A Death in the Family: The Importance of Arthur Penn’s TV Roots and a Challenge to Leslie Moonves, Josh Sapan, Charlie Collier, Bonnie Hammer and Their Industry Colleagues

Sep 30, 2010

The headlines this week, about the death of director Arthur Penn, at age 88, mostly focused on the film “Bonnie and Clyde,” and deservedly so. It was the first movie reviewed by the legendary critic Pauline Kael when she joined The New Yorker, and as she and others noted, it was a landmark movie in the history of American moviemaking.

But Penn the moviemaker cannot be separated from his background, and Penn was one of the great TV directors of all time, cutting his teeth in the 1950s during what has been called the Golden Age of Television.

Penn was a protégé of Fred Coe, a producer many say was the father of that Golden Age. It was Coe who asked Penn to become one of his regular directors on the “Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse.” They worked together again on “Playhouse 90.” Each series was one of the most highly praised programs of its time.

Both were anthologies, meaning that every week they featured a new teleplay—usually a drama, written by authors who were virtually unknown as writers in other mediums. In other words, these authors became known for writing primarily for TV.

Most of the dramas at the time were broadcast live. Jon Krampner, in his terrific biography about Coe, “The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television,” interviewed Penn in 1997 about what it was like directing in those days of live TV.

Krampner wrote that for Penn, directing live TV “held the same terrors as Kurtz’s trip up the Congo in ‘Heart of Darkness.’ ‘Incredible,’ Penn says in a dark and harrowed voice, ‘It was incredible. It was simply beyond belief…It was a devastating job. It’s almost impossible to describe to people now.”

Earlier Penn had told Jeff Kisseloff, author of “The Box,” about directing live TV, “If you were vulnerable to the pressure, it was pretty bad.”

Penn said one director he knew “ended up hemorrhaging in the control room. He had to be carried out during a show. Guys turned to drink [and heavy cigarette smoking]. There were a lot of heart attacks, crazy kinds of behavior.”

After working for a few years on NBC’s “Philco-Goodyear” show—which, like virtually all live TV drama shows at the time, was produced in New York—Penn got a call to come out to direct TV in Hollywood.

“I went out there for the money,” Penn said in “The Box.” “At ‘Philco’ we really earned nothing. I was married and had a child. We were pretty broke…so when [CBS called to come out to Hollywood and do ‘Playhouse 90’ and offered me] some forty grand, I grabbed it—shamelessly. Our mission on ‘Playhouse 90’ was to come in as the New York boys and take the Hollywood community and ‘Marty’ them.”

“Marty” was one of the most acclaimed live dramas of the Golden Age, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Delbert Mann. Mann later directed a movie version that won “Best Picture.”

Not long before Penn joined “Playhouse 90,” he was talking to a young playwright friend of his. This young playwright told Penn, “Jesus, I need some money.” Penn responded, according to “The Box,” “What do you got that we could do on television?” The playwright, William Gibson, replied, “Well, I once wrote a modern-dance narrative based on Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller.”

At Penn’s urging, Gibson sketched it out as a teleplay. “After he finished it,” Penn said, “I took it to NBC. They said no. I couldn’t believe it. It just jumped off the pages. CBS also turned it down. When I joined ‘Playhouse 90,’ I told [show creator Marty Manulis] about the script. He read it and bought it.”

The script was “The Miracle Worker.” Later, with Coe producing and Penn directing, they took it to Broadway, where it helped make Anne Bancroft a star as teacher Annie Sullivan. Then Coe and Penn made a movie version, which won Oscars for Bancroft and Patty Duke, who played the young Helen Keller. If you haven’t seen the movie, or haven’t seen it in a long time, check it out—it’s most impressive even today.

TV also played a major part in saving another play Penn directed and Coe produced on Broadway, called “All the Way Home,” based on James Agee’s classic novel “A Death in the Family.” The play was adapted by another TV writer, who also was unknown before the Golden Age of live TV drama, Tad Mosel.

The play opened on Broadway on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 1960. Critical reception, according to Krampner’s book, was “lukewarm,” and box office sales were “dismal.”
By showtime on Thursday business had not picked up, so Coe and his producer partner posted a note that the show would close in two more days, after Saturday night’s performance.

In Friday’s New York Daily News one of the paper’s columnists, the influential Ed Sullivan, who also just happened to have a very popular variety show on CBS on Sunday nights, published a column raving about the show—and Sullivan wasn’t even the paper’s theater critic.

Coe’s partner called Sullivan and thanked him, also telling him that the show was doing just about zero business and the show was closing Saturday night. Sullivan’s reaction was “My God, you can’t close the show.” Sullivan then said that he’d have the cast on his TV show on Sunday if Coe and his partner would agree to keep the show open another week. Deal.

After the cast’s appearance on Sullivan’s show, business started booming the very next day. “It’s a Broadway miracle,” Coe’s partner, Arthur Cantor, told The New York Times that Monday.

The Penn-directed “All the Way Home,” writes Krampner, ended up running for 334 performances, “was named the Best American Play of 1961 by the New York Drama Critics Circle, and won the Pulitzer Prize for drama.”

Krampner also notes that Coe, who had joined “Playhouse 90” as one of its producers, had had CBS buy the rights to “A Death in the Family” with the idea that he’d have it adapted for “Playhouse” with the title “All the Way Home.”

But “Playhouse 90” had five commercial breaks in it, and Coe ultimately decided it would be better adapted for Broadway, so he personally bought back the rights to the novel from CBS.

Coe, William Gibson, Tad Mosel, Sullivan, Bancroft, Arthur Cantor, Marty Manulis, Delbert Mann, and Paddy Chayefsky have all passed away.

And with the death this week of Penn, who was one of the few remaining directing giants of the Golden Age of TV, I’m reminded of something Leslie Moonves, one of TV’s master programmers in the past decade and CEO of CBS Corp., has said repeatedly over the past several years: that we are in another Golden Age of TV drama.

And if you look at the dramas the networks—both cable and broadcast—have put on, from “The Sopranos” to “Dexter” to “24,” from “Mad Men” to “Damages,” to “The Good Wife,” from “Lost” to “House” to “Friday Night Lights,” you realize Moonves is probably right.

What’s missing, however, is the type of show that made the dramas of yesteryear golden: a successful anthology show that features, on a weekly basis, new, impactful dramas by unknown writers.

So here’s my challenge to Mr. Moonves and others in the TV business, particularly basic cable. Let’s try to get a modern “Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse” or “Playhouse 90” launched. Yes, it’s been tried before, b
ut maybe the timing is right now.

Perhaps Josh Sapan and Charlie Collier over at Rainbow and AMC are interested in doing this. USA Network says “Characters Welcome.” Well, how sayeth you, Bonnie Hammer? John Landgraf over at FX loves original programming—the smarter and the edgier, the better. And I’ve only scratched the surface here—TNT knows drama, doesn’t it? And so on.

You could present some of the episodes live as well. I think to get audiences hooked you’d need some big stars to participate—think George Clooney doing “Fail Safe" back in 2000.

It’s a project worth serious consideration. Yes, such an anthology show won’t hit a home run every week. But I’m guessing it’ll have its share of winners.

And how wonderful to be able to discover the next knock-our-socks-off men and women to follow in the footsteps of William Gibson and Paddy Chayefsky. And Arthur Penn.#

3 Comments

  1. Reviving anthology drama is a bold and worthy proposal, but beyond budget and star casting, any network that attempts it would need to give it enough time to succeed. Hard to name a network with that kind of courage.
    The upside is enormous, especially for those who realize that compelling “content” is not a commodity, but a precious resource that requires cultivation.
    I was enormously lucky to have studied directing with Arthur for a semester in college. What a gracious and generous teacher he was! Honest about the pros and cons of show business, but almost never without a kind word, even for the actors and others who occasionally behaved badly.

  2. Good tribute to Penn, and a wonderful column looking both back and forwards in the realm of TV drama. The closest thing to serious artistic drama now is at AMC; the others have varying degrees of entertaining series designed to bring in viewers, and that’s okay, too. Perhaps the lure of bringing pet projects or favorite unmade stories to life could revitalize the anthology for performers, writers and directors. It would be glorious, wouldn’t it? Of course, somebody would probably have to take a pay cut to make it work, and that would take a committment that many perhaps would not be willing to make.
    Much food for thought here, and a worthy challenge sent out to the folks running the show these days!

  3. I would agree wholeheartedly, and after the bittersweet fizzle of “Lone Star” last week, I would think that such a show would only be possible on cable or public television.

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