Friday, October 8, 2010
Happy birthday, Herbert B. Leonard!
I know that I observed the 50th anniversary of Route 66’s television debut in yesterday’s post so you’ll have to take my word that this is not a repeat. It’s just that in glancing at the birthdays today I noticed that the creator-producer of that series—and, of course, Naked City—celebrates his 88th natal anniversary today.
Born in New York City, Leonard started his career at the Columbia Pictures studio in 1946 after being discharged in World War II—he served as a unit production manager for the studio, and worked on nearly a metric ton of Columbia’s chapter-plays including Batman and Robin (1949), Atom Man vs. Superman (1950) and Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere (1951). Screen Gems, Columbia’s television arm, promoted him to the producer’s chair in 1954 and his first hit was The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin (1954-59), a children’s adventure series that featured the famed silent movie canine star along with Lee Aaker (as his boy, Rusty) and James Brown as Lt. Ripley “Rip” Masters. Leonard would go on to create and/or produce other series including Circus Boy, Tales of the 77th Bengal Lancers and Rescue 8.
In 1958, he brought to the small screen the first of his two signature television shows—Naked City, which was based on the 1948 feature film of the same name. It broke new ground with its extensive use of on-location shooting, transforming what might have been a run-of-the-mill cop show into an exercise in cinema verité. With co-creator (and writer) Sterling Silliphant, Leonard premiered his other best-known program two years later in Route 66, which once again used extensive filming on actual locations. Both shows highlighted first-rate scripting and the crème de la crème of stage and film acting talent, and have since become among the best representations of television drama from that era.
After Route 66 wrapped, Leonard went on to try his luck in movies, producing films like The Perils of Pauline (1967), Popi (1969) and Going Home (1971)—he also directed Pauline and Going. He flirted with TV-movies and occasional productions like adaptations of Popi and Breaking Away—I remember liking a sitcom he had a hand in, Ladies’ Man (1980-81) which came and went without much fanfare. But with laurels like Route 66 and Naked City to rest upon, I don’t think I would have sweated the show’s cancellation. Leonard passed away at the age of 84 in 2006 and was described in many of the obituaries as a “visionary.” His truly amazing television legacy does not go unnoticed here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear—I just wish I had access to a photograph of him to commemorate his day…so I guess Tod and Buz will have to suffice.