December 3, 2022

This week in TV Guide: December 8, 1962

You remember those programs Fred Friendly used to do on PBS, where he'd ask a panel of distinguished experts from a variety of fields how they'd react to various situations. The ensuing discussion and debate made for fascinating television, as people wrestled with ethical questions that didn't have any easy answers. As Friendly himself often said, "These programs are 'evergreens.' The issues they explore don’t fade away."

My attention this week is drawn to a question that I think Fred Friendly would have found fascinating. It's the basis of an episode of The Dick Powell Show called "The Court-Martial of Captain Wycliff" (Tuesday, 8:30 p.m., NBC) with a big-name cast including Powell, Dina Merrill, Ed Begley, Robert Webber, Edward Andrews, James MacArthur, and Alexander Scourby. 

As the Close-Up says, "murder is really not the issue of the trial. Rather, it is the meaning of the law which is at stake: Can a criminal act—even if politically justifiable—be condoned by our society?" That, I think, is what Friendly would call an "evergreen" situation, an ends-and-means question, elevated to the highest levels of national security. Wycliff believes that the United States is in a "state of war" with the Communists; does this mean that if Closter is about to defect to an enemy country (East Germany, in this case, which really means the Soviet Union), assassinating him is a kind of national self-defense? Is it morally comparable to assassinating Hitler?  

The episode also raises a potentially provocative point during the testimony of General Johanson (Robert Keith), Wycliff's former commanding officer. During the war, Wycliff was trained as an assassin, part of an elite unit sent behind enemy lines to take out specifically designated targets (Germans, I assumed). Johanson describes Wycliff as a sensitive young man with strong beliefs—essentially, the general seems to be saying, the Army took hm and trained him to be a killer, and a very good one. He testifies to this with a suggestion of regret, a question as to the morality of the actions he authorized, and so we wonder: once you've been trained—brainwashed?—in such a way, can you just turn this kind of thing off in peacetime? Should Wycliff be proven guilty, is he even responsible for his actions? Wycliff obviously wouldn't think he'd done anything legally wrong; could his council (Ed Begley) use an insanity defense, claiming that his client's ability to distinguish right from wrong had been altered, perhaps irrecoverably, by his Army training and through no fault of his own?

That in turn leads to all kinds of other potential questions for everyday life. Is there such a thing as preemptive homicide? If you see a man about to kill someone, can you kill him first? What if he merely threatens to kill someone—and does it change things if he's known as someone who does what he says, as opposed to one who's all bluff and bluster? Can someone kill an abortionist to prevent him from performing abortions? Can you kill someone who's guilty of a crime if the state knows, but can't prove, his guilt? You can see how Friendly could easily fill an hour with these questions. Not only are there no easy answers, there's no guarantee that the answer in one situation will be the same as the answer in another. 

Unfortunately, Harry Julian Fink's script fails to deliver on many of these questions; having broached the subject of Wycliff's state of mind with Johanson's testimony, he does nothing to follow up with it. Instead, he offers a carnival sideshow digression, introducing prosecutor Clayborn's (Powell) married sister (Dina Merrill), Wycliff's former lover, who claims that she was in a hotel room with Wycliff at the time of the murder, forcing Clayborn to savage her testimony (and her character) on the stand. (How the defense didn't object to this as a conflict of interest, claiming that Clayborn's attempt to impeach his sister's testimony might have been personally motivated, is anyone's guess.) The story needed to be told on Judd, for the Defense, the kind of show that wasn't afraid of tackling big ideas like this head-on

It's true, as Clayborn says in what amounts to a closing summation rather than a question, that the United States has to stand for something in the eyes of the world and of its own citizens. The rule of law, the rights of the individual, the morality of vigilante justice—but what if the United States itself is responsible for deliberately creating the killer? Regardless of the verdict, regardless of what you think of it, you may well be unsatisfied by the result. (You can see it for yourself here.) Even so, the questions still remain. 

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There's another program that deserves special attention this week, one that captures the very essence of the conflict providing the atmosphere for "The Court-Martial of Captain Wycliff," and does it more successfully.

The construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961 not only divided a city, it also divided families, friends, and loved ones. When the original barricade went up overnight, it trapped many West Berlin residents on the wrong side, with no way to return to their homes. For one group of courageous students in the West, their answer was to build a tunnel under the Wall. The going was slow, however, and they battled with shifting ground and the constant risk of cave-ins. 

At the same time, NBC News in Berlin was looking for a way to tell the story of the struggles in the divided city in such a way that it would bring home the drama of desperate people willing to risk their lives for freedom. When they found out about the students constructing the tunnel, they had their answer. The network agreed to finance the entire cost of the tunnel's construction—50,000 Deutschmarks—in return for the exclusive film rights to the story. And so was born The Tunnel (Monday, 7:30 p.m., NBC). the story of that dig, and the subsequent escape of more than two dozen men, women and children from East to West Berlin. 

The project was shrouded in secrecy. As NBC's website says in a story about The Tunnel, "Outside of a small production team in Berlin, only the president of NBC News and his assistant knew the details. Corporate lawyers were kept in the dark, the project was never mentioned over the phone and funds were dispersed 'outside the NBC channels,'" providing "tools, food and even an underground rest area for the group of over 40 tunnelers" who worked day and night.

It's an incredible story, as dramatic a demonstration of man's desire for freedom from authoritarianism as any. And best of all, it's not a movie, but the actual event. And yet, it raises questions. In financing the construction of the tunnel, did NBC create the story, or did it merely facilitate it? One could argue that escapes were going to happen anyway, and that the involvement of the network was nothing more than a humanitarian act, a way to tell the world what was going on. On the other hand, would there have been a tunnel, or at least this tunnel, had it not been for NBC? Perhaps more important, does a private company have the right to interfere in foreign affairs? Would it have been different if, say, NBC had bankrolled at attempt to sabotage a Soviet missile facility in order to prevent nuclear war? And by getting involved in the first place, did the network undermine the East German state's authority, thereby taking sides in the Cold War?

The Kennedy administration certainly had questions, worrying that NBC would make tensions between the U.S. and the Soviets even worse. (In fact, The Tunnel had originally been scheduled to air on October 31 but pulled it due to the Cuban Missile Crisis.) Robert F. Kennedy told the network "That was a terrible thing you people did, buying that tunnel." As it happened, the tunnel would collapse from flooding eleven days after 26 people used it to escape. Only then did the East Germans become aware of it.  

Regardless of these questions, The Tunnel is a remarkable documentary, one that tells the story with a drama that could never have been accomplished by a straight news report. It will go on to win three Emmys, including Best Program of the Year, the only documentary to do so. You can see it all here, and you can watch Executive Producer Reuven Frank discuss it here

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In the past, you've probably seen me use graphics like the one at the left to document the rising number of holiday specials as we approach Christmas. But this is 1962, and even though there'll only be eleven days until the Big Day by the time we come to the end of the issue, there's nary a Yule special to be seen. Part of this is that Rudolph, Charlie Brown, the Grinch and the like have yet to debut; Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, the first made-for-TV Christmas cartoon, will premiere next Tuesday. It's probably too soon for variety specials, and most weekly series save their holiday-themed episodes for closer to the day.

It's not that people aren't thinking about the season; we see the odd wreath and Santa in various advertisements. But I think today the consumerism—the pressure to buy, buy, buy—starts much earlier. Many years, Rudolph airs in November, prime time to move that merchandise, and often it seems that by the time we get to the last week before Christmas, there's nothing left to show. Commercialism was nothing new; it had already reared its ugly head and been satirized for it in Miracle on 34th Street, but nowadays there are almost as many commercials for extravagant items like cars—things you'd buy for yourself—as there are for other kinds of gifts. Well, about all you can do is ignore it. 

There are a couple of shows worth checking out, though, chief among them the annual holiday presentation of The Wizard of Oz*, once again hosted by Dick Van Dyke and his children (Sunday, 5:00 p.m., CBS). Although the movie itself has nothing to do with Christmas (or any other holiday), it was shown at this time for several years when it first landed on TV. It's billed as a "holiday delight," an event that the whole family can get together and watch. Remember that slightly bitter TV Guide review from Thanksgiving, when CBS was showing (and I wasn't watching) Charlotte's Web? That's what I mean. There's nothing seasonal about it, just that it's a family movie for a family time of the year, and that's what I see here as well. Of course, I have to ask myself if any family still gets together to watch anything on Christmas, or at any other time of the year, or if they're all doing their own thing. Of course they still get together! I'm just a lawn-preserving cynic. 

*I have to think, though, that the land of Oz loses some of its magic by being shown in black-and-white. It wouldn't have happened if it was on NBC.

For good measure, there is one Christmas-themed episode this week, Going My Way (Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., ABC), but it makes sense that it would be shown this early; it's about an ex-con working as a department store Santa thanks to Fr. Fitzgibbon (Leo G. Carroll) who actually uses the job to case the joint for a robbery. Yeah, that works. 

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Speaking of Mr. Van D., there's a very nice article about him by Richard Gehman. Van Dyke is, by all accounts, a very nice man, and a pleasure to work with according to his three co-stars: Mary Tyler Moore ("He's the most wonderful, beautiful, kind, generous person I've ever met."), Rose Marie, ("He is a heart comic, not a head one."), and Morey Amsterdam ("Everything he tries, he does great. I've never worked with a happier group of people in 40 years in show business, and it's Dick's fault.") His fans include Carl Reiner, the show's creator, and Dick's idol, Stan Laurel. And what does Dick Van Dyke have to say about all this? "I do a lot of things just passably. I hate that. I smoke too much and I drink too much. Also, I'm lazy."

The Van Dyke success story is built on equal parts failure and persistence. Less than 15 years ago he was working an act with friend Phil Erickson and struggling to pay the rent. ("You couldn't really call it a smart act," he says.) For awhile they settled down with their families in Atlanta, where Van Dyke did a local variety show on TV. He moved to New Orleans for a better opportunity, and that went well. Finally, he got the big call from CBS to come to New York, but instead of his comedy breakthrough, the network made him host of The Morning Show, opposite Dave Garroway's Today. Needless to say, it didn't work out. (It didn't for Jack Paar when he hosted the show, either.) Van Dyke resolutely refused to consider himself a reject. "I'm really lazy. I just enjoyed myself. And I did a little work. We made a pilot, a variety show. It was pretty good, I thought—but nobody else did. 

Finally, he got his release from CBS and headed for Broadway, where a good performance in a bad play landed him a starring role in Bye Bye Birdie, and the big-time success that had eluded him. CBS called him back, and he wound up as the star of his own half-hour sitcom. After struggling in the ratings the first season, it's now comfortably in the top 10, considered one of the smartest shows on TV. But for all of that, Dick Van Dyke still seems sanguine about things; Gehman notes that "he gives the impression that entertaining is only a small part of his life." He might not go down as one of the great comedians of his time, Gehman concludes (although I think it's fair to say he does), "but his ultimate accomplishment of remaining a decent, integrated, thoroughly engaging human being may turn out to be far more meaningful."

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Thank goodness for Dick Van Dyke, because we've been dealing with some heavy subjects this week. Not everything that's on is like that, though. I particularly like The Flintstones (Friday, 8:00 p.m., ABC), a sly Hitchcockian spoof called "Dial 'S' for Suspicion," which finds Fred worried about Wilma. "After she advises him to buy life insurance, he finds her reading a book about a wife who murdered her husband." It doesn't say this is the last show of the series, though, so I don't think we have anything to worry about. 

And how about Columbo as a killer? Before taking on the role of the redoubtable lieutenant, Peter Falk played many a heavy, and he's at it again Thursday night on The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (9:00 p.m., CBS) as an evangelist who murdered an old woman ("[gave] the hand of Providence an assist") in order to get her mansion and turn it into a gospel temple. Now, though, he finds out the place was willed to the old lady's niece (Dina Merrill), and he has to find a way to persuade her to give the mansion to him.

Roy Rogers and Dale Evans are the subject of Muriel Davidson's article about the difficult competition their Saturday night show faces, up against Jackie Gleason and Sam Benedict. No need to worry, though; the's show's been cancelled effective December 22. Elsewhere, the new, one-hour version of The Twilight Zone premieres January 3, taking the place of The Nurses, which is moving to a new time slot. The New Loretta Young Show looks to be a goner, as are It's a Man's World and Saints and Sinners. They'll be replaced by the new NBC Monday Night at the Movies. Ah, well.

The Men Who Run TV: they're the network presidents and their associates, and this week the subject is Leonard Goldenson of ABC, who's fighting to keep the network a viable advertising option. Maybe I'll write about this at more length sometime. The money quote: Goldenson's miracle, "to raise up a third network—with more than 70 hours of programming, coverage of more than 90 percent of all TV homes, better than a third of the prime-time viewers' hours, over 100 advertisers and about 25 percent of all sponsors' network outlays—and, at the same time, to help send the quality of TV programs on all networks downward."

And this week's MST3K alert: Beginning of the End (Saturday, part two of a double feature beginning at 10:30 p.m., WFAA). "A girl reporter comes upon a town which has been mysteriously destroyed." Peggie Castle, Peter Graves, Morris Ankrum. Or, as IMDb describes it, "Swarms of giant grasshoppers are headed straight for Chicago." One can only hope.   

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For years, I've been making the point that TV Guide should be looked at as an original document allowing us to investigate and understand our times—not just pop culture, but history as it happened. I hope this issue has proved my point. "The Court-Martial of Captain Wycliff" plunges us into Cold War confrontation at an emotional level that we can understand, raising questions that are magnified by the lens of international politics. The Tunnel gives a human face to those political confrontations, demonstrating the lengths to which people will go for their freedom. And that's not all: David Brinkley's Journal, a program that follows The Tunnel, interviews crew members of the "Enola Gay," the American bomber that dropped the first atomic bomb in 1945, to show us just how high those stakes can go. When you recall that The Tunnel was bumped from its initial airing due to the Cuban Missile Crisis, I'd say that with this one issue, you can get a pretty handy guide to what was going on in 1962, not retrospectively, but contemporaneously. The only difference is that we're reading about it after the fact; they lived through it. TV      


  1. What, no mention of the pinnacle of Van Dyke's early TV career: Hosting thirteen episodes of CBS Cartoon Theater featuring the network's newly acquired Terrytoons library.

    1. D'oh--I knew about that, I've seen clips of it, and I forgot to mention it. Mea culpa.

  2. My memory may be playing tricks, but it seems The Wizard of Oz was televised in the late Spring when I was a young. Of course, nothing "holiday" about tornadoes.

    1. You're right, Kurt, at least that it didn't remain a Christmas special. In 1964 it was aired in late January or early February, which means it wouldn't have been on during Christmas '63. Based on your memories, I suspect it kept moving later and later into Spring.

  3. "The Tunnel" won numerous awards and supposedly still holds the record for the largest audience ever to watch a television documentary.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!