David Susskind's television prodtion of "Mister Lincoln" may not make it to the airwaves for a year, but it has already earned one rave review. From David Susskind.
"It's a great, great show, and it's one they'll remember for a long, long time," he gushed yesterday after a taping session at Ford's Theater. Words that come easily to the veteran TV producer and notoriously cantankerous talk show host are "important" and "importance" and he sees this latest project as oozing importance from every pore.
"The symbolism of taping it in this theater at this time on this day is very important," he declared to everyone in particular.
And it was "important" to uproot civilian ticket-holders for last night's taped performance so the house could be papered with VIP's, he said. "We want to affect some people who need affecting," and that includes members of Congress and a few inner circle White Housers. Susskind tried through White House aide Gerald Rafshoon to lure President Carter to the performance, but failed.
"We wanted him to come," said Susskind. "It would have been very beneficial to him. He could use Lincoln's compassion and courage; I think it would do his soul good and his mind good. But he's too busy hiding in the White House. He's probably busy calling the voters of New Hampshire tonight."
No, they've never said David Susskind is afraid to speak his mind. He shouts his mind. Though his face has gone a bit Mister Magoo now, and his white hair is a glob of cotton on his head, he still can play enfant terrible on his syndicated talk show and get away with it. Even if he may look more like Grandpa Terrible.
But he won't reveal his age, which is 59, because he feels it not "relevant" and says instead, "Ask me how old I feel." Obliged, he replies, "I feel about 34. In terms of crative energy I feel about 28." And sexually? "Sexually aobut 22." He smiles. "I have a finely boned intelligence from a lot of living, and reading, and some travel. I'm really a Very nice PERSON.
"And what nobody seems to appreciate about me is that I have an excellent sense of humor. Why don't they ever say, 'God, thay guy is funny!' I'm really VERY FUNNY!"
Certainly Susskind looks younger than he does funny dashing from a trailer full of TV gear, parked in an alley behind Ford's and onto the stage, during the taping, to attend to such matters as spraying an onstage mirror to make it shine less in the camera. "It's very important that I be here," Susskind says; as executive producer, his presence is not technically mandatory.
Susskind's company was acquired two years ago by Time Inc., who put up the money for the Lincoln taping even though the program has not yet been sold to a network. Susskind is not worried. "There isn't a chance in the world of it going on the air," he says. "It's beautiful! It's so important!"
Still, the networks refused to buy his laudable and enjoyable production of "Harry Truman: Plain Speaking" even after Susskind's great success with "Eleanor and Franklin" and other docu-dramas. The Truman hour ended up on PBS. "I tried and tried and tried to sell it to the networks," he says. "I offered it to them for free; I said, 'Look, just pay for the cost of the tape!'"
All was not smooth sailing at yesterday's taping. Although the first act had technicians applauding in the trailer, men and machines were balking as the second was recorded. The Gettysburg Address was a bit of a mess; star Roy Dotrice was put off when a camera position was changed unexpectedly.
Thus did Mr. Lincoln say into his lavalier wireless microphone, "It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great -- s . . ! I'm so sorry." Susskind rose in the trailer and began to shout. A bit of the old verbal ultra violence. Then he rushed back into the theater and appeared on the monitors himself.
But when it was all over, after a few more snafus of one kind or another, Susskind jumped up and said to the director, linked to the technicians in the theater by headset, "Tell Roy how great he was, will you?"
Before the act began, Susskind had barged backstage -- "where's Mr. Lincoln? where's Mr. Lincoln?" -- waling right by Mr. Lincoln who was being fitted into his electronic truss. Susskind pell-melled upto him and told him, "That performance was brilliant! When technicians who've seen it 80 times have tears in their eyes, it's brilliant, brilliant, Christ, that was brilliant."
In the trailer, a sound man marveled of Dotrice. "The sonuvabitch cries!"
Susskind said. "I got choked up," too. It did look pretty spellbinding in the closeup intimacy of television, and the networks would be crazy not to buy it, even if it doesn't have Suzanne Somers or a car chase.
Susskind has a full basket of upcoming TV projects in various stages of completion, including a mini-series on the life of Robert F. Kennedy ("We had to pay $500,000 just for the rights to the book; Arthur Schlesinger does not come cheap"), "The Plutonium Incident," about nuclear mishaps, a film about Hubert Humphrey and "That Year in Central High," a dramatized account of integration in Little Rock.
He also plans "Blinded by the Light," about programming and deprogramming in a religious cult. "We won't call it the Moonies but everybody will know it's the Moonies."
Susskind is asked what common thread runs through all these enterprises. He says "quality." Right. He also says "relevance, significance and importance" and believes TV should be more than that yechy mindless escapism.
"My daughter is 13 years old and she sees something like "Charlie's Angels' and she says, 'People shouldn't be watching that; they should be reading or getting some exercise or something.'
"To watch this aimless drivel violates my code of morality."
Could the common thread to Susskind productions be a New York liberal mentality? "That's a kind of dumb evaluation of me." Susskind says "I'm an independent man and an independent thinker. I'm a disillusioned romantic but not a cynic. I think bleeding heart liberals are a terrible bore.And I have opinions that would surprise you. I'd vote for Bush over Carter anytime."
In accordance with deplorable judgement, anything but uncommon at the station, Washington's Channel 5 now airs Susskind's talk show at 1 a.m. Sundays so that one more butchered old movie can be squeezed into the schedule. Susskind says this is a "crime" and that he is lobbying the new station manager, Allen Ginsberg, to change it to a more rational hour.
The program remains one of the most entertainingly combustible of all TV talk shows, in spite of the fact, or because of the fact, that Susskind can come across as insufferably pugnacious on the air. "I will play the devil's advocate," he says with a gleam. "I will go further than is my intellectual inclination to get them riled up." With such guests as Germaine Greer he will pretend to be more "macho" than he feels, partly because she once attempted to undo him by opening the interview with, "Would you be interested to know that I have no underpants on?"
Suddenly Herbert Mitgang, the author of "Mister Lincoln," pops into the room to rave to Susskind about how wonderful his play looks on television. t
"Mister Mitgang!" Susskind exclaims.
"Herb," corrects Mr. Mitgang.
"A happy author!" Susskind cries out, "It's unheard of. You're supposed to say, 'You took my work and you butchered it.'"
"Mister Lincoln" was taped three times, so that scenes can be spliced into the performance recorded with an audience present in case there are problems. And so after yesterday afternoon's taping, Dotrice came out for bows to an empty house while, in the booth, the director called for the camera to pull back. "They're applauding, they're cheering, they're standing," he shouts.
"It's a great contribution to America," says David Susskind.