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The Impact Of Susskind

March 15, 1987|DALE WASSERMAN

The sadness in someone's passing is really a sadness for one's self. For promises unkept, brave intentions gone crooked, for splendid beginnings that dribbled off to mean endings. So it was for me when I heard that David Susskind was gone. I suspect it was similar for certain others. Sometimes lives intersect, collide in flares of light and heat before wandering off into eccentric orbits. The obituaries correctly noted David's impact on TV history; what they're missing is the impact of David himself.

Prior to my meeting David I'd been a lighting designer, producer and director on Broadway, all of which left me in a state of frustration. What I admired was the writer, not his interpreters, and one day, with less than admirable hubris, I decided to be one myself. Whereupon I lucked into the Golden Age of Television. (The first play I ever saw on TV was my own.) After the third or fourth I got a call from David Susskind, whose name I knew only vaguely. He said, "I've been looking at your stuff and I think you should be working with me." I was intrigued by that should be and went to see the man. He explained that I was headed for trouble.

"You're pushing the limits," he said. "You're ignoring the sponsor and 50% of your audience. You're assuming a demand for excellence that doesn't exist." He leaned back, smiling his basilisk smile, and added, "Except with me."

He also told me I'd better get it through my head that TV was the ad business, a truth that should have been manifest but honestly hadn't occurred to me. I'd been born and weaned in the theater, and, as David explained it, that was a horrifying handicap. "Face it," he said. "Every work of quality you get on the air will be gotten there by chicanery, salesmanship or the pressure of minority opinion. Which is why you need me ."

Did someone say that first impressions are the most accurate? That someone's a liar. My first impression of David was that he was pompous, a tad hypocritical, his smarmy smile the mask of a used-car salesman. I was wrong. The man was truly a happy warrior. He grinned in anticipation of battle, in the winning of it, sometimes in the losing--provided it was lost with panache. I thought his use of language pompous and sticky with hyperbole. Wrong again; he loved language and most respected those who wielded it with dexterity. I thought him arrogant in his claim that I'd find need of him, but a month later, when a metaphysical fiction of mine called "The Fog" was gutted by the sponsor, I recalled his words with new respect.

About that time David phoned to tell me that the Israelis had just captured somebody named Eichmann and the world didn't know who he was or what the fuss was about, and could I write a dramatic documentary in one hell of a hurry to enlighten it? I jumped at it, unlayering the story in a growing ferment of fury. David lent his considerable clout in persuading publishing powers like Time magazine to open secret files to me; even arranging that I meet with Eichmann's captor, Tuvia Friedman, who was hiding out, most improbably, in the Bronx.

Swatches of Holocaust film were wheedled or blackmailed from the military and spliced in. For the first time (to my knowledge) the horrifying story was told on television, no punches pulled. "Engineer of Death" appeared nationally on Armstrong Circle Theater, and the public shock was enormous.

One day I showed David a one-page outline I'd written, a highfalutin notion about Miguel de Cervantes intermingling with the character he'd created until the two somehow became one. The working title, for lack of better, was "Man of La Mancha." David read it in two minutes flat, said, "There's not a program in existence that'll do this one" and in contradiction to his own words immediately ordered up a check as advance payment to me. "Get out of the country," he advised. And, never reluctant to borrow from the best, he paraphrased, "Absent thee from felicity a while, but call me the minute you've got a first draft."

I absented myself from felicity on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Switzerland where I sweated out six weeks on a TV play that simply wouldn't yield to the strictures of TV, mailed the manuscript to Susskind and lit out for the fleshpots of Italy. Somewhere in Tuscany a cable caught up with me: PLAY SUPERB BADLY OVERWRITTEN CASTING LEE J. COBB AND ELI WALLACH GET BACK HERE SOONEST SUSSKIND.

We did it, the most ambitious live production on television to that date. Renee Valente produced, Karl Genus directed, Joe Papp was our stage manager and a then-unknown, Colleen Dewhurst, was the first woman to play Aldonza. I was peeved that David insisted on a change of title--I'd grown fond of "Man of La Mancha"--but it went on as "I, Don Quixote."

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