The original ‘Ironside’ (Part V): More of Executive Producer Cy Chermak’s recollections
Presenting the second installment of a Reveal Shot exclusive: an interview with former “Ironside” Executive Producer 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.
Read the first part of the interview here.
“Ironside’s” second season began in September 1968 with a new executive producer, Cy Chermak.
Reveal Shot: When you were promoted to executive producer in the summer of 1968, what were some of the goals you had for the series now that you had a stronger voice?
Chermak: When I became exec … my only goal [was to] keep the show on track, and if that meant holding the studio off with one hand and the network off with the other, that is what I did. It also meant holding the star off with one hand and his entourage off with the other.
Raymond Burr opted to make extensive use of teleprompters on the “Ironside” set, rather than have to memorize the large number of lines he had in almost every episode. Some directors found this problematic because the machines had to be strategically placed out of camera range in various places where the actor could see them. Others complained that the job of directing was complicated by Burr’s refusal to work on location, because they had to match shots of a stand-in with shots taken of Burr on the Universal lot.
According to Michael Seth Starr’s controversial biography, “Hiding In Plain Sight,” Burr complained of eye trouble because, from a wheelchair, he almost always had to look up at his fellow actors, which forced him to look directly into the blinding studio lights.
Reveal Shot: I have heard different things about how his mood was affected by this. It was said that he never became extremely close to the cast and crew, though he had been on “Perry Mason.” For now, let me just ask, how was he on the set during that first year that you were exec?
Chermak: I don’t remember Raymond developing eye trouble. I remember him arriving with complaints about light sensitivity and location work. Of course, my memory might, after all these years, have become self-serving. I don’t think he was close to anyone in the cast but Don Galloway , although he was always very protective of Don Mitchell.
On the set he was the consummate pro, except for his refusal to stand behind the camera and read lines for other actors’ close-ups. You have asked what logistic problems Ray’s use of teleprompters created for me. The quick answer is “none.” I simply told the unit managers and the directors that I wanted every accommodation made to Raymond’s needs. I never had to ask twice.
The first few episodes shown during Season 2 were still credited to the previous exec, Frank Price. One of them was the two-hour “Split Second To An Epitaph,” (100 minutes minus commercials, it aired Sept. 26, 1968, the second new show of the season) in which Ironside may have a chance to walk again if he has a risky operation. In the meantime, because he is the only witness to a murder, the detective is targeted by the killer while he awaits surgery in the hospital.
It has been speculated that the network and Universal Television were toying with the idea of restoring Ironside’s ability to walk (presumably to take away limitations that had to be imposed on the scripts), and that “Split Second” was to be the episode that revealed the miracle.
Chermak: Malarkey. These speculations were written by people who did their research by reading other articles that were also badly researched. Unless these conversations took place outside of my knowledge, there is no truth to them at all. “Split Second” was a TV drama that underwent some dramatic changes. That is all, folks.
The extended episode finished the week ended Sept. 29 as the No. 22 show according to Nielsen’s 30-city survey, with a 20.4 rating — beating out rival “Bewitched” that Thursday night and outpacing the first half hour of the (black-and-white) CBS movie, “The Night Of The Iguana” (1964), starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. In the New York market, “Ironside” was the highest-rated show of the evening, with a 27.4 rating.1
The fourth episode in airdate order, and the first to be shown that listed Chermak as the top producer, was “Robert Phillips Vs. The Man,” (aired Oct. 10, 1968) written by frequent contributor Sy Salkowitz and starring Paul Winfield as a black militant who is falsely accused of murder. Commissioner Randall (Gene Lyons), sensitive to the possibility of accusations by the black community that Phillips is being railroaded by racist cops, assigns Ironside to the case to make sure the truth is uncovered.
This was a period during which several shows — “The FBI,” “The Mod Squad,” “Dragnet 1968,” and others — featured episodes that depicted the militant wing of the African-American civil-rights movement.
Mark’s part is modulated while we are in the familiar enclave of Ironside’s office; he never explicitly tells Ironside what bothers him about the situation. “It’s getting to me,” is the closest he comes to discussing it with his white colleagues. Mostly, the script is content to let Don Mitchell express his feelings with facial expressions and other body language during his scenes with them.
However, when some of Phillips’ friends accuse Mark of being an Uncle Tom for pushing Ironside around (and working with the police in general), he bristles, briefly coming to blows with his most bellicose opponent (Arnold Williams).
Again, other than Bill Cosby’s Alexander Scott on “I Spy” (which had left the air weeks earlier) and, starting in this same 1968-69 season, “Mod Squad’s” Linc Hayes (Clarence Williams III), it is hard to think of another black male regular on television during this era who could display genuine anger. Not that there were very many, in any case. 2
*** SPOILER ***
Phillips is exonerated, and has to admit, in spite of his trepidations about him, that Ironside has proven to be a man of honor. It is, of course, a gratifying moment for Mark, as well.
Reveal Shot: You [and the show] won an NAACP Image Award (1968) for the way that the Mark Sanger character was portrayed. How closely did you collaborate with Don Mitchell to keep Mark grounded in reality as an angry young black man during a time when race relations in America were so strained?
Mark ends up being kind of torn in the episode, between the values of the militant wing of the civil rights movement and the things he’s learning as an aide to the police. This goes to my query about how you kept Mark authentic, as well as his interactions with other black people on the show. Winfield learns something at the end when he is exonerated …
Chermak: Your comment about the Paul Winfield character learning something at the end goes to one of the aspects of the show of which I am most proud. While staying true to Frank’s concept of the show, I made sure that in every episode, every single one, there was at least one character who was better off because of his interaction with Ironside …
How did we keep Mark authentic? … At that time the Hollywood Chapter of the NAACP gave me a complimentary membership. And I spent a great deal of my “off duty” time in the African-American environment. I socialized with Don and his friends, and many of them became my friends. So I was somewhat in touch with the community’s feelings.
There was no collaboration [with Don on scripts], but there was a lot of socializing. I listened and learned. Some of what I learned ended up on the screen.
Chermak knew the value of using people he could regularly count upon to do solid work. One example was Don Weis, who directed 58 episodes of “Ironside.”
Chermak: Don Weis was the perfect TV director. He came prepared, he did his job, he never complained. He understood what I wanted and he gave it to me.
He was also the epitome of the old joke in which the director says to the actor, “If you don’t tell me how to direct, I wont tell you how to act.” He knew I didn’t want the audience dazzled or bedeviled by artistic angles and flashy camera moves. I wanted him to tell them a story and he set up his cameras and let the actors work. A lesson that should be taught in film school.
Among writers, a favorite, as alluded to earlier, was Sy Salkowitz, who penned 35 episodes of the series.
Chermak: Sy Salkowitz was used more than any other writer on the show because he was a different version of Don Weis. Sy was always prepared, and he always understood what I wanted. I could talk to him in shorthand and he always got it. If I got in trouble I would call Sy. If I needed it on Monday he would take it home on Friday and bring it back on Monday. There were times when he wrote an entire script from scratch for me over the weekend.
Sometimes I would have the director and staff prepare a script I didn’t have, based on a spitball idea. They always assumed it would be a disaster, but Sy always brought the script in when he was supposed to.
And he required the least rewriting of any of the other writers because he knew, without asking, what I wanted and what I would throw out if he wrote it. In the early days I needed network approval of a story before I put it into work, but on several occasions I spit-balled the idea to the network and sent Sy right to work on the teleplay without an outline. I can’t explain how dangerous that was, but Sy always came through. There was many a time when Sy made me a hero.
Chermak’s Season 2 producing staff included Paul Mason, Douglas Benton and Jeannot Szwarc. Szwarc is credited as an associate producer for some shows, and as producer on others.
Reveal Shot: How did you distribute the work among yourself and producers Joel Rogosin, Douglas Benton, Albert Aley and others? Were they each assigned a certain kind of story to supervise?
Chermak: The assignment of episodes was sort of catch as catch can. Sometimes a producer would bring me a writer and his story, and if we went with it, I would try to save that script for the producer who originated it.
That didn’t always work. A producer prepped for six days, shot for six days, and did what post-production he could before it was his turn again. Like a detective at the working desk he caught whatever script was ready to shoot. If there was more than one script ready I would let the producer and/or the director make the choice.
I can only remember one instance in which a producer refused to do a script I assigned him. That was Albert Aley, and I believe it was the last script I ever offered him.
One of the high-profile shows of the 1968-69 season was “I, The People” (aired Oct. 31, 1968). Comedian Milton Berle, who shared a writing credit with Stephen Lord, plays an obnoxious talk show host (perhaps modeled on then well-known host Joe Pyne) who is supposedly receiving death threats. Meanwhile, he has an icy relationship with his alcoholic wife (Julie Adams), who wants a divorce. Barry Shear directed.
Chermak: [Berle] was a personal friend of Stephen Lord, and no one will ever know if Milton actually did any writing on the script, but since Stephen wanted to share a credit with his friend, I didn’t see why I should object. I did the same thing for Sy and his wife some years later.
The thing about Milton Berle that was so interesting was his intelligence. He could converse with you on any subject, as long as it was one-on-one and there were only two people in the room. But the minute a third person arrived, he had an audience — and the show was on.
In the next part of Reveal Shot’s interview with “Ironside” Executive Producer Cy Chermak: More on Season 2; working with two great cinematographers; the use of freelance writers; trying to give Ed Brown and Eve Whitfield something to do, and more.
— David B. Wilkerson
- “CBS (& Mayberry) Win Latest 30-City Nielsen Survey,” Variety, Oct. 7, 1968, pp. 1, 15. ▲
- Think about it. Ivan Dixon as Kinch on “Hogan’s Heroes?” Nope. Greg Morris as Barney Collier on “Mission: Impossible?” Nah.Well, perhaps Otis Young as former slave Jemal David on the one-season ABC Western “The Outcasts.” I’ve never seen the show, unfortunately, so I will defer to others on that one. ▲