Playhouse 90 refined live TV—and then killed it

Playhouse 90 refined live TV—and then killed it

A story in six acts

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodeswe examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

More than any other series, Playhouse 90 has come to represent the legacy of live anthology drama. Although most of its 134 episodes are frustratingly out of circulation, three of them have been revived over the years on PBS and home video, most recently as part of a Criterion DVD box set. Rod Serling’s “Requiem For A Heavyweight,” which swept the 1957 Emmy Awards and put Playhouse 90 on the map in terms of critical acclaim, examines the aftermath of a punchy boxer’s last fight. Although it’s set in scuzzy gyms and bars, Serling finds a soft center: The heart of the story is the tentative romance between Mountain McClintock (Jack Palance) and the employment counselor (Kim Hunter) who tries to help him find dignity and purpose. Their scenes together, in which Palance reveals that the brutish-looking Mountain has a shy, sensitive soul, channel the emotional delicacy of Paddy Chayefsky’s “Marty,” the widely acknowledged, pre-Playhouse 90 high-water mark of live television.

“The Comedian,” Serling’s adaptation of an Ernest Lehman story, stars Mickey Rooney in a terrifying, unhinged performance as the kind of nakedly narcissistic star (think Milton Berle or Jackie Gleason) that TV minted in its formative years. J.P. Miller’s “Days Of Wine And Roses” was The Lost Weekend as a duet, a harrowing take on alcoholism in which heavy-drinking lovers (Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie) are torn apart as one gets sober and the other cannot. “Days Of Wine And Roses” was eventually remade as a very good movie, as were “Requiem” and several other segments, including “The Miracle Worker” and  “Judgment At Nuremberg.” The film versions have displaced the abandoned-in-the-vaults originals in our cultural memory, but Playhouse 90 came first. “We had some stinkers,” said author Dominick Dunne, who worked as a production coordinator on the series. “But when it was good, it was great.” 

Act One: Program X

Playhouse 90 began as a pitch by Frank Stanton—the formidable, forward-thinking right-hand man to CBS chairman William S. Paley—during a brainstorming session for program ideas. The project was ultimately developed by Hubbell Robinson, a CBS vice president who received no screen credit on Playhouse 90 but is often described as its creator. Along with NBC’s Sylvester “Pat” Weaver, Robinson was one of the most vocal early advocates for quality television. The idea that the medium should aspire to some cultural significance, apart from its primary function as a source of revenue, became increasingly embattled in the late 1950s, as popular cookie-cutter Westerns and situation comedies appeared to affirm an audience craving for unchallenging fare. With a wearying regularity, Playhouse 90 became the front line on that battlefield of culture versus commerce.

Developed under the placeholder title Program X, Playhouse 90 was an outgrowth of the 90-minute and two-hour spectaculars that had been a fixation of Weaver’s at NBC. Stuffed with all-star casts and often broadcast in color, the spectaculars were part of an ongoing arms race with the movies. Hollywood, its profits threatened by television, had rolled out CinemaScope and stereo sound, and now television was countering with bigger and better reasons to stay home. Both networks had created weekly series composed of spectaculars (Producers’ Showcase and Ford Star Jubilee), but the material was usually light in nature: comedies, musicals, festivals of opera or classical music. It was Robinson’s idea to combine the scale of these programs with the gritty, “kitchen drama” aesthetic of dramatic anthologies.

Robinson put out the welcome mat for underpaid artists. Teleplays would fetch $7,500, and top directors who had been earning $400 a week could command $10,000 for a single Playhouse 90 segment. The show’s widely publicized, $100,000-per-episode budget was high enough that CBS had to enroll three or more sponsors, which necessitated a whopping nine commercial breaks. Episodes of Playhouse 90 feel choppy even by the standards of modern network television’s 40-minute hour. Robinson and his newly hired producer, Martin Manulis, had to break it to the writers that their three-act plays were about to become six-act plays, with a surfeit of artificial climaxes.

A sophisticated veteran of the New York theater, Manulis had the rare ability to earn the confidence of both the creative types and the network suits. Prior to Playhouse 90, Manulis and his star director, John Frankenheimer, had rescued the live anthology Climax from a creative downward spiral that, er, climaxed when an actor playing a corpse stood up and walked off the soundstage in full view of the camera. (CBS fired the original producer the next day.) He would make Playhouse 90 a hit.

Act Two: Television City

Climax was the first major primetime anthology broadcast live from Los Angeles rather than New York. Playhouse 90 became the second and last. Although many of the Golden Age writers and directors still looked down on the West Coast as selling out, Los Angeles was a fait accompli. One of the reasons CBS had mounted the project in the first place was to get some use out of Television City, a new complex at Beverly and Fairfax that still stood mostly empty in 1956. For technophiles like Frankenheimer, the new studio was a kid’s toy box: a huge, state-of-the-art facility that could accommodate bigger sets and more cameras (four became the norm for Playhouse 90, but some episodes deployed as many as seven) than any stage in New York.

Manulis set out to court the best of the new television writers and everyone he recruited, save for Chayefsky and Gore Vidal, would eventually contribute to Playhouse 90. The show paid homage to them with an unprecedented audio credit: “Written especially for Playhouse 90!” the show’s announcer bellowed, even when a script wasn’t. But the true auteurs of Playhouse 90 were the directors. Manulis gave Frankenheimer every third episode and first choice of scripts. Alternating with him were another CBS contractee, Vincent J. Donehue, and freelancers Arthur Penn and Ralph Nelson, each hired for half a dozen shows. Later, Franklin Schaffner became the most prolific director after Frankenheimer, and George Roy Hill, Fielder Cook, Delbert Mann, Robert Mulligan, and Sidney Lumet joined the rotation. Most of these men leapt immediately from Playhouse 90 into feature film careers, and they directed some of the best movies of the following decade: The Manchurian Candidate, To Kill A Mockingbird, The Pawnbroker, Planet Of The Apes, Bonnie And Clyde, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. If the kitchen-drama school of television writing peaked somewhere around  “Marty” (1953) or Serling’s “Patterns” (1955), live television as a visual medium did not reach its full potential until it moved into Television City.

Each director had his own hand-picked technical crew and, atypically for television, Manulis allowed the directors to select much of their own material. Frankenheimer went on a literary kick and turned his favorite modern classics by Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Odets, and Faulkner into Playhouse 90s. “The Miracle Worker,” about Helen Keller and her teacher, was a passion project that Arthur Penn had tried to get made on earlier anthologies. Penn tried out innovative themes and approaches that would recur in early films: His “Invitation To A Gunfighter” was a “Western without horses” (partially because, as story editor Del Reisman pointed out, the animals had a habit of relieving themselves on camera). “Portrait Of A Murderer,” meanwhile, was about the real-life killer Donald Bashor, presaging Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde. “Portrait Of A Murderer” makes extensive use of Bashor’s actual statements and a first-person camera to create a faux-documentary style that was decades ahead of its time. Penn marveled at the improvisatory aspect of Tab Hunter’s performance as Bashor, citing an unplanned moment in which Hunter stops to pick up a basket of spilled laundry just after his character has committed murder. It was a textbook case of how the immediacy of live television was meant to work.

But Frankenheimer set the style of Playhouse 90 more than anyone else. Only 26 when the series debuted, Frankenheimer was a decade younger than most of the other directors. He projected a total confidence that tended to win back many collaborators alienated by his brusque demeanor. “There was very little discussion, or leeway, with him,” said Reisman. “And that can be very effective, particularly for actors who are thinking, ‘Well, I’m not quite sure of this.’” Veteran actors accepted his direction. 

Frankenheimer projected himself into the work, literally. He composed by moving through rehearsals in place of the camera, so that actors were often disconcerted to turn and find his face inches from their own. While Frankenheimer was justly lauded for his rich imagery—which favored wide-angle lenses and a blend of both long takes and complex cutting—in Playhouse 90 he also displayed a command of performance for which he rarely got credit. Sterling Hayden (playing desensitized brutes awakened by love in “Old Man” and “A Sound Of Different Drummers”) and “Robert Cummings” (totally unsympathetic as a cruel Air Force officer in “Bomber’s Moon”) created fearless critiques of masculine stoicism in Frankenheimer’s hands. The director also slotted himself into Hollywood’s lengthy history of collaborations between filmmaker and actor that were colored by off-screen romance, engaging in affairs with Piper Laurie during “Days Of Wine And Roses” and Janice Rule during the group-therapy drama “Journey To The Day.” Along with Dana Wynter, who starred in two Frankenheimer segments, the actresses’ time on Playhouse 90 resulted in detailed, subtle, career-best performances.

As gripping as his best projects were, Frankenheimer also ended up directing treacly family fare like “The Family Nobody Wanted” and “Eloise” (based on the children’s book). If the main emphasis was on the “Marty” school of quality television, CBS still hedged its bets by insisting on occasional comedies and specials, like a color version of The Nutcracker for Christmas 1958 and, indefensibly, a party to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the film Around The World In 80 Days. Manulis also had no compunction about dusting off an old chestnut or two. “I tried to balance all the highfalutin stuff with Johnny Carson and Carol Channing doing ‘Three Men On A Horse,’” he said.

Ostensibly to give the live crews a rest, but probably to break up the challenging live dramas with something far more traditional, CBS also hired Screen Gems (the television unit of Columbia Pictures) to film episodes that would alternate with the live dramas every fourth week. “They were dreadful,” said production supervisor Ralph Senensky. Most of the live Playhouse 90 staff just pretended the filmed shows didn’t exist, and CBS discontinued them after the second season.

Act Three: Summer stock in an iron lung

For CBS, another part of the allure of Los Angeles was access to movie stars; stunt casting for Playhouse 90 was a network mandate from the start. The show’s casting director, Ethel Winant, was one of the most influential women behind the camera in early television; although she never received credit as such, Winant was in effect Playhouse 90’s “invisible producer” (in John Houseman’s words), advising on matters outside of casting and acting as a liaison to the network. Winant mitigated the celebrity decree somewhat by casting against type as often as possible. “Ethel was really good about finding the other side of somebody,” said Manulis.

The stunt casting yielded some unexpected gems, like matinee idol Hunter in “Portrait Of A Murderer,” oily sitcom star Cummings in “Bomber’s Moon,” singer Mel Tormé as “The Comedian”’s spineless brother, and horror icon Boris Karloff as Kurtz in “The Heart Of Darkness.” But just as many Playhouse 90s were sunk by a star shoehorned into the wrong part: comedic actor Tony Randall as a Gatsby-esque social climber in “The Second Happiest Day”; the very British Charles Laughton as a Polish rabbi in “In The Presence Of Mine Enemies”; and Jack Palance as a frail Jewish movie mogul in “The Last Tycoon” and a Spanish bullfighter in “The Death Of Manolete.” Somehow Winant came up with smarmy musical-comedy star Jack Carson for the role of a career military officer in “The Long March,” based on the William Styron novel. In an early scene Carson stumbled over the tongue-twister line “tank tactics,” and for the rest of the show he stammered constantly, looking like a deer caught in headlights and throwing off the other actors’ concentration.

“The Long March” was one of Playhouse 90’s legendary on-air disasters, of which there were more than a few. “The Death Of Manolete” was the most famous, thanks to Frankenheimer’s dubious judgment that a bullfight could be simulated with a pair of antlers mounted on a cart. The funniest flub occurred in “In Lonely Expectation,” an ensemble piece about the limited options faced by young women in a home for unwed mothers. At the climax, when one of the women decides to keep her baby and leave the home, the actress, Susan Harrison, dropped the “baby” (a doll, fortunately) and it tumbled halfway down a tall staircase: thud, thud, thud. After an endless moment of stunned silence, someone picked up the doll and handed it to Harrison, and the actors tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. “Well, there goes the rerun,” quipped the technical director.

Viewers who witnessed obvious gaffes like that assumed that live television was improvised on the day of the show. Of course, the opposite was true, especially on Playhouse 90, which had an unprecedented 16 days of prep time (12 in a rehearsal hall, then four in front of the cameras). The luxury of rehearsal meant that directors could choreograph tremendously complex movements for the cameras and the actors and that complexity meant that things could go spectacularly wrong.

The pressure involved in mounting a show under those conditions was, of course, enormous. The analogy everyone loved to use—Frankenheimer attributed it to the character actor Sidney Blackmer—was “summer stock in an iron lung.” Only adrenaline junkies thrived on Playhouse 90. It’s no coincidence that the generation that made live television was also the generation that fought World War II: Serling had been a paratrooper, Hill a bomber pilot who liked to compare the control room to the cockpit. Not surprisingly, the war was Playhouse 90’s favorite subject. At least 15 segments were set during World War II or its immediate aftermath. Even “The Comedian” (one of many episodes about Playhouse 90’s second favorite subject, television itself) has the war buried deep inside: Its protagonist, a surrogate for Serling, is an insecure comedy writer who plagiarizes a script left behind by a buddy killed in combat.

Act Four: Target for three

Martin Manulis burned out after two years. Playhouse 90 was a seven-day-a-week job, in which Sunday-afternoon story conferences around Manulis’ pool were the closest thing to a respite. After Manulis quit in 1958, he would always brag that it took three men to replace him. The three men were superstars of live television, or close to it: Fred Coe, who had pioneered the idea of commissioning original dramas for television on The Philco Television Playhouse; John Houseman, a founder of the Mercury Theatre, later famous as The Paper Chase’s Professor Kingsfield; and Herbert Brodkin, who would go on to produce Emmy winners like The Defenders and Holocaust. Coe and Houseman were contracted to handle half a dozen segments of Playhouse 90’s third season, with the bulk falling to Brodkin and a handful of one-shot guest producers.

Manulis predicted that, under split authority, Playhouse 90 would lose some of its variety, as the three producers competed to produce the most significant, serious episodes. That’s precisely what happened, and if anything, it made the series even better. All three of the new producers were New Yorkers who had produced kitchen-drama anthologies, and to a certain extent they shifted the series back toward a model of small-scaled, character-driven works. Reginald Rose contributed “A Marriage Of Strangers,” his answer to “Marty,” in which a fortysomething man and woman (Red Buttons and Diana Lynn) marry just because they’re afraid of growing old alone. Steven Gethers’ keenly observed “Free Weekend” found a cross-section of middle-aged regret in the unlikely occasion of a summer camp parents visit. Some of Brodkin’s segments were so intimate that they were dwarfed by the size of the Playhouse 90 format but even that, in a perverse way, served as a defiant tribute to a fading mode of television drama. 

Act Five: Gas

The network interference began in the first episode, “Forbidden Area,” a pulpy Cold War story adapted by Serling from a Pat Frank novel. CBS compelled Manulis to recast the voice of the U.S. president, because the original actor sounded too much like Adlai Stevenson, then a candidate for the office. Actually, it started even before that: “Requiem For A Heavyweight,” clearly a better script than “Forbidden Area,” was slotted as the series opener until a CBS executive decided it was too depressing. Censorship had always dogged the live dramatists who pushed the envelope, but Playhouse 90 was a bigger target than ever before. In their offices, the executives watched rehearsals on video monitors. “It was a very Big Brother kind of thing,” said Frankenheimer. “A network executive’d come down with notes, and you did what they said. You fought up to a degree, but when you lost, you lost.”

Manulis had hoped to play the multiple sponsors against each other and keep any one of them from exercising too much control over the show, but the opposite happened. “They ganged up on us,” he said. “They chopped it up like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.” “It” was Serling’s “A Town Has Turned To Dust,” a confrontational fictionalization of the death of Emmett Till, the black Mississippi teen who was murdered after he allegedly whistled at a white woman. The sponsors’ objections forced Serling to change an interracial romance to a flirtation, the victim to a Latino, and the setting of the story to the Old West. Only four days before airtime, one sponsor, Allstate, delivered another blow: Insurance companies are unenthusiastic about people offing themselves, so the climactic suicide of the killer (Rod Steiger) had to be eliminated. “A script has turned to dust,” Serling punned.

One of the most troublesome sponsors was Southern California Gas Company, which wanted Donald Bashor’s trip to the gas chamber excised from “Portrait Of A Murderer.” In that instance, Manulis prevailed. “Judgment At Nuremberg” contained multiple references to the gas chambers used to murder Jews in the concentration camps, and The American Gas Company balked. Perhaps the phrase “death chamber” could be used instead? Brodkin and Hill refused to make the change, and the network countered by threatening to mute the word  gas every time it was spoken on the air. Anyone else would have compromised at that point, but Brodkin, whose stubbornness and contempt for authority were legendary, let them do it. Although Hill was scapegoated and never directed Playhouse 90 again, the incident became a pyrrhic victory for Brodkin. The deletion of the word was so obvious that the press took note, and raked CBS over the coals for what stands as perhaps the ugliest and most infamous incident of live television censorship.

Act Six: Old man

In the fall of 1958, Frankenheimer began rehearsing Horton Foote’s adaptation of the William Faulkner story “Old Man.” The old man of the title was the Mississippi River. A gigantic water tank was constructed on Stage 43 for the scenes in which the river overflowed its banks and sent the characters, a chain gang laborer (Hayden) and a pregnant woman (Geraldine Page), on a waterlogged odyssey. The tank was so heavy it cracked the foundation of the studio. “The actors and the crew are going to drown,” worried Frankenheimer. The solution: cancel the live broadcast and shoot it all on videotape.

Although tape had already supplanted kinescopes as the method for recording the live shows, the difficulty of editing tape had prevented it from being used to pre-record episodes. “Old Man” broke that barrier. “I made the first splice ever done on tape,” Frankenheimer recalled. “We had no instruments to cut it; we cut the master with a single-edged razor blade.” Instantly, everything changed. It helped that “Old Man” was triumphant, the quintessential Frankenheimer show. The director’s bold compositions concealed the artificiality of the studio tempest and zeroed in on the vulnerable performances at the center of the chaos. Most of Frankenheimer’s remaining episodes, as well as others from the third season and most of the fourth, were pre-taped. 

The “liveness” of Playhouse 90 had always been conditional: Most episodes made use of filmed or taped inserts of scenes that couldn’t be staged live. (“The Comedian” contained 40 such cues.) But the directors quickly realized that shooting entirely on tape, although superficially similar to a live staging, removed all the urgency. Composer Jerry Goldsmith, who scored the live episodes by conducting an 18-piece orchestra on an adjacent soundstage, said, “I felt the energy drop out of the performances, and it’s never been back.” Videotape was like the atomic bomb—someone would have made it eventually, but Frankenheimer and Foote often lamented their role in killing the medium they loved. 

Playhouse 90, meanwhile, was suffering a commercial death as well as an aesthetic one. The ratings had faded over time and, with $4 million of ad time left unsold, cancellation after the third season seemed certain. Robinson arranged a fourth-season reprieve, but that was truncated at the end of 1959, when James Aubrey assumed the presidency of CBS and forced Robinson out. Among the first shows programmed by Aubrey, an especially rapacious and cutthroat executive, was The Beverly Hillbillies. He openly scorned anything highbrow. Immediately, Playhouse 90 was deprived of its regular time slot, the episode order was cut, and the taped shows already in the can were rescheduled as occasional  specials. “Networks destroy things, you know,  said Herbert Brodkin. “It couldn’t be allowed to go unscathed. Too good for television. It had to be destroyed.” 

A handful of anthologies soldiered on into the early ’60s, but when Playhouse 90 ended, everyone knew the party was over. Critics rightly celebrate the series as a pinnacle; they less often notice that it was also an elegy. As it assembled the best and brightest of live drama, Playhouse 90 gradually undercut or outgrew what made its work unique. In its lavish budgets, its emphasis on celebrity, its cinematic aspirations, and its shift away from liveness, the show sowed the seeds of its own obsolescence. After Playhouse 90, live television had nowhere else to go.

Next time: Donna Bowman takes one last, long look at How I Met Your Mother.

More 100 Episodes