Wednesday, June 24, 2020

An Interview with Saul Illson - Part Two

Saul Illson: Sammy Davis Jr. got standing ovations because he overwhelmed you. He came out and just took over. He did everything and the audience was just overwhelmed. But actually, Sammy wasn't very warm. And he spoke in the editorial "we."

He would always come in with his entourage. Jimmy Durante and Bing Crosby, those guys never had entourages. They showed up alone and did their stuff. I wrote for all of them after I joined The Hollywood Palace during its second season. The Rolling Stones were on the show and Dean Martin was the host. During the intermission he said to me, "You're not going to leave me alone with these guys...."

Kliph Nesteroff: Let's talk about your time on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. You produced the first two seasons. Most people talk about its controversial third season. You left between the second and third seasons. 

Saul Illson: Yeah, that's when it really got out of hand. I did the first two years. They did a documentary on the Smothers and for some reason they never mentioned myself or Ernie Chambers. They talked about all the controversy in the third year, but they showed clips from our seasons. When we did the first two years we had some control over Tommy.

If you looked at their act - there was no social satire. None. We went to New York and the president of the network said, "I don't think it's going to work. We've never had a show with two hosts." And then Lyndon Johnson was going crazy and we were getting letters from the bible belt saying, "This show will not go unpunished by God."

When we did the show we never expected to be on the show for more than thirteen weeks because nobody - nobody - could beat Bonanza or even get close to it. They got killed in the ratings. I remember Tommy saying to me that he also wanted to talk about things that were real in the world, but he wanted to do them seriously. We used to do editorials on the show. He wrote the first editorial, but it didn't belong on the show. I said, "It's not funny. You're not a spokesperson. If we're going to do them, then do them with satire."

So we took the piece and gave it to Hal Goldman and Al Gordon. They were Jack Benny writers. They wrote the piece and shot it with Tommy and it didn't work. So we said, "Let Pat Paulsen take a crack at it." And that was hysterical. Exact same piece of material, but suddenly it was funny with Pat doing that dead pan delivery. And that's how the editorials started on the show. We started doing satirical material.

The first piece we did on the show was "McNamara's Band." We had Tommy stop the number and say to Dickie, "I don't want to sing this anymore. There's not one Jewish guy in the band! All Irish people." "Because it's MacNamara's Band!" "There's no Italians, no Blacks, I don't want to do it." So we wrote MacNamara's Jewish Band and that was the beginning of doing little satires on the show.

As it went on, the big problems were with the CBS news department. They didn't want us to do any social satire. We would do things about President Johnson and whatever else was going on. That was the beginning of the trouble and then we started having fights with the network. One of the famous pieces was Nichols and May talking about breasts and that got censored.

We used to put things in the script we knew they would censor so that we could trade off. "Okay, we'll take that out, but we want to keep this." We would fight about really silly things. We had Jim Backus on the show and Margaret O'Brien. She played Lucy Bird. The sketch was about the president becoming outraged after he learns the Russians are ten years ahead of us in barbecue sauce. Little did we know that the children of the president loved our show and watched it every week.

When the president and first lady came home they told them about the piece and how we made fun of him. A couple days later I get a call at five in the morning from the vice president of programming, Mike Dann. Mike was screeching so loud only dogs could hear what he was saying. Lyndon Johnson woke up Bill Paley at two in the morning and said, "Get those sons of bitches off my back." He was furious with Paley.

Kliph Nesteroff: As Tommy became more righteous, did it become more difficult to work there?

Saul Illson: Very much so. The one thing Paley said, "I need a special favor from you guys. I don't appreciate being woken up and screamed at by the President of the United States. Could you lay off of him? If you could do that, it would be healthy for all of us."

Tommy wanted to get into more and more details about the War and we were able to do some pieces. Tommy always went around and said the only reason he did the show was because he got creative control - which is not true. Tommy did not have creative control. They had just come off of a failed sitcom and CBS was not about to give Tommy Smothers creative control. He thought he did have it and there were so many incidents that went on.

Kliph Nesteroff: Did he believe he had it, but he didn't? He has said the only reason he accepted the variety show was because he got creative control.

Saul Illson: That's not true! Absolutely not true. I was there. Not true. He was never given... CBS didn't give anybody that. They didn't even give that to Gleason! They're going to give it to Tommy Smothers? A guy who has never had a variety show and only a failed situation comedy? No. Not a chance.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you remember about the house cleaning between the second and third season?

Saul Illson: Well, we decided we had enough. We certainly built a reputation for the show. Then in the third year Tommy Smothers took control. Not from the network, but of the show and he became the editor. We had tremendous battles and sometimes we'd win, sometimes we'd lose. The show was making money. As long as it was making money we were fine.

Bob Wood was by then vice president and the ratings started to drop. You know, when they did that documentary you will notice they had not one writer from the first two seasons. Yet, all the controversy was within the first two years and then after that it wasn't [political] controversy, but tasteless [sexual] pieces. It became sophomoric. The show changed. We did a much classier show. We still got a lot of controversy and Tommy still got away with a lot of things, but at least we were the editors. Ernie [Chambers] and I would pick and choose with Tommy what to do and the show had a point of view.

The irony of these guys becoming the spokesperson of the controversy. There was no controversy! The third year was just a lot of stupid things that didn't belong on the air. At one point I was vice president of comedy, variety, and late night over at NBC. I know the workings and why things are done in most cases. Bob Wood had had enough. I got a call from Bob Wood and he told me to get a show ready. We put on The Leslie Uggams Show. It was maybe the first Black variety series. I remember we had Sly and the Family Stone perform when they were still brand new.

Kliph Nesteroff: Changing the subject for a moment. You and Ernest Chambers created a program that looked like it was going to be a new version of That Was the Week That Was. It was to be the first political satire on ABC, but my understanding is that it was neutered before it had the chance.

Saul Illson: Exactly. That's true. It was called What's It All About, World? And you're right, it was supposed to be like That Was the Week That Was. We were able to do some pretty good stuff on the show, but the edict came down from Leonard Goldenson that he was getting complaints. We offended the right wing because we talked about the War and we did some things about the Democrats, mostly Bobby Kennedy, and we heard that Ethel Kennedy was very upset about it. 

I forget what it was. Program Practices came down hard on us and the show became an ordinary show. We weren't very proud of what we ended up doing and it faded after one season. It started pretty good and left with a whimper. That was the end of that show.

Kliph Nesteroff: I saw some clips and it's just Tony Randall singing show tunes. 

Saul Illson: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was there a difference between Program Practices at CBS and Program Practices at ABC?

Saul Illson: No. The only difference was that at ABC they were waiting for us. We had meetings where they said they would be willing to work with us, but they had to have the final say. We had this reputation because of the Smothers Brothers. At the same time George Schlatter was doing Laugh-In. Talk about monumental hits. But even Schlatter said that if the Smothers weren't on the air first, he wouldn't have been able to get away with his show. George was smart. Hit and run. He'd have a joke in there to aggravate the South and then just keep going. By the time you were offended they were onto something else.

Kliph Nesteroff: George eventually quit Laugh-In because of the head writer Paul Keyes.

Saul Illson: I knew him, yes. Paul was Richard Nixon's friend.

Kliph Nesteroff: That is surprising to people that don't know. Laugh-In appears to be the voice of the youth culture and then Nixon's close friend is the headwriter.

Saul Illson: Yeah, Paul got Nixon to come on and do 'Sock it to me.' It's hard to imagine, but when you're looking at a writing staff - it took a lot of writers. Not every writer - but most - leaned to the liberal side.

Kliph Nesteroff: You worked for Bobby Darin during the time of his transition from the tuxedo guy to the jeans and beard kind of guy.

Saul Illson: We had a love-hate relationship. I loved him because he was so talented. He was the full package. He could do everything. He could sing, dance, tell jokes, he was funny, he was an actor. He wanted to do a little spot on the show where he had a chess match with some great chess masters. We said, "Bobby, you can't stop a show and start playing chess." He insisted and we had a lot of problems with the network about it. 

We allowed him to do it for a couple shows, I'm not sure if they ever made it on the air. Bobby was living at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and on the way to work I would pick him up in the morning. One morning I was waiting and waiting. Finally he gets in the car and says, "Sorry, I'm late. Every day it gets harder and harder to be Bobby Darin." 

Bobby was very, very sick. He died not long after the second season of the show. He was very rude or mean to people. He did a thing to a director. A prominent director came up to him in the rehearsal hall and said, "Sir, I want to tell you how proud I am to be working on your show." Bobby Darin looked at him and said, "One thing I can't stand is a kiss ass," and walked away. 

Well, I happened to walk by and said, "Into your dressing room! Come on. Let's go." He sat behind the desk and I swore I would kill him. "I will put a fork in your throat! How dare you talk to people that way! How dare you!" He didn't say a word and I just let him have it and I left. Five minutes later he came back out and he was like a five year old. "Can we do the show now? Please?" I was shocked because I didn't think I had reached him. 

There was a part of him that was mean. But it's like Sinatra - you forgive them because they're so good on the show. Now, on the last show of the season he was doing a thing with Peggy Lee. He didn't want to rehearse. So we decided we would do a concert show. We were at Peggy Lee's house and he turned on her. I said, "Bobby, this is Peggy Lee! What are you doing? Apologize." And he did apologize.

Now on the day of the show he was ill. He stayed in his dressing room and rest and I would only bring him out when we really, really needed him. Something happened. He got mad at the sound man just before a number. He took the microphone and threw it at the crew said he wouldn't do it and that was the end of the season. I was in New York six months later watching television and they announced Bobby had passed away. I heard he had stopped taking his medication.

Kliph Nesteroff: You produced the Billy Crystal Comedy Hour when Crystal was just coming. He was being handled by the powerful Rollins-Joffe agency.

Saul Illson: Billy is special. Billy - what you see is what you get. We had great guests. Robin Williams was on the show. One episode we had Tony Curtis and he was going to play Moses. I forget what the bit was. We were doing a dress rehearsal with Tony fully made-up as Moses. I said, "Tony, this is not a movie. We're featuring Tony as Moses. It's not an acting job, it's a personality job, so I need you to get rid of most of this make-up." He said, "This is how I get into the mood of Moses!" I couldn't talk him out of it.

Kliph Nesteroff: Was the show a success?

Saul Illson: Yes. It ended because Billy didn't want to do it anymore. I was with the network and I wanted to make a deal with Billy to do maybe four specials a year. He didn't want to do the grind because he did shows in full make-up when he did Sammy Davis Jr. and whoever else. It took hours and hours to tape. I was vice-president of variety programs and then later Brandon Tartikoff and Fred Silverman asked me to become vice-president of comedy development. I was in charge of NBC late night during the 1982-1983 season.

Kliph Nesteroff: Late Night with David Letterman was being developed.

Saul Illson: That's right. I met Letterman at the Comedy Store. I met him in 1980-81. We developed the daytime show first. David's writer-producer was Merrill Markoe. I was involved with it, but David is not a daytime television performer and the show was not a good fit for that time slot. It's all in the marketing. Letterman was not Mike Douglas. 

He was more like Steve Allen, so the show failed. We had a meeting. I told him we wanted to keep him with the network. He knew it was in the wrong neighborhood. He came back eventually and worked in late night where he belonged all along. 

He was very quiet. He was very serious, very concerned about his show. You can't do in the afternoon what you can in late night. I think he had mixed emotions about losing the shows. Very interesting show, but the wrong place. You don't sell Tiffany's in a ninety-nine cent store.

                                 Return to Part One

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