At the dawning of the 21st Century, we find ourselves moving from an era of effortless word storage and retrieval into an era of effortless sound and image storage and retrieval. Don't have time to watch your favorite Thursday night television program? No sweat: just tape it. You can watch it on Friday, or Saturday, or whenever.
Give the engineers a few more years and you'll find yourself with video on demand streaming into your computer with video and audio quality equal to that delivered by your television set and stereo system. Where will the television networks be then? What happens to "must-see TV" when Hollywood's archives are a mouse click away?
Ironically, the answer may lie in a return to the most technologically primitive roots of television. In an age of limitless canned video on demand, it may be that the only distinctive thing that television will have to offer will be live drama. If you saw with the recent live production of "Fail-Safe" on CBS, you know that, for once, seeing it as it was being broadcast actually mattered. Taping it and watching it later just wouldn't have been the same experience.
Last week I recommended some earlier examples of live television drama, captured on film through the kinescope process, that have been made available on home video. Here are some additional titles to look for.
"Requiem For a Heavyweight" (1955). One of writer Rod Serling's earliest and most celebrated successes was this drama about an over the hill prizefighter. Jack Palance stars as "Mountain" Rivera, an aging boxer whose doctor has laid down the law. If he continues to earn his living in the ring, he faces almost certain blindness. And yet, prizefighting is the only life he has ever known. Used up and cast aside by his chosen profession, Rivera now faces the terrifying prospect of starting over as a middle aged man with a broken body, minimal education, and no special skills apart from his pugilistic training. Palance is brilliant in the lead role, and is ably supported by Keenan Wynn as Rivera's manager and comedian Ed Wynn (Keenan's father) in his first dramatic role as the washed-up fighter's trainer.
"Bang the Drum Slowly" (1956). Based on a novel by Mark Harris, this is a buddy story with a tragic twist. The main characters are baseball teammates Henry Wiggen (Paul Newman) and Bruce Pearson (Albert Salmi). The two roomates represent a classic pairing of opposites. Bruce is dimwitted and naïve, while the somewhat more worldly Henry fancies himself a writer. Henry therefore remains in a more or less permanent state of exasperation over Bruce's cluelessness. At the same time, the two share a melancholy secret. They alone know that Bruce is afflicted with Hodgkin's disease. Despite the grim premise, this excellent program actually includes many lighthearted moments. It also represents a rare opportunity to watch a young Paul Newman, fresh out of the Actors Studio and not yet famous, still polishing his craft.
"Days of Wine and Roses" (1958). There have been plenty of plays, movies, and television programs through the years about the problem of alcoholism. One of the best is this drama by J.P. Miller about a young couple whose social drinking spirals out of control until they have nothing else to live for but the bottle. Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie star as the unhappy couple.
So many excellent scripts came out of live television drama during this period that it became common practice for filmmakers to remake the better scripts as movies. Each of the dramas I've mentioned here became the basis for a later film release. "Requiem For a Heavyweight" was adapted for film in 1962 with Anthony Quinn in the lead role. The role of Bruce Pearson in "Bang the Drum Slowly" became an early vehicle for Robert De Niro in 1972. The lead roles in the 1962 movie version of "Days of Wine and Roses" went to Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick.
Now, ironically, a movie has been "remade" as a live television drama. How interesting it will be if it turns out that George Clooney and CBS have started a trend that inverts the relationship between the big screen and the small screen a half century later. And how appropriate that if that does transpire, the odds are that you'll read about it first on your computer screen.