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Playhouse 90

Rod Taylor appeared in five productions of "Playhouse 90," which is widely regarded as the most ambitious of TV's dramatic anthology series.

"Playhouse 90" presented a 90-minute live drama each week, and is considered the epitome of the "Golden Age" of TV. "Playhouse 90" drew top talent and was a launching pad for young performers and directors.

According to an AVClub.com retrospective, "Each show had an unprecedented 16 days of prep time (12 in a rehearsal hall, then four in front of the cameras). The luxury of rehearsal meant that directors could choreograph tremendously complex movements for the cameras and the actors -- and that complexity meant that things could go spectacularly wrong."

I've seen three of the five episodes that featured Rod Taylor, thanks to the Museum of Television and Radio in New York City (now called the Paley Center for Media). The shows are indeed quality productions -- employing first-rate acting, writing and directing talent, and challenging viewers with complex themes.

Taylor has a pivotal role in each production of the three shows I saw: "The Great Gatsby," "The Long March" and "The Raider." He plays the man of good character who must wrestle with troubling circumstances and serve as the audience's guide to sorting out right and wrong.

Following are his five "Playhouse 90" appearances, in chronological order:

 

Rod as Nick Caraway
in The Great Gatsby.

LINKS

IMDb - Verdict of Three

IMDb - The Great Gatsby

IMDb - The Long March

IMDb - The Raider

IMDb - Misalliance

 

 

   

VERDICT OF THREE
Episode 2.32 (April 24, 1958)

Rod Taylor played Francis Allen, one of three jurors referenced in the title of the episode, which was directed by the highly respected Buzz Kulik.

A United Press International review described the production:

It was one of those very English things about a mother accused of murdering her little boy so she could get her mitts on his inheritance.

The concern of "Verdict of Three" was not only the trial of the mother, but also the personal entanglements of three members of the jury. Through flashbacks, the drama showed how each of the trio related portions of the courtroom testimony to his own life and ultimately, to a decision to find the mother guilty.

A weird little trio they were, too. One had bumped off her aunt for money, another had seen her husband beaten to death by hoodlums and had her marbles juggled by the event, the third was a 28-year-old boy who sponged off his mother.

To a great extent, it was just too much for a 90-minute show to chew. The development of the characters of the jurors was, of necessity, kind of skimpy and the relationship between the mother and her attorney was a little hazy.

Yvonne De Carlo as the mother turned in a pretty crisp job and so did Carmen Mathews, Angela Lansbury and Rod Taylor as the jurors. Michael Wilding played the defense attorney. Cecil Kellaway, an old pro, walked away with acting honors for the evening in a bit role.

Los Angeles Times reviewer Cecil Smith praised the performances of the three jurors in an April 28, 1958, column:

"Playhouse 90" offered an English courtroom drama, "Verdict of Three," that was chiefly interesting because of a series of marvelous performances. The play ... used the clever device of tangling the lives of three jurors in the story -- showing how twists in their lives rather than evidence presented directed their verdicts.

It was rather a slap at the jury system -- particularly when these three cause the other jurors to agree with them -- but it did offer a series of extraordinary portraits created by Angela Lansbury, Carmen Mathews and Rod Taylor as the jurors and Cecil Kellaway in a brilliant bit as a doddering doctor witness.

 

 

VIEWER'S GUIDE

The Paley Center for Media: The museum, which has locations in New York City and Los Angeles, has four of Rod Taylor's "Playhouse 90" performances available for viewing:
"The Great Gatsby"
"The Long March"
"The Raider"
"Misalliance"

UCLA's Film and Television Archive: The university has two episodes available for viewing at its campus.
"Verdict of Three"
"Misalliance"

   

Rod Taylor, Robert Ryan and Jeanne Crain.

THE GREAT GATSBY
Episode 2.40 (June 26, 1958)

Rod Taylor played Nick Carraway in this adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel by screenwriter David Shaw.

Nick Carraway is the innocent bystander who gets drawn into the complicated scandals of his wealthy neighbors for the summer: his cousin, Daisy Buchanan (Jeanne Crain) and the mysterious Jay Gatsby (Robert Ryan). Virginia Grey plays Myrtle Wilson, and Patricia Barry is Jordan Baker.

Of the three "Playhouse 90" episodes I've viewed, this is the one that feels most like a theater production. It was a live show, and there's a visceral quality to the acting. In many scenes, you can see the perspiration pouring off the actors.

Despite the live-theater feeling, the show features bold direction by Franklin Schaffner and daring camera angles. Robert Ryan seemed awkward and miscast as Gatsby, but Rod made a fine Nick Carraway. (Much like another favorite actor, Sam Waterston, who filled that role in the 1974 movie with Robert Redford.)

A reviewer for the Des Moines Register, Ogden Dwight, had an astute observation about the difficulty of adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald novels for the screen. "Their nostalgic magic is created by and from written words, their order and choice, and not from any plot on which they are arranged. In a very real way, Fitzgerald defies translation."

Dwight praised the screenwriter, director, cast, sets and costumes, but he felt all their work "availed naught" in the face of Fitzgerald's complex work. Nevertheless, he did single out Rod Taylor as "the outstanding performance of the entire cast."
 

 

 

With Jeanne Crain in Gatsby.

Rod in The Great Gatsby.

 

   

Jack Carson and Mona Freeman.

THE LONG MARCH
Episode 3.4 (Oct. 16, 1958)

Rod Taylor played Lt. Warren Culver, a Marine Corps reservist called back to training for duty in Korea. Taylor gives a strong, smooth performance in this production, which was directed by Delbert Mann. Roger O. Hirson adapted the screenplay from a novel by William Styron.

Rod's Lt. Culver is established as a practical sort of guy. On the personal side of his life, his girlfriend, Betty (Mona Freeman), wants to get married, but he refuses, saying that he's been "in a war, out of a war, into a job and out of a job, and back into another war." That's not the type of foundation upon which he wants to start a marriage.

As a Marine, Culver is the capable assistant to his good friend, Capt. Al Mannix (Jack Carson), a fellow reservist. Mannix's commander -- and nemesis -- is Col. Rocky Templeton (Sterling Hayden), who has ordered the Marine trainees on a rigorous battle exercise that's to be followed by a 36-mile march back to the base. Hayden's Marine Col. Templeton runs things strictly by the book, and his iron discipline gives rise to conflicts between himself and the reservists.

For Mannix, a burly man softened by his civilian desk job, the long march ordered by Templeton becomes a personal crusade. At the breaking point, Mannix ultimately defies a sensible order by Templeton, and his defiant action leads to a loyal Marine being mortally injured.

In the inquiry that follows, Rod's Lt. Culver is placed in the uncomfortable position of having to support the facts of the case while realizing that the facts hurt his friend. His emotional struggle continues as he must deliver the bad news to the dying Marine's new bride, played by Shirley Knight. In a final, clarifying scene with Betty, Culver tries to sort out the meaning of what happened, then grabs hold of one sure thing -- love (and marriage).

An Associated Press reviewer noted: "Rod Taylor gave an outstanding performance as a lieutenant who understood both soldiering and humanitarianism."

In a lengthy interview at the The Classic TV History Blog, Shirley Knight recalls working with Rod Taylor in this episode:

We had a problem on that.  Jack Carson had been taking some sort of pills – I think someone said later they were diet pills – and when we actually were doing the show live, because he just wasn’t quite all there, he cut half of a scene. Which meant that some information wasn’t in, and also meant that we were going to be running three or four minutes short.

There was a scene later in the show where Rod Taylor came to tell me that my husband died, and so, very quickly, the writer and director gave Rod Taylor something to say that was some information that needed to be in the story. And also, the director said to us, "You really need to improvise until we cut you off."

So after he had said this information, and after he told me my husband died, Rod Taylor and I improvised. I was crying, and went on and on with my sadness, basically. It was terrifying, but in a way it was very exciting to mean that you were improvising "Playhouse 90" in front of a lot of people out there, and hoping that you did well. Afterward everyone was so impressed and kind about what the two of us had done. So we felt like we did well.

Jack Carson struggled with his lines throughout the episode, as noted in a book about Playhouse 90's renowned producer, "The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television," by Jon Krampner. In the first scene, Sterling Hayden poses a question during a classroom session, and Carson's first line was supposed to be, "Sir, I'm not a student of tank tactics." Screenwriter Roger Hirson admitted, "Well that was a mistake. Because once he said, 'tank-tank-tac-ta,' we were off to the races."

This episode was technologically interesting because it combined live production as well as the first on-location taping ever done for a network TV drama. This came about in an effort to get realism into the scenes depicting the long march. The cast and crew were taken into the Santa Monica Mountains for the taping. "We were up on Mulholland Drive, worrying about whether there were rattlesnakes," Adri Butler, the show's script supervisor, recalled in the Fred Coe book.

 

 

An ad for "The Long March" featuring Jack Carson.

 

   

THE RAIDER
Episode 3.20 (Feb. 19, 1959)

Rod Taylor played Bob Castillo, a member of the board of directors of the Harman Corp., a company that's the target of a corporate raider.

He's one of the players in a high-stakes game between the raider, David Ringler (Paul Douglas) and the chairman of the board, Arthur Hennicut (Frank Lovejoy). But Castillo is different from the other businessmen on the board: He's also a brilliant engineer from the research and development department. As the power struggle mounts, Castillo is pressured to rush an experimental engine through to production -- a desperate move by Hennicut to shore up the board's stockholder support.

Although it deals with corporate intrigue rather than military action, the themes in "The Raider" are similar to "The Long March" -- loyalty, hard work and men driven by circumstances past the point of being able to tell who's right and who's wrong.

Taylor, as Castillo, helps the audience try to sort it all out. Castillo grows in stature and awareness from the opening scene -- where he's considered something of a yes-man -- to a climactic scene in Act 2 in which a virile, angry (and open-shirted) Castillo challenges Hennicut over compromising the integrity of the company and its employees.

The show concludes with the stockholders' vote unresolved, but rather than being unsatisfying, the ending produces a jolt, leaving the viewer with abundant material for discussion and deep appreciation of the magnificent performances and well-crafted characters.

This episode was an original teleplay written by Loring Mandel. Like "The Great Gatsby," it was directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, whose later film credits include "Papillon," "Planet of the Apes" and an Academy Award for "Patton."

The show also marks the television debut of cinema pioneer, actor, director and Oscar winner Donald Crisp at age 78. His comments to  Associated Press columnist Bob Thomas illustrate the challenges that actors faced on the show:

Being new to the medium, I guessed it would be like doing films. So I took my script and went home and memorized the whole thing. ... When I got to the first rehearsals, they told me to forget the first script -- everything had been changed! Now I've been getting new pages of dialogue every day, so I don't know whether I'm coming or going.

 

 
         
   

Claire Bloom, Robert Morley and Rod in "Misalliance."

MISALLIANCE
Episode 4.3 (Oct. 29, 1959)

Rod Taylor played aviator Joey Percival in a star-studded cast that included Claire Bloom, Robert Morley, Siobhan McKenna and Patrick Macnee. There was powerhouse talent behind the camera, too, with John Houseman producing and Robert Stevens directing. Costumes were by Oscar winner Dorothy Jeakins.

"Misalliance" is a play by George Bernard Shaw's play that was adapted for "Playhouse 90" by Meade Roberts. Shaw's play posed many challenged in its adaptation for TV. One was the play's sheer length. Another was its fast-paced, overlapping dialogue. Some scenes have as many as nine people talking at once.

"The playing time on the stage is over three hours," producer John Houseman explained in a Washington Post interview Oct. 29, 1959. "We have to put it into six acts that will run 68 or 69 television minutes. However, 'Misalliance' is more suited to TV than any of Shaw's plays. We cut out most of the first act -- which is mostly argumentative -- and sort of played it straight from there. We compressed the first 45 pages into about four minutes."

A UPI reviewer gushed about the result:

It was time for a talk-talk-talk show on Playhouse 90 Thursday night.

And rousing good talk it was, too.

George Bernard Shaw's high-speed, high-penetrating comic romp, "Misalliance," was run off in a delicious style on CBS-TV by a clever cast ...

Robert Stevens' direction provided a stimulating pace. He clicked it off as quickly as a Sgt. Bilko show — highest praise for this sort of show when done on TV. At times the speed threw Morely for a loss, but nevertheless, his verbal blurrings were minor compared to the spirit he displayed for his part. Close-ups were superb and the camera's movement heightened the airy atmosphere.

Houseman explained that "Shaw's play represents the epitome of high comedy -- something that is rarely done on television. ... This is a comic romp in which the playwright also examines the morals, the mores of the characters. ... I think Shaw would have liked having this comedy on television. He would have liked being able to scold so many people at one time."

One reviewer noted that "the plot defies quick synopsis and actually isn't important. It's the characters and the performance by the cast that makes Shaw so stimulating."

But let's tackle a bit of plot: During the play, adventure literally drops into the lives of an upper-crust family at an English country estate when two parachutists plunge into the greenhouse. Rod played the pilot, Joey Percival, and Irish actress Siobhan McKenna played his passenger, a Polish acrobat named Lina Szczepanowska. These two become the focus of the romantic intrigue that follows.

It was the first west-coast TV appearance for McKenna, as well as for castmates Robert Morley (who had the principal role of John Tartleton) and Claire Bloom (who played his daughter, Hypatia). Patrick Macnee played Johnny Tarleton, Hypatia's brother.

The play wraps up with Tartleton agreeing to let his daughter marry the pilot, and Lina flies off with Hypatia's former fiance.

Reviewers found it to be a "rollicking comedy, bristling with ideas" and "slapstick alternating with wit."

 

 

Rod with Siobhan McKenna
in Misalliance.

 

         
         
   

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