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Part Three: 1949 – 1959, Hollywood Studios
The Golden Age of Live Television

A year-and-a-half after I’d won the Theater World award, in New York, I was cold as ice. The thing I did have in New York was an agent, and when I called I could get the top man in the office on the phone, Jay Cantor.

MCA kept me busy in live television. Salaries had gone up. I was getting about $400 a shot, as the networks became heavily involved and the ad agencies were spending more and more on television. Some truly great shows were being done: Sid Ceasar on Your Show Of Shows, Milton Berle (Mr. Television), was doing on the tube for Texaco what Ed Wynn had done on radio a generation before. I worked on half hour and hour dramas. There was Kraft Theater, Climax, and The Web, mystery and intrigue.

Working with Director Sid Lumet

I worked with Sid Lumet several times. What a talent! His intensity could wear you out. We had worked for seven days in a rehearsal hall somewhere in midtown and the day we were to shoot the show we went to the studio. Sid (as did all the directors) had all his shots and cuts planned out. The first rehearsal was a walk through for positions, called a "tech rehearsal." This was so the three, and sometimes four, cameras could find their places and roll about the set while electricians lifted one-inch thick cables over cameras and around the sets so we didn’t get a jumble of electric pasta.

In one show I did with him, I played a gunman. There was a particular exterior shot Sid wanted and he’d worked out the mechanics of it. He had the roof of a tenement building about four feet off the floor, with a camera set very low shooting up at the actor standing at the edge of the roof.

Nearby was this huge plate glass mirror hanging by a loop of heavy rope at each end, at a precise forty-five degree angle from the floor, which was dressed to look like a sidewalk. I noted the mirror’s height at about eight feet. Sid had a camera moved into position, shooting into the mirror and asked me to step under this gigantic piece of glass, facing it (back to camera) and looking up into it. He explained, "What the camera will see is you standing on the sidewalk looking up. In the control booth, when I cut to the low-shot camera seeing the guy on the roof looking down, it’ll appear as if you’re seeing each other from a distance of four floors.

"Fantastic" I said as I stepped beneath the mirror, "Hey, Sid, what do you call this shot?"

"We named it the Guillotine Shot, in case…"

I finished the sentence for him, "…the mirror breaks."

Laconically he said, "That’s the general idea."

Live TV and On-Air Gaffes

In live television, where you couldn’t go back and re-shoot, we all, sometimes, got into weird situations. When they happened, they felt like catastrophes. Looking back, they were as funny as anything devised by a brilliant comedic brain.

Once we were on the air with a scene in a living room ostensibly on the fourteenth floor of an apartment building. I am standing, looking out the window as the leading lady and I play the scene. With the camera on my back, as I speak and lazily glance toward the window, I froze, for just a second.

Walking across the width of the window, with fourteen stories of air beneath his feet, was a stagehand carrying a hammer. I went on with my line, as I saw him suddenly look past me, through the window, right at the camera. He saw the red lights and knew he was being broadcast. He stopped, not knowing what to do as I stared at him. Then, as if not to be seen, he tiptoed across the remaining distance. The girl and I finished the scene as if nothing had happened.

On another show, where I played another gunman, I was to kick in a front door, enter onto a foyer landing with a few steps down into the living room and a black railing around it. Just below the railing, and out a few feet, was a desk. As I pull my gun from my breast pocket, the other actor in the room raises his gun and shoots me. I am then to crash through the railing hit the desk, slide across it, and onto the floor. Nothing complicated. We all did our own stunts in those days, and this wasn’t a particularly dangerous one. I always made sure, when I was going to do something like this to take my watch off. It was a beautiful gold Le Coultre with a gold and ebony band, one of the first calendar watches to show the moon phases.

In the live performance, everything was going great. The first twenty minutes were coming off fine; we could all feel it. The big moment arrived. I kick in the door. John Barragray (the other actor) raises his gun as I pull out mine and he plugs me! My arms go up as I fall forward, crash through the railing and hit the desk like I’m skiing downhill. As my left wrist makes contact and my head is turned so I don’t break my nose, I see this black and gold flash leave my wrist in pieces and take flight across the room. My last words as I’m dying and sliding off the desk are, "Oh, shit, there goes the watch!"

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