that because Stan god bless him Stan was something of a cold fish in a lot of ways he was he was kind of a dry guy okay and it was perfect! for Pumpkinhead Ironically the second movie he made he was exactly the wrong guy emotionally he did the Gnome Named Norm aka Upworld which was an E.T rip off warm and fuzzy and (emphatically) he was the exact wrong guy and that’s exactly what we didn’t want in Pumpkinhead we wanted to be like I say an overview and let those emotional events just happen as you observe them and you can be able to react to them. We didn’t want to push that sentimental angle so Stan was perfect. And in keeping with that Lance played it that way too it wasn’t a big blubbery “oh my son” no he internalized all of that stuff and that’s why it’s powerful. When his son dies in his arms it’s really could have been an opportunity to be John Williams type music soar and the sadness to hit you over the head and no no it’s underplayed and the little boy just dies in his arms and says ‘daddy’ and he just kind of dies and ya know Lance caresses the body and you see his eyes looking outward and you say this is exactly right, it’s just what you need to feel, what you need to feel without being overdone or sentimental and Lance kept it that way all the way through and I think in my opinion that’s why the movie is good. Because of that angle it could have just degenerated into a Charles Band emotional over done or one of these other movies but because Stan wasn’t a guy like that and because we wrote it that way.

We sat down and discussed that with Stan because that’s what we had in mind. Originally in the script Ed Harley was out of the story in the first third after the accident happened he goes to witch sets it in motion and then it’s just a procedural you almost wanted it to be that detached . Finally I said no no it’s about this guy it’s about a story we got to bring him back and this will be about him. Uh but yeah and Stan was right on the same page with us, and that’s the movie being made. And we’re grateful to Stan in sense for being Stan you know every movie that’s being made is the director’s soul and persona and essence that comes out. I have a theory that the story, every time you see a movie that what ever personality or tone of the movie is, not only is it the director coming through but if he’s doing his job right I always felt it’s the id of the main character that determines the personality of the movie.

If you watch a Star Trek episode it’s Captain Kirk’s souls his id, it’s like a dream that the Captain is having in that particular adventure. So I always felt the main character in any story kind of determines you’re almost in his head and that determines the personality the story. And with Lance with this character it all fit together perfectly. And you have the right director, his personality was so right for it, so that was kind of lightning in a bottle. It isn’t like it hit the whole world in that way, you know people who love it, love it within the context of a fairly limited kind of universe but we’re very very proud of it. After we saw it we thought, we got so lucky, that we had all that in place in that point in time. We had the essence of the James Cameron troupe those guys when they were hot as a pistol. When they were the thing that was happening. Back then those were the guys within a horror picture a supernatural story, they’d been doing their science fiction stuff Aliens and Terminator. Here is the horror version of that whole flavor. And the fact that our creature even resembles the alien kind of idea. I loved that I said look he’s a life form we didn’t want anything melodramatic or phony or the devil in a traditional way, no he’s a creature, it’s suggesting that he comes from a different environment and maybe Hell art of rules but there’s a physicality there you can recognize as opposed to just a demon with the horns or usual bullshit. It was Lovecraftian having a creature like that walking around farm houses. How cool is that!”

Jo: It’s very cool. I love him (Pumpkinhead) And the interest thing is you know there’s a sympathy, you know, we cheer for him. When I first saw the film I fell in love with him. I said, you know I really like this guy. It’s true he’s picking off these teenagers but who cares! (laughs from the guts, Gary howls) They’re invading this quaint space. They’re intruding on this very closed universe , they’re invading the world. They came in and they brought their noise and their disrespect and they invaded this beautiful quaint little world and now they’re gonna pay for it. It doesn’t matter who ran Billy down. It really just mattered that they were all there in the way. And Pumpkinhead was just a manifestation of the rage. And it’s like a fairy tale. To me it’s a fairy tale. But I do see what you’re saying.”

Gary: You’re absolutely right that fairy tale thing it’s kind of interesting because on the one hand we really wanted a sense of reality in the daytime, we tell people we wanted deliverance in the daytime and Mario Bava at night. Where that whole otherworldly fairy tale beautiful horror kind of stuff can shine. But in the day as real and gritty as possible, so it winds up being a dark fairy tale and that kind of what it is and yet it was a nice mixture of gritty realism and also the way our cinematographer ( Bojan Bazelli )lit the film, our cinematographer lit the witches hut with oranges and all that.

Jo: Oh yeah the hottest reds and the cold blues they were beautiful.

Gary: Ohhhh god isn’t that beautiful! We had said listen our big influence was the tv series Thriller and The Outer Limits. If you can give us Conrad Hall’s photography in color we’d be so appreciative. That’s why you got those episodes that were noir, Orson Welles type compositions you know the beautiful black and white– all that kind of thing. And then The Outer Limits flavor comes through too because it was kind of like The Galaxy Being who brings his own lightning by accident sort of having a little bit of that flavor.

Jo: Right he comes out of an alternate space.

Gary: (after running into Lance at the florist in L.A.) –The next significant thing that happened with Lance he was giving an interview with somebody and they were talking and he mentioned that the thing that convinced him to do movie was one particular scene, okay, that when we wrote the picture when you’re collaborating with your writing partner in the script you’re both constantly pulling ideas back and forth and the end result is a combination of your thoughts and your partners thoughts. Some scenes he came up with, some scenes you came up with.

The scene that convinced Lance to do the movie happened to be a scene that I came up with I was so tickled. And the particular scene we’re talking about is when Ed Harley is driving back and he sees his little boy sit up, his dead little boy sits up in the car and says “What’d you do daddy?”

You know it’s a little hallucination and then he looks and of course the body of the boy is, and all that his conscience is rearing, it’s like his little boy is saying what have you done you know and that was my idea you know what ever and that was the scene that convinced Lance to do the picture. Good old Lance I’m so happy it was a scene that I came up with… And I remember coming up with it thinking how cool it would be to show his guilt by having a little shot of his son like that and the fact that that made the difference in Lance’s mind was like how cool is that.

And this is funny, the whole thing where the kids, the boy and the girl are getting into a car and what ever they’re doing they’re and the guy shows up with the shotgun. And basically tells them that they’re marked and that’s when they first think “marked” what do you mean whatever and then all of a sudden Pumpkinhead shows up, yeah it’s the guy with his dog right okay yeah the guy with his dog he fires a shot you know and says something like ‘empty your hands son’ or what ever which is he line he stole in reverse from True Grit where John Wayne say’s “Fill your hands you son of a bitch” I don’t know if that’s ever been said (laughs) but anyway, that guy with the shot gun no matter how many times like a dozen takes the gun wouldn’t fire and the gun expert was there and it just wouldn’t work and finally it finally worked and it’s amazing when you make a movie like half a night can be taken up with problem’s like this. Actually Lance comes into that scene and he fires at the creature but he wasn’t in that particular scene.

Jo: Where was it filmed?

Gary: it was in the Hollywood hills somewhere We managed to find locations that looked rural enough I just remember at the time that we just went all the way out to the hills there. Actually it’s amazing cause it does it does seem authentic. I though we faked it pretty nicely.

Jo: And I love the set designer, whoever designed the mound with the pumpkin patch and the gnarled trees

Gary: Isn’t that great talk about something out of a Mario Bava movie. You have the swirling mists you have It’s like Black Sunday

Jo: Or Black Sabbath, the composition of colors in Black Sabbath

Gary -Oh yeah the colors in Black Sabbath. The cinematographer knew how to use color the way you use black and white with darks and lights and all that stuff we were very lucky with Bojan Bazelli our cinematographer who went on to do very important movies not that this isn’t important but you know what I mean…

Jo: Yeah, Pumpkinhead’s important!

Gary: I feel much of what makes that movie good is that look that he gave us. In all fairness to Stan you think about that mound that we’re talking about, the burial mound and the grave yard and all that the shot that introduces that is this fantastic shot that starts the camera on Lance and this was Stan right umm obviously the cinematographer is achieving this shot for Stan but you got Lance walking almost knee level you’re on the level with the ditch coming toward you and then eventually he comes into sort of close up looks up and then the camera which is following him then rises high high high high so you see what he’s looking at which is the mound and then it keeps rising until you’re almost in the trees looking down at the mound —all in one shot and it was Stan who wanted that shot. And the cinematographer gave it to him. Fantastic shot absolutely beautiful shot. And in the burned out church with the camera following Pumpkinhead as the kids are running out of the church as the camera remains and you see through the slats in the side of the building as something is entering as one beautiful long continuous shot there are a few of those gorgeous camera moves throughout the picture. And that I give credit to Stan.

I HAD A FEW MORE QUESTIONS!

JO GABRIEL — Question #1) Since you’re basically still a Monster Kid in an adult’s body like me, is there another interesting character, science fiction themed, mythological or fairy tale based that is burning a hole in your brain waiting for you to bring it to life on screen? A departure from PUMPKINHEAD of course but as potentially ICONIC in its design (although sadly Stan Winston is no longer with us.)

GARY GERANI– About fifteen years ago, I tried to sell an animated musical based on THE GOLEM, with music by Billy (DUEL) Goldenberg. The theme of oppressed people resonated, and the amount of black magic involved really made it a great supernatural tale… kind of like FAUST meets FRANKENSTEIN. The Golem itself gradually takes on demonic features the longer it remains in existence after fulfilling its primary function as a super-warrior for justice. The creature’s relationship with Rabbi Lowe’s little boy provided the story’s emotional punch. Another classic demon I wanted to re-visit was Guy de Maupassant’s THE HORLA, which had been adapted into a reasonably effective 1963 Vincent Price movie, DIARY OF A MADMAN.

“So glad you enjoyed my THE OUTER LIMITS chats.  “Architects of Fear” turned out well, I thought.  The ZONES were a ball to do.  The ol’ Blu-ray sets won both Rondo and Saturn awards, so I guess fans were happy with them.”

JO GARBIEL — Question 2a) You’ve done commentaries for the groundbreaking 1960s anthology series The Outer Limits, Boris Karloff’s THRILLER and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. What is your favorite episode for each and what makes it special for you?

PUMPKINHEAD has that wonderful rural boogeyman atmosphere like The Hollow Watcher episode of THRILLER which you lent your insightful commentary to!

Question 2b) Would you ever take a story from either of those three shows and put your own spin on it or adapt it in a more contemporary manner using sock puppets (just kidding) or feature film?

GARY GERANI –“Twilight Zone: Probably a toss-up between “Eye of the Beholder” and “Walking Distance.”  They were so many, many good episodes.  “Eye” hit all major ZONE areas: great central set-up, relatable, heartfelt humanity explored, social comment, incredible twist.  “Distance” gets right into your soul, and Gig Young, who was sorta burned-out in real life, was fantastic.  On top of everything else, both have brand new Bernard Herrmann scores to die for.
THRILLER: 1a)“The Cheaters” and “Pigeons from Hell.”  “Cheaters” is a tight, episodic scary tale, brilliantly executed, and with one hell of a horrific payoff.  “Pigeons” is atmospheric and dreamlike from beginning to end, a one-of-a-kind experience (although director John Newland’s “I Kiss Your Shadow” for BUS STOP around the same time comes close).  Once seen with her hatchet-arm raised, the zvembie is never forgotten!
THE OUTER LIMITS: “The Forms of Things Unknown” (final episode of S1 OL) is probably my favorite because it pushed cinematic storytelling to the max.  It was where Stefano’s sensibilities were going after a year of OL, as it was the pilot for a never-launched anthology.  If I had to pick a full-fledged OL, it would probably be “The Man Who Was Never Born.”  I differentiate between Seasons 1 and 2, by the way, since they were almost different shows.  Harlan Ellison’s “Demon with a Glass Hand” would be my favorite S2 show, followed by the two-part “The Inheritors.”  
2b)-When I was the West Coast Editor of Topps Comics in the 1990s, we were developing an OUTER LIMITS comic book in connection with UA.  The idea was to create sequels, prequels and remakes of classic episodes.  “The Galaxy Being Returns,” “Spawn of the Zanti Misfits,” “The Seventh Finger” and others were just some of the possible concepts I suggested.  Also in the 90s, my late writing partner Mark Carducci had briefly gotten the rights to WEIRD TALES magazine, and I was set to write a new version of “Pigeons from Hell” for a TV anthology along the lines of TALES FROM THE CRYPT.  Nether one of those projects came to fruition, sad to say.”
JO GABRIEL – Question #3-The 3rd question addresses what you said the other night when we chatted, that struck me as one of the truly interesting themes running through PUMPKINHEAD

PUMPKINHEAD is a self contained dark little Americana Gothic tale with it’s color prisms that frame the ethereal landscape at times –a cold cold blue or a fiery red.

I loved the way you talked about your vision of PUMPKINHEAD as ‘Deliverance’ by day and Mario Bava by night combined to make a gritty reality with a dark evocative fairy tale.’ So maybe you could expand on how that came together and/or working with Stan’s creation.

GARY GERANI – “Mark and I sat down with Stan Winston and discussed the project.  We were all monster kids, so we understood the old movie references instantly.  We all wanted that atmospheric look; I asked for “Conrad Hall-style cinematography, but in color,” and we had fun thinking of PUMPKINHEAD as a kind of OUTER LIMITS meets THRILLER in color.  It even had a main monster that, like the Galaxy Being, gave off his own lightning storm, what we called “psychic turbulence,” as he prowled the area.  Our original version of the witch was a bit more normal and seductively verbose (think “Jess-Belle” from TZ), but Stan wanted the primal, basic essence of a witch, more of a symbol than a real person, and asked that we reduce Haggis’ dialogue to what we wound up with (“Now it begins, Ed Harley”).  When we talked about Pumpkinhead appearing in the doorway of the burned-out church, Stan said, “I want The Thing in the doorway,” referring to the iconic silhouetted moment in the 1951 sci-fi classic.  Like I said, we all knew the movies.  Our very talented cinematographer fully understood the special flavors we were trying to achieve, and delivered big-time.”

TRAILER

A Trailer a Day Keeps The Pumpkinhead Away! (1988)

This has been your EverLovin’ MonsterGirl saying it’s been an absolute gas getting to know Gary Gerani, a regular guy with an enormous wealth of knowledge and nostalgia tucked into that endearing voice. And say — this Halloween–don’t avoid that pumpkin patch… if you’ve got nothing to feel guilty about that is…!

 

Rod Serling’s Night Gallery 9 Terrifying Halloween Treats!

*THE CEMETERY -PILOT TV movie AIR DATE NOV.8, 1969
*THE DEAD MAN-AIR DATE DEC. 16, 1970
*CERTAIN SHADOWS ON THE WALL-DEC.30, 1970
*THE DOLL-AIR DATE JAN.13, 1971
*A FEAR OF SPIDERS -AIR DATE OCT. 6, 1971
*COOL AIR-AIR DATE DEC.8, 1971
*GREEN FINGERS-AIR DATE JAN.8, 1972
*GIRL WITH THE HUNGRY EYES AIR DATE OCT.1, 1972
*SOMETHING IN THE WOODWORK AIR DATE JAN.14, 1973

Next time up, The Tune in Dan’s Cafe, Lindenmann’s Catch, A Question of Fear, The Sins of the Father, Fright Night and There Aren’t Any More McBanes.

Available on dvd: with Season 2 Audio Commentary from Guillermo Del Toro and from historians Scott Skelton and Jim Benson and Season 3 aslo with Audio Commentary from historians Scott Skelton and Jim Benson

There will be no need for spoilers, I will not give away the endings …

The way the studio wants to do it, a character won’t be able to walk by a graveyard, he’ll have to be chased. They’re trying to turn it into a Mannix in a shroud.—Creator Rod Serling

“Good evening, and welcome to a private showing of three paintings, displayed here for the first time. Each is a collectors’ item in its own way – not because of any special artistic quality, but because each captures on a canvas, and suspends in time and space, a frozen moment of a nightmare.”-Rod Serling Host

With the major success of The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), after it was cancelled in 1964, Rod Serling continued to work on various projects. He wrote the screenplays for the movie versions of Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes and The Man based on the novel by Irving Wallace. In 1970 he created a new series, Night Gallery which were tales of the macabre based on various mystery/horror/fantasy writers, H.P Lovecraft, Algernon Blackwood and even Serling himself. The show was produced by Jack Laird and Rod Serling. The show that ran six episodes each, part of four dramatic series under the umbrella title Four-In-One. In 1971, it appeared with it’s own vignettes on NBC opposite Mannix. In 1971 the Pilot for the show had three of the most powerful of the series. The Cemetery starring Ossie Davis, Roddy McDowall, and George Macready. Eyes stars Hollywood legend Joan Crawford who plays an unpleasant tyrant who is blind and is willing to rob the sight of another man in order to see for a short period of time. The segment was directed by Steven Spielberg. The last playlet starred Norma Crane and Richard Kiley as a Nazi who is hiding out in a South American country who dreams of losing himself in a little boat on a quiet lake depicted in a painting at the local art museum.

Then Night Gallery showcased an initial six segments and the hour long series consisted of several different mini teleplays. In its last season from 1972-1973 the show was reduced to only a half hour.
Night Gallery differed from The Twilight Zone which were comprised of science fiction and fantasy narratives as it delved more into the supernatural and occult themes. The show has a unique flavor in the same way Boris Karloff introduced each one of Thriller’s divergent stories, Rod Serling would introduce each episode surrounded by his gallery of macabre and morbid paintings by artist Gallery Painter: Tom Wright Serling would open his show with a little soliloquy about life, irony and the upcoming tale of ghoulish delights.

Rod Serling was not a fan of Night Gallery and did not have the revelatory passion and inducement to plug the show the way he did for The Twilight Zone, in fact the series was panned by the critics. Two of the shows Serling wrote were nominated for Emmy’s, “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar” starring William Windom and Diane Baker and The Messiah of Mott Street “ starring Edward G. Robinson.

From Gary Gerani-Fantastic Television: A Pictorial History of Sci-Fi, the Unusual and The Fantastic
“No stranger to the interference of sponsors, networks and censors, Serling once again found himself locked by contact into an untenable situation..{…}… He owned Night Gallery, created it and it was sold to network and audience on his reputation . The competitor on CBS was Mannix, a formula private-eye shoot-and rough-‘em up. Serling felt that NBC and Universal were doing their best to imitate Mannix, with an emphasis on monsters, chases and fights. They turned down many of his scripts as “too thoughtful” Serling lamented. “They don’t want to compete against Mannix in terms of contrast, but similarity.” Not only was Serling unable to sell them scripts he was also barred from casting sessions, and couldn’t make decisions about his show—he had signed away creative control. As a result he tried to have his name removed from the title, but NBC had him contract-bound to play host and cordially to introduce the parasite to the TV audience.”

 

Continue reading “Rod Serling’s Night Gallery 9 Terrifying Halloween Treats!”

“Out Loud” Part 2– My Extraordinary Conversation with the Legendary Lee Grant…

Update! The Film Forum in NYC has put together a retrospective of 13 films and documentaries featuring some of Lee’s best work as an actor and director.

10th July 1970: Studio portrait of American actor Lee Grant, wearing a flower-patterned dress and  in front of a light backdrop, (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Jo: Hi, Lee? It’s Jo, how’re you doing?

Lee: Hi Jo!

Jo: What’s going on? How’s your day?

Lee: Good so far.

Jo: So hopefully it’ll just even get better now. [laughs]

Lee: Of course!

Jo: Are you ready to talk a little bit?

Lee: Sure!

Jo: Ok, great! Um, God, I don’t even know where to start because I’m just really excited and very grateful that you’re spending time talking to me.

Lee: Sure!

Jo: Um, so, before I start asking you any questions, I mean I guess I could just start asking you some questions. We spoke a little yesterday, and you know how much I love your work. I’ve just followed you for such a long time. And I’m kind of in awe of you, so I’m a little starstruck. [laughs]

Lee: Oh, good! [laughs] You’re so cute and I don’t think there are many people who would say that any more. So it’s yummy.

Jo: No, that’s not true, let me tell you, you’ve got fans! There are so many people who just adore you. You are memorable! You are a beautiful spitfire. You’re complex, you’re powerful, you’re evocative and very memorable. So don’t think I’m the only one. [laughs]

Lee: Ok, I give in!

Jo: Ok, you give in!

Lee: I give in, I am memorable!

Jo: You are memorable, you really really are. I mean, seriously, it’s like every time something would come on TV, a show or a movie, and I would say “oh, Lee Grant is in this!” I would get so excited. No matter what it was, I would watch it. If it was like a television program, even if I wasn’t familiar with the show or the film, I’d be like “well, Lee is in it, I’ve got to see this now!” So I’m going to start asking away and hopefully they’re good questions.

Lee: Where’s Wendy?

Jo: Oh, Wendy’s here, too.

Wendy: I’m actually here, Lee. Hi! I’m the technical person so I’m here to make sure everything goes ok.

Lee: Hi Wendy. Ok!

Wendy: And I do have a question for you at the end, too. I couldn’t resist!

Jo: The sociologist in her!

Lee: You know, I’m just glad to hear from you girls. You were so alive and interested and interesting when we met, and here we are, what is it 3 months later? You meet someone on an airplane and you see somebody and you sit and you talk for 6 hours and then you get off and you never see them again. So this is nice!

Jo: It was really amazing to just walk into this big room with all these people fluttering about, swarming about like a hive. And then to see you standing there [Lee laughs] and you’re like this legend. This utter legend, stuck in the corner of a room!

Lee: Yeah, and you know, I’ve been writing a lot. And that deserves it’s own story.

Jo: It does. It definitely does… To walk over and just talk to you like that—I wanted to grab a big pot of coffee and a couple of chairs and just sit. So now we’re doing it, really.

Lee: We’re doing it! And I have the coffee, too. I’m not sure it counts, though.

Jo: So, I’m going to just start asking questions. And I think I told you yesterday that I do these little setups because it helps me bridge to the question.

Lee: Whatever, just go honey!

Jo: You were in films with diverging mainstream audience appeal… showing the wide range and versatility of your acting such as In the Heat of the Night with Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger which dealt with racism. Valley of the Dolls became a cult pop sensation, and Plaza Suite where you were sublimely hilarious in Neil Simon’s timeless comedy at it’s best. What is it that makes you such a versatile actress?

Lee: Well, I was a very compelled actress. You know I was blacklisted for 12 years, and those were the years from age 24 to age 36. I couldn’t work in film or television because I was married to a writer who was called a communist and therefore I was asked to name my own husband in front of the Unamerican Activities Committee, and my loathing—I was going to say fear and loathing, but there was no fear. My loathing for that kind of activity and McCarthyism. You know, I can feel it in my stomach as I’m talking to you, it’s so great. It’s the feeling I have about Trump and that little lawyer Roy Cohn. You know, I was taken out of the acting system for the most important years of my life, I thought at the time. So when I came back, you know, they hired me for Peyton Place, and let me see, it would’ve been 1952-1964. Peyton Place at that time was the biggest television show in the country.

Jo: Yes, I just finished binge-watching it.

Lee: I went from near obscurity to being the bad girl—Stella Chernack—on Peyton Place which was seen by America three times a week. And not the same show three times a week. The appetite for it was so great that they did three new shows each week. So all of a sudden I was everybody’s bad girl. You know, and my hunger for work, for acting, for reestablishing myself, for getting back at the bad guy was so intense, that all the film or TV show had to say was “do you want to?” And I said yes. That was the title of my book, I said yes to everything. Yes, yes, yes because the appetite was unfillable, to work, to act. And with each part, you know you talk about my first movie, the movie that Norman Jewison directed, the one with Sidney Poitier and Rod Stieger.

Jo: Of course, In the Heat of the Night…

Lee: You know, when Norman interviewed me, he knew my background. This was a decade of intensely liberal filmmakers in Hollywood. Intensely liberal filmmakers. And the producer of Peyton Place, too. It was like they couldn’t wait to hire me. They couldn’t wait to make up for—and it makes me cry a little bit—all the years I didn’t work. Their generosity, their kindness, their focus, their need to say “you’re ok now, we got you.” And for them to see that as an actor I was ready to take on the kind of roles that they were ready to give me. And I was.

Jo: And with an extra fierceness. You probably had an extra fierceness to show yourself because you had this fuel, this anger. This impetus.

Lee: It wasn’t to sell myself, it was to act. It was to drop into that character and live that new life. After all I’m a method actress. And I was starved to act. So I just couldn’t get enough after wanting to act for all those young years. And I had to lie about my age because I was 36 when I got back in, so I got Mayor Yorty to change my driver’s license. We had no computers then so nobody would know. You know, it was like everything to get back that they took away.

 

Jo: Everything that they stole from you! You mentioned being a method actress…

When you act what are you tapping into, beyond the acting Method you studied, and beyond the imagination of little Lyova Rosenthal. You take words in the script and make them come to life like no other actor. Lee Grant has her own unique way of expressing herself. You bring a unique identity to each role. Did it come from starting out with Meisner, or teaching at Uta Hagen’s studio working with improvisation? Where does your genius come from?

Lee: It absolutely came from Meisner, because I was 17 when I went into the neighborhood playhouse. I was a failing high school student, and all I wanted were boys, boys, boys, and all I did was flirt, flirt, flirt. And when I went into that class and he gave me an objective. Jo, you know what an objective is—it’s to want something.

Jo: Oh yeah, yeah.

Lee: And the situation he set up with another boy in class was to get him out of the room, that he’d been a boyfriend and he wanted to get him out of the room. Well, this, there’s a Jewish word for it—a guerilla, a goomba, whatever it is, came out of me so this boy had no chance. The rage that I never knew—I never knew I had– this impulse, this fierceness, of carrying out that objective to get that poor guy out of the room. With my voice, with my hands, it overwhelmed me. It overwhelmed him. And my strength was born. My strength was born in that first improvisation at 17. And to be given the benefit of saying “I want to do this” and then within safe circumstances, which is the play, you get to carry it out. You may not carry it out in life, but in that room for that moment you can do anything because you have the objective.

Jo: That’s incredible. That’s an incredible background story. And I understand it’s like that moment, that epiphany when there it is, it’s born.

Lee: That was it. And that became my life. I that was it.

Jo: Well thank god for that because we’ve enjoyed the outcome of that.

Lee: Thank god for that is right! I could’ve gone any way, I could’ve been breaking up marriages.

Jo: Well, now I have a fun question—You are our favorite Columbo murderer… you were also in the Balcony with Peter Falk…

This is a 2 part question. You worked with Peter Falk in several roles, from plays like Prisoner of 2nd Ave, to an emotional episode of Ben Casey (you both gave a wonderfully passionate and heart-wrenching performance!), to the very post-modern The Balcony, and then, famously, as our favorite Columbo murderer the lady lawyer Lesley Willams in Ransom for a Deadman. What was it like to work with him? How did you end up working with him so much?

Columbo was one of those shows that was set up in such an interesting way because there were certain murderers who were ‘sympathetic’, and you were one of them. You could tell Columbo had a lot of respect for your character’s savvy. Did you enjoy playing cat and mouse with each other (like when you say to him “it’s always the jugular he’s going for” and then when you take him for that terrifying joy ride in your airplane and he doesn’t want to talk for a while, and you’re enjoying his discomfort)? How much fun were you both having on the set?

Lee: Oh, you’re so funny! [laughs]

Jo: And I promised myself I wouldn’t ask you about Shelley Winters (co-star in The Balcony), but maybe if we have time I’ll ask you about Shelley… [laughs](back to Peter Falk)

Lee: It was a good marriage.

Jo: That’s a good way to put it.

Lee: Yeah, it was a good marriage. All of the parts we played, or were thrown in to play together, since it certainly wasn’t planned. Peter was in it and I was hired, or I was in it and then Peter. And we found ourselves each time within a new situation with a new role to play with each other. Never the same role. And we were not friends.

Jo: You weren’t? Oh, that’s what I was curious about because it almost seemed like you had such a natural flow together.

Lee: I think that’s one of the things that worked for us. That we were familiar as actors and felt each other as actors, but we had no history that would get in the way of whatever that character was. Whoever he was playing went through many versions certainly, and in his big show, I was the enemy. So it was fun to attack him freshly in whatever character he was and whatever character I was at the time—friend, enemy, enemy, friend. And at each time find an actor who could spar with you, you know, fence with you.

Jo: And you did it so well. I mean it’s funny because with Columbo there are several instances in the series where there are sympathetic murderers. And Wendy and I both think that you’re one of them. You, and Joyce Van Patten, I loved her character.

Lee: Oh, Joyce is one of my best friends.

Jo: Ah, love her! And Ruth Gordon, we love the one with Ruth Gordon. If Ruth were here Wendy and I would try to get you three to sit and have lunch with us and celebrate the best Columbo murderers.

Lee: I would do it any time, to have lunch with Ruth Gordon any time. And Joyce is one of my three very very very very best friends.

Jo: We love her. She’s another one, we just light up when we see her. She’s so wonderful. That’s so nice to hear that you are such good friends. Tell her we said hi.

Lee: I knew Joyce Van Patten when I saw her on stage as a child actor. I saw her on stage when she was about 13 or 14.

Jo: Really? Wow, so you have a long history together.

Lee: We have a long history.

Jo: Awwww that’s wonderful. And it’s interesting that you both were that sympathetic murderer, and he really had that kind of respect for you. Because no matter what hell you put him through, like flying in that plane and making him suffer, you can tell he says, “don’t talk to me for a few minutes.”

Lee: Well the thing is also that I’m the worst driver in the world. I have no sense of direction. So getting me to fly a plane like I knew where I was going and I knew what buttons to push was such a kick for me.

Jo: Oh, that’s great! This is an interesting question and something I really wanted to know.…

Do you feel that your roles in non-mainstream films (pause) or television series like Peyton Place Do you feel like they were less constrained for you as an actor?

Lee: Than what?

Jo: Thank doing a major motion picture. The smaller television series.

I wish there were more roles for you like Stella Chernak, or the wandering mother/wife in the Neon Ceiling. Or Mrs Enders, the mother in the Landlord, or Marilyn Kim Novak’s neighbor in Middle of the Night. One of my favorites and you’re going to laugh at this, but sassy Edna from Storm Fear. They were very complex, and reflexive, and quirky, and substantive roles for women?

Lee: Wait, Storm Fear? (wonderful laughing hysterically)

Jo: Storm Fear directed by Cornel Wilde. It was that… ok I’m glad you’re laughing… I’m going to ask you about that now.

Lee: [laughs] Where did you ever get to see it?

Jo: Well I’ve seen most all your work anyway, but because I knew I was going to talk to you I started re-watching a lot of your films again because I just wanted to spend time with Lee Grant.

Lee: Oh honey, that’s funny.

Jo: Ok, I have my question about Storm Fear… this will make you laugh even more…

I get the sense Cornel Wilde didn’t give a lot of direction in Storm Fear. But Edna was a very bright light in an otherwise conventional heist movie. Edna was rough around the edges, likable, and kind. There’s a great scene where she’s walking in the snow, in her fancy boots and snow shoes, swinging her purse. And she says about her mink coat “if it gets left behind, I’m gonna to be in it.” And in the end, they leave Edna dying in the snow with her two broken ankles, a wad of cash, and her mink coat. We were so upset at the end for you! Is Edna still out there in the snow? What was your experience working on that film?

Lee: “I’ll kill ya!” Do you remember his reading of “I’ll kill ya!”? Cornel Wilde would say “ok, cut. Now listen to me Steve (Steven Hill), “I’ll kill you.” “I’ll kill you. Now you try it.” And Steve goes “I’ll kill you.” And Cornel would say “ok, you’ve got it Steve. Alright, and action!” And Steve would say “I’ll kill YA!” “I’ll kill YA!” [laughs]

Jo: [laughs] That’s too hilarious! So I suspected right… that you two did your thing and were the highlight of the film. There’s the great scene—you’ll remember this—where you’re walking in the snow in your fancy shoes. And you’re swinging your purse and you’re wearing the mink coat. And you say “If this gets left behind I’m going to be in it!” And that’s exactly what happens. They leave you dying in the snow with two broken ankles and a wad of cash in your mink coat.

Lee: [laughs] Falling down into the ravine.

Jo: You had fallen into the ravine. And Wendy and I are – I’m the kind of person, I yell at the television set—And Wendy and I were like “where’s Edna?” I’m like “what about Edna?!”

Lee: Thank you! Thank you! I needed that!

Jo: I’m like all upset, what are you leaving her down there in the snow for? Give some closure. Where is she? Rescue her! Dammit! Rescue her! She’s got broken ankles!

Lee: That is so funny.

Edna-“I hate you, you creep! I hate you!!!!”

Jo: But you were great in that. And those are the kind of roles that I really do love.

Lee: Well you know the thing about that is, historically speaking, that was an absolute crossover moment in my life, because I was still blacklisted. Cornel Wilde who was a really, really decent guy hired me as a blacklisted actress in an important part in which he wanted to introduce his wife, the non-actress, as the lead. With Dan Duryea, who is no small pickings. Dan Duryea is one of the great character actors of all time.

Jo: Yes, I love him.

Lee: Now Cornel hired me when I was still deep in the blacklist and nobody else would hire me. And we made enough money to have my daughter. She was conceived in Hollywood at that time because we had enough money to have another baby, and to have my baby, as I had two stepchildren. So you know it was a ridiculous thing, stomping in the snow with this big snowshoes and a black satin dress, and my blistered scalp because they dyed my hair from dark red to platinum blonde. So my head was all blistered. But bless Cornel Wilde. He did a remarkable and wonderful thing, and I had the most important thing in my life. Dina saved me through that whole blacklisted period. Having a little girl to take care of and to be there. And she was the best, the funniest, the sweetest, the most interesting. So she saved my life, and that came out of Storm Fear. I mean, it’s so interesting when you think about it.

Jo: It really is. And your performance is almost bright and glowing. There’s something emanating from Edna. I just love Edna. And maybe that’s what I was picking up on.

Lee: Oh yes, sweetheart. But having daughter Dina was the thing that held me together through the whole thing.

Jo: And she’s a hoot.

Lee: She’s the best. The best. I just came back from being with her.

Jo: I love that she’s in that episode of the Golden Girls when Blanche, Rue MacLanahan, keeps slamming the door in her face. It is just so hilarious. The comedic timing between the two of them is brilliant. I mean, she’s got your… she’s got the gift.

Lee: Yes, she does.

Jo: It’s in her genes. Ok, now we’ll move on and I’ll ask you another question—I’m glad we had a good laugh…

I loved the scene in Hal Ashby’s film the Landlord when you and Pearl Bailey are getting drunk on pot liquor, and you walk out with the ham hock in your bag. Mrs. Enders is such a fabulous character, did you have any particular inspiration for her character? Did you enjoy working with Pearl? And, do you have any great stories from that film? He’s a great director, and Mrs Enders is another fabulous character that you’ve played.

What was the inspiration for her character…?

Lee: Yes! [laughs] Well, my mother and my aunt, yes. And I had just finished doing In the Heat of the Night which was all about losing my first husband who died of a heart attack and Norman Jewison knew that and Hal Ashby was his editor at that time, so they knew that I would come in to do In the Heat of the Night with an experience that they knew I had, and Sidney and I really improvised that scene. But that’s how they knew me. And then as a friend they let me read The Landlord, and I said I can do that part and their whole image of me was of the grieving widow. And I said “let me just do it for you because that’s my mother, that’s my aunt.” And they told me that they had Jessica Tandy attached to it and I found some blonde wig, and I stood under the lights in the hallway so that I looked older. And I did it for them and they got it. And they gave it to me. So you know to go from the first, In the Heat of the Night, to Mrs Enders was just everything I ever wanted. To plumb both of those things. So it was just thrilling for me. First of all, the movie is a masterpiece. And it was Hal’s first directing job.

Jo: So it Was his first movie.

Lee: Yes, then he did the one with Ruth Gordon.

*Hal Ashby on the set of Harold and Maude with Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon.*

Jo: Wendy and I were sold on him after he did Harold and Maude.

Lee: Harold and Maude is one of the great masterpieces ever ever made.

Jo: It absolutely is…

Lee: And I wanted to do Ruth Gordon’s part, too. It shows you how hungry and stupid I was at the same time.

Jo: I wouldn’t say stupid.

Lee: Well, how hungry and ambitious.

Jo: Right.

Lee: Not ambitious, how starved I was. I was so starved that when you showed a piece of marrow bone, like Ruth Gordon’s part, I was like “let me have it, let me have it” but I never saw a piece of work as brilliant as her…

Jo: Oh yes, she is a whole other subject… she’s something else!

Lee: She is. She is to be worshiped.

Jo: I think so. But I mean so are you, really!

Lee: Oh, ok!

Jo: We’re worshiping you today! [laughs]

Lee: Worship away! [laughs]

Jo: Ok I’m going to ask you about Shampoo… I think there should’ve been more of you…

You won an academy award for Shampoo. We’re huge fans of the brilliant filmmaker Hal Ashby. People experience this movie as a 1970s, romanticized, sexual freedom film.

I experience the film as a deification of Warren Beatty’s insatiable sexual prowess running around with his phallic blowdryer. I just think there should have been a lot more of you. Do you think the film would’ve benefited from more development of the women characters and their sexuality? You also mention in your wonderful book that Warren Beatty tried to direct you and you almost quit the film. Do you think the film needed more of your vision and direction to bring the women characters more into focus?

Lee: Well I think there should’ve been more of me!

Jo: I think so!

Lee: I think there should’ve been a lot more of me in everything that I’ve ever been in. But unfortunately, there are other actors and there is a plot and there are other ramifications. So while I always think there should be a lot more of me, practically speaking it’s not the thing to do. I think that the woman I played was sound. I think her needs, her bitterness. The rejection of her within the Hollywood framework of that time. And that glowing gorgeous daughter played by…

Jo: Carrie Fisher.

Lee: She was the most beautifully white-skinned little girl, Carrie Fisher. And for me to be a mother who was hungry and rejected and to have that child right downstairs in the house. My character was just filled with conflict and unfulfillment. And all I seem to care about in that film was my coat and my hair and getting shtupped. And grabbing at whatever I could that would fill this emptiness. I hated Hollywood at that time.

Jo: But you were more interesting and intricate than Warren Beatty’s character. I didn’t find his character as complex as I did yours.

Lee: I don’t think that he intended to be… to be… you know, Warren wrote that with Robert Towne. A great, great, great writer. And the character he wrote was a very simple guy who likes to please. He likes to please everyone. He likes to please the Jack Warden character as much as he does with the women whose hair he does, his customers. He is guaranteed to please. Because certainly he’s not that attracted to me. Right before he goes to bed with me, my daughter seduces him. And you know one of the real arguments that Warren and I had in that film was that right before the scene when I come home and I go to Carrie’s door, and I’m expecting him to be there. I’m expecting him to go upstairs and make love to me. The day before we do that scene he sits me down at the table and he says “you know Lee, Felecia (which is the character I played), Felicia does not know when she opens the door to her daughters room that the daughter and him have…” And I was so enraged that he would tell me what to think before I open that door that I quit the next day.

Jo: I read that in your book!

Lee: Yes, I quit the next day. And of course he apologized and we moved on with the scene but I said “if you ever tell me what I’m supposed to think, I won’t be there.” But the thing was, that I opened the door and of course I knew that they had gone to bed. I mean, I’m no dummy!

Jo: Of course!

Lee: And my own need was so ferocious that it didn’t matter! And that’s the way I played that scene when I went upstairs. I kept on my coat. I kept on my curlers in my hair. I just pulled down my stockings and pulled him over to me. You know, it was my needs.

Jo: Right, yes. And it’s a powerful scene and a powerful role. And that’s why you won the Academy Award for it!

Lee: Well, you know I’d been nominated a lot of times.

Jo: Oh, I know.

Lee: So usually when you’re nominated and you don’t win then you’re just a thing in the way after that. At first it’s like “Lee, Lee, look this way!” And then when you don’t win, they want you out of the way.

Jo: That’s rotten!

Lee: But I knew even when I went up to get the award finally that I was now at the age where they wouldn’t hire me. That I was going into 50, and this was probably the last big big movie.

Jo: But it wasn’t.

Lee: Only one more.

Jo: What was the movie after?

Lee: Oh, the Jewish… the boat…

Jo: Oh, yes, Voyage of the Damned.

Lee: Yes, Voyage of the Damned.

Jo: I watched the scene where you cut your hair. It’s a very difficult movie for me to watch. And, I had a relative on the ship.

Lee: What?

Jo: Yes, she was a child and she survived it. She made her way back.

Lee: Where?

Jo: Eventually she made her way to France and she is now a biochemist and a professor at Harvard. I lost relatives in the Holocaust but she was on the ship and I don’t have her name in front of me. This is terrible. My brother has been doing historical research to find our relatives and where we came from in a small town that is now part of Poland.

Lee: That’s where my father came from.

Jo: Yes, and it was Austria at the time.

Lee: We’re little strong Polish Jews!

Jo: Yes, yes, and we came to New York and it made us even stronger.

Lee: Oh yes.

Jo: We’re tough.

Lee: Something about us makes us tough.

Jo: And my mother was Russian.

Lee: So was mine! My mishpucha, honey! [laughs]

Jo: My mishpucha, yes! [laughs] That’s why I called you bubbie (short for bubbeleh-friend not grandmother) yesterday and then felt bad. I said “I’ll talk to you later, bubbie!” [laughs] And then I was like “Oy, should I have said that?”

Lee: [laughs] I’ll be your bubbie!

Jo: Oh, good, good! Ok, so now I’m going to ask you about Stella Chernack because we were talking about that bad girl you played. Again, you won a much-deserved Emmy for that. And I did watch the entire show, because of you and I knew you were in it. So I watched Peyton Place… now, Stella is amazing. An amazing character.

Again, you won a much-deserved Emmy for your portrayal of Stella Chernak. Stella leaves her working class background in Peyton Place to become a biochemist, returning when her brother gets into trouble. This is when the writing and the show were the most cohesive and well thought out. It’s one of my favorite roles. Stella is very complex and there are lots of layers to your performance. She is a bit of a Tennessee William’s character, even in the way she struts the dusty streets of the town. Did you channel any of that feeling in her character? It was an intense character study and one hell of a performance. What did Stella mean to you?

Lee: Well, the whole thing was like stepping into heaven. First of all, Stella’s an angry girl.

Jo: Yes

Lee: And I was an angry girl. And Stella was fighting the unfairness of the things around her. And I had been fighting. So this was a funnel through which all of Lee and Stella’s resentment and anger and feeling of unfairness in the world around her could go. It was like made for me.

Jo: It gave you a place to channel that anger.

Lee: It channeled it. It channeled everything. And don’t forget that I went from obscurity into America’s favorite program.

Jo: Right, and one of the greatest characters, I think. Very complex. She was angry but she was also very sympathetic. You understood where she was coming from, you know?

Lee: Yup.

Jo: And that’s what I loved about her. That’s what you brought to the show. The show is really good. After you left, things just kind of went a little crazy but still I watched the whole thing. I love Barbara Parkins, and I love a lot of the actors on the show, too.

Lee: Barbara Parkins was given her first shot in that movie…

Jo: Yes, Valley of the Dolls

Lee: Valley of the Dolls, where I played Stella again as Sharon. You know, and Patty Duke. Those were their first shots after television. And of course it went down like a log.

Jo: The film is such a pop culture icon. I mean, people are fanatical.

Lee: That’s because it’s so bad.

Jo: Did you know that it was going to become a pop religious experience for some people?

Lee: [laughs]

Jo: It is, I’m telling you!

Lee: Because it’s so bad. [laughs]

Jo: But it is and it isn’t. I mean, yes, it is. [laughs] But it’s bad in a good way.

Lee: [laughs] It could be worse, but people embrace those things and raise them up.

Jo: I can see why. You do need that kind of alternative to the heavy stuff that’s out there. You need that counter balance of the delicious–

Lee: It was pop.

Jo: It was pop. And the acting was still good!

The name of your book is “I Said Yes to Everything.” And you did say yes to films like Visiting Hours, The Swarm, and Airport ’77— the last two big budget disaster films. I was sad you ended up floating face down in Airport ’77. Did you at least have fun making these films and working with actors like Olivia de Havilland and Jack Lemmon? Do you have any good stories to tell?

I watched you in Visiting Hours with the parrot.

Lee: Oh no! tisk tisk tisk! Don’t even talk about it!

Jo: Ok, I won’t talk about it. I won’t talk about Visiting Hours. We’ll bury it. Can I talk about the Swarm and Airport ’77 where you played Christopher Lee’s wife whose a lush?

Lee: Ohhh, absolutely! [laughs]

Jo: Ok [laughs]

Lee: Visiting Hours was what made me absolutely shut down as an actor and turn to directing.

Jo: I understand why.

Lee: You know, one of my very best friends, a writer, I took to see it in the movie house. And he wouldn’t talk to me on the way home—“you can’t need money that much.” And I knew that I couldn’t do…

Jo: Look, every actor has done that. Every single actor has done a movie like that.

Lee: Yeah, yeah. Well, Airport ’77– I loved doing Airport ’77.

Jo: Well, that’s what I was going to ask you.

Lee: I loved it. [laughs]

Jo: I mean, you ended up floating face down in the water. And again, Wendy and I were yelling “no!”

Lee: [laughs] Well I have to tell you I had it in my contract that I didn’t have to jump in the water. They had a double. But, when the water scene came up, 60 year old Olivia de Havilland raised her hand and said “let me be the first! Let me!”

Jo: [laughs] oh my god!

Lee: I was so shamed that when it came time for me to do it

Jo: You had to do it!

Lee: They said “well let’s get Lee’s double” and I went “no no no I don’t have a double!” I didn’t want them to know what a coward I was.

Jo: [laughs] So you did it.

Lee: So I just jumped! Because I wanted to be like Olivia, you know. She’s just so amazing.

Jo: Yes, she is.

Lee: What a hero Olivia de Havilland is. I mean, think about it.

Jo: We share the same birthday so every time it’s my birthday I always toast Olivia. Because, wow we have the same birthday and she loves cats.

Lee: I do too.

Jo: Oh, you do? I thought you were a dog person

Lee: Yes, we have 2 cats. But what a woman, what a spirit! Let me be the first, she said, climbing down from the rafters.

Jo: [laughs]

Lee: All through Airport ’77 she sat in the rafters with the lighting guys and chatted with them.

Jo: Do you know Wendy was a lighting designer before she was a sociologist.

Lee: Of course she was! Wendy the lighting designer sociologist, of course!

Jo: Same thing, right?

Lee: Same thing! Shed the light someplace!

Jo: Exactly, beautifully put. See, leave it to you. I have a few more questions, is that ok?

Lee: I’m just lying here on the chaise lounge in my nightgown as comfortable as somebody who just woke up.

Jo: That sounds lovely!

Lee: And having a wonderful time with you.

Jo: Oh good! We’re having a blast, too! There are several performances of yours I’ve never seen and that makes me upset because I’m a completist. I want to see everything you did. And in your book you write about the show The Defenders. I love the show, but that episode is unavailable. The particular episode that you did is not out, or not yet at least.

Like a few others, there are several performances of yours that I haven’t been able to see because they’re unavailable. For example, there’s an episode of The Defenders in which, as I read in your book, director Stuart Rosenberg lit you in a way that was your favorite. There was The Doctors and the Nurses, another incredible dramatic television series. And then there is the the motion picture An Affair of the Skin (1963) where you co-starred with the brilliant Diana Sands, who died tragically at 39. I would love to see your work in that film. Can you tell me about the film and about working with Diana?

Lee: I know, she was in… Raisin in the Sun.

Jo: Raisin in the Sun

Lee: Yes, and the other movie with Pearl Bailey… The Landlord

Jo: Yes! She was in the Landlord, too, that’s right. So you worked with her twice. What did you think of that film Affair of the Skin, because I don’t know much about it.

Lee: I don’t remember it. Vivica Lindfors was in it. And I just don’t remember it. I don’t remember what I did or anything.

Jo: Maybe somebody will find the film.

Lee: I hope not!

Jo: Ok, then maybe they’ll find a way to get it buried so it never comes out. Did you enjoy working with Diana because I love her work and I find it so tragic that she died so young. She was kind of one of the first Black women who had a much different kind of persona. She wasn’t doing the roles—well maybe Ruby Dee did—but she wasn’t playing the maids and she wasn’t playing the nurses.

Lee: Well, also Hal Ashby didn’t get them maids and nurses to play. The Landlord was a brilliant script and it highlighted the difference between the Long Island whites and Harlem. And Bo Bridges, I mean he was astonishing in it. His sweetness, his openness. You know, that was a script for the ages. And I personified again that kind of closed-minded rich stupid mother.

Jo: Well, insulated maybe.

Lee: Yes, totally insulated. You know no idea beyond the house and the garden and the friends what life was about at all. And it’s such an astonishing piece of work.

Jo: Yes, it was. Did you get to work much with Diana in that?

Lee: Yes, well, we hung out. And after the film was over I gave a party at the apartment in New York, as we all stayed in New York, and Diana and I were sitting there waiting for Hal because we both had a crush on him. And his girlfriend, who he later married, at the time she would not let him come.

Jo: Possessive! Oh really [laughs]

Lee: So Diana and I sat and drank wine and talked about how mean she was and how much we loved him. [laughs]

Jo: Did he help you pick out clothes, did I read that right?

Lee: Yes, he did. In the Heat of the Night.

Jo: Yes, in the Heat of the Night he helped you pick out the clothes. He was the editor on the film.

Lee: Yes, yes.

Jo: Ok, you might not want to talk about this movie either, and if you don’t want to you don’t have to. But first, I noticed recently you did an interview for a documentary on Boris Karloff? You worked with him on “Even the Weariest River” on the Alcoha Hour. And I haven’t been able to see it. A lot of the Alcoha Hour and those dramatic television performances from the 50s are hard to get. But Boris Karloff is my idol. I’ve always said I wanted him to be my grandfather, because he’s the most gentle soul. And I met his daughter Sarah and she’s just wonderful.

You worked with Boris Karloff in 1956 on the Alcoa Hour “Even the Weariest River” it hasn’t been released so there’s no way to see it. I have to ask you what was it like to work with him? Do you have any stories about working with him?

Lee: Well, you know, I just remember that when I was blacklisted and he was playing on Broadway, maybe it was St. Joan, I don’t know but there was something so gracious and so magnanimous, and so grandfatherly, and beautiful about him. And he would always sign all my petitions. I was little girl who couldn’t work. And, you know, it was dangerous to sign petitions, you know you couldn’t work either if you did. And Kim Stanley and Maureen Stapleton were ones who were always working on Broadway and also signed my petitions. But you know I hadn’t remembered working with him in this television movie. I know they brought it to me, and the people in it… I was the only girl. And it was during the blacklist so the director had to be a very very brave guy. A very brave guy. Because I was the only woman and he cast me in it.

Jo: So you stood out.

Lee: Yes, it was with Boris Karloff and Christopher Plumber. It’s a terrible movie.

Jo: Oh is it really? [laughs]

Lee: Yes, but very interesting. I mean because it’s all packed. In those days you shot on set. There wasn’t a closeup. You kind of walked into the shot.

Jo: Right, it was live theatre, really, right?

Lee: Yes, it was shooting live theatre. So it had that kind of rushed feeling. But the story was meaningful, and I was just so surprised to see me there. And I’ve just forgotten a lot of what I did.

Jo: Well I didn’t even realize you had done something with Boris Karloff.

Lee: I didn’t, either. [laughs]

Jo: [laughs] Well, you know he’s so iconic, and thinking of you and him together is such an interesting confluence. Ok, so I’m going to ask you about a movie you might not want to talk about…

Lee: Which could that be?

Jo: Ah, The Mafu Cage?

Lee: [laughs] Oh, yes!

Jo: Because you worked with Carol Kane. She’s brilliant, she’s such a noodlehead. She’s just something else.

Lee: Yes, she is.

Jo: I thought that The Mafu Cage, directed by Karen Arthur, is a very primal and dark film. It seemed like a difficult and disturbing narrative for both you and Carol Kane to step into. It’s a psycho-sexual mine-field, almost filmed like a stage play, about captivity and dependency. It must have been a tough movie to film. Was it difficult for you two seasoned actors? Can you tell me what the process was like for you?

Lee: Oh, of course! Oh, I don’t know, there must’ve been some spare time to do it. And it was a woman director, Karen Arthur. And I don’t remember what year it was. But I know I thought, why not? It was Carol Kane, who was a delicious friend. And it was an absurd concept. You know, for her to have this relationship with a…

Jo: An orangutan maybe?

Lee: It was a gorilla, you know, Carol and the gorilla. So I mean it was absurd enough to say why not? It didn’t take very long and so it was like going to a bad nightclub, you know what I’m saying?

Jo: Yes! [laughs]

Lee: Oh, let’s go in there and see what happens.

Jo: Yes, dark and scary and there’s a little journey in there.

Lee: Yes, yeah. It was a why not, you know?

Jo: But the thing is it’s an interesting, disturbing film but there’s a lot in it. And your performances, you made it a good film. I think it’s a really kind of an unsung horror/ psychological thriller. I don’t think it’s a bad film at all, maybe it could’ve been a stage play.

Lee: The thing is that Karen Arthur conceived it and directed it and she got Carol Kane and me, and James Olson, to do it. Wow! I would like to be able to say that I did that. That I pulled it off and made that movie. So it’s really Karen Arthur’s triumph.

Jo: Yes sure.

Lee: And any time a female director—especially at that time—with that concept, to pull it off and make that movie. You know, my hat off to her!

Jo: Yes, absolutely! She did a really amazing job because I walked away from the film kind of speechless. And thinking about things, and when a movie sends you away thinking about something, speechless, you know that there’s something going on there.

Lee: Yes and don’t forget there were no women directors then. There were like 2 in New York and that’s it.

Jo: Right, that’s another reason to applaud the film, the fact that her vision was realized. It’s very good. And then, this is one is probably one of my favorite performances of yours, The Neon Ceiling, where you play the mother who leaves her husband and just drives into the desert. It’s a special film…

In the Neon Ceiling you play a mother who leaves her husband and just drives — winding up in the desert with her teenage daughter. It’s a very unusual and special little film co-starring Gig Young and Denise Nickerson, a talented young actress. Wendy and I were really enchanted by it. I found your performance as Carrie Miller profoundly moving because it was so un-selfconscious and powerful. At the risk of sounding contrived what was your inspiration for bringing that character to life?

Lee: Well first of all, that character was the part of me I never got to play.

Jo: In real life?

Lee: In real life, yeah. The part of me in my first marriage where my husband fault with me, that I wasn’t this enough, or that enough, or, or, I was never enough. And I wasn’t smart enough. And so that whole beginning with the husband that I run away from. Where I can’t do anything right, I can’t even shop for groceries…

Jo: It kind of paralleled…

Lee: Yes, yes, and I had a daughter. I had Dina. So Denise was Dina. And so if I could’ve known how to run away, in my early years I would have. And going into the desert… the desert was a very new experience for me as a person. I’d never been in the desert. And the peace. Sitting on the back porch of this gas station and just looking out at the desert became, it became a totally new experience for me. And something that I needed but didn’t know that I need. And there was an Indian tribe there who would come and ask for the lunch that we had every day. It was like the small remnants of like what 20 people didn’t eat. And a woman in the tribe who was leading the tribe became a mentor. So she was so strong and so calm. And the things that she asked for were so real. That she became somebody I admired and wanted to be like. And she gave me a puppy.

Jo: That’s right, I read about the puppy Nusski given to you by the Sioux.

Lee: Yes!

Jo: Who was with you for many many years.

Lee: Yes, who came with us to New York. And Gig, he was so attractive and so hurt someplace.

Jo: I know, it’s so tragic.

Lee: He needed caring for. You know, and so did Denise in her way. She asked for it, he didn’t. And somehow me, tickled as I was, I felt a soul there that I connected with. And it was so beautiful and the writer created something that nobody else created.

Jo: Was that Carol Sobieski who also wrote for Peyton Place?

Lee: Yes, Carol Sobieski. She was extraordinary.

Jo: Yes, she’s a great writer.

Lee: She’s a great writer and I felt it was a privilege—a privilege of all the things I’ve done—being able to go there.

Jo: Yes, there’s something… I guess that’s what we’re doing, is witnessing a lot of your transformations on screen. We’re seeing, you know, you’re in the desert and you’re having this transcendence. And it’s coming through to your character, Carrie.

Lee: Yes, yes.

Jo: It’s such a beautiful performance. It’s so subtle and so quiet and so beautiful. And so painful.

Lee: Yes.

Jo: You convey all of that and that’s hard to do and you do it. You just pull it off like nobody else could. And that’s the thing I love are these other women that you play, are these roles and these women that deserve to be looked at. And I’ve certainly been having a great time delving into your work.

Lee: And have you! Wow!

Jo: Maybe I’ve been digging too deep!

Lee: You’ve found things I’ve forgotten. That one I knew is just so special. It’s interesting because Frank who directed it—Frank Pierson. A very very close friend, too. He also, much later he did The Life of Roy Cohn.

Jo: Oh, Frank Pierson.

Lee: Yes, Frank Pierson. On HBO, and he called me then and he said “do you want to be Roy Cohn’s mother? Or do you want to be the one who was killed? The spy.” Anyway, he was the writer who became the director, because he had nothing to do with writing that, Carol wrote it. And he came to be the night before and said, “you know, I’d like to do some changes in this. And you know she really isn’t as good as all that.” And I said, “well, hire another actor. Because if you touch this script. (The Neon Ceiling) ” You know why would you do that? Why, why? And he said “oh, I…” and I said “you don’t like women. You don’t like women.” And in that particular incidence, he didn’t. And in everything else—because I worked with him many times—he’s a great writer and a great director—but this was too simple for him.

Jo: I know of his work and have seen a lot of it. So they kept it the same way?

Lee: Absolutely, he took it back. And we left the next day.

Jo: We just have a couple more questions. And Wendy wanted to talk with you. You know, I saw a scene you directed—we’ll get into your directing in a minute—I watched a scene from Tell me a Riddle with Melvin Douglas and Lela Kedrova that you directed. And just the little scene that I saw ripped my guts up. I just—

Lee: Mine too.

Jo: It’s so heartbreaking. I know that you’re a wonderful director and I know it’s probably not hard to direct Melvin Douglas and Lela Kedrova, but you absolutely created this poignant journey. But Wendy here is a sociologist who teaches social movements and she shows documentaries in classes and has used your documentaries in classes. And she wanted to ask you about the documentaries that you did, you know back in the day when they became movies of the week and there was a wide audience for them. And you started asking the socially relevant questions.

Wendy: Hi Lee, I teach sociology classes and I use documentaries all the time. So I’m always looking for ones that are good and well done. And I was really intrigued by the ones you did in the 1980s. The ones that really gave voice to marginalized individuals. So you did the film about poverty—Down and Out in America—which is still unfortunately relevant today.

In the early 1980s you started directing documentary films, specifically films that give voice to marginalized individuals way before others were doing so Down and Out in America (the poor, transgender individuals WHAT SEX AM I , women in prison who killed their abusive husbands in self-defense , the Willmar 8, etc.). Some of these were released as movies of the week to very large audiences. What led you to start making these kinds of documentaries? Were there social and political triggers?

Lee: Yes, unfortunately it’s still relevant.

Wendy: And it was also, to me, when it came out in the mid-80s, very much a response to Ronald Reagan’s trickledown economics. You can really see it situated in that.

Lee: You put your finger right on it.

Wendy: And I talk about that when I teach inequality so it’s good to give students that context and history. Then there’s the documentary you did in the 1980s on transgender individuals, which no one had really done yet.

Lee: Yes, What Sex Am I?

Wendy: The Women in Prison, the Willmar 8, about women bankers who went on strike and I cannot find that one anywhere but I would love to use it because I teach about activism and social movements so I’m always looking for things about activism and I couldn’t find that one anywhere so I haven’t seen it. I was just curious about what made you switch, to not just directing, but directing these documentaries about marginalized populations. Like what were the social and political triggers of that for you?

Lee: Well, you know during the early years and not being able to say anything. And even when I was in LA, I was careful about what I said about it. You know, I acted in things that said things. And I have a best friend, Marybeth Yarrow, who had been married to Peter Yarrow. And in her small town in Willmar, there were 7 women who went on strike at the bank because bank president there would have them train these boys in the bank, and then have them be the women’s bosses. So these little boys that they would train would suddenly tell them what to do and get a higher salary. So the women went out on strike. And Marybeth read that to me, and I had just been at AFI and had taken a women’s directing workshop. Their first women’s directing workshop. I said let’s go there and make a documentary. And that kicked open the whole tunnel. Her husband, Peter, raised like 30,000 dollars and went to Willmar. It was the middle of the winter. So cold that you couldn’t open your mouth to ask a question.

Jo and Wendy: [laugh]

Lee: I mean your mouth froze. And those 7 women were out there on strike in front of the bank. They could hardly walk it was so cold. And you know it kicked open a door in me that had said, don’t talk, be quiet. You know, save yourself, don’t talk, be quiet. And I thought you know, thank God, I can do this. I can get away with this. I can put it on film. Finally, I’ve found my voice. I have found my voice. And it just meant everything to me. Finally, I’d landed on my feet and there was no fear. So I was just starved for that. And I made one after another after another after another. I loved that I had to go all different places and open all kinds of doors. You know our second film was in the prison system

Wendy: Yes, we saw parts of it.

Lee: You know, what a revelation! I was free! I was free! I was really free of the blacklist finally! And not only that, I had tools that could fight the blacklist. I could show what the truth was.

Wendy: Right, which is why I love showing documentaries because it shows students individuals—gives voice to individuals—who I can’t bring to the classroom.

Lee: Right, exactly.

Wendy: Especially the women in prison film, I don’t think anybody was talking about whether or not women should be in prison for killing an abusive spouse in the 1980s no one was covering that. And Down and Out in America is also unfortunately still relevant but also shows how devastating politics was in the 1980s while we tend to misremember it as being some golden era in America, right? Well compared to what we’re living in now…

Lee: Well, I don’t know whether you were able to get hold of my Texas film?

Wendy: I don’t think so.

Jo: No…

Lee: HBO was sued so it was only shown once.

Jo: Oh, about the children being taken away from their mothers…?

Lee: It was judges in Texas who took children away from the mothers and gave them to the fathers who were suspected of abusing them.

Jo: Oh my God! Wow.

Lee: Yeah.

Jo: You were sued for that?

Lee: HBO got sued, and that show was only on one time.

Wendy: I wonder if it’s in any college libraries someplace still?

Lee: I have it! So at some point I can lend it to you to make a copy of and you can use it.

Wendy: Oh that would be wonderful.

Lee: But also if and when this documentary thing happens in October and my films are shown.

Jo: Yes, the retrospective!

Lee: Yes, I can’t wait for the documentaries to be shown.

Wendy: And I have so many sociologist friends in and around NYC who would totally be there for it. We’re all big fans of well-made interesting documentaries.

Jo: And we’ll be there.

Wendy: Yes, I love to nerd-out on documentaries. Jo watches her classic films and I’m watching like 13th on Netflix…

Jo: Yes, she’s watching her serious and depressing documentaries. I mean, I’m just so dark because of what’s going on in the world in politics, because it’s like a Stanley Kubrick nightmare that you imagine would never happen in real life.

Lee: Yes, it’s so disturbing, this nightmare. It’s like having Roy Cohn as president, you know, because…

Jo: It’s dystopian…

Lee: Yes, and there aren’t words and there’s just no way to describe it… This is a nightmare.

Jo: And there’s a collective depression and angst that people are feeling in their lives.

Lee: And there is. It is.

Jo: And that’s what’s tragic and it’s America’s Id so then you’ve got the people that support him…

Wendy: I like to focus on—because I study social movements and activism—I like to focus on the activism.

Jo: Yes, she’s the glass half full person.

Wendy: Yes, I focus on the people making the change. That’s what my research is about and that’s what I try to teach my students to raise some hell. And voting. Because otherwise I’d just lose my mind.

Lee: Yes, all of us. I mean living within this screenplay, being a character within a screenplay that we loath and detest and want to get out of. And are trapped in.

Jo: Yes, exactly. That’s scary. Thanks for scaring us, Lee! [laughs]

Lee: [laughs] But it really has an effect.

Jo and Wendy: Yes, it does.

Lee: I mean, especially since we had Obama.

Jo: Yes, Well, is there an end in sight? When will we get out of this madness? We need relief.

Lee: Yes, it’s madness.

Jo: We need to be able to breathe again!

Lee: And I’m overwhelmed. It’s overwhelming. Everywhere I look is horror. And it’s not like oh this is something that really has been addressed, it’s not like we need to just shake this or show people… this is horror.

Jo: Yes, it’s organic horror.

Lee: And it’s death. It’s killing people.

Jo: If not only in body but also in spirit.

Wendy: And actually in body.

Lee: Yes, it’s killing people. All over the world. Yesterday I was listening to the television and Saudi Arabia hires African soldiers to kill other Arabs. Instead of doing it themselves they hire African soldiers into that Arab conclave that’s left—Yemen. It was like wow, hired professionals.

Wendy: We would just sleep better if we knew there were people in office trying to make things better instead of worse.

Jo: I just don’t understand it, how we got here.

Lee: We got here in a minute.

Jo: Yes.

Lee: And watch out for this. I feel that the way Bernie Sanders treated Hillary Clinton…

Wendy: Oh yeah don’t even get me started.

Lee: It was the beginning of the end. Kicked open the door for Trump.

Jo: Yes. When I saw his scowling face at the convention, I wanted to smack him.

Lee: Bernie, yes. He was so abusive to her. And of course all my leftie friends are like “but Bernie’s the best, Bernie’s…” But look how he’s treating her. It was like how my communist husband treated me. Like she’s a dummy, she’s Wall Street.

Jo: Yeah, we’re in agreement!

Lee: And I think there was a democratic disaffection—20% of democrats voted for Bernie and that’s what pushed this bully…

Wendy: Yup, and we can thank them for the Supreme Court and a lot of crap.

Lee: That’s right. You’re the only ones who get it!

Wendy: There are others that get it, but it seems like we’re few and far between. There’s a lot of us who are not Bernie fans for good solid reasons. I’m happy Bernie’s light seems to be dimmer this time around and he’s not polling as well as he did before. People don’t seem as excited about him now.

Lee: I’m just worried about it.

Wendy: Yeah, like are we going to get our acts together on the left?

Lee: Yes, are we?

Jo: Oh, but we should not totally veer off into politics. We should close with a good film or acting  question! I wanted to ask you about your performance in Electra. I was reading your book and almost peeing my pants laughing as you’re describing wearing that crimson red velvet gown? And it’s raining and you get drenched in the rain.

I read in your book about how you worked with Joe Papp on Shakespeare in the Park, playing Electra by Sophocles. I can visualize this powerful performance, the method training, that rainy day, you dragging Theoni’s Aldridge’s crimson gown, the heavy fabric soaked through across the stage. And there’s the audience floating away in the deluge as devoted as ever. You said it was the most risky, challenging role. Alfred Ryder a wonderful actor played Hamlet before this and his performance was televised, but it was a disaster, and it nearly ruined his acting career. Do you regret that your performance of Electra was not televised and recorded so that we could see it today? I would’ve loved to see you on stage, even in the flood.

Lee: And the whole audience is drenched!

Jo: And the papers are floating away, and you’re out there shouting. And the show’s ended and they’re still out there clapping in the rain.

Lee: Talk about a switch from bleak and bad, to emboldened and powerful playing Electra!

Jo: Yes, we needed some Electra!

Lee: Jo Papp gave me Electra and saw that I was ready to spew and all lessons he gave me, the teachers who came in to correct my language so that I was ready to take on that role. And to let go of all that rage and fierceness, under the cover of the state at Central Park. It was such a release for me to play that.

Jo: Yeah, you said it was a very risky role for you. Challenging.

Lee: Very. And he handed it to me.

Jo: Wow.

Lee: And what a thing to do.

Jo: A gift.

Lee: Yes, what a gift. What a thing to do. The most powerful theatre man in New York and the most liberal and radical, and gorgeous.

Jo: Gorgeous?

Lee: Gorgeous, gorgeous [laughs]

Jo: He knew you could do it. So in your book you mentioned that Alfred Rider had done Hamlet. And when they televised it and it didn’t go over very well. Electra… It doesn’t exist. Do you regret that there is no visual evidence of that performance?

Lee: No, no.

Jo: I wish I couldn’t seen you on stage. Even in Prisoner on Second Avenue I wash I could’ve seen you on stage. So you’re really not sorry that they didn’t televise it?

Lee: No. No, it’s an experience.

Jo: It’s one of those moments it exists like a firefly.

Lee: It was a live experience. Like a marriage. And you know it lifted me.

Jo: So you’re laying on your chaise, did you finish your coffee?

Lee: Oh, it’s half finished. I’m still in my nightgown. [laughs]

Jo: I could talk with you all day like this!

Lee: I know!

Jo: What is a great way to end this?

Lee: What’s a great way to end this?

Jo: Is there something you want to talk about? That we didn’t cover. You’ve got such an impressive career in theatre, film, and television. On both sides of the camera. You’ve worked with amazing people. You have great friends.

Lee: How about Al—who’s the one was who was thrown out of office? Al Franken? How about Al Franken. He didn’t have a choice to leave but I want him back. And that’s what I want to write about.

Wendy: What are you working on for writing?

Lee: I’ve just been writing in spurts, just things that I have to get out of my system, as you can hear when I talk to you. There are things I have to spew, and get down on paper to get it out of me. And so what’s I’m going to do, I’m going to write about the stupidity and short-sightedness of getting rid of the only one in Congress that I know of who could go up against Trump and just demolish him, with his humor and his knowledge. That was the stupidest action that could be taken.

Jo: I was so mad at him for messing up because we needed him. And so mad at him for stepping down.

Lee: He was pushed out. He was forced out. Did you read that New Yorker article about the woman who came to his defense?

Jo: No, we haven’t seen that one.

Lee: It’s like 2 weeks ago. So you can read it.

Wendy: I’ll look it up. I keep more up on the politics stuff than Jo does. Jo likes to live in her classic film bubble.

Jo: I like to live in my classic film world and if I don’t… I’ll go mad.

Lee: Oh, I understand. And I’m sorry to break through that.

Jo: No, no. It’s fine. And I don’t want to give the impression that I’m not proactive. I do what needs to be done.

Lee: Oh, I’m not accusing you, I’m just opening my arms and pulling you into my world.

Jo: Oh I love your world, and I know that. And it’s Wendy’s world. I hear about it… all about it, and friends who are very active.

Wendy: And we have friends who go to the TCM movie festival and a couple years ago you were there and made a speech, and they were all tweeting and texting about it, saying oh my God, this is so awesome! And I was like, of course, it’s Lee Grant! And that makes her even more amazing that you would give this really political speech!

Lee: It does, girls, it just makes me more amazing! Every single day.

Wendy: Hell yeah! People have to speak out!

Lee: On that note, we will end this.

Jo: Ok.

Lee: But I’ve had such a great time and I love you.

Jo: Oh, we love you too, Lee!

Lee: And I’ve had fun. And so we may not be still doing your thing, but we can still talk and still have a relationship.

Jo: We would love to stay in touch.

Wendy: And if you have copies of any of your documentaries, I would love it. If they would be easy for me to copy, because I would show them in class.

Jo: Maybe some day we could come into the city and have coffee with you.

Lee: Yes, maybe you can do that and take things and make copies, if you know how to do that. Because I don’t know how to do anything.

Wendy: Ok, I’m good with the technical stuff.

Jo: So next time, we’ll come into the city and do it.

Lee: Yes, we’ll do that. You’re both adorable.

Jo: Lee speaks truth to power and wants to be heard.

Wendy: Great, so we’ll be in touch.

Lee: Have a good day, girls!

Jo: Take care, Lee!

This has been YourEverlovin’ Joey saying what more is there to say… but I love you Lee Grant!

“Out Loud” Part 1– A Biography of the Legendary Lee Grant…

Update! The Film Forum in NYC has put together a retrospective of 13 films and documentaries featuring some of Lee’s best work as an actor and director.

 

“The dichotomy of my genius status at home and my slightly below par status in the outside world gave me a sense of instability and unreality throughout all of my life about exactly who I was and what I was capable of. Could that be why I grabbed so ferociously at acting? Grounding myself in a structure that worked for me, the observant child?”
— And excerpt from I Said Yes to Everything -Lee Grant talking about Sandy Meisner and The Neighborhood Playhouse.

How do you start out a biography about someone who is a virtual legend?

Lee Grant 1977 © 1978 Ulvis Alberts

When I attended the Chiller Theatre Expo I had the exciting opportunity to meet one of my favorite actors, Academy Award winner Lee Grant. This meeting turned out to be one of the great highlights of my life. While I’ve followed her work my entire life, after connecting with her, I began my exploration into Lee Grant’s life by immersing myself first in her incredibly honest and potent autobiography. “I Said Yes to Everything”  is an expository journey written long-hand by Lee herself in classic black and white note books. It’s a well-written intimate portrait of a courageous and brilliant actor.

“Lee Grant’s I Said Yes to Everything is heart-stopping. More than just a show-business memoir or chronicle of the Hollywood blacklist era, it is a terrifying account of a gifted artist’s tumultuous journey—both personal and professional. You will feel every jolt of terror that Grant endured, wondering if you would have been as brave. Her triumph becomes our own. Readers of this gripping book will surely reach the final page shouting a victorious “Yes! To everything that is Lee Grant.” -Marlo Thomas

With every role Lee Grant undertakes —from stage to early dramatic teleplays, to television series and onto the big screen— she transports an inner truth and an understanding of the world’s pleasures, and too, it’s miseries. Never afraid to take risks, she turned a career that was at one time silenced, into a great triumph by reclaiming her place in Hollywood. She then forged her own road into directing, where her voice and compassionate vision helped marginalized people have their say as well.

This is the spirit of Lee Grant, a woman who kicked down the door, prevailed the madness of the blacklist and without settling. She become a formidable actress, director, a legend, and friend.

Reading about her incredible life story, I Said Yes to Everything, brought me closer to the actress whom I already admired and loved for so many years. It’s a reflexive reminiscence, at times brutal and at other times it evokes laughter. Lee Grant has a primal and candid sense of humor that is so invigorating to experience. And hearing it from Lee herself is life-altering and beyond meaningful.

Portrait of American actress Lee Grant, New York, New York, July 1970. (Photo by Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

I also reexamined a lot of her great work so I could surround myself with the essence of her talent. It not only fortified what I had already felt about her capacity to engage each role, I met several characters that I hadn’t seen before. And was completely knocked over by Lee Grant’s awe-inspiring performances. To have the opportunity to talk to someone you’ve known as an acting legend can make you quite star struck as you try to find your own voice without sounding like a fool. But Lee Grant is a real and raw person. She’s one of those people you meet by chance in life, striking up a wonderful connection as if you’ve known them for years. This is just another layer of greatness to an already great actor.

Lee Grant is one of the most expository of actors. She uses her distinctive voice, that moves along the walls of your mind like an elegant cat, with an expressiveness that brings to bear even the most subtle of gestures. She has an attentiveness to detail, and her extraordinary sensuality is deep-rooted with a swift and clever sense of humor.

Lee Grant1965 © 1978 Gene Trindl

As an actor, she brings and intimacy to her roles, complex, passionate sensual dynamic versatile, and authentic. A talent caught up in the net of the HUAC insanity that ruined lives, and literally took her act of belonging away in Hollywood and from an industry where time is essential in order to obtain recognition and primacy.

I suspected that Lee always put a little of her real self in each role. It turns out I was right as you’ll learn from our conversation about her performances. There is no one quite like Lee. Absolutely no other actor like her.

Lee with one of her original oil paintings.

Like David fighting Goliath, she kept her resilience during those dark years of the blacklist. She’s an actor who is truthful enough to bare her vulnerabilities, machinations, fears, fancies, the quirks and chinks in the armor— it’s all out there, and wonderfully bold and ballsy an individualist and unfailingly frank. She is fragile and fierce, honest, courageous and unwilling to be shut off or out.

The insanity of the McCarthy Era and fanatics like Vincent Hartnett tried to steal 12 years from Lee Grant. But she refused to be silenced. To this day she speaks truth to the powers that be. She has earned the right to be seen and heard. She’s a woman who has become a firebrand with her socially conscious lens as a filmmaker, documentarian, director, activist, writer and a mother to yet another gifted soul, Dinah Manoff. Talent and fierceness—it runs in the blood.

Lee Grant to me, is someone I’ll always regard with a sense of awe and respect. I’m incredibly honored that she allowed me a glimpse into her life and shared that sense of humor and her determination to be heard. And what a story she has to tell!

Actress Lee Grant poses for a portrait in circa 1971. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Continue reading ““Out Loud” Part 1– A Biography of the Legendary Lee Grant…”

Retro Television Ragbag 📺

WHILE YOU’RE WAITING FOR THE LAST DRIVE IN’S UPCOMING SPECIAL FEATURES…

Some of the great Saul Bass original title designs for shows like Quinn Martin Productions by Lee Goldberg, or evocative series scores from such notable composers as Billy Goldenberg, Jerry Goldsmith, Cyril Mockeridge, Pete Rugulo, Lynn Murray, John Williams, Dave Grusin, Nelson Riddle and more…!

Sit back and enjoy almost 3 hours of retro television intros from the 1960s to the 1970s. With a smattering of vintage commercials thrown in for your amusement! It’s the perfect backdrop when your looking to draw the whimsy of nostalgia up your flue!

See you ’round the snack bar… next up my interview with the legendary Lee Grant!

There’s got to be a morning after… Goodbye Carol Lynley Sept. 3, 2019

American actress Carol Lynley, who stars in the film The Cardinal, pictured wearing a winter coat and leather gloves in a London park on 17th December 1963. (Photo by Blackman/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

We’ve lost Carol Lynley, actress of 60s & 70s film and television. Carol was born Carol Anne Jones on Feb. 13, 1942 in New York City. Lynley worked as a model and in television from her teen years and performed on numerous early live dramatic television shows.

She suffered a heart attack on September 3rd at the age of 77. Perhaps she is best known for her role in the disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure (1972) playing Nonnie, the bright-eyed nymph on the doomed ocean liner turned upside down after a giant tidal wave hits the ship on New Year’s Eve. The Poseidon Adventure launched her into the public consciousness after Lynley lip synced over Maureen McGovern’s singing onscreen, as the ill-fated ship’s lead singer of the band, her brother flaunting his bad 70s hair and mutton chops at the piano. The song  “The Morning After,” went on to win the 1973 Oscar for Best Song.

I’ve always been taken with Carol Lynley for many other roles along her diverse career. A child model who made it to the cover of Life magazine at age 15. After appearing in the 1958 Broadway play, she delivered a moving performance in the controversial screen version of Blue Denim in 1959, co-starring cutie Brandon De Wilde. She was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer! She then co-starred with Clifton Webb and Jane Wyman in Holiday For Lovers (1959).

Afterward she appeared in a variety of popular films, Return to Peyton Place (1961), and Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963) with Jack Lemmon. Carol Lynley appeared in the Otto Preminger film The Cardinal (1963). She was also in The Stripper (1963), and Shock Treatment (1964) where she plays a very disturbed young girl with hyper-sexual tendencies. In the same year she played Maggie Williams in The Pleasure Seekers. Lynley also took the role of Jean Harlow in the biopic Harlow (1965).

Carol Lynley in The Stripper (1963)

Carol Lynley and Gene Tierney in The Pleasure Seekers (1964)

Carol Lynley as Harlow

And her role as Ann Lake is superb. She plays a mother who claims her little girl vanishes after a day at her school. Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake is Missing (1965), is one of my favorite psychological thrillers. She also appeared in the very dark and twisted The Shuttered Room (1965) co-starring Oliver Reed and Gig Young based on a story by horror writer August Derleth.

She was in Once You Kiss a Stranger… (1969) and I adored her as Gail Foster the girlfriend of Darren McGavin’s stalwart reporter of the uncanny and supernatural Carl Kolchak, in the fabulous television cult chiller directed by John Llewellyn Moxey, The Night Stalker (1972), the pilot that launched the groundbreaking series of the show that inspired The X Files!

Carol Lynley appeared in various television shows, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, It Takes a Thief, Night Gallery, The Invaders, Kojak, The Man from U.N.C.L.E, Journey to the Unknown, The Sixth Sense, The Magician, The Evil Touch, Quincy M.E. and Police Woman, just to mention my favorites.

Vince Edwards and Carol Lynley in Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955) episode The Young One

Christopher Walken and Carol Lynley in Kojak 1973

Carol Lynley possessed a certain kind of rare beauty and inner light, a subtle essence of fairy in her smile and soft glimmer in her eyes.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Barry Peake/Shutterstock (605004b)
Carol Lynley-Mar 1967

This is your EverLovin Joey saying goodbye Carol Lynley, gone but not forgotten. There will always be a morning after and my eternal love for you, beautiful girl.

Happy Birthday Barbara Parkins May 22

“The Raven haired sylph who walks in beauty like the night… Of cloudless climes and starry skies; And all that’s best of dark and bright; Meet in her aspect and her eyes…” — Lord Byron

Barbara Parkins as B.A. in a scene from the film ‘The Kremlin Letter’, 1970. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty)

It is so easy to look upon Barbara Parkins’ exquisite beauty and make that the initial distinction you recall about her as an actress before recounting the roles she’s contributed to, the iconic roles that have heightened the dream factory of our cultural consciousness that is — film and television. As Betty Anderson of Peyton Place and Anne Welles in Valley of the Dolls. But beyond the glamour and the pulp and the melodrama and the camp, there is an actress who not only possessed an otherworldly beauty but a depth of character and quality. Who touched our hearts but was one of the earliest women to kick ass too! As Betty Anderson, she broke ground in a role that discussed women who began to reflect on their bodies being used as negotiable product for men, even in good clean small moralistic New England towns. And through a lot of painful, solitary self discovery learned to rely on her own self-reliance and newly mined self respect. Barbara Parkins was leading the way three years before Jane Fonda was flyin’ free up in space in 1968’s Barbarella.

I have always been drawn to Barbara Parkins, her inherent sensuality, sophistication, her dreamy voice. There’s a deep well of desire and poetry simmering below that obvious beauty. She brings that sensuality with her to every versatile role as an actress. And that is why I’ve been in love with her since the very first time I saw her.

Barbara Parkins was among the women chosen by famed photographer Patrick Lichfield to be included in his 1983 book, “The Most Beautiful Women”. Continue reading “Happy Birthday Barbara Parkins May 22”

Happy Birthday to Bradford Dillman April 14

Bradford Dillman in a scene from the film ‘Circle Of Deception’, 1960. (Photo by 20th Century-Fox/Getty Images)

Untroubled good looks, faraway poise & self-control, with a sartyrial smile and brushed-aside sophistication  – that’s Bradford Dillman

Bradford Dillman is one of those ubiquitous & versatile actors who you find popping up just about everywhere, and whenever I either see him in the credits or think about some of his performances, I am immediately happified by his presence in my mind and on screen.  It’s this familiarity that signposts for me whatever upcoming diversion I’m in store for, will be something memorable indeed.

He’s been cast as a saint, a psychopath, elite ivy league intellectuals with an edge, unconventional scientists, military figures, droll and prickly individualists, clueless bureaucrats, or drunken malcontents and he’s got a sort of cool that is wholly appealing.

Bradford Dillman was omni-present starting out on the stage, and major motion pictures at the end of the 50s and by the 1960s he began his foray into popular episodic television series and appeared in a slew of unique made for television movies throughout the 1970s and 80s, with the addition of major motion picture releases through to the 90s. His work, intersecting many different genres from melodramas,historical dramas, thrillers, science fiction and horror.

There are a few actors of the 1960s & 70s decades that cause that same sense of blissed out flutters in my heart — that is of course if you’re as nostalgic about those days of classic cinema and television as I am. I get that feeling when I see actors like Stuart Whitman, Dean Stockwell, Roy Thinnes, Scott Marlow, Warren Oates, James Coburn, Lee Grant David Janssen, Michael Parks, Barbara Parkins, Joanna Pettet ,Joan Hackett , Sheree North,  Diana Sands, Piper Laurie, Susan Oliver and Diane Baker.  I have a fanciful worship for the actors who were busy working in those decades, who weren’t Hollywood starlets or male heart throbs yet they possessed a realness, likability, a certain individual knack and raw sex-appeal.

Bradford Dillman was born in San Francisco in 1930 to a prominent local family. During the war he was sent to The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut. At Hotchkiss, senior year he played Hamlet. At Yale he studied English Literature and performed in amateur theatrical productions and worked at the Playhouse in Connecticut. Dillman served in the US Marines in Korea (1951-1953) and made a pact that he’d give himself five years to succeed as an actor before he called it quits. Lucky for us, he didn’t wind up in finance the way he father wanted him to.

Actor Bradford Dillman (Photo by  John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Dillman enrolled and studied at the Actors Studio, he spent several seasons apprenticing with the Sharon Connecticut Playhouse before making his professional acting debut in an adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarecrow” in 1953 with fellow Studio students Eli Wallach and James Dean. Dillman referred to Dean as ‘a wacky kid’ but ‘very gifted’.

He only appeared in two shows in October 1962 of The Fun Couple in 1957 with Dyan Cannon and Jane Fonda before the play closed in New York only after two days.

We lost Bradford Dillman last year in January 2018. I was so saddened to hear the news. And I missed the chance to tribute his work then, but now that his birthday is here, I feel like celebrating his life rather than mourning his death, so it’s just as well.

Bradford Dillman wrote an autobiography called Are You Anybody? An Actor’s Life, published in 1997 with a (foreword by Suzy Parker) in which he downplays the prolific contribution he made to film and television and acting in general. Though Dillman didn’t always hold a high opinion of some of the work he was involved in, appearing in such a vast assortment of projects, he always came across as upbeat and invested in the role.

“Bradford Dillman sounded like a distinguished, phony, theatrical name, so I kept it.”

[about his career] “I’m not bitter, though. I’ve had a wonderful life. I married the most beautiful woman in the world. Together we raised six children, each remarkable in his or her own way and every one a responsible citizen. I was fortunate to work in a profession where I looked forward to going to work every day. I was rewarded with modest success. The work sent me to places all over the world I’d never been able to afford visiting otherwise. I keep busy and I’m happy. And there are a few good films out there that I might be remembered for.”

Continue reading “Happy Birthday to Bradford Dillman April 14”

A Conversation with Television Icon 📺 Jerry Mathers

Jerry Mathers is an American Icon whose presence undoubtedly continues to contribute to our collective consciousness. Born on June 2, 1948 in Sioux City, Iowa, he started as a child model from the age of two, and that led to his television and show business career in live television in the early 1950s. Jerry first worked on the popular Spike Jones live show. Jones was an American musician and bandleader Spike Jones and his City Slickers whose signature concept The Musical Depreciation Revue was satirical arrangements of popular songs, loud and not-quite-jazz-music of the 50s featuring musical riffs punctuated with unconventional noises like gunshots, whistles, and outrageous farcical vocals. His drummer would use trash can lids as cymbals and the trumpet players would use toilet plungers as mutes. The slapstick gimmick was certain whimsical instrumentals would cue Spike to drop his pants revealing his very loud boxer shorts.

When Jerry Mathers was about 3 years old he would walk out on stage with a big sign and start pulling on Spike’s coat tails. The sign read ‘commercial’ to let him know that he had to take a break. Spike would chide him and shoo him away and then eventually go to the commercial. Working on the Spike Jones Show brought Jerry more work, because people saw that he could go out on stage with the irascible Jones and not get rattled.

Jerry’s Mathers’ first foray into television was his debut in 1950 for a Pet Milk commercial with Ed Wynn on the Colgate Comedy Hour. The set up: A huge bar room scene with cowboys fighting one and other and actor Ed Wynn tending bar. Jerry comes in through the swinging doors — amidst all the stuntmen brawling and breaking bottles over each other’s heads — in diapers, a ten gallon hat, six guns, and his big cowboy boots. One of the cowboys picks little Jerry up and sets him down on the bar where he pounds his little fist and utters his very first lines, “I’m the toughest hombre in these parts and you better have my brand” as Ed Wynn puts a can of Pet Condensed Milk on the bar! ( I wish there was an existing copy of this commercial )

Jerry as David Myer in This is My Love (1954) starring Linda Darnell

Jerry Mathers began to get cast in many early 1950s television programs, variety hours and early live dramatic shows. And in 1954, he made his film debut in This is My Love starring Linda Darnell and Dan Duryea.

Soon after appearing in a major motion picture his impish, precocious ways caught the eye of master director/storyteller Alfred Hitchcock who cast Jerry as Arnie Rogers for his mystery/comedy The Trouble with Harry (1955) starring John Forsythe, Shirley MacLaine in her first role, and some of the best character actors– Mildred Natwick, Mildred Dunnock and Edmund Gwenn. Next up at age 5 Jerry appeared with Bob Hope in two major motion pictures as Bryan Lincoln Foy, the black licorice lovin’ little rascal in The Seven Little Foys (1955) co-starring James Cagney and George Tobias. And he played the wonderful Norman Taylor in That Certain Feeling (1956) co-starring Eva Marie Saint, George Sanders and Pearl Bailey.

The Trouble with Harry official trailer:

Bob Hope was wonderful with Jerry Mathers in the hilarious scene with the cute little guy eating his black licorice both actors’ body comedy was spot on — Hope choreographed the scene brilliantly with Jerry. It was pure genius. Jerry’s tugging at Bob’s coat, kicking and screaming the whole way.

Bob Hope actually played a part in saving Jerry Mather’s life on the set of the vaudevillian biopic The Seven Little Foys. Back then they used candles to light the stage. Jerry was sitting up in the catwalk and the stuntman was supposed to put gasoline on the curtain so it would ignite and all the extras were supposed to panic and run out of the theater, with the stuntman dressed as Bob Hope climbing up and saving little Bryan Foy (Jerry Mathers) from the flames. Well, Jerry was sitting up on the catwalk when they accidentally put too much gasoline on the curtains, that caught fire. The extras who were supposed to be fleeing the theater saw all these  flames and actually did panic, and the stuntman dressed as Bob Hope got pushed out the door and no one realized that Jerry was still up on the catwalk but Bob Hope.

Bob courageously threw a blanket over himself and ran through the flames, grabbed a ladder, and got Jerry out safely. In another interview Jerry said that he remembers the flames but it was also dripping like raining fire fragments because the cloth as it burned was dropping off. It must have been terrifying! So thanks to Bob Hope for saving Jerry’s life. They couldn’t even use the footage from the first fire. They had to re-shoot the entire scene all over again, because there was too much smoke and flames and they couldn’t see Bob Hope climb up and rescue Jerry so the very next day they had to do it all over again with A LOT less gasoline on the curtains. They didn’t even use a stuntman, they shot it with Bob Hope who went up and got Jerry but the scene was a lot more toned down.

I found a small clip from the film which includes the re-shot recreation of the fire at the Iroquois Theater — with a little less gasoline this time!– and Bob Hope climbing the ladder and not a stunt man as planned. Hope is not only a comic genius, but courageous!

Jerry talks about Bob Hope –

“He was really a fun person to work with. I did That Certain Feeling with him too and actually I did The Seven Little Foys first and I had a very small part in that and he liked me so much that in the next one in his next movie I had a very very big part and it was with Norman Panama and Melvin Frank who were some great writers if you go back and look at some of the things they’ve done and they both directed, I think they were writer/producers but because there were two directors we would do some scenes twenty and thirty times and the one would come over and say you do it this way and then they’d come back and say okay now do it this way and you just kept doing it so as a child it was I imagine now as an adult actor I would even think its tedious. It’s a great movie. And he always made it fun. You know we’d sit there and do this same scene and he just made it so much fun as I say most people know him by seeing him on stage and he was just fun loving and just a great person to work with.

…Bob Hope was always seen as this very lovable person but George Sanders in a lot of his movies played, not villains but he had kind of an edge to him so when I first met him it was actually kind of scary and the other person.”

Among the other cast members he was very taken with Pearl Bailey who sung to him in the film, he liked her very much and thought the world of her.

 “She made the movie so much fun and her and Bob Hope used to clown around it was just so much fun to watch.”

Jerry Mathers in That Certain Feeling (1956)

Jerry Mathers in The Seven Little Foys (1955)

Other major motion pictures of the 1950s Jerry Mathers appeared in:

Men of the Fighting Lady (1954) and director Nicolas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956) starring James Mason and Barbara Rush. The gritty and obscure film noir The Shadow on the Window (1957) starring Philip Carey, Betty Garrett and John Drew Barrymore. And The Deep Six (1958) starring Alan Ladd.

“Our generation is the first to have grown up with TV. I’m one of the first kids that they watched grow up on television.” –Jerry Mathers

It was the advent of television. TV was something new, and it was all live studio work. Jerry Mathers explains that while there were child stars in motion pictures, there weren’t really any television child actors, so they thought they could pool from child models who were used to being out on stage and could follow direction.

Heinz 57 was sponsoring and premiering a lot of television variety shows and pilots and after a year or more of languishing it was actually General Douglas MacArthur who was on the board of Remington-Rand (Typewriters) who decided to option the series. The pilot for the show was initially called It’s a Small World.

There was a cattle call for the pilot show where over 5000 young boys of varying ages turned up to audition for the part of both brothers and their friends. His mom wasn’t sure she wanted Jerry to do a series. After many weeks of showing up for the grueling audition schedule, Jerry started to get a bit tired of the process of sticking around, saying his lines, and being told to come back the next day as they weeded out the potential actors for the series. It came down to the last 10 kids and the day he was supposed to show up at the casting call, he had his first cub scout meeting, so he didn’t want to go. Writers Joe Connolly and Bob Mosher both had big families and were used to the machinations of children. They noticed that Jerry was acting pretty fidgety on the rehearsal stage. He agreed to go to the audition only after his mother fixed it so they could go to the audition and his cub scout meeting right afterwards, Jerry even wore his cub scout uniform to the audition.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, 1957-63, Hugh Beaumont (kneeling), Bob Mosher (co-creator), Jerry Mathers, Tony Dow, Joe Connelly (co-creator) (sitting), Norman Tokar (director) (kneeling), 1958, on-set

It seemed like it took forever watching each kid to go in and run their lines. Finally he was called in. Young Jerry went inside, said his lines and came right out in a short period of time. His mom asked why he was done so quickly, he told her that they asked him if he wanted to be there and he said “no,” he’d rather go to his cub scout meeting. That night they called and said he’d gotten the job! They’d rather have a boy that wanted to go to a cub scout meeting rather than be an actor. The producers chose him because they wanted a boy who possessed the genuine spirit of a real little boy.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Jerry Mathers, Hugh Beaumont, ‘The Black Eye’, (Season 1), 1957-63

And of course Connolly and Mosher just loved young Jerry every time he showed up for each exhaustive part of the audition process. Jerry Mathers is the consummate professional. He began his career at age 2, he took direction well, learned his lines perfectly, and gained immeasurable experience in the early infancy of television with variety shows and dramatic live performances. He is such an extraordinary actor and a natural talent that he makes you believe he wasn’t following direction at all, and somehow he had manifested Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver as a very real character — a universally lovable little guy. And after listening to interviews and talking to the actor himself, he makes it clear that there was a little bit of himself in Beaver, and a bit of Beaver in Jerry Mathers. The skill involved makes you think that what you’re seeing is real, and that is an art. A lot goes into the process of creating, not only a believable and beloved iconic character, but a television series that will go on to last decade after decade. And as you will learn from my conversation with Jerry Mathers, that lovable little boy was very serious and focused on the craft of acting all while having the time of his life!

“You know, working isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. I wonder why older people do it so much?” —Beaver Cleaver

On Friday October 4th 1956, months after the pilot aired, Leave it to Beaver debuted on CBS and began a legacy of the magic and innocence of childhood. The iconic television sitcom Leave it to Beaver is about an inquisitive and often unsuspicious little lad whose misadventures within the world of his suburban middle-class life symbolized the idealization of the American family during post WWII.

The first sublimely marvelous episode ‘Beaver Gets Spelled’ introduces Beaver and Wally navigating the tricky mechanism of kid vs school and authority. It includes a scene where they feign taking their baths by running the tub, dampening towels and throwing in some turtle dirt so it leaves a ring. The next episode ‘Captain Jack’ which made television history by featuring the first toilet shown on TV. Beaver and Wally send away for a pet alligator from the back of a comic book. In the 1960s, I ordered all sorts of things as a kid, including a giant rubber fly, sea monkeys, and x-ray glasses! It’s a quirky entertaining episode with wonderful moments — for instance when Ward accuses Minerva the cleaning woman of getting drunk on the job when she says there’s an alligator in the basement sink. In 1997 ‘Captain Jack’ was ranked number 42 in TV Guide’s 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.

In 1957, radio, film and television writers/producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher conceptualized a television show that would feature the family life of an average suburban couple and their young children. Connelly and Mosher met in New York City while working on the radio show Amos ‘n’ Andy, which they continued to be involved with after it moved to television in 1950. What set the show apart from other family sitcoms and domestic comedies of that time period like Ozzie & Harriet or Father Knows Best is that their show would be conveyed through the eyes of the children and not their parents, which introduced a new direction for a mainstream family genre, a series being told from the kid’s point of view. Leave It to Beaver is a thoughtfully lyrical insight of middle-class American boyhood.

Both Connolly and Mosher had kids of their own and actually got their inspiration for the characters, plot lines and dialogue from their own personal lives and conversations from their children. Most or all 234 episodes, 39 per year for 6 years, were taken from real life situations.

Joe Connolly collected stories in a notebook over the years with anecdotes based on things that really happened to family and friends, embellishing a bit along the way. “If we hire a writer we tell him not to make up situations, but to look into his own background. It’s not a ‘situation’ comedy where you have to create a situation for a particular effect. Our emphasis is on a natural story line.” -Joe Connolly

“The Haircut” episode, for example, is based on something that happened with Bob Mosher’s son who had to wear a stocking cap in a school play because he gave himself a terrible hair cut like the one Beaver gave himself with the help of brother Wally of course!

Even the name Beaver was inspired by a merchant marine friend of Joe Connolly’s during WWII. Both Connolly and Mosher became executive producers on the show having initially written all the earlier episodes. Later on they began accepting scripts from other writers.

The series cinematographers were Mack Stengler, who shot 122 episodes between 1958 and 1962, and William A. Sickner who worked on 37 episodes between 1957 and 1959, and later included Fred Mandl, and Ray Rennahan. The cinematographers often keenly lensed the series using angles that emphasized the world from Beaver, Wally and their mischievous friends’ perspective.

Director Norman Tokar, who had experience working with children, directed most of the episodes for the first three years and developed the characters of Eddie Haskell and Larry Mondello. Other directors involved in the series include Earl Bellamy, David Butler (who had worked with Shirley Temple), Bretaigne Windust, Gene Reynolds, and also Hugh Beaumont directed various episodes. Norman Abbott directed most of the episodes during the run of the last three years.

Leave it to Beaver is so memorable for us because it’s an allegorical journey of innocence and the magical world of childhood. Beaver is the ‘innocent’ while Wally is the ‘transitional’ character. Wally tries to explain to his brother what the world is really like, because he’s been out in the world longer. Beaver often looks to Wally for guidance as he tries to navigates the awkward and often perplexing situations he gets himself into.

Beaver grew up on the television screen, and we watched his trajectory of his adventures and life lessons through his perspective. The show shared the valuable and straightforward morals he learns about life, love, and friendship. And amidst all the shenanigans and mischief, Theodore ‘Beaver’ Cleaver is a very loyal, caring and kind little fella. Leave it to Beaver has touched fans’ lives immeasurably at the core of our collective hearts.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Jerry Mathers on-set, (1959), 1957-63

Not only is Leave it to Beaver known as the first television show to reveal a toilet on air but quite a few scenes occurred in the boys bathroom. There’s even an episode where Beaver allows a bum to come in and take a bath getting all sudsed up in Ward and June’s bathroom. Then he takes one of Wards best suits! It’s a crazy bit of trivia but tubs and toilets were what the censors took notice of!

Jerry has mentioned in other interviews as well as in our conversation that the environment on the set was geared toward everyone involved feeling like a family, and making sure that the crew’s families felt welcomed and included. Writers Joe Connolly & Bob Mosher visualized the series with a very conscious aim at representing the idealization of the American family and the American Dream of the 1950s but somehow they managed to narrate finely drawn messages within the framework of the story lines. They even contributed to The Munsters which was a way to invert the average All-American ideal using an unconventional family of monsters to introduce not so subtly, the idea of ‘difference.’

Leave It to Beaver was filmed at Republic Studios in Studio City, Los Angeles during its earliest run of Season 1 and 2. Then the production moved to Universal Studios for the last four seasons of the show. All the exteriors, including the façades of the two Cleaver houses, were filmed on the both studio’s back lots.

One of the intros for Alfred Hitchcock Presents was done on the set of the Cleaver home. The studio went around looking for places and they decided on the Cleaver living room. If you know the design of the house, and all the furniture – notice the foyer and as Jerry Mathers says- “It’s probably a murder mystery – but they actually filmed on their set (Leaver it to Beaver) one day…”

One of the significant elements of the series was the musical theme song at the opening of Leave it to Beaver and it’s incidental music throughout. Each episode was accompanied by whimsical, evocative and poignant melodies that help elevate the story lines in moments that invoked either the adventurous spirit, the curious imagination, or tap into the bonds of affection and kindness. The opening spirited theme song “The Toy Parade” was written by David Kahn, Melvyn Leonard and Mort Greene. For the rest of the wall to wall incidental music CBS utilized stock music from their Television Orchestra library, suggestive of shows from that decade and early 1960s. There are expressive melodies used in Leave it to Beaver that can be heard in the studio’s other shows, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents. The final season showcased one of my favorite composers Pete Rugolo who scored many television series of the 1960s.

Essentially the typical set up for each episode of Leave it to Beaver places Beaver or Wally or both boys in situations where they get into some sort of mishap or predicament. First they try to noodle their way out of it somehow by covering up or avoiding the issue, eventually coming before his wise but not infallible mother and father June and Ward for his/their admonishment. Often June and Ward would discuss their own shortsightedness in handling the boys, ultimately admitting that they have a lot to learn as parents. This is part of what makes the show so earnest and endearing. And the affectionate and often humorous chemistry Barbara Billingsley and Hugh Beaumont share comes across as real as can be.

Frequently Ward tries to impart some kernel of wisdom referring to classical myths and literary characters as models for teaching the boys moral lessons about making good choices, and solving problems. Ward often idealizes his own childhood, forgetting the various ways boys can get in trouble. He gives the boys Tom Sawyer to read, forgetting that the book is full of Tom’s bad habits and delinquency. Applying the logic to their own lives, for example when Beaver fights with Larry, and Ward tells him the story of Damon and Pythias, and the boys make a friendship pact that at first backfires on Beaver when Larry takes advantage expecting him to ‘die even’ for him by giving him his math homework. Ultimately, Wards story gets through to Larry, and the boys learn a valuable lesson about integrity, loyalty and friendship.

LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, Barbara Billingsley, Jerry Mathers, Hugh Beaumont, 1957-63

One of the tenets of the show is emphasis on cleanliness and the importance of good grooming habits, manners, your appearance and caring for your personal belongings. Like not throwing your grubby socks under the bed or in contrast to June’s wishes that the boys take a bath, the two run the tub, dampen towels, and then throw some of Beaver’s turtle dirt in to create a ring.

While girls were still ‘creepy’, It’s a mischievous ruse that would eventually be left behind as Wally grew up and pampered and preened himself once he started to notice girls. Beaver’s awakening came a bit later, though he did have sweet crushes on Miss Canfield (Diane Brewster) and Miss Landers (Sue Randall), he wasn’t above coming up with great verbal scourges like telling Violet Rutherford “You do too drink gutter water” after she gives him a black eye and calling Linda Denison ‘a smelly old ape’ when the other kids accuse him of being her boyfriend.

And Leave it to Beaver dealt with issues that were pretty enlightened for it’s era. There was an episode that dealt sensitively with alcoholism as Beaver becomes aware of the issue within a very tender friendship with the house painter. There is a story line where one of June’s college friend’s son Dudley comes to spend time with the Cleavers. Wally is asked to befriend him and introduce him to his friends. Dudley is gentile and cultured, playing piano, and wearing an overcoat and fedora. He carries a briefcase to school which serves as fodder for Eddie Haskell to ridicule the young man for being an oddball. Dudley was an outsider, the idea of his difference was blaring and the show handled it to subtle perfection. It was a very interesting character as he represented a very ‘different’ sort of teenage boy.

There was also the episode that showed a Latino immigrant family whose little boy Chuey communicates with ease, without Beaver speaking Spanish embracing their new found friendship without prejudice, until Eddie Haskell injects his cruel joke laced with racism when Beaver asks Eddie to teach him a Spanish phrase to surprise Chuey with, Beaver innocently tells Chuey he has ‘a face like a pig’. Even the episode with Lillian Bronson as the local ‘witch’ who was really just an older woman living by herself in a spooky run down house was a lesson in not judging people by their appearance.

Then there was the episode that dealt with classism involving the Junkman’s kids. While June worries a bit that the boys will be playing in a dirty environment surrounded by garbage and rats and boys who might be rough around the edges — boys from the other side of town–  she learns that there is understanding and alternate wisdom to be shared from unexpected places and it teaches her not to judge people by their station in life, as they share endearing observations about June and Ward that impress not only Beaver and Wally who have a new perspective on their parents seeing them “through the eyes of the Junkman’s kids.”

Leave it to Beaver in it’s own innocuous way even Introduced esoteric themes of the supernatural in a humorous fashion with the episode Voodoo Magic where Beaver believes he’s inflicted a curse on Eddie Haskell by sticking pins and nails in his Raggedy Andy doll. It’s one of my favorites of the series. Ward in his calm and sagely manner even teaches Beaver than you can beat a bully like Lumpy Rutherford by not becoming like him. But Ward learns his own lesson when he realizes that he sabotages Beaver’s self-confidence when he is disappointed that he’s only playing a yellow canary in the school revue and not a bald eagle. His underlying dismay at his son representation of masculinity by playing a whimpy bird sends Beaver into a panic on the night of the show.

And Beaver catches the capitalist fever in Water, Anyone? when the water main is shut off, and he gets inside information from the water department guys digging up the road. Beaver proceeds to try and sell his jugs of water from his wagon to the neighborhood, inciting one of the local housewives to call Ward up and invoke the word ‘communism’ in her rant. It’s another of my favorites. And there’s more than one episode that shows Beaver’s sensitivity and caring for all creatures great and small.

After hearing Miss Landers recite a poem about trees, he is so moved that he goes to rescue the tree given to him on his birthday a few years back, that is still rooted at his old house. Beaver digs it up with the help of Larry Mondello and sneaks it back to replant it at his new house. What might seem like simple childhood exploits, there is always a small shining gem of wisdom within the narrative.

Some people may assess the show as syrupy or fluffy but the show is way more nuanced about unconditional love, acceptance, tolerance, difference and embracing the vast untapped qualities revealed by a child’s flourishing imagination.

“Give the shrimp a paddle!”

Therefore the show shouldn’t be constrained by 1950s standard. Uncle Billy and Aunt Martha who is an elitist, were single adults with no experience raising children, Billy is painted as sort of the ‘black sheep’ on Ward’s side of the family, a braggart and exaggerator who travels and doesn’t have a stable lifestyle and June’s Aunt Martha doesn’t seem to be in touch with how to raise boys in a contemporary manner, dressing Beaver in short pants that lead to him getting into a brawl at school. Even Mrs. Mondello has to raise the problematic Larry as her husband is always out of town and rarely taking charge at home, leaving her to scramble for advice, often looking to Ward to help straighten out Larry when he gets into mischief.

Of course Eddie Haskell is an archetypal anti social troublemaker who is the counterbalance to Wally’s clean cut, always follow the rules kind of idealized All-American boy.

The series offers us drunks, bums, effete males, bullies, fat shaming, and the emotional subject of divorce. A friend of Beaver’s from camp Konig spends the weekend. He is bought off by gifts and cash to keep him placated while he’s left alone amidst a hostile divorce, where the parents remarry every other year. This episode features another fine child actor, Barry Gordon who was nominated for a Tony Award for his portrayal of Nick in A Thousand Clowns on Broadway revising the role in the film in 1965.

Jerry Mathers is both fortunate and burdened — he will be forever associated with an eternal boy in the mind of the collective American audience. He will be typecast forever in our imaginations as a part of the cultural iconography of nostalgia for believed better by gone days.

Beaver is an ‘every kid’ and each episode is filmed almost like a fable. There is a sweet alchemy that creates a world that feels comfortable and comforting amidst an early suburban enchantment that is gratifying. Beyond the nostalgia there is an incredibly nuanced sentiment within the series and the performances — clever morality plays which are veiled in the everyday adventures that wind up mattering a whole lot.

There’s just wonderful ‘time period’ aspects to the show that are steeped in nostalgia. And you’ll hear expressions like ‘creepy”rat’ ‘gosh’ ‘grubby’ ‘wise-guy’ and ‘A hunk of milk’ or a hunk of anything really. The worries were whether you washed your feet, not throwing your dirty socks under the bed, not losing your library book and not playing hooky from school!

Or you could be like Beaver, climbing into a giant steamy cup of billboard soup, ditching dancing class, spitting off a bridge, building a club house, camping out in the yard during a torrential downpour, selling perfume that smells like an old catchers mitt, getting a black eye from a girl, and sneaking an alligator into the house…

I’ll just mention a few predicaments Beaver gets himself into, especially with the help of his best friend Larry. Beaver lets Larry talk him into drilling a few holes in the garage wall, and after Ward tells him if he doesn’t pay attention to the rules, they’re going to have nothing but trouble between them. So Beaver tells him he’s running away so Ward never has to be troubled with him hanging around there — no more. Of course he gets as far as Larry Mondello’s dinner table with three desserts while June is frantic and Ward won’t bend… at first!

The boys are so late to school for the third time in one week when a truck crushes their lunch boxes that they play hooky and wind up on a television commercial at the local grocery store. One day the boys smoke from the Austrian Meerschaum pipe Mr. Rutherford sends the family – first they try just some coffee grinds then used cigarette butts Larry collects from last nights’ company–they both get sick, and Wally is the one who gets blamed for smoking. Beaver believes Larry who tells him that Mrs. Rayburn has a spanking machine in her office closet then gets himself locked inside the school that night and needs the fire department to get him out — making himself a ‘most conspicuous’ character. Then the very next day he gets his head stuck in the iron fence in the park, making himself yet again that’s right — ‘conspicuous’.  I got my own head stuck in the wrought iron railing in our house when I was about his age. Let me assure you… It’s not fun!

Continue reading “A Conversation with Television Icon 📺 Jerry Mathers”