Why institutional memory was Peyton Place’s hidden asset

Why institutional memory was Peyton Place’s hidden asset

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 shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

In 1956 Grace Metalious wrote Peyton Place, a bestseller based loosely on people and incidents from her adolescence in New England. The novel, and the two hit films based upon it, trafficked in sensationalism. Metalious laid out her thesis—that the placid veneer of quaint little American towns concealed a roiling mass of lust, love, greed, and power—in a story driven by rape, abortion, manslaughter, and suicide. The television adaptation of Peyton Place could have settled for the same tabloid approach, but its executive producer, Paul Monash, had a more ambitious vision.

An Emmy-winning writer for prestigious anthologies including Playhouse 90, Monash disdained the book as well as any comparison to daytime soap operas. Monash claimed that Metalious had written “an attack on the town.” What he sought was “a love affair with the town.” Instead of something tawdry, his Peyton Place would be about “people evolving toward the light.” He explained that he was pioneering a new form, the “novel for television” (a phrase that would recur decades later in discussions of HBO’s dramas, particularly The Wire). Monash and the series’ writers compared their Peyton Place to Sherwood Anderson, to Moll Flanders, to Marcel Proust.  

Did anyone buy that? For the most part, no. “Seven frustrations with but a single thought,” was how Jack Gould described the show’s characters in The New York Times. The reviews were negative, and the show’s Emmy recognition was minimal (a trio of acting nominations, including one win). But make no mistake: Peyton Place was as intelligent and as well made as contemporaries like The Defenders and The Fugitive and The Twilight Zone. Monash achieved everything he set out to do, assembling first-rate writers, directors, and actors to create an intricate, deeply sensitive text, less a soap opera than a profound attempt to dramatize the everyday lives of ordinary people.

The transition of Peyton Place to television is one of the medium’s most tempestuous origin stories. When ABC began exploring the possibility of creating a prime-time serial, head of programming Daniel Melnick contacted 20th Century Fox, which owned the television rights to the book. Monash was a recent hire there, tasked with developing new TV dramas. He hated Peyton Place so much that, according to production head William Self, “He sent his agent in to complain that Monash was not a soap opera writer. He was better than that.” Contractually compelled to work on the show, Monash enlisted future Gunsmoke showrunner John Mantley to co-write a pilot script that focused, according to ABC executive Douglas Cramer, on “a small-town girl whose mother was no better than a hooker.”

The hour-long pilot, directed by Irvin Kershner, was shot in September 1963. A casting trip to New York had found some promising newcomers, including Mia Farrow (the daughter of Tarzan’s leading lady Maureen O’Sullivan) who would play the central teenage character, Allison Mackenzie. Oscar winner Dorothy Malone, the only name star in the original cast, was cast as her mother, Constance. The other major character from the novel, Selena Cross—a girl from the “wrong side of the tracks” who kills her sexually abusive stepfather—was played by Gyl Roland, daughter of another movie star, Gilbert Roland.

But Melnick left ABC and the project fell into the hands of a rival executive, Edgar Scherick, who envisioned it hewing closer to the format of a daytime soap. Cramer, Scherick’s subordinate, had tried and failed to buy the rights to the U.K. hit Coronation Street (which had a twice-a-week format later copied by Peyton Place). Cramer’s next idea was to bring in soap opera queen Irna Phillips, creator of Guiding Light, as an uncredited consultant. Phillips suggested cosmetic changes that would maneuver characters more easily into storylines, making school principal Michael Rossi (Ed Nelson, the show’s nominal leading man) the town doctor, and the doctor a newspaper editor. Scherick also excised Selena and her family entirely (casting Gyl Roland into obscurity as Mia Farrow became world-famous), ostensibly because the familial rape angle was tasteless. Monash countered that ABC wasn’t interested in doing stories about poor people. Underlying much of the tension was a fear that the sexual content of the novel could trigger unwelcome criticism from the press or even from Congress (which had led a bruising crusade against television violence only a few years earlier). ABC briefly considered disguising the show with a name change, to Eden Hill.

As filming began, two rival camps vied for control: Monash and Fox on one side, ABC and Phillips on the other. Monash flew to Chicago to meet the eccentric Phillips and was revolted when he saw the plastic covers on her furniture, which reminded him of his mother. Back in Los Angeles, Monash “lock[ed] himself in one room,” as Cramer recalled, “and tried to undo everything she did.” One idea Monash quashed was Phillips’ grotesque plan for an incestuous relationship between Allison and a long-lost brother. On the set, things were chaotic. Production shut down twice to await script revisions. Monash replaced almost the entire writing staff during the first six months.

When TV Guide reported on the clash over Peyton Place’s creative direction in January 1965, it appeared that Monash might be the loser. He had reluctantly acceded to a lurid storyline in which Constance would kill her husband, a violent ex-convict, and stand mute at trial to conceal the truth about Allison’s illegitimacy. But by then Peyton Place had become a phenomenon, catapulting both Farrow and her leading man, Ryan O’Neal (playing callow rich boy Rodney Harrington), to stardom. A winter storyline sent Betty Anderson (Barbara Parkins), the town bad girl, off to slutty Manhattan, with the idea of starring her in a spin-off. Instead, the mothership was expanded from two to three nights a week, and for a time Peyton Place occupied three of the top 10 Nielsen slots. Hit status can make a showrunner’s problems evaporate, and Monash succeeded in ending Phillips’ influence. And although the murder trial idea later resurfaced as a story arc for Rodney, Constance’s husband, Elliot Carson, got a reprieve, largely because actor Tim O’Connor delivered an unexpectedly delicate performance.

The journey of Elliot represents Monash’s vision for Peyton Place in microcosm. Introduced as a villain, Elliot was gradually repurposed as a tragic figure: a man who’d lost everything and slowly, tentatively rebuilt his life with an old flame (Constance), a daughter he’d never known (Allison), and a new baby. Rather than discount Elliot’s backstory, the writers embraced it, using Elliot’s simmering resentment over his wrongful imprisonment as a constant threat to his newfound happiness. Much of what Peyton Place did best could be found in the poignant scenes between Elliot and his father Eli (Frank Ferguson), whose avuncular mien barely concealed a fear that his fragile son might self-destruct. The tone of these moments (and others, like aspiring writer Allison’s wistful, existential musings) often came closer to the relaxed folksiness of The Andy Griffith Show than to traditional melodrama.

Peyton Place always struggled with conventional plotting, especially after the resolution of the compelling, ill-starred Rodney/Allison/Betty love triangle. Storylines introduced in its aftermath bombed. Corporate raider with a hysterical wife and an autistic child? No, thanks. Leslie Nielsen as a doctor with a rare tropical disease and an identical twin brother? Uh, no. But the failure of some of the soapier elements to catch on was probably a blessing in disguise. Staff writer Sonya Roberts wrote recently that Peyton Place had “a lot more use for the improbable, the intrusive, the digressive, the ludicrous, and the bathetic than for the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and manner.” In other words, character and atmosphere were more important than plot. Monash loved emphasizing the micro over the macro. “Paul was not an on-your-nose kind of writer. Because these kids were so appealing, if you gave him twelve pages between two of them, he was thrilled,” said writer-producer Richard De Roy. 

Duration was Peyton Place’s hidden asset. Its creators had the luxury to build characters over the course of years rather than within the confines of a fifty-minute hour. Because the writing staff was relatively stable after the first year, Peyton Place developed a terrific institutional memory. Complex characters remained emotionally consistent throughout years of labyrinthine plot twists. Norman Harrington (Christopher Connelly), Rodney’s sullen younger brother, grew from near-delinquency toward a simple contentment unknown for most of the characters; the catalyst was the introduction of Rita Jacks (Patricia Morrow), a cute oddball who was clearly Norman’s soul mate. Lana Wood played the duplicitous waitress Sandy Webber with a lip-biting sensuality that made her perhaps the most tangibly sexualized female in television up to that point. But as the show laid out Sandy’s depressing options—remain faithful to an abusive husband (Stephen Oliver) or cheat with the manipulative, unattainable Rodney—her honesty and self-assertiveness took on a heroic stature.  

Betty Anderson, one of only three regulars who lasted for the whole five-year run, may have benefited most from the writers’ skill for deepening and reinventing their characters. They paired Betty romantically with lawyer Steven Cord (James Douglas), a fellow social striver whose illegitimacy gave him a world-class inferiority complex. Although their schemes were petty, Betty and Steven tapped into a universal anguish—the feeling of being on the outside looking in—that made them more sympathetic than many of the “good” characters. The writers also threw out frequent callbacks to Betty’s past with Rodney, reuniting them occasionally for what-might-have-been scenes in which they came awkwardly to terms with their failed marriage and lost child. With years of backstory to draw upon, O’Neal and Parkins could play varied notes of jealousy, ruefulness, sweetness, and mordant humor, building an emotional array that could only exist in a series with the longevity and continuity of Peyton Place.

Betty and Steven’s storyline was one of those that flourished when the show introduced its last great character in October 1965: wily one-percenter Martin Peyton (George Macready), the town patriarch. A possible model for The Simpsons’ C. Montgomery Burns, Macready’s silky-voiced villain re-energized the series. Peyton knew he was evil and relished playing head games with his underlings; stuffy factory executive Leslie Harrington (Paul Langton), for instance, endured a well-earned comeuppance as Peyton reduced him from a big wheel to a sweaty, obsequious lackey. Peyton’s reclamation of the mansion atop the hill solved a lot of plotting problems, restructuring the series to foreground his wealth and influence as things that nearly everyone in town coveted.

Money, or more accurately class, was Peyton Place’s overarching subject. Monash and the writers used their Nielsen capital to reintroduce the issue that ABC had most wanted to avoid. When Rodney killed rapist Joe Chernak, Joe’s impoverished family—effectively a rewrite of the Crosses—became major characters. Seething Stella Chernak (Lee Grant) emerged as an avatar of class resentment, vowing revenge on the rich kid and anyone else connected to her brother’s death. The writers delineated socioeconomic strata with precision. A doctor, a bookseller, a barmaid, and a secretary all held slightly different positions within the town’s social hierarchy, and the uneasy, unspoken maneuvering for purchase on that invisible ladder motivated many of the most interesting conflicts.

To craft those conflicts, Monash more or less invented the modern writing staff. Although daytime soaps and variety shows were staff-written, prime-time dramas at that time operated on a freelance basis. Peyton Place’s full-time creative team consisted of a head writer (De Roy) and two story editors (Del Reisman and Nina Laemmle) who supervised the plotting, using color-coded index cards to map out characters’ arcs on an office wall. Working under them were about eight full-time writers, one of whom was assigned half of each two-act episode in rotation. This structure was novel enough to trigger a dispute between Fox and the Writers Guild, which ultimately ruled that the studio owed the writers additional pay. Monash’s other innovation was to align the writing staff demographically with the characters. In a medium dominated by middle-aged men, the Peyton Place writers—which included Carol Sobieski (an Oscar nominee for Fried Green Tomatoes) and Michael Gleason (the creator of Remington Steele)—were nearly all under thirty-five, and about half were women. Their voices had a subtly progressive influence. Staff writer Peggy Shaw penned a scene in which Constance and Elliot returned from the market and both of them, not just Constance, put away the groceries and prepared dinner. “I thought, well, that’s one in the eye, without saying anything,” Shaw recalled. “Nine million people are seeing that.”

A self-described “organizer” who was keen to assert his taste beyond the typewriter, Monash understood that Peyton Place required images as sophisticated as its words. Its two primary directors were a study in contrasts. Ted Post had an affinity with actors and a notably cavalier attitude; he could be found flipping through Variety while the cameraman set up shots. Whenever the Century City highrises that towered over the Fox lot—hardly an authentic element in the skyline of a New England hamlet—sneaked into the frame, it was in one of Post’s episodes. Walter Doniger, on the other hand, was a prodigious master of deep-focus composition who favored long takes and elaborate tracking shots. Doniger was also (per producer Everett Chambers) a “rigid control freak” who drove the crew crazy and divided the cast. Gena Rowlands walked off the set during her first day under his direction. Others, including Parkins and Morrow, admired Doniger’s approach, which required actors to hit their marks within a millimeter, but also let them play scenes with fewer interruptions than were customary in television. Monash shielded the brash Doniger from repercussions, and he was right: Doniger turned Peyton Place, talky as it was, into one of the most visually sumptuous of television shows.

As the ’60s wore on, past Watts and Vietnam, the foibles of isolated small-town folk, no matter how finely wrought, seemed ever more out of touch. How could Peyton Place become more relevant? Sonya Roberts pitched a provocative assassination storyline meant to evoke Dallas in 1963: a politician would be gunned down in the middle of a pompous Founders Day speech. It was too much for Monash, who decided to tackle race instead. The show introduced a black family, played by talented actors including Ruby Dee, Percy Rodriguez, and Glynn Turman. But making the main black character a brain surgeon struck many (including Chambers and some of the writers) as playing it safe. Timid or not, the integration of Peyton Place caused conflicts among the cast and crew. A clash erupted over what type of music Dee’s character should listen to. Monash added three inexperienced black writers to the staff, but the most prominent of them—former Broadway actor Gene Boland—complained to the press about being rewritten by whites, and Monash fired him. Ossie Davis, Dee’s actor-director husband, was brought in as a consultant, as was a young African American sociologist named Douglas Glasgow. But all of it was for naught: The ratings continued to slip.

The Nielsen plunge actually started much earlier; in the fall of 1965 the show slid from the top 10 into the forties and lower. Most observers agreed that the expansion to three nights had overexposed the series. The following year brought another blow, the loss of Peyton Place’s biggest star. Mia Farrow had begun a romance with Frank Sinatra, and Sinatra did not intend for his girlfriend’s long shooting days to impede their jet-set lifestyle. First Farrow departed for a four-week excursion on Sinatra’s yacht with little notice (the writers put Allison in a coma). Then she lopped off most of her long blonde hair in the middle of a shooting day. (Her new hairstyle launched a fashion trend, just as the old one had). Finally she opted not to renew her contract. The messiness of Farrow’s departure meant an unsatisfying end to Allison’s story (she simply wandered out of town in a daze), and set the stage for the series’ one truly hopeless performance, from Farrow’s de facto replacement, the saucer-eyed, robotic Leigh Taylor-Young. Although ABC indicated as early as November 1968 that the show’s fifth “season” (a meaningless term for a series that ran new episodes throughout the summer) would be its last, Peyton Place went off the air in May 1969 without tying up the story’s loose ends. A finite ending was not yet part of the tacit bargain between a TV show and its fans. 

Likely to Monash’s chagrin, Peyton Place was revived as a daytime soap opera in 1972.  Two made-for-TV reunion movies—1977’s Murder In Peyton Place and 1985’s Peyton Place: The Next Generation—tested the waters for bringing back the show on a regular basis. In each iteration, some of the original cast members returned. But the absence of Farrow and O’Neal, far too big by then to even consider showing up, doomed the reunions, a fact that was evident to their makers from the outset: In Murder, the victims were Allison and Rodney.  

In retrospect, the most surprising thing about Peyton Place is its position as a historical outlier. Because its popularity peaked early, it had no successful imitators. Not until Dallas became a big hit in the late ’70s did prime-time soap operas flourish as a television genre—although the true descendants of Peyton Place are not Dynasty and Knots Landing, but Six Feet Under and Mad Men. Reading episode synopses can make Peyton Place sound like a collage of implausible, overheated incidents. The actual experience of watching the show is more akin to overhearing insightful, articulate people talk about their feelings… for 257 hours. That may not be to every viewer’s taste, but for anyone who can settle into the show’s measured pace, the rewards are enormous. A novel for television, indeed.  

Next time: Good Eats

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