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A movie maverick’s TV years

Times Staff Writer

John Cassavetes was a staple on live television in the 1950s, long before he became the director of such seminal film classics as “Shadows,” “Faces” and “A Woman Under the Influence” and an award-winning movie star (“The Dirty Dozen,” “Rosemary’s Baby”). And even after the acclaim, he would continue to appear on the small screen well into the 1970s.

But his influential films have long overshadowed his television work. In fact, the new retrospective, “Cassavetes,” opening Friday at the Museum of Tele- vision & Radio in Beverly Hills, is the first comprehensive look at his work as a TV actor and director.

The series, which continues through March 13, features more than 20 programs that Cassavetes either starred in, wrote or directed and feature such actors as his wife, Gena Rowlands; frequent costars Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel; directors Don Siegel, John Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet; and writers Reginald Rose, Budd Schulberg and Robert Towne, among others. Many of the programs have not been seen publicly since their initial broadcast.

“There is this popular myth that he was born a director and that he kind of made ‘Shadows’ and then America had this independent film scene,” says curator Allen Glover. “But he spent years and years acting in dozens of live dramas even before he considered directing his first picture.”

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Cassavetes, says Glover, jumps off the screen in his TV appearances. “He has such an empathetic presence,” Glover says. “I think this natural intensity comes across in everything that he did.”

Among the programs in the retrospective is “Paso Doble,” which aired on the “Omnibus” series in 1954. The role of a sensitive young bullfighter marked Cassavetes’ first starring TV role. Critics took notice of this intense young man, as did others in Hollywood, including gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. “He often courted her to gain publicity for himself,” says Glover. “He wrote her flattering letters ... and reminded her he would be on TV the next night.”

The museum’s series opens with four episodes of Cassavetes’ NBC-TV series “Johnny Staccato,” which aired from 1959 to 1960. Set in New York City -- but mainly shot in Los Angeles -- “Johnny Staccato” focused on a private detective who moonlighted as a jazz pianist. The concept, Glover says, was a source of friction between Cassavetes and the studio. “He wanted more jazz and less plot and more focus on character in the show. He didn’t really want to do the series at first,” says Glover. “He just finished making ‘Shadows’ and was faced with this huge postproduction bill. He turned it down and then called back and said, ‘I will do the show, but I want a creative hand and to be able to direct some of the episodes.’ ”

Cassavetes directed five shows and even wrote a few before the series was canceled after 27 episodes. Glover says it wasn’t poor ratings that killed the show but behind-the-scenes machinations.

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“It was the studio and the sponsors and about content. There was an episode called ‘The Wild Reed’ -- which the museum is screening -- which was about dope addiction. The network planned to broadcast that in December 1959 and then the network pulled it and said, ‘We can’t show this during the holiday season.’ He went public with his complaints about NBC and the sponsors. Back then, in the studio days, that wasn’t done. It made all the suits at Universal angry.”

One of the best-known programs in the festival is the 1964 TV movie “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers,” which was to be NBC’s first movie-of-the-week. But it also ran afoul of the network censors and was pulled off the schedule. “The Killers” subsequently was released theatrically. Directed by Don Siegel, the film marked Ronald Reagan’s last acting role before entering a life in politics.

“There’s a scene where Ronald Reagan slaps Angie Dickinson and Cassavetes punches Ronald Reagan,” says Glover. “It was deemed inappropriate for TV at the time.”

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‘Cassavetes’

Where: Museum of Television & Radio, 465 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills

When: Noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, beginning Friday

Ends: March 13

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Price: Free

Info: (310) 786-1000 or go to www.mtr.org

Schedule

Friday-Sunday: “Johnny Staccato”

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Jan. 18-20: “Omnibus: Paso Doble,” “Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers”

Feb. 1-6: “Armstrong Circle Theatre: Time for Love,” “Goodyear Playhouse: The Expendable House” and “Kraft Suspense Theater: Won’t It Ever Be Morning?”

Feb. 8-13: “20th Century-Fox Hour: The Last Patriarch,” “Playhouse 90: Winter Dreams”

Feb. 15-20: “Alcoa Theatre: The First Star,” “Burke’s Law,” “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater: Free of Charge”

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Feb. 22-27: “Johnny Staccato,” “The Lloyd Bridges Show”

March 1-6: “The David Frost Show” (excerpt), “Columbo,” “Flesh and Blood” (excerpt)

March 8-13: “Quest: Flip Side,” “Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater: In Pursuit of Excellence”


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