Martin Manulis, a stage, television and film producer best known for launching “Playhouse 90,” the live dramatic anthology series that became a television classic, has died. He was 92.
Manulis died of natural causes Friday at his home in Los Angeles, his son, John Bard Manulis, said.
The sole producer of more than 60 “Playhouse 90" segments, including every one in its first two seasons, Manulis brought together a host of first-rate directors, writers and actors.
The CBS-TV show, which debuted in 1956, won six Emmy Awards in its first season, including best new program series. “Requiem for a Heavyweight,” the second episode to air, was named best single program of the year. That segment, about a hard-luck boxer at the end of his career, won four more Emmys, for writing (Rod Serling), acting (Jack Palance), direction (Ralph Nelson) and art direction (Albert Heschong).
The show won five Emmys the next season under Manulis’ leadership and was honored as outstanding drama all four years of its regular run.
Among the episodes Manulis produced during the first few seasons were “The Miracle Worker,” directed by Arthur Penn, written by William Gibson and starring Teresa Wright, Patty McCormack and Burl Ives; “The Comedian,” written by Serling, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Mickey Rooney; “Forbidden Area,” directed by Frankenheimer, written by Serling and starring Charlton Heston; “The Eighty Yard Run,” with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; “The Days of Wine and Roses,” directed by Frankenheimer, written by J.P. Miller and starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie; and “The Helen Morgan Story,” directed by George Roy Hill and starring Polly Bergen.
The ambitious program tackled serious subject matter and maintained high production values, quickly making it an artistic and critical success.
“Live TV had one great advantage,” Manulis told former Times critic Cecil Smith in 1996. “By the time they knew what you were doing it was too late to do anything about it. Plays would be in rehearsal for two weeks and some sponsor or network officials would yell, ‘You can’t do that!’ We’d say, ‘We either do it or you have no show Thursday night, you have 90 minutes of empty air.’ ”
But the pressure of taping a live 90-minute original drama once a week for 30 weeks at CBS Television City in Los Angeles was extraordinary. Plus, the program’s ratings never matched its critical acclaim. Manulis cut back his duties in the third season, producing a third of the episodes.
“It was an emotional show,” Manulis recalled in 1996. “It was such a strain [doing it] live. Plus, you had to run from one [set] to another. You had to have people clawing at you to change your clothes while you were in close-ups.”
In 1958, he became head of production at Twentieth Century Fox Television, where he was executive producer of something completely different: “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” a sitcom featuring Dwayne Hickman in the title role and Bob Denver as beatnik Maynard G. Krebs.
In the ‘60s, Manulis moved into film, producing the motion picture version of “The Days of Wine and Roses,” directed by Blake Edwards and starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, in 1962.
He later returned to TV, producing such miniseries as “Chiefs” (1983) and “Space” (1985).
Manulis had started out in theater. Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on May 30, 1915, he attended Broadway plays as a child on outings with his mother. A 1935 graduate of Columbia University with an English major, he worked as a stage director and producer in New York before and after World War II. He became managing director of the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut in 1945, after serving as a Navy press liaison officer in Europe.
In the 1950s, during the early days of television, Manulis began producing plays for CBS-TV’s “Best of Broadway” series as well as the dramatic anthology series “Suspense,” “Studio One” and “Climax!” before taking on “Playhouse 90.”
Manulis served as director of the American Film Institute’s West Coast operation in the mid-1970s and as artistic director of the Ahmanson Theatre from 1987 to ’89.
Besides his son, Manulis is survived by daughters Laurie Harmon and Karen Manulis Cohen; a grandchild; and two great-grandchildren. His wife of 44 years, actress Katherine Bard, died in 1983.
Services will be private.
Donations in his name may be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund at www.mptvfund.org or the Alzheimer’s Assn. at www.alz.org.