John Frankenheimer was the wunderkind director of the Golden Age of Television who went on to make more than 25 feature films, including such classics as "Birdman of Alcatraz," "The Manchurian Candidate" and "The Train." He made a triumphant return to television in 1994 with the HBO drama "Against the Wall" and won an unprecedented three Emmy Awards in a row for "Wall," HBO's "The Burning Season" and TNT's "Andersonville." His latest telefilm, "George Wallace," starring Gary Sinise, premieres Sunday on TNT.
Frankenheimer, 67, is the subject of a joint retrospective of the Museum of Television & Radio and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "Directed by John Frankenheimer: The Television Work" continues through Dec. 4. Frankenheimer will discuss his TV work at a seminar at the Museum of Television & Radio on Sept. 24.
From Sept. 5 to Sept. 26, LACMA will screen several of Frankenheimer's films and he'll appear following "The Train" on Sept. 19 to discuss the film with Charles Champlin and participate in a discussion of "The Manchurian Candidate" on Sept. 20. On Sept. 26, he'll introduce a rare screening of "The Iceman Cometh."
Frankenheimer, who is about to start work on a new feature, "Ronin," in Paris, recently discussed the joint retrospective and why the Golden Age of Television was golden.
Question: Is directing for television more fulfilling and exciting than directing features?
Answer: You got to break it into what [TV] was then and what it is now. What is now is not more exciting than features because it's more or less the same thing. It's just the material seems better now [than in features].
But let's talk about then. I did so many shows. It took away all the fear that you have of failure. You knew like on "Playhouse 90," you were going to do 14 shows [a year]. So if you had, not a disaster, but a bad result one week, it didn't mean that your career was over. It meant that you would go on and do another one. What it enabled you to do was to take tremendous risks and chances and to grow as an artist because you didn't have to worry about the impact of everything on your future life. It made you grow.
Also, I really liked the live process. It meant three weeks of rehearsal and three days [rehearsing] on camera and then we did it. It taught me how to work with actors. It taught me how to work with cameras. It taught me how to deal with pressure.
I was able to do what I wanted to do, which was direct. Now so much of directing is trying to get the projects made. So much of directing now is having these endless meetings and the whole political aspect of that. There was no political aspect [in TV]. You either knew how to do it or you didn't. You couldn't talk your way through a live television show as so many people can talk their way through a movie.
In live TV, you had to know what you were doing. It separated the men from the boys and it spawned a tremendous group of wonderful directors--Franklin Schaffner, George Shaefer, Bob Mulligan, Fielder Cook, Sidney Lumet and George Roy Hill. We had wonderful actors and these great writers. It was a great, great time.
Q: Why did these great dramatic showcases disappear by the early '60s?
A: I think because television became a mass medium. More and more people got television sets and the common denominator got a lot lower and they had to lower the standards. The ratings got to be the king and we got pushed aside.
Q: You directed your first feature, "The Young Stranger," in 1957, which was based on your 1955 live TV drama "Deal a Blow." You returned to TV when it was completed and didn't make another film until 1961. Why?
A: It was a horrible experience. The crew hated me because I was trying to do a movie in 25 days. The cameraman would never cooperate with me to do what I wanted to do. I didn't get along with the producer. I found the producer had much more power in film, because they could second guess you. In television, they never could. The producers I worked with on TV were so much better. Martin Manulis and Fred Coe were the two best producers I have ever worked with to this day.
Q: Is working in cable now the closest thing to working with the writers and actors that you did in the 1950s?
A: That's why I do the cable because I think it's a unique form in which we have to do this kind of material again. I think it is really a remarkable situation right now that we have with cable TV. They are really doing good stuff and they're on the edge. We had complete creative control on "George Wallace," which we had on "Playhouse 90," too. [Cable] gives you complete creative control. At least, they do me. They give me final cut and they give me everything.
Q: Had you had offers to return to TV over the years before you did "Against the Wall" in 1994?