The original Ironside (Part IV): An interview with former executive producer Cy Chermak
I’m pleased to announce a Reveal Shot exclusive: an interview with former “Ironside” Cy Chermak. Through e-mail correspondence, Chermak offered his fascinating recollections of working on the show, and the ups and downs of being a television producer during the 1960s and ’70s.
After working in the business as an actor and writer, Chermak joined Universal Studios in 1963. Universal was the last of the majors to maintain the old system, in which actors, writers, directors, producers and crew members were under contract to the studio.
When he became a story editor on Universal’s 90-minute Western series “The Virginian,” Chermak reported to Frank Price, that show’s executive producer. He soon became one of Price’s producers on “The Virginian,” as well as the short-lived 1965 World War II drama “Convoy,” one of the last shows to air on NBC in black-and-white.
Chermak on learning production at Universal, writing Westerns as a kid from Brooklyn, and working with Frank Price: When I came out from New York I had nary a thought about writing or producing a Western. The real reason it took me so long to make a mark in Hollywood was that the people in charge saw me as a hot young writer from Brooklyn who didn’t know anything about Westerns, which were the TV rage. I was a New York writer.
Well, I broke in with a few Warner Bros. Westerns, and then went to “The Virginian.” After a short time, I was a Western writer, and people wondered if I could do a straight drama.
Story about how I got into production: Frank Price was looking for a story editor — sometimes known as a rewrite man. He called a colleague, Anthony Spinner, for whom I had just written an episode of “The Dakotas.” Spinner told Price that he had this new writer who just got finished doing a brilliant re-write on a “Whitey” Parsons script. Frank asked his name, but Tony Spinner wouldn’t tell him He said he had this writer chained to a desk in the basement, and no one will ever know who he is. So Frank hung up. And what did he do? He called “Whitey” Parsons and asked “How are things going?”
” Terrible, “Whitey” said. “I just had my script butchered by some kid from new York named Cy Chermak.”
Frank called me the next day and offered me a job.
… I don’t think [the studio system] meant much to writers, except to confuse them every once in a while about who is talking to them. It was great for young writers the studio wanted to turn into low-paid producers. I found myself in a highly protected learning environment. They caught my mistakes and helped me correct them. Production experts like [“Virginian” producer] George Santoro and [unit manager] Abby Singer helped me to understand budgeting. Then it became my job to make sure that the money we spent was going to show up on the screen.
(Once Abby Singer, famous for ” just this shot and one more,” warned me that we were about to go into Golden Time. I said “Abby, just what is Golden Time?” He said “I don’t know, but it’s terrible.”)
Department heads like Richard Belding in Editorial ran interference between myself and more experienced editors, and so it went all the way down the line…through the music department, sound, wardrobe. These department heads knew their workers knew more than I did, but they also realized their job was to help me understand the process so that I could fully utilize my own talents. [Cinematographers Lionel] “Curly” Lindon and Bud Thackery could have ignored me but they didn’t. If I asked for things they just couldn’t do in the time we had to make a show, they were patient and generous with their time. In that regard, the studio system was great. That’s why sports franchises have farm teams. You can’t learn the business in film school.
The major drawback was that it engendered split loyalties. The A.D. is not really the director’s assistant. He works for, and reports to, the production department. That’s true of every crew member and department head. In my first year as a producer, I asked a hell of a lot more questions than I gave orders. But when my crew realized my ideas were sound and my intentions were only to make the show better, the split loyalties became a “non factor.”
How would I characterize Frank Price as an exec? Quite simply the best. I don’t know about others under his aegis, but he allowed me a great deal of latitude, and he had the best story mind I had ever seen.
A cute example concerned a writer who shall remain nameless … who was late bringing us a story for “The Virginian” when I was the story editor. [He] said the story got lost when he had to make a wheels up landing in his Beechcraft Bonanza. We all knew [this writer] was fudging the truth a bit, and that he had nothing on paper, or even in his head.
Frank called in his secretary, myself, and Joel Rogosin who was slated to produce the episode. Frank then led [the writer-pilot] and the rest of us through the story from the opening to the ending. The secretary transcribed the story and [the writer] went home and wrote the script.
The cuteness was when I (also a pilot) asked him how he could have made a wheels-up landing. Didn’t he have a warning horn on the plane that told him his gear was not down? [He] said “Yeah, but the damned thing was making so much noise I couldn’t concentrate.”
With the successful “Ironside” TV movie in Nielsen’s ratings books as a hit, Universal Television ordered work on the first six regular episodes. On Thursday Sept. 14, 1967, the first series installment Americans saw was “A Message From Beyond,” which was seventh in production order. NBC slotted the series at 8:30 Eastern time, opposite the popular ABC sitcom “Bewitched” and the final half hour of CBS’s Western drama “Cimarron Strip.” The new show would also face the first half hour, at 9:00, of “The CBS Thursday Night Movies.”
NBC was less than thrilled with the first batch of shows, and creator and executive producer Collier Young took the blame.
When Young was fired six shows into the first season’s production schedule, he was replaced by Frank Price. Price brought Chermak over from “The Virginian” as one of his producers.
Chermak: Frank didn’t tell me what he wanted [when I came to “Ironside.” ] He knew that I knew. He wanted it honest. He wanted it truthful. It is the same thing he brought to “The Virginian.”
Let us be very clear about one thing. I ran “Ironside” [after being promoted to executive producer in July 1968]. But the genius behind the Stanislavsky-esque concept of honesty and truth belonged to Frank. He changed “The Virginian” from a musical Western like “Oklahoma” into something that became copied. No black hats. No bad guys simply for the needs of the script. People behave like decent human beings with sincere differences. You bump into a guy, you don’t go for your gun. You say excuse me and move on.
He did the same thing for “Ironside.” I think it interesting that Robert Butler acknowledged that dressing Vince Gardenia up like a “Batman” villain 1 made a viewer have to suspend his disbelief. Frank knew it instinctively. He didn’t want Ironside to become a comic strip.
I did it his way for many years because he was the boss. Then I started doing it his way because I realized Frank was right. He brought Stanislavsky to television writing. And yes, perhaps Frank did tell me what he wanted of me. Honesty and Truth. I think I gave it to him.
Later in the season, Chermak’s colleague Paul Mason produced “All In A Day’s Work,” [airdate Feb. 15, 1968] written by storied crime novelist Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), best known for his 87th Precinct police procedurals. In this episode, Eve has to kill an armed robber who turns out to have been a teenager, and is plagued by guilt.
Chermak: Here is a story you won’t believe. Ed McBain/Evan was probably my favorite fiction writer at the time — excepting only Norman Corwin — and I can’t for the life of me figure out why he chose to do a television episode … I believe the show was written for Raymond. He said he was tired and needed a rest and we should give it to Ed Brown (Don Galloway). We re-did it for Barbara instead. And yes, it was the episode I submitted to the Emmys on her behalf. And yes, she did win.
Sometimes, a very good writer might only work on the show once. This proved to be the case with Luther Davis, a highly respected TV writer who penned the script for Season 1’s “A Very Cool Hot Car” (aired Nov. 30, 1967), with Chermak producing.
There are a couple of situations that are handled with some finesse. An embittered ex-cop played by Jay C. Flippen has been forced into retirement after failing to solve one case, the burglary ring of the plot. When he talks to Ironside about it, he can’t help but refer to the black man who replaced him on the case (Bernie Hamilton) as a “college boy from Africa.” The point isn’t dwelt upon, aside from a look of general disdain from Ironside. It’s just a realistic aside that someone his age at that time, in that situation, might have said.
Also, although Mark is concerned that Hamilton is being unfairly maligned — for racial reasons — by the police department for not stopping the burglaries, Hamilton treats Mark as an outsider until he happens to prove himself in the heat of battle. Other shows might have shown portrayed the two of them as fast friends, doing “soul shakes” and the like.
Chermak: I remember the Luther Davis script very well. I don’t believe I was the exec at that time, but I was thrilled to have a writer of Luther Davis’ caliber on the show. Sadly, Luther didn’t like being re-written, even to the smallest extent, so he gracefully and graciously bowed out of future commitments.
“Ironside” finished its first season as the No. 26 program on the air in 1967-68, according to Nielsen, with a 20.5 household rating, a very strong showing considering its formidable competition. “Bewitched” ended the year at No. 11 with a 23.5 rating. Though “Cimarron Strip” finished out of the top 30, and was not renewed, “The CBS Thursday Night Movies” finished No. 23, with a rating of 21.1.
In July 1968, Frank Price was promoted, becoming the head of current programming at Universal, reporting to Sid Sheinberg, then senior vice-president in charge of television production. Chermak became the executive producer of “Ironside.”
Chermak: It was Sid who announced to me that he was making the choice, and I’m sure it was tough for him because he and Paul [Mason] were close personal friends. But I’m sure Frank made the suggestion. Why? You would have to ask him.
But I had been his story editor and then his producer on “The Virginian.” Then when he went to “Convoy” he took me with him. I am guessing that he had seen enough of my work to think I would stick closest to his framework and give him the least trouble. He was only right about the first part of that sentence. I know that Sid had to, or chose to, run it by Raymond before firming up the decision.
One Thursday after shooting, Raymond asked me to his dressing room for a drink. We sat on opposite sides of a coffee table and Ray opened a bottle of Courvoisier, dramatically threw the cork over his shoulder, put the bottle in the middle of the table and sat down. I looked at the bottle, then at Ray and said, “That is all very well and good, but what are you going to drink?”
“Oho,” responded Raymond. He got up, took a fresh bottle, threw that cork over his shoulder, and placed the bottle in front of himself. Now we each had our own bottle, and we rolled out of the studio at about three in the morning.
The next night Sid called me and told me I was the new exec on “Ironside.”
In the next Reveal Shot post, Chermak remembers the two-hour “Split Second To An Epitaph” and other Season 2 episodes; the series’ 1968 NAACP Image Award, and speaks more broadly about how producers were assigned to each show, which writers could be counted upon when the chips were down, and working with Milton Berle on a dramatic role.
— David B. Wilkerson
- In an interview for the Archive Of American Television, director Robert Butler explains that, in the episode “Something For Nothing,” aired far out of production order on Feb. 22, 1968, he decided to put villain Robert Gardenia into a cape, and have him wear an eye patch. “Immediately there was a tremor at Universal when this villain had an eye patch and a red cumber bun and a red cape and a top hat. Now, it sounds like ‘Batman,’ and it sounds like a pretty bad idea, and maybe it was. I thought it was just style. And I thought, in my innocence probably, that nobody can take a detective in a wheelchair seriously, so come on — let’s run with this. But that’s dead wrong. Because the world took that detective dead seriously, and I kind of blew it for that episode, and I think I made a big, big mistake.” He went on to say that he thought Collier Young was fired as a result of that debacle. ▲