James W. Gavin, ace pilot for TV and movies

James W. Gavin pilots a helicopter with Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

James W. Gavin pilots a helicopter with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. on board.

One in a series about unsung figures of television.

James W. Gavin over a long career in television and movies mostly went unnoticed.

The pilot/second unit director/bit part player was a top helicopter pilot. His services were in demand for various TV serious as well as films such as Vanishing Point and The Towering Inferno.

Gavin got a bit of recognition in the documentary Inside Diamonds Are Forever.

Screenwriter Tom Mankiewicz told the anecdote of how Gavin had the presence of mind to get the cameras rolling when explosions were set off for what was supposed to be a rehearsal for the oil-rig sequence.

According to Mankiewicz, some of that footage ended up in the final version of Diamonds.

On occasion, Gavin got to be an actor. Not surprisingly, he played pilots, presumably because it was cheaper to film him reciting lines while he was flying. In some cases, he was billed as “Gavin James,” rather than by his real name.

Gavin was one of the go-to pilots for QM Productions, flying helicopters for the company’s various shows, including The FBI.

Gavin died in 2005 at the age of 70.

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 figures 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.

The FBI season 8: time of transition at QM Productions

"Sorry, Arthur, no time to talk right now. I'm ordering season eight of The FBI."

“Sorry, Arthur, no time to talk right now. I’m ordering season eight of The FBI.”

The eighth, and next-to-last, season of The FBI is now available from Warner Archive The 1972-73 season marked a time of transition at QM Productions.

From the fall of 1967 (when The Fugitive ended a four-year run) to the fall of 1971 (When Cannon began the first of five seasons), The FBI kept producer Quinn Martin in business.

Some of Martin’s series, such as The Invaders, were cult hits but didn’t last that long. The Invaders, about an architect’s one-man battle against invading aliens, ran 43 episodes over two seasons. Banyon, a 1930s detective show, and Dan August, a contemporary police show, had short runs.

By the fall of 1972, things had begun to change. Cannon’s second season was starting and QM’s The Streets of San Francisco, was beginning a five-year run. In early 1973, QM added Barnaby Jones to the mix, which would run eight seasons.

Meanwhile, for its eighth season, The FBI continued to cruise along. It was the fourth season under producer Philip Saltzman. It would be his last work on the series. He’d be shifted to Barnaby Jones starting during that show’s second season. Eventually, Saltzman became executive producer of all of QM’s shows after Quinn Martin sold his company in the late 1970s.

Season 8 would also be the last as a regular for William Reynolds, who played sidekick Tom Colby to Efrem Zimbalist Jr.’s Inspector Lewis Erskine. Reynolds had been around The FBI even longer than Saltzman, joining the series as a regular in the third season and had been a guest star in the first and second seasons.

Season 8 hasn’t been included in previous syndication packages for The FBI. For information about ordering, you can CLICK HERE.

1967: The Man From U.N.C.L.E./Fugitive crossover

Well, not exactly. But the Quinn Martin-produced series The Fugitive, the first big hit for Martin’s QM Productions, was winding down its four-year run when it filmed the concluding scene to an episode. David Janssen as Dr. Richard Kimble, was walking down a city street. The filming site was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s “street set,” originally to duplicate a New York City street.

QM’s art department apparently was asleep at the switch. It failed to removed the set dressing from another show produced on the same set: the Del Floria’s tailor shop sign from The Man From U.N.C.L.E. The tailor shop was the “security entrance” to U.N.C.L.E.’s New York headquarters. Here’s a video, albeit not good video quality, of the scene from The Fugitive.

According to the For Your Eyes Only Web site’s 100-year timeline showing U.N.C.L.E.-007 interactions, The Fugitive episode aired on April 4, 1967. If correct, that would be an episode called The Walls of Night.

Based on the credits, that would indicate that set decorator Sandy Grace was the one who failed to notice the Del Floria’s sign. Then again, one-hour drama shows were shot in five or six days in the 1960s and had really tight deadlines.

Also, according to For Your Eyes Only, The Fugitive episode aired just a few weeks after a March 1967 fire destroyed the street set. In The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’s fourth season, the show had to use footage from previous episodes to depict the exterior of U.N.C.L.E.’s heaquarters.

QM Productions attempts its own Bond

In the new issue of HMSS, there’s an article about spy-oriented episodes of “The FBI,” the longest running show produced by QM Productions. Well, about 30 years ago, QM Productions tried to do a Bond-like TV show. The pilot for this was called “Death Ray 2000.” And it’s up on YouTube. Here’s part I:

By this time, Quinn Martin had sold his company. So while it’s listed as being “A QM Production,” he wasn’t around for this.

QM’s T.R. Sloane character was picked up as a series, but not until a lot of reworking. The lead was recast with none other than Robert Conrad. A villain in “Death Ray 2000” was turned into T.R. Sloane’s sidekick.  Dan O’Herlihy as Sloane’s boss was retained, but got a shave and moved his office behind a toy store front.

Here’s an opening titles from the series:

“A Man Called Slone” didn’t last long, getting canceled after 13 weeks of the 1979-80 TV season.