Friday, February 5, 2010

“I think that those quivering masses waiting for my return can relax and forget it. And those who hated my guts can relax…” – George C. Scott

This is part two of a two-part post on the short-lived but groundbreaking television drama series, East Side/West Side. Part one can be read here.

In an interview with TV Guide, actor George C. Scott told the magazine that he expected his character of social worker Neil Brock to “change organically, professionally, even physically if that seems logical” should East Side/West Side go beyond a single season. “Everybody else changes, why not a TV character?” The actor had also mused to producer Don Kranze that a second season could introduce a storyline in which he and Cicely Tyson’s Jane Foster would join together in holy matrimony—something I’m sure would have gone over like a fart at a funeral with many of the individuals out there in Television Land.

It was CBS’ programming chief James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey that sort of made the decision to change the Neil Brock character for Scott; Aubrey was unhappy with the ratings of East Side/West Side, and in a meeting with Scott and producer David Susskind ordered that the characters be taken out of Harlem and relocated to somewhere like Park Avenue.

Susskind, according to an account from his son Andrew, argued with Aubrey, telling His Cobraness that the characters were social workers and that there were no social workers on Park Avenue—they were in neighborhoods like Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. Any attempt to change the setting to Park Avenue would be ludicrous. “I don’t give a shit,” responded Aubrey. “Get them out of Harlem. It’s depressing. Nobody wants to see it.”

Scott, who had been listening to the conversation all this time while cutting and devouring chunks out of an apple with a rather formidable knife, took his cutlery and jammed it into Aubrey’s desk. “The show stays where it is,” remarked the actor, as the knife vibrated back and forth. “Let’s go, David.”

And that pretty much summed up the relationship between the series and the network at that point in time. Not to say that East Side/West Side totally dismissed the idea; one of the early episodes telecast, “Something for the Girls,” featured a dizzy socialite named Dorlee Benjamin (played by Diana Van Der Vlis) who’s arrested for unpaid traffic tickets and is sentenced by a sympathetic judge (Wendell K. Phillips) to volunteer work for thirty days at CWS, much to Brock’s chagrin. If “Girls” was the first or only episode a casual viewer managed to see of the series, they might very well wonder what all the fuss was about—it’s probably the nadir of East Side/West Side, and Scott himself was on record as despising the finished product (the original idea was to base a story on a Kennedyesque family member in trouble with the law). (I will admit, though, that the scene where Brock attempts to communicate with a Latino mother only to find that Dorlee has a much more thorough understanding of the Spanish language did make me smile.)

A combination of factors—poor ratings, no advertising support, controversial material and lack of acceptance for the Cicely Tyson character (the word was out that the network would grant the show a second season only if the producers replaced Jane Foster with a white secretary)—essentially sealed the fate of East Side/West Side, which was officially cancelled by CBS on January 28, 1964. The series still had a few episodes to complete under its contractual agreement with CBS, and this led to the biggest change in the show yet…one that would probably have killed it off permanently had it not already been cancelled.

In an episode entitled “The Street,” Brock must deal with a teenage girl (Candace Culkin) who has run away from home and spends her nights sleeping in cars because she objects to her mother’s skeevy boyfriend (Dominic Chianese) sleeping under the same roof. Neil learns from the mother (Louise Troy) that the reason why her boyfriend is a permanent fixture in the apartment is because she depends on him for financial support—her husband took a powder sometime ago, and he was supposed to supplement the money she receives from welfare. In the course of his duties, Brock contacts the women’s representative, Congressman Charles Hanson (Linden Chiles), for help in getting her the money she needs…and Hanson is only too happy to assist Brock in his request. The episode doesn’t end on a positive note, however: even when the woman gets the money she still invites the boyfriend back…and her daughter is running loose in the streets again.

The Charles Hanson character—loosely based on New York’s charismatic John V. Lindsey, who was mayor of the Big Apple at that time—would again cross paths with Neil in the two episodes that followed, “If Your Grandmother Had Wheels” and “The Passion of the Nickel Player,” both of which had Brock seeking Hanson’s assistance. Hanson, portrayed both as a man of wealth and privilege and idealistic politician, then decides to offer Brock a position on his staff in “Take Sides With the Sun.”

“Sun” would also introduce two new characters to the East Side/West Side cast: Bowen Munro (Henderson Forsythe), Hanson’s speechwriter, and Mike Miller (John McMartin), his public relations man. The friendship that would develop between Munro and Brock (the final episode, “Here Today,” features them imbibing in strong drink while enjoying a friendly chat) was overshadowed by the oil-and-water relationship between Miller (who bore a rather curious resemblance to British comedian Terry-Thomas) and Brock, who were constantly at each other’s throats regarding Hanson’s public image. (This antagonism between the two men—when both of them were fighting for the same goal, only under different tactics—often comes across as both false and forced.) “Sun” illustrates the difficulty Brock experiences in having to choose between his own independence and the opportunity to make a larger difference in his field (flashbacks from previous episodes are provided) but for all intents and purposes Neil would choose unwisely. The show ended up saying goodbye to Hecky and Jane (though Jane does return for an appearance in “Nothing But the Half Truth,” which is probably the best of the Hanson shows) and Brock ended up selling out to join an all-male, all-white bastion where problems were simply talked to death—and the original concept of interacting with human beings was discarded for a weekly lesson in politics.

East Side/West Side’s short-lived run ended with an episode entitled “Here Today”—a wry, witty allegory that is essentially a criticism of the series’ cancellation itself, with the background changed to a once influential and independent newspaper that has to close its doors. At the end of the episode, we find Neil Brock in a restroom looking at his reflection in the mirror…and then we are jolted out of our viewers’ reverie when he punches and shatters the mirror in anger. It begs the question: are we watching Neil Brock act out in frustration—or are we watching George C. Scott’s response to a situation in which he had completely lost control?

On May 25, 1964, the night of the Emmy Awards, East Side/West Side was able to enjoy one last victory when it received seven nominations for the episode “Who Do You Kill.” Though it only managed to nab one of the statuettes (Tom Gries, for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Drama), it could rest secure in the knowledge that the many barriers it managed to break down during its short-lived run would be beneficial to future series looking to provide the same hard-hitting drama and tackling of complex social issues to come. Many of television’s top writers contributed scripts: Edward De Blasio, Robert Van Scoyk, William M. Altman, Arnold Perl, Edward Adler, Allan E. Sloane and Millard Lampell. Directors used on the show included Daniel Petrie, Jack Smight, Walter Grauman, Marc Daniels, Tom Gries, Herschel Daughtery, Ron Winston, Alex March, John Berry and Charles S. Dubin (the last two having been out of work for some time due to the blacklist). The actors on the show resemble a casting call for Naked City: Dana Elcar, Logan Ramsey, Ramon Bieri, David Huddleston, Patricia Collinge, Ruth Donnelly, John Randolph, Gene Hackman, Janet Margolin, Martin Sheen, Clifton James, Paul McGrath, David Carradine, Charles Durning, Roscoe Lee Browne, Norman Fell, Lee Grant, Roger Carmel, Dolph Sweet, Richard Castellano, Simon Oakland, Norma Crane, James Edwards, Joe De Santis, Will Lee, Sudie Bond, Robert Middleton, Alan Arkin, Melinda Dillon, Barbara Feldon, Severn Darden, Maureen Stapleton, J.D. Cannon, John Karlen, Richard Schaal, Vincent Gardenia, Philip Bruns, Avery Schreiber, Jessica Walter, Chester Morris, Barry Morse, Eugene Roche, Daniel J. Travanti, Moses Gunn, Reni Santoni, Mister John Dehner, Bert Convy and Dan Frazier.

For many years after the cancellation of East Side/West Side, George Scott swore he’d never do another television series…and aside from the occasional special or TV-movie he was relatively true to his word. But in May 1987 he recapitulated and signed on to play the titular role in a sitcom entitled Mr. President, a series created by Johnny Carson, Gene Reynolds and Ed Weinberger—and part of the Sunday night lineup from the new fourth network, Fox. I remember watching the premiere that night and after it was over saying to no one in particular: “He came back to television for this?” (This was also at the same time that the actor agreed to do a commercial—after holding out for so long—for American Motors’ Renault Alliance sedan. I don’t remember the comedian who did the routine, but in a dead-on Scott impression he barked: “I’ve never done a television commercial before…that is, until I found $100,000 in the glove compartment.”) He tried a detective series in 1994 entitled Traps (which aired on CBS) but having not seen it, I can’t comment.

I obtained all twenty-six episodes of East Side/West Side in a set from Finders Keepers, a Mom-and-Pop outfit (or in this case, a Pop-and-Pop outfit) owned and operated by “the Isaac Asimov of OTR,” Martin Grams, Jr. and his faithful sidekick Rodney Bowcock. Many of the episodes in the set were culled from the show’s brief revival on Trio (telecast in 2003 and 2004 as part of their “Brilliant But Cancelled” lineup) and apart from some missing footage (I guesstimated about five minutes worth) in “Who Do You Kill” the set is well worth the investment, particularly in light of the inactivity to give the series an official and proper release. I watched every one, and decided to come up with a top ten list of installments that to me represent the high points of the series:

10. “Here Today” (04/27/64) – East Side/West Side’s swan song was a most effective means to end the series since the episode is essentially an allegorical comment on the series’ tumultuous cancellation. Brian Lincoln (Will Geer) is the idealistic publisher of the Light, the last of New York’s independent newspapers and a man who’s pretty much counting off the days before the paper will have to cease operations—weakened by a recent strike that has given the upper hand to his rival Brew Bedford (Walter Abel), who plans to buy the Light and put it out of business. Brock, wanting to have a series of articles printed that address President Johnson’s War on Poverty, convinces Lincoln to host the articles…and for a brief moment, it looks like the Light may continue to shine…

Although this episode doesn’t quite explain to my satisfaction why a congressman and his staff would join in the fight to save an independent newspaper, “Here Today” provided the perfect capper to the series…and was remarkably prescient in its predictions on the eventual consolidation of newspapers, particularly when Brock comments: “The last word won’t come until the last independent newspaper in the country is cannibalized by some chain. Murder by merger. When that happens, gentlemen, we’ll have one newspaper in every city in the United States. One opinion, one source of information, one enormous boob tube—somewhere around the year 1984.” “Today” also benefits from a first-rate cast that also includes Lloyd Gough (as Geer’s right-hand man), Henry Jaglom and Michael “Dr. Loveless” Dunn.

9. “Nothing But the Half-Truth” (03/30/64) – Brock’s idea to spotlight the extreme conditions of poverty that have befallen an indigent Latino family is sidelined when Hanson’s PR lackey, Mike Miller, puts his fine hand in it by using the family as little more than a photo-op/press release. Miller has also scheduled his boss for an appearance on a talk show (hosted by David Susskind, the executive producer of East Side/West Side) to discuss the issue in-depth, but when Hanson announces he won’t be available Neil talks him into letting him take his place.

The second and third acts of “Half-Truth” are an out-and-out parody of Susskind’s Open End; Brock is saddled with a panel that includes clueless Hollywood actress Shirley Frost (played by Scott’s wife, Colleen Dewhurst—and channeling her inner Shelley Winters), comedian Mel Chance (Joshua Shelley, riffing on Mel Brooks) and Roger Hamilton Bradcliffe, a William F. Buckley clone played by former child actor/OTR veteran Leon Janney. Neil, clearly uncomfortable with the ignorance the other panelists display throughout the entire program, asks Susskind on the air why he didn’t invite experts to be on the program, and Susskind responds: “You are the expert…and you were invited…”

No, sir…you take a two-year-old kid who has to stare at a rat in the dark—that’s an expert. You take a twelve-year-old kid who gets started on a free fix and gets started on a habit—that’s…that’s an expert. You take Mrs. Valdez, the woman in this newspaper piece, who has to stand by helplessly and watch her children drop out of school and drop into jail—that’s an expert! You ought to have that lady on your program, with a panel of Congressmen—and let her ask some questions like, uh, “What are you doing about improving our schools” and “What are you doing about teaching my children to live in this world?” Then you’d have a program to be proud of…

8. “The $5.98 Dress” (01/13/64) – Josephine Stuart (Kathleen Maguire) is arrested by the police when she’s turned in to the Welfare Department for supplementing her stipend with outside work. A sympathetic Brock tries to help Josephine because she is apparently unable to support her family on her welfare income—but then learns to his disgust that the extra money she earns goes to her estranged husband (Tim O’Connor), a heroin addict. I don’t recall ever seeing something like this (a dependent defying the system) on television before which I why rate this outing particularly high; TDOY fave Bonnie Bedelia is on hand here as Stuart’s somewhat snotty daughter (she has major issues with her Dad) and I like this outburst from Scott’s Brock when he’s placed on the stand to testify at Josephine’s trial:

She was trying to hold her family together, that’s all she was trying to do…survival of the Stuart family was impossible within the limits of the present law…now the law allows a child to subsist—but unfortunately, subsistence is not a requirement a child can understand…nor is it a process that a parent can stand by helplessly and watch! Now, if I had known that Mrs. Stuart was committing the heinous crime of working for $46.60 a week, I probably would have done nothing about it!

7. “I Before E Except After C” (10/21/63) – Idealistic schoolteacher Wallace Mapes (Howard DaSilva) asks for Brock’s help in instituting a program of progressive education in order to address the school’s juvenile delinquency problem. The principal, Harold Costigan (William Daniels), is strongly opposed to such a program but agrees to give it a trial basis. A series of field trips has a remarkable effect on many of the students—but there’s always one bad apple to spoil the bunch, and that piece of fruit is a street punk nicknamed “Power” (Santiago Burgos) who talks several other kids (including a youngster named Juano [Alexander Lopez], who’s become a protégé to Mapes) into throwing trash can lids through the high school’s windows, effectively trashing the joint. Both Mapes and Brock plead with Costigan to allow the program to continue, but the principal insists it’s out of his hands—later, after confronting Power and his gang on the schoolyard and issuing an ultimatum that they either return to school or vacate the premises, Costigan tells Mapes and Brock that if he’s able to stare down a trio of j.d.’s he certainly should be able to argue for the program’s continuation against the school superintendent.

The story for this excellent episode was written by actor Ossie Davis (he co-wrote the teleplay with Arnold Perl), and features Val Avery (as Lt. Al Costello, a semi-regular on the show), Florence Stanley, Otis Young, New York Mets player Jesse Gonder and Augie Rios (best-remembered for his Christmas standard ¿Dònde Està Santa Claus?).

6. “No Wings at All” (10/28/63) – Georgie Everett (Lou Frizzell) is a mentally retarded young man whose presence in a city park unnerves a woman into thinking he attempted to molest her young daughter. A beat cop (Louis Zorich) is ordered by his superiors to pick Georgie up and bring him in for questioning, and Brock agrees to help him out in locating the young man’s whereabouts. Neil learns from George, Sr. (Theodore Bikel) of the difficulties he’s encountered in having to keep a protective eye on Georgie (frequently having to lock him in a room when he “misbehaves”) and when the young man is brought into custody, the judge (Staats Cotsworth) assigned to his case suggests that he undergo a series of tests by a psychiatrist (Raymond St. Jacques) to see if he’s stable enough to continue in his present life without being a threat to others. When the discussion gets underway to send Georgie to a special school, the young man escapes from the police station and the hunt is on to locate him before he does any harm—but he finds his way back to the apartment (using his knowledge of numbers to read street signs) and Brock assures his father he’ll do what he can to make certain he’s allowed to stay at home. A poignant and well-written episode, featuring character actor Frizzell as the thinnest I’ve ever seen him.

5. “The Sinner” (09/23/63) – For the background on this episode, read the beginning of Part One.

4. “My Child on Monday Morning” (12/16/63) – The grueling pace of East Side/West Side necessitated giving star Scott a vacation week, which allows Elizabeth Wilson’s “Hecky” and Cicely Tyson’s Jane a rare appearance in the spotlight (I love when the two women are clearly enjoying themselves at a cocktail party being thrown in CWS’ honor). Unfortunately, their performances are overshadowed by that of Marion Seldes, who plays Nancy Morgan—a friend of Hecky’s (and former CWS employee) whose personal life is coming apart at the seams because she refuses to consider the option of putting her autistic child Amy (Renee Dudley) in an institution. That position is favored by Nancy’s husband Tony (played by James Noble, best-remembered as the Governor on the sitcom Benson), who, interestingly enough, doesn’t quite emerge as the good guy in all of this. It’s indeed a shame that the series didn’t do more stories that relied on the teamwork supplied here by Hecky and Jane; Jane, in particular, shows she’s no secretary by locating a school for special needs children in the city—the Morgans place Amy in this program but Nancy insists she be removed when she learns that family counseling is mandatory for the continued education of any child. Nancy finally comes to her senses when Amy—who hasn’t spoken in years—addresses her mother as “Lady” and demonstrates that the school’s regimen is working in a positive direction. (A very young Brooke Adams plays Seldes’ other daughter, Markie.)

3. “Age of Consent” (09/30/63) – A powerful treatise on the subject of statutory rape (and one that doesn’t cop out with the happy ending, either) stars Carroll O’Connor as a hard-nosed cop whose daughter (Penny Fuller) sleeps with her boyfriend (Robert Drivas) despite that she’s underage. The boyfriend’s parents (Paul Bryar, Elizabeth Moore) are helpless as O’Connor insists on pressing charges, but our hero Neil does what he can. Alan Rich plays the lawyer assigned to the boyfriend (and Brock joshingly calls him “E.G.” at one point, which should set off a few alarms at Tubeworld) and Robert Hooks (billed as Bobby Dean Hooks) plays O’Connor’s partner—he would later co-star alongside Jack Warden and Frank Converse on the Susskind-produced crime drama NYPD.

2. “Who Do You Kill” (11/04/63) – This episode was also discussed in Part One of this essay.

1. “No Hiding Place” (12/02/63) – An episode with strong similarities to “Who Do You Kill” (though “Kill” offers a glimmer of optimism in its ending), “Place” stars Joseph Campanella and Lois Nettleton as Chuck and Ann Severson, a couple who live in an upscale, country-club-like neighborhood and are greeted by the arrival of a African-American couple, the Marsdens (played by Ruby Dee and Earle Hyman, who played Bill Cosby’s father on The Cosby Show), who have just moved into the house next door. The Seversons consider themselves quite liberal, and even throw a cocktail party to welcome the new additions—but the other residents, including Ann’s gal pal Polly Michaels (Constance Ford), aren’t as hospitable. Trouble appears in the form of an unscrupulous realtor (Edwin Sherrin) who begins to panic the neighborhood by offering to buy them out at a price less than what they paid for their homes because of irrational fears that the suburb will soon be “overrun by our dark brothers.” Neil, a friend of the Seversons, tries to allay the concerns of the neighborhood by holding a special meeting explaining that the realtors are engaging in a practice called “block busting”—in which homeowners are urged to sell their property at a loss, and upon doing so the realtors jack up the price of the purchased homes and sell them to black professionals eager to move out of the inner city slums.

The meeting accomplishes nothing; a homeowner named Charlie Welty (Parkersburg, West Virginia’s favorite son, Paul Dooley) is planning on selling and getting out but agrees to hold off until a prospective buyer can be found within the week. The prospective tenant (who’s also black) is a self-made man in the construction business, and while he is amenable to paying what Welty is asking for the house Chuck isn’t so sure he wants another “black family” in the neighborhood, convincing himself that the community won’t go for it. He has, unfortunately, given into the panic; telling Ann that everything they own is in their house and as the episode comes to a close, he stands in silence, pondering as to what his next move will be.

The pessimistic ending (everything is not resolved in a big, pretty pink bow) of “Place” is also supplemented with the knowledge that CBS insisted on excising a scene in the episode in which Scott’s Brock asks Dee’s Marsden to dance. (Scott called the network out on this tactic by publicly criticizing what the network had done.) Nearly forty-five years after its original telecast, “No Hiding Place” remains one powerful piece of television drama.

I must give special thanks to Stephen Bowie, who blogs at The Classic TV Blog, and his remarkable essay on East Side/West Side, which can be found here. Though I shamelessly cribbed a lot of its info for my own nefarious purposes, his piece goes into far more depth than mine and is a must-read for those interested in the series’ production history.

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Toby O'B said...

It sounds like the writer of "Age of Consent" trusted his audience to get the in-joke and so didn't beat it to death like so many writers do today. This will make it easier for Toobworld Central to splain it away.

Thanks for pointing it out,Ivan!

Broadmoor said...

I remember liking that episode "No Hiding Place" a lot. It was an episode that brought up some wildly controversial issues, but the script just let the story play out, without any sort of hamfisted moralizing voice. Much more impact that way. That's talented writing in my book. Great episode. Especially the uneasy conclusion. Which, I also interpreted to have another layer of bigotry examined. That of 'class.' Campanella's character is all fine and dandy with a nice, well-spoken, picture-perfect Negro couple moving into the neighborhood. He can relate to them. But, he sees the grizzled black retiree as 'low class' and not really compatable with his ideas of his little suburban paradise. Which spurs him to join in with others' concerns about property values, even if their concerns are based on race alone. Very adult, unflinching script.

Anyway, I wonder if CBS really thought they could have a success with "ES/WS." I mean, it was aired on Monday nights, directly following "The Andy Griffith Show," of all things. Did they think their viewing audience would enjoy going directly from Mayberry right into a NYC slum? That's a pretty discordant transition. It was a tad before my time, but I don't even think the affiliate in my hometown bothered to air the series, probably opting to show reruns of "Sea Hunt" instead. Which indeed would have gotten triple the ratings compared to a weekly visit to Brock and the slums.