Thursday, February 4, 2010

“Do you really want me to comment on television, when they cancel East Side/West Side and still allow Petticoat Junction to keep rolling?”*

If we were to take the WABAC machine to September 23, 1963 in order to access the boob tube offerings presented by the Big Three networks on a typical Monday night around 10:00pm EST, we’d likely be watching—assuming our tastes meshed with the Nielsen families—Sing Along With Mitch, an NBC musical-variety hour starring the head of recording for Columbia Records, Mitch Miller, and his “Sing Along Gang”. (The series was at that time enjoying its fourth season, having premiered on the network on January 27, 1961 as a program that alternated weekly with The Bell Telephone Hour.)

Mitch was perfect “non-think” entertainment but for those of us wanting a bit more meat on the bones we could have tuned into his competition on ABC, where a new series spun-off from the network’s popular Ben Casey medical drama was settling in after its previous week’s premiere. Entitled Breaking Point, it starred Paul Richards and Eduard Franz as doctors McKinley Thompson and Edward Raymer (respectively) as practicing psychiatrists on a program produced by Bing Crosby’s production company. Television already had one other head-shrinker show on that season, NBC’s The Eleventh Hour (which had appeared in the 1962-63)…but both shows would be cancelled by the season’s end. (For the curious, that evening’s episode, “Last Summer We Didn’t Go Away,” guest-starred Anthony Franciosa, Ed Asner, Bert Remsen, Buck Taylor and Barney Phillips—and told the story of a high-school teacher who’s been struggling to conceal the secret that he once spent time in a psychiatric ward for treatment of severe claustrophobia.)

The Tiffany network would be premiering its newest series that focused on a group of social workers employed at a private welfare agency, Community Welfare Service. That evening’s opener, “The Sinner,” featured a single mother, Layna Harris (Carol Rossen), who provides for her baby as a member of “the world’s oldest profession,” a.k.a. prostitution. Goaded by a nosy neighbor (Eda Reiss Merin) into fighting for custody of the child, the mother (Augusta Ciolli) of the baby’s father contacts CWS for help, and social worker Neil Brock (George C. Scott) is sent out to investigate. Brock realizes the bind that Layna’s in and sympathizes with the choices she’s had to make—and he’s not blind to the hostility emanating from her neighbors, who look down on her because of the financial means she must utilize to care for her baby. But Brock and colleague Tom Morgan (Richard Dysart) pay Layna a surprise visit only to find that she’s drunk from carousing all evening with a john (Alan Alda!)…and she left the baby with no supervision. The grandmother gets temporary custody of the child, but as Brock, Morgan and the family descend the staircase to the street below, Layna pleads and wails for a second chance and the return of her baby. Brock meets up with the busybody neighbor down on the street, who tells him: “You know what was done was was just and it was know, with trash like that one upstairs, done the right thing, Mr. Brock.”

Brock turns to her and sardonically replies: “Don't mention it, Mrs. Kopichek...who knows? Tomorrow I may be able to help you...”

In case you didn’t catch it in the title of this post, the CBS series in question is East Side/West Side—which, despite its single season on the air, opened so many doors and made so many great strides in examining subjects previously considered too “dark” or “controversial” that it has since become recognized as one of the landmark programs on television, and a true pioneer in altering the landscape to make many of the series we watch possible today.

I’m sure a few of you might have been surprised to see George C. Scott mentioned in the cast—but it might be a greater shock to learn that he was East Side/West Side’s star. Scott, a mercurial and fiercely independent actor who, despite his extreme dislike of television, had dabbled in the medium from time-to-time: guest-starring on series like Naked City, The Virginian and Ben Casey, and appearing in specials like “A Tale of Two Cities” (telecast on The DuPont Show of the Month) and “The Power and the Glory.” Scott’s main loves were the theater and film—he was beginning to make a name for himself on the big screen with roles in Anatomy of a Murder (1959) and The Hustler (1961); both performances getting him an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor. It was his romance with the stage, however, that began to slyly push him into the direction of securing a steady TV gig; one of the actor’s pet projects was the Theatre of Michigan, located in Detroit. Established as a facility that would extend major stage productions outside New York, the venture required a major infusion of capital…and that’s when Scott signed a contract with CBS and United Artists to do an hour-long drama series that would net him $10,000 per weekly episode…and an investment of $70,000 by UA and the network into “The Theatre of Michigan Corporation.”

Scott’s contract also allowed him creative control of the yet-to-be-decided series—and he exercised that clause in a nanosecond upon discovering that CBS was planning to use him to star in a garden-variety drama about a foreign correspondent. CBS’ programming prez, James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey, fortunately intervened at this time by lunching with the actor and telling him of a project on which producer David Susskind was working. Susskind, who is remembered primarily today for his talk show Open End—so named because the program wouldn’t conclude until the guests had talked themselves out—was a respected name in show business at the time, having started a production company entitled Talent Associates Ltd with his partner, Alfred Levy. Susskind was one of the first individuals to see the enormous potential in television and was at the helm of some of the Golden Age’s popular programming: Mr. Peepers, Justice, The Armstrong Circle Theatre…and The DuPont Show of the Month, which is where Scott and Susskind’s paths would first cross. Susskind also established a beachhead in producing movies with notable films like Edge of the City (1957), A Raisin in the Sun (1961) and Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962).

To save Scott the indignity of the foreign correspondent series, Susskind asked writer Robert Alan Aurthur (Aurthur was previously a television playwright—his “A Man is Ten Feet Tall” became the basis for Susskind’s first movie venture, City—but was now employed as a vice-president of television production for United Artists) for ideas. He pulled out an old script entitled “My Three Angels,” which centered on the exploits of a team of inner-city social workers. Three days later, the premise was rewritten to fit Scott and had passed muster with Aubrey—the series would be called East Side/West Side (no relation to the 1949 film, by the way) and the title of the pilot was changed to “It’s War, Man.”

“It’s War, Man” introduces the character of Neil Brock—a tough, temperamental but dedicated social worker who works for a private welfare agency and attends to the needs of the denizens of a poor Manhattan neighborhood. (The decision to have Brock work for a private rather than government agency would prove to be beneficial in that it allowed the character to be a bit more independent and spend more time “out on the streets” rather than push paper in a cramped office.) The plot concerns a young Latino gang leader charged with murdering a neighborhood store owner—and even though Brock is supposed to be transferring to a cushy paper-pushing job in the agency’s downtown branch, he’s asked by his protégé, Tom Young (Victor Arnold), to assist with the case. Brock discovers a racial motive involved in the killing, and tries to pressure the judge (Torin Thatcher) to try the defendant as a juvenile and not an adult.

“Man” isn’t one of the strongest of East Side/West Side’s episodes—it plays a bit too much like a script someone writing for The Defenders tossed away. But it did sell the series to the network, and the only reason why the episode wasn’t telecast until February 10, 1964 (speculation provided by television historian Stephen Bowie) is that the producers may have been hoping that CBS would come up with the scratch to reshoot scenes reflecting the changes in cast and setting after it was first filmed.

One of these changes concerned the casting of one of the series’ regulars, a character named Jane Foster—who was played in “War” by actress Diana Sands (Sands was also in the Susskind-produced A Raisin in the Sun, having been in the original stage production as well). The producers of East Side/West Side were never able to come to terms when negotiating with Sands’ agent, and so she was replaced in the role by Cicely Tyson. (It was a little jarring to see Sands playing Jane, since “War” was the first episode I watched upon opening up my DVD set but when I learned a little more background my mind became at ease.) Tyson’s appearances as Jane are one of the main reasons the series is considered historically important today; she was the first African-American character to appear regularly on a dramatic series. (Tyson’s “Afro” was also a TV first, and prompted a new trend in black women’s hairstyles.)

Though Jane was identified in press releases as Neil Brock’s secretary, the description does the character a tremendous disservice. Sure, Jane answered phones and took messages—and did the prerequisite filing—but in many ways she was every bit the equal of Brock and the third character on the show, Frieda “Hecky” Hechlinger (played by the wonderful character actress Elizabeth Wilson). Hecky even introduces Jane to a character played by Carroll O’Connor in “Age of Consent” as “my associate,” and in “My Child on Monday Morning,” it’s Jane who takes on the responsibility of locating a school that handles autistic children to help out a friend of Hecky’s (played by Marion Seldes). There were, unfortunately, setbacks to Jane’s equality—Southern television viewers did not take likely to a “colored” woman “not knowing her place” and in the final analysis, Jane’s appearances in the run of East Side/West Side’s episodes were mercilessly brief. Diana Sands, who played Jane in the pilot, later appeared in the Emmy-winning episode “Who Do You Kill”—and she probably got more exposure in that installment than Tyson did in an entire season.

The character of Hecky wasn’t particularly fleshed-out, either. It’s interesting to note that Hechlinger was Brock’s supervisor—which technically made her his boss…but this was rarely commented upon, despite it being an interesting and unusual situation at that time. Actress Wilson—whose name may not ring any bells but her performances in films like Nine to Five (1980), The Addams Family (1991) and Quiz Show (1994) will certainly jog anyone’s memory bank—considered herself fortunate to get the part at a time when her services weren’t exactly in demand. The curious thing about Hecky--usually a sounding board in arguments with the Brock character—is that she was remarkably well-dressed and well-coiffed for a social worker, suggesting that she came from an upper-class background. Wilson later attributed her “clotheshorse” status to Jim Aubrey, who had a fanatical obsession that the actresses on the network’s shows be breathtakingly attractive.

Because the pilot for East Side/West Side was essentially a courtroom drama, Aubrey was somewhat secure in his decision to put the program on the air. But from that point on, the subject matter of the series took a controversial turn. The second episode telecast, “Age of Consent,” deals with statutory rape. “I Before E Except After C” is a no-holds-barred treatise on juvenile delinquency. “No Wings at All” tells the story of a mentally retarded young man accused of child molestation and perhaps the most famous East Side/West Side of all, “Who Do You Kill,” examines the aftermath of the lives of a young African-American couple whose baby daughter dies from a rat bite in their tenement slum apartment, concentrating on both urban poverty and racism. Many viewers were simply unable to deal with this kind of material, and flocked to NBC to Sing Along With Mitch. Because viewers were avoiding the controversial subject matter, advertisers followed suit—East Side/West Side simply couldn’t draw the sponsorship (one-third of its ad time went unsold) it needed…not even with a wellspring of critical support.

Many critics admired the series but one of the myths of East Side/West Side was that it garnered universal critical acclaim from the get-go. The New York Times’ Jack Gould raved about the show from day one, but it wasn’t until the telecast of “I Before E” that critics raced to jump on the bandwagon. My favorite review comes from the legendary TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory, who may have admired the intentions of the series but ultimately dismissed it as “an underprivileged Naked City.” (I have to admit—in some ways he was right on the money.)

CBS already had one “prestige” show on the air—The Defenders. According to Jim Aubrey, East Side/West Side would have to retool its image if it had any hope of remaining on the air—and the changes that resulted will be discussed in the conclusion tomorrow.

*Quote attributed to Mel Brooks.

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Tom said...

Very interesting post. I never knew Mitch's show ran that late in the evening, against those shows.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Sing Along with Mitch was bounced around NBC's schedule a lot. From January 1961 till April that year it was on Friday nights at 9pm, and then moved to Thursdays at 10 during the 1961-62 season. The following season found it moved back to Fridays at 8:30pm, and then it was moved in its final year to Mondays at 10. What amazes me is how its viewers kept up with the changes.

Todd Mason said...

Susskind's Talent Associates also produced GET SMART! a little later on, as you know, and along with OPEN END also for a season or so provided the syndicated dramatic anthology THE PLAY OF THE WEEK largely to WOR's fellow independent stations...though I imagine it cleared on network affiliates in at least a few smaller markets. I like NYPD, myself.

Hal said...

Wow, I never realized Diana Sands was actually the first choice for Tyson's role. To be fair, she was becoming quite a big name on Broadway at the time, with her biggest success (THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, with Alan Alda) just around the corner.

Tyson looked absolutely stunning.

I'd love to see this series.

Broadmoor said...

The Trio Network (now defunct?) reran "East Side, West Side" a few years back, and I made sure to catch most of the episodes. I thought I'd like the series, as "Naked City" is perhaps my all-time favorite tv-show, and it sounded to be in a similar vein. But although "ES/WS" occasionally percolated with some fine acting (and very nice on-location filming), it had an annoying air of self-conscious preachiness/liberal condescension which turned me off. Most of these character-driven drama shows of the early-mid-60s appeal to me tremendously, though. It's a shame they never prospered on in syndication all that much, as it has now given many folks the impression that the decade's television offerings were comprised SOLELY of wacky sitcoms.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

Todd: I have about 45 of the 49 episodes of N.Y.P.D. and I once intended to do a write-up on the show but, as is my custom, became distracted and went on to other things. Maybe someday I'll rediscover the motivation and put it up on the blog.

Broadmoor: A couple of these episodes on this set were apparently shown on WOLF-TV, channel 38 in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, PA. It's now a Fox affiliate (and apparently moved to channel 56 sometime back), which is a fate that most of the great independent stations succumbed to once the fourth network was up and running.