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Friday, November 9, 2007

Live From New York, Part 1 (originally published 4/00)

One of the perks of being a celebrity is that you wield a certain amount of influence. While some celebrities throw their weight around to get the best tables in exclusive restaurants, George Clooney recently adopted a somewhat more ambitious agenda. Using his considerable clout in the world of show business, he managed to persuade a national television network to program a two-hour live television drama.

If you saw the live telecast of "Fail-Safe," you know that there's an extra dimension to watching a TV drama when you're aware that it's being performed for you as you watch it, with no opportunity for retakes. The actors' performances take on an added level of immediacy, and the whole experience becomes something akin to watching a play. Television audiences in the Fifties knew that feeling well. Prior to the widespread use of videotape at the network level, dramatic programming was regularly presented live.

Unlike Clooney's "Fail-Safe" project, these early live dramas did not have the benefit of 21st Century television technology. They were done on relatively primitive cameras, bulky affairs mounted on massive pedestals and requiring sweltering studio light levels. One thing they did have in common with "Fail-Safe," however, was the high level of scriptwriting. The live anthology series on network television became an outlet for some of the country's most gifted playwrights. Until they could get their work produced on the New York stage, network television, hungry for quality material, could and did serve as a proving ground where they could gain exposure and hone their craft.

As it happens, many of these early live television dramas can still be seen, thanks to a process called kinescoping. Although live programming could not yet be preserved on videotape, it was possible to obtain a record of such a broadcast by pointing a movie camera at a television monitor and simply filming the show as it went out live. Many of these kinescopes have survived and been transferred to videotape. For a sampling of the shows that inspired Clooney's project, look for these titles on home video.

"Marty" (1953). One of the most celebrated playwrights to emerge from the era of live television drama was Paddy Chayefsky. Later he would go on to write such Broadway hits as "Middle of the Night" and outstanding film scripts, including "The Hospital" (1971) and "Network" (1976), but the work for which he will probably be best remembered is "Marty." It tells the simple but moving story of a butcher named Marty living in the Bronx who wants to settle down and have a family. Unfortunately, he's so unattractive to women that he can't even get a date. By chance, he meets a plain, quiet schoolteacher whose confidence with the opposite gender is as poor as Marty's own. Gradually,tentatively, they begin to build a relationship. The subsequent movie version of "Marty," with Ernest Borgnine, won an Academy Award as Best Picture, but the original live television production, starring Rod Steiger, is still my favorite.

"Patterns" (1955). Another major writing talent who made his mark in live television was Rod Serling. His first big success was this teleplay about big business, especially the cutthroat culture of corporate executives. The incisive, biting script won Serling the first of his five Emmy awards. Much of Serling's best work deals with social injustice of one kind or another. This inevitably meant that his scripts were controversial enough to keep him in hot water with the networks much of the time. Eventually he became so weary of fighting those battles that he created a fantasy series called "The Twilight Zone," where he could soften the impact of his social commentary somewhat by making it fanciful and allegorical rather than realistic. Although a story about racism set in Mississippi can get you in all kinds of trouble, Serling discovered that an equally strong condemnation of racism set on Mars, where the green people discriminate against the purple people, doesn't offend anyone. "Patterns" is one of the best surviving examples of Serling's social commentary before he learned that lesson.

Now that "Fail-Safe" has come and gone, you will search in vain for more live drama on the tube. But don't worry, there are plenty more of them available on home video. Next week we'll look at some more examples.

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