November 15, 2017

The "It's About TV" Interview: Chuck Harter, author of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series

There are many classic television programs out there - more than we'd like to admit - that, through no fault of their own, have fallen through the cracks, existing more as a memory than as a true celluloid creation. Episodes, if they exist at all, usually amount to no more than a handful of the series' total output, and pictures and descriptions from TV Guide serve to create an almost mythical aura. Meanwhile, people with fond memories of the show are left with very little with which they can explain their pleasure to those who aren't familiar with it.

Unless, of course, the series has a champion.  Mr Novak is such a series, and Chuck Harter is such a champion.

Chuck recently published Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series, the first book to tell the story about the series, which ran on NBC from 1963 to 1965 and starred James Franciscus as the young, idealistic high school teacher John Novak. The book includes comprehensive coverage of the original filming and airdates, an episode guide with vintage reviews and fresh perspectives, a list of all the awards the series won, E. Jack Neuman’s writers guide for the show and more, and it's also lavishly illustrated. It is the complete profile of one of the finest series that ever aired.

In case you want additional reasons to read this book, take the words of some of those involved with Mr. Novak: Director Richard Donner (Superman the Movie, Lethal Weapon), who directed seven episodes of the series, says, “I’m so glad that Chuck Harter is bringing the Mr. Novak experience to a wider audience…read his detailed behind-the-scenes account.” The late Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible, Ed Wood, and a personal favorite of mine), who appeared in two of the best episodes of Mr. Novak, writes in the Forward that “Chuck Harter has produced a superlative book that is both fascinating and informative.” In an Afterward, Walter Koenig (Star Trek), who appeared in three episodes of Mr. Novak and whose role of a Russian exchange student in “The Boy without a Country” led, in part, to his game changing role of Ensign Chekov on Star Trek, writes that, “You don’t have to be an actor…just a student to appreciate the skillful way in which Chuck Harter unfolds the stories behind the cameras.” I'll tell you, it's hard to pass up recommendations like that.

Chuck was kind enough to spare a few minutes for the latest It's About TV Interview, when we had a chance to discuss his relationship to the show, how the book came about, and more about the denizens of Jefferson High School.

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Chuck Harter in front of John Marshall H.S.
(The real Jefferson High)
It's About TV: I'm guessing you weren't alive when the show originally aired, or at least you weren't watching programs like this. So what drew you to Mr. Novak? What had you heard about it?

Chuck Harter: I was just a kid when it originally aired from ’63 to ’65. It was on opposite the very popular Combat! TV series and as my Dad was in the Air Force, and we had one set, the family watched Combat! So I never saw it in the original run. However, star James Franciscus, with his handsome visage, was featured in many of the teen magazines of the day such as 16 and Teen Screen. The girls in my classes would bring them in and drool over Mr. Novak so I was at least aware of the show from their fan’s devotion. As the years went by, I saw a few references to the show in some books on the history of television that were complimentary, yet brief. I never saw any of the reruns on the TNT Network in the late eighties. So I vaguely knew that it was an excellent dramatic TV series about High School life.

So how did you finally catch up with the series and become a fan?

About three years ago, a friend in New York, who sells underground music dvds, sent me a package. Along with a few music discs where 12 dvds marked “Mr. Novak.” I didn’t make the connection and called him to inquire about this unexpected gift. He said that as I liked 60’s music, here was a teacher show from that time period. I thanked him and hesitated to watch any segments as it was probably a dated and uninteresting relic from the past. For several weeks I paid no attention to them but just before I was going to file the discs away, I decided to watch one since my friend had sent them as a gift. I put on “First Year, First Day” which was the pilot. As the show unfolded, I was pleasantly surprised to find it an excellent program that had superior acting, scripting and directing. When the hour ended, I was really impressed by the series and watched a second episode on the disc called “The Risk.” This was a story of an ex-alcoholic teacher who has reformed and wishes to return to an educator position at the fictitious Jefferson High School. It was even better than the earlier segment. The same level of quality in every department and no part of either episode was dated in the least.

That's one of the great things about being a fan of classic television - finding one of these hidden treasures that you didn't know anything about, so you have no real expectations, and then when you do see it, you're blown away. And, and least in your case, at some point, you decide to write a book about it.

As a result of my favorable impression of the show, I wanted to buy a book on the series to learn more about this amazing program and discovered there wasn’t such a book. I searched for a biography on star James Franciscus and found that one didn’t exist. Frustrated by this lack of documentation, I discovered a website run by a teacher who apparently was a first year High School teacher when the show first aired in 1963. He wrote that the show helped him become a better teacher and his website was basically a love letter to the series. I called him and he told me that he knew of many young people who became teachers because of the show. I then decided that I would write the book about this unique television production of such superior quality.

Considering the lack of information on the series, you must have felt like you were something of a trailblazer, plowing new ground, that kind of thing. I don't know what your expectations were, but any surprises as you went through the process?

There were many delightful surprises in the course of putting the book together. I ended up interviewing over 50 people and every single one of them, when approached to talk about Mr. Novak, immediately agreed and had much good to say about the show. I interviewed over 40 actors and as many hadn’t seen their episode(s) in fifty years, or had never seen them, they asked me to send DVD copies for their reference. I did so, and everyone was absolutely amazed at what a great program it was and how the story elements, production, acting and direction had not dated at all. The many progressive themes of the show were still valid in the modern world of education.

I was astonished to learn that the show won 47 awards during its two year run with the majority of them coming from educational institutions including the National Education Association. Mr. Novak even won a prestigious Peabody Award for excellence. In a medium of much mediocrity both then and now, this series was a rare example of true excellence that encapsulated the finest qualities of television programming.

How long did it take you to research and write the book?

It was close to a three-year journey between research and writing. There were some gaps in that timeline, of course, but the work was pretty steady throughout.

Was there anybody you talked to who was particularly helpful?

I would say that Marian Collier, who was a regular on the series as Miss Marilyn Scott, the Home Ec teacher, was one person who really went the extra mile. It turned out that five years after the show ended, she married the late E. Jack Neuman, who was the series Creator/Producer. She gave me complete access to Jack’s archives which yielded much interesting and useful material. Several collectors opened their own archives to me based on their love and respect for the show which also helped considerably. I ended up hearing from several former students of John Marshall High School. This Los Angeles based institution was used for the filming of the pilot and exteriors were used throughout the series’ run. They all were very positive and recalled the days of Mr. Novak with much affection. One student in particular, Laure Georges (Gonzalez), was beautifully enthusiastic in her memories of those happy days and as a result, I ended up partially dedicating the book to her. Nearly everyone who participated was helpful in one way or another.

We're in the early '60s when Mr. Novak begins, and we're also in the thick of the space race with the Soviet Union, when there's a renewed emphasis on the importance of education. Did this play any role in the thinking of Jack Neuman and Boris Sagal, the co-creators, when they came up with the idea?

I don’t think the times’ emphasis on education played much of a part in their creation. At some point Sagal suggested to Neuman that a series based on high school life might be a possible project. Neuman initially rejected the idea as he didn’t feel there could be many valid storylines. Sometime later, he visited a high school and spoke to some of the Administrators. After hearing from them, Neuman realized that the real life triumphs and tragedies of both students and teachers had not been explored in previous television programs about schools. They had been sitcoms and while entertaining, didn’t reflect the realities of school life. He  developed the central character of a young teacher who is committed to making a difference in the education of his students. Neuman and Sagal proceeded with their concept and the series became a reality.

You have to admit that in a television world populated by policemen, private detectives, and cowboys (with the occasional social worker thrown in), a show about teachers might be thought of as a hard sell. Did NBC have any qualms about the concept, maybe concerns about the kind of subject matter that might be brought up, or that it might be kind of a downer, a la East Side/West Side?

E. Jack Neuman’s reputation as a writer and Producer of integrity and creativity was well known at NBC. He had written many scripts for various productions and was instrumental in the creation of the extremely popular Dr. Kildare series. The MGM studio, which ultimately filmed the Mr. Novak program, was also the home of the Kildare show. In initial meetings with the executives at MGM, there were some suggestions that Neuman’s new series would continue in the comic vein similar to the previous sitcoms. Neuman didn’t commit to a format and visited some additional schools to gain additional story concepts. When he was ready to proceed, the MGM studio green lighted his project with complete faith in his abilities based on his sterling reputation. In fact, during the first season, a rough agreement was established with the executives who ultimately didn’t interfere with the production. This was rare in an era when studio brass exerted a strong guiding hand in the production of their properties. After the pilot was finished and exhibited, it was only a matter of weeks until NBC bought the new series.

Before Mr. Novak, there was a movie from 1955 called Blackboard Jungle that showed a really rough side of inner-city schools, maybe for the first time to a lot of people. I don't see that kind of tension in Mr. Novak, at least in the episodes I've seen . I know that there is an episode later in the series that tackles the issue of integration, but was this a conscious effort to present a different kind of school from Blackboard Jungle?

Blackboard Jungle was an intense film set in an inner city school. The fictitious Jefferson High School of Mr. Novak was set in a middle class community so there really wasn’t a comparison. That being said, the Novak series provided cutting edge and provocative storylines that concerned cheating, racial prejudice, anti Semitism, unwed teenage mothers, alcoholism, dropouts, drugs, teacher’s inadequate salaries and extremism. The show, while presenting these vibrant themes, was always entertaining as well as informative.

The stars of Mr. Novak: Dean Jaggger (L)
and James Franciscus
Aside from the great writing, the show has to be remembered for the two leads - James Franciscus and Dean Jagger. Franciscus had most recently come from a very tough police show, Naked City, and the movie Marjorie Morningstar. How did he come to the role of John Novak?

James Franciscus had a youthful following from his role on Naked City as well as the many guest shots he had done. The actor had been the first choice to play Dr. Kildare when that series was in development, but was contractually bound to a pilot. His option would have cleared in a matter of days but the producers had to proceed with the Kildare series and cast Richard Chamberlain in the lead. Neuman would have known of Franciscus’ reputation as a dedicated actor of professionalism and integrity. Franciscus liked the approach of the program and agreed to be cast as the lead.

Dean Jagger was coming off of a very successful movie career, winning an Oscar for Twelve O'clock High and stealing the show (in my opinion) in White Christmas. What brought him to Jefferson High?

Dean Jagger was Neuman’s first choice to portray Principal Vane. The actor had not performed in many television shows but was intrigued by the concept of both the series and his character. He agreed to participate in the new series and became a major asset to the production.

One of the other major leads in the beginning was Jeanne Bal as the Assistant Principal. As I recall, there was an article in TV Guide about how her role was eliminated because of, let's say, the way she filled out her sweater and the effect that might have in a high school. Any truth to that?

Jeanne Bal, who played Assistant Principal Jean Pagano, became a major factor in the series’ success during its first season. She was a very attractive lady and there were a few comments from critics about her being too pretty. The majority of the critics however, lauded her performances and she became a big part of the success of the show. Early, in the first season, Dean Jagger suffered an attack of ulcers and had to leave the production for some weeks. Bal was given his lines and situations to great effect. Upon Jagger’s return, she was given more to do and even had a few episodes built around her character. She was to receive third star billing behind Franciscus and Jagger in the upcoming second season. During the summer of 1964 between the first and second seasons, a new Producer named Leonard Freeman was hired. He had his own ideas of the concept of the show and wanted to reduce the number of episodes that Bal would appear in. Bal disputed the change and ultimately left the series. This was a major blow to the program as she had been a real favorite with both the production and the viewing audience.

How was Mr. Novak regarded by real-life teachers and the education community?

The series was almost universally praised by the educational community. The National Education Association assigned script advisors to keep the stories as accurate as possible. Many educational associations awarded the show and the series was hailed as a landmark in the positive depiction of educators. Many young people, who had watched the show, decided to become teachers such was its positive influence. The series laid the ground work for such future programs about schools such as Room 222 and The Paper Chase.

Mr. Novak runs only two seasons - 60 episodes - and yet, despite the fact that it doesn't seem to have had an extensive run in syndication, and that even many classic TV fans aren't aware of it, there is still a core group of people who do remember it and think about it warmly. Why is that, do you think?

The people who saw the show during its initial run and were impressed by its superior qualities do retain the memories. The series really impacted its viewing audience in the middle sixties and it was such a new and realistic depiction of high school life that it was not forgotten. The reasons for this have been stated in this interview. It is interesting to note that during the work on the book, many people watched the show for the first time and were all impressed by its qualities. When the DVD set is released next year, and people either reacquaint themselves with a remembered part of their youth or discover it for the first time, I feel strongly that the result will be a very favorable opinion of this program.

If Mr. Novak were to be revived today, John Novak might well find that things had changed quite a bit from the Jefferson High of the early '60s. How do you think the issues he dealt with would be different, if in fact they would be different? 

There would be, of course, changes since it has been fifty years since the program aired. One interesting example occurred in an episode from 1965 called “Enter a Strange Animal” in which Martin Landau guest starred as an aggressive salesman of a new device called a teaching machine. It was a primitive computer.  He states that the computer can do the work faster and more accurately than the human educator. Another teacher argues the point that human interaction between the educators and students is paramount to success in learning. In today’s high schools, how much of the teaching is done by computers? There would, of course, be changes due to the shift in society and attitudes in the ensuing decades, but the real themes of the majority of the Novak episodes remain relevant to the modern day. This is why this series is indeed a genuine classic in the history of dramatic television programming. As said before, virtually everyone I contacted while doing the book remarked at how well the episodes held up and that they were not dated at all.

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Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter is published by BearManor Media. It is available in hardcover, paperback and Ebook editions from and at the Bear Manor Media website. The book’s website is here, and I'd encourage you to check that out for more information.

Thanks again to Chuck for his generosity, and stay tuned - we'll have a review of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series in this space on Friday!  TV  

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