Born July 26, 1918, Ukraine.
Died September 13, 2009, Los Angeles, California
Danger: “The Innocent and the Guilty” (story or story basis only) (9/1/53)
General Electric Theater: “Esteban’s Legacy” (story basis only) (1/8/56)
Front Row Center: “Morals Squad” (3/11/56)
Kraft Theatre: “Babies For Sale” (7/18/56)
Studio One: “Portrait of a Citizen” (12/3/56)
Schlitz Playhouse: “The Honor System” (3/14/58)
Steve Canyon: “Operation Thunderbirds” (teleplay only) (9/20/58)
Wanted Dead or Alive: “The Looters” (10/12/60) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “The Twain Shall Meet” (10/19/60) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “Criss-Cross” (11/16/60) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “The Medicine Man” (11/23/60) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “One Mother Too Many” (12/7/60) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “The Choice” (12/14/60) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “Three For One” (12/21/60) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “Witch Woman” (12/28/60) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “Baa-Baa” (1/4/61) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “The Last Retreat” (1/11/61) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “Hero in the Dust” (2/1/61) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “Epitaph” (2/8/61) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “Detour” (3/1/61) [DVD]
Wanted Dead or Alive: “The Long Search” (3/15/61) [DVD]
The Shirley Temple Hour: “Peg-Leg Pirate of Sulu” (3/16/61)
Outlaws: “Blind Spot” (3/30/61)
87th Precinct: “Killer’s Payoff” (based on an Ed McBain novel) (11/6/61)
Cain’s Hundred: “Five For One” (co-teleplay) (12/5/61)
87th Precinct: “’Til Death” (based on an Ed McBain novel) (12/11/61)
Dr. Kildare: “Hit and Run” (story and co-teleplay) (12/14/61)
Ben Casey: “The Big Trouble With Charlie” (1/29/62)
Ben Casey: “Among Others, a Girl Named Abilene” (co-teleplay) (4/2/62)
Ben Casey: “So Oft It Chances in Particular Men” (5/21/62)
Ben Casey: “A Cardinal Act of Mercy” Part One (1/14/63) [Emmy nomination]
The Untouchables: “The Snowball” (1/15/63)
Ben Casey: “A Cardinal Act of Mercy” Part Two (1/21/63) [Emmy nomination]
Ben Casey: “A Short Biographical Sketch of James Tuttle Peabody, M. D.” (2/11/63)
Ben Casey: “Father Was an Interne” (4/1/63)
Ben Casey: “With the Rich and Mighty, Always a Little Patience” (9/25/63)
The Virginian: “Run Quiet” (11/13/63) [with Ed Adamson]
Ben Casey: “One Nation Indivisible” (teleplay only) (1/29/64)
Ben Casey: “Autumn Without Red Leaves” (co-teleplay) (10/5/64)
Ben Casey: “You Fish or You Cut Bait” (10/12/64)
Slattery’s People: “Question: Is Laura the Name of the Game?” (11/9/64)
Slattery’s People: “Question: Which One Has the Privilege?” (12/7/64)
From Here to Eternity (unsold pilot, c. 1965)
A Man Called Shenandoah: “The Onslaught” (teleplay only) (9/13/65)
Ben Casey: “Then I, And You, And All of Us Fell Down” (co-teleplay and story) (11/1/65)
The Wild Wild West: “The Night of the Human Trigger” (12/3/65) [DVD]
The Loner: “The Ordeal of Bud Windom” (12/25/65)
The Loner: “The Burden of the Badge” (3/5/66)
The Rounders: “Efficiency Is For the Experts” (12/27/66)
Cowboy in Africa: “Kifaru! Kifaru!” (9/18/67)
The Virginian: “The Masquerade” (10/18/67)
Iron Horse: “Leopards Try, But Leopards Can’t” (co-teleplay) (10/28/67)
Ironside: “The Lonely Hostage” (2/1/68) [DVD]
Ironside: “Perfect Crime” (teleplay only) (3/7/68) [DVD]
Ironside: “Side Pocket” (co-teleplay) (12/5/68) [DVD]
The Virginian: “Big Tiny” (co-teleplay) (12/18/68)
Mod Squad: “The Uptight Town” (2/18/69)
The Outcasts: “A Time of Darkness” (3/24/69)
The Doris Day Show: “The Tiger” (4/15/69) [DVD]
Bonanza: “Speak No Evil” (4/20/69)
Mannix: “Missing: Sun and Sky” (possible uncredited contribution) (12/20/69)
Paris 7000: “No Place to Hide” (co-teleplay) (1/29/70)
Quarantined [aka House on the Hill] (telefilm) (2/24/70)
Ironside: “Good Will Tour” (3/26/70)
Mission: Impossible: “The Rebel” (co-story) (11/28/70)
Dan August: “Quadrangle For Death” (co-teleplay) (12/16/70)
Adam-12 (at least one episode, c. 1971)
Mission: Impossible: “Shape-Up” (10/16/71) [with Ed Adamson]
Mission: Impossible: “Bag Woman” (1/29/72) [with Ed Adamson]
Banyon: “The Old College Try” (9/22/72)
Banyon: “Completely Out of Print” (10/6/72)
Mission: Impossible: “Cocaine” (co-story) (10/21/72)
Kung Fu: “Forbidden Kingdom” (co-teleplay and story) (1/18/74)
Kung Fu: “The Thief of Chendo” (co-teleplay) (3/29/75)
Fire! (telefilm; story and co-teleplay) (5/8/77)
The Return of Captain Nemo (telefilm; co-teleplay) (3/8/78)
Big Shamus, Little Shamus: “The Abduction” (10/6/78)
Big Shamus, Little Shamus: “The Loser” (10/6/78)
Dynasty: “Fallon’s Wedding” (co-teleplay) (2/2/81) [DVD]
Nurse: “Blackout” (2/18/82)
Cave-In! (telefilm) (6/19/83)
Days of Our Lives (staff writer, c. 1983)
Blood and Orchids (telefilm, from his novel) (2/23/86)
As story editor
Feature Films (as writer): It Happened to Jane (1959); Once You Kiss a Stranger (1969); Viva Knievel! (1977).
Norman Katkov wrote many of the best scripts for one of the best television shows of the sixties: Ben Casey. A medical drama that was sometimes mistaken as a soapy vehicle for its beefcake star Vince Edwards, Ben Casey told intense, often despairing stories of illnesses both physical and mental – maladies, one might say, that afflicted mankind at large. Dark and brooding where its rival, Dr. Kildare, was bright and airy, Casey always seemed to take place at three in the morning: its hospital corridors were always empty, a window was rarely to be glimpsed, and the shadowy lighting crossing the barren walls edged into the territory of German expressionism. The show took on the personality of its star – snarling, unsympathetic, rude – and because viewers, especially female ones, responded enthusiastically to Edwards’ tough love, Ben Casey was allowed to evolve into a rare oasis of melancholia within the sunniness of TV’s Camelot era.
To this fertile ground, Norman Katkov brought a warmth, a tough-minded humanism, and a great facility for literate dialogue and depth of character. The first of his twelve complete or partial Ben Casey teleplays, “The Big Trouble With Charlie,” addressed the controversial topic of illegal abortions, but at its center was the sad, gentle reunion of two fortyish former sweethearts (Jack Warden and Norma Crane) who reconnect too late.
“Father Was an Interne” told the story of a man (James Whitmore) struggling to become a doctor in middle age. Though he has a conflict with Casey, the main theme of the story is whether the sacrifices Dr. Forrest has made to help strangers have unfairly burdened his own loved ones. Katkov is unafraid to devote most of his attention to the mundane dynamics of a loving family: the climax, if one can call it that, turns on the teenage son’s decision to defer college for a year while he saves enough money to become financially independent.
“You Fish or You Cut Bait” cast an ideal Stella Stevens as Jane Hancock, a beautiful woman/child who awakened from a coma after ten years, physically an adult but developmentally a thirteen year old. In the love story between Jane and Casey, Katkov cares less about her rather far-fetched medical condition than about Casey’s very ordinary dilemma of commitment. When Jane asks if Casey loves her, he replies, “I don’t know.” He cares for her but can’t tell if she’s the one. And so they break up.
This kind of simplicity was Katkov’s specialty: the character-driven story that exposed universal emotional truths rarely laid out so clearly or movingly on television. Katkov understood that a forceful protagonist like Casey needed a strong foil, so he created a series of iron-willed patients or rival doctors for Edwards to face off against, never more dazzlingly than in the two-parter “A Cardinal Act of Mercy.”
In an Emmy-winning star turn, the great stage actress Kim Stanley portrayed Faith Parsons, an imperious lawyer concealing a heroin addiction. If a standard story might have recycled the Man With the Golden Arm cliche of a wall-pounding detox, Katkov’s script documented Faith’s path toward finding the resolve to become sober. It ends where most drug addiction stories begin. Katkov suggests that Faith’s feeling of superiority (she’s contemptuous toward another patient who is kind but unsophisticated) must be eroded, that she must accept herself as a member of the human race, with a capacity for weakness, before she can recover. The character sounds unsympathetic, but Katkov gives her dialogue so sharp that we admire her intelligence, and lets us see that Faith’s arrogance has evolved as a defense mechanism necessary for a smart, successful woman in a man’s world. Katkov mediates our sympathies through Casey’s: a tough man to impress, the surgeon is gradually won over by his patient’s indefatigability. They are kindred spirits.
“With the Rich and Mighty, Always a Little Patience” was a semi-comedic variation of the same story, with Casey going up against a hard-shelled heiress (Anne Francis) in need of a brain operation. Katkov, always a broker of reconciliation, showed Casey overcoming his instinctive aversion to the privileged as the spoiled girl finally concedes her vulnerability. Along the way the viewer is treated to a stream of witty repartee:
PENELOPE: Will you marry me?
CASEY: Do you have a tic?
PENELOPE: I’ve said those words exactly twice in my whole life. Last night and right now. Does that sound like a tic?
CASEY: It sounds like you’re bored.
PENELOPE: You’ll never know.
CASEY: You bet I won’t, Miss Shattuck. I’ve got too many things to do with my life.
PENELOPE: Doctor – when I proposed to you it wasn’t because I was bored, now, tonight.
CASEY: What you really mean is that you’re always bored. And rich, and beautiful, and intelligent. Charming. Witty. And sophisticated.
PENELOPE: Question: did you mean what you just said?
CASEY: Every word.
PENELOPE: Will you marry me?
CASEY: Will you stop?
PENELOPE: Say when. What’s your name?
PENELOPE: Hello, Ben.
CASEY: You ought to be in bed.
PENELOPE: I ought to be Mrs. Ben.
CASEY: Curfew. You said to say when.
PENELOPE: You said I was beautiful.
CASEY: You are.
PENELOPE: And witty, intelligent, charming . . . Why isn’t that enough, Ben? You meant it when you kissed me.
CASEY: Any man who has a chance to kiss you and doesn’t is a traitor to the human race.
PENELOPE: Are you a confirmed bachelor, doctor, or is it just me?
Rarely was the relationship between Ben Casey’s two lead characters explored in richer detail than in Katkov’s scripts. In particular, Katkov had an affinity for Dr. Zorba (Sam Jaffe), the older doctor who in more pedestrian writers’ hands became a mushy mentor figure in the venerable tradition of Doctors Kildare and Gillespie (of the thirties MGM films and the rival NBC series). In Katkov’s hands, Zorba was a wily mensch, skilled at hospital politics and formidably severe with underlings who displeased him. “A Cardinal Act of Mercy” plausibly reversed the usual polarity of the two doctors’ temperaments, with Casey showing an unexpected sympathy for a fellow hardhead and Zorba taking the hard line that Faith must wean herself off the painkillers Casey has prescribed to enable her addiction.
As the series progressed, Katkov emphasized the underlying friendship beneath the conflicts between Casey and Zorba. In one lovely scene from “You Fish or You Cut Bait,” Casey arrives in Dr. Zorba’s office to be rebuked for losing his head over a female patient, only to express concern after finding the older man slumped over, asleep in his chair:
ZORBA: Isn’t there a current phrase which goes, I didn’t know you cared.
CASEY: That’s the phrase.
ZORBA: I didn’t know you cared . . . . [He looks out the window.] The lights are coming on. I like the night. And the day. And cold, and heat, and snow, and rain as much as always. I’ve only noticed one change: I hate waste. What happened today?
CASEY: You were there, doctor.
ZORBA: What happened which made that happen?
CASEY: All right, it won’t happen again.
ZORBA: You know, Ben, the study of medicine is, among other things, a training in memory. Mine is excellent. So I remember being in love. I remember the girl. I remember her face. And a gesture: she would brush back her hair impatiently. I remember that. And I remember how badly I acted when things had not gone well between us. I was very jealous. Do you love her? If you love her, you need no longer be jealous. You could marry her . . . . Why don’t you take a holiday. Go somewhere, anywhere, and sit and think this out.
CASEY: I’ve got over twenty patients out there.
ZORBA: You’ve got? You know, Ben, even royalty uses the plural.
Katkov’s versatility extended to other programs in other genres, particularly westerns, where his devotion to questions of right and wrong were a natural fit. “Blind Spot,” for the forgotten Outlaws series, was an unsentimental piece about the strange bond between a boy seeking to avenge his father’s murder and the gunman who ruthlessly exploits him and, at the same time, helps to heal his grief. A different kind of genre piece, “The Lonely Hostage” followed a rogue cop’s meticulous plan to flee the country, which comes apart only when his beloved wife punctures the rationalizations he has cooked up to justify the violence he’s committed against others. Lean and suspenseful, it was action with a moral underpinning, and as good as Ironside ever got.
On other assignments – The Wild Wild West, for instance, or 87th Precinct – the Katkov touch was harder to discern. For Katkov, television writing was a business proposition, not a passion. The majority of his television credits connect to one of a handful of producers who counted Katkov as a friend and a treasured resource who could be relied upon for quality material: James Moser (Ben Casey, Slattery’s People); Fred Freiberger, a Ben Casey producer who carried Katkov with him to The Wild Wild West and several short-lived seventies shows; and Ed Adamson (Wanted Dead or Alive, Banyon), with whom Katkov sometimes collaborated as a writing partner. Content to let the industry come to him, Katkov took assignments when he needed the money and devoted most of his energy toward researching and writing novels.
Katkov had turned to television in the first place after finding that he could not make a living writing fiction for the dying magazine market. During the late forties and fifties, Katkov’s stories had found their way into nearly every American living room via the pages of McCall’s, Reader’s Digest, Esquire, Ladies’ Home Journal, the Saturday Evening Post, and others. By that time he already had two novels to his credit – Eagle at My Eyes and A Little Sleep, A Little Slumber. They were earnest, autobiographical works whose concern with issues of Jewish identity today seem a bit dated; one hopes, at least, that the almost pathologically self-hating Jew who is the protagonist of Eagle at My Eyes has no modern counterpart. These early novels received polite reviews and sold anemically, but they spoke to their constituency. Fifty years later, Franklin Barton, another talented writer who had gravitated toward the circle of Connecticut-based television people with whom Katkov associated, remembered Eagle at My Eyes as “the first really good book about a Jewish-gentile marriage.”1
Screenwriters who prefer prose or poetry sometimes find, to their dismay, that the work they took on to pay the bills work will likely become their epitaph. But Katkov enjoyed a measure of commercial success relatively late in life with Blood and Orchids, a 1983 bestseller that fictionalized the Massie case, a 1931 incident of rape and murder in Hawaii that turned into a racial scandal. Three years later, a miniseries version starring Kris Kristofferson appeared on CBS, and Katkov revisited his winning formula in two other gossipy hardcover thrillers with recent historical settings, The Judas Kiss and Millionaires’ Row.
Reluctant artists often make difficult interviews: if the questioner’s enthusiasm for the material being discussed exceeds the subject’s, the conversation can be awkward. The irony that the television work Katkov now tends to dismiss often surpassed the best work of most of his contemporaries hung uneasily over our interview. Katkov seemed at times concerned that his frankness could be taken as false modesty – that it might paint him as an elitist on the order of Faith Parsons. He need not have worried. A vivid storyteller, Norman spun a colorful memoir of his path to becoming a writer, and a pithy, unpretentious account of his career in television.
Georgann Johnson and Richard Crenna in Norman Katkov's “Question: Is Laura the Name of the Game?” episode of Slattery's People
Where were you born?
In the Ukraine. I’m a Russian Jew. We got to the States, I think, in 1921, to St. Paul, Minnesota. I was either three or four. My mother and father told me that I spoke Russian fluently, but I don’t remember it. I have no memory of anything until the States.
Was your family fleeing the Revolution?
They were fleeing the slaughter of Jews. I use the word advisedly. In the midst of the Revolution – I always wanted to write this – there was a guy named Petlurov, and he had a band of murderers, who rode through the Ukraine slaughtering Jews. That’s when we had to get out. The closest border was Rumania. [We] would move at night, and one night, they were in someone’s basement, because these marauders were in the area, and my brother Bob, an infant, started crying. A Jew came to my father and said, “He can’t cry. He’ll get us all killed. Give him to me. I’ll quiet him.” What he meant was, I’ll kill him. That’s what he meant: I’ll choke him. And my father had been in the Russian Army, and he wasn’t about to give up his kid. That’s really a true story.
Were you a writer from an early age?
Yes. I was always reading. Every Friday afternoon, after school, I walked to the branch library in St. Paul. I got four books – that was the limit. And often I hid a book or two behind other books, for next week. On the way home there was a goodwill store right near my house, and they had used pulp magazines that they’d picked up. Two for a nickel, or three for a nickel. I always had a nickel, so I’d buy two or three of those, and I read them all by the following Friday. So, I was always reading, and I suppose the writing came from that. In the fifth grade, if we had to write a story or something, I wrote three of them: one for me, one for Sam Gorelik, and one for Benny Gantman.
In junior high, I entered an essay contest given by the Minnesota Tuberculosis Association. In those days there was an afternoon paper in St. Paul, the St. Paul Daily News, and I’ll be a sonofabitch, a photographer shows up [and] wants to take Norman Katkov’s picture. It turns out I’d gone into the finals of the essay contest. So there was my picture in the paper. Took me outside, took my picture. Then in college I started submitting stories to magazines.
I went to the University of Minnesota, which was six miles away. I was in the Army, but I never heard a shot fired in anger. I was in the States and I put out a post newspaper. I would send stories to the Pioneer Press, in St. Paul, because I wanted to see my name in print. Now and then they would print one. When I got out of the army, I went down and a columnist remembered me. He’d used a lot of stuff I’d sent down and he recommended me. That’s how I got a job on the St. Paul Pioneer Press.
After a year I went to New York. I got on with the World-Telegram, which is defunct. Well, they’re all defunct [now]. When I got to New York, there were eight dailies in Manhattan. The New York Times, the New York Herald Tribune, the Mirror and the Daily News, morning papers. The World-Telegram, the Sun, the Post, and the Journal-American, afternoon papers. The Amsterdam News, a black paper. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Anyway, I had been writing short stories and sending them out since I started college. I worked on the paper, and I wrote stories. I sold [to] Collier’s, the Saturday Evening Post, Woman’s Home Companion, Ladies Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, the American, Good Housekeeping, the Toronto Star Weekly, you name it. Then I wrote a novel, Eagle at My Eyes, about a Jewish-gentile romance, and that was [reviewed] in the New York Times. Then I quit the paper and just wrote. Biggest mistake I ever made, the biggest. I loved the newspaper business. I was as good a feature writer as anyone. Everything else, I’m just another hack. Nobody will tell you that he’s a hack, but I will. I’ve written seven novels. Eagle at My Eyes and Blood and Orchids were bestsellers. But I loved the newspaper, and I was really good at it.
Did you cover a particular beat?
Any goddamn thing. From all five boroughs. Jersey, of course. Connecticut, of course. Anything. Didn’t make any difference. I was a feature writer, also called sidebar writers.
So, human interest style stories.
Solely. And I was on the front page as much as anyone was.
So I quit, and I was making a living writing for magazines. Fiction only. I wrote another novel, A Little Sleep, A Little Slumber. Then I got married and we moved to Connecticut. And, here came television. The magazines started disappearing. Collier’s, every week, was an event in America. Saturday Evening Post – Norman Rockwell did the covers. They started disappearing [during the 1950s]. By 1957 or ’58, there were no magazines, because of TV.
Can you give me an example of the kinds of things you wrote?
Any time I came across a story. One of my brothers had a pal who had taught in Mexico. He told me a story about a local witch woman, and [because] he was teaching she tried to put a hex on him. I sold that to the Saturday Evening Post. Sold a lot of stories, novelettes, serials. A lot of cop stories. When I broke in, in St. Paul, on Saturday and Sunday nights the regular police reporter was off. I covered Saturday and Sunday. Here I am, a kid, a police reporter! I thought I’d gone to heaven. I got a lot of stories there that I made into fiction. I made them into fiction – the next guy wouldn’t have. The same thing happened in New York when I was on the newspaper.
Did you also write for live television?
I did. I thought of a story, and there was no place I could sell it, so I wrote three or four pages and sent it to my agent. By that time he had to get into television too, and he sent it over to Kraft and they bought it. That’s how it started. A couple of those.
Only a couple? So very much secondary to your prose writing?
Yes it was. I wanted to write fiction – I mean, write prose, you know. But it got to a point where the market just wasn’t there in magazines. I didn’t do much live TV. There weren’t a half dozen.
Did you ever attend rehearsals or broadcasts of your shows?
Yes. I remember doing a Studio One, “Portrait of a Citizen.” Walter Slezak was the star. I came to one rehearsal, and Slezak was so rough on the script I never came back. He actually didn’t know I was sitting there – he didn’t know who I was. I had the character talking in very bad, broken English, you know. He kept saying things like, “hah,” “who,” “uh,” and grunting and saying, “What is this?” And I just didn’t come back. He was just cruel.
He was ridiculing your dialogue?
He was ridiculing the script. Or at least his lines.
What else do you recall about working in live television?
I do remember something which I shouldn’t tell you, but I will. Kraft Theatre was a big one-hour show, and I got an appointment [to pitch a story]. Of course the advertising agencies ran the shows. If you wanted to sell a story, you went to the advertising agency. I saw two men at Kraft Theatre. A third man popped in for a little while, short little guy, very gentlemanly, very diffident. It was Charlie Jackson, who wrote The Lost Weekend.2 He was back in the advertising business, which didn’t cheer me up any. I felt really sorry for him. I don’t know if I was right or wrong, but I did, because he wrote another novel, The Fall of Valor, and I was very impressed with those books. And here he was back in the advertising business. Anyway, I did try and sell a story to Kraft Theatre, and couldn’t.
It sounds like there’s more to the story.
[Hesitates.] Well, there was, Stephen. I walked out on the goddamn meeting. I was just so distressed by the whole business of going and trying to tell a story [by] talking about it. I’d spent my career putting words on paper, and sending them off. Not auditioning. And here I was auditioning, and I wasn’t very good at it. That was another thing. You had to sell it, and I wasn’t good at it. I just disliked it all.
Then, about the same time, a guy I knew who lived in Connecticut – I lived in Westport, this guy lived in Ridgefield – had an idea for a movie. [It came from] a newspaper story where a lady in Canada sued the railroad. She won, they wouldn’t pay her, and so one day the train stopped in her town, a little tiny town, and she got the sheriff to attach the train. It didn’t leave. I made a short story out of it called “The Wreck of the Old ’97.” Couldn’t sell it. There was a guy up there, and he knew about movies, or said he did. So we did a synopsis, twenty or thirty pages, called “The Wreck of the Old ’97,” and it sold to Columbia Pictures for $20,000. Ten grand for him, ten for me – except he cheated me out of $1,000. He said he wouldn’t sell it unless he got $10,000. The agent gets ten percent, you know, so we were each supposed to get $9,000, right? But he said he wanted ten. And I was so desperate, he got ten and I got eight. But I made it a condition of the sale that I would write the screenplay, or at least they would give me a stab at writing it. The reason I said so was that I was so much in hock then that the $8,000 wouldn’t have meant anything. I had a wife and two kids. I figured, I gotta get to Hollywood. It’s the only thing.
You were barely able to make a living as a magazine writer.
I couldn’t make a living! There was no barely; I couldn’t make a living.
That went on for how long?
Five or six years. So, they said yes, I could come out and have a go at it. For five hundred a week, which to me was all the money in the world. So I came out. My aged mother was living out here, and I slept on her couch. And I went to work at Columbia – on the bus, in Los Angeles! And it worked. I was writing for the producer-director, Dick Quine, and he liked what I did.
The movie became It Happened to Jane, an underrated Doris Day/Jack Lemmon comedy with a pretty authentic New England flavor. In that film and others, you have a real knack for writing realistic characters.
An educated guess, I would say it’s from the newspaper business. Interviewing people is all I did! I mean, if you’ve got a story, unless you’re going to describe a volcano, the people made the story. And I quoted them correctly. I never misquoted. Never. If I didn’t get the sentence, I asked them to repeat it. Two fiction editors, at magazines, told me the same thing you did. I’m going back forty-odd years, but that’s true, they said, “Your dialogue is believable.” And I think that’s where it came from. From listening to people.
Aren’t you in It Happened to Jane?
Yes. Jack Lemmon is a lawyer for Doris Day, and they’re suing the railroad. Ernie Kovacs is the president of the railroad. Dick Quine was a very loyal man, and for the railroad lawyer, two days’ work, he brought out a guy, an old, old friend, a bit player – Casey Adams. True name: Max Showalter. Max Showalter was for the railroad, Jack was suing them, and one morning we’re in the church which they had turned into a courtroom. And Dick Quine says, “You’re the clerk of court.” So I put on a seersucker suit and had two or three lines. I liked the movie.3
And actually, before It Happened to Jane, hadn’t you also been spent a brief period at RKO in the early fifties?
Yes. I came out for a time. Directly after Howard Hughes bought RKO, he hired a man named Jerry Wald. Wald recommended highly a man named Norman Krasna as his assistant head of production, and those two guys were the only two people with ties on the lot. That is to say, they were the only two people who weren’t janitorial on the lot. Then they hired a really good writer named Daniel Fuchs, an Oscar winner. They hired him, and they hired me! I don’t know why. [I was hired to write] a screenplay. I was there for several weeks, then I was finished. They let me go.4
But after you settled in L.A., It Happened to Jane didn’t lead to further screen assignments.
I had kept telling my wife, “We gotta come out here. We’ve got to. Because I can’t make a living out there.” Well, right after I finished the movie, the Writers Guild went out on strike. And when it ended, I’d had one movie credit to my name, a little comedy. I couldn’t get a job in the movies [based on that].
But I could get a job in television. Another guy who’d come out from Westport was a guy named Ed Adamson. He had spent his career in radio, writing radio drama, half-hours, and he made the switch to television easily. He was producing Wanted Dead or Alive, which was a half-hour western with Steve McQueen. All you had to do was see him move in front of the camera and you knew he was going to be a big, big star. It was obvious. So, Ed Adamson, God bless him – the [third] season was like twenty-six, or twenty-four [episodes], and he and I did them all. He didn’t have a good reputation [among writers afterward], because he wouldn’t farm ’em out, but we did ’em all. And it never stopped after that.
Wanted Dead or Alive got cancelled after a year. But there were other shows. Shows all over the lot. Every studio had shows. And there I stayed, for years. The way it worked then and worked for decades was, you went to a producer and/or the story editor, you told them an idea, and if they liked it, they put you on the story. If they liked the story, you went into the teleplay. That was the procedure.
Many writers I’ve talked to are dismissive when I ask how they got their assignments – they just say their agent got it for them.
I never heard of that. As a matter of fact, my agent then, Ben Benjamin, sent me to Matt Rapf originally – that’s true. But you had to go out and do it. You had to sell them the story, if you could.
So the worst part of the job was hustling for assignments?
It certainly was. For anyone. Because you never knew if you were working that week, you see. Or that month.
Was that process any more agreeable in Los Angeles than it had been in New York?
No, but I got a lot more agreeable, fast. I had a family to raise.
What was Ed Adamson like?
He was a warm, friendly, witty man. He was a New Yorker. His father, who left his mother when Adamson [was a young child] – Adamson was a twin – was a man named Hans Christian Adamson, a Danish explorer who during World War II was in a plane with, among others, Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I ace. They were shot down in the Pacific, and they were adrift for several days.
Ed Adamson could dictate a whole script without stopping . . . . He was fast. He would dictate Banyon, and he would walk around, playing the roles. He was a very nice man, in every way, and he was made for radio and television. He was good at it.
What do you mean by “made for” television?
He liked it.
Before I answer – I don’t want to sound like an asshole. I don’t want to knock it. But I wrote television to support my family. If I’d had my druthers, I would have written novels. As it is, I wrote seven novels – I mean I published seven novels. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to write Wild Wild West or Bonanza particularly, and yet I needed it.
Fred Freiberger was the producer of Wild Wild West for a while. He never let me go hungry, as the saying goes. When he worked, I worked. He was a story editor one year at Hanna-Barbera, the animators. He called me. He says, “Come on, you got a job.” And I was a story editor there for one season. Then Adamson sold a show called Banyon. Banyon was the name of his detective, with a young guy named Robert Forster. And he hired me as story editor. So that was another easy two years, because it was a check every week.
But did I think I was advancing American literature? No, I didn’t. Do you think I was?
Advancing American culture, definitely. For instance, Ben Casey was an extremely literate show and I think your scripts for it are among the best.
I liked that show, and I liked enormously the producer, Matt Rapf. He was excellent. You could write better stories for Matt. There were a group of guys out here who were known variously as “sons of the pioneers,” because their fathers had been [founders of the film industry]. Matt Rapf’s father was one of the founders of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Matt’s older brother is Maurice Rapf.5
The Ben Caseys were good. That was a very pleasant chapter, because I did a lot of them for Casey. In one there was a lawyer who was a drug addict on the sly. But Casey knew immediately she was a drug addict, and he took care of her [habit] on the sly. And then his superior, Sam Jaffe, said to him, “No more. You’re been feeding her and I know it. And that’s all.” So Casey goes to her and says, “You’ve got to do it. Do it here, and I’ll help you.” And he does. He locks her in and she beats it. The title was, “A Cardinal Act of Mercy,” which I read in the newspaper. A doctor described what he did as a cardinal act of mercy. It was a two-parter, two hours.
I had an Emmy nomination for it, but don’t forget, I had Kim Stanley. Matt sent her the script, and she had her eye on a house in Rockland County – over the George Washington Bridge to Jersey, turn right, after ten or fifteen miles you’re in Rockland County. It’s beautiful. She wanted that house, and she got it, because she did this two-parter.
And she got an Emmy, too.
She got the Emmy. I got beat out of it.
Did you spend time on the set of Ben Casey or other shows that you became heavily involved in?
No, but nobody did. I was never invited to a set, ever.
Where did those long, obscure titles of the Ben Casey episodes come from?
All from me! I couldn’t think of any others. That was all I could think of, the long titles. I was never very good at titles.
Before settling in as a Ben Casey mainstay, Katkov wrote “Hit and Run,” an early episode of the rival medical drama Dr. Kildare.
Was Ben Casey’s creator, Jim Moser, still involved in it at that time?
He was there every goddamn day, and he was involved in it, yes. He sat in on every story meeting.
Eventually the show went to a serial format.
I was not writing for it when it had a running storyline. That was its reincarnation, or the tail end of it, when a new production team came on, headed by a guy named Wilton Schiller. I was gone by then.6 As a matter of fact, I was working for Matt Rapf at Columbia.
On an unsold television pilot based on From Here to Eternity?
Yes. You see, the brass at Columbia was keenly aware of Peyton Place over at Fox, so they hoped they could do the same with From Here to Eternity. That was the hope, but it never got off the ground. They never did a pilot. The guy in our pilot would have been really good, Darren McGavin. He was Warden [the Burt Lancaster character].
So it was cast but never actually made?
It was cast, and they did excerpts, like trailers, you know. That’s all. Tried to sell it, and they couldn’t. They weren’t going to do an hour pilot, or maybe they would have had to do a strip, you know – five of them.
Did you ever put anything personal or autobiographical in your TV work?
No, I didn’t. Now and then a place name, but that’s all. Not a town, but I remember White Bear Lake, which is in Minnesota. I named the lake White Bear Lake [in the] two-part Ben Casey, called “A Cardinal Act of Mercy.”
Did you write from home or in an office?
For a long time I had an office [over] an old, old filling station, like a Spanish-type Standard Oil station. James Poe, a movie writer, an Oscar winner, had that office – he wrote Around the World in 80 Days up above that gas station. When he got rid of it, I got it. Fifty bucks a month. When we moved here my wife Betty [remodeled the garage as his office] and I worked here. I wrote four books right here.
For the last twenty, thirty years, if I get three pages of prose in four hours, I’ve had a very good day. Three pages. Well, if I didn’t do ten or twelve pages of television, I’ve wasted the day. When I did the soap Days of Our Lives, I was writing Blood and Orchids. I needed the money, because it was $1000, and I did one [episode] a week – but I made up my mind: it had to be done in two days. That’s an hour. I did it every week. I did it in a day and a half, Stephen. Now, you know, the quality . . . .
Well, they ran it!
1 From the author’s interview with Franklin Barton, September 11, 2003, Beverly Hills, California.
2 Charles Jackson (1903-1968) wrote the autobiographical 1944 novel The Long Weekend, a best-seller that was filmed by Billy Wilder. But Jackson completed only two more novels, all published before 1950, and his rapid decline was a cautionary tale for many younger admirers like Katkov.
3 His association with Doris Day on this film may explain why Katkov turned up rather incongruously as a writer on The Doris Day Show, his only sitcom credit.
4 According to Bernard Eisenschitz’s invaluable Nicholas Ray: An American Life (Faber & Faber, 1996), Katkov was one of many uncredited writers who made a pass at the script for Macao (1952).
5 Matthew Rapf (1920-1991) produced the first two seasons of Ben Casey under executive producer James E. Moser. He later produced Kojak and Switch. His brother, Maurice Rapf (1914-2003), was a blacklisted screenwriter who later became the highly respected head of the film department at Dartmouth College.
6 Katkov has a single credit in the final season of Ben Casey. It is likely that he sold the show a self-contained story that was later rewritten by staffers to incorporate the series’ new serialized storylines.
All Text and Interview Copyright © 2007 Stephen W. Bowie
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