Thursday, June 25, 2020

An Interview with William Schallert - Part Three

Kliph Nesteroff: You acted with Orson Welles in the Universal-International western Man in the Shadow. It was directed by Jack Arnold. I am slightly obsessed because I live in Jack Arnold's old house.

William Schallert: Jack Arnold, yes. I loved working for Jack. He directed me in a number of things, including a pretty good picture called The Incredible Shrinking Man. It was very good.

Kliph Nesteroff: I understand that you were cut out of Singing In the Rain.

William Schallert: Yeah, well, I didn’t have much to do in the first place. Kathleen Freeman and I were both cast in that film because we were working at the Circle Theater. She had a real part and I had a nothing part. I played an assistant director who said, “Okay, back it up a little bit, will ya? Okay, hold it right there. Okay, that’s fine.” Something like that. They didn’t need it and I was cut out of Singing in the Rain.

Kliph Nesteroff: How about the film Hell’s Horizon with Chet Baker?  

William Schallert: Yeah, well, I loved his music. It was just great. I had the first record he did with Gerry Mulligan. That’s where he did his famous version of My Funny Valentine. Near the end of the song he cracks on a note, but they kept it on the recording because it was such a wonderful version. 

I found Chet Baker to be an interesting guy. He was very low key. I don’t know if he was already into the drug scene when I knew him, but he certainly fell into that later on. He went to Europe and worked a lot there. But the guy who directed us was a fellow named Tom Gries. And Tom was a very talented writer, director, and friend. We got to know each other because he was married to an actress who was at the Circle Theater with me named Mary Munday. 

Kliph Nesteroff: And the Circle Theater on El Centro Avenue in Hollywood - it's still there. 

William Schallert: Yes, that old building is still standing. Tom Gries used me in a couple of things including a picture called Will Penny with Charlton Heston. I played a doctor. I had one great line. I was patching up these guys who’d gotten injured in gunfights. My line was, “Dangerous children.” I remember that. 

Kliph Nesteroff: You did a film with John Wayne. The High and the Mighty. 

William Schallert: Yeah.

Kliph Nesteroff: What do you recall about working with John Wayne, Phil Harris, Pedro Gonzales Gonzales...

William Schallert: I never saw any of those people. I worked in one scene with Regis Toomey. He was a very well-known character actor. William Wellman directed it and he was a very well-known director. 

I don’t know how I got cast in it. I think I read for it and Wellman thought I'd be good. When I saw it I thought, "Man I did a pretty good job." And it was a very small part, but it had a little substance to it. I don’t remember why I thought that I did a good job, but I did. It was a big blockbuster, but I didn’t work with any of the major stars. I was just another character actor. 

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1954 you were in two different robot movies. One was called Tobor the Great. The other was called Gog. What do you remember about working with robots?

William Schallert: Yeah, I’m in a four-sheet or a six-sheet, whatever they call it, when they put a big poster in the lobby of a movie theater. There's a sort of famous image where I'm being strangled by a robot. 

And then Tobor the Great... my agent Leon Lance... one of his other clients was Charlie Wagenheim. He had been cast in Tobor the Great, but deliberately told them that he couldn’t make it. He suggested that maybe I would do it since we had the same agent. I played a newsman in that, but had practically nothing to do. Charlie Wagenheim steered that part to me and I’d like to keep his name alive because of that. He was a nice guy. 

Kliph Nesteroff: He was later slain in the horrific All in the Family murders in the late 1970sHow about Black Tuesday with Edward G. Robinson? 

William Schallert: Black Tuesday? I think Edmund O’Brien was associated with that. 

Kliph Nesteroff: No, that's a different movie you did around the same time called Shield for Murder.

William Schallert: Yeah, that’s it. Okay. Well, Black Tuesday I don’t remember. I don't recall working with Edward G. Robinson. 

Kliph Nesteroff: The two films are similar. They’re both bleak “cop on the run” movies. Almost film noir.

William Schallert: Yeah, that was the period when I was going through a bad patch. I was smart enough never to have joined the Communist Party, but when I was at UCLA there was a group called the Young Communist League. I had come from a very conservative, Republican, anti-labor household. My father worked for the Los Angeles Times as an influential columnist. He went to work there the year after the LA Times building was bombed by anarchists from the Workers of the World. The Wobblies. 

I found out later that they’d been railroaded. They had Clarence Darrow as their defender in court. He went to see them in jail and said after a half hour he knew they were guilty. He urged them to plead guilty and throw themselves on the mercy of the court, which is what they did. And then they got executed! I saw Henry Fonda do Darrow on the stage. That's where I learned that information. 

I was doing a play with Jeff Corey at the beginning of 1951 and he was ducking subpoenas at the time and they finally caught him. It was a nasty time. And then, you know, he was an amazing guy because he went to work as a teacher. He taught acting to a large number of people in town and he was an inspiring, gentle, wonderful teacher. And he could have gotten crushed by the blacklist but, in fact, he came out of it okay. He just didn’t have the career he would have had otherwise. He lost ten years of his career.

But otherwise, you know, he came back and was very well respected. There were a couple of other guys who got called to testify on the same day and they were crushed. One of them was named Chamberlain. I can’t remember, but he used to work at the Actor’s Lab. Charlie Chaplin had been involved with the Circle Theater where I got my start and he was kind of a red flag in front of a bull. They considered him a Communist sympathizer and he got treated very badly. They revoked his visa.

He went to Europe. His wife Una had to come back here to deal with their property. If she hadn’t been able to do that he would have lost it all.

Kliph Nesteroff: You say this was a dark period for you...

William Schallert: Yeah, because I’d been at the Circle Theater with Chaplin and because of that, in 1952, I got called out to MGM to meet with Leo B. Mayer’s right hand man…

Kliph Nesteroff: Dore Schary. 

William Schallert: No, it was someone in the administrative end...

Kliph Nesteroff: Eddie Mannix. 

William Schallert: No, no, it was this guy L.K. Sidney. He was father to the director George Sidney. And L.K. Sidney was the labor relations guy at the studio. He called me in during the summer of 1952. He said, "Now you know the American Legion has got you on a list." 

The American Legion picked up on some list supplied by some West Coast version of HUAC. The something something committee. I signed a petition protesting it, which everyone was signing. It was published on the back page of the Hollywood Reporter. As a result of that I was listed as a "probable red." Actually, my father was accused of being a Communist sympathizer because in his column he spoke favorably of Judy whatshername. The wonderful, really great comedienne... 

Kliph Nesteroff: Judy Holiday.

William Schallert: Yes, right, Judy Holiday. She had worked in New York with the Revuers and Leonard Bernstein wrote some of their music. I was told, "Well, you know you're listed here." I said, "Well, all I can tell you is I never joined the Communist Party. So, if that's any help..."

He said, "There are a couple of things here. You belonged to the Arts, Sciences, and Professions Council." I said, "Well, yeah, I guess I signed up for that. I just thought it was a noble sounding organization and I was pleased that they wanted me." And there was something else at the Actor’s Lab that I had gotten involved with to help all the small theaters around Hollywood. The small theaters were going to join forces for a common prop store and costume place. When small theaters rented from Western Costume, it could get very expensive. So we were going to establish this inexpensive cooperative.

We called it the California Theater Council. Nothing ever came of it. But I signed my name to it. Anyway, I explained my involvement to this guy and he said, "Well, I guess that will have to do." I said, "At least I didn’t belong to the party." I figured that was the end of it.

I had a Fulbright Fellowship. I went to England and when I got back I wasn't working at all. It was very tough. I ran into a guy, a French literary agent who later helped put together Coming to America with Eddie Murphy. I can’t remember his name right now, but I met him at a party. He said "Well, I understand that you’re a very good actor, so if you ever need any help - give me a call. I’d be happy to do something for you."

The Egyptian was being cast and they were looking for an unknown actor to play the part of Akhenaten, the first monotheistic pharaoh in Egyptian history. I figured I’d win it, but they cast some guy whose name I can’t remember. He was a character actor in the same category that I was. Michael Curtiz was going to direct. I had worked for Mike Curtiz and he liked me. I called this agent and he said, "Well, why don’t you come see me?" He was on Wilshire Boulevard above what used to be the Brown Derby. 

I remember sitting across from him in his office in the early afternoon. He got on the phone and called 20th Century Fox. He said, "I would like to suggest that you consider William Schallert for the part of Akhenaten. He’s a very interesting young actor - undiscovered. It’s exactly what you’re looking for." There was silence for thirty seconds and then he said, "Oh, really? Ah ha. Yes, I see. Okay. Well, all right, yes. Thank you." He hung up the phone and looked at me. He goes, "They say you're unemployable."

Kliph Nesteroff: Wow.

William Schallert: Now I’d never heard it said like that before. I’d heard of grey listing and things like that, but I guess this was because it was a major part. It brought the house tumbling down on me. I thought, "My God, what is going to happen to me?" 

My dad, to his credit, went out to 20th Century Fox. He had a talk with the head of publicity, Harry Brand. As I mentioned before, my father was a pretty influential columnist at the Los Angeles Times. He was quite famous in California. And here he was besmirched. It was tarring him because he’d said something nice about Judy Holiday. And they got to the managing editor or maybe the city editor and they said, "You know people have written in." I saw some of the mail they got. They accused my dad of being a "red" and "a commie" or "a commie sympathizer" and said his son was a "well-known commie." The Times told him, "Well, we know you're not like that, Edwin. We all know that you’re straight, but maybe it would be good not to mention Judy Holiday ever again." That was how the blacklist kept spreading. You know, I mean...and this is inside information - so to speak. 

Kliph Nesteroff: So then - your reputation as the king of the bit parts... perhaps it came about because you were blacklisted from achieving bigger roles... 

William Schallert: I think... well, possibly. I’m not sure. I wouldn’t be surprised if that was it. Because I started in acting the same year as when the blacklist started. 1947 was my first year in film. And those early years were terrible. It was dangerous to have any associations that were considered off the chart in any way. But I survived it, you know. Unlike those who were smashed.

Kliph Nesteroff: Philip Loeb from the sitcom The Goldbergs was a famous case. He was blacklisted because he supported the integration of major league baseball in the 1940s. The New York sportswriter at the Daily Worker was Lester Rodney. He started something called the End Jim Crow in Baseball Campaign. Many prominent people who endorsed the integration of the major leagues were later blacklisted. Most historians agree that it was literally the Communist campaign... American Communists... that led to the integration of major league baseball... Of course, the Soviet Communists didn't know anything about American sports so Lester Rodney had an unusual amount of autonomy at the Daily Worker.

William Schallert: Well, yes. That's all true and Phillip Loeb ended up committing suicide in the end. These were all well-known people. The blacklist could really murder a character actor. Some never did recover. Jeff Corey eventually came back. He was in a John Frankenheimer picture called Seconds and that restored his reputation. Actually, several of the actors cast in that film - Will Gere, John Randolph, a whole group of blacklisted people, were rehabilitated by Seconds. Will Gere had been active in the liberal theater out here. 

Kliph Nesteroff: Betsy Palmer told me that when they blacklisted Will Gere, they weren't sure which actor was which and so they blacklisted a whole group of actors with names like Will Hare or Bill Gear... people with no political affiliations. They just had a similar name...

William Schallert: Well, yes, that’s exactly the kind of nonsense that would happen. To end my hair-raising experience with this my father went to Harry Brand and said, "I don't think this is right." It took a lot of courage on my father's part. I’d always appreciated the fact that he’d done it. Plus - he was a big conservative and he was from the South. But he was being tarred with this brush.

Kliph Nesteroff: 7165 Beverly Boulevard. You did a handful of things at this theater in the 1950s including a play called Quadrivium. I am interested in its history. It was the original Slapsy Maxie's. A real dump, hole in the wall nightclub. Then it turned into a proto-comedy club around 1945 called Cully Richards' Blackhawk. During your era it was called the Globe Theater and then the Hollywood Repertory Theatre. Then it turned into a movie house called the Capri, an art house called the Europa, and then a porn theater called Eros. Today it is the New Beverley Cinema - perhaps the best rep cinema in the world.

William Schallert: That was a place where I directed some shows. Dennis Weaver was running it and he ran a class. The Hollywood Repertory Theatre, yeah. I think Dennis had been at the Actor’s Studio and now he was trying to do his own little thing, sort of his own version of the Actor's Studio.

My wife was in that class. They were going to put together an evening of one-act plays. I had run across a play by T.S. Elliot called Sweeney Agonistes. I had suggested that I direct it and I did. 7165 Beverly Boulevard, yeah. That was one of the very good, small little theaters here in town. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I read a blurb that said you were offered the chance to direct a film for Burt Lancaster’s  company to be called Diary of a Madman.

William Schallert: I don’t remember it. I must have turned it down. When I was president of the Screen Actor's Guild, I had the occasion to meet Burt Lancaster. But that was long after. 

Kliph Nesteroff: I heard that you appeared on Johnny Carson’s first CBS television show.

William Schallert: I did. They were doing a send up of What’s My Line? and I bore some vague resemblance to John Charles Daly who was the host of that show. I don’t remember much about it beyond that. We had jokes, but I don’t recall the details. I got cast because they knew I could be funny and had a passing resemblance to John Daly.

I had one other experience with Johnny Carson. I got elected to the Motion Picture Academy’s Board of Governors quite unexpectedly. It’s a very small cadre of people who elect those people. You have to be nominated first. And there’s a huge pool of actors, a few thousand anyway. And so somebody has to pick you out from among thousands and nominate you. And then after that you have to be sure you can get enough votes. 

To this day I don't know, but it must have been some friends at the Guild. I was kind of "electable" in the mid-1970s. Somebody must have... I always imagine it must have been Kathleen Nolan. She must have got some people together and had them do it. She thought I should be president of the Screen Actor's Guild. That it would be good for the union if I were. I mean, I don’t actually know if that’s what happened, but that’s how it worked out. I think I beat Richard Dreyfuss. 

Anyway, because of that we always attended the Academy Awards. One time we were sitting down in the orchestra seats and Johnny Carson had some time to kill onstage. He saw me and said, "Hey, Bill!" He recognized me. He obviously knew who I was. Anyway, it was nice to have him point me out on an Oscar telecast.

Kliph Nesteroff: In 1954 you tested for a Marlon Brando film called Désirée.

William Schallert: I met Marlon Brando at a party. Sydney Chaplin was going out with somebody. I can't remember who it was now. They had kind of a hot fling going. And he was the one who told me about this party. I had just started doing a little folk singing. I thought, "Oh, I'll play some guitar at the party." But I wasn't very good. Ha.

For some reason I thought I could sing. Anyway, we went to the party and at one point I left the room to go find the guitar and when I came back upstairs, Brando was there. Brando made a request, asked if I could sing some sort of a children’s folk song. I didn't know it. We didn't become friends. George Englund was there with his wife Cloris Leachman. Sydney Chaplin encouraged me to go ahead and sing. And at the time I really thought I was good. In retrospect, I was completely delusional. Oh, God. 

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