Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Robert Bloch on TV Part Nine-Alfred Hitchcock Presents: "Bad Actor"

by Jack Seabrook

“Bad Actor,” which was adapted by Robert Bloch from a story called “The Geniuses” by Max Franklin, has been the subject of some misinformation both in print and on the internet. It is not based on a story called “Acting Job” by Richard Deming, as reported in The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, although Richard Deming and Max Franklin were one and the same person. It is not about an actor who exchanges his prop gun for a real one during casting sessions for a play, as is claimed on TV.com and other web sources.

Instead, “Bad Actor” tells the story of Bart Collins, a young method actor with beatnik tendencies who has “bombed out” of TV, “goofed” in the movies, and “fouled up” on stage. He has a drinking problem and difficulty controlling his anger. When he flies back from Hollywood to New York to audition for the lead in a new play, he is frustrated by competition from squeaky-clean Jerry Lane, who seems destined to get the part. At Bart’s apartment, the drunken actor decides to show Lane how good he is by acting out a murder scene from the play, only to take things a bit too far and strangle Jerry for real.

Bart then attempts to cover up his crime, buying bottles of acid and meat butchering tools in order to cut up Jerry’s body, dissolve it, and wash it down the bathtub drain. Before he can finish the job, however, he is interrupted by a visit from his fiancé, Marge Rogers, and his agent, Ed Bolling. Bart stashes Jerry’s head in an ice bucket, and the rest of the episode is a suspenseful game as Bart’s guests—eventually including a police lieutenant—unsuspectingly come ever closer to opening the ice bucket and exposing its gruesome secret.

The story on which the show is based, “The Geniuses,” was published in the June 1957 issue of the mystery digest Manhunt, which also included “The Amateur” by Richard Deming. The presence of a second story by the same author in the same issue is surely the reason that “The Geniuses” was published under a pseudonym.

When Bloch took the story and adapted it for television, he made significant changes. In print, the tale is told by Ed Bolling, an 18 year old college student who helps his friend Bart Conway plan and execute the murder of fellow student Herman Groper in order to prove Bart’s theory that their high intelligence will allow them to succeed in committing the perfect murder. They dispose of the body by butchering it and then incinerating it in a science lab furnace; before they can dispose of the head, the police come to call and the geniuses stash the remaining portion of poor Mr. Groper in a hatbox. Bart’s hubris is displayed when he brings out the hatbox in front of everyone and wraps it up as a Christmas present for Ed’s girlfriend, Marge. Suspense builds until the police lieutenant insists that she open the box.

One reason that Bloch made such major changes to “The Geniuses” may be due to the story’s similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1948 film Rope, a failure when it was released. Rope was withdrawn from circulation for decades, but perhaps Bloch thought that the conceit of two highly intelligent young men carrying out a “psychotic thrill kill” and then hiding the evidence in their apartment was too close to the plot of the film.
Bloch discarded the first section of the story and replaced it with his own invention of a failing young actor who murders a rival in a fit of passion. Bart even goes so far as to highlight his own lack of erudition (in contrast to the geniuses of Franklin’s story) by pointing out to Jerry Lane that he has never even opened a set of encyclopedias that Marge had given him. Once the murder is committed, the teleplay follows the story more closely, though the disposal of the body is done entirely in Bart’s bathtub, eliminating the need to take it out piece by piece to another location for removal, as in the story. The hatbox of the tale becomes the ice bucket of the teleplay, and it is here that Bloch’s skill in plotting really shines. Taking Chekhov’s famous adage about the gun several steps further (if you show a gun in the first act, it had better go off in the third), Bloch has the ice bucket pop up throughout the episode.

In the first scene, Bart’s agent has to rouse him from a sleepy hangover and pours cold water over his head from the ice bucket, foreshadowing the manner in which that same bucket will cause a shock in his life later on. After a scene in a café where Bart dances to the music of bongo drums, he and Jerry go back to his apartment, where Bart plays his own bongo music on the upside down ice bucket. He tells Jerry that Marge gave him “the best ice bucket in the world,” and he holds it up as if it were Yorick’s skull when he begins to quote Hamlet’s speech.  The bucket goes from being a substitute prop for a skull to holding a real one when Bart has to find a quick hiding place for Jerry’s pate.

Marge comes into the apartment and heads for the bathroom, where Bart has just finished washing away the body. He tries to prevent her from going in and she, feigning jealousy, asks: “have you got somebody hidden?” Once police Lieutenant Gunderson arrives, the ice bucket becomes even more central to the action, as first Marge and then Ed come perilously close to opening it to get ice to make drinks. Finally, the lieutenant opens it, sees the horror inside, and asks Bart a question that was never asked in the story: “How did you dispose of the rest of the body?”

Another aspect of “Bad Actor” that is pure Bloch is the milieu of the actor and the world of the beatnik. In numerous stories in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bloch explored these two worlds and their intersections, often showing their denizens as lacking a moral compass. Bart Collins has this same failing—he is a drunk, a murderer, a liar, and a bad actor in three ways: his acting is poor in his chosen profession, he does a horrible deed (truly a “bad actor”), and his efforts to cover up what he has done are rather pathetic.

“Bad Actor” is interesting to study both as a step in the development of Bloch’s skill as a writer of teleplays and as an example of his ability to adapt the work of other writers. It shows that he was comfortable taking only the aspects of his source material that interested him and working them into a plot of his own devising, focusing on character types and situations about which he enjoyed writing.

The program was directed by John Newland (1917-2000), who began his career as an actor, mostly on TV, but later gained fame as a TV director and as the host of the series, One Step Beyond. He directed four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and four of Thriller; while some of his work on Thriller is very atmospheric, his direction on “Bad Actor” is not overly distinctive; an unusual camera angle is utilized in the scene where Bart buys the butchering tools and Newland does a good job of building suspense.

Carole Eastman
Starring as Bart Collins is Robert Duvall, born in 1931. This was one of Duvall’s earliest roles on television, coming the same year as his breakout role in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Duvall would of course go on to a long career on TV and in film and become one of the most famous film actors of recent decades. The rest of the cast included Carole Eastman (1934-2004) as Marge; she gave up acting several years after this and became a writer, authoring the screenplay for Five Easy Pieces under the pseudonym of Adrian Joyce.



William Schallert
David Lewis (1916-2000) played Bart's agent Ed Bolling; among his later roles was a recurring one as Warden Crichton on Batman. Best of all was William Schallert, born in 1922 and still acting today, who played Lt. Gunderson. Schallert is an instantly recognizable actor: he was a regular on at least six TV series, he was president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1979-1981, and he played Patty Duke’s father on The Patty Duke Show.

Richard Deming, who wrote “The Geniuses” as Max Franklin, was a prolific author. Mostly Murders lists over 100 short stories under his name, and he is said to have written over 70 novels beginning in the 1940s. Among his many books were numerous TV series tie-ins, such as novels based on Dragnet, The Mod Squad, Charlie’s Angels and Starsky and Hutch. An interesting article on Deming may be read here.

Robert Duvall and David Lewis
“Bad Actor” was first broadcast on NBC on January 9 1962, at 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday night on NBC. Thriller, which had followed Alfred Hitchcock Presents on NBC the season before, had now been moved to Monday nights. The episode was remade as part of the revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in the 1980s. Retitled “Method Actor” and starring Martin Sheen in the Duvall role, it was directed by Burt Reynolds and broadcast on Sunday, November 10, 1985, at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.



The original episode may be viewed here. The remake may be viewed here.

Sources:

"Bad Actor." Alfred Hitchcock Presents. NBC. 9 Jan. 1962. Television.
Cook, Michael L. Monthly Murders: A Checklist and Chronological Listing of Fiction in the Digest-size Mystery Magazines in the United States and England. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1982. Print.
Deming, Richard. "Acting Job." 1961. 100 Malicious Little Mysteries. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1992. 76-82. Print.
Fantastic Fiction. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.fantasticfiction.co.uk/>.
Franklin, Max. "The Geniuses." 1957. Best Detective Stories of the Year: (13th Annual Collection). New York: E.P. Dutton, 1958. 128-50. Print.
Galactic Central. Web. 15 Feb. 2012. <http://philsp.com/>. 
Grams, Martin, and Patrik Wikstrom. The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion. Churchville, MD: OTR Pub., 2001. Print.
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.imdb.com/>.
Wikipedia. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. <http://www.wikipedia.org/>.

5 comments:

Mike Doran said...

Actually, I believe David Lewis's best known later role was as Edward Quartermain on General Hospital, which he played off-and-on for more than 20 years.

Also, the photo that you iD as Lewis is actually Bartlett Robinson, playing the producer who rejects Robert Duvall early in the episode. A natural mistake - Lewis and Robinson were basically the same type of actor, and their roles were often interchangeable.

Otherwise, good post.

Matthew Bradley said...

Outstanding, Jack. If I remember correctly, the beatnik milieu will return in another HitchBloch episode, "The Big Kick." And, of course, the propensity for cherry-picking only what interested him from the original source material was a major hallmark of Hitchcock's film career.

I'm constantly amazed by "experts" who disseminate incorrect information (such as that TV.com synopsis you mentioned) that reveals they haven't even seen or read the work in question. Matheson had the same problem of publishing two stories in the same magazine or anthology, and needing to use his "Logan Swanson" pseudonym on one of them to obscure that fact.

Newland's directing credits are too lengthy to enumerate, yet I would select a single example. No, not the Matheson one, but the original DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, part of that Golden Age of '70s horror/SF TV-movies, and one that many still say scared the bejesus out of them.

Haven't seen this for a while, but as I recall, Duvall was brilliant. I was pleasantly surprised while watching the Stephen King miniseries BAG OF BONES recently to see Schallert (who appeared in Matheson's first two films, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and THE BEAT GENERATION) pop up as the evil grandfather. You go, boy!

Jack Seabrook said...

Mike, thanks for pointing out my photo goof. I have replaced the old photo with a new one that should correct the problem.

Matthew--"The Big Kick" is up next!

john kenrick said...

This is a Hitchcock half-hour I didn't care for at all, Jack, for all the talent that went into it. Robert Duvall disappointed me, as he often does, and I found his performance unbelievable. His character was obnoxious and showed no real talent that I could see; a beatnick in the worst sense of that word. That's all he was.

He was basically a delusional drunk. Or am I missing something? The other actors were good, but then their characters struck me as believable. Bad Actor struck me as a melodrama that was aiming to be something better and failed. The writing was as mediocre as the story.

Was it supposed to be ironic? I mean about art and the nature of artists, who often abuse substances and go crazy sometimes. There seemed little of the real artist in Duvall's character,--a double irony?, I suspect not--so it fell apart for me. I sensed no central idea in the story, no focus on any one thing.

Jack Seabrook said...

Thanks, John. It's been nearly six years since I saw and wrote about this one, so I don't remember it well enough to comment, but from looking over my article I think I found a number of things of interest in the show.