A Drama Series Re-emerges to Energize and Delight. Discovering a Remarkably Talented TV Writer -- And Most Likely You've Never Heard of Him. Robert Duvall in a Long Forgotten Part That Must Be Seen
For the better part of the past several weeks I have been binge-watching four seasons of a TV show that has recently become available on DVD. And in a year that has brought such pleasures as the last season of “Breaking Bad” and the first season of “House of Cards,” I’ve found a drama series I’ve liked every bit as much as those gems. Remarkably, it’s a TV series that’s more than 50 years old!
It’s a series set in New York, my all-time favorite city. New York is also the subject of one the best essays I’ve ever read, E.B. White’s “Here is New York,” which first appeared in Holiday magazine in April 1949.
Wrote White, “New York is the concentrate of art and commerce and sport and religion and entertainment and finance, bringing to a single compact arena the gladiator, the evangelist, the promoter, the actor, the trader and the merchant. It carries on its lapels the unexpungable odor of the long past, so that no matter where you sit in New York you feel the vibrations of great times and tall deeds, of queer people and events and undertakings.”
Being 1949, White used queer to mean unconventional. Later in his essay, White talks of how “the collision and intermingling“ of the millions of those living in New York City represent “so many races and creeds [as to] make New York a permanent exhibit of the phenomenon of one world.” White adds, “The Consolidated Edison Company says there are eight million people in the five boroughs of New York.”
That fact was also noticed a year earlier in a movie that began with a daytime shot of Manhattan from an airplane and this narration by the film’s producer, Mark Hellinger, who informed the audience that this movie was going to be different from most because “it was not photographed in a studio. … The actors played out their roles on the streets, in the apartment buildings, in the skyscrapers of New York itself. … This is the city as it is -- hot summer pavement, the children at play, the buildings in their naked stone, the people without make-up.” He then begins the narration that was written by screenwriters Albert Matz -- who was later blacklisted -- and Malvin Wald:
EXT. MIDTOWN MANHATTAN - NIGHT
It's one o'clock in the morning now --
EXT. WALL STREET - NIGHT DESERTED
And this is the face of New York City --
The movie, about two policemen trying to solve a murder, was called “The Naked City,” and is as famous for its narrative semi-documentary style as it is for being filmed, in vibrant black & white, on the streets of New York. At the very end of the film narrator Hellinger said, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
Close to a decade after the movie came out a young TV producer saw it. According to the 2008 book “Naked City: The Television Series” by James Rosin, “‘The Naked City’ was part of a feature film package acquired by Columbia for television release in 1957. This caught the attention of Herbert Leonard, an independent producer who worked with Screen Gems, Columbia’s television subsidiary.” Bert Leonard was 35 in 1957, and had had a big TV hit three years earlier with “The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin,” which was still on the air on ABC. Leonard contacted the widow of the producer of “The Naked City” and acquired the TV rights to the film. With tobacco giant Brown and Williamson agreeing to co-sponsor the show with Quaker Oats, ABC and Columbia’s Screen Gems agreed to make “The Naked City” as a weekly half-hour cop drama.
The show premiered on ABC on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 1958, at 9:30 p.m. ET/PT, following another new show, “The Rifleman.” Using some of the same overhead footage of Manhattan that was in the film version of "The Naked City," a voiceover by Leonard repeated many of the same lines Hellinger said when he introduced the movie as its narrator. And at the end of the episode Leonard’s voice was heard once again as he said, “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”
In Rosin’s book, Mark Alvey, a media historian, says that Leonard told Variety in 1958 that the idea of the TV version of “The Naked City” was “an attempt to tell anthology-style stories within the framework of a continuing character show. It was, [Leonard said], a 'human interest series about the city and people of New York, told through the eyes of two law enforcement officers.' Leonard’s agenda for the show’s setting was equally unique: It would be shot completely on location in New York, duplicating the trend-setting realism of the 1948 feature film. This was an ambitious, if not radical move at this moment in television history. New York retained a presence as the site of variety and quiz shows, plus live anthologies. But no weekly TV film dramas were being produced there at the time.”
Leonard hired writer Stirling Silliphant to pen the pilot of the show. He went on to, astonishingly, write 31 of the show’s first-season order of 39 episodes. According to Alvey, Screen Gems didn’t like the anthology nature of the show, and wanted it to be more conventional, but Leonard stuck to his guns. The two main characters in season one were played by John McIntire, as a police lieutenant, and James Franciscus as his younger detective partner.
John McIntire (right) and James Franciscus on the half-hour version of "The Naked City"
I think Franciscus was miscast. I liked McIntire, but, in a move practically unheard of for the time, he was killed off midseason, when he decided he wanted to leave the show.
Susan Orlean, for her 2011 book “Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend,” did extensive research into the life of Leonard, and wrote: “For the first season [of 'The Naked City'] Silliphant wrote an episode in which James Franciscus’s character watches an inmate being executed. ABC was outraged, but Bert insisted he wanted to use the episode; the network responded by canceling the show.”
I’m not surprised that the series was canceled. While somewhat interesting, I don’t think “The Naked City” really worked well as a half-hour drama.
But clearly Leonard was onto something. The show generally did about a 20 rating, not far behind the 21 or so that Red Skelton was doing on CBS. Bob Cummings' sitcom on NBC was competitive as well.
On the sponsorship side, Quaker Oats had quit its half-sponsorship of “The Naked City" about halfway through the season. Brown and Williamson picked up the slack. And they liked Leonard’s vision of the show. So they convinced ABC to bring back the series, now just called “Naked City,” as an hour-long drama starting a year later, in September 1960.
So the show ran as a half-hour drama for the 1958-’59 season, sat out the 1959-’60 season, and came back as an hour-long drama for the 1960-’61 season. It ran for two more seasons after that in its hour-long length.
When it came back in the fall of 1960, Franciscus was gone, replaced by Paul Burke. The difference was night and day. Franciscus's Detective Jim Halloran was full of the piss and vinegar of youth. Burke's Detective Adam Flint was at once older, more worldly, warmer and more sympathetic. Furthermore, when John McIntire was killed off in season one he had been replaced by Horace McMahon, whose lieutenant character was -- appropriately -- more gruff than the one McIntire had played. McMahon returned for the hour-long version of the show.
Paul Burke (left) and Horace McMahon in the hour-long version of "Naked City"
Also added to the cast was Nancy Malone as Burke’s girlfriend, and they had terrific chemistry as well.
More importantly, Silliphant had moved on to another show Leonard created, “Route 66.” He was replaced as the story editor on "Naked City" by Howard Rodman, who later would write such movies as “Coogan’s Bluff,” “Madigan” and “Charley Varrick.”
Plus, Rodman and Leonard hired a stable of top-flight writers who transformed "Naked City" into a compelling weekly anthology series that, for my money, was as good as most of what I’ve seen from TV’s Golden Age of live drama. The show was good enough to be nominated for the Best Drama Emmy for each year it was on, from 1960 to the end of the 1962-63 season.
I urge you to buy this DVD set of 138 episodes and check it out for yourself. It's put out by RLJ Entertainment. To start, you can get seasons one and two on Amazon’s streaming service.
Another persuasive reason to watch this series is to see the wonderful work of Abram S. Ginnes. He’s a writer I had never heard of before I started watching this DVD set. He wrote a total of 13 episodes of “Naked City,” all in seasons three and four. One of them, titled “The One Marked Hot Gives Cold,” which was originally broadcast in season three on March 21, 1962, is one of the finest hours of episodic drama I have ever seen on TV. The primary guest stars were Robert Duvall, Edward Andrews and a little girl played by an actress named Laurie Heinman.
A number of Ginnes' "Naked City" teleplays included characters who were either kids or teens. In "The One Marked Hot Gives Cold," Duvall plays a man who is having trouble finding himself, who befriends a 12-year-old girl played by Heinman. I don't want to spoil anything about this episode -- at some point you should try to see it. In total, Duvall guest-starred in four "Naked City" episodes, playing different characters in each one.
All I could find out about Ginnes on the Internet was a May 22, 2006, obituary about him written by film and TV historian Stephen Bowie. Here's an excerpt:
“Abram S. Ginnes, an enormously talented writer whom I had the pleasure of knowing during his last years, died Saturday in Los Angeles following a long illness. He was 91.
“Ginnes was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for his only screenplay, ‘Gaily Gaily’ (1969), an adaptation of Ben Hecht's memoirs. Before that he wrote extensively for radio, television and the theatre, specializing in cop shows and flavorful tales of New York City life that drew upon his own Brooklyn upbringing.
“Ginnes was an unapologetic radical for his entire life, and as a result he was blacklisted for several years during the 1950s. Like most artists who ran afoul of the McCarthy-era witchhunts, Ginnes found himself out of work just as his career was beginning to gather momentum.”
The obituary adds, “Ginnes' comeback from the blacklist took the form, primarily, of a baker's dozen of hour-long scripts for the New York-based police drama 'Naked City.' 'Naked City' was always an anthology in disguise (the writers struggled to get the cops into their stories), and Abe's contributions were all perfectly polished gems that reflected his wry, offbeat, and optimistic outlook on life. They were obsessively psychoanalytical, deeply interested in folklore and outsider communities, and dabbled in a surrealism that was highly unusual for TV at the time. I could go on about these amazing, largely unknown works, but most of them are on DVD and I encourage anyone who's interested to seek them out.”
I agree wholehearedly with this assessment of Ginnes' first-rate work on "Naked City."
The hour-long “Naked City” episodes made for such an absorbing, enthralling and exciting series because the stories were smart, original, tightly written teleplays about people who, in less than an hour, you were able to come to know and care about.
In Rosin’s book about "Naked City," James Sheldon, who directed a number of episodes, nailed it when he observed, “An important factor of the show and the way it was structured was that the series regulars never competed with the guest cast. They were there to complement and support them, and it made for a very effective weekly ensemble.“
And Burke told Rosin, “I had a metaphor for our show, which was a pie with three slices. One slice was the regular cast, another was the guest cast, and the third slice was the city of New York.”
Finally, here are a few of the actors who guest-starred on “Naked City”:
Lee J. Cobb, Claude Raines, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Maureen Stapleton, Diahann Carroll, George Segal, Lois Nettleton, Gene Hackman, Rip Torn, Tuesday Weld, Martin Sheen, Anthony Zerbe, Luther Adler, Nina Foch, Nehemiah Persoff, Akim Tamiroff, Mickey Rooney, Jack Lord, Piper Laurie, Sylvia Sidney, Gladys Cooper, Richard Conte and Dan Duryea.
And that’s just a partial list. Kudos to Marion Dougherty who, along with Jeff Kimmel, cast the guest stars every week.
And thank you, producer Bert Leonard. He died, in debt, at age 84 on Oct. 14, 2006. But what a legacy he left. "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," "Route 66" and another baby-boomer TV favorite that he produced, "Rescue 8." Plus, of course, "Naked City." In Hollywood there are also eight million stories. And how lucky for us that we can celebrate Leonard's one-in-a-million success.
It was 2 a.m. one night in 1970 and Johnny Carson, 45, was on the phone, clearly drunk, slurring his words. Carson was at the watering hole Sinatra had made famous -- Jilly’s in New York.
The person he called was a lawyer named Henry Bushkin, 27, whom Carson had known for all of 48 hours, and Carson wanted Bushkin to come to Jilly’s right away. The day before Bushkin had accompanied Carson and a few others as they broke into the Manhattan love nest that Carson had discovered was being kept by his then-wife, Joanne. She was his second wife, and during the break-in Carson had discovered evidence that Joanne had allegedly been having an affair with former football great Frank Gifford. (This was a year before Gifford would become even more famous by joining the announcer team on “Monday Night Football.")
Bushkin excused himself from his wife and dragged himself down to Jilly’s -- which was nearly empty at this early a.m. hour -- to meet Carson. As he arrived, Carson dismissed the person with whom he had been drinking, Ed McMahon. As Bushkin slid onto the barstool next to Carson, the late-night host said, “I’m not surprised Joanne did this to me. But it hurts. Hurts like hell.”
This account is from Bushkin’s book “Johnny Carson,” which was published several months ago by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.The day after this encounter that Bushkin writes about, he became Carson’s lawyer and one of his closest confidants for the next 18 years, until Carson fired him. And while this compelling page-turner is a no-brainer last minute stocking stuffer that you can purchase as an e-book, I must say I found it one of the more loathsome tell-alls I’ve read.
Here’s the rest of this 1970 incident, as told by Bushkin in the book:
“That [Carson] was devastated was obvious. ‘Maybe I drove her to it. I wasn’t the best husband in the world.’ He stared at the ceiling as though reflecting on the accuracy of this statement and then pounded the bar for emphasis when he apparently reached a judgement. ‘I shoulda been home more,’ he said with a drunk’s certainty. ‘Not running around.’“
A few moments later, Bushkin says, Carson “shifted on his stool. Anger rose in his voice. [Talking about his mother, Carson said] ‘She’s the toughest son of a bitch of them all. There is no goddamn way to please that woman. She’s Lady Macbeth! My marriages failed because she fucked me up!’“
Several minutes later Carson lit another cigarette and, Bushkin recalls, spit out the following; “I can’t quit smoking and I get drunk every night and I chase all the pussy I can get. I’m shitty in the marriage department. Make sure you understand that.’“
And then, a few minutes after that, Bushkin writes, “From the front of the bar, the creak of the door opening and thrum of a passing car broke the silence of the room. We turned to see a woman enter. As she drew closer in the dim light, one could gradually see she was a young woman -- tall -- with long brunette hair -- and even longer legs, in a short skirt and thigh-high boots -- and nearly as famous as Johnny was.”
Bushkin -- who, frustratingly, never tells us who the woman was -- left, saying that Carson’s “trauma and misery” seemed to instantly vanish when she appeared.
For the next 240 pages or so, Bushkin mostly regales us with stories illustrating that the man who so many of us found to be the perfect late-night tonic to take the edge off our stressful days was, basically, a spoiled asshole.
Here’s what Bushkin writes about 200 pages into the book, at the conclusion of Carson’s 1985 divorce to his third wife, Joanna:
“Johnny changed during the divorce proceedings, and I don’t know if he ever entirely changed back. He was always capable of being a miserable prick. The nasty remark, the stony silence, the surprising indifference -- they had been part of his repertoire ever since I knew him, but they were usually interruptions in a generally more genial mood. Now these stormy moments came more frequently, and there was an overall harshness, an impatient tolerance, that wasn’t there before.” “He became oddly imperious.” And: “It even got to the point where it seemed he couldn’t recognize a joke.”
Heretofore, the most well-known article about Carson was a very long profile that was published in the Feb. 20, 1978, issue of the New Yorker by the English theater critic and essayist Kenneth Tynan. Though two years younger than Carson, Tynan died at age 57 of pulmonary emphysema, just two years after writing his Carson profile.
By the time Tynan talked to him, Carson said he had given up alcohol. But as much as Tynan tried to reveal the “inner” Carson, not too many of the characteristics Bushkin writes about are exposed in Tynan’s piece.
In one exchange, the late Hollywood super-agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar tells Tynan, “He doesn’t drink now. But I remember Johnny when he was a blackout drunk. A couple of drinks was all it took. He could get pretty hostile.”
So on that score, Lazar seemed to be right on. And Lazar added that Carson had an “extreme ego,” which also seems to be true. But then, Tynan writes, “‘I’ll tell you something else about him,’ [Lazar] says, with italicized wonder. ‘He’s celibate.’ He means ‘chaste.’ ‘In his position, he could have all the girls he wants. It wouldn’t be difficult. But he never cheats.’“
This, according to Bushkin, could not be further from the truth. Reading Bushkin one gets the feeling that Carson, especially in the 1970s, was the king of the zipless fuck, though Bushkin never actually uses the term. The zipless fuck was a cultural phenomenon defined by Erica Jong in her 1973 bestseller “Fear of Flying.” Wrote Jong: “It was a platonic ideal. Zipless because when you came together zippers fell away like rose petals, underwear blew off in one breath like dandelion fluff. Tongues intertwined and turned liquid. Your whole soul flowed out through your tongue and into the mouth of your lover.” “Another condition for the zipless fuck was brevity,” Jong added.
Carson’s most notorious playground, according to Bushkin, was Las Vegas, from 1972-1980. For some of that time, Carson spent “up to ten weeks a year” performing in Vegas, not because he needed the money, but because he liked to. Bushkin writes about Carson in Vegas: “He liked hanging with the guys. He liked the excitement of new women.“ Except for a period of a few months, during this entire time Carson was married. But as Bushkin pointed out, “There weren’t a lot of limits on a headliner in Vegas, but there was one rule: No wives or girlfriends in the hotel or casino.”
Bushkin recounts this Vegas hook-up from early 1980 at Caesar’s Palace, where Carson was playing at the time. Carson had met two fans from Nebraska, whom Bushkin described as “very good-looking girls.”
Bushkin himself, no longer with his wife, was with a friend, Susan. Susan, Bushkin and the “Cornhusker girls” had dinner with Carson. The three women got drunk. Bushkin wasn’t feeling well and went back to his hotel room to take some medicine for a bad headache before returning to the group. He writes that upon his return, “To my surprise, the three girls were skinny-dipping in the rooftop swimming pool, while Johnny, wearing nothing but an apron, served them wine from a silver platter. ‘Ze white is a 1968 Chassagne-Montracher,’ he said, in a cheesy accent plucked from the Mightly Carson Art Players, “and ze rhedd is a 1966 Petrus. …’
“‘Come on Henry,’ Johnny shouted. ‘Take off your clothes! Join the fun!’
“Well, I did take off my clothes and I did try to join in, but something in the bacchanalian nature of the moment brought my headache back. Unable to enjoy myself, I had to leave. No one else did, not even Susan, the girl I’d brought with me, although I assumed she’d follow me back to our room soon enough.”
She didn’t, and Bushkin says the next morning he felt “humiliated,” “resentful” and “really pissed.”
Elsewhere in the book Bushkin writes about a year earlier, in 1979: “My many years as Carson’s one-man entourage had taken its toll on my family life. Many of the heady, heedless pleasures that come to kings as a matter of course also fell in my lap. I have enjoyed many adventures in Vegas and on the road that did nothing to reinforce marital bonds. Unlike Joanna [Carson], Judy [Bushkin, Henry’s wife] did mind the other women, and as a consequence, Judy and I split up that summer.”
What an a-hole. Is this guy for real? “Heedless pleasures that come to kings as a matter of course also fell into my lap” is his excuse for repeatedly cheating on his wife?? And he is shocked and surprised that his wife “did mind the other women”!!
And there’s something distasteful that the author of this unflattering tell-all is Carson’s former lawyer, whom Carson made a very rich man. One big difference between this tell-all and another tell-all written by Frank Sinatra's valet that I recommended earlier this year, is that the one about Sinatra is not full of the mean-spiritedness that marks Bushkin's book. What a grinch.
Ultimately, having been fired by Carson -- the details of which are too long to get into here -- Bushkin says at the end of his book, “When Carson died, just like the character Diana in ‘A Chorus Line,’ I thought I ought to be feeling something, but nothing emerged. The news media deluged me with calls, no doubt thinking that I would be a Vesuvius of memories, insights and emotions, but I refused them all. I couldn’t work up any noble sentiments about the man, and I did not want to look like I was taking a cheap shot.”
Finally, some honesty. On the second to last page of the book. Why Bushkin decided, eight years after Carson’death, to finally take that cheap shot by writing this book -- besides the financial rewards -- is an unanswered question. The irony is that Carson had told New Yorker reporter Tynan back in 1977 that Bushkin was “probably my best friend.” If you haven’t read Tynan’s portrait of Carson, I highly recommend you do.
The most memorable part of Tynan’s article is these comments he got from the late movie writer-director Billy Wilder: “‘By the simple law of survival, Carson is the best. He enchants the invalids and the insomniacs as well as the people who have to get up at dawn. He is the Valium and the Nembutal of a nation. No matter what kind of dead-asses are on the show, he has to make them funny and exciting. He has to be their nurse and their surgeon. He has no conceit. He does his work and he comes prepared. If he’s talking to an author, he has read the book. Even his rehearsed routines sound improvised. He’s the cream of middle-class elegance, yet he’s not a mannequin. He has captivated the American bourgeoisie without ever offending the highbrows, and he has never said anything that wasn’t liberal or progressive. Every night, in front of millions of people, he has to do the salto mortale’ -- circus parlance for an aerial somersault performed on the tightrope. ‘What’s more’ -- and here Wilder leaned forward, tapping my knee for emphasis -- ‘he does it without a net. No rewrites. No retakes. The jokes must work tonight.’“
Bushkin addresses this fact, that on air, Carson was nearly always pitch perfect. “But for the rest of the time when he had to be Johnny Carson,” Bushkin writes, “he accomplished that by making his world smaller, or simpler, or harder to reach.”
That may be true. But it’s also true that in the 17 years between the time Carson fired his lawyer and Carson’s death, Carson never conducted any interviews or wrote any articles or books telling us what a small person is one Henry Bushkin.
February 2014 will be a massive month for sports on television -- with Super Bowl XLVIII slated for Feb. 2 on Fox and the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, opening five days later with wall-to-wall coverage running through Feb. 23 on NBC networks.
But just about any day of the week is a big one in the television sports industry, because sports is one of the few categories of programming that doesn't lend itself to delayed viewing or binge-watching. It just about must be seen live.
That primacy was the timely theme in the final installment for 2013 of the Hollywood Radio & Television Society’s Newsmaker Luncheon Series, "Sports on TV: The Drive for Live," held earlier this month at the Beverly Hilton's International Ballroom.
Much as she does as a commentator and host on ESPN, Sage Steele tried to get to the heart of the matter with the players in the room, whose uniforms were unnumbered, but generally consisted of sport jackets with dress shirts. The score was 2-2, tie vs. no tie.
The team consisted of Peter Guber, chairman and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment Group; Mark Lazarus, chairman, NBC Sports Group; David Rone, president, sports, news and local programming, Time Warner Cable; and Eric Shanks, president, COO and executive producer, Fox Sports.
"Sports, TV and money are my favorite things," Lazarus admitted off the top, talking about why he loves his job, after revealing his proudest moment was instituting and integrating all of the digital coverage on NBC platforms at the London Olympics last summer.
Rone had an Olympic backstory to tell as well, recalling that as a production assistant in 1994, he was the guy who was somehow able to get everyone's underwear washed at Lillehammer, ensuring a promotion that led him up the ranks to where he is today.
For Guber, who owns the NBA's Golden State Warriors and is an owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, his extensive background in the film business allows him to overcome the omnipresent fear of failure in sports.
There is always a fear of failing in new ventures. But that didn’t stop Shanks, the EP of all Fox Sports productions, who with COO Randy Freer was the driving force behind the successful launch of Fox Sports’ new networks this past summer.
Sports has it all: drama, suspense, anger, comedy, jubilation, amongst a range of other human emotions. Despite the plethora of reality competition shows that solicit viewer voting, it may be the one area where audiences really feel that they make a difference in the outcome.
As for the dominance of live programming, witness the recent ratings success of the live performance of "The Sound of Music” on NBC. A vast majority of viewers knew the story and how it ended, echoing how research showed that viewers who watched Olympic competitions on digital platforms were more likely to watch them on television again, despite knowing the outcome.
"Roughly 30 million watched a night,” Lazarus said of the London Olympics, and he then went on to wax euphoric about the upcoming games in Sochi. "They’re pop culture, they’re nationalism. With packages and curated stories, we make you care about someone you don't know. We've added digital abilities that allow you to embrace technology and to use it to your advantage. The ability to monetize is a good deal for our shareholders."
All of the panelists hold strong opinions about the role of social media and sports that certainly seem applicable to other areas.
"I'm always there, whether it's on Facebook or Twitter. Re-tweeting you makes you more than a sideline reporter," said Shanks.
“It is life. To not be there is to be irrelevant," Rone said, remarking that Google and Netflix would probably soon be (high-paying) customers of sports product.
It was Guber who may have summed it up best. "The objective is to get butts in the seats," he said. "How do you connect audiences who want your product and migrate them to sponsors? I have to find a product and connect emotionally with audiences who are the best advocates in growing your business. We are social beings. Facebook didn't create this. There are infinite calls to action asking you to spend your time watching them -- a lot of moving parts. We need to provide a robust way of connecting."
Jimmy Smits Opens Up About 'Sons of Anarchy' ... and Being Kept 'Off Kilter' by Show Creator Kurt Sutter
It’s been 27 years since Jimmy Smits burst onto the scene as one of television’s most memorable characters, attorney Victor Sifuentes on “LA Law.”
In many of his award-winning roles, including those on “The West Wing,” “NYPD Blue” and “Dexter,” Smits has operated on the enforcement side of the law, as a cop, a legislator and an assistant district attorney. Even in one of his very first roles, on “Miami Vice,” he played a vice detective in one episode of the iconic 1980s crime drama.
But in FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” which concludes its Season 6 with a two-hour finale Tuesday at 10 p.m., Smits is firmly in the outlaw camp. He portrays Nero Padilla, a pimp and former gangbanger who runs a house of ill repute near the fictional Northern California town of Charming. His softer side is seen in his relationship with his disabled son.
Smits’ Padilla, whom he calls a “companionator,” made his first appearance last season in Kurt Sutter’s motorcycle gang drama -- in bed with Gemma Teller Morrow -- and now a good portion of the main action revolves around him. Spoiler alert: With Clay Morrow gone, he’s rid of his main rival for the affections and attention of Gemma (Katey Sagal). He’s also still navigating his relationship as a mentor, protector and father figure of sorts to her son and the MC’s president, Jax Teller.
Smits sat down with reporters recently to talk about his experience on the show, and the shifting relationships among the volatile and violent characters created by Sutter. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: It’s been evident for a few episodes now that Nero is feeling a lot of confusion over his relationship with Jax and his affiliation with the motorcycle club. So where is Nero’s head now?
Jimmy Smits: Just where Kurt Sutter likes to keep all of his characters -- off kilter. He’s navigating between what the character started out with was with this kind of goal to have some kind of exit strategy, and that’s not working at all, and now it’s combined with this pull between his past and what the characters are each calling the streets and these new affiliations that he has with the Sons, and specifically with Gemma and Jax. So there’s a real kind of pull there. And as in Kurt Sutter style, all of the characters are left kind of off kilter.
Q: So if he does decide to break away from that partnership with Jax, do you think that it will be enough for him to break away or will he want to teach Jax a lesson?
Smits: One thing that I’ve noticed just in watching the shows previous, being in fan mode of the show, is that Kurt’s been really good about people getting their comeuppance and things that you do tend to come back and bite you. That’s been this recurring kind of shade that he’s had going through all of the six seasons, I think, and you’re seeing with the loss of different characters that that is a big thematic force with regards to the show. I do think it’s another kind of deep resonant chord that goes through the show, is that this sense of family and betrayal and what betrayal means when you’ve “sacrificed” something and the person transgresses in a way.
So I don’t know where it’s going. It’s going to materialize in some heavy-duty fashion. But he’s definitely torn right there because, as Gemma has said in the previous episodes to the Nero character, there’s an affinity that Jax has for him. He has many kind of consiglieres in this show that offer advice or that he gets wisdom from in different ways, and I think that Nero realizes that, and with the relationship that has developed with Gemma’s character it’s become even more solidified. But, having said that, his past and where he came from and what all that means is very, very strong as well.
Q: Is there anything about Nero that you added to this character that wasn’t originally scripted for you?
Smits: When Kurt writes these characters that have some grit to them, that are on the wrong side of the law, and when you’re doing somebody like that, even when I was involved in “Dexter” a couple years ago, I’m always trying to find people just don’t do bad things because they want to just do bad things. There’s some kind of reason behind it that they feel justified in doing that makes them feel in their minds morally right. So that’s been a constant with me in terms of Nero in trying to find out what makes him tick.
So I don’t know if because of that there’s a certain vulnerability that came out that I don’t think that they expected, and they’ve kind of been writing to that. My job is just to keep -- and we talk about this constantly -- is that to keep the edge going with him at the same time, because you want the character as much as possible to be fleshed out. So that’s the whole thing about a television show is that there’s a fluidity to it, and then the writers they’ll write something and they’ll see a spark there, whether it’s, “Hey, I didn’t know that there could be a comedic aspect to this particular character,” and they will start writing towards that. And so then it’s your job to keep things in moderation, too, because you want the character to be as flushed out as possible within the scope of the show.
Q: What have been some of your favorite scenes to film this season?
Smits: The little physicality that Jax and I had a couple of episodes ago was great for me, because I literally and figuratively got to exercise a different kind of muscle. So that was fun to do. And they had some great stunt people there that did a lot of work, and they wound up using not a lot of that. So we really, Charlie and I that day, that was a long night, and fun, fun to do.
Charlie’s work has been really superb, and I really give the guy a lot of props as an actor. He’s the lead on this particular show and the way he comports himself really kind of funnels down. And he’s a very bright guy and loves to talk acting, so there was a kind of good rapport that we’ve had. But when you get involved in some kind of physical thing like that it manifests itself in 30 second of a fight scene or whatever, but there’s something that transpires between the two people that are involved that brings the relationship literally to another kind of level. That’s the only way that I can explain it. So I really feel much closer to him as an actor and as a supporter.
Q: As you continue to delve into this character is there anything that you’ve found that you’ve been surprised to learn about yourself?
Smits: Kurt casually mentioned the aspect of the son, and I didn’t realize where that was going to -- you haven’t really seen the kid a lot -- but I didn’t realize how important that element was going to be. I just started to realize his essence and what he represents, because of his disabilities, plays so much into where that character and where Nero kind of lives and breathes and the choices that he makes. So it was kind of like serendipity that the make-up artist chose to put the kid’s name so prominent on the guy’s neck and just little things like that that you kind of go, “Oh, this makes sense on another kind of level.”
Q: Fans of the series are very notorious about what they like and what they don’t like, so how happy are you with how the fan reaction has been to your character?
Smits: I’m not really a social media person, so I’m not on Twitter and I don’t have a Facebook page. I’m not down on it, because I really see the value of it. But I’ve been told that they are very vociferous, they really are engaged in the show. And I’m amazed that they’ve kind of like embraced him the way they have, and we’ll see what happens when things turn.
Q: If 2013 Jimmy Smits could talk to mid 1980s Jimmy Smits about like the stuff that’s available on TV today, could you ever have fathomed that this type of show would even exist and that you would be part of it?
Smits: That’s a great point and a great question, because I have traversed a lot of genres and I’ve gotten to do that in the television arena. Certainly like Steven Bochco will say that for him to pitch “NYPD Blue” now on network television he would be hard-pressed to get that particular show on the air. But now, with the advent of cable and such, it’s like different branches of a big tree TV’s become. And they’ve found these great outlets for writers to be able to paint these very broad canvases, as Kurt has done here. You’re getting an insight to a particular culture thing with regards to this motorcycle “club” that people haven’t seen before. So they’re learning about all of that, but they’re getting engaged in this whole thing about family and this kind of like Shakespearean undertones that Kurt has put in there. It’s just great to see that we’ve been able to find these kinds of different outlets.
I’m going to be fascinated to see what happens with the different platforms like Netflix and all of these other stations, all of these other arenas that are happening where people will be able to see television in different ways.
Q: It’s very obvious how much Nero cares about Gemma and how important that relationship is to him, but is it enough to keep him from doing something he may wind up regretting?
Smits: I think you hit the nail on the head right there. What has developed over these past two seasons between these two characters is you’ve watched them kind of do this awkward, different kind of courtship that’s happened. I mean they’re saying “I love you” to each other now, and who would have thought that would have come out of Gemma’s mouth. Not just to her son and stuff, but to another relationship guy. We’ll see how that all plays out. I guess his way of dealing with the opposite sex is definitely very different from what you might normally think of when you think of the P-word, the pimp word. So I think that floods over in terms of the way he deals with everybody, and that includes Gemma.. But there’s a kindred spirit there; it’s no accident that they both have these like cuts where their heart is, and they’re trying to keep that repaired. Since they’ve met, they kind of have found a way to fill in that missing piece, that void that each of them had in their own way. And I’ve liked the way they’ve had to kind of negotiate their lives realizing what each of them bring to the party and they’ve found ways to navigate through all of it.
Certainly it was not easy for me to rationalize in my head how a guy would accept some of the things that have happened to her this season and not go off about it. Again, I think that speaks to the whole process of them completing each other in a way.
Q: When you signed on, was it with the understanding that it could be a multiple season thing or did it grow once you got into it?
Smits: No, when I signed on I really thought we were going to do what we did when I signed on to do “Dexter,” which was like 10 episodes and we’re out. I was surprised that it kind of morphed into what it has. Last season there was a point where I did kind of have to shift gears a little bit, because we started having these conversations about the possibility of staying on. We’ve had many conversations about this in terms of keeping the character’s edge going. So it’s important for me not to become this just kind of like functional character for one specific aspect of the show. I’m not down with that, so we talk about that a lot. Now we’re going to have serious conversations in the next month or so to determine what happens.
Q: So what was it like working with David Milch back in the day and how does it compare to working with Kurt Sutter?
Smits: David has a certain way of working that is kind of unorthodox because of the pace of television, but that man is a genius with regards to what he puts down for characters to do. And whatever his process is, or was with regards to “Blue” specifically, after whatever it was that it took to get to where we got to it was always better. So if it was late or whatever, last minute or on set changes or like that, there’s not a day that I can walk away and say, “Well, damn, we went through all of that shit and look at this.” It was always better. It was always gold, actually. So we had to go through what we had to go through to get to where we got to, but it was always better. I don’t have enough superlatives for the way he has his characters voice their inner thoughts.
And with regards to Kurt, although the shows might be long, and I don’t mind that and FX has to deal with that and it’s great that they give him that kind of leeway, and whatever kind of madness he has you can’t ever say the working relationship on set that doesn’t affect at all. The scripts are always on time, and it’s a different kind of way, it’s more your traditional kind of like what you would expect in a television show. Now the other kind of stuff that happens when they’re in the writer’s room I can’t speak on. But Kurt’s madness is controlled madness, which I like; it’s cool.
Q: Do you see for Nero that every decision he makes now means maybe there can be an end game for him?
Smits: That light at the end of the tunnel that he thought he saw -- there’s a realization that he has this relationship now that it’s very kind of real, he has this business partnership with the club and the relationship with Jax and that’s very real, and this tug with his past, where he came from, what the streets mean to him, and that is very, very real. In one of the episodes he alludes to something in a kind of jovial way about it’s the Godfather syndrome, I keep getting pulled back in, and I think that’s very much the case with a lot of the characters on the show.
And we’ll see how the tugs that he has on either side what direction that takes him to, because it doesn’t seem like it’s going to be a straightforward path towards the end game; there’s going to be a lot of like curves that he’s going to have to take. And certainly this transgression that he’s found out that happened with the death of that young woman and what that meant to him and what he feels about that transgression with Jax and what that means is going to take a lot of different turns. And it looks like that this underlying chord that Kurt has in his writing about betrayal and people getting their comeuppance and all of that stuff biting you back, that the turn, when it happens, it’s not going to be pretty as far as Nero is concerned.
Q: We were talking earlier about it being a golden age of TV, and clearly “Sons of Anarchy” is part of that. Personally, what shows do you like to watch?
Smits: Since I work in television I check in a lot on a lot of different shows just to see what’s going on in the landscape. So I like “The Blacklist” on network television and “Scandal” has become something that I’ve kind of gotten into because my family is really into it. I saw the first couple of episodes and I went, “OK, this show, that’s good,” but I’ve gotten back into it. And then on cable there’s just good stuff happening all over the place, so I’m a big “Boardwalk Empire” fan and into “Breaking Bad” and love “Ray Donovan” this year. And then I’m a news junkie, so I’m watching my boys on CNN and MSNBC.
Q: You founded the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, to promote the advancement of Latinos in the media, telecommunications and entertainment. How far do you think things need to go in that regard as far as Latinos in the entertainment industry?
Smits: I think we’ve made great strides, but it’s nothing for nothing, because it all relates to the fact that our population numbers have increased so much. And with regards to the entertainment industry the bottom line is it’s a business, so the fact that when you look at opening numbers of grosses for weekends in terms of like big tent pole movies and the Latinos are very involved in that first weekend, business- wise it just makes good sense that more opportunities are there. In terms of the landscape of actors since I started out, that has increased exponentially. Because there were always four or five different actors for every decade or generation that you could rattle off names, Ricardo Montalban or Raul Julia, Andy Garcia, there were always four or five, but now it’s exponentially grown in all of the different genres, all of the different arenas of the entertainment industry.
The next move has to be to jump on the other side, and what I mean by that is to be much more in control of the product with regards to writers, directors, producers, studio people. And once we make that kind of achievement, we’ll be much more in control of the product and be able to really tell stories that are much more relevant.
Q: What has “Sons of Anarchy” done for you as an actor? Has it ignited something different in you now for the future?
Smits: Certainly, I’m touching a different audience than I did when I was involved on “Law” or “Blue.” I definitely feel that, and that’s a good thing. I like the fact that this world is dark and gritty in a lot of ways, so that’s accessing something different for the performer. When I signed on to do “Dexter” a couple of years back it was with that kind of conscious intention to take the perceived television image and flip it on its head, and I felt like in a lot of ways we were able to do that and walk away from that experience having done what I set out to do. And this is kind of like I initially went into this with that expectation, and it’s kind of morphed into something else because I’ve stayed on, but I’m happy that it’s worked out the way it has.
(“Sons of Anarchy” airs on FX Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)
As predicted by just about everyone on the planet, Carrie Underwood sang beautifully on last night’s live version of NBC’s “The Sound of Music,” in a production that was torpedoed and sunk by her lack of acting experience. To call her performance stiff and wooden would almost be generous.
Any production of “The Sound of Music” lives or dies by who plays Maria, and it was gutsy of Underwood to take the part. But NBC should have had the guts to nix her casting. It was unfair to both her and us to use this huge platform to see whether she could act. One could have given her a screen test and then politely told her to come back after she learned how to act.
“The Sound of Music” is the musical version of the story of the von Trapp family singers. If only NBC had listened to the suggestion of Francoise von Trapp, made in a blog entry a year ago.
Francoise, the real granddaughter of Maria von Trapp, wrote: “Carrie Underwood as Maria? Seriously? I mean, I have nothing against her personally -- she's an extremely talented country singer, but I'm pretty sure my father is repeatedly rolling over in his grave. Since the movie version of ‘Sound of Music’ won an Academy Award the year I was born, it's always been easy to identify with Julie Andrews' portrayal of my grandmother. It's a little harder to envision Carrie that way. (But I do realize that's what happens when Hollywood freezes time.) And while the girl can sing (although her voice lacks the soprano purity of Julie Andrews) can she act? I'd like to know who else was in the running. Personally, I'd have put my money on Anne Hathaway, who in her upcoming role as Fantine in ‘Les Miserables,’ proves that she can act and sing.”
Brilliant. Why isn’t Francoise working in Hollywood?
The irony about NBC blowing it by miscasting the crucial lead part in “The Sound of Music” is that the original Broadway star of that show, Mary Martin, starred in another live musical on NBC, originally in 1955. The network finally was able to put it on videotape five years later and today, almost 60 years after it was first broadcast, that musical still sparkles in its dazzling buoyancy. It was “Peter Pan,” and it is among the fondest TV memories of millions of baby boomers.
The original, live version of “Peter Pan,” starring Mary Martin as that boy who never grows up, was seen as part of NBC’s "Producer’s Showcase” on Monday night, March 7, 1955. Before airing, the show had had a limited run on Broadway. When it was shown by NBC, it was seen by 65 million viewers, at that time the largest audience to ever have watched a TV program. It was so successful that NBC had Martin and the cast -- including Cyril Ritchard as a wonderfully over-the-top Captain Hook -- perform it live, on-air, again the next year.
By 1960, videotape and color were working pretty well, so NBC recruited Martin -- then appearing on Broadway as Maria in the original stage version of “The Sound of Music” -- to stage “Peter Pan” one last time. From then on this color videotape version was repeated several times on TV, and then later transferred to VHS and DVD for us to see it anytime we want, at home.
Jack Gould, who was the first TV reviewer for The New York Times, had watched and reviewed hundreds of TV shows between 1947 and that Monday night in March 1955 when 'Peter Pan" originally aired live on NBC. He wrote that the show was an “exhilarating tonic. ... The magic of TV and the wonder of make-believe were joined in an experience not soon to be forgotten. What made ‘Peter Pan’ so supremely delightful? Miss Martin, yes; many times yes. Cyril Ritchard as Captain Hook too. Sir James M. Barrie [who wrote the original play] as well. But there was something elusive and indefinable, a quality and a heart. Call it sublime fusion of skill and inspiration. … The greatness of the ‘Peter Pan’ telecast stemmed from a marriage of media under ideal circumstances. The advantages of ‘live’ television and the advantages of living theatre were merged as one. Alone neither medium could have offered the miracle of Monday evening.”
“Peter Pan” also worked so well, Gould wrote, because of the brilliance of the production, in “the heavenly flying through the air of Miss Martin, in her glorious performance that had spontaneity and yet was so professionally perfect and assured. The dances of Jerome Robbins? How different in their originality from the TV norm. And the style of Mr. Ritchard, so sure and deft and magnificent fun. There were, in short, many jewels, each brought to its own distinctive sparkle by patience, imagination and fantastic hard work.”
If you can, give yourself and your family a gift this holiday season and check out this “Peter Pan” on DVD.
Ah, if only NBC had listened to Francoise von Trapp and had cast Anne Hathaway as Maria. If it had, then all the TV critics would probably be singing NBC’s praises this morning as Gould did 60 years ago: “The National Broadcasting Company is entitled to unstinting praise for its wisdom and vision in forgetting formula-thinking in television and opening up its schedule to accommodate ‘Peter Pan.’ In the jargon of the trade it may be called ‘big television’ but far more accurately it is sensible television, even elementary television. … Excitement. That was what ‘Peter Pan’ had …”
Instead we got a “Sound of Music” that seemed more like a hail-Mary pass to a receiver going long downfield, an act of desperation from a network that is struggling to reclaim the greatness it once had.
Reading CNN President Jeff Zucker’s comments yesterday about the future of CNN, I was struck in particular by one paragraph. Here it is, quoted from CapitalNewYork:
“The 48-year-old Zucker initially faced internal resistance to his experiments beyond the realm of hard news, but he now has an irrefutable retort: The No. 1 show on CNN is now ‘Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,’ a travel-adventure show featuring the bad-boy celebrity chef. Zucker said that inside CNN, his formula has finally been accepted 'because people have seen the results.'”
What struck me about this paragraph -- and kudos to Washington Post news media blogger Erik Wemple for noticing this as well -- is that Bourdain was recruited to come to CNN from the Travel Channel BEFORE Zucker was hired at CNN.
Here’s an excerpt of a report by David Carr of The New York Times that appeared on June 3, 2012, which was five months before it was announced that Zucker was going to CNN. And the person who hired Bourdain to come to CNN wasn’t Zucker, it was Mark Whitaker:
“Mark Whitaker, managing editor of CNN Worldwide, has been working to decrease the network’s reliance on politics, where its middle-of-the-road approach often suffers in comparison to the edgier, more partisan offerings of Fox News and MSNBC. He began talking with Mr. Bourdain back in March in the belief that the chef’s penchant for traveling to far-flung places like Thailand and Saudi Arabia was a fit with CNN’s international credentials. More important, Mr. Whitaker wanted CNN’s first move out of its lane to come with a ready-made audience attached. CNN has no trouble attracting eyeballs, it just has trouble persuading them to stick around when the world is not on fire.
“‘Tony is appointment viewing and sticky in a way that we need to be,’ Mr. Whitaker said on the phone. ‘We are big fans of what he does and what he stands for, which is global and smart, but he goes beyond politics and war coverage. We need to be broader than that and we are looking hard to make that happen. Tony was the first person that came to mind.’“
In the CapitalNewYork interview Zucker reiterates much of what he has previously said, most particularly that CNN needs to broaden its audience and attract viewers who don’t usually tune in to the network: He wants the network to attract “viewers who are watching places like Discovery and History and Nat Geo and A&E,” the story said. Furthermore, Zucker added, “The goal for the next six months, is that we need more shows and less newscasts.”
Zucker also said HLN is in for a complete overhaul: It will be “‘rethought, reimagined, and rebranded’ to get away from the wall-to-wall courthouse coverage that earned HLN massive viewership during big events like the Jodi Arias and George Zimmerman trials. HLN ‘really just had a great year from an audience standpoint,’ he said, but: ‘it's not as strong a business proposition, and it's not really what advertisers are looking for. If we wanted to be in the court business, Time Warner would have kept Court TV.’“
That’s when it dawned on me that Zucker reminds me of another TV executive, our friend Frank Hackett, the Robert Duvall character in Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant 1976 movie "Network."
Hackett, as many of you will recall, was a top corporate TV executive at the UBS network.
People tell me -- OK, no one told me this, but I have a healthy imagination to make things up -- that when Zucker recently told some of the veteran CNN staff that he was going to reshape the network in the image of Bourdain’s show there was a big brouhaha and -- either consciously or subconsciously (no one could tell) -- Zucker started channeling Hackett and began shouting at the meeting, “You were hoping I'd fall on my face with this Bourdain show, but I didn't! It's a big, fat, big-titted hit, and I don't have to waffle around in any of your shit anymore!”
Zucker, on a roll, continued: “And if you don’t like what I’ve done with Bourdain, you’re really going to hate what’s coming: The Network News Hour with Snooki the Soothsayer, weather with Miss Kellie Pickler, and commentary we’re calling Vox Populi, starring the mad prophet of the airwaves, Keith Olbermann. I’ve hired the Duck boys to come over here to do sports and commentary about our new Dress Like a Zombie hour. Already sponsored for the whole damn season by Urban Outfitters.
"Listen, come next year at this time I’m going to be standing up there at the annual Time Warner management review meeting, and I'm going to announce unprecedented projected earnings for this network. That we’ve never had advertisers more pleased. That HLN now stands for the Holy-shit Louis C.K. -- Lady Gaga Network.“
At that moment Anderson Cooper got up to protest. Hackett, er, Zucker, basically told him that if he didn’t like the changes he could leave the company.
Cooper shot back: “Well, let's just say, fuck you, Jeff. You want me out, you're going to have to drag me out kicking and screaming. And almost everyone here will walk out kicking and screaming with me.”
Zucker didn’t blink: “You think they're going to quit their jobs for you? Not in this economy, buddy.”
As Cooper was storming out of the meeting he turned to Zucker and said, threateningly, “I'm going to spread this whole reeking business in every paper and on every network, independent, group, and affiliated station in this country. I'm going to make a lot of noise about this.”
Without missing a beat Zucker replied, “Great! We can use all the press we can get.”
And the really funny thing is, while Paddy Chayefsky -- whose dialogue I've mostly borrowed above -- met plenty of TV executives over the years to use as the models for those he wrote about in “Network,” I don’t think he ever met Jeff Zucker.