The original Ironside (Part VI): Cy Chermak remembers
Presenting the third 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.
Other outstanding Season 2 episodes included:
“An Obvious Case of Guilt,” (aired Nov. 14, 1968) by Brad Radnitz and directed by Abner Biberman, in which Anne Baxter plays one of Ironside’s old flames, who is accused of killing her husband. Throughout most of the episode, Ironside uses his powers of deduction to find reasons to exonerate her, while Ed, Eve, Mark, and the D.A. (Warren Stevens) insist that she’s guilty, and that she’s using Ironside as a shield. Radnitz throws us a curve at the finale, which has fascinating dialogue.
“Puzzlelock,” (aired March 13, 1969) by B.W. Sandefur and directed by Allen Reisner, Simon Oakland plays a former cop who kills his wife and creates an alibi so foolproof that Ironside, who knows he did it, cannot prove his guilt. By all appearances, Oakland was having dinner with Ironside at the time of the murder. Ironside must use any means — fair or foul — to trap him.
“Reprise,” (aired Nov. 21, 1968), by Albert Aley and directed by Don McDougall. Eve is shot, and everyone reminisces about their early encounters with her. It’s a nice reference to what Eve describes in the pilot, about Ironside noticing her powers of observation when she’s a witness to a robbery. We also see, not for the last time, Ed Brown’s mean streak, when he seeks cold-blooded revenge (at least at first) for Eve’s shooting. Douglas Benton produced.
Mark and Ed get spotlight episodes, as well.
In “Rundown On a Bum Rap” (aired Jan. 30, 1969), directed by Allen Reisner from a Sy Salkowitz script, law student Mark takes a real-life dilemma to his class when he tries to prove this former boxing coach is innocent of a murder he is alleged to have committed, and has to overcome the resistance of his attractive African American professor (Janet McLachlan).
Ed isn’t sure what to believe when he tries to exonerate a cop buddy (Linden Chiles) accused of involvement in a drug ring and murder, in “Moonlight Means Money” (aired Feb. 27, 1969), written by Sy Salkowitz and directed by directed by Don Weis.
Reveal Shot: What were the pros and cons of using freelance writers?
Chermak: There are no cons to using freelance writers. I used them exclusively. They are some of the best we have. The main reason freelancing died was because young writers were made low paid producers and either wanted the writing money for themselves, or the studios / networks mistakenly thought or insisted the new Writer/ Producer could do it all.
Additionally, no one is willing to walk into the boss’ office and tell him that his script stinks. It just doesn’t happen. So the new producer shoots his first draft. And good scripts aren’t written, they are re-written. But it takes a real pro to be able to re-write himself, and to understand how to get the best out of another writer and still protect the concept of the show.
I think I mentioned earlier that if you didn’t ride close herd on the writers and directors they would unconsciously think of their episode as if it were an entity of its own, standing alone, without a thought of keeping the show on Frank Price’s tracks.
Actors hated me because they spent time learning their lines only to come to the set at 6:00 AM and find new pages with new thoughts and new words. I felt we had to work to improve the script right up until the director said “action.”
Without Frank or me or the others maintaining eternal vigilance the show would not have lasted half a season. That having been said, if I had a show today I would still use that vast store of talent that is going to waste. Not knowing how to use the writing talent available is the great disgrace of the current crop of execs.
Reveal Shot: Can you discuss some of the ways you worked to keep Ed Brown and Eve Whitfield interesting when their story arcs were not as inherently dramatic as those of Robert Ironside and Mark Sanger?
Chermak: Not really. Frankly, all three characters were second bananas. We tried to dramatize their roles every once in a while, and Ray was the star, so he got most of the good stuff.
Reveal Shot: You had the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Lionel Lindon working on the show. What were the advantages of having someone of that caliber handling those duties? (Also, I understand he was kind of a character. Are there any amusing anecdotes that come to mind?)
Chermak: Curly Lindon and Bud Thackery were both characters, but they knew their business. Lindon hated working with inexperienced directors, and Bud hated working with everyone. I remember once that Bud shot a close-up of a beautiful actress and there was a black triangular shadow on her cheek. I took a clip down to the set and I told him I would like it re-shot. Bud looked and the clip, looked at me, and said there was nothing wrong with that shot. (He didn’t add “sonny-boy” but his tone implied it.)
“Don’t you see the black triangular shadow on her cheek?” I asked. Very patiently, he explained that the source was coming from her profile, and the shadow was of her nose. A perfectly acceptable shot. I asked if he could do a shot with the light coming from the same source, but without the shadow. “Oh well,” he sighed. “Now you are asking for feature film photography. I can do it but you won’t like the time it will take.” “Re-shoot it,” I said. “I’ll give you the extra time to make my stars beautiful and give you back the time somewhere else.” He said we had a deal. Right then was the beginning of our relationship.
Here is an interesting UPI wire story from Nov. 5, 1968 about the atmosphere on the set during the second season.
Season 2 brought improvement for “Ironside” in the Nielsen ratings. The series ranked No. 16 for the 1968-69 season, with a 22.3 rating and 34 share. ABC’s “Bewitched,” airing opposite the Raymond Burr show in the 8:30 time slot, finished 13th — but “Ironside” was the clear winner among network programs during its second half hour, starting at 9:00, outgunning the CBS movie. 123
Early in Season 3, “Ironside” presented another two-hour episode, “Goodbye To Yesterday,” (aired Sept. 25, 1969) by Sy Salkowitz and directed by Barry Shear. In the first season, Vera Miles, had guested as Barbara Jones, a former love interest of Ironside’s who turns out to be an amnesia victim who has forgotten her husband (Phillip Carey) and children, but finally reconnects with them.
In “Goodbye to Yesterday,” Barbara’s daughter is kidnapped, and she calls on Ironside for help.
Chermak remembers: Wasn’t “Goodbye To Yesterday” a great title?
You know, rumors were always swirling around Raymond’s sexual orientation so I thought it was a good idea to have him involved with a woman whenever possible. I thought he played that role to the hilt.
It was like the rumors that started swirling about him really being paralyzed. People looked me in the eye and told me that they knew for sure that he was paralyzed. So I did an episode [the aforementioned "Reprise"] in which his thoughts flashed back to days when he could walk, and we showed him walking. You know what? That didn’t even help to squelch the rumors.
Barry Shear was one of my favorites. His work on live TV with Ernie Kovacs remains classic.
Next: The final installment in Reveal Shot’s interview with Cy Chermak.
- There is another interesting scheduling note: CBS originally slotted its new cop drama “Hawaii Five-O” on Thursday’s at 8:00, where it would partially compete with Burr and the gang. It started poorly, buried in 45th place at one juncture. At midseason, however, CBS programming chief Mike Dann moved “Five-O” to Wednesday nights at 10, where it wouldn’t have to compete with “Ironside” and “Bewitched,” and it rebounded strongly enough to win its new time period against the NBC detective series “The Outsider” and be renewed for a second season (of course, it would be a smash hit that stayed on the air until 1980).
Variety said in its May 7, 1969 issue that moving “Five-O” was one of a couple of decisions Dann made at the midpoint that, for the second year in a row, gave CBS a slim advantage in the final ratings. (The other was installing “The Glen Campbell GoodTime Hour” on Wednesdays at 7:30, taking viewers away from NBC’s “The Virginian.”). CBS also had several new hit shows — “Mayberry RFD” (if it could truly be thought of as “new,” “The Doris Day Show,” “Lancer,” and the aforementioned “Five-O” and “Glen Campbell.”
At the end of the 1968-69 season, CBS had a 20.3 rating, NBC was a frustrating second at 20.1, and ABC, with a few exceptions, was all but ignored by three-network era standards, generating a 15.6.
NBC claimed that it had actually tied CBS at 20.1, if the official start of the season had been Sept. 16, when its new shows debuted; CBS and ABC launched their premiere weeks on the 23rd. In any case, it could still claim — again — superiority in terms of key demographics that advertisers would soon embrace, including adults 18 to 49 years old, educated viewers, and people who had color TVs. ▲
- “It’s the Eye By a Lash, As ’68-’69 Ends With CBS-NBC Clash Re ‘True’ Starting Date and Dismal Decimals,” Variety, May 7, 1969, pp. 225, 232. ▲
- “Durgin’s Better Half,” Variety, May 7, 1969, pg. 225. ▲