For Further Reading
On a website that gazes at the history of television from a variety of angles, it seems a good idea to suggest some additional resources to readers who might wonder where they can find more of the same sort of thing.
What follows, then, is a guide to the best texts I’ve found on the subject of television history or criticism. I offer them here primarily as recommended reading, but also to acknowledge that most of them have guided or influenced my own research in some way (all erroneous reporting and bad writing being entirely my own, of course).
Nothing here is listed out of any sense of duty or completeness. I mention only good writing (or, in some cases, excellent detective work backed by serviceable writing) that I can endorse as sources of both information and pleasure.
The most likely candidate as a text in an introductory college class on the history of television is probably Erik Barnouw’s Tube of Plenty: The Evolution of American Television (Oxford UP, 1990), a very readable overview (by a scholar whose credentials included a brief career as a live TV playwright during the fifties).
A more inspired choice would be Jeff Kisseloff’s The Box: An Oral History of Television 1929-1961 (Penguin, 1995), although oral history is evidently so out fashion in academia these days that when I, as an undergraduate, recommended the book to a TV prof, I couldn’t convince her even to read it, much less teach it. Nonetheless, Kisseloff’s book is a monumental feat, a synthesis of hundreds of interviews edited so skillfully that the chronology which emerges is more concise than most historical accounts by a single narrator. Kisseloff’s thoroughness was irreproachable, and his timing impeccable; many of his sources died very soon after talking to him. (I’d estimate that 75% or so are already gone now, less than fifteen years after the book was published.)
Ira Skutch’s The Days of Live (Scarecrow, 1998), which culls material from the Directors Guild of America’s unpublished interviews with its members, and Gorham Kindem’s The Live Television Generation of Hollywood Film Directors: Interviews with Seven Directors (McFarland, 1994) are both essential works of oral history that narrow their focus to the nexus of the live TV experience, the director’s control booth.
Jon Burlingame’s TV’s Biggest Hits: The Story of Television Themes From Dragnet to Friends (Schirmer, 1996) doesn’t limit its curiosity to opening title tunes. It’s actually a meticulous history of incidental as well as theme music that draws on the participation of all the important living composers at the time of Burlingame’s research, and it has the good sense to look beyond the well-known shows and consider many obscure but musically significant series.
Burlingame, one of the leading historians of film music, is such a good researcher that his book works as a general history of television filtered through the prism of scoring. Tom Stempel’s Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing (Syracuse UP, 1996) operates the same way, cataloguing five decades worth of fascinating anecdotes as the basis for a critical survey of American television from its writers’ point of view.
Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahimagi’s The American Vein (Dutton, 1979) is the most qualified recommendation on this page. Clearly inspired by Andrew Sarris’s categorizing of Hollywood movie directors, The American Cinema, the (British) authors attempted to do the same with American television directors, notwithstanding the inarguable fact that very few early episodic directors were able to exercise any control over the non-visual content of their work. Whether Wicking and Vahimagi were blithely unaware of that, or simply indifferent, is unclear, but it’s still fascinating to read their spirited defenses or takedowns of the likes of Leonard Horn or Walter Grauman. Though the authors’ comments are often admittedly based on fuzzy memories and too few screenings, they remain (unbelievably) the only serious discussions of many of these directors’ work.
Joseph Turow’s Playing Doctor: Television, Storytelling, and Medical Power (Oxford UP, 1989) is a comprehensive survey of every medical drama (and comedy) broadcast on American television up to the book’s 1989 publication date, drawing heavily on comments by the series’ creators (some of whom gave their only substantial interviews to Turow). I wish there existed a collective production history this thorough for every television subgenre.
Harlan Ellison’s Los Angeles Free Press columns of the late sixties and early seventies, compiled in two volumes as The Glass Teat (Jove, 1969) and The Other Glass Teat (Ace, 1970), may be the only collected television criticism worth reading.
Memoirs and Biographies
Fortunately the two best biographies about television producers document the lives of the most significant dramatic and comedic talents, respectively, who were working in television in the fifties: Jon Krampner’s The Man in the Shadows: Fred Coe and the Golden Age of Television (Rutgers UP, 1997) and David Everitt’s Nat Hiken and the Golden Age of TV Comedy (Syracuse UP, 2001). As the similarity in the subtitles would suggest, there are parallels to be found in the books, not to mention the sad decline into desultory film careers that both Coe and Hiken experienced during the sixties. Among the literature on the other key Golden Age figures, Shaun Considine’s Mad As Hell: The Life and Work of Paddy Chayefsky (Random House, 1994) is worthwhile.
Moving forward chronologically, Jonathan Etter’s Quinn Martin, Producer: A Behind-the-Scenes History of QM Productions and Its Founder (McFarland, 2003) is much stronger on the productions than the founder, but documents the QM series so enthusiastically that its strengths far outweigh any shortcomings. Pat McGilligan’s Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff (St. Martin’s, 1989) and David Weddle’s If They Move . . . Kill ’Em: The Life and Times of Sam Peckinpah (Grove, 1994) both devote ample space to the very significant television work of their subjects and, unlike many film historians who founder in the waters of TV, the authors get it right.
In the area of autobiography, a recent favorite is William Froug’s How I Escaped From Gilligan’s Island: And Other Misadventures of a Hollywood Writer-Producer (Popular Press, 2005). Froug was a radio writer and later a producer of a number of key TV dramas (The Twilight Zone) and comedies (Bewitched), and his book chronicles the intellectual and political nature of television production with a precision uncommon in first-person accounts. (Froug is himself a teacher and historian, and I also recommend his collection The New Screenwriter Looks at the New Screenwriter, which contains interviews with some writers who dabbled in television.)
Norman Lloyd’s Stages (Limelight, 1993), a prose memoir that originated as a Directors Guild of America oral history, is a rich account of this actor-producer-director’s varied career, particularly strong on his productive stint on Alfred Hitchcock Presents and his more frustrating years producing The Name of the Game and made-for-television movies at Universal.
So Far, So Funny: My Life in Show Business (McFarland, 1999) is a witty comedy-writer’s eye view of the film and (mostly) television industry from the creator-producer of Julia, Hal Kanter. Alan Rafkin’s Cue the Bunny on the Rainbow: Tales From TV’s Most Prolific Sitcom Director (Syracuse UP, 1998) is the most thorough memoir yet from an episodic television director.
William Bast’s Surviving James Dean (Barricade, 2006), a more explicit revision of a memoir published by Bast, who was Dean’s roommate for a time in the early fifties, remains controversial in its assertial of a brief sexual relationship between the author and the movie star. I can’t attest to its veracity with regard to Dean, but it does contain a lot of material pertaining to Bast’s early career as a television writer that’s rich in detail and seems authentic.
Any student of early television is by necessity also a student of the political blacklist in the arts, and by far the best work of nonfiction on that subject – by a measure of literary as well as historical merit – is Walter Bernstein’s Inside Out: A Memoir of the Blacklist (Da Capo, 2000). Bernstein remembers his years as an unacknowledged writer on various live dramatic anthologies in rich, ironic detail. The other essential blacklist book is Pat McGilligan and Paul Buhle’s massive compendium of oral histories, Tender Comrades: A Backstory of the Hollywood Blacklist (St. Martin’s, 1997), in which a number of interview subjects discuss their television work at some length.
Individual Series and Episode Guides
It seems that almost every TV series with a hardy fan base has now become the subject of some sort of companion book, or several – all too often well-meaning but totally useless works of fan adoration or corporate tie-in greed that substitute endless plot summaries and generic cast bios for meaningful analysis and well-researched production histories. What follows is a short survey of the few happy exceptions to this trend.
Marc Scott Zicree’s The Twilight Zone Companion (Bantam, 1982) all but created the “making of” genre of behind-the-scenes TV show books. It remains the gold standard, even though some episodes get more attention than others, and the special edition DVDs now offer a tempting multi-media equivalent. A good supplement is Stewart Stanyard’s Dimensions Behind the Twilight Zone (ECW, 2007), which reprints a recently rediscovered cache of contact sheets (including many fascinating production stills) from about fifty episodes, accompanied with newer, longer interviews from people cannily edited to complement the Zicree book.
The Outer Limits Companion (Ace, 1986), by David J. Schow and Jeffrey Frentzen, remains the single most detailed, most impeccably researched book ever written about a television show. With only forty-nine episodes to cover, compared to Zicree’s 156, the two authors set out to document that other sixties sci-fi anthology in exhaustive detail, talking to almost every participant who was still living in the early eighties. (Finding and interviewing two, a writer and a director, who eluded them was a special project within my own oral history work.) The result comes as close as possible to being a production archive without losing its basic readability. The book was reprinted in 1999 with an ugly new cover and Frentzen mysteriously demoted to “research associate,” but I prefer my original 1986 edition; like many people I know, I’m on my second copy, having worn through the pulpy paper of the first during my initial encounter with the show.
Robert H. Justman and Herbert F. Solow’s Inside Star Trek: The Real Story (Pocket, 1996) is the only essential book of the zillion or so written about that series. It’s also an invaluable record of how a (that is, any) TV show of that era got made, from the perspectives of two participants whose points of view have rarely been glimpsed – that of an assistant director (Justman) and a production executive (Solow). The authors share their personal memories of collaborators, both warm and barbed, but also outline meticulously the step-by-step production process, reproducing key documents and correcting many, many misconceptions that have arisen over the years.
On the sitcom side, we’re fortunate that the greatest comedy of the sixties also has the best documented history. Vince Waldron’s The Official Dick Van Dyke Show Book (Hyperion, 1994) enlists the participation of all the key survivors, and chronicles the genesis of all the (many) important episodes.
In My Name’s Friday: The Unauthorized But True Story of Dragnet and the Films of Jack Webb (Cumberland House, 2001), Michael Hayde records the twenty-plus year history of Dragnet, and to a lesser extent the career of its creator, with a keen, unvarnished understanding of the unique set of obsessions that Webb brought to his work.
Jon Heitland’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Book – The Behind-the-Scenes Story of a Television Classic (St. Martin’s, 1987) and Patrick J. White’s The Mission: Impossible Dossier (Avon, 1991) pile up mountains of detail on the two beloved sixties spy shows (although I’d trade them in for a book on I Spy, a show that’s a lot more fun than either).
In spite of its title, Goodnight, John Boy: A Celebration of an American Family and the Values That Have Sustained Us Through Good Times and Bad (Cumberland House, 2002) is a reasonably detailed account of the long run of The Waltons, liberally sprinkled with useful commentary by many of the participants (including key writers and directors). The show’s creator, Earl Hamner, Jr., shares the byline with Ralph Giffin (a unique situation among TV episode guides?), and together they still haven’t explained the enduring appeal of this drab, treacly relic of the seventies to my satisfaction.
Rod Serling’s Night Gallery: An After-Hours Tour (Syracuse UP, 1999), by Scott Skelton and Jim Benson, is as exhaustive as the books on The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits. No amount of wishing can make Serling’s last TV show as good as his earlier ones, but my heart goes out to Skelton and Benson for pouring their heart into this valiant try.
I wish all of them were a bit longer, more detailed, and better designed (and perhaps the author does as well), but Ed Robertson’s research on three crucial series created by Roy Huggins yielded a worthwhile book on each: Maverick: A Legend of the West (Pomegranate, 1994), The Fugitive Recaptured: The 30th Anniversary Companion to a Television Classic (Pomegranate, 1993), and This Is Jim Rockford . . .: The Rockford Files (which has since been updated and expanded, in an edition I haven’t read). I’m also glad to see that Robertson’s excellent shorter histories of series like Run For Your Life and The Magician are now available on his website.
Copyright © 2007 Stephen W. Bowie
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