Jul 7, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Summer is usually the time most of us like to kick back and relax, but this summer is already a whirl. We have the controversy over the Federal Communications Commission’s rules on ownership and consolidation and the possibility that Congress will intervene. Then there’s giant media corporation Viacom’s tangling with Spike Lee.
On the sadder side, we’ve had the recent deaths of Hollywood legends Katharine Hepburn and Gregory Peck and TV legend David Brinkley, whose careers spanned what are lovingly referred to as the Golden Age of Movies and the Golden Age of Television. While Hepburn and Peck were best known as silver screen giants, both came to embrace the TV screen as well.
Also on the red side of the ledger was the passing last month of pioneer TV director Fielder Cook at age 80, after suffering a stroke.
Cook directed a few feature films in the mid-’60s, including “Prudence and the Pill” and “A Big Hand for the Little Lady.” But he spent most of his career directing TV shows, including episodes of “The Waltons” in the ’70s and “The Defenders” and “Ben Casey” in the ’60s.
But Cook’s lasting contribution as a TV director occurred Wednesday, Jan. 13, 1955, from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. on NBC. And, curiously, the impact of what happened that night is relevant to the consolidation debate that’s now taking place almost half a century later.
The event was the telecast of a drama, part of the anthology series “Kraft Television Theatre.” It was Rod Serling’s “Patterns,” a landmark hour-performed live, as was customary on TV back then-which, sadly, has been largely forgotten.
In his review at the time, Jack Gould, The New York Times TV critic, wrote, “In writing, acting and direction, `Patterns’ will stand as one of the high points in the TV medium’s evolution. … The production and direction of Fielder Cook constituted a fluid use of video’s artistic tools that underscored how little the TV artistic horizons really have been explored.”
The program put Serling on the map. As he wrote 20 years later, “One minute after the show went off the air my phone started to ring. It has been ringing ever since.”
“Patterns,” as Serling later wrote, is about power in the world of big business. It’s about the dealings within a corporation he called Ramsey and Co. Company owner Ramsey has, seemingly, but one aim in life: the ever-expanding growth and influence of his company. His right-hand man is Andy Sloane, a few years older than Ramsey. Fred Staples has been brought in to eventually replace Sloane, and the crux of the drama is the dynamics among the three men.
Toward the end of the show, Staples cries out to Ramsey, “You’re a freak! You’re a genius, a production, organizational marvel with no compassion for human weakness! You drive and fight and tear your people into peak efficiency if they can make it, or a grave, like Andy, if they can’t. …”
Then Staples chastises Ramsey that the business is Andy’s as well.
To which Ramsey replies, “It is no one’s business! It belongs only to the best! To those who can control it. Keep it growing, producing-keep it alive! It belongs to us right now! In the future, to whoever can give it more.”
As Serling later wrote, the story is not really anti-capitalist nor an indictment of big business. Rather, “It is the story of ambition and the price tag that hangs on success.” The show, Serling wrote, is about “the plowing under of human dignity in the name of progress. … The patterns of which this piece speaks are behavior patterns of little human beings in a big world-lost in it, intimidated by it, and whose biggest job is to survive in it.”
Serling’s drama of big business resonates just as powerfully today as many companies-not just those in media-consolidate and become bigger and bigger.
The power that is “Patterns” also strikes me as I look at the results of TelevisionWeek’s Critics Poll in this issue. (See Page 14.) I would put “Patterns” up against any show on the list.
As Gould said in his New York Times review, “For sheer power of narrative, forcefulness of characterization and brilliant climax, Mr. Serling’s work is a creative triumph. … Mr. Cook’s direction was the work of a man who thinks with his eyes as well as his mind. His montages, especially several of his shots of the deserted executive floor, represented use of the camera to say something, not merely as an instrument of photography.”
Almost 50 years ago Serling said, “Television is a potpourri of good things and bad, a medium of promise and intelligence and, at the same time, an electronic oat-burner in the always-always land of cliche.”
And so it still is. With the passing of Serling June 28, 1975-at the far too young age of 50, when he died on the operating table during a heart bypass operation-and the death of Cook almost on the same day nearly 30 years later, television has lost two who struggled to keep TV on that path of promise and intelligence.
Chuck Ross is publisher and editorial director of TelevisionWeek.