Delbert Mann remembers the good old days. They were one year ago, when he directed a new, live TV production of the play "All the Way Home" for NBC. And then there were the even better, even older days, when Mann directed a live TV play not once a year but often once a week in the 1950s, the golden age of television.
He would direct a live TV play from Rockefeller Center on a Sunday night, have a drink or two at Hurley's Bar, take a suburban train home to Connecticut, then come in on Monday and pick up a new script for the next week's play. These were crazy times, and great times, for television.
Now Mann is in Nashville preparing another live TV drama, "The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers, an "NBC Live Theater" tonight at 9 on Channel 4. The cast of the play, set in rural Georgia of 1945 and first produced on Broadway in 1950, includes 18-year-old Dana Hill (of "Shoot the Moon" and "Fallen Angel") as 12-year-old Frankie Addams and Pearl Bailey as the family cook, a role played in the memorable 1952 movie version by the great Ethel Waters.
In the golden age, live plays -- often new originals -- were televised from TV studios, but "NBC Live Theater" presents them from actual theaters with live audiences present. And so "The Member of the Wedding" will originate from the James K. Polk Theater at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
"We see it as an event, a theatrical event televised for the home," says Mann from Nashville. "I have staged it with both audiences in mind, but the essential focus of the rehearsal and the planning is to make it a television experience for the television viewer. It's like, and yet unlike, the PBS 'Live from the Met.' They hide their cameras; the cameras must not interfere. Our show is conceived with the cameras and equipment being there as part of it.
"We have cameras on the stage, not hidden away in boxes or in the orchestra pit, but right on the apron of the stage, between the audience and the actors if necessary." At some points in the live telecast, people in the audience at the Polk Theater will have to watch the action on TV monitors, or else content themselves with seeing the backsides of camerapersons.
Life would be easier for Mann if they taped the play in front of a live audience and then edited it for broadcast, but that wouldn't be the same. It wouldn't be live, the way a football game or a space shuttle landing is live, and that still counts for something. "No matter what the quality of the script in the old days," says Mann, "I always got a strong impression from the urgency of the live situation."
Mann has made feature films and TV films. He won an Oscar for directing the movie version of Paddy Chayefsky's classic, "Marty." But first he directed the live TV version starring Rod Steiger. This was one of the legendary nights in TV history.
"The problems and the pressures of doing 'Marty' were absolutely similar to what we're going through now," Mann says. "All I remember is hoping to God it was all going to go well." The original "Marty" was reshown last year on PBS. There was no videotape when "Marty" was made; the copy shown was a kinescope, a film shot off a TV monitor. For years it was thought no kinescope of "Marty" even existed, but finally, one turned up.
In 1955, two years after "Marty," Mann directed another landmark, a TV production of "The Petrified Forest" starring Henry Fonda, Lauren Bacall and, in his only TV dramatic appearance, Humphrey Bogart. Unfortunately, no kinescope of this broadcast has turned up yet. Mann says of the production, "I have never seen it from that day until this. I've been told Lauren Bacall has a copy of that kinescope, so we're trying to contact her."
Actors have nightmares about being on stage and forgetting their lines. What do directors dream? "That actors are on stage and forgetting their lines," says Mann. "You worry about every remote possibility or accident that could happen." With "All the Way Home" last year, there were no unpleasant surprises. The only thing unplanned was Sally Field's curtain-call speech urging solidarity with the workers of Poland.
"It was a total impulse on her part that caught us all by surprise," says Mann. "I was just about to fade to commercial, too. I'm glad we didn't." A sense of danger and daring was part of the thrill of live TV in the '50s. Asked why he and fellow illustrious directors (Arthur Penn, George Roy Hill, many more) left television, Mann says, "We didn't leave television. Television left us. The television we knew was live. When it went to tape and film, it became a different medium."
We lost a lot. With programs like "NBC Live Theater," television attempts to get some of it back again.