May 25, 2016

Interview: Movin' On with Executive Producer Barry Weitz and series remasterer Mark Rathaus

FRANK CONVERSE (LEFT) AND CLAUDE AKINS RIDE THEIR BIG RIG ACROSS THE COUNTRY IN MOVIN' ON
Although it was only on for two seasons, the NBC drama Movin' On was one of the iconic series of the 1970s, capturing perfectly the popularity of CB radios and presenting a vivid look at life of the long-distance trucker. With two very appealing leads in Claude Akins as veteran trucker Sonny Pruitt and Frank Converse as young, college-educated Will Chandler, and a memorable theme song sung by the great Merle Haggard, the show built up a loyal following, and remained part of the cultural lexicon for years thereafter.

The series is now getting a second life through Hulu.com and ProClassicTV.com, thanks to the efforts of Mark Rathaus, who has diligently remastered the series to make it look even better than it did during its original run. Recently, it was my pleasure to fire some questions at Barry J. Weitz, one of the original co-producers of Movin' On, as well as having a chance to ask Mark more about the process of preparing the series for streaming. The interview begins below the jump.



It's About TV: I didn't make this connection at the time because I was too young, but in retrospect the show reminds me somewhat of the early '60s show Route 66, in that the stories revolve around two truckers touring the country, and the stories of the people they meet along the way. Was that intentional on your part, perhaps updating the idea to the '70s, or is it something that just coincidentally happened to work out that way?

Barry J. Weitz: Route 66 was not a conscious inspiration, but who knows, maybe it was floating around in my subconscious when I conceived Movin’ On. The big difference, as I see it, is that Sonny Priutt and Will Chandler are working men, not youngsters bopping around the country in a Corvette looking for kicks.  I first had the idea for Movin’ On while we were filming “The Seven-Ups”. I was spending time at the Bronx Terminal Market.....watching the comings and goings of independent truckers dropping their loads and movin' on to other jobs all over the country, anywhere that someone was willing to pay them to move their stuff. Anyway, it occurred to me that this world would be a great idea for a T.V. series, so I sat down and created the characters of Sonny and Will and the skeleton of the story.

I seem to recall somewhere that both Claude Akins and Frank Converse did their own truck driving during the series. Was that an idea that you came up with, or did they think of that on their own?

We believed that it was absolutely essential that Claude and Frank do some of their own driving and we gave them driving lessons before we started filming. Claude was a particularly talented driver, but I remember Frank telling me that as a New Yorker, his usual way to get around was, "hailing a cab”. Claude wanted to drive all the time. Often, he and his stunt double, a licensed truck driver, would take off for the next location with Claude in the passenger seat. But usually, when the truck pulled up to the set, Claude was at the wheel with a big smile on his face. The teamsters always said, "Akins is a natural born trucker-man".

What do you think it is about shows like this that have an appeal to viewers? Is it the secret desire of people to be able to go wherever they want whenever they want, or is there something more to it?

That’s part of it, of course. But I think Movin' On also appeals because Sonny and Will are working stiffs. Their personalities, backgrounds, politics, and education levels are mismatched to boot. Yet they get along, they like each other despite their differences. I think their understanding, tolerant natures, and their struggles to get ahead, just a little bit, resonates with viewers.

What were the two like to work with? I've always had a good opinion of them both as actors.

While I was working on the concept for the series, I had the actor Ward Bond in mind when writing the character of Sonny. I always had Frank Converse in mind for Will. I was a big fan of the T.V. series "N.Y.P.D". which Converse had starred in. My casting director recommended that I meet with Claude Akins. The moment Claude walked into my office, I knew he was Sonny and made the offer to him immediately. He thought the role was wonderful and the possibility of shooting a series which traveled around the country would be challenging and very exciting. I flew to NYC where Frank lived, met with him, and made the deal. Both Claude and Frank brought their all to the work, but Claude was extraordinary in his enthusiasm. He was up for everything, be it signing autographs for hours or serving meals to the crew. Frank was more of a loner. He rode a bicycle and ran for exercise in his down time, and sometimes he would curl up and nap in the Kenworth sleeper while assistant directors ran around frantically looking for him.  Both are wonderful actors and were perfect for their parts.

Tell us a little bit about the story of getting Merle Haggard to do the theme.

I had known Merle Haggard's music and thought the Bakersfield Sound would be a perfect match for the show. Haggard had that sweet, earthy, gravelly sound in his voice that made me think of heavy trucks rolling through the night. I called Merle at his home and I told him what I wanted. He laughed and said he had never done anything like that but was intrigued enough to meet me and discuss my thoughts. Merle invited me up to Bakersfield to join him doing some bass fishing. Merle didn't know that I loved bass fishin' and had competed often in bass tournaments. I drove to Bakersfield and met Merle and his crew. We had a beer and went to the lake. I started catching fish immediately while Merle played with the boat and sang "Okie from Muskogee" to himself. I finally decided that since he's the host, I’d better back off some.... let the star catch the fish. Well, Merle turns it up. Now, he's on fire and bass are flying into the boat. Merle's happy, so I start talking Movin’ On with him. He agrees to come to Los Angeles and see the pilot. Now I'm the one who’s happy. Merle sees the pilot, In Tandem. He loves it and agrees to write and perform the title song. The song is an instant hit and helps make Movin' On a success. Merle’s music is a perfect complement to  the show

Were there any unique challenges (other than the ones that might be supposed) doing the show on location each week?

We had the usual challenges that any one-hour weekly drama had. But we had the unique challenges of moving a production crew around the country. Sometimes it felt like we were moving a circus with all the trucks and equipment and crew. We had actors, directors and other crew flying in and out all the time. We had film shipped out to labs daily for developing, then go on to the editors in LA. Trucks broke down and caught fire. And everywhere we went the locals mobbed Claude, Frank, and the third star, a big green Kenworth.  It was Claude who said, "I think the folks like the truck as much as they like Frank and me.” And it was probably true.  

Are there any memorable moments from guest stars that really stand out? And conversely (no pun intended), were there any that just didn't get the concept of the show? I'd imagine you have some great stories!

All the guest stars were great and there were many wonderful moments. What I remember most proudly though, is that we hired actors at all points on their career spectrum. Older stars like Janet Leigh, Patricia Neil, and Gary Merrill, old-time Hollywood character actors like Strother Martin and Elisha Cook Jr., and up-and-coming youngsters like John Ritter, MacKenzie Phillips, and Jeff Conaway. We even had Samuel L. Jackson as a day player. I especially remember the children of cast and crew who spent time on our set and had not yet gotten into the business, Sean Penn and Jamie Lee Curtis.

With Merle Haggard’s recent death, I’ve been thinking of him a lot lately, so I’ll tell a follow up to the story I gave you earlier. After Merle screened In Tandem, we went to lunch at the MGM commissary. Keep in mind; the MGM commissary was the place.... all the stars that were working on the lot would dine there.  We had made a reservation for the big table at the back of the vast room and when we entered the MaĆ®tre d' recognized Merle, as did many others. All those famous actors, directors, producers came up to Merle to shake his hand and express their love of his music. A sprinkling of spontaneous applause broke out and Merle was a tad embarrassed.... but was gracious to all that wanted autographs and a handshake. As you know, Merle did write and record our title song. That song helped put Movin' On in the world of an iconic truckin' show.... a world we will always share with Merle.... an icon of the Country and Western World. It was an experience I will never forget. Thanks, Hag…. R.I.P.  

It seems to me 48 episodes was too short a run for the series. Was their anything in the original concept for the series that you didn't get time to get to?

There isn’t a specific story that we didn’t get to do, but I will tell you that my original concept for Movin’ On was that it be a ten o'clock show. A 10 pm show in those days could be much more adult oriented than an 8 or even a 9 o’clock show. I wanted Movin’ On to be rough, adult, and gritty. In season one we got away with a little bit of the edginess I wanted but for season two, NBC moved us to 8 o’clock and all the grit, edginess, and grown up stuff went out the window.

How did real truckers take to the show? And were you surprised that it made such an impact with them? I'm thinking of the "Do it like Pruitt" phrase that referred to Claude Akins' character, Sonny Pruitt.

Real truckers loved the show. We respected the trade and tried to be completely realistic. I think that pleased the truckers in the audience. It was also the only show to present truckers in a positive light. I’m sure that pleased them even more. Many of our Facebook fans relate how they watched with their dads who were truckers and that they went into trucking because of Movin’ On. Those messages are tremendously gratifying.

I don't remember ever seeing Movin' On in syndication after it ended its original run. Did I just miss it, or was that actually the case? If so, was it because of the relatively few number of episodes, or was there more?

The show was not syndicated because it did not have enough episodes for syndication in that period. I also think that because my partner, Phil D’Antoni and I owned the rights, the studio put it in the vault and forgot about it. That may be why there was never a DVD package. It wasn’t until Mark saw the value of our property that we began to consider bringing it back.

How has the reaction been from fans to the episodes now streaming on Hulu and ProClassicTV.com? Do you find it's mostly viewers who remember the show and are thrilled to get them in such a terrific remastered form, or are you also hearing from people who didn't catch the show in its original run, who might be intrigued with the idea of living that kind of life without being pinned down to one location for too long?

Most of the response we get is from people who remember the show. Many have wonderful memories of watching Movin' On as families. They love the great quality of the remastering Mark has done and are fantastically happy to see the shows that they thought they would never see again. I like to think, though, that we are also growing a new audience and just don’t hear from them as often as the old fans. I'm confident that if new viewers gave Movin' On a chance, the themes, characters, and acting, would resonate with them.  And if they don't like those things, it has trucks! I could not be more proud of the show and believe it would be enjoyable to everyone that watches it.

Could a series like this work today? It seems to me one of the charms of a series like Movin' On is that it gave viewers a look at different parts of the country, places they might not have been familiar with, and it demonstrated just what a big country America is, and how rich and varied those different parts are. You could argue that we've become more homogenized since then, that there aren't as many regional differences than there used to be. Do you think this is true, and would it make it harder to do Movin' On today?

Movin’ On would work very well today and we have had, and continue to have talks about bringing it back. The travelogue aspect of the show is always entertaining but the real allure, for me at least, is showing that people, who on the surface seem different and have nothing in common, are really very much alike. I think there are perceived regional differences, but when it comes down to it, people want the same things: fair play and a chance to provide a better life for their children.

If you were going to do it today, who would you cast as the two leads?

I’m not going to speculate on that. There are far too many fine actors around. I’d be interested to hear what you and your readers think, though.

Mark, I'd love to get some feedback from you as well on how you got involved in working on remastering Movin' On. 

Mark Rathaus: Co-Executive Producer, Phil D’Antoni is my father-in-law. In 2006 he mentioned that he and Barry had financed Movin’ On themselves and held the copyrights. I suggested that we try to find distribution. That was fine with Phil but first I had to find the original elements. It took a while but I finally tracked them down to Fox, who had them in underground vaults in Kansas. I’ve spent a career in film postproduction so I knew what to do. I had the old negatives, sound tracks, and broadcast video masters sent to me and I began sorting through some very haphazardly labeled elements. Luckily, everything I needed to remaster the domestic versions was in fairly good condition, the negatives were dirty and had slightly faded, but we were able to digitally clean and recolor as part of the remaster process. Oddly, the videos provided the best quality sound, so the new digital masters have an image digitized from the original negatives married to digital sound transferred from the video. I’m very happy with the results.

Had you been a fan of the show when it was originally on?

I only sightly remembered the show from its original run, and I didn’t give it much of a thought. I did not watch it regularly. Now, after seeing the episodes repeatedly, I have a tremendous respect for the work Barry, Phil and their team did. I especially appreciate the work of the writers and directors. They worked under very difficult circumstances, yet the characters are strong and the stories are powerful and timeless.

Was Fox difficult to work with in getting the original elements?

Not at all. Fox was very cooperative. They were a pleasure to work with.

You mentioned you only had slight memories of the program. As you worked on the remaster, was there anything about the show that surprised you?

I was very surprised at the quality of the writing, acting, and direction. I had not previously been aware that the characters had been so complex and that the themes were often universal and explored with respect and subtly. I also loved seeing all those old actors who I recognized from movies being put to such good use. It was also surprising how many then unknown, gifted, young actors, who are now well-known made an appearance on Movin’ On at the beginning of their careers.

On the technical side, are there any plans to release Movin' On on DVD? If so, are there any kinds of extras you have available or you'd like to include? And anyone you'd like to do commentary tracks? 

We are always looking for a partner to help us put out a DVD package. There are a few extras that could be part of a DVD package. Unfortunately, streaming is hurting DVD sales, so companies are not as anxious to make DVDs as they used to be. If we do manage to make a DVD set, we’ll try to include something that will please the fans. After hearing Barry’s stories, I am convinced that if we could have only one commentary track, it would have to be Barry. By the way, many of Barry’s stories are available at movinontvshow.com by clicking on an episode link in the episode guide and then on the episode details link.

Any other projects in the pipeline?

Yes, but we can’t talk about anything at present. Sorry if that sounds cryptic. It’s just that everything is always uncertain in “Showbiz”, and the last thing you want to do is jinx something by talking about it.

Finally, did working on this make you want to become a trucker yourself? 

Yes it did. The lifestyle certainly has its appeal!

***

My thanks once again to both Barry and Mark for their time and thoughtful answers, and especially to Mark for facilitating all this. It reminds me once again how fortunate I am to have the opportunity to talk to such interesting and generous people. And be sure to look for Movin' On at streaming services Hulu.com and ProClassicTV.com, For more information on the show, including stories and production photos, head on over to their Facebook page as well as the link to their website, which you can find on the sidebar. Well worth your time!

Who's next on the interview list? We'll just have to see!

6 comments:

  1. Terrific interview! I especially enjoyed reading about Akins and Converse (who were indeed perfect for their parts) and how Merle Haggard came to record the title tune. I also agree that MOVIN' ON would have been better as a ten o'clock show. Now...if you could just get the makers of THE SEVEN UPS to discuss my all-time favorite car chase!

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  2. Great interview and great timing for it. Today would have been Claude Akins' 90th birthday

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  3. Great interview! I love this show...

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  4. nice story.there were 44 episodes not 48 and a pilot movie[in tandem]

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  5. Thanks for the great article, Mitchell. It was a treat working with you.

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  6. As we used to say on the CB while truckin' down the road (1971-2004)...."Do it to it, like Sonny Pruitt!"

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