Friday, January 23, 2009

MUSEUM PIECE: "THE MILLION DOLLAR INCIDENT"

The other program that I saw at the Paley Center of Thursday was a Jackie Gleason production for CBS called "The Million Dollar Incident". Gleason came up with the story but it was written by three others and it was directed by Norman Jewison.

"The Million Dollar Incident" was pure Toobworld - the fictional exploits of a real world character. In this case it was Gleason as Gleason, with Ed Sullivan and Georgie Jessel from the League of Themselves as well. The other people in Jackie's life, who worked for him behind the scenes on the show, were portrayed by actors like Harvey Lembeck as Jackie's manager Freddie and William Redfield as producer Jack Philbin. I know Philbin was real, not sure about Lembeck's character, or his secretary Lee Bevins (played by Millette Alexander). And I have a feeling none of the CBS executives in the show were actually based on real people - except maybe as roman a clef characters.

(Harry Winston the famous jeweler was invoked as being a friend of the CBS bigwig, so that would count towards his League of Themselves references.)

"The Million Dollar Incident" aired in April of 1961, but it told a story from seven years earlier. It begins with Ed Sullivan hanging out at Toots Shor's (and providing the opening narration) when a disheveled Gleason walks in and proceeds to tell "Smiley" about what happened to him. (After a shot of whiskey to fuel the furnace, of course. How sweet it is!)

The program begins as though it's going to be a look backstage at what happens during the week's run-up to the Saturday night show, done live. Posing for publicity pictures with Miss Pizza 1954, listening to a little boy from the old neighborhood audition, accepting a commendation from a local Boy Scout troop for his charity work, choosing a new "How Sweet It Is!" girl, arguing with his producer over the budget, and fending off the sponsor who wants him to shave off his mustache. (The client was a razor company.) And all the while suffering from a hangover from carousing until 6:15 AM!

But then we meet Mr. Bannister, an elderly, white-haired gentleman who wants Jackie Gleason to show up at a Heart Fund benefit in Westchester on Saturday night after the show. Big-hearted as Gleason has shown himself to be, he agrees.

On the way to the benefit that following Saturday, Mr. Bannister asks if they can stop by his house so that his children can meet Gleason. (That's when I would have been suspicious - Bannister should have mentioned his grandkids instead.) Gleason reluctantly agrees and they go inside Bannister's house - where the "old man" pulls out a gun and informs the Great One that he's being kidnapped for a million dollar ransom to be paid by CBS!

Everett Sloane played Bannister and showed that his make-up was used to throw off the police. His two henchmen were brothers-in-law named Charles and Sammy, played by Jack Klugman and Peter Falk, respectively.

Now looking like himself, Sloane as Bannister seemed personable enough, but there was an undercurrent there which suggested why Charlie was so afraid of him. Klugman put his hangdog expression to good use as Charles and showed us his manic side as well when he got into a martini mixing (and drinking!) contest with Gleason.

As played by Falk, Sammy showed some comedic touches that suggested his Joyboy in "Pocketful of Miracles" or Max in "The Great Race". But there was an air of menace not far removed from his Kid Twist in "Murder, Inc.", just enough to keep his own brother-in-law scared for his life.

The supporting cast was filled with other great character actors: Bill Zuckert, Sorrell Brooke, Woodrow Parfrey, Michael Higgins, Barnard Hughes, and Salome Jens (whom I know from 'Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman' and 'Star Trek: The Next Generation'). Harry Dean Stanton was also listed on the IMDb.com as network suit Mr. Bentley, but I think this may have been a mistake (big surprise there!) since I didn't recognize him.

While watching the lengthy scene between Gleason and Klugman before Falk makes his first appearance, I kept thinking that the whole thing could be mounted as a stage play - so long as you could find somebody who resembled Gleason. (I'd discard Brad Garrett as a possibility - technical tricks could hide the fact he was too tall to play Gleason, but you couldn't do that onstage.)

Also, one of the most fascinating aspects was a scene in which we saw Gleason in action doing his show. A lot of behind-the-scenes footage and of the guys at work in the control booth as Gleason (playing Reggie Van Gleason) did a wild dance in front of a White House backdrop - I think! - to close out the show.

The quality of the Paley Center's tape was pretty good, some transmission glitches that could just reflect the quality of the tape. So I'd suggest this might be a good candidate for somebody to acquire the DVD rights. I know there's a market out there for all things Gleason. But then again, who listens to me!

If you get the chance to visit the Paley Center, and you're a Gleason fan, check it out!

BCnU!
Toby O'B

4 comments:

mike doran said...

In my role as Mr. Know-It-All....when Harry Dean Stanton was starting out in the 60s, there was another actor named Harry Stanton, a much older man, working regularly in films and tv, so HDS was billed at this stage as Dean Stanton. Sight unseen, I'll make the guess that the actor in "Million-Dollar Incident" was the older Harry Stanton. Hope this helps...

Toby said...

Thanks, Mike! This makes a lot of sense then. He was listed in the IMDb.com (with the "Dean" middle name) as Mr. Bailey. That would be the CBS executive in charge of raising the ransom money.

Much appreciated! Now I'll sleep better... LOL!

mike doran said...

Follow-up: Last night I checked my TV Guide collection and found the issue for that week in April of '61. MILLION-DOLLAR INCIDENT merited a Close-up box, with a larger-than-normal cast listing; 'Mr.Bentley' was credited to Harry Stanton, making him the older actor I mentioned in my last comment. Also, Harvey Lembeck's character is IDed as Bullets Durgom, who was Jackie Gleason's manager at that time.>>> Perhaps some other time we can get into IMDb's charming proclivity for scrambling the credits of actors with similar names; there could be a McFarland book in it...

Toby said...

Well, IMDb.com is blameless in the matter of the name of Harvey Lembeck's character. I saw what they had listed - Bullets Durgom as well - but I went with what I kept hearing. He was called Freddie (maybe Eddie) and the announcer at the end gave out his credit as he was not listed in the onscreen credits. And again, the announcer said Freddie (or Eddie).

I see that Saul Rubinek played George "Bullets" Durgom in the TV movie about Gleason starring Brad Garrett. So except for the fact that both Rubinek and Lembeck had full heads of hair (unlike Durgom), both productions went for a similar type.

Thanks again, Mike!

Oh - and I love MacFarland books on TV!!!