The Mature Candidate
John Frankenheimer was the wunderkind director of the Golden Age of Television who went on to make more than 25 feature films, including such classics as “Birdman of Alcatraz,” “The Manchurian Candidate” and “The Train.” He made a triumphant return to television in 1994 with the HBO drama “Against the Wall” and won an unprecedented three Emmy Awards in a row for “Wall,” HBO’s “The Burning Season” and TNT’s “Andersonville.” His latest telefilm, “George Wallace,” starring Gary Sinise, premieres Sunday on TNT.
Frankenheimer, 67, is the subject of a joint retrospective of the Museum of Television & Radio and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Directed by John Frankenheimer: The Television Work” continues through Dec. 4. Frankenheimer will discuss his TV work at a seminar at the Museum of Television & Radio on Sept. 24.
From Sept. 5 to Sept. 26, LACMA will screen several of Frankenheimer’s films and he’ll appear following “The Train” on Sept. 19 to discuss the film with Charles Champlin and participate in a discussion of “The Manchurian Candidate” on Sept. 20. On Sept. 26, he’ll introduce a rare screening of “The Iceman Cometh.”
Frankenheimer, who is about to start work on a new feature, “Ronin,” in Paris, recently discussed the joint retrospective and why the Golden Age of Television was golden.
Question: Is directing for television more fulfilling and exciting than directing features?
Answer: You got to break it into what [TV] was then and what it is now. What is now is not more exciting than features because it’s more or less the same thing. It’s just the material seems better now [than in features].
But let’s talk about then. I did so many shows. It took away all the fear that you have of failure. You knew like on “Playhouse 90,” you were going to do 14 shows [a year]. So if you had, not a disaster, but a bad result one week, it didn’t mean that your career was over. It meant that you would go on and do another one. What it enabled you to do was to take tremendous risks and chances and to grow as an artist because you didn’t have to worry about the impact of everything on your future life. It made you grow.
Also, I really liked the live process. It meant three weeks of rehearsal and three days [rehearsing] on camera and then we did it. It taught me how to work with actors. It taught me how to work with cameras. It taught me how to deal with pressure.
I was able to do what I wanted to do, which was direct. Now so much of directing is trying to get the projects made. So much of directing now is having these endless meetings and the whole political aspect of that. There was no political aspect [in TV]. You either knew how to do it or you didn’t. You couldn’t talk your way through a live television show as so many people can talk their way through a movie.
In live TV, you had to know what you were doing. It separated the men from the boys and it spawned a tremendous group of wonderful directors--Franklin Schaffner, George Shaefer, Bob Mulligan, Fielder Cook, Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill. We had wonderful actors and these great writers. It was a great, great time.
Q: Why did these great dramatic showcases disappear by the early ‘60s?
A: I think because television became a mass medium. More and more people got television sets and the common denominator got a lot lower and they had to lower the standards. The ratings got to be the king and we got pushed aside.
Q: You directed your first feature, “The Young Stranger,” in 1957, which was based on your 1955 live TV drama “Deal a Blow.” You returned to TV when it was completed and didn’t make another film until 1961. Why?
A: It was a horrible experience. The crew hated me because I was trying to do a movie in 25 days. The cameraman would never cooperate with me to do what I wanted to do. I didn’t get along with the producer. I found the producer had much more power in film, because they could second guess you. In television, they never could. The producers I worked with on TV were so much better. Martin Manulis and Fred Coe were the two best producers I have ever worked with to this day.
Q: Is working in cable now the closest thing to working with the writers and actors that you did in the 1950s?
A: That’s why I do the cable because I think it’s a unique form in which we have to do this kind of material again. I think it is really a remarkable situation right now that we have with cable TV. They are really doing good stuff and they’re on the edge. We had complete creative control on “George Wallace,” which we had on “Playhouse 90,” too. [Cable] gives you complete creative control. At least, they do me. They give me final cut and they give me everything.
Q: Had you had offers to return to TV over the years before you did “Against the Wall” in 1994?
A: Oh yeah, continually. The timing wasn’t right. I was either not available or the money wasn’t right or I didn’t feel like it. This whole body of television [I’ve done in the ‘90s] is a whole kind of rebirth for me. It has been a magnificent time in my life.
Q: During the Golden Age of Television, you directed such legends as Ingrid Bergman in “The Turn of the Screw” and John Gielgud in “The Browning Version.” Were you ever intimidated working with such great actors?
A: I’ve got to tell you the one I was really intimidated by was John Gielgud because to me he was the theater. I said to him when I first met him, “Sir John, you are an idol of mine. I don’t see how I can possibly direct you.” He said: “Dear fellow, you don’t really understand. This is the first time I am doing this television. I am terrified of it. I need your help.”
Q: You say that as a director in TV in the ‘50s, you could do almost anything you wanted. But you ran into censorship problems, especially with the 1958 “Playhouse 90" drama “A Town Has Turned to Dust.”
A: That show was supposed to have been the first show of the opening of the second year of “Playhouse 90.” It was supposed to be what happened to the men who killed Emmett Till, the civil rights worker. Then the sponsors told the network they would not sponsor it, it was too controversial. We had to rewrite it as a western. The Rod Steiger character was supposed to commit suicide, but four days before the show went on, the Prudential Insurance Co. said, “We are not going to sponsor a show where the principal character commits suicide.” So we had to have him die from a gunshot wound. Those things did happen, but they were few and far between.
Q: When you began making features in 1961, were you given the same control that you had on TV?
A: I got very lucky in the fact that I had a string there of “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “All Fall Down,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Seven Days in May” and “The Train.” “Manchurian” and “Seven Days” were subjects I had instigated with, in one case, [producer-writer] George Axelrod, and in the other case, [producer] Edward Lewis. Burt Lancaster asked me to do “The Train” and “Seconds” I did with Edward Lewis. In the ‘60s, I had a pretty good run and had lot of control and I am getting it again, thank God, because of these cable movies. I am going to do this movie for United Artists now in France which is a really good script, “Ronin.” It’s a character-action picture. It’s really quite good.
Q: You made five pictures with Burt Lancaster. What was your relationship like?
A: He and I really got along well. He was a consummate professional and he was a very good actor. He was just such a professional man. He just wanted everybody to do the best he could do and he did the best he could do. Every day he was on the set, he tried as hard as he could. I just loved working with him because his work ethic was so great, much like Gary Sinise in “Wallace.”
Q: My favorite film of yours is “The Iceman Cometh,” which had extremely limited release in 1973 as part of the short-lived “American Film Theatre” project. You’re introducing the screening at LACMA on Sept. 26. Is this the first time it’s been shown in L.A. since 1973?
A: To the best of my knowledge, in California, this is the first time. I feel it’s the best thing I have ever done. I care about that movie and am very passionate about that movie.
Q: Are there any other films in the retrospective that has a special meaning for you?
A: “Against the Wall” because of the subject matter and where it came in my life. That was the one which brought back my whole career. That was the one that just turned everything around for me.
“George Wallace” premieres Sunday and Tuesday on cable’s TNT at 5, 7 and 9 p.m.
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The Works of Frankenheimer
Screenings for “Directed by John Frankenheimer: The Television and Film Work”:
At the Museum of Television & Radio
Today: “George Wallace”
Friday-Sunday: “The Burning Season”
Aug. 28-31: “Andersonville”
Sept. 4-7: “Danger: Knife in the Dark” and “Playhouse 90: Old Man”
Sept. 12-13: “Climax!: Bail Out at Forty-Three Thousand” and “Playhouse 90: Bomber’s Moon”
Sept. 19-20: “Climax!: Pale Horse, Pale Rider” and “Ford Startime: TV’s Finest Hour: ‘The Turn of the Screw’ ”
Sept. 25-28 and Oct. 2-25: “Playhouse 90: Days of Wine and Roses” and “Playhouse 90: Journey to the Day”
Oct. 9-12: “Climax! Portrait in Celluloid” and “Playhouse 90: The Comedian”
Oct. 16-19: “Playhouse 90: The Last Tycoon” and “Playhouse 90: The Thundering Wave”
Oct. 23-26: “You Are There: The Plot Against King Solomon” and “Playhouse 90: A Town Has Turned to Dust”
Oct. 30-Nov. 2: “Climax! Deal a Blow” and “Playhouse 90: Forbidden Area”
Nov. 6-9: “Buick Electra Playhouse: The Fifth Column” and “Buick Electra Playhouse: The Snows of Kilimanjaro”
Nov. 13-16: “Playhouse 90: Clash by Night” and “Dupont Show of the Month: The Browning Version”
Nov. 20-23: “Westinghouse Studio One in Hollywood: The Last Summer” and “Playhouse 90: Winter Dreams”
Nov. 28-30 and Dec. 4: “Climax! To Wake at Midnight” and “Sunday Showcase: The American”
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Sept. 5: “Seven Days in May” and “Seconds”
Sept. 6: “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “I Walk the Line”
Sept. 12: “52 Pick-Up” and “Black Sunday”
Sept. 13: “Grand Prix”
Sept. 19: “The Train”
Sept. 20: “The Manchurian Candidate” and “All Fall Down”
Sept. 26: “The Iceman Cometh”
The Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills. Admission is free for members; $6 for adults; $4 for students and senior citizens; and $3 for children under 13. Call for screening times: (310) 786-1025.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6010.