Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Setting the record straight

A number of people have commented about the Jackie Cooper autobiography.  In that book he talks about directing early episodes of MASH and has very unkind things to say about Alan Alda, Larry Linville, and the cast in general.   Readers have asked my thoughts on the matter.

Okay, so let me set the record straight.  

NONE of the bad/diva behavior Cooper described in the book was ever evident in all the time I was on MASH.  The writers who followed me will say the same thing.   

The TV comedy writers’ grapevine is extensive and comprehensive.  Believe me, when an actor has a meltdown on just about any set, word gets around.  Quickly.   

Nowhere besides Cooper’s book did those rumors surface.  What I was told, during my tenure at MASH, was that Cooper did not get along with the cast.  Jackie Cooper and MASH showrunner Gene Reynolds were longtime friends (they were both child actors together at MGM along with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney).  And after those first few episodes, he was never asked back.  

What’s more telling than Cooper’s account was this:  Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart had nothing but effusive praise for Alan and the cast.   

And that was my experience as well.  As I’ve mentioned, Alan was always respectful, and on those occasions when he came up to the room to help us rewrite, he never lorded over us.  He was the quintessential team player.  

Finally, I say don’t just take my word for it.  If you ask any of the writers or actors or directors or crew, they’ll tell you the same thing.  Most people on the crew were there for the run of the series.  Believe me, if the star or cast was a nightmare they’d be looking to go somewhere else.

Jackie Cooper was a bitter guy.   If there were clashes with Alan, who’s to say it wasn’t Cooper who was the instigator?  Same with Linville.   I personally found Larry utterly professional and fun to deal with.  

And that’s the God honest truth. 


WB Jax said...

That's very interesting, Ken, because I recently read a bio about Bob Crane in which all but one person interviewed for the book, a guest actor who appeared a few times on "Hogan's Heroes", talked about what a good, easy-going guy (and acting professional) he was.

Friday Question: Can you talk a bit about scripting rejoinders, specifically how you and David crafted these so they sounded both surprising/fresh yet of the character?

Arlen Peters said...

Ken, this same subject came up in our conversations in the past. I knew Jackie pretty well during the last few years of his life. I found him to be a charming lovely man full of show biz stories. A true show business legend. He told me about losing his virginity to Joan Crawford, to dating Judy Garland, to learning drumming from Gene Krupa, to hating Mickey Rooney (which was the feeling of many who knew Rooney!), to finding Alan Alda impossible to work with. That I questioned because I had interviewed Alan years before and found him to be wonderful and I had never heard a negative word about him. Jackie told me he had been child actors with Gene Reynolds, and Gene asked him to come and direct some MASH shows. And then came the negative Alda stories. He could never really tell me specifics, but he held those beliefs strongly. Bottom line: I never found Jackie "angry", but I did think he was "confused" about his MASH experiences.

Mike Doran said...

A quote from Please Don't Shoot My Dog, by Jackie Cooper, copyright 1981:

(From the Berkley paperback edition, page 287.)
Through it all, Larry Linville's conduct - he played Frank Burns - was above reproach.

The above is submitted as evidence that you've never actually read Jackie Cooper's book.
Had you done so, you might have noticed that the ones he was really hard on were McLean Stevenson, Gary Burghoff, and Loretta Swit, as well as Alda.
You might have also noticed that in one dust-up with Alda, about a specific episode involving a sniper, Cooper had the initial support of Larry Gelbart, who gave an extensive quote supporting Cooper's position (pages 290-291).

Comes to all of that, a quick rescan of the whole book shows that of the many people he writes about, Jackie Cooper is toughest on himself: he takes responsibility (blame in some cases) for many personal relationship problems he had in his career (the Alda business included) and in his life (the next-to-last chapter is about the near-breakup of his marriage, some years after all this happened).
From the whole book, I'd characterize jackie Cooper less as bitter, more as introspective, which happens when you reach a Certain Age.

I accept and believe your portrait of Alan Alda as accurate - from your point-of-view.
But I would note that your experience of the man came some years into the MASH run, when the series had shaken down somewhat - as opposed to Cooper's, which was in the very early going.
To borrow a phrase from a TV script I recall from a few years back: "You got the broken-in version."

All of the foregoing is One Civilian's Opinion, which you may accept or reject as you choose - it is, after all, still a free country.
But may I at least suggest that you try to find Jackie Cooper's book, and actually read it.
At the very least, read Chapter 45, the MASH chapter (pages 283 to 293, inclusive).

Please Don't Shoot My Dog, copyright 1981, by Jackie Cooper; Berkley paperback, from 1982.

The defense (such as it is) rests.

Jeff Alexander said...

It doesn't surprise me that Jackie Cooper (who did win an Emmy for directing the pilot of the MTM production of The White Shadow) apparently clashed with M*A*S*H actors. I did, in fact, read his autobiography years ago but don't recall those details. I do recall from the book that he clashed with, of all people, Dennis Day (Jack Benny's vocalist on his radio/TV series) during Cooper's and Day's Navy years together.
Cooper did also direct one episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show ("You Sometimes Hurt The One You Hate") and reportedly was at odds with the writers/producers over continually revised scripts for that episode. I have no idea if he had any quibble with any of the actors, however. A little surprising, as a result, that he was hired for a couple of the White Shadow episodes. But, all was forgiven, I guess.

Brian said...

Then this must've been a nightmarish four seasons with Joey Bishop. From Kliph Nesteroff: "Bill Persky told me a story about an episode of the Joey Bishop sitcom he was writing. It was one of those episodes where Joey Bishop plays two characters - himself and a twin brother. Joey got really jealous that the twin brother got bigger laughs than he did."

Bill O said...

I remember Cooper's ep seemingly inspired by Robert Altman. Dense background action. More cinematic than maybe those followed.

Cooper was a fighter. Got the laugh track removed from his show Hennessy.

Jeff Maxwell said...

What Ken said.

And, though Alan Alda and I did not go for cheeseburgers on a regular basis, for nine years I spent months out of each year working with him. He was pleasant, charming, funny, inspirational, helpful, approachable and often brilliant. Other than that, meh.

The first time I ever had any dialog on the show was in a episode Jackie Cooper directed. I knew nothing about any of the cast of MASH, but Jackie Cooper was a star to me, and I was thrilled to be in his presence. Directors are in control of the daily shooting and their personalities and styles are reflected in their approach to shooting scenes and working with the actors. It was immediately clear that Mr. Cooper was a take charge, get-it-done on time and budget kind of guy. Hit your marks, say the words and let’s move on. A bit of a bully.

While no MASH cast member would have a hard time shooting that way, my sense is Mr. Cooper's style conflicted with the burgeoning rapport, rhythm and sense of camaraderie the cast was establishing organically. I’m also certain that Mr. Alda would have had no trouble expressing little interest in navigating that kind of conflict shooting the show.

It was fun to have met him.

Jeff Boice said...

I read Jackie Cooper's book a long time ago. My memory is that Mr. Cooper wrote that Alan Alda was a complete professional when they were filming. What Mr. Cooper objected to on "The Sniper" was that Alda argued for and got changes in the script, changes Cooper didn't agree with. I also recall reading the two got into a heated discussion over some filmed announcements Cooper wanted the cast to do for Armed Forces Television, but I don't remember the details. I think Cooper's problems with the other cast members were also over script changes.

kcross said...

This isn't a question about Jackie Cooper, but it might involve the writer's grapevine.

When Hope and Crosby filmed the Road Pictures, they supposedly had their radio writers beef up the script to the point where Hope said to the writer "If you come across a line that you wrote, shout 'Bingo!'".

Could this have happened in modern TV with modern protection for writers? For instance, Johnny Carson guest starred on Cheers. If he didn't think the script was funny enough and gave it to his people to completely re-write, would the show runner have to accept it?

Jay Thurber said...

I recently read the book "Only You, Dick Daring!" about Merle Miller's attempt to get a weekly dramatic series on the air that would have been produced by, and starring, Jackie Cooper. It would have been called "Calhoun." Only the pilot was ever filmed. (You can find it on YouTube and it's pretty dreary.)

Although Miller tries to make the events seem funny (and the book is a terrific read, imo), Jackie Cooper comes off as a back-stabbing, manipulative, mercurial SOB. (Miller saves his best vitriol, though, for "the smiling cobra," James Aubrey.)

Anyway, if Miller's recollection of his relationship with Cooper is accurate, then I'm inclined to believe your take about Cooper's behavior on the set of "M*A*S*H."

Jay Thurber said...

Jeff Alexander:

"I do recall from the book that he clashed with, of all people, Dennis Day (Jack Benny's vocalist on his radio/TV series) during Cooper's and Day's Navy years together."

Imagine not being able to get along with Owen Patrick Eugene McNulty, who by every account was one of the gentlest souls in Hollywood (married to the same woman for 40 years, raised 10 kids, retired from show business to open an antique store).

Steve Bailey said...

I'm seriously glad that you posted this blog entry. I read Jackie Cooper's book years ago and was amazed that nothing ever followed (in the media or otherwise) which indicated that he might be right.

Mike Doran said...

Jay Thurber:

Jackie Cooper's account of the Only You, Dick Daring story is Chapter 38 of Please Don't Shoot My Dog, pages 237 to 249.

You know, just in case some of you might like to check out the other side ...

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Nothing against Alan Alda, and I don't doubt all the nice things said about him. But I did get tired of all the Hawkeye-as-Hero plots, especially in the early years when he and Wayne Rogers were supposed to be equals: Hawkeye is named chief surgeon in the fourth episode, which I assume was filmed before the show's debut had aired; Hawkeye alone goes to the front dressed as Santa on Christmas Day; Hawkeye alone delivers the serious monologue tacked on the re-filmed, wacky documentary on the 4077th ("Yankee Doodle Doctor"), Hawkeye alone walks into the field to treat the sniper; Hawkeye goes to the aid station (with Margaret and Klinger), etc. By the time Mike Farrell came along, Alda had seniority, so it made more sense that he would be spotlighted so often. But during the first few seasons, it was a bit offputting. I can understand why Rogers left the show after three years.

DanMnz said...

Anything to sell books. That's why a person in his position needs to lie, nothing good happened to write about so you have to make drama up. You wouldn't have to push your book if you were a nice person and didn't burn so many bridges, you'd have other means to make money in the industry.

Touch-and-go Bullethead said...

Kevin FitzMaurice: Perhaps what you perceive as a disparity was due simply to the fact that, at the time, Alan Alda was considered a bigger star than Wayne Rogers. Alda had been a lead in three Broadway hits (PURLIE VICTORIOUS, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, THE APPLE TREE), and the lead in several films (admittedly, none particularly successful*). Rogers's career at this point amounted to supporting roles in various films (including, we must note, one very big hit, COOL HAND LUKE), a bunch of TV guest shots, and a one-season Western series (STAGECOACH WEST)**. The makers of M*A*S*H may not actually have regarded them as equals.

*Alda did have the chance to be in a successful film: He was offered the role of Guy Woodhouse in ROSEMARY'S BABY, but turned it down because he found the subject distasteful. He must have regretted this, because a couple of years later he took the equivalent role in a knockoff of ROSEMARY called THE MEPHISTO WALTZ.

**Well, Rogers did also write and produce the movie ASTRO ZOMBIES. It is terrible, but apparently Rogers regarded it purely as an investment, and he was probably satisfied in that regard (the movie was still playing at drive-ins a decade later).

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Interesting stuff. Thanks.

Dave H said...

I agree that I think Wayne got shafted a bit. I don't know if the producers ever considered them equals but there are episodes where they do not give Wayne much to do. A lot times Trapper was there to set up Hawkeyes big funny lines. They were a great team. They made it look effortless. I loved watching them together. I think maybe they realized they may have not developed Trapper enough and were not going to make the same mistake with BJ. And later on they seemed to go out of their way so that everyone on the show was given some meat to chew on.

Jay Thurber said...

Mike Doran: I have to say, in all honesty, I'm not that interested in either Jackie Cooper or Merle Miller!

And I'll also say Miller was many years later accused of editing or even making up quotes in his book about Harry S Truman, "Plain Speaking" — so he may or may not be a reliable narrator.

Meanwhile, I still can't figure out how someone got in a fight with Dennis Day. Phil Harris, maybe — definitely Mary — but not Dennis! Well!

Anonymous said...

Alan Alda and Wayne Rogers were basically equivalent as TV stars, with Alan Alda slightly higher by virtue of the Hawkeye role, just as Donald Sutherland was a notch over Elliott Gould in the movie.

However Alan Alda was not that much of a big star in TV terms. Just before M*A*S*H, he alternated as a panelist with Bert Convy on What's My Line. Convy was also a bigger name on Broadway than on TV. Even today, Broadway greats are relegated to guest or supporting roles on TV series. They rarely get to repeat their successes on film.

Jimmy Crackcorn and I care said:

Both Alda and Rogers were exceedingly smart. They made a great team as actors, but Rogers was there only to act, not to write, direct and forge a vision for the series. My guess is that he wisely saw that he was never going to be on an even playing field because he was not about to compete in all those areas with Alda, who excelled at them. That doesn't mean he was envious, though any normal person might feel somewhat overlooked after a while.

He cut bait instead of trying to live in the shadow. He could never have Alda's status, but he must have had a good Q rating to get additional series with fairly good runs, some TV movies then much success in investments. Few did as well in the same situation.

Richard G. said...

Sorry I opened up this can of worms but you are incorrect about several statements- Mr. Cooper directed 13 episodes before you ever came on so he was not dismissed after a couple of episodes, he never said that Larry Linville acted badly-in fact he said him and Wayne Rodgers were the two good guys on the set, and he gave very specific instances of "misconduct" so you blanket blame of him for everything seems misguided. As 3 of the 4 actors he singled out are still alive as well as other people that were there (such as Mr. Maxwell thank you for your input), I suggest you ask them before blaming everything on a bitter man.

Johnny Walker said...

@Kevin FitzMaurice Yes! I think those early seasons are particularly bumpy, and especially for that reason. I'd love to know how Wayne Rogers felt about it, because the original M*A*S*H concept was about a PAIR of jokers. That's how it was in the book and in the film. It shifts suddenly with the series. The series definitely became the Alan Alda show BUT I remember reading it was simply because the public really loved Hawkeye, so they show naturally shifted. Like Michael J Fox on Family Ties.

Still, would love to hear Wayne Rogers take.