Tuesday, July 12, 2011

An Interview with Sherwood Schwartz. His Last.

Kliph Nesteroff: I was speaking to one of your contemporaries just a couple weeks ago, a man you used to write for. Alan Young.

Sherwood Schwartz: Oh, yes.

Kliph Nesteroff: In preparation for that interview I listened to many episodes of the Alan Young radio show. I was intrigued to discover how many connections there were on that show to what would become Gilligan's Island. Jim Backus playing a wealthy character on both shows, George Wyle was Alan Young's orchestra leader and then became...

Sherwood Schwartz: Yes, George Wyle wrote the music on Gilligan's Island. He didn't do Brady. He was busy. He was performing then.

Kliph Nesteroff: You got Frank DeVol for The Brady Bunch...

Sherwood Schwartz: Yes, he did a wonderful job too. Both of them did. They're both wonderful musicians.

Kliph Nesteroff: You were one of the chief writers for The Alan Young Show on NBC Radio in the early forties. What do you remember about that experience?

Sherwood Schwartz: Well, I didn't create that show, so I was just a hired hand, really. My brother Al worked on that show.

Kliph Nesteroff: Jim Backus played a snobbish millionaire on that program named Hubert Updike III, which is clearly the same character you used later on Gilligan's Island.

Sherwood Schwartz: Exactly. Exactly. He's the only actor that I had in mind when I created Gilligan's Island. I auditioned [others], but I wrote it, really, for him. It was a relatively minor part because he was unavailable. He had done a pilot a couple of months earlier and he didn't know whether it would sell or not. CBS was loathe to take second position to anybody. They were not going to wait for the availability of anyone, in particular Jim Backus. They weren't going to wait to see what was going to happen with that. So I had to cast somebody who was nowhere near as good as Jim Backus. But a producer can just do so much. You take the best of what you have because [the opportunity] ain't gonna come around next year. 

So I cast somebody else at that moment and a couple of weeks later the pilot that he had done didn't make it to air and he was suddenly available. He had not had a very big part in the script, but if I was gonna have Jim Backus... I was going to build up that part. I got in touch with Jim and I said, "I understand you're not doing the other one. I'd like you to do this." He said, "Send a script over." I said, "No." He said, "What do you mean - no?" I said, "Well, it's not really worthy of you. It's not a major enough role the way I wrote it." Then he said, "Do you expect me to sign on to do a show without even seeing the script?" And I said,"Yes." Because I had had previous experience with him on The Alan Young Show I could talk to him like that. So he laughed and said, "Okay." And that's what happened.

Kliph Nesteroff: And that character was Thurston Howell "the Third" and on The Alan Young Show he was Hubert Updike "The Third."

Sherwood Schwartz: Was that "The Third" also?

Kliph Nesteroff: Yeah.

Sherwood Schwartz: I didn't even know that.

Kliph Nesteroff: That's why it's interesting to listen to that show. A lot of the old radio shows are fondly remembered. Everybody remembers The Great Gildersleeve and Life of Riley and shows like that, but not very many people remember The Alan Young Show. But it did have a lot of what would become famous characters...

Sherwood Schwartz: I thought it was [as big as] Bob Hope. I was just a kid.

Kliph Nesteroff:  There was also Parker Fennelly doing his old timer character on The Alan Young Show which eventually became big on The Fred Allen Show. There was also the Senator Claghorn character that gained fame with Fred Allen, which started on The Alan Young Show...

Sherwood Schwartz: Yes, I remember that. It's like there were only thirty people in the whole business running around the same circles.

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard that Alan Young was up for the part of Gilligan originally.

Sherwood Schwartz: No.

Kliph Nesteroff: No?

Sherwoord Schwartz: No, that's not true. The only other one up for Gilligan had another show available to him and he chose the other pilot. So then I went to my second choice which was Bob Denver. Very often the second banana becomes even more important than the top banana. That's what happened with Bob Denver.


Kliph Nesteroff: I'm writing an article about Joe E. Ross and one of the big gaps is the period in which he was on your sitcom It's About Time. I was wondering if you'd be able to tell me how he came to be cast in that sitcom and if you knew him before that.

Sherwood Schwartz: I did not know Ross before, but I knew his work because he was on Car 54. So he became quite famous. I created It's About Time and I was casting the show and he seemed like a logical choice to play a caveman. I interviewed several people and he got the part.

Kliph Nesteroff: Do you remember who some of the other people were that you had auditioned?

Sherwoord Schwartz: No, I don't remember. I remember Imogene Coca. [Joe E. Ross] was kind of a crude man, told it like it was... didn't beat around the bush. He had an annoying habit. They were wearing leather fur [costumes]. I don't think it was real leather. Anyway, they gapped open in various places and sometimes he would just sit down and you could see his privates. She didn't think that was very nice. I remember a guy named Cliff Norton who played the boss of the tribe or whatever. I forget what I even called it. You know, we're going back forty years, maybe forty-two? My memory of time... I don't know if you know this, but... I'm pretty old. I'm sorry to say I don't even know - is Joe E. Ross still with us?

Kliph Nesteroff: No, he passed away in the early eighties, but it was quite an interesting story. He died onstage while he was doing stand-up. The famous story is that he wasn't doing too well career wise at that point. He was being paid one hundred dollars to do the show. I guess he had a heart attack in the middle of the show. After the show his wife went to collect the money and they only gave her fifty dollars - because he didn't finish the show.

Sherwood Schwartz: Really?

Kliph Nesteroff: That's the story, anyways.

Sherwoord Schwartz: That's the classic Hollywood story. That's a good Hollywood story.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you find him difficult on the set? There are a lot of stories about the problems Nat Hiken had with him on the other shows.

Sherwoord Schwartz: I had other problems going on. The show was struggling. It never did survive enough to go into another season. He was not a major source of problem for me, the ratings were. We were cancelled after... I forget how many...

Kliph Nesteroff: Twenty-four episodes or something like that.

Sherwood Schwartz: Oh, yeah. I remember what happened. The show was not doing well. This is all coming back to me now. So I decided I would reverse the show and have the cave people return to [modern times]. So I think I did twelve episodes with the astronauts in caveman land, and then I did twelve or something with the cavemen coming back to now. But that didn't seem to help the ratings, so we never came back for another year.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did you ever use Joe E. Ross in anything else?

Sherwood Schwartz: No, he just didn't fit... what I did after that was I created a show called The Brady Bunch. Actually, I created Gilligan's Island and that's when I swore I would only pay attention to one show at a time. Because many people, a lot of creative people, create one show and then leave it as soon as they can and try to sell another show. I never would do that. With this one single exception... I created Gilligan's Island and then It's About Time. It still has the best theme song I ever wrote. "It's about time, it's about space, it's about people in the strangest place!" I don't sing much, but that's the theme I wrote.

Kliph Nesteroff: It's catchy. Now, you worked with Jim Backus again on The Brady Bunch, you worked with him long before that on yet another sitcom - I Married Joan.

Sherwood Schwartz: Yes, that was my first TV show.

Kliph Nesteroff: What was that experience like? You were writing for Joan Davis.

Sherwood Schwartz: She was a tough broad, as they say. She had one great virtue which became a problem. She refused to do the show unless a writer was on the premises, on the stage. She wanted to be able to turn to somebody and say, "I need a better line" or "Give me a better blackout." So, there were three writers. I was one of three writers on the Joan Davis show and so, we always referred to that as our week in the barrel. Where one of us had to be on the stage while the other two continued to write next week's script. She exercised real authority. Sometimes, she would be doing a scene, and she would say, "I need a line." Then, the stage would be quiet for a moment, seventy-five production people were scattered around the stage, and you had to get a better line or a better blackout. That's enormous pressure for a writer that is used to being in the room with another writer or by himself. Here you have seventy pairs of eyes staring at you while you're trying to think of something. It was a rough week, our week in the barrel.


Kliph Nesteroff:  The other writers on that show - Phil Sharp and Jesse Goldstein. What were they like to work with?

Sherwood Schwartz: I worked with Jess for... I don't know how many years. He was really cheated out of... he fell between the cracks because he died the year that I won an Emmy Award for Best Comedy Show. He had died early in the year and was replaced, I guess, by my brother Al, who really introduced me to show business. So Al got an Emmy Award and I got an Emmy Award. And Red Skelton refused to go on the next year unless they gave him an Emmy Award for writing. Which was not accurate, but we were number one at the time and the network didn't want to argue with him. So he got a writer's recognition. In fact, he did change a lot of things, a lot of lines in the script as he went along. But life is funny in TV or show business - a lot of people get credit for a lot of things they should not have got credit for and they don't get credit when they should have gotten credit. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I had heard that Red Skelton liked to claim he devised all of his material - pretended as if he had no writers.

Sherwood Schwartz: That's why I left. I left the show. I worked with him... well, I didn't work with him. For seven years. It was a curious contract ... the show was sinking. Quite badly. They called me in. At that time I was kind of a show doctor for CBS if they were having problems with a show. That happened with My Favorite Martian. That show started on a high-note and then started to drift. So they called me in to see what was wrong with the show and if I could fix it. I became kind of a show doctor for CBS for a couple of years. [Anyway], it said in my contract that I would never have to have a meeting with Red Skelton. That was a tough one for him to sign, an agreement like that. He had been the executive producer of his own show and fancied himself a writer because he remembered old jokes. Frequently he would introduce them into a script, which bothered us. Some evenings he was responsible for ten percent of the jokes or thirty percent or whatever he happened to change. But he never was involved in a writer's meeting. 

Kliph Nesteroff: There was an interview with Red Skelton from decades ago in which they asked him, "Where do you get all your ideas?" And he pointed upward and said, "From the big man upstairs."

Sherwood Schwartz: Well, I was watching late television one evening, during my seventh year with Red under the conditions I've described. I saw him with my own eyes - this is not second hand information. I happened to watch that show and he came on. The host, I forget who it was, asked him, "How is it that all the other big comics have gone through specials and you continue to do a half hour every single week? How is that possible?" They asked him how does he account for the fact he was the only one left. Red said, "Every week, when I get those lousy scripts from the writers I yawn. And the voice of God tells me how to fix things." 

So the next day I went to CBS and I said, "Goodbye." I said, "I've taken a lot of verbal abuse from Red. And in all his interviews he refers very depricatingly to writers in general and his own in particular." And I said, "I'm not going to be here anymore." And I said goodbye. They said, "Wait, wait, wait!" We were number one at the time and they didn't want to lose number one. And they don't know how to account for [the success]. They don't know if it's the writing or the acting. If you're number one, they want to keep you there. So I said, "I'm leaving!" They said, "We'll add another writer to the staff! We'll give you more money!" Well, money has never been an incentive for me. I was always able to get money wherever I went. I said, "No, no, I don't want more money. I just want out." I said to my brother who had just replaced Jess Goldstein, "Al, when I leave, you're going to be fired." Al said, "Why? Why would he fire me?" I said, "Because Red Skelton is about five years old emotionally. The only way he would have at getting back at me [for quitting] is to fire you - because you're my brother."

Al said, "First of all, you're not leaving the show. They'll give you more money." I said, "I don't want more money! I want out!" My brother couldn't conceive of this, because he was happy to just write and get paid. That's how he was all his life. He did not make waves anywhere. Well, I'm not a furious kind of guy, but I reached my limit. I said, "Al, I'm leaving and you will be fired." He didn't believe me. I talked to the producer Cec Clark. I said, "Cec, I'm leaving the show." He said, "So I've heard." I said thank you because we had had a wonderful relationship. He said, "You're not going to stay?" I said, "No, I spoke my piece and I'm leaving." He said, "I'll have to tell Red." So, he talked to Red and Red listened and he had those beady eyes where you could just tell that thoughts were in his head. All he said in reference to me leaving the show, which I had put in the top ten [highest rated shows] for seven years, was, "Fire that other fucking Schwartz!" 

Kliph Nesteroff: You mentioned that your brother Al was responsible for introducing you to show business. How so?

Sherwood Schwartz: Yes. Well, I came out to California. My plans were to get a medical degree. I went to pre-med. I did not want to become a regular doctor. I wanted to do research kind of doctoring. I read a book which influenced my whole life called Microbe Hunters. A wonderful book about doctors who had saved millions of people like Louis Pasteur and whats-his-name who discovered X-Rays. I wanted to be that kind of doctor. Well, first you have to go through medical school. Well, here's some dirty laundry if you want to hear it. The AMA in its infinite stupidity said, "There are too many Jewish doctors. Jews only account for two percent of the population and twenty-five percent of the doctors are Jewish!" Like it makes a difference to you if you're having brain surgery whether the doctor is Chinese or Indian or Jewish or anything else. You want the best man for the job. But they thought otherwise and they severely limited the amount of Jewish students that could get into medical school. I guess this was about nineteen thirty-eight. Doctors will deny that existed, but I saw the book because one the principals at some college said to me, "We're very sorry, you have the grades and all..." So, I was out of there.

I figured, "Well, I'm going to get another degree, and maybe with a masters degree, I'll be able to get into a medical school." This happened in New York. I came out West. I had no money. I'm talking the depths of the depression. My brother, who had just gotten a job on The Bob Hope Show... they were just organizing the Bob Hope writing team. While I was going to USC to get my masters degree, my brother and the other Bob Hope writers would sometimes gather in my brother's house. I would hear what they were saying. It didn't seem to me to be hard to write jokes. I wasn't interested in being a writer, but here was an opportunity. If Bob liked the joke, maybe I could get five dollars or even ten dollars a joke. In those days you could buy a lot of meals for ten dollars. So I said, "If I write some jokes, can you give them to Bob?" So my brother, being a wonderful guy, the same brother who was later fired by Red, [gave] Bob the jokes and he made a wonderful deal with me. He was terrific guy. He was a brilliant man, Bob Hope. He said, "If you don't get into medical school, come on the show as a writer. You wrote some very good jokes." So it was a no-lose situation for me. And that's what happened.

Kliph Nesteroff: Bob Hope was considered not a great writer, but a great editor of material.

Sherwood Schwartz: A great editor and a great ad-libber. He's not given a lot of credit for that. He didn't care if you were Chinese or Black or Jewish, you wrote a good joke and he would love you. I got on his show and that was the beginning of my career in show business.

Kliph Nesteroff: How come you left his writing stable to work elsewhere?

Sherwood Schwartz: I was away in the army for over four years. When I got out of the army, Bob assumed that I would come back on his writing staff. That lead to the most difficult meeting I have ever had - and I've talked to many, many celebrities in my time. But I had a meeting with the man who at that moment was number one in television, number one in the movies and had been number one on the stage and had been number one everyplace. He was a monument. And I had to tell him I was leaving his show. 

He asked me why. I said, "Bob, I like you very much and you were very instrumental in getting me to where I am now. But I can't go back on your show and just write jokes anymore. I want to do situation comedies and I want to do other things. You like certain kinds of jokes that I can write, that's not a problem, but I don't want to do that anymore." It really took him by surprise. He said, "I'll tell any kind of joke! They just have to be funny." I said, "Yeah, but they're just jokes. I want to do character kind of things." He never quite understood it, but he said okay and we remained friends - which is rare. When you leave a comedy show, that star will never ever hire you again. If he fires you, he will rehire you in an instant. But once you leave him, that's a presumption of disloyalty. But Bob wasn't like that. Bob was a remarkable human being.

Kliph Nesteroff: You wanted to do character stuff and he, of course, never went on to do any character stuff himself. He would always play "Bob Hope."

Sherwood Schwartz: Exactly. He was Bob Hope in the "Road pictures," which were enormously successful. He and Bing - which is a misunderstood relationship. Everybody thinks they were the best of pals. They weren't. They would get together and play golf and that lead to enormous fortunes for both of them. There were billionaire oil men from Texas, who would give anything to play golf with Bing and Bob. As a result, they were promised one year, there was a new strike of oil or something in Texas, and they said, "We'll give you guys a thirtieth of the proceeds from the oil well [in exchange for playing golf with us]." They were given a percentage, and it was the biggest find for ten years and they became multimillionaires over night. Both of them. Bob invested in real estate and Bing invested in different products. Bob turned out to be a genius because he bought up - he was the second or third largest land owner in California. He bought up half of the Valley. He became a billionaire.

Kliph Nesteroff: When you chose to start writing character oriented comedy - that was the time you started to work for Ozzie Nelson?

Sherwood Schwartz: Yes. I got out of the army and the first thing I did was the Ozzie and Harriet show.

Kliph Nesteroff: I understand that Ozzie was a real perfectionist and oversaw every aspect of the production right down to the most minute of details...

Sherwood Schwartz: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely true. That is the only man I know who, after his show was in reruns would take the reruns and re-edit them because he wasn't happy with something. When it was too late to do anything with them, he still did it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did that make it difficult to work for him - or did it make it a joy and a pleasure?

Sherwood Schwartz: (laughs) One time he called me. They built a duplicate of his house for the TV show. His real house was exactly the same. He lived in Hollywood and I lived in the Valley at that time. We had never had a discussion about a script. He was perfectly happy with me. In fact, he exhibited that. After I was one of three or four writers he called me and he said, and this had never happened to me anywhere else by the way, "If you've been listening to the show, you'll know that you have far more [content in the] script than any of the other writers. Starting next week, I'm doubling your salary." I said, "Thank you very much." A month of two later he gave me another raise. He was very peculiar. He was a very right-wing person. He was really a dyed-in-the-wool Republican from the word go. Incidentally, he was the highest degree of... whatever the highest degree of boyscouting is. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I wasn't aware of his politics, but people love to use Ozzie and Harriet as an example of that sorta fraudulent Cold War idealism. Was he in any way a promoter of the blacklist?

Sherwood Schwartz: Not to my knowledge, no. When all of that took place I was doing I Married Joan. I had nothing to fear because I was never involved in anything political. But it knocked The Goldbergs right off the air.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked on the Beulah show with Ruby Dandridge and Hattie...

Sherwood Schwartz: You mentioned Ruby Dandridge? Well, she wasn't the star. She was the star's best friend. The star was Hattie McDaniel. Ruby Dandridge had a daughter who was incredible.

Kliph Nesteroff: Dorothy.

Sherwood Schwartz: Dorothy, yeah. In my opinion, at that time, she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. She got mixed up in drugs apparently, which ended her life. But anyway, we've come far afield here and my throat is giving out. What drove you to write about Joe E. Ross?

Kliph Nesteroff: Well, there are just so many larger-than-life stories about him. He's just sad, fascinating and tragic.

Sherwood Schwartz: Yes, that's true.

Kliph Nesteroff: Hank Garrett, another comedian that acted on Car 54, Where Are You told me that Joe E. Ross had eight different wives and they were all former prostitutes.

Sherwood Schwartz: Really?

Kliph Nesteroff: Apparently his rationale was that it was cheaper to marry them than to keep seeing them.

Sherwood Schwartz: (laughs) Well, I hope I've been helpful in some fashion.


Anonymous said...

Thank you again for another fantastic interview. I look forward to each one because they are so informative and entertaining.

Anonymous said...

Has anybody told you...these long articles are great...but screen after screen of white text on black background is murder on the eyes...or, at least, on these older eyes. I end up copy-and-pasting the text into Notepad...but then I miss the pictures. Wish you offered a plain background option !

Anonymous said...

I also LOVE these interviews. Keep 'em coming! I'm going to read the Dick Cavett one now.

Anonymous said...

I'm posting this here only because the comments are long since closed on your "The Early David Letterman" article. In that piece you stated that a certain Howard Schwartz, cinematographer of the film "Fast Friends" that Mr. Letterman made, had previously worked at the Filmation studio. You have the wrong Howard Schwartz. The late d.p. was a different, much older man than is the still-living animation checker of the same name. Every other article I've read of yours here seems solid and all of them are as entertaining as hell. You're illuminating a level of showbiz history as no one else has with this amazing series. I hope that you publish all of this material in a hardcopy anthology someday. It deserves to be in a more permanent form than an online blog.

Michael Powers said...

Never heard that business about Crosby and Hope golfing with the oil guys before and it's absolutely fascinating! This was an extremely entertaining interview.

Bobby Wall said...

What a great interview. And what a piece of shit Red Skelton was. And I had read stuff like that about him over the years, too. He wasn't a nice man. And what a phony with that "goodnight and may god bless" INsincerity he did. It was a disgrace how Skelton would disparage his writers. And I have nothing but the highest admiration for Sherwood Schwartz who wouldn't take treatment like that from Skelton and quit the show. Schwartz had a proper opinion of himself and was his own defender. I love it! And how interesting that he knew in advance that Skelton would fire his brother. How low can a person be? And to think that I once admired Skelton. But I surely do admire Sherwood Schwartz.

Anonymous said...

to the anonymous person re: eye strain.. If you are using a windows pc, hit CTRL-A and it will highlight all of the text as black on a white background. Be thankful it is not a red background.