Spielberg’s Early Television Work

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Tales from the Golden Age
Bruce Bennett on Steven Spielberg’s Early Television Work

In 1969, Steven Spielberg met two household names on their way down the marquee as he took his first steps up to the above-the-title rung he currently occupies.

The first was Rod Serling. In the nearly two generations since his final career set back after cardiac surgery in 1975, The Twilight Zone creator and host’s work and image have assumed an exalted status. But in 1969 when 22-year-old Spielberg was tapped to direct “Eyes,” a segment of the feature-length pilot for the series Night Gallery, Serling’s career was, according to his biographer Joel Engel, inflicted with a paralysis from which it would never recover. A tendency to recycle material, accusations of plagiarism and poor business decisions (including selling off the rights to The Twilight Zone shortly before the series was sold into syndication) increasingly led Serling to accept TV commercial, game-show, and voiceover gigs. By the time Spielberg read “Eyes,” the Night Gallery triptych had briefly and unsuccessfully made the rounds as a feature property with Sammy Davis Jr. attached to star in a racism-themed segment absent from the pilot. All three stories were published in a 1967 book entitled The Season to Be Wary. Engel maintains that the basic plot concept of Spielberg’s segment dated back to 1963 when it was suggested (with no credit strings attached) to Serling by producer friend.

“Eyes” tells the story of Claudia Menlo, a blind, Machiavellian multimillionaire in New York who pays a luckless gambler named Sidney Resnick $10,000 to submit to experimental surgery that will allow her to see. Catch #1 is that the operation, performed by a medical team blackmailed into service by Menlo, will render Resnick sightless for the rest of his life. Catch #2 is that, if successful, the surgery will only allow Menlo to see for a few brief hours. Strong-armed by bookies, Resnick agrees, the operation takes, and fate intervenes in the form of a city-wide blackout exactly coinciding with Menlo’s post-surgical period of sight. Menlo stumbles through the dark until oblivion beckons via the dawn and a balcony window.

That the phone, emergency lamps, headlights, and the voices of dismayed New Yorkers on the streets below don't interfere with the scripted climax makes “Eyes” as written nearly as slapdash as one of the satirically condensed episodes of Serling’s original series lampooned as Rod Serling Jr.’s Twilight Zone-ettes on Saturday Night Live in the seventies. Why Resnick agrees to the surgery to pay his debts only to kill himself once it's over, as he implies he will, is never addressed either. “It was a meller,” Spielberg recalled in a 1974 interview. “Almost an a.m. soap.”

The other dimming star the director encountered at the dawn of his professional directing career was Joan Crawford. The role of Menlo was originally offered to Bette Davis and then to Crawford when Davis passed. Night Gallery producer William Sackheim paid Crawford $50,000 for a scheduled seven days work (the most likely of the seven, nine, and 17 days that various interviews and biographies describe the episode taking to make). Spielberg, per the terms of a contract signed just six weeks before he reported to work in February 1969, earned $275 dollars for the same period.

*****

The Universal Studios that hosted Spielberg’s salaried directing debut would have been unrecognizable to James Whale or nearly any other contract director of the next-door-to-poverty-row studio’s prewar years. By late 1963 or early 1964 when, according to Joseph McBride’s Steven Spielberg: A Biography, an associate of Spielberg’s father arranged a portentous studio tour for then 17-year-old Steve, the house that “Uncle” Carl Laemmle had built to spite Edison’s patent thugs and that producer turned studio head William Goetz all but dismantled through poor management in the late fifties had been under the leadership of MCA’s Lew Wasserman for nearly two years. While the Music Corporation of America talent agency had only taken control of Universal in 1962 it had, thanks to a Screen Actors Guild waiver agreement negotiated by incoming SAG president and longtime MCA client Ronald Reagan, been in the television business since 1950. MCA’s Revue Productions TV shingle pioneered pro-wrestling, made a household name of Beaver Cleaver, and acquired Paramount’s pre-1948 film catalog to rerun through America’s living rooms. That unapologetic and profitable embrace of the small screen carried over into MCA owned Universal’s production ethos. By the mid-sixties MCA-TV Ltd., the small screen arm of Wasserman’s Universal was responsible for 5,840 hours of television programming a year and growing.

Though MCA essentially invented the TV movie during the same era, their stock-in-trade productions were dialogue-driven, nuance-free 30- and 60-minute genre dramas. Weighing in at 25 minutes Spielberg’s segment of Night Gallery was constructed like any other half-hour TV drama of the era as a sequence of plot hooks and reveals arranged to climax at each commercial break. Like all of MCA’s small-screen output, it would be shot quickly and efficiently on the studio’s enormous backlot by crews whose careers sometimes extended back to the same stages in the thirties and forties.

Spielberg’s codirectors, former Ernie Kovacs collaborator Barry Shear and Soviet-born stage veteran Boris Sagal, had at least a decade each of studio television credits to their names. Though Spielberg later claimed to have sneaked through the studio’s gates and taken over an unused office, his association with Universal began with a personal mid-sixties tour of the complex followed by a high school gopher job. The seven-year television contract he signed in December of 1968 was arranged by MCA TV chief Sid Sheinberg on the strength of Amblin’, the 35mm short that Spielberg wrote and directed while at college in Long Beach.

Sheinberg saw sufficient possibilities in Spielberg’s calling card short to screen the film for a cadre of TV producers, including Sackheim, and to offer “the kid” a contract. Sid Sheinberg is portrayed as a kind of obstructive reverse vulgarian in The Battle for “Brazil,” Jack Matthews’s account of Terry Gilliam’s struggle for final cut on the 1985 film. But for Spielberg, Sheinberg would prove to be an invaluable ally. The mentor-mentee relationship between the two Southwest-raised Jews of different generations would prove mutually advantageous beyond either ‘s expectations. Sheinberg, who took over the presidency of Universal in 1973, would shortly defend Spielberg’s protracted production of Jaws (a film co-starring Mrs. Sheinberg, Lorraine Gary) to his fellow executives. Spielberg in turn set up up E.T., the Jurassic Park films, and Schindler’s List at Universal on Sheinberg’s watch.

joanandsteven.JPG By 1969 Spielberg had been making films since the Boy Scouts (his first film for a photography merit badge). As the start date for “Eyes” loomed he later told director Tay Garnett that he “felt old and experienced when the time came to ‘go pro.’” That didn’t stop Spielberg from attempting to ameliorate pre-gig jitters by meticulously planning out the entire shoot in advance. Production realities quickly saw his ambitious shot lists pared back. While Spielberg was not shy about asking for help from his far more experienced crew, he recalled in a number of interviews that his greatest ally on the “Eyes” set proved to be Joan Crawford. “She treated me like I knew what I was doing and I didn’t,” the director said at Crawford’s memorial in 1977, “and I loved her for it.”

In her memoir Mommie Dearest Christina Crawford describes her mother as initially “furious” at having been assigned a first-time director some 40 years her junior. But over the course of the shoot Crawford responded to Spielberg’s personal charm and very likely recognized his anointed status at Universal. She assured Spielberg that were he to go over schedule (he did by two days), she would deal with any interference. In return, Spielberg deferred to Crawford’s need to have Serling's deep-purple dialogue written out on cue cards, a requirement that may have been as much the byproduct of her prodigious vodka intake as the unwieldy nature of Serling's words. “I don't know how else to put it,” actor Tom Bosley told the authors of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: A Night Tour. “I think she was dead drunk the entire time.”

Crawford biographer Donald Spoto summed up the Night Gallery segment's place in the star’s legacy as having finally documented (along with Freddie Francis’s 1970 horror film Trog) “her large, pellucid and radiantly expressive aqua-blue eyes,” in a full glory “that had so long impressed those who knew her in person.” But Crawford is much better than ornamental in a film that producer Sackheim described to McBride as “a showy piece that worked well.” and Spielberg declared, “the most visually blatant film I’ve ever made,” both with substantial justification.

That Crawford’s professional legacy is forever tied to her adopted daughter’s memoir of full-contact domesticity is as sad a fact of human nature and pop culture as Ike Turner’s facility for spousal abuse outstripping his considerable musical achievements. Playing, per Serling's script, “an imperious, predatory dowager” or, if you prefer, “a tiny, fragile little monster” in “Eyes,” Crawford did what she did best. Whether as the cast-iron corner of a love triangle in Daisy Kenyon, James M. Cain’s selfless supermom Mildred Pierce, or a saloon keeper who’d slept her way to a place of her own in Johnny Guitar, Joan Crawford in the right role lent a genuine humanity and fragility to near caricatures of feminine strength and self-reliance. Crawford, Barry Sullivan as the head of Menlo’s blackmailed OR dream team, and Tom Bosley, taking a break from playing WASP fantasy dads and Catholic priests to ladle out Sidney’s nonstop “it’s to laugh” schlemiel-speak, perform Serling’s one-voice-fits-all dialogue with valedictory conviction.

Each of the roughly four acts in “Eyes” has its own go-for-broke visual energy. Act one, an exposition heavy exchange of mostly two shots and close ups set primarily in Menlo’s apartment, climaxes with a neat little rip of the pecked-eye jump cuts in Hitchcock’s The Birds. “I want to see something!” Menlo gasps. The camera pushes in as she lists “Trees! Concrete! Buildings! Grass!” then “Airplanes!” and finally “Color!” each heralded by a jump and a high-chinned jerk of Crawford’s head. Act two owes the most to the Amblin' style sheet: Resnick’s shakedown on a playground exterior is shot with much the same emphasis on soft cuts, POV shots, and long-lens foreground filigree as Spielberg’s short.

The operating scene that dominates the third act is simply nuts. According to Sackheim and the film’s editor, Ed Abroms (both quoted in McBride’s bio and the Night Gallery After Hours companion), much of the dizzying stream of split-screens, inserts, and even a spiral wipe (all scored with clanging bells and electronica burble) was assembled after Spielberg’s participation had ended. While Spielberg made a series of over-cranked shots of plate glass striking the pavement, it was likely Ed Abroms’s idea to superimpose the resulting shattered glass nebulas over the gallery portrait of Menlo that appears in Serling’s intro and early in the film. Other opticals, inserts, and voice-overs that set up and punctuate act four’s cumbersome ironic twist also seem to be more the product of cutting room ingenuity than directorial vision. Much of “Eyes” is brutally looped, but then again much of nearly every non–Jack Webb MCA-TV production of the era was as well. What is perhaps more indicative evidence of a postproduction end-run around shots not made and beats not clarified by a first-timer behind the camera is how many key lines of exposition and transition are spoken over insert close-ups, dissolves, in voice-over, or by characters facing away from camera.

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Spielberg’s sophomore assignment didn’t materialize for nearly a year. “The pressure of that show was too much for me,” Spielberg admitted years later.” I decided to take some time off.” The fact that “Eyes” went two days over schedule (though almost entirely due to Crawford's needs) was not lost on MCA-TV's brass. A leave of absence granted by Sid Sheinberg stretched into months. Even before “Eyes” wrapped, Spielberg and Mike Medavoy, the agent he’d acquired via Amblin’ were pitching feature ideas within and outside Universal. They spent the ensuing year fruitlessly seeking out backing for independent projects and watching other director hirelings getting episodic TV gigs. The long wait ended in early 1970 when Spielberg received Bernard Ross’s script for “The Daredevil Gesture,” an episode in the debut season of Marcus Welby, M.D.

Created by writer and producer David Victor, Welby expanded the Dr. Kildare disease-of-the-week formula by pairing Robert Young as the titular GP with James Brolin as Steven Kiley, a young, motorcycle-riding doctor who shares Welby’s practice. The guest star malady in “The Daredevil Gesture” is the genetic blood-clotting disease hemophilia, and the victims are the Bellows family—Larry, a teenager afflicted with it; his mother whose marriage has collapsed under her overprotective obsession with Larry’s illness; and Larry’s sister, Claudia, who is poised to dump her steady boyfriend rather than risk passing along the bleeding gene to a new generation. Larry comes to doctors Welby and Kiley’s attention after falling and cutting himself at a new school where he hopes to be treated like a normal kid.

Watching Shout! Factory’s DVD of season one (though a huge hit for ABC, lasting seven seasons, Marcus Welby, M.D. eluded home-video release until 2010) prompted the surprise realization that I’d seen Spielberg’s episode when it was broadcast. At the time, it prompted my brother and I to become briefly preoccupied with the idea of getting cut and never stopping bleeding, as if hemophilia essentially let the air out of its human balloon sufferers or was a left-field horror movie rule like the fact that vampires wither in sun light. What eluded us was what today feels like a much more horrific component of Ross's story. As Larry’s excitement about a school class election and a geology club field trip build, his enthusiasm and anxiety cause him to bleed internally, so much so that he has to have blood plasma transfusions. “It’s the internal hemorrhaging that has me worried to death!” Larry’s mother gushes in a characteristically thick slice of exposition from the script.

That a teenager’s eagerness to fit in would cause him to bleed inside is a nearly Cronenberg-worthy body horror conceit. And it’s of a piece with a television episode that sustains a high level of off-kilter creepiness from the first frame. An exterior shot establishes the episode’s milieu using the art moderne facade of Hollywood High School. To anyone who has never driven by the school campus it would appear that Larry and his classmates attend class in a Turkish bath. Composer Leonard Rosenman was a twelve-tone scale devotee in his pre-Hollywood days and his string-dominated theme and score sustain a dissonant, weirdly uneasy tone throughout. There’s a disorienting feeling of déjà vu when Dr. Welby’s hasty day-for-night walk from the front door of his suburban ranch house and a shot of Dr. Kiley pulling in to the driveway on his motorcycle get repeated from the show's credit sequence.

The first of two determinedly subtext free, fact-burdened consultations between the two physicians regarding Larry’s physical and family pathology is a study in soundstage lighting grid sterility though, like most of the dialogue scenes in the film, Spielberg has clearly taken pains to stage his actors in three dimensions and Welby’s ascot and monogrammed smoking jacket add considerable color. The second such scene is lit from below by the spill from a lampshade as the two doctors look at slides from Kiley’s latest camping trip. It ends with Welby exiting in the background just ahead of a quick fade to commercial, leaving Kiley facing camera. In a down angle shot that vaguely evokes Bela Lugosi, Kiley details a spike in hemophilia cases with the mumbled line, “A couple of geneticists think the jump may be due to radiation . . .” Neither radiation nor genetics are ever mentioned again.

The cast members for the most part seem to hit their marks, say their awkward lines, and try not to look as out-of-touch as the words they’re saying sound. Ronne Troup, daughter of songwriter and Jack Webb stock company regular Bobby Troup, makes the most of the mercifully underwritten role of Larry’s love interest, Ginny. At the same time, Larry’s hero-worship of Kiley and vicarious fascination with the good doctor’s off hours camping trips with the “fellows” threaten to push their relationship into romantic borderlands. But actor Frank Webb (who would be out of show business and dead from car accident injuries within a few years) infuses Larry with so much angst that there’s insufficient chemistry to tip the scales.

“I cut my one and only Marcus Welby over [series picture editor] Dick Wolk’s shoulder as if it were Citizen Kane,” Spielberg told Tay Garnett. Whether or not Spielberg was intentionally trying to subvert the script’s banal melodramatics by doing whatever he could to make everything as weird and over-the-top as possible isn’t recorded and seems unlikely. McBride quotes two witnesses to the production of “The Daredevil Gesture” rapturously recalling a specific dolly move that Spielberg worked out with series DP Walter Strenge (whose own career had begun with independent film pioneer Oscar Micheaux). Yet the actual shot, containing a right-to-left dolly following a group of students to a locker where Larry and Welby confer, a close-up of Welby, and then a left-to-right dolly back the way the camera came, doesn’t seem quite worth the enthusiasm. Spielberg would soon stage considerably more ambitious and effective camera blocking in “LA 2017,” a science-fiction themed entry of the The Name of the Game series (featuring both Barry Sullivan from “Eyes” and a walk-on from Joan Crawford), and an episode of Columbo. Perhaps you had to be there. And, anyway, you gotta start somewhere.

Marcus Welby M.D. photo courtesy of Shout! Factory/ NBC Universal.