On Monday night, NBC reviews the story in a three-hour made-for-TV movie, Guilty or Innocent: the Sam Sheppard Murder Case (7:00 p.m.), starring George Peppard as the enigmatic Sheppard, who insisted from the very beginning that he was innocent, that the murder had actually been committed by a "bushy-haired intruder" who had then attacked Sheppard before escaping. The case is probably at least as well known for supposedly being the inspiration for The Fugitive as it is on its own merits.
I wrote about the Sheppard Case over at the other site back in 2007, on the eve of the anniversary of the murder, so no need to rehash the details here. What is interesting is Michael Fessier Jr.'s article on the challenges of casting such a challenging movie. The Sheppard story requires a huge cast; not just the principles, but the smaller roles as well, and don't let anyone tell you that it's the biggest roles that cause the biggest headaches. One actor was up for a minor role; casting director Milt Hammerman knew the actor's agent had grossly inflated his rate, based on a part he'd had in Chinatown, and the cost would hardly be worth it. But director Harold Gast took one look at him, said "That's my doctor," and Hammerman knew the budget would be taking another hit.
And so it goes. Barnard Hughes is scheduled to play Sheppard's first defense attorney, William Corrigan (called Philip Madden in the movie), but Hughes has just started a new series, Doc, on CBS and his contract prevents him from appearing in other programs this early in the new season. "I suppose it's too late to get Melvyn Douglas," director Bobby Lewis moans. (As it turns out, the difficulties are cleared up, and Hughes winds up playing Madden - brilliantly.) The tension is always there, as Hammerman experiences; there's always a delicate balance between the right actor and the right price.
The biggest challenge, not surprisingly, is casting the lead role, Dr. Sam. Since the actor playing Sheppard will be required to age 12 years, the length of time between the two trials, they have a choice either to sign a young actor and age him, or choose an older man and de-age him. He'll have to be physically fit, a trait which Sheppard maintained through most of his life. Most important, Fessier points out, "the actor selected would have to be able to handle the ambiguity of the role, the unknown guilt or innocence." Bruce Dern, a fine actor, was rejected for this very reason: "He's too guilty. The audience looks at him and knows he did it." On the flip side, James Garner, who was "a strong contenter" early on, was thought to be "too permanently winsomely 'innocent'." On it went - Hal Holbrook was "too cerebral," Beau Bridges "too soft," Jon Voight, Gene Hackman and James Caan were too big, i.e. too expensive, to be considered unless "somebody here knows them personally?" They finally settle on George Peppard, veteran of Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Carpetbaggers, and the series Banacek, who calls this "the best part I have ever been offered in my career."
|Peppard (left) as Sam Sheppard, with Barnard Hughes|
as his defense attorney.
To this day the Sheppard case remains haunting, disturbing. I'd probably heard of the Sheppard case befored (the retrial had only happened nine years before the movie was made), but I was captivated by the story; I bought and read as many books about the Sheppard case as I could, and I'm looking at four of them on my bookshelf as I write this; it's the reason I saved this particular issue of TV Guide. I was fascinated by F. Lee Bailey, who is of diminished stature today but was an enfant terrible as Sheppard's defender; the case made him world-famous overnight. In Cleveland, where the drama played out, it still arouses strong feelings on both sides, and old-timers remain convinced of the doctor's guilt.* It is a story of a flawed marriage, one that either was on the road to recovery (Mrs. Sheppard was pregnant at the time of her murder) or doomed to tragedy; a story of a man, whether guilty or innocent, who was hounded by the press and public in a trial that at times resembled a circus more than a legal proceeding.
*During the retrial Vegas had odds of 20:1 on Sheppard's acquittal; in Cleveland it was only 6:5.
Most important, the conclusion tells us one of two things: either Sam Sheppard was guilty of murdering his wife and unborn child, and ultimately got away with it (albeit after spending a decade in jail), or he was a man unjustly deprived of that decade, an innocent man destroyed by the experience in prison. And if the truth points to the latter rather than the former, it also means that a murderer escaped detection, escaped punishment, and continued to wander in the darkness - even though the killer carried with him or her a pair of hands that, like Lady Macbeth, could not be cleansed of innocent blood. Jack Harrison Pollack, author of the book on which the movie was based, called the Sheppard case "An American Tragedy." Tragic it was, and will always remain.
Kirshner: Steppenwolf, Graham Central Station and Emmylou Harris are guests. Music: "Mr. Penny Pincher" and "Caroline" (Steppenwolf); "Bluebird Wine," "Jambalaya" and "Amarillo" (Emmylou Harris).
Special: Hostess Helen Reddy, with Jimmie Walker, David Essex, Brenda Lee and instrumental jazz-rock group Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. This week's hit is Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Also: a tribute to Jan and Dean.
Fun fact: during the days of the late, unlamented United States Football League*, the team in Los Angeles was called the L.A. Express. Now, does this outweigh a rock group named after a novel written by the famous German novelist Hermann Hesse? You might as well ask if a musician who shares his last name with the regal Essex House hotel in New York City measures up to a band who adapted their name from that same city's storied Grand Central Station. In the end, it all comes down to one question: do you like Emmylou Harris better than Brenda Lee? I do, and on that (admittedly esoteric) basis I award the week to Kirshner.
*The league whose New Jersey franchise was owned by none other than a future President of the United States.
Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era.
You'll recall that when it first debuted, Saturday Night Live was known simply as NBC's Saturday Night. That's because the "Live" moniker had already been taken by ABC's entry in the Saturday night variety sweepstakes, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. The problem with this, explains Cleveland Amory, is that "the producers here now seem to spend their time thinking of ways to keep Cosell off camera. This is sad, because incisive interviewing and abrasive sportscasting were the making of Cosell's reputation. Being a host who is seldom seen on his own show could be the unmaking of it."
It's not that ABC hasn't been able to attract names to the show. But, in the "nothing exceeds like excess" category, that doesn't mean you have to hype the daylights out of them. Shirley Bassey, for example, "was overplugged as 'the greatest singing star on the internation scene.' Charo, a sort of singer-cum-professional-talk-show-guest, was overplugged as 'that electrifying vivacious bombshell.' You perhaps hadn't been electrified by her on any other show for at least a couple of hours." And another thing, writes Amory: "At other times, we were frquently introduced to 'the No. 1 rock group - but it was a different group every time. Aren't there any No. 2s?"* Of course, any show featuring Cosell is, I'm afraid, going to be subject to hype of one kind or another.
*Nice no-apostrophe usage there.
Further examples of what viewers can expect are, frankly, a little embarrassing. While being interviewed, John Wayne comments about would-be assassins (there'd been a plague of them recently, as we'll see shortly) by saying that we should "bloody them up a bit," maybe tear out their hair, then put 'em on TV and say, "They missed. Think what we would have done to them if they hadn't." The very next week, who should show up but none other than F. Lee Bailey, who talked about his current client, Patty Hearst, and said "Despite everything you've read and seen, I find her to be a very nice young lady." A clearly-exasperated Cleve remarks that "One of the credits for this show reads 'Executive in Charge of Talent.' It's too bad they can't afford one in charge of taste."
It's not all bad - an interview with Joe Frazier's son was good; so was an appearance by Cosell's friend Muhammad Ali, and a stand-up by the always-funny Alan King. Surprisingly, a duet sung by Cosell and Barbara Walters, of all people, also seemed to work. And the Rockettes were "suburb," which leads Amory to conclude that "in television, where's there's live, there's hope." In two months, though, the plug will be pulled on the live-support machine, but even though Saturday nights lost a Cosell, Saturday Night gained a Live.
*Said Ford later, "I saw a hand come through the crowd in the first row, and that was the first active gesture that I saw, but in the hand there was a gun"
Then, on September 22, it was Sara Jane Moore's turn. This one happened in San Francisco, and unlike Fromme, Moore did succeed in getting a shot off. However, like Fromme, her inexperience did her in; she was unaware that the sights were six inches off the point-of-impact at that distance. A former Marine, Oliver Sipple, grabbed her arm and her second shot went awry, wounding a bystander. Had her gun not been faulty, a judge later observed, her attempt likely would have succeeded.
This all leads up to "Assassination: An American Nightmare," an ABC Wide World Special on Monday night at 11:30 p.m., hosted by Peter Lawford (who, as a Kennedy in-law, knew a thing or two about assassinations), with Gov. George Wallace, confined to a wheelchair since surviving an assassination attempt in 1972; former Rep. Allard Lowenstein, who will himself be assasinated by a "mentally ill gunman" in 1980; and Paul Schrade, who was wounded in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. That, my friends, is a remarkable lineup. The show covers, in film, the history of American assassinations beginning with McKinley in 1901 and culminating in the two attempts against Ford.
The following Saturday, November 22, will be the 12th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and another Wide World Special (Friday, 10:30 p.m.) called "JFK - A Time to Remember" looks back at the private side of the late President (although it probably doesn't cover the most private moments), with reminiscences by Sen. Ted Kennedy, Pierre Salinger, Dave Powers, and other Kennedy cronies.
And a final note on this point: on Sunday at 11:00 a.m., KSTP's Henry Wolf interviews the man who would have been president had either Miss Fromme or Miss Moore succeeded in their efforts: Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He would have hated to get it that way, but Rocky would never be that close to the presidency again.
In the mood for an all-star disaster flick? It's one of those things that TV picked up from the movies and does so well, or at least so often - example being Murder on Flight 502, an ABC telemovie Friday night at 8:00. The hook: "A plane ride that turns into an ordeal of suspense when a letter is found stating that someone will be murdered before the jet lands." The cast is a mixture of former A-listers, TV has-beens, and those trying to stay relevant: Ralph Bellamy, Hugh O'Brian, Theodore Bikel, Polly Bergen, Sonny Bono, Walter Pidgeon, Fernando Lamas, George Maharis, Dane Clark, Danny Bonaduce, Robert Stack and Laraine Day. Oh, and Stack's daughter Elizabeth.
There's plenty more star power the rest of the week (or "star" power, if you prefer), beginning Sunday with The Donnie and Marie Osmond Show (6:00 p.m., ABC), with - as the ad puts it - Bob Hope! Paul Lynde! The Osmond Brothers! The Shipstads and Johnson Ice Follies! and Kate Smith! (singing "God Bless America!") Later on, ABC follows up with The Great Gatsby, the lavish Robert Redford-Mia Farrow adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel, which Crist labels "a bomb" in which "the actors seem to have come from Central Miscasting and gone before the cameras without meeting their colleagues." No wonder she says it will leave viewers thinking more about the $6,500,000 budget than with the novel's human tragedies.
*In two months, Donnie and Marie return in this time slot with their weekly series, which runs for three seasons.
Meanwhile, the very funny Don Rickles has a "wild new comedy special" on CBS Wednesday (9:00 p.m.), with Don Adams, Jack Klugman and Michele Lee, and special appearances by James Caan, Michael Caine, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Godfrey, Elliot Gould, Larry Linville, Otto Preminger and Loretta Swit. Well, it is Las Vegas, after all. And Thursday it's McLean Stevenson's turn on NBC (7:00 p.m.), with Raquel Welch as his guest. OK, he only gets one guest star, but with Raquel there wouldn't be room for much more, right? Besides, Tommy Newsom is conducting the orchestra. What more do you want? Personally, I'd answer that question by pointing to what follows McLean on NBC - it's the Bell System Family Theatre with "Ann-Margret Smith," her husband Roger Smith, Sid Caesar, Michel Legrand, and the Bay City Rollers.
Now, if you want real stars, check out CBS's broadcast of That's Entertainment! on Tuesday night, MGM's magnificent tribute to its 50 year history of musicals. It's hosted by Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Gene Helly, and it features ten times that number of stars in 72 of the studio's greatest films. It is, as Crist says, what movies are all about.
When I criticize the dumbing down of the modern TV Guide, which I do from time to time, this is the kind of issue I point to as an example of how the magazine used to be. The News Watch section features a column by former presidential advisor John Roche, who askes the pointed question, "Does the TV generation lack a sense of history?" The answer back in 1975 is yes; God Himself only knows what Roche would think of today's students, who not only lack a sense of history, but sense itself.
And then there's one of the "Background" articles that the old magazine does so well. Michael Meyer, biographer of Swedish playwright Henrik Ibsen, puts into context the writing of Ibsen's great play "Hedda Gabler," which PBS televises on Thursday night with Janet Suzman, Ian McKellen, and (for all you Paul McCartney fans) Jane Asher. Meyer gives us a brief look at Ibsen's life, his personal and professional relationships, and the genesis of some of his most famous works. His article not only familarizes the reader with Ibsen, it adds to the viewing experience for those planning to watch "Gabler," or those who might be encouraged to check in after having read Meyer's piece. TV Guide published articles like this with some degree of frequency back in the day, part of the mission to educate readers and give legitimacy to television's endeavors. Given what many people call the new Golden Age that television has radiated in the last few years, these kinds of Background articles might have provided insight into series from The Young Pope to Mad Men. If, that is, it could for even a few minutes stop acting like a fan magazine.