Friday, January 05, 2018

Friday Questions

First FQ’s of the year. I've been doing this feature for ten years now. So I’ve answered about 2,000 of them. Let me answer yours. Just leave it in the comments section.

Doug G. starts us off:

How did you feel about the decision to kill off Henry Blake? I know you weren't on the writing staff yet but I wonder what you thought of it at the time and if your opinion changed or not after being on staff later on.

It was mind-blowing at the time because I didn’t expect it. I was watching that night and recall being completely gobsmacked. My first thought was “How could they do that?” But upon reflection, it was a brilliant move. This was a show about war and in a war there are casualties, including people we know and love.

But I believe it was the first time a series regular was killed off during an episode. (On the DANNY THOMAS SHOW they killed off his first wife between seasons, a la KEVIN CAN WAIT.) Now it’s the rare series that doesn’t kill off one of its main characters.

Final note on the Henry Blake killing: Thousands of people wrote to the show incensed. To their credit, showrunners Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart answered each one individually.

From Steve B.:

Which is more challenging as a showrunner: writing a pilot episode for a show, or writing episode 2?

Episode 2. You have to accomplish two things. You have to re-tell the pilot for all the viewers tuning in for the first time, and for those who did watch the pilot you have to give them enough of a new story to hold their interest.

Also, you generally have months to craft a pilot. You can’t devote that kind of time and effort to episode 2 because you also have episodes 3-13 to worry about.

Andy Ballow asks:

Ken, you mentioned in a recent podcast that Gene Hackman is one of your favorite actors. Can you talk about a couple of your favorite Gene Hackman films? My personal favorites are The French Connection, Mississippi Burning, and Unforgiven.

I would include all of those. Along with HOOSIERS, POWER, THE CONVERSATION, SUPERMAN (he is also an extremely funny comic actor), THE BIRDCAGE, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, GET SHORTY, CRIMSON TIDE, THE FIRM, NO WAY OUT, NIGHT MOVES, and of course BONNIE & CLYDE. And I’m sure I’m leaving out five others.

It’s always fun to watch some show from the early ‘60s on one of those nostalgia channels and there are actors like Gene Hackman playing cops on the beat or waiters.

And finally, from Laura:

They have cut out a dialogue that referenced Kevin Spacey from "This is Us".

Friday Question - Have you ever had any of your dialogues cut at the last moment to avoid controversy?

Is such a last moment cut necessary? Or is it just too much "political correctness" that each and every thing related to someone needs to be "purged".

I seem to recall we had a joke in a CHEERS episode about someone who died just prior to airing. And we cut it so as not to appear insensitive.

One of my plays was in final rehearsal a couple of years ago. I had a whole run about Arnold Palmer and his drink. Three days before we were scheduled to open he died. So I threw out that section and wrote a completely new one. Unfortunately, these things happen.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Interesting. Last night the top entry was Friday questions. I presumed an error had posted it earlier than it was meant to go up. But this is a *different* set of Friday questions. Was I hallucinating?


Daniel said...

Re: Gene Hackman.

I would also add The Royal Tenenbaums to that list.

Also, I think you meant Night Moves, not Night Waves.

Anonymous said...

Do you mean Night Moves instead of Night Waves? - Jeff Clem

Michael said...

In one of the first cartoons featuring him, Yosemite Sam was declaring how tough he was and then said, "And I ain't no Mahatma Gandhi." Then came the assassination, and it was changed to "namby pamby."

Brent Seguine said...

After 40 years, we still watch M*A*S*H for having told good stories, about good people in a bad place. It’s wonderful that this TV show can continue to be so “real.” Yet I can’t help but let it annoy me for its frequent “time-warps”… there’s a logical and linear progression of character replacements and growth, but some episodes can’t make up their mind what year it is.

• Larry and Gene juggled the timeline all the time, e.g., season 3 was primarily tied into 1952 (Trapper talks about Ted Williams being drafted, P.A. announcement of Gen. Clark replacing Ridgway, etc.), but they went pre-April 1951 at the end of the season with “Big Mac.” Season 4 opens in September 1952, contained 1953 references (VP Nixon) as the season progressed, and then ended with “Deluge” and November 1950’s Chinese entry into the war… basically saying that episodes like “Rainbow Bridge” never occurred, and all of Henry/Trapper and early BJ/Potter happened during the 3 months of August – October 1950.
• Your tenure in season’s 5 to 7 primarily kept things circa 1952 (“The M*A*S*H Olympics”).
• Once Burt Metcalfe took over, we were back to time-jumping with episodes like “A War For All Seasons” (New Year’s Eve 1950 thru 1951, with Winchester present and Radar gone).

Were timeline juggles ever a concern in the writers’ room, in regard to whether it was compromising the “reality” of these characters living through the historical events of those 3 years?

Kosmo13 said...

>>But I believe it was the first time a series regular was killed off during an episode.

Well, at the end of Season One of "The Untouchables," series regular Cam Allison (played by Anthony George) was killed off. He was gunned down while saving Eliot Ness' life. That was in 1960.

Arthur said...

Scarecrow is a great Hackman film (with Pacino) that generally gets overlooked.

Andrew said...

Best Hackman line from Unforgiven: "Hell, I even thought I was dead 'til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska."

gottacook said...

I would love to see one of Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart's replies to angry MASH fans in 1975. I also saw the original broadcast of the episode (I was 18) and was emotionally affected by Henry's demise, much more than I thought I could be by the death of a fictional character.

Regarding inconsistent timelines, I'm reminded of the reason Gene Roddenberry et al. came up with star dates for Star Trek: They didn't know in what order the episodes would be aired by NBC, and the idea was that because of relativity and its inherent time distortions for faster-than-light travelers, one star date could be "earlier" than another because of differences in the interval between the "present" on the ship and on Earth. But ever since the Trek theatrical movies began in 1979, there are fans who try mightily to fit everything into a linear timeline - for example, how many years pass between the events of the first and second movies. I think they're wasting their time. (In my opinion, no time passes at all; the second movie is a sequel to a TV episode, not a sequel to the first movie.)

Peter said...

Hackman is a true legend. I haven't seen the final film he made before his retirement, Welcome to Mooseport, but he was magnificent in the one he made before that, Runaway Jury. One scene in particular between his character and Dustin Hoffman's is a masterclass in acting by both of them.

Although he's ruled out ever returning to acting, I still hold out hope someone will offer him a script that's too good to turn down and he makes one final movie. Welcome to Mooseport should not be his farewell to acting.

Nancy said...

Royal Tenenbaums had a lot of problems. Got a bad name for himself. But he still is one of the greatest.

One of my favorite movie is with Denzel Washington "Crimson Tide".

But I will always remember him as Little Bill - "I don't deserve this.... To die like this...."

cd1515 said...

Can’t imagine we’d ever see a character death today be such a surprise as Blake.
Wouldn’t it get out before airing, or wouldn’t we have read rumors about the actor and studio having problems?
I think (spoiler alert) Marissa from the OC’s death was given away in such fashion.
I still love the McLean Stevenson line about how he later regretted leaving the show: “I thought they loved McLean Stevenson... turns out they loved Henry Blake.”

Unknown said...

I've noticed some recent shows floundering and others flourishing not just through writing, but through casting. For example, Ken Jeong, who is a proven comic talent, was wasted in Dr. Ken. Ironic since he IS a doctor. And I thought Young Sheldon was off to a rocky start but quickly found legs through an excellent cast. They even look like they're related. Of course, Zoe Perry being Laurie Metcalf's daughter made that call a no-brainer. They actually ARE younger and elder Mary Cooper. The writers have been given a gift on that one. What has your experience been with successes and failures in casting?

Doug said...

I think an overlooked Hackman performance, and film, was Twilight (1998). Robert Benton directing a script he co-wrote with a cast of Gene Hackman. Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Reese Witherspoon,James Garner, Stockard Channing, Giancarlo Esposito, Liev Schreiber, Margo Martindale, John Spencer and M. Emmet Walsh. Not a bad performance from anyone an a pretty good neo-noir mystery for the plot.

Kosmo13 said...

>>Can’t imagine we’d ever see a character death today be such a surprise as Blake.
Wouldn’t it get out before airing, or wouldn’t we have read rumors about the actor and studio having problems?

The "surprise" death of Henry Blake did "get out" long before the MASH episode aired. I read about it in a syndicated entertainment column that appeared in my hometown newspaper. I'm told "People" or some other newsmag Spoilered it, too. By the time the episode aired, Henry Blake's death had already been a topic of discussion in my high school.

Craig Gustafson said...

I was in high school when "Abyssinia, Henry" aired. I got angry about it. "Killing him off like that? That's just... it's... *futile*. (beat) Oh."

Anonymous Kosmo13:
It didn't get out "long" before the episode aired. It was either the Day Of or the Day Before, leaked by longtime Chicago Tribune syndicated TV columnist and prominent, proud asshole Gary Deeb. I remember Deeb printing a letter about a week later from a really pissed off Larry Gelbart, saying, "Thanks for spoiling the surprise, dickweed." Not in those words, of course.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Friday Question: First, as always, thanks for answering my previous question. This F.Q. is a lot more philosophical than my other questions. Actually, I could use some mentoring. Now that you're writing more and more plays how does this fit in with your career? Do you see it as a continuation? i.e. Writing Is writing. Is it a reinvention? I ask because as I near SIXTY I'm wondering if I should move on to something new, such as writing. However, I can't help but wonder if there's any point. Is the future of comedy writing reserved for your twenty-something grad students that you're always going on about? Or is there a chance that an older writer can be successful at this present time? I mean funny is funny, right? Good writing is good writing regardless of the author's age. Or am I just kidding myself. I'd love to hear what you think about this. And about aging in Hollywood in general.

Cowboy Surfer said...

The Hill Street Blues pilot came close when they gunned down Hill and Renko in the final scene.

I remember thinking, no way, not those two. Such a ground breaking show. In those days, you could check the ratings in the Wednesday LA Times Calendar section. Before the critical acclaim, I was always pulling for Hill Street to survive the network axe.

Henry Blake was an All-Star. "jeep,"

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Kosmo13: THE GOOD WIFE managed it with the death of Will Gardner. People were completely shocked.


Craig Gustafson said...

Friday Question:

You're occasionally going to bump up against comedy cliches when writing scripts. How hard is it to put a spin on those? Last night, I was flipping channels and caught "M*A*S*H" at the beginning of "Operation Friendship," where Klinger saves Charles' life and Charles is toadyingly grateful. My first thought was, "Well, Klinger's in the money now. That's how Gilligan became G. Thurston Howell the Fourth."

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

Brent, you mentioned the MASH timeline. You are right that MASH didn't stick to a specific timeline (I think Eisenhower's visit to Korea was mentioned several times in different seasons), and there are continuity problems. Let's face it...11 Seasons for a 3 year War. Of course, it felt like 11 years to Hawkeye and Margaret.

Sitcoms set in the past will often play fast and loose with years/dates/and historic/cultural events.

Happy Days/Laverne & Shirley rarely got it right (or tried).

THE GOLDBERGS (set in the 1980s) will do shows about 1989 historical events and the next show will feature 1983 cultural happenings.

The same with FRESH OFF THE BOAT (set in the 1990s).

To paraphrase DOCTOR WHO, "It's wibbly wobbly Timey wimey") :)

Rick said...

Been doing some research in newspapers from 1975. It seems that People magazine gave away the ending to "Abyssinia, Henry" three weeks or so before the episode aired, and a few columnists subsequently tattled. I found it being revealed in newspapers as early as March 3. (The episode aired on March 18.) Most TV columnists, though, if they knew, seem to have opted to keep the ending a secret. So I guess whether or not you knew about Henry Blake's death depended on whether or not you read People magazine, or knew someone who did, and how considerate your local TV columnist was about not giving away spoilers.

E. Yarber said...

I'm not trying to start a race to the boneyard here, but Naked City began as a half-hour show in 1958, with John MacIntyre as the supervising Lieutenant very much in the mode of Barry Fitzgerald in the film. MacIntyre decided he didn't want to spend most of the year filming in New York, so the series took the drastic step of killing off their second lead midway through Season One. Horace McMahon immediately stepped in as MacIntyre's replacement, a role he maintained through the rest of the series. Since the half-hour episodes aren't widely seen, it's an easy replacement to miss.

Gene Hackman was in at least two episodes of the hour-long NC. If memory serves, he observed an execution in one and was shafted by a prisoner he was transporting to Los Angeles in the other.

E. Yarber said...

Correction: Hackman was only present at the execution. Ed Asner got the shaft in LA. I should research my comments.

Gene did turn up on NC's sister show Route 66, though, offering assistance when Tod and Linc had motor trouble. I kept expecting something to come of the subplot because it was GENE HACKMAN stopping to help the pair, but the two ingrates dumped him as quickly as possible.

Paul said...

Friday Question:

I just watched "Logan Lucky", a good movie. The writer is Rebecca Blunt. No one knows her and all say it is Soderbergh's wife Jules Asner. Why the hesitation to take credit? Just because her husband is the director and what people might talk? That sounds sort of lame. Has it happened before? Shouldn't people be proud of their work rather than be scared of what others might say?

Thanks Ken.

Collin W. said...

Ken I have enjoyed seeing you on the CNN decade series.If they were to make one for 2000 - 20009 what would be the top 10 series they would have to include as far as your concerned? I feel like this decade is full of high quality series, including the Sopranos, the Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, BSG, Deadwood, The Shield, and that just some of the dramas. Not to mention we had some of the great sitcoms come to an end Friends, Frasier, Everybody Loves Raymond, and a whole new crop spring up, Malcom in the Middle, The Office. Have enjoyed watching them on Netflix.

Andy Rose said...

@Michael: The movie "Dr. Strangelove" is another famous example of dialogue having to be changed at the last minute. When Slim Pickens as the bomber pilot is looking over the emergency kit to be used in the case of a bail-out, he discovers that the supplies include drugs, cash, and some items designed to be able to bribe prostitutes for help. Pickens originally said, "A fella could have a pretty good night in Dallas with all that stuff." Then JFK was assassinated in Dallas before the release, and they dubbed over "Vegas" in place of Dallas.

Likewise, the original end of the movie concluded with a slapstick scene where the U.S. president is hit in the face with a pie, and a character responds, "Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!" So that was also removed, although by the time Kennedy was killed, Stanley Kubrick reportedly had already decided he didn't like the scene and totally redid the ending.

Todd Everett said...

Likewise, the original end of the movie concluded with a slapstick scene where the U.S. president is hit in the face with a pie, and a character responds, "Our gallant young president has been struck down in his prime!" So that was also removed,

Too bad, because President Muffley being described as "young" would surely be good for at least a solid chuckle.

Gary said...

It probably isn't his favorite role, but Gene Hackman is also terrific in The Poseidon Adventure, the first (and best) of all the cheesy 70's disaster flicks.

Bob Gassel said...

I have found a syndicated column revealing Blake's demise all the way back on November 24, 1974...

Matt said...

For those who haven’t read rhe Game of Thrones books (A Song of Ice and Fire) I think some of the deaths in the early seasons were shocking. Now we are just numb to them.

David P said...


Same thing here (an early sneak peek of another set of FQs.

I think it's a glitch in the Matrix...

Pat Reeder said...

I think the rush to cut Kevin Spacey out of everything and pretend he never existed is insane. But not quite as nuts as Minnesota Public Radio trying to turn Garrison Keillor into a non-person by changing the name of "A Prairie Home Companion," their most popular show which (A) no longer featured Garrison Keillor anyway and (B) doesn't even have his name in the title. I saw an ad in a newspaper last week for a live tour where they called it "Formerly A Prairie Home Companion." But that's not a new name! That's the exact same name with the word "Formerly" in front of it! So it's not "formerly" that, it's still that. But they're in a quandary because if they did change the name, nobody would know what the hell the show was or buy tickets for it. They have reached peak PC idiocy, or at least I hope so.

Since my wife is a Grammy voter, I'm wondering if the fact that Kevin Spacey sings on the Tony Bennett tribute album will kill its surefire win as Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album. I hate that they nominate these pop stars-desecrating-classics-in-tribute-to-an-icon albums, but they always at least get nominated because they get votes from multiple labels. But this year, will the industry's fear over rewarding anything associated with Spacey be enough to keep them from voting to give their own artists a prize? What's especially ironic about this is that aside from Tony Bennett, Spacey is about the only person on that album who has a feel for standards and turns in a performance that might be worthy of an award.

Unknown said...

I trust that you recall G.W. Bailey from your MASH days.
For the last thirteen seasons, Mr. Bailey has been seen on TNT as the crusty Lt. Provenza on The Closer, which was rebooted after seven seasons into Major Crimes.
Essentially, Bailey was the Number Two cop, first under Kyra Sedgwick on Closer, thereafter under Mary McDonnell on Major Crimes.
The season just ending was announced as MC's final string at the outset.
In the fourth-to-last episode, McDonnell's character, Cdr. Sharon Raydor, suffered a fatal heart attack.
- and Lt. Provenza became the squad leader for the duration.
So, for the series finale (three episodes) of Major Crimes, G.W. Bailey (possibly for the first time in his TV career) has become the top-billed star of the series.
Well, it fits what you're all talking about, so I mention it here.

DBenson said...

Clipping the recently deceased: a Disney cartoon, "Mickey's Polo Game", was set to include Will Rogers among its caricatured celebrities. Rogers died before animation actually began, but at least some pre-production art survived with his caricature.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

The name of the Saturday night broadcasts of "Prairie Home Companion" has been changed to "Live From Here."

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Norman Blumemthal, who produced for NBC the original version of the game show "Concentration," relayed this story pertaining to the Kennedy assassination.

On another, unidentified game show in 1963, a contestant was introduced as being from Dallas. The program's host jokingly asked her if she had "checked her guns at the door."

The program was recorded a month before the assassination, but didn't air until after Kennedy's death.

Although the show's producer was at fault for ignoring a network request to review upcoming tapes for any possible inappropriate references, the host had to make a live, on-the-air apology the next day.

Jessy S. said...

Just one note, The Simpsons had a nice joke about the Arnold Palmer drink the day he died. I thought it was a nice tribute.

Tommy Raiko said...

Yeah, the death of the Sharon Raydor character in this season's MAJOR CRIMES was the first thing that came to mind as how a surprise can still be managed nowadays. (It's not as broadly impactful because that MAJOR CRIMES isn't as much a pervasive pop culture TV phenomenon as M*A*S*H was--but not much is nowadays--but Raydor's death certainly surprised lots of viewers.)

I hadn't thought about how it affected G.W. Bailey's billing tho'; that's kinda cool for him!

Kosmo13 said...

Thank you, Wendy Grossman, for citing the good example. I think you were responding to the part of my post that was a quote from cd1515's earlier post, though, not to an original thought on my part. :)

BTW, I've heard about, but have never seen, an episode of 'Dragnet' that allegedly wrote the death of one of Joe Friday's partners into the story. The actor died and Jack Webb had them film a scene in which Joe is notified of his partner's death. This would be another pre-MASH example.

Andy Rose said...

My understanding is that the name A Prarie Home Companion was owned by Keillor’s production company, so Minnesota Public Radio was forced to change the title once they cut ties with him.

Brian said...

Potential Friday question here: I recently saw Shelley Long's Emmy acceptance speech for the first time, and was so impressed by how articulate (no umms or ahhs) and gracious she was - Diane would've been proud! I was also touched she took the time to thank the viewers for watching the show, a group not mentioned in many award speeches. Were the cast and crew of Cheers as moved by her speech as I was?

Brian said...

Friday question: Did an actor ever ad-lib a line in one of the shows you worked on that got left in?

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Ms.Long participated in speech tournaments when she was in high school in Indiana. Obviously, good training that paid off.

Occasionally, she competed against another Hoosier student who likewise went on to become an NBC fixture in the eighties, Jane Pauley.

A.B. said...

I seem to remember that there was a joke on Back To You that people thought needed to be cut, they raised a big stink about it, and then the joke was cut in repeats. I think it had something to do with Polish people.

Buttermilk Sky said...

Laura brings up an important point about the new blacklist -- Spacey was excised from his newest film and now he can't even be referenced. Not defending his actions, but I can't help being reminded of the original blacklist. One example: the movie TALES OF MANHATTAN used to be shown on TV with the entire Paul Robeson section cut, and he was "disappeared" from the 1919 All-America football team. There was a time when being a Communist (or even suspected of leftist leanings) was as unforgivable as being a sexual harasser today. Are we going to go through this again?

czeskleba said...

@Craig Gustafson: Actually, the news of Henry Blake's death did get out several months before the episode aired. The following item appeared in a syndicated column by TV reporter Marilyn Beck on November 13, 1974 (four months before the episode was broadcast):

"“MASH” celebrated the completion of this season’s shooting with a cast party at 20th Century-Fox late last week. All the cast and crew were on hand — except for McLean Stevenson, who celebrated his permanent departure from the company by not attending. He left the soundstage as soon as the final camera “cut” was called.
Stevenson is moving on to a new contract with NBC, which he is convinced will bring him greater stardom than he has enjoyed as Lt. Col. Blake on “MASH”. As for how CBS will handle his absence from the series, they’re “killing” him off. One of the last things shot before the “MASH” company disbanded for hiatus was a sequence in which Blake finally gets his discharge — only to be killed in the crash of a plane bound for home."

I think in general people were less squeamish about spoilers back then than they are now.

czeskleba said...

Here's a possible Friday question:
Ken, one notable thing that happened during your tenure on MASH was the significant transformation of Margaret Houlihan's character. Among other things, she was softened and made more likable, she went from being gung-ho to fairly anti-war, and she developed a sort of proto-feminist perspective in many areas. I'm wondering what was the basis for this change? Did Loretta Swit request alterations to the character, or did it wholly originate with the writing staff?

czeskleba said...

And one more question:
In the later years, MASH had much more of a focus on drama, and much less satire or farcical elements. Larry Linville left the show right at the point when this change was beginning, and it's hard to imagine his character fitting in with some of the more serious plotlines that were written in the final years. Given this, I'm wondering if there was any discussion among the writers of what to do with Frank, or any thought about how to alter or evolve his character so he would fit better with the shifting tone of the show?

Steve said...

If second episodes are tough because you have to retell the pilot, what about all the viewers who jump on at episode 3, 4, 8, or the second series premiere? Is there a rule of thumb for when you can start assuming people know who your characters are, or do you try to ensure every episode would make sense to someone completely new to the show?