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Mann of the hour

Nov 12, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Delbert Mann is one of the premier directors of the Golden Age of Television, that magical time in the late ’40s and early ’50s when live, original comedies, variety shows and dramas made their indelible mark on the then-fledgling TV industry. From 1949 through 1954, Mr. Mann directed shows primarily for the acclaimed NBC showcase “Philco Television Playhouse” (later, on alternate weeks, called the “Goodyear Television Playhouse”). During those halcyon days he worked with the acclaimed writer Paddy Chayefsky more than any other director, bringing us such classics as “The Bachelor Party,” “Middle of the Night” and Mr. Chayefsky’s masterwork, “Marty.” Mr. Mann later directed the film version of “Marty,” which snared him an Oscar for best director and was named best picture of 1955.
What got Mr. Mann started in a career in this new medium of TV really dates back to a chance meeting he had back in 1935, when he was a junior at Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville. Mr. Mann had an interest in drama and met another theater-struck youth, Fred Coe. Their acquaintance began a lifelong friendship. After attending the Yale Drama School (following a stint in the military during World War II), Mr. Mann was holding down a directing job at a theater in Columbia, S.C. It was the spring of ’49, and Mr. Coe was already in New York, working in something called TV. Mr. Coe phoned to invite Mr. Mann to join him.
Mr. Mann was interviewed for Electronic Media by Dan Einstein, TV archivist at the UCLA Television and Film Archives, and EM Editor Chuck Ross.
Delbert Mann: I took the train from Columbia up to New York in the spring of ’49. Fred introduced me to Robert Sarnoff, who was the hiring person at NBC. At that point he gave me a job at NBC, with Fred’s recommendation, as a floor manager and an assistant director so I could learn something about television.
I had never seen a television show, a television set, or been in a television studio. They didn’t have those things in Columbia. So that whole summer of 1949–which now we look back on and say, `Well, that was the second year of the so-called Golden Age of Television,’–I spent standing behind directors in the various control rooms watching what they were doing, trying to learn something about this new medium. And as the directing staff went on vacation, it opened up opportunities for those of us who had no experience whatsoever to start getting our feet wet as directors.
EM: Did you have any inkling at that point of the potential of TV?
DM: No.
EM: So were you looking at this as more of just a temporary job,–and that soon you’d return to directing theater?
DM: It was a strange combination of things. It was a very tough, taxing, wearing job, but once I was on the NBC staff, I considered myself a television person and really didn’t think much about going back to theater. It’s quite amazing that the drama of live television was so much more related to the world of theater than it was to film. It was transmitted by cameras and by microphones, therefore there’s a superficial similarity to film. But the rehearsing of a show from beginning to end and playing the whole thing at a dry rehearsal studio and then taking it into the studio to put it on camera was so totally related to the world of theater. All of the bright, relatively young actors who were growing up in New York–Eva Marie Saint and Rod Steiger and Charlton Heston and Paul Newman–the whole bunch of them were theater-oriented and were getting their feet wet in this new thing called TV.
EM: Once you started directing the `Philco Playhouse’ shows, the pressures really were intense. You’d start from scratch on a Monday, read an original script, cast it, have the sets built, get them lit properly, rehearse it a few times, block it, present it live, on the air, and then start the process all over again for the next show.
DM: I really don’t know how we did it. It was a young person’s medium. It was exhilarating, it was exciting, and it was wearing to the nth degree. The pressure was absolutely tremendous. It’s interesting the number of actors from back then, when interviewed today, who will say that during those last few moments before the clock went up to 9 o’clock and we were going on the air, `I was scared shitless,’ or, `I was frightened to death,’ or, `My stomach was turning over,’ or, `My hands were shaking so,’ or, `I wanted to be anywhere but there–I was so frightened that I wanted to run out of the studio.’ But they all kind of took a deep breath and plunged in–it was opening night, closing night, all the same time.
So all of them say the same thing: `God, it was so much pressure, and the tension was so great.’ And then in the next breath they’ll tell you, `Oh God, what I wouldn’t give to be able to do that again.’
EM: Of course, because it was live, the potential for disaster was always there. You had a humdinger with a Philco show you did called `A Matter of Life and Death.’
DM: Yes, that was the worst show I ever did. It was so badly written. It was a murder mystery. I may be doing the writer a disservice, but as I recall, the villain didn’t make his appearance until the last act. So in essence, the actor playing him had about 45 minutes to stand in the wings watching the show going on around him and waiting for his entrance and getting overcome with tension and fear.
The whole plot hung on the fact the murder was done by hitting someone on the head with a bottle. A brandy bottle. Pat O’Malley was playing the wise ol’ detective, Cloris Leachman was playing his daughter, and John Erickson was her lover. I remember being on the air and then glancing over to the preview monitor where I had a close-up on the actor playing the murderer. I literally said to myself, `Oh shit, he is going to blow.’ There was a blank look to the eyes, and as my daughter-in-law often says, `The lights are on but there’s nobody home.’
The murderer starts to play his scene, and he was absolutely beside himself with panic and tension. We came to the point in the scene where the murderer was supposed to inadvertently say the victim was killed with a brandy bottle. Then wise, wise ol’ detective Pat O’Malley was to say, `Aha, how did you know it was a brandy bottle?’ and put the handcuffs on him.
Well, the murderer never mentions `brandy bottle.’ Cloris and John and Pat tried to ad-lib to get the actor to say `brandy,’ just say the word `brandy,’ for God’s sake just say the word `brandy.’ He never did, and somehow Pat, after about probably about 10 minutes, said, `Not so long ago you said brandy bottle! You were the one who did it.’ And we faded out.
Well, the phone rang twice before I left the control room. Two viewers, one from somewhere in the New York area and one somewhere way out of town, called in sequence saying in essence, you know, we were watching your show just now and we never heard anybody say brandy bottle–so how did the detective know? But, you know, I guess you’re right, he wouldn’t have known brandy bottle if the actor hadn’t said it. We just didn’t hear it. And the other call went the same way. In 30 seconds, they both talked themselves into believing they were at fault they hadn’t heard the word `brandy,’ that they just hadn’t listened properly, and the show was all right.
EM: In a very real sense, you contributed to Paddy Chayefsky coming up with `Marty.’
DM: I don’t feel at all responsible, but it’s a nice thought. We were rehearsing my first Paddy play, called `The Reluctant Citizen,’ in the ballroom of the Abby Hotel. In the evening, the room became a friendship club where singles could come in and pay their dimes and have a Coca-Cola. They had a jukebox and could meet members of the opposite sex and date them and dance with them and so forth. There were little hand-printed signs around on the walls. The one that caught my attention the most, and Paddy’s as well, was a sign that said, `Girls, dance with the man who asks you. Remember, men having feelings, too.’ Paddy didn’t have too much to do that day as we rehearsed, so he was wandering around looking at the signs. At a break
in the rehearsal, he came up to me and said, `I want to do a show about a girl who comes to a place like this.’ I was busy, so I said in a very dismissing way, `Paddy, that’s great. Go do it. That’s wonderful.’ At the next break, Paddy came up to me again and said, `I’ve changed my mind. I want to do a show about men who come to a place like this.’ I said, `Paddy, that’s a hell of an idea. Go talk to Fred about it.’ Fred was our producer. I believe Paddy literally just told Fred that much as a story line.
EM: So with Fred’s OK, Chayefsky starts writing the script, which he calls `Love Story.’ But NBC had problems with the title, right?
Delbert: It was the only time in about 10 years and about 108 productions that I did for Philco and Goodyear that NBC objected to a title. They said nobody’s going to watch a program titled `Love Story.’ We couldn’t find another title for the show, and Paddy finally came up with `Marty,’ the name of the lead character.
Well, not long after that I’m in my office reading the new script for the week, and it was the only time in all those shows that I read a script and when I finished it I said, `No this can’t be done, and there’s no way it can be rewritten.’ So I went across the hall to Fred’s office, who was also reading the script for the first time–that’s how tight a schedule we ran from show to show. Fred was just finishing the script, and I said, `What are we going to do?’ Fred said, `We can’t put this piece of shit on air, that’s for sure.’ He sat there for a moment and picked up the phone and called Paddy at home and said, `Paddy, how are you coming along with that love story?’ And I could hear Paddy on the phone and he said, `Well I finished the first act. I’m in the middle of the second act, but I’ve got the third act outlined in my mind, so I know were I’m going.’ Fred said, `When can you have it in?’ Paddy said, `Well, give me three weeks.’ Fred says, `How about Thursday?’ Paddy moaned and groaned and said, `I’ll do the best I can,’ and he got the first act over, and we sent it to Rod Steiger, and he took the part on the basis of the first act alone. The girl only appeared in the second act, so a couple of days later, when the second act arrived, we cast Nancy Marchand.
The first day of rehearsal I was in the middle of blocking some of the early scenes, and Paddy arrived with the last act. I stopped rehearsals, we sat down and read it complete, for the first time, and I think everybody was quite stunned. We just kind of looked at each other and said, `My God, this is a show, and now it’s up to us to do something with it.’
EM: You were also involved in a major Pat Sylvester NBC project in 1955 called `Producer’s Showcase.’ These were meant to be big, live, high-budget, splashy color productions. You directed a musical version of `Our Town’ with Frank Sinatra, Eva Marie Saint and Paul Newman. And then there was `The Petrified Forest,’ featuring Humphrey Bogart’s only dramatic role on TV. He got $50,000 for it. It also featured Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall.
DM: And Jack Warden, Jack Klugman and Richard Jaeckel. A wonderful cast. Bogart had done the part on Broadway and then the film. His part was cut down a lot in our version, but he did it because he wanted to encourage his wife, Lauren Bacall, to get her feet wet in television drama.
EM: And this was a very special production for NBC. Wasn’t it their first color production from Burbank?
DM: Well, it was the first big color transcontinental teleproduction from NBC Burbank. One of the principal aims of that series was to showcase NBC color so people would buy RCA color sets. The night of the production, my wife was in New York and was invited by Pat Weaver and various other NBC executives up to NBC to watch the show. It came on at 9 o’clock at night, and the color was washed out. Pat Weaver and the other executives got up and started fiddling with the set to try and bring the color into it. They kept trying but were only partially successful.
EM: Let’s talk about the color, musical version of `Our Town,’ which gave us the standard `Love and Marriage.’ It starred Frank Sinatra, who turned out not to be among your favorites.
DM: That’s right. Frank did not like to rehearse, and that’s what I’m all about. He was playing a rural member of a small New Hampshire town–the role of the stage manager–but was still Frank Sinatra, as urban and sophisticated as you could possibly be. So I was considerably worried about that. Frank would walk through a quick rehearsal of the show. So we had to have a stand-in for him.
EM: Now, the only reason Sinatra was doing this is because he had just walked off a movie, right?
DM: Yes, `Carousel.’ They had to recast it and everything. So Fred and I were worried that Frank might walk from our show. So we contacted [singer] Johnny Desmond, who was appearing down in Phoenix or someplace like that. We had sent him a script, we had sent him the music and asked him to stand by in case things don’t work out with Sinatra. When Frank did show up at a rehearsal, he was not terribly cooperative. He sort of read the lines in his manner, and I just said, `What the hell, that’s all were going to get and so let’s not fight it.’ We had our final dress rehearsal the day before the show, and suddenly we realized that Frank had not shown up. Well, I was, shall we say, about as pissed off as you could get, and Fred was beside himself. So we called Johnny Desmond and said we may call you tonight to get on a plane and come up here and we’ll do a show, though how we were going to do that without a single rehearsal I didn’t know. But we were really quite desperate. We never heard from Sinatra.
Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen, who did the score, were close buddies of Sinatra, and I think it was Sammy who finally got hold of him and said, `Are you going to be at the show tomorrow night?’ And Frank told him, `Oh yes, heaven yes, I’ll be there.’ Well, along about 5 o’clock, about an hour before we’re on the air, live … Sinatra came in [in full costume and makeup].
I didn’t look at him. I didn’t acknowledge him. I had nothing to do with him whatsoever. I was really pissed off. The show went on the air, and he was reasonably good–though not the stage manager as Thorton Wilder had written. He came out of character, tipping his hat to the audience–that almost knocked me out of my seat. When the show was over I went out of my way to thank everybody, especially my friend Eva Marie Saint and Paul Newman, both of whom sang in the show. I said nothing to Sinatra, and our paths never crossed again.