|

Defying Ideology (and the Academy) – Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter

Novak 01

A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.

When recovering from reviewing lesser works by well-established publishers, whether direct-to-library or university presses, it is often a welcome relief to read something outstanding by publishing companies that deserve to be much better known than their “illustrious” peers. Granted that not everything by these publishers is 100% good (and how often does this occur in writing, film, and the other arts, to say nothing about lifetime achievements?), many books that would otherwise tend to be neglected are not “vanity press” productions but often shed light on unjustly forgotten works of the past written by authors whom the institutional world would not often grant the respect they deserve. Such a work is Mr. Novak by Chuck Harter (BearManor Media, 2018) whose sub-title, “an acclaimed television series,” is not only more than justified by past and present reviews but also by the enthusiasm, diligence, and research expertise of an author that is second-to-none in this particular area.

To the best of my memory, Mr. Novak was never shown on British television nor was the first season of Naked City (1958-1959) in which James Franciscus (1934-1991) co-starred with John McIntire (1907-991), both of whom died in the same year from emphysema. Franciscus always looked in the peak of health but, like the older actor, was a heavy smoker. One off-set image in this book shows him with the fatal weed our doctors all warn us against if we are still addicted to it. While this actor’s short-lived series Doc Elliot (1973-1974) did get a brief BBC TV play and my knowledge of his films roles extended only to I Passed for White (1960) and Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970), the bulk of his work was not then available to British audiences. Also known for playing JFK in Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy (1981) with ex-Charley’s Angel Jaclyn Smith in the title role, as he did under a pseudonym (opposite Jacqueline Bissett’s “Jackie”) in J. Lee Thompson’s The Greek Tycoon (1978) as well as a rare villainous appearance in the Chuck Norris film Good Guys Wear Black (1978) preserving more than a touch of his “presidential aura,” Franciscus always struck me as a typical bland, good-looking American actor in which style often outweighed substance. Yet the actor’s credits and life belie such an easy assumption and hopefully, biographies are now being written about someone like this who had a fascinating long track record, frequently expressed dissatisfaction with the well-paid roles he often performed, founded a production company, and became interested in writing screenplays and producing. He lost the role of Dr. Kildare to Richard Chamberlain while engaged on another project. In this light, he was ideal casting for the first year high school teacher Mr. Novak, as both actors personified white, fair-haired images of the typical American hero of those times.

MrNovak-500x500Though unknown in academic circles (possibly to his benefit), author Chuck Harter is not only a long-time fan of this mostly forgotten series but also an accomplished author, musician, and popular culture consultant who (unlike many people in academia) knows what he is talking about and delivers his information in an accessible, reader-friendly, informed, and knowledgeable manner. He has championed this 1963-1965 TV series for decades, and this book is a testament to his endurance and resilience. I’ve only seen one Mr. Novak episode on YouTube but it appears to belong to a now sadly lost era which attracted young people to professions whose practitioners like Gregory Peck’s role of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962) suggested that people could make a difference and that change could be achieved within the system. Other series, such as The Defenders (1961-1965), The Nurses (1962-1965), Sam Benedict (1962), East Side, West Side (1963-1964), Slattery’s People (1964-1966) and even some key episodes of Dr. Kildare (1961-1965) that appeared well before the bland productions of Hawaii 5-0 (1968-1980) and its mediocre counterparts too numerous to name, suggested that certain alternative possibilities existed even within the dark world of the American Dream that could mitigate its worst effects if only temporarily. Today we know different but Mr. Novak and other series of that era evoked that lost world of early 60s idealism that suggested possible changes that would soon be brutally crushed in several ways outside the confines of television drama.

Although television series about American high schools existed before, such as Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956) and Mr. Peepers (1952-1955), the aim of Mr. Novak was to present a much more different view of the struggles teachers and students faced than the light entertainment treatments of its predecessors that were dominated by the same form of Cold war conformity seen in Father Knows Best (1954-1960), that was re-syndicated in the Reagan era, and Leave it to Beaver (1957-1963). Harter’s book is much more than a nostalgic exercise by a devoted fan since it raises other issues of historical content and lost possibilities for television drama that briefly existed in the past despite the uneven quality of some of the episodes that Harter has seen and critically assesses. With an introduction by Richard Donner, who directed several episodes; a forward by Martin Landau, who appeared twice in the series; and an afterword by Walter Koenig, who appeared in different roles, including a Russian student anticipating his most well-known performance in Star Trek a few years later, this 371-page book not only includes a comprehensive episode guide, including both available and non-available ones, but also other valuable material such as coverage of production and air dates; interviews with over 35 actors such as Koenig, Landau, Beau Bridges, Ed Asner, and June Lockhart; archival interviews with stars and producers; as well as a complete list of the many awards the program received and gained nominations for. In short, this book may also be subtitled “Everything You Need to Know about Mr. Novak” but with the added premise of its potential for stimulating readers to investigate the series for themselves, whenever it appears on DVD, and to draw conclusions about its historical context and record of past achievement within American sixties television. As my St. Louis friend Mike Nevins recently pointed out to me, dross definitely existed then but there were also alternative productions that revealed potential – at least before the devastating consequences of the Vietnam War and the movement towards a blander form of television that echoed putting Vietnam behind us by not raising difficult issues whether indirectly expressed via style or directly articulated within a progressive type of content limited to what that era would allow to be heard.

Novak 02For Harter, Mr. Novak was the first television program to portray teachers and students realistically. We may pause at the loaded term “realism” seeing its manifold uses as dramatic construction, ideological structure, and diffuse nature that can by no means be limited to the Screen straitjacket of Colin McCabe’s 70s’s definition of a “classic realist text.” But despite its period date and some unavoidable flawed characterizations, the sincerity of the series rose far above the type of ideological conformist monolithic message conveyed in the 2 December 1959 transmitted “The Danny Benedict Story” episode of Wagon Train in which Brandon DeWilde’s artistically sensitive character makes a sudden conservative irrational conversion in the last seconds by smashing his violin on the wall, reconciling with his brutal patriarchal officer father and stating “I want to be a soldier” thus displaying a Winston Smith period conviction that in the end revealed that  “Father Knows Best” in the best traditions of Cold War conformity.

As well as the actors involved in this series, the credentials of other key figures were equally important. Creator and producer E. Jack Neuman (1921-1998) had a distinguished record in film and television being not only involved in the adaption of The Line-Up from radio to television in 1964 but also in the development of Dr. Kildare as a television series as well as creating Sam Benedict (24-25). Starring Edmond 0’Brien as a trial lawyer modelled on Jake Ehrlich, the series did run in England but lost the ratings battle to The Jackie Gleason Show in America. One of the episodes featured an excellent progressive teleplay by Larry Cohen. Researching his idea for a serious look at high school teachers, Neuman employed Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano (later involved in The Outer Limits, 1963-65) to write the pilot episode “First Year, First Day” that launched the series (30). Another Outer Limits screenwriter Meyer Dolinsky also contributed episodes (103, 123, 145, 286, and 299). Neuman’s involvement led to a number of outstanding episodes in the first season. But his later involvement in other projects led to the problematic participation of producer of Leonard Freeman, not all of whose decisions would be positive for the second series (89, 102-103). Yet prior to his departure, Neuman’s series “had received primarily positive responses from viewers and critics” (93) and his Olympia April 17, 1964 address to the WEA Assembly emphasized that he “never believed that there is a low common denominator for mass tastes” (95).

Following the successful teaming of a veteran actor with a younger novice in Dr. Kildare and the earlier teaming of Henry Fonda with the now-forgotten Allen Case in The Deputy (1959-1961), Neuman cast Dean Jagger as Principal Albert Vane and Franciscus in the title role. Despite his age, Jagger accommodated himself to the more demanding world of television and managed to deliver accomplished performances until ill-health forced him off the show. A syndicated news item and interview also suggests that Jagger’s dissatisfaction with the way the series was going under a new producer was also a major reason. (142-143). Despite newspaper items suggesting tensions between two different actors, those seeing them on set testified to the professional cordiality and respect they shared towards each other. Franciscus kept his personal life separate from his professional activities (109-110), always wanted to leave at a regular time to be at home with his family, and often criticized teen fan magazines for their appetite for juicy gossip that he refused to supply. However, whenever the occasion was serious, he easily complied as with his challenging confrontation with a group of high school journalism majors in which he solidly defended his professional status as an actor (85-86). Franciscus was obviously a journeyman actor, busily learning his lines and engaged in no fun on the set, an attitude Hitchcock encountered with John Gavin during Psycho leading him to turn to Janet Leigh, who understood his sense of humor.

Novak 03Other veteran actors appeared as guest stars during the series such as Lilian Gish as a social hygiene teacher receiving parental complains about her explicit teaching and Hermione Baddeley as a 75-year-old British school exchange teacher. (Since the UK state retirement age was 65, she must have come from its private sector?) Ida Lupino also directed one episode (52). The series did not shy away from controversial subjects such as cheating and racism and ignored institutional pressures for “happy endings” in most cases. An ambitious attempt was made to produce a two-part episode dealing with the issue of venereal disease that would combine both Mr. Novak with MGM-TV’s also successful Dr. Kildare, which would have brought together both stars and locations in a unique combination, though censors killed the project (126). However, a synopsis of the original treatment is available on pp.340-348. The continuing issue of poor pay for teachers also formed the basis of one episode with Novak forced to moonlight doing an extra job to pay for his father’s medical treatment. This script was written by Meyer Dolinsky (263). The February 4, 1964 episode “Death of a Teacher” dealt with the death of an elderly teacher due to a heavy work load (242-243). Another interesting episode, “The Tender Twigs,” broadcast on March 16, 1965, involved freedom of expression when Novak and a fellow teacher are accused of communist subversion by a right-wing fanatic played by Robert Culp, leading to both men facing a Board of Education hearing (296-297). At least, in those days, they believed in “due process.”

“Alumni and Memories” (189-196) covers the work of the principal participants when the series was cancelled and its replacement, “My Mother the Car,” symbolized the changing world of television when triviality, conformism, and “mindless (television) entertainment” became the norm with a bland, corporate style oppressing any potentially interrogative substance becoming the rule in the latter part of the decade and beyond. The achievements of key players receive significant mention but Franciscus’s role as potential Secretary of State Conrad Morgan in Good Guys Wear Black is not mentioned (190-191). I don’t know if this is accidental or an unconscious structured absence to erase what may have been Francscus’s only villainous role (I’ve not seen all of his work) so as not to tarnish his image as a virtuous JFK in the same way that Henry Fonda (and later Martin Sheen) were America’s different images of the ideal President. Perhaps some future psychoanalytic treatment may be in order here?

Even where episodes were disappointing in the author’s estimate they were still redeemed by guest performances by actors of the quality of Susan Tyrell, Robert Walker, Jr., Vera Miles, and Louise Latham whose first name is misspelled as “Louis” on p. 304. Copiously illustrated by stills, promotion material, and off-set images, this book has much else in its favor, not the least of which is a reproduction of Neuman’s guide to each writer selected for the series, which gives invaluable information about the back story of each character and the role envisaged for the high school community (319-330). This is a valuable archival document and it may be the first time such a guide has ever appeared publicly since it gives valuable information for future studies on the nature of series television concerning individual authorship and the production demands of a continuing episodic structure that new writers were expected to follow.

Novak 04The final two supplements are also interesting. The first is a 1964 graduation advice paper written by Franciscus and distributed to graduating seniors of that year (333-334). The actor offers advice for not just those going to college but also others who will not attend. Going to college does not necessarily mean education. He suggests that education is a life-long process, not just confined to college, but also something the fortunate as well as the supposedly non-fortunate can participate in during all stages of their lives. Education for the actor is constant with the challenging nature of each new role and how to interpret it successfully. Unless the performer is merely “doing the business,” then the emphasis on keeping the performance constantly fresh is always relevant and this may be behind the actor’s advice to all who graduate from college. Whether graduating from high school, college, or acting school, one must always build upon the foundations and adapt and creatively develop whatever one’s future occupation or life role is. This address is possibly the nearest we will ever get to the thoughts of an actor who disliked giving interviews. The second supplement comes from the pilot episode in which Principal Vane supplies a Credo for New Teachers (337) emphasizing issues of integrity and professionalism that so many fall far short of today.

This appeared before the era of student evaluations that administrators often use to fire creative teachers, and several of Vane’s ideas would jar today like the following:

Don’t wear a sign on your face that reads “My name is Pal.” They’ll think you’re a stray dog. And besides, you’re simply not going to like every last one of them. It’s ten to one that before the day is over, you’ll privately detest at least one in every class. All right, detest him. But teach him anyway. And teach him well. (337)

One may express disdainful bemusement at such sentiments fifty years later. But they are sorely needed today. Yes, this type of entertainment was manufactured according to contemporary ideology, but entertainment can be complex, contradictory, and productive, not just one-dimensional. In the early to mid-60s it was possible for American television to prove that it was not just a “wasteland” but could, on occasions, allow for some interesting non-mainstream productions to appear that would stimulate viewers to question the real-life causes behind fictional representations, despite the limitations placed upon certain expressions. From what I’ve read about this series in this comprehensive study, it again reveals how much there is to learn from the past, take up relevant lessons and express them anew within the dimensions of different concerns today, appreciate not just the achievements but also to see how far short we have fallen from certain past aspirations, and revive them in new formations artistically and critically.

Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and a contributing Editor to Film international.

2 Comments for “Defying Ideology (and the Academy) – Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter”

  1. Christopher Sharrett

    Your first two sentences are alone worth the price of admission. A comprehensive and intelligent piece of history.

  2. Thanks, Chris. History and knowledge of the past does matter. That is why I get so mad at inane generalized remarks such as “the television wasteland” by people who are too lazy to explore. Certainly, stylistic wastelands existed and I could citte HAWAII 5.0, CHIPS, THE LOVE BOAT, GILLIGAN’S ISLAND etc among the many examples. But exceptions did exist and however compromised they were, revealed an early idealistic attempt to take television seriously before the factory-like production exemplified by PERRY MASON and IRONSIDE prevailed for a time. With youube and the unsung heroes in the bootleg world adding subtitles to hitherto unavailable foreign and post-war films, there is a lot to be discovered – and much we have to learn from.

Leave a Reply