November 11, 2017

This week in TV Guide: November 15, 1975

This week's feature spotlight is on one of America's greatest murder cases, the 1954 conviction of Cleveland osteopath Dr. Sam Sheppard for the murder of his pregnant wife Marilyn, his 1964 release on appeal, and his 1966 retrial and acquital. The case transfixed the nation, resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision, and catapulted Sheppard's young attorney, F. Lee Bailey, to overnight (and lasting) fame.

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.
They made the right choice. Peppard is outstanding in the role, constantly insisting on his innocence, radiating a certain charisma, yet, as Judith Crist says, he "treads a fine line" in his portrayal of Sheppard, with that necessary ambiguity that means you're never quite comfortable with him. In fact, the movie never definitively proclaims Sheppard's innocence, although it leans strongly in that direction - strong enough to convince me of his innocence. that it convinced me, when I saw it that night. The performances were compelling, and the period detail very affecting - for example, in drawing the contrast between the look of the two courtrooms Sheppard was tried in, it's not just the aesthetics that we notice, but subliminally the differences that they suggest - the dark, wood-paneled courtroom that suggests the traditions and morals and formalities of the time (the prosecution's motive was Sheppard's adultery), the oppressive heaviness of it all, versus the brighter, less ornamented courtroom of 1966 foretelling an era of openness, supposed enlightenment, the '60s bursting into bright color after the drab colorless, hypocritical '50s. A cliche perhaps, but an effective one. For those times when the movie does take liberty with the historical record, it's usually done to emphasize a point rather than distort it; the trial, for example, wasn't quite the zoo that the movie makes it out to be, but it captures the spirit, the essence of it all rather well.

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.

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On weeks when we can, we'll match up two of the biggest rock shows of the '70s, NBC's The Midnight Special and the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and see who's better, who's best.

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.

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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.

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That assassination thing I was talking about: back in September, in the course of seventeen days, President Ford had been the subject of not one but two assassination attempts. The first one, on September 5 in Sacramento, had been perpetrated by Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, a member of the Manson Family (this story just keeps getting weirder, doesn't it?), was no more than an arm's-length away from Ford when she pointed her gun at him and pulled the trigger.*  The attempt failed when the gun jammed; Fromme was dragged away by Secret Service agents, screaming, "It didn't go off. Can you believe it? It didn't go off".

*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.

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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.

Judith Crist doesn't have anything to say about Flight 502 - it was unavailable for preview - but she does note the irony about NBC's rerun of the gritty Sarah T. . .Portrait of a Teen-age Alcoholic, a "serious and alarming" drama starring Linda Blair, being followed by the Miss Teenage America Pageant. (Saturday, 9:00 p.m.) What was it Cleveland Amory said about having an Executive in Charge of Taste? Me, I'm just trying to figure out why "teen-age" is hyphenated in the name of the movie, but not the name of the pageant.

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.

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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.  TV  

7 comments:

  1. That is one thing I will always hold against Trump. He, more than anyone else, destroyed the USFL at the time when it could have survived and prospered. There was a demand for it, especially on TV, with a budding ESPN hungry for content. Had it survived, there likely would never had been a WLAF/NFL Europe, disastrous CFL US expansion, or ridiculous XFL.

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    1. NFL Films did some interviews with him and Trump always has said, "Spring football would always be second rate." To him, baseball belongs in the spring, football belongs in the fall. There is still spring football, just the 8-man indoor kind. The Arena Football League is on life support and other indoor leagues and teams come and go. My local Indoor Football League team is the Nebraska Danger, and I've been to most of their home games the last seven seasons.

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  2. This is what I miss about TV Guide, as I knew it when I was growing up. The great articles, Cleveland Amory's reviews-oh, and those great crossword puzzles, too. Maybe there was no "Executive VP in charge of taste", but those specials sure were something else. Donny & Marie's pilot for their variety show really was the genre's last hurrah, even tho they tried to revive it-sometimes a bit too hard.
    Assassinations are not a nice thing, but they are part of our historical lexicon. Sure would like to find "JFK, A Time to Remember", since I was born just on the cusp of the end of America's Camelot.
    The disaster movie craze was quite the TV rage for a few years. And talk about staying relevant, it might surprise you to know that ABC's Friday movie, Murder on Flight 502, marked the first time Polly Bergen and Ralph Bellamy had worked together on anything since they were panelists on To Tell the Truth back in 1957!
    From a historical standpoint, it all seems quite strange. Within a week, CBS' daytime drama As the World Turns would expand to one hour, The Price Is Right already an hour show, Good Morning America already debuted two weeks ago, The Edge of Night moving to ABC, and in the new year, the daytime Pyramid's top prize would inflate to #20,000. History has turned this page, uh-huh.

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    1. I meant to say that Donny & Marie's SHOW was the variety genre's last hurrah. What with Cosell's show tanking, and the likes of Ed Sullivan and the Hollywood Palace just fond memories. All I can say is thank God we had Star Search and American Idol.

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    2. Who played Dorothy Kilgallen to Peppard's Sheppard? And what WERE the documentaries we couldn't see?

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    3. Paul, I'm going to guess on this one since it's been awhile since I've seen the movie - I do know that Dorothy's character doesn't appear by name in the movie (other than the Sheppard family and F. Lee Bailey, very few real-life characters do; see how his first attorney's was changed), but in looking at IMDb, I see that Sandra de Bruin appears as "Reporter Wilma Thompson," and since that's the only female reporter listed, I'm thinking that might be her.

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    4. Fun With Casting (I):

      One of the more interesting bit of casting was that of Sam Sheppard's father, who was patriarch of a family of osteopaths (I seem to recall that a little was made - not much - of the difference between osteopathy and medical practice).
      It wasn't a large role, but when I saw the movie in its first airing, I recognized the actor: William Dozier, who was still best known as the producer of Batman, not that long before.
      Actually, what I recognized was his voice; you had to be a buff at my level to know that Dozier was also Batman's breathless narrator.
      That was how he wound up here: to do the Batman gig, Dozier had to join the Screen Actors Guild. When he did, Dozier noted that SAG had "the best medical plan in the business"; when he retired from producing, he began a career as a character actor ("bits here and there") to keep the medical plan.
      William Dozier was nothing if not a practical man.

      Fun With Casting (II):

      About a month before NBC ran the Sheppard movie, CBS ran Fear On Trial, a dramatization of John Henry Faulk's court battle against AWARE, Inc., who had indirectly engineered his blacklisting from radio and TV.

      The two films have an actor in common: John Harkins, an oft-seen character actor of that period.

      In Fear on Trial, which aired first, Harkins played Vincent Hartnett, the founder of AWARE, who found himself discredited on the witness stand by attorney Louis Nizer (George C. Scott).

      In Guilty Or Innocent, Harkins played Dr. Samuel Gerber, the Cleveland coroner whose earlier testimony was discredited on the witness stand by F. Lee Bailey (Walter McGinn).

      Coincidence? You decide ...

      By the way, these two TV-movies aired in approximately the same time frame with another John Harkins performance, which ultimately became his best-known:
      On Mary Tyler Moore, Harkins played the minister who presided at the funeral of Chuckles the Clown.
      This is the mark of a great actor, in my view: Harkins's gravitas as he spoke of Aunt Yoo-Hoo, Mister Fe-Fi-Fo, and Senor Kaboom - unforgettable.

      I spent an ungodly amount of time comparing the cast lists of Guilty Or Innocent and Chinatown, and was unable to find a common name anywhere.
      We may be looking here at a "blind item"; changing a detail in a story to "protect the innocent", as it were - but I couldn't say for sure without more evidence, so there too.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!