When the small screen was in its infancy in the 1950s, a group of young, scrappy writers such as Rod Serling, JP Miller, Reginald Rose and Paddy Chayefsky and directors such as John Frankenheimer, Alex Segal, Delbert Mann, Franklin Schaffner, Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill collaborated on a series of live television dramas that set the gold standard for the fledgling medium.
FOR THE RECORD:
'The Golden Age of Television': A DVD review in Saturday's Calendar on "The Golden Age of Television" misstated "A Wind From the South" director Daniel Petrie's first name as Donald, and misidentified the director of "Requiem for a Heavyweight," Ralph Nelson, as John Frankenheimer. —
"The Hallmark Hall of Fame," "Playhouse 90," "Kraft Television Theatre," "Goodyear Television Playhouse," "Studio One" and "Climax" were among the decade's top anthology series -- a veritable Broadway stage in your own home. These shows also attracted such veteran performers as Helen Hayes and Mary Martin and up-and-comers such as Paul Newman, James Dean and Steve McQueen.
In the early 1980s, PBS presented a series, "The Golden Age of Television," which offered eight renowned productions from the early age of TV along with commentary and interviews with those involved. This week, the Criterion Collection released the DVD set of this PBS program, and it's a knockout.
On May 24, 1953, viewers who tuned in to the "Goodyear Television Playhouse" witnessed what is considered a pivotal moment in the development of live television: Chayefsky's "Marty." Produced by Fred Coe and directed by Mann, this haunting drama revolves around a 36-year-old Bronx butcher (a perfectly cast Rod Steiger) who is being pressured to get married. Two years later, Mann and Chayefsky teamed up to bring "Marty" to the big screen, and it won Oscars for best film, director, screenplay and actor (Ernest Borgnine).
"Patterns," which aired Jan. 12, 1955, on "Kraft Television Theatre," put Serling on the map and won him his first Emmy for original teleplay. The searing morality tale is remarkably timely these days because it deals with the ruthlessness of corporate America. The show was such a hit that it was repeated a month later with most of the original cast. In 1956, Serling adapted his teleplay for the equally hard-hitting feature version.
A star was born on the March 15, 1955, installment of "The United States Steel Hour": Andy Griffith, who was an unknown stand-up comic when he starred as country bumpkin Will Stockdale in the military comedy "No Time for Sergeants," one of the few comedies that aired on these dramatic anthologies. Griffith and "Sergeants" were such a sensation that, six months later, a stage version premiered on Broadway to great acclaim. And in 1957, Griffith brought Stockdale to the big screen.
During this era, Julie Harris was one of the queens of the live TV drama and she gave a luminous performance in "The United States Steel Hour" presentation "A Wind From the South," which aired Sept. 14, 1955. The delicate story about a dreamy Irish innkeeper was directed by Donald Petrie.
Newman already had a few feature films under his belt when he returned to TV for "Bang the Drum Slowly," which aired on "Steel Hour" on Sept. 26, 1956. Adapted by Arnold Schulman from Mark Harris' book and directed by Petrie, this lovely, sentimental drama revolves around a baseball pitching ace who learns that his roommate, a third-string catcher (Albert Salmi), is dying. Seventeen years later, Michael Moriarty and Robert De Niro starred in the film version.
"Requiem for a Heavyweight," which premiered Oct. 11, 1956, on "Playhouse 90," was the first live 90-minute drama on TV. The gritty drama about an aging fighter (Jack Palance) still packs a wallop, thanks to Serling's humanistic script, the raw-boned performances of Palance and Ed Wynn and his son, Keenan, and Frankenheimer's evocative direction. The show won four major Emmys. In 1962, Anthony Quinn starred in the film version.
Even more exceptional is Serling's Emmy Award-winning "The Comedian," which aired Feb. 14, 1957, on "Playhouse." Mickey Rooney gives the performance of his life as a sadistic, egotistical TV comedian. Mel Tormé plays his weak-willed brother and Edmond O'Brien is the show's comedy writer. Frankenheimer brings a visual sophistication to his direction, especially in the show's opening moments.
Frankenheimer also was at the top of his game with "Days of Wine and Roses," which premiered Oct. 2, 1958, on "90." Penned by Miller, the harrowing drama revolves around a young couple (Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie) whose lives become dangerously dependent on alcohol. Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick starred in the classic 1962 feature version.