Charles Larson, prolific writer-producer

Charles Larson title card for The FBI episode “Slow March Up a Steep Hill.”

Another in a series about unsung figures of television

In the 21st century, top producers of TV shows are celebrated as “showrunners.” In the 20th century, such figures were anonymous to the general public.

Thus was the case with Charles Larson. He was the founding producer (i.e. the day-to-day producer) of The FBI, who probably should have credited as the series creator but the show never had a creator credit. He guided other series as well.

As a writer only, Larson worked on everything from the Clayton Moore-Jay Silverheels version of The Lone Ranger to the mini-series Centennial.

One of his fans was director Ralph Senensky, whose many credits included episodes of 12 O’Clock High and The FBI where Larson worked as associate producer and producer respectively.

Larson “was a fine writer who did an amazing amount of rewriting on scripts before and even during filming,” Senensky wrote about Larson.

Concerning an episode of 12 O’Clock High titled “The Trap,” Senensky wrote: ” The script I was given was a blatant melodrama of five people stranded in a cellar during a London air raid. Charles fleshed out the people and created a complex study of the conflict of class differences as five people faced the ugly horror of war.”

Senensky wrote that his favorite episode of The FBI was a second-season installment called “The Assassin.” The teleplay was credited to John McGreevy and the plot to Anthony Spinner. “I detected Charles’ fine handprints all over THE ASSASSIN, the best script I had yet been handed on THE FBI and eventually the best one of the series I would ever direct.”

On The FBI, Larson wrote and produced the fourth episode, “Slow March Up a Steel Hill.” It looks like it may have been the pilot.

There’s a lot of explanatory dialogue concerning how the wife of Inspector Erskine (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) was killed in an ambush meant for the FBI man. Erskine’s sidekick is determined to marry Erskine’s college-age daughter (!). And it’s established that Erskine was so stubborn, he sometimes got in trouble with his boss, assistant director Arthur Ward (Philip Abbott). The latter theme wouldn’t be used much after the first half of the first season.

Also, on The FBI, Larson had to deal with the real-life bureau, which had veto power over guest stars and scripts. “Charlie had a really difficult job,” production manager Howard Alston told author Jonathan Etter for the book Quinn Martin, Producer. “The first year he had to listen to all the FBI’s input, to all of the people who felt they knew more about how to do the show than he did.”

After departing The FBI after the fourth season, Larson produced other series, none of which was a big hit. He continued as a writer beyond that. One of his most memorable scripts was for the 1977 Hawaii Five-O episode The Bells Toll at Noon. There were three separate writing credits but Larson was listed as doing the final teleplay.

The story concerns a disturbed man (Rich Little) who kills people while re-enacting scenes from classic movies. Little, the famed impressionist, mimicked James Cagney and other movie stars. It was one of the highlights of the show’s ninth season.

Larson died in 2006 at the age of 83.

Dominic Frontiere, prolific TV composer, dies

Dominic Frontiere’s title card for Probe, the TV movie that resulted in the Search TV series.

Dominic Frontiere, a busy television composer for series such as 12 O’Clock High and The Invaders, has died at 86, according to a funeral notice in the Los Angeles Times.

Frontiere had a long association with television producer Leslie Stevens. The two were collaborators on the series Stoney Burke, The Outer Limits, the first season of The Name of the Game and Search. Frontiere was a production executive, as well as composer, for Stevens’ Daystar Productions.

After the end of The Outer Limits, Frontiere (along with other Daystar alumni) landed at QM Productions. Frontiere was the main composer for QM’s 12 O’Clock High. He also conducted music for other QM shows such as The FBI during its first two seasons.

While still at Daystar, Frontiere scored an unsold pilot titled The Unknown. That would be shown as an Outer Limits episode. Frontiere’s Unknown theme would be used as the theme for QM’s The Invaders.

Dominic Frontiere’s title card for an episode of The Name of the Game that was produced his long-time collaborator, Leslie Stevens.

Frontiere later worked on the 1977 mini-series Washington: Behind Closed Doors as well as the TV series such as The Rat Patrol, Vega$ and Matt Houston.

Frontiere also got into the legal trouble. He was married to Georgia Frontiere, the owner of the Los Angeles Rams.

Dominic Frontiere ” pleaded guilty to charges that he willfully filed a false income tax return and lied to Internal Revenue Service investigators to cover up his role in scalping” tickets to the 1980 Super Bowl, according to a 1986 story by the Los Angeles Times. 

UPDATE (9:45 P.M.): Jon Burlingame has written a more detailed obituary for Frontiere in VARIETY. 

William Self: Fox TV to the rescue

William Self title card on an episode of Batman, produced by 20th Century Fox’s television unit

Another in a series about unsung figures of television.

In the early 1960s, things were not looking good at 20th Century Fox.

The 1963 film Cleopatra, while popular with audiences. It sold 67.2 million tickets in the U.S. and Canada. That was more than Goldfinger’s 66.3 million.

But Cleopatra was so expensive, it had no chance of recouping its costs. The studio was going to need a bailout.

The bailout came from its television division, headed by executive William Self, a former actor.

Self’s TV unit took an inventory of the properties Fox held and began developing television versions.

As a result, in the fall of 1964, Fox came out with Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (based on the studio’s 1961 film produced by Irwin Allen); Peyton Place, based on a 1956 novel, made into a 1957 Fox film; and 12 O’Clock High, based on a 1948 novel and made into a 1949 Fox movie.

All three were part of ABC’s 1964-65 schedule. Also, Fox produced Daniel Boone for NBC that same season.

Soon after, Self’s Fox TV unit was the home of other Allen shows as well as the 1966-68 Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. The latter got off to a rocky start as test audiences were confused by the campy approach.

Self’s tenure at Fox lasted into the early 1970s. He became a producer (something he had done before joining Fox), whose credits included 1976’s The Shootist, the final John Wayne film.

Self died in 2010 at the age of 89.

William W. Spencer: ‘Artist who painted with light’

Stephen Brooks and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as photographed by William W. Spencer in The FBI.

Stephen Brooks and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as photographed by William W. Spencer in The FBI.

Another in a series of unsung figures of television.

With films, the director of photography often is celebrated as an artist and a critical contributor.

On television? Not so much. Even today, with TV’s prestige at an all-time high (where television is hailed as more adult than motion pictures), directors of photography don’t get the attention of their movie counterparts.

However, people who worked with television directors of photography are fully aware of how much they bring to the table. That’s certainly the case with William W. Spencer, a two-time Emmy winner who was also nominated a third.

“Billy Spencer was an artist who painted with light,” director Ralph Senensky wrote on his website about The FBI episode titled The Assassin.

Similar comments were expressed by those in front of the camera. “He knew what he wanted all the time, how he wanted to set it up, how it would be dramatically correct,” actress Lynda Day George told author Jonathan Etter for the book Quinn Martin, Producer.

In the first episode of The FBI, Jeffrey Hunter played Francis Jerome, a psychotic killer with sexual identity issues. Jerome kills women by strangling them with their own long hair.

In Act III, Jerome visits the dreary home of his domineering grandmother (Estelle Winwood). After bending to her will, yet again, Jerome freaks out as he looks at the portrait of the long-haired Blue Boy.

In a close up, Spencer’s lights emphasize Jerome’s eyes. In the 21st century, that’s an old-fashioned technique, but effective in telling the story.

Born in 1921, Spencer worked camera-related jobs at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer as the studio was beginning to decline from its glory days. He graduated to director of photography (one of two) for the 1958 movie Andy Hardy Comes Home.

MGM shifted Spencer to television with a series based on The Thin Man. He would work in television for the bulk of his career.

That meant working faster than even modestly budgeted movies.

“You were constantly adapting, constantly sacrificing and letting things go,” Spencer told Etter for the Quinn Martin book.

When filming at a borrowed house on location, “We frequently shot in very cramped quarters,” Spencer said. “The lamps were often so close to the actors, they almost got burned.”

Spencer worked on various series, including The Richard Boone Show, an anthology show with the same actors appearing every week. From there, he was recruited to QM Productions and assigned to photograph 12 O’Clock High, the World War II drama.

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in a first-season episode of The FBI

Efrem Zimbalist Jr. as photographed by William W. Spencer in a first-season episode of The FBI

The director of photography picked up his first Emmy for that series. QM then shifted Spencer to The FBI, the production company’s first color series.

“Now he was filming in color and his photography was magnificent, because he lit it the same way he lit black and white, with cross lighting,” Ralph Senensky wrote about The Assassin episode of The FBI..

In a separate post about the 12 O’Clock High episode The Trap, the director wrote that Spencer hated color. “When color became the dominant mode of transmission on television, Billy watched on his color television set, but he watched in black and white with the color turned off.”

Spencer mostly worked at QM for more than a decade. He occasionally scored movie jobs, including 1967’s Countdown and QM’s only feature film, 1971’s The Mephisto Waltz.

After QM ceased operations, Spencer remained active into the 1980s. He won a second Emmy for the Fame television series.

Spencer died in 2007, at the age of 85.

The man who assembled the ‘QM Players’

John Conwell's title card in a second-season episode of 12 O'Clock High.

John Conwell’s title card in a second-season episode of 12 O’Clock High.

One of an occasional series about unsung heroes of television.

In the 1960s and ’70s, shows produced at QM Productions had the feel of a repertory theater as many of the same guest stars appeared on various Quinn Martin shows.

As noted in the book Quinn Martin, Producer, there was an even nick name for this: the “QM Players.” The informal group consisted of performers such as Leslie Nielsen (star of the first QM series, The New Breed), Peter Mark Richman, Louise Latham, Jessica Walter, J.D. Cannon, Lynda Day George, Bradford Dillman and many others.

The QM executive responsible for this was John Conwell, who headed the company’s casting operation. He was a former actor, appearing in such productions as The Twilight Zone pilot, Where Is Everybody? and as a guest star in a Ray Milland series, Markham.

Conwell moved from in front of the camera to behind it, including the fourth season of The Twilight Zone, when the show aired in a one-hour format. He became part of QM Productions with that company’s second series, The Fugitive.

For most of his time at QM, however, Conwell’s titles in QM show credits didn’t really give the audience an idea of what he did.

Conwell was initially credited as “assistant to producer,” then “assistant to the executive producer.” Finally, by 1977, he was credited as “in charge of talent.”

In any case, Conwell became one of producer Quinn Martin’s key lieutenants. Martin paid more for guest stars ($5,000 for a one-hour episode compared with a going rate of $2,500). So that helped raise the interest of performers to be on QM shows.

Still, it was Conwell who ran the QM casting operation, which also had casting directors for individual series. That may help to explain why actors kept coming back.

Conwell even stayed at the company after Martin’s departure following the sale of QM Productions to Taft Broadcasting. He died in 1994 at the age of 72.