The Richard Boone Show: 11 actors in an infinite number of roles

The Richard Boone Show: 11 actors in an infinite number of roles

Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of these short-lived shows.

“Television’s boneyard has crooked its gnarled, beckoning finger toward The Richard Boone Show,” wrote one gloomy critic in February 1964. It makes sense to begin at the end with The Richard Boone Show, which became famous in its time less for the show it was than for the heated, unhappy debate it inspired over the idea of television as art. Did experimental work have a place in primetime? Or was it doomed to fail—indeed, were there forces in the industry that wanted it to fail? And how much quality did a show have to muster in order to count as quality television?

A year earlier, The Richard Boone Show looked like it might succeed—if not as a ratings topper, then as the kind of prestige item that could win awards and attract affluent viewers. Richard Boone was a huge television star, famous as the cultured but dangerous gunslinger Paladin in CBS’ Have Gun—Will Travel. Although his sandpaper voice and roughhewn features made him a natural Western hero, Boone’s view of himself was greatly at odds with his image. Fancying himself an intellectual and a serious artist, he led an acting workshop, based on his training at the Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actors Studio, that met above Los Angeles’ Brentwood Country Mart. Though it mounted occasional productions, the workshop functioned mainly as a place where movie actors could keep their skills sharp and expand their range beyond studio typecasting.

Boone imagined a television series modeled on the exercises at his workshop: a different story each week, but performed by a permanent group of versatile actors, who would play a wide range of roles—a lead one week, a bit part the next. (Currently American Horror Story takes the same approach on a season-by-season basis.) Boone pitched the idea to CBS as early as 1960, and then again when it became clear that Have Gun would end after its sixth season. Both times the network declined, accurately gauging the project’s dubious commercial prospects. Boone turned down CBS’ counter offer—a gangster drama—and was in professional limbo until a chance meeting at Dodger Stadium between his agent and Harris Katleman, an executive from the production company Goodman-Todman.

The Richard Boone Show was born at a ballgame: Goodson-Todman, which had made its fortune in game shows, was looking to diversify, so Katleman took Boone’s idea back to the office. The company’s head of program development, a former comedy writer named Mac Benoff, had an ambitious idea: What if they could get Clifford Odets, the most famous American playwright of the ’30s, to make his television debut as the show’s script editor? It would cement Boone’s notion of bringing a theatrical tradition into television. Odets, whose professional life in recent years had been rocky, signed on.

Impressed by the names attached, NBC scheduled The Richard Boone Show without a pilot—and without a sponsor. It took an impassioned pitch from Boone himself to close a deal with Reynolds Aluminum, which agreed to sponsor the show on alternate weeks. Shrewdly, Boone argued that the repertory company might ameliorate the major liability of anthology drama—the absence of the familiar faces that viewers supposedly craved.

As Odets went to work recruiting writers, Boone found a producer (The Twilight Zone’s Buck Houghton) and quickly assembled a permanent ensemble of 11. With Boone as the de facto leading man, the repertory comprised Lloyd Bochner and Warren Stevens, all-purpose actors who could function as villains or substitute leads; Harry Morgan, Jeanette Nolan, and Ford Rainey, all middle-aged character actors; young ingenues Laura Devon (blonde) and June Harding (brunette), and their male counterparts, Guy Stockwell (fair) and Robert Blake (dark); and Bethel Leslie, a leading lady who was often partnered romantically with Boone on-screen. Stevens had been a founding member of Boone’s workshop in 1950; Morgan and Blake joined during the Have Gun years; and many of the others had been guest stars on Have Gun. Boone spotted Devon in a Twilight Zone episode. Although everyone in the company had extensive television experience (even Harding, at 22, had been a regular on a daytime soap), the only one other than Boone who came close to being a celebrity was Morgan, a star of the long-running sitcom December Bride and its spin-off, Pete And Gladys.

Boone had a vision for the series that extended beyond the tube. He tied his acting workshop formally to The Richard Boone Show as a sort of adjunct rehearsal laboratory. In a process that was highly unusual for television, scripts were rehearsed for up to eight days each, with heavy involvement by Odets and the show’s initial directors, Lamont Johnson and Robert Gist (both former actors). Robert Blake credited Odets with helping him refine his performance for his first Boone Show lead, and used the workshop to develop another vehicle for himself (“Run, Pony, Run,” in which Blake played a junkie). The workshop enrolled 35 actors beyond the core company of 11, and many of them ended up playing bit parts on the series. (Among the members who never got any screen time were Nolan’s son Tim McIntire, later a prominent character actor, and Frank Sinatra Jr.) Boone made grandiose plans for the company to do films and plays in between seasons.

Advance publicity for the show promised that Odets would write at least six of a projected 30 episodes, and emphasized the names of other top screenwriters who would contribute scripts: James Poe (Around The World In 80 Days), Whitfield Cook (Strangers On A Train), Robert Dozier (The Cardinal). Writers loved working with Odets. Newcomer Paul Lucey wrote a pastoral, “All The Comforts Of Home,” about a folk singer who washes out in New York and goes home to Appalachia to lick his wounds. It was based on Lucey’s own travels through North Carolina, where his wife hailed from. The script was too long, and Odets offered a simple solution—slice off the first act, which had the folk singer (Boone) telling his woes to a truck driver (Blake was penciled in to play the role) with whom he’d hitched a ride. How to get that exposition back in? Lucey, inspired, said he’d write it as a song. Odets approved, and the resulting scene—with Boone wandering through a tall pine forest as a haunting Terrea Lee vocal played on the soundtrack—was one of the loveliest and most abstract interludes in the series.

Then tragedy struck. Writer Reuben Bercovitch noticed that Odets kept excusing himself, pleading stomach trouble, during story meetings on an episode about the Vietnam War. The trouble turned out to be cancer. Odets’ unexpected death on August 18, 1963, a month before the series debuted, created a creative vacuum from which The Richard Boone Show never recovered.

One prosaic factor that can make or break a new show is the selection of the premiere and the sequencing of subsequent episodes. An obvious choice to open The Richard Boone Show, given the extent to which Odets’ name had factored in the advertising, would have been one of the two scripts that Odets completed before his death. The first episode filmed, “Big Mitch,” was a delicate little story of an old man (Boone) readjusting to emotional independence after his middle-aged daughter (Leslie) marries and moves out of the house they share. If “Big Mitch” was too much in a minor key, “The Mafia Man”—a more conventional tale about a retired don (Boone) dodging assassins to return from Italian exile—was perfect premiere material: fast-paced, expensive-looking, and adorned with Odets’ sharp dialogue. But both were buried mid-season, evidently part of a regrettable loss of faith in Odets’ taste.

While Odets was still alive, Goodson-Todman and NBC executives had read the first batch of scripts and panicked: Just how esoteric was this show going to be? Rough cuts of the early episodes were strong enough to placate the suits to an extent, although Boone was waging another battle over the controversial subjects he hoped to tackle. The star won on some (Vietnam, plus a poignant father-daughter story, “Don’t Call Me Dirty Names,” that touched frankly upon abortion and adultery) and lost on others (prostitution, homosexuality, and a labor-union story based on the 1910 Los Angeles Times bombing). But the upshot was clear: The network wanted a more conventional show than Odets and Boone were making.

As a result, the first episodes broadcast weren’t necessarily the best, just the least inaccessible. The premiere was “A Statement Of Fact,” in which a hostile district attorney sets out to bully a confession out of an ax murderess and ends up falling in love with her. The subtle shift of power between the two characters was a cerebral concept, shakily executed. The second episode was Lucey’s “All The Comforts Of Home,” which had regional flavor but uncertain focus. The third, “Wall To Wall War,” was about a Philadelphia insurance office clerk (Stevens) who flips out and puts his co-workers, at gunpoint, through a grueling re-creation of his Korean War traumas, went out of its way to confront the audience on its desensitization to screen violence. Visceral and unsettling, “Wall To Wall War” (written by dentist-cum-novelist John Haase, another television neophyte) was a near-masterpiece, so sufficiently polarizing that The New York Times’ television critic, Jack Gould, took nearly an entire column to explain why it was “just plain sick.” Overall, the initial reviews for the series ranged from ecstatic to underwhelmed.

Worse, the ratings were abysmal. Although both of its competitors were also freshman shows, Boone was demolished by CBS’ lowbrow Petticoat Junction, a sitcom from the creator of The Beverly Hillbillies. During one week Boone pulled a 23.4 share, ABC’s The Greatest Show On Earth (a circus drama adapted from the Best Picture winner, which also failed to survive the season) a 29.4, and Petticoat a 46.0. After the series premiered, much of the Odets-originated material—including those scripts by Poe, Cook, and Dozier—was shelved and replaced with hastily commissioned, suspense-oriented stories. Too late. In January, Boone and the rest of the cast found out that their show was canceled—by reading it in the trade papers. Infuriated, he barred NBC vice president Mort Werner from the set.

A round of public finger-pointing ensued. Boone accused Werner of “pretentious hypocrisy” and railed colorfully against the “dancing jellyfish” of Madison Avenue. “The thinking people of this country are being disenfranchised by Nielsen’s nitwits,” Boone declared, self-servingly. Grant Tinker, speaking for NBC, countered that the network had expected “one-third action-adventure, one-third humor, and one-third mood pieces—deeper stuff. We got only two of those thirds. We all believed in the experiment, but it fell short of the mark we set.”

NBC’s official reason for canceling the show was “sponsor dissatisfaction.” But, in his research for a 1969 dissertation on The Richard Boone Show, scholar Jack G. Shaheen uncovered persuasive evidence that NBC lied. A Reynolds representative told Shaheen that—as Boone had contended all along—Reynolds executives were still undecided about funding a second season when they, like the actors, learned of the cancelation by reading about it in the newspaper.


Why was NBC so eager to kill off The Richard Boone Show? “The network was afraid of Richard Boone’s power,” said Laura Devon. Boone was an excitable control freak, who had seized the reins of Have Gun—Will Travel by pushing out producer after producer. After Odets’ death, Boone consolidated his power. He replaced Odets with a novice, the former actor William D. Gordon, and the series’ freelance directors with himself and Harry Morgan. Even Boone’s commitment to the egalitarianism of repertory theater may have wavered. Reuben Bercovitch’s Vietnam script sat idle for months after Odets’ death, until Richard Boone called him and said, “I’m just a spear carrier in this. Could you rewrite it and make me the leading man?” Bercovitch declined, Boone did the rewrite himself, and the episode (“A Need Of Valor”) was an incoherent mess. As Boone turned his eponymous show into more and more of a one-man band, he also became more of a headache than NBC was inclined to tolerate.

Was The Richard Boone Show just a vanity project—a collection of “esoteric acting exercises,” as one executive whined to Variety? Certainly, the repertory aspect of the series had its failings. Boone had trouble blending into the scenery, a fact that critics picked up on whenever he made only a cameo; in “Wall To Wall War,” for instance, he is distractingly hammy as a tipsy elevator operator. “It seemed a little false-nose and false-beard to me,” said Robert Butler, who directed an episode, “Sorofino’s Treasure,” in which most of the all-Caucasian cast played impoverished Mexican villagers. Even by the standards of the ’60s, The Richard Boone Show’s excursions into brownface and yellowface, and the absence of any non-white regular cast members, were unfortunate. (Not to mention that only two episodes featured a female protagonist.) On the other hand, all 11 of the actors were talented, and the show gave them opportunities to play against type. Devon, in particular, emerged as a small-screen Kim Novak, shining in numerous roles that offered real range and vulnerability.

Boone, acknowledging the script troubles, said that he would stand by 18 out of 25 episodes. That’s generous, but not by much. The segments initiated by Odets, at least, took chances; even when they weren’t very good, they were really weird. Joe Madison’s diffuse, Runyon-esque “Vote No On 11!” and Fred Finklehoffe’s troubling disquisition on the fungibility of sanity, “Where Are the Nuts? Where Are The Bolts?” struck seriocomic tones so offbeat they’re nearly impossible to describe. “Stranger,” written by Dale Wasserman (Man Of La Mancha), featured Blake as a bizarre deity or alien who fills an emotional void in everyone he meets: Pasolini’s Teorema (still five years in the future) by way of The Outer Limits. The Richard Boone Show was cultier television than anything in the ’60s outside of an outright fantasy series—a challenging, not-for-everyone antecedent to eccentric, insistently personal modern oddities like Carnivale or Pushing Daisies.

Wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? Weirdo.

Next time: Zack Handlen takes a look at short-lived X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunmen.

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