Part Three: 1949 – 1959, Hollywood Studios
A Medal for Benny - Paramount TV 1954

There is one television show I did at that time that stands out in memory. In 1944, Paramount had made a wartime film called, A Medal for Benny which takes place in a poor fishing village on the coast of southern California. You never see Benny, because he’s just been killed overseas and is going to be awarded the Medal of Honor. He’s left behind a beautiful girl, his fiancée, who has moved in to care for his widowed father, a poor retired fisherman. Benny’s best friend, Joe, has remained at home to care for his family’s fishing business. This friend, played by me, has always been in love with Benny’s girl, and she with him, but Benny has somehow conned her into promising to marry him. As a matter of fact, Benny has been the big con artist of the village, known as a no good bum by everyone except his father.

J. Carrol Naish, the late, superb character actor, who always played Italians and Latinos, was in reality of Irish descent and a master of dialects. The Paramount film, made on a slim budget, turned out to be the sleeper of the year and garnered an Oscar nomination for Naish.

A Medal for Benny
A Medal for Benny, live television broadcast, 1954. Pictured: Rick Jason, Anne Bancroft, and J. Carrol Naish

In 1954, the transcontinental TV cable was finally in place and NBC decided to go full color, no more black-and-white. They’d just completed building their new studios in Burbank and were going to christen them by doing their first cross-country cable broadcast live from there. They bought the TV rights to A Medal for Benny from Paramount, cast me as Joe, cast Carrol in his original role of the father, and a new and up-and-coming young actress named Anne Bancroft as Benny’s fiancée. A most excellent, live TV director was selected: Buzz Kulick. We were going to make history in the first coast-to-coast live broadcast of a comedy/drama. And, in color!

All the sets were assembled on a huge sound stage where we rehearsed ten days for the one-hour show. Everything came together beautifully, better than anyone dared hope. Naish was a wonder to work with. Bancroft? You could see she was destined for big things.

Broadcast day we all had that fright that comes with an opening night, everybody double-checking everything, then checking it again — even Carrol going over and over his lines. Finally, we went on the air.

The show was going as smoothly as sliding down a greased pole. The commercial breaks came at the right second, everybody’s timing couldn’t have been better. We were into the last ten minutes of the show. What could go wrong?

The army brass arrived from Washington to present this old fisherman his son’s Medal of Honor. As we break for the last commercial before the windup, Carrol rushes to a canvas dressing booth where three wardrobe people are ready to get him out of his ragged clothing and into a cutaway with winged collar and striped pants.

We have three minutes of commercials, room to spare for the change. It’s been rehearsed over and over. Time has also been allowed for Carrol to get to the final set at the other end of the stage, about a football field away, where the Generals are in place and the honor guard is at attention.

Somebody drops one of Carrol’s cufflinks. As they’re reaching down for the dropped cufflink, a stud holding the wing collar in place flies off. The starched wing collar zings open as a wardrobe man reaches into his pocket for another stud. In the meantime, a wardrobe lady is holding Carrol’s striped trousers at an angle so all he has to do is step into them, she raises ‘em to sling the suspenders around his shoulders, problem. Timing — it’s slightly off because of the flying collar stud. The collar is in place, yes. The ascot is on, yes. So is the tail coat, yes. But the suspenders are hanging outside!

The floor manager (in films they’re Assistant Directors) is down at the other goal post waving frantically and pointing to his watch. Carrol, who has never done live TV, panics. He grabs the pants, which are at his knees, and starts running.

Rick Jason and Anne Bancroft in A Medal for BennyA wardrobe lady is chasing behind him trying to get hold of the pants to pull them up under the tailcoat, but Carrol is doing the equivalent of broken field running as he struggles to pull up his pants while he propels himself forward. The floor manager is counting down the seconds as Carrol jumps into his mark, and stands, with pride, stiff as a limb for the wide shot.

In the booth, Buzz Kulick let’s out a cry. "Oh, shit! Pull in for a medium shot. His pants are around his ankles. Closer! Closer! Cut to a two-shot, Rick and Annie, while we adjust! Do it!! NOW!"

Anne Bancroft and I are standing holding hands. Of course, we’ve witnessed the mayhem. And I know that Annie breaks up very easily. She is not only a funny lady in her own right, but a great audience for somebody hilarious, like her husband, Mel Brooks. She looks up at me and smiles. I smile back. If she breaks up, I know she’ll break me up and if we both go up so will Carrol and the players wearing general’s uniforms. And I could go back to the shipping department at Jacobson Company.

But thank God, Annie holds the smile, a little frozen, but who can tell? She’s in profile to the camera. The general steps forward to place the ribbon and medal around Carrol’s neck and I don’t, to this day, remember what happened next, except everybody shouting and applauding. We were off the air. And we’d made it.

I didn’t work with Kulick again until 1987 when I did one of the cameos in the six-hour mini series Around the World in Eighty Days. My wife and I were flown to Yugoslavia, and as I walked on the set for a night shot, Buzz stepped out of the shadows and said, "Evening Rick. I think it’s been a couple of years."

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Text copyright 2000 by Rick Jason
Originally published by Argoe Publishing, July 2000.

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