Saturday, December 20, 2008

William Shatner IS For The People

Forty years before winning an Emmy as colorful Denny Crane on the hit ABC series BOSTON LEGAL, William Shatner played another attorney on FOR THE PEOPLE in 1965. The CBS series (and production) was the brainchild of executive producer Herbert Brodkin, who had worked on many of the Golden Age of Television's most important programs. STUDIO ONE, PLAYHOUSE 90 and THE DEFENDERS are three of the highbrow dramas that Brodkin shepherded before the creation of FOR THE PEOPLE, which may have been loosely inspired by THE DEFENDERS.

THE DEFENDERS was a spinoff of "The Defender," a two-part 1957 STUDIO ONE that starred E.G. Marshall and Shatner as father-and-son attorneys defending accused murderer Steve McQueen in court. Marshall and a pre-BRADY BUNCH Robert Reed played Lawrence and Kenneth Preston in the CBS series, which ran 132 episodes and won many Emmys and other prestigious awards. What was important about THE DEFENDERS was its willingness to tackle important issues of the day, such as vigilantism, abortion, Red-baiting, capital punishment, religious freedom. You won't see networks today using series television to tackle big issues (outside of shows written by David E. Kelley, who lacks the sensitivity of a Brodkin or a Reginald Rose), but THE DEFENDERS proved it could be done with class, style and, most importantly, ratings success.

While THE DEFENDERS was heading into its fourth and final season, Brodkin began production on a new legal series, this one from the point of view of the prosecutors. Filmed on location in New York City, FOR THE PEOPLE centered around David Koster, an idealistic young assistant district attorney who also found himself torn by the day's current issues. For Koster, Brodkin called upon Shatner, a 33-year-old leading man with acting credits on prestigious television series like TWILIGHT ZONE, PLAYHOUSE 90, THE DEFENDERS and THE OUTER LIMITS, as well as a Broadway run in THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG and big-screen roles in JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG and Roger Corman's THE INTRUDER. In 1964, when production began on FOR THE PEOPLE, Shatner was a very big deal.

Surrounding Shatner were other talented performers of the period. The formerly blacklisted Howard da Silva signed on as Koster's boss, D.A. Anthony Celese. Oklahoma-born Lonny Chapman played Frank Malloy, Koster's investigator. And as Koster's wife Phyllis, Brodkin hired 23-year-old Jessica Walter, an ebon-haired beauty who, like Shatner, has continued to maintain a successful acting career forty years later, working steadily on series such as ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, for which she was nominated for her fourth Emmy. All four FOR THE PEOPLE actors were well known to Brodkin from guest shots on THE DEFENDERS.

From the two FOR THE PEOPLE episodes I was privileged to see, the series was filmed in a documentary style with bleak black-and-white photography, actual New York City locations, very little music (outside of its stately theme), and an insistence upon not having its stars be right all the time. In both shows, David Koster is shown to make mistakes that either did or could have immeasurable social costs.

"Guilt Shall Not Escape, Nor Innocence Suffer" (all titles are drawn from actual New York state law) is an interesting look at the justice system working for the convenience of the judges and attorneys, rather than the actual victims. Tony-winner Paul Hartman is very good as Sam Chapin, a vagrant who is arrested on a burglary charge. He freely admits to being drunk and beaning the arresting officer during a scuffle, but claims to be innocent of the breaking and entering. Koster, Celese and the presiding judge, in a hurry to get through the day's dockets as quickly and trouble-free as possible, just want Chapin to take a plea and serve his time, at least ten years in prison. Only Martin Jameson (Walter Moulder, an actor who doesn't appear to have worked much, but is quite good), Chapin's inexperienced legal-aid attorney, is willing to consider his client's cries of innocence.

Daniel Petrie, a fine director of dramatic television who found some later success in features (FORT APACHE, THE BRONX), methodically presents a good teleplay by Andy and David P. Lewis, who went on to write KLUTE and land an Oscar nomination. Petrie's use of a handheld camera on city streets adds to the "you are there" feeling of the show.

Even better is "Dangerous to the Public Peace and Safety," which showcases Tony Bill (still acting in TNT's LEVERAGE) as Buddy, an ingratiating young man with an active fantasy life and a yen for knifing pretty young girls to death. Bill is wonderful as the young psycho, refusing to overplay or go for cheap laughs like actors playing serial killers love to do (see recent episodes of LIFE, for instance). Charming and imminently sympathetic, Buddy meets young Teresa, played by Lesley Ann Warren, who had just a month earlier made her television splash as the title role in Rodgers and Hammerstein's CINDERELLA.

Koster blames himself for Buddy's body count, because of his insistence upon sending the lad to jail for six months on an earlier offense, rather than the psychiatric stay for which Buddy's lawyer called. Would Buddy's five knifing victims still be alive if Koster had felt more sympathy for him? Intriguing question posited by writer Robert Thom, an Emmy winner for a DEFENDERS teleplay who ended up writing intelligent exploitation movies for Roger Corman in the 1970s. Director Stuart Rosenberg (COOL HAND LUKE) appears to be aping Orson Welles in his creative use of camera placement in angles, sometimes shooting through books or a line of stacked chairs. David Doyle, another DEFENDERS vet who would find fame as Bosley on CHARLIE'S ANGELS, offers a nifty character turn as a bartender dating Buddy's ineffective mother (Sally Gracie).

FOR THE PEOPLE replaced MY LIVING DOLL and THE JOEY BISHOP SHOW on the CBS Sunday night schedule in January 1965. As with almost everything else CBS threw against BONANZA, it was slaughtered in the ratings and was cancelled after 13 episodes. However, TV history may have benefitted from the move. With FOR THE PEOPLE's cancellation, star Shatner was free to sign on to a new series debuting in the fall of 1966. STAR TREK became one of the most popular TV series in the world, and it's doubtful that Shatner, for all his talents, would still be on a hit series in 2008, if not for STAR TREK.

By the way, Shatner supported Walter the second time the stars acted together. He played a detective on an episode of her shortlived NBC series AMY PRENTISS, which, despite running just a season, earned her a Best Actress Emmy in 1975.

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