Scott Foundas on Sydney Pollack's Early TV Work
In 2007, LA Weekly film critic Scott Foundas was asked to contribute an essay about Sydney Pollack's early television work to an Italian-language book about the director published in connection with a retrospective at the Alba Film Festival. That essay appears below, for the first time in English.
There is little outwardly remarkable about the 1961-66 American television series Ben Casey, unless you count novelty: It is one of the earliest models of that now-familiar TV staple known as the medical procedural, in which there is no health emergency too great for a team of brilliant doctors (here led by the eponymous, fresh-faced resident) to solve in an hour of screen time (save, of course, for the occasional two-part episode). But there are moments when Ben Casey transcends the ordinary and enters into a realm of deeply humanistic grace, and a great many of them can be found in the episodes — 15 of them — directed by Sydney Pollack. On this, you will have to trust me, for these shows are not easily seen, and indeed to consider Pollack’s TV career is to be reminded of how, even in this age of DVD saturation, so much from the early years of the medium remains trapped in limbo.
I am thinking, in particular, about the Ben Casey episode entitled “A Cardinal Act of Mercy” (1963), in which the great diva Kim Stanley delivers a searing performance as a morphine-addicted trial lawyer; another, “For the Ladybug…One Dozen Roses” (1962), where Cliff Robertson is a battle-scarred fighter pilot who has lost the ability to fly and, with it, the will to live; and the enormously moving “Monument to an Aged Hunter” (1962), in which Dr. Casey must choose which of two patients to save using an experimental antibiotic — a legendary writer and philanthropist (played by Wilfrid Hyde-White) or a younger man of no particular importance. These are hours of television in which the medical drama may be resolved by the time the credits roll, but the moral and ethical questions weigh heavy into the night.
Like the good doctor Casey himself, Pollack was young and a tad impetuous — not quite 30 yet when he began in TV, he was eager to establish himself as a behind-the-camera talent after resolving that he was never going to make it as a movie star. But it may have been Pollack’s training as an actor and acting teacher (both at New York’s legendary Neighborhood Playhouse) that fostered his natural facility with other performers. To watch Stanley in “Mercy,” for example, is not merely to behold a great actress in a great role, but to witness a hospital room transformed into an arena for hothouse melodrama, especially the scenes of Stanley withdrawing from her addiction, slowly spiraling into mania and despair without ever grandstanding for the camera. And then there is Hyde-White in “Monument,” exuding such a regal air of resignation that it is as if King Lear himself had landed under Dr. Casey’s care. Perhaps most remarkable of all, there is a moment in that same episode where Pollack appears to draw something resembling a tear from that block of granite known as series star Vince Edwards.
You could argue, of course, that television is fundamentally a writer’s medium and that Pollack was only as good as the scripts he was given, and Pollack himself might be the first to agree. When asked in interviews about this period of his career, Pollack is usually terse, saying that TV was the equivalent of film school for him and that it is difficult for him to watch those early programs without focusing on all the mistakes that he made. That’s partly true, I suppose, and even I would not suggest that all of Pollack’s TV programs (there are nearly 100, including episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Fugitive and the Kraft Suspense Theatre) are deserving of further study. But to look at these shows purely in terms of direction is to discover ample evidence of a bright young talent itching to paint on a bigger canvas. This was television just after the end of the live era, when shooting and cutting on film enabled directors to think more “cinematically,” if you will, than was possible before. And Pollack helped to lead the charge. In “Ladybug,” for example, there is a dazzling sequence in which Pollack uses a cubistic montage of bustling street scenes to suggest the disorientation felt by a timid Native American boy ill at ease in the big city. Even more notably, in “Something About Lee Wiley” (1963) — an episode of the anthology series Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre and an early collaboration between Pollack and his longtime writing partner David Rayfiel — there is an air of dreamy fatalism and a jagged use of flashbacks that directly anticipates They Shoot Horses Don’t They?
“Lee Wiley” is a story about the corrosive power of money, with Piper Laurie as a jazz chanteuse blinded (literally and metaphorically) in a horse-riding accident who finds herself approached by a wealthy industrialist (Claude Rains, in one of his final performances) who wishes to buy her as a trophy bride for his playboy son. It is a theme Pollack would revisit to more striking effect two years later in another Chrysler production called “The Game,” which unfolds entirely within the confines of a high-stakes Chemin de Fer room at a posh Riviera casino. Cliff Robertson (again) is the naïve American salesman bitten by the gambling bug and blessed with an astonishing case of beginner’s luck; but the more he wins, the closer he edges to a psychological breakdown.
Written by S. Lee Pogostin and directed by Pollack with blistering, edge-of-your-seat intensity (he was deservedly rewarded with an Emmy), “The Game” is, I think, one of the small screen’s finest hours — a ruthless morality play that might have been co-authored by Ian Fleming and Karl Marx, and proof that its director could hold an audience rapt as well or better than most of his big-screen counterparts. It is also early evidence of Pollack’s affinity for exploring controversial and/or provocative subject matter not head-on, but through the relationships that play out between ordinary men and women. Or, as Pollack himself has said: “I don’t set out to make political films, though relationships are nothing if not political. If a guy’s sitting in a room and a woman comes in and lights a cigarette, it’s a political situation.”
Lest it seem I’m giving Pollack’s writers short shrift, I should note that he had the good fortune, in these years, to work with some of the best around — not just Rayfiel, but Abraham Polonsky (on the Kraft Suspense Theatre episode “The Last Clear Chance” ) and Sterling Silliphant (on Chrysler’s “Murder in the First” ) too. It was Silliphant who then provided the script for Pollack’s first theatrical feature, The Slender Thread (1965) — a movie that draws much from Pollack’s television work. Here, the sweaty claustrophobia of “The Game” is transferred over to the small office of a college crisis center, where a student volunteer (Sidney Poitier) takes the call of a suicidal suburban housewife (Anne Bancroft) and then must keep her on the line until help arrives. It is a potentially crass suspense scenario executed with enormous sensitivity and tact and a fleet understanding of how to turn two people talking on a phone into a gripping entertainment. It is also, not incidentally, a sly commentary on race relations, for the Bancroft character does not realize that Poitier is black. Since then, Pollack has returned to TV only as an actor; but now it is so common for people to say that TV is as good as or better than the movies, whereas back in the ‘60s it was the cinema the reigned supreme. And it may be that, in Pollack, one finds a key link in the small screen’s progressive evolution.