HOW “THE ACTIONEER” WAS BORN
INSIDE CBC SON OF WOJECK
Aug. 2, 1968
Dear Cousin Molly:
Good to hear from you again after all these many years. Yes, it is indeed I, the old pigtail tease as you put it, who write those television reviews in Maclean’s. That doesn’t mean I know all that’s going on in the CBC; I’m quite sure nobody does. But as fatas I’m able, I’d be delighted to help you prepare a piece for the Moose Falls Literary Guild on the birth of a TV drama series. Your timing is propitious. I understand the filmdrama people are about to launch a series called The Actioneer but further details are scanty. I’ll nose around for you . . .
My Dear Molly:
You’re not imposing on me at all, old thing. The first point to straighten you out on'is the title. Not the auctioneer, Molly, The Actioneer.
I’m sure a series about antique dealers and the vicious cut and thrust for early Canadiana would be a gas in Moose Falls. It just might be a gas everywhere if we had a Wolf Mankowitz, in this country to write it. Imagine episodes like Scratch One Dresser or The Krieghoff Who Came in From the Cold. But I ratable. The Actioneer, sources tell me, is styled in grimly contemporary concrete rather than log-cabin pine. It’s another variation on the social-crusader theme, a true Son of Wojeck. This time the tough, free-wheeling, brook-nocompromise central character is, perhaps inevitably, a big-city newspaperman. Name of Grant McQueen. The story outline pictures him as a top by-line news reporter who, after a conflict of principle with his publisher, has been demoted to run a wishy-washy consumer-advice column. Instead of meekly accepting
his role as a Better Business Bureau Ann Landers, McQueen turns into a passionate ombudsman of print. His column becomes a front-page challenge to all the con men and crooked businessmen who prey on us, the common people. With a combination of bluff, blackmail and electronic bugging devices, he destroys them one by one.
Good spicy stuff, eh? I’m told that any resemblance between McQueen and Frank Drea, who runs the Action Line column in the Toronto Telegram, is as purely coincidental as Steve Wojeck's resemblance to former Toronto coroner Morton Shulman.
Talking about Wojeck. yes, I have met the “superbly earthy" John Vernon who played the part. Shook hands with hint a couple of times at those cheesy domestic-wine affairs the CBC occasionally lays on to lull the press.
If and when / do see him again I’ll be sure to inform him how much the girls in the literary guild “really dig hint.’’ (Crikey, Molly, isn’t that eligible bachelor MP of yours, Quentin what’s-his-name, quarry enough for you?) As for arranging an introduction to Vernon should you come up to Toronto . . . well, that could be a wee bit difficult. It’s not as if 1 know him all that intimately. And besides, John’s really riding high now. As Lennon has it, they say they’re gonna put him in the movies; gonna make a big star out of him. He spends most of the year down in Hollywood. Gone the way of Marie Dressier and all. / understand that even the poor old CBC can’t afford to talk to him any more.
So we’ll go no more aWojecking — except for repeats, of course. I agree it’s a great pity. But on the other hand Phillip Hersh who created the series — and wrote most of those “deliciously realistic plots about suicide and sodomy’’ you admired so
much — had just about milked the angry-coroner theme to, er, death. The crusader was running out of causes and the dramatic effects were painfully obvious — especially in the second series when other writers took over. When the writers come up with first-rate material, CBC drama can be very, very good. When the material’s second-rate, the results are horrible. There doesn’t seem to be the money or the know-how to put a slick polish on indifferent scripts as the American networks are always doing. Oh, perhaps I should have mentioned this above, Molly, but John Vernon is happily married . . .
Aug. 16, 1968
It’s becoming clear that a drama serieslike The Actioneer isn’t born; it evolves. / grasped this after a visit to the film-drama department (as distinct from the tape-drama department, which mounts the Festival productions). The department is an informal band of producers, directors, technical crew and contract writers headquartered in the offices of a departed insurance agency kitty-corner to the O’Keefe Centre. The group seems to operate on the basis of long familiarity and telephonic intuition.
It’s a pleasant contrast to most other CBC departments where the only recognized form of intra-office communication is the impersonal memorandum.
The Sam Goldwyn of the establishment is executive producer Ron Weyman. Not that Weyman either looks or behaves like Goldwyn; more like Leslie Howard with frown and glasses. He has the soothing courtesy needed for dealing with creative temperaments but behind this lurks a certain organizational ruthlessness. I continued on page 73
continued from page 23
Drea was informed
that he was about to
From what I can see. he needs it.
Weyman, greeting me across a desk quilted in rejected scripts, explained that The Actioneer is actually the second Son of Wojeck. The first offspring, a series entitled Man in the Middle, died in infancy. Another Phillip Hersh creation, it was built around a disillusioned slum-area priest more concerned with the social pain and poverty on this side of paradise than the world beyond. Like The Actioneer, it would have been shot cinéma vérité style in 16-mm color. (Weyman claims the CBC pioneered this style for TV drama: the American series N.Y.P.D. was a direct steal from Wojeck.) The beauty of the techniaue is that it avoids costly and elaborate sets. Most scenes can be shot against real Toronto locations.
“A fter looking at the pilot of Man in the Middle it became obvious we couldn’t shoot hour-long dramas on the city streets without them turning into Wojeck Revisited,” said Weyman. ‘‘So we scrapped the series. The pilot will become one episode in an entirely new series, to be called Face of 1,000 People, that we’ll start shooting next April. Each episode will have a different set of characters and he completely self-contained. Meanwhile, we’ve decided to go ahead with The Actioneer as a half-hour show in 13 episodes. That way we make the best use of relatively light material.”
If it's possible to pinpoint The Actioneer’.v genesis, Molly, it was the moment a year ago when a telemuse whispered in George Salverson’s ear as he was reading Dtea’s Action Line column. Salverson is the veteran radio and screen writer whose most recent creative effort was Hatch's Mill. Remember that one? Believe it or not, it’s a smash in Australia. Anyway, Salverson mulled over the possibilities of Action Line as the framework for a series, liked them, picked up the phone and called Weyman. Weyman reacted with, ‘‘Yeah, it sounds kind of interesting,” and Salverson was in business.
His next step was to knock off a five-page presentation, briefly sketching the character of the hero and suggesting the principal areas of drama'ir conflict. This outline looked powerfid enough for Weyman to start spending money — ‘‘something under $ ! ,000” — by taking out an option on the idea and commissioning a full-scale presentation. At this point Drea was informed that he was about to be immortalized. He promised his co-operation and was paid a consultant’s fee. Salverson had several long tape-recorded sessions with Drea to ‘‘catch the flavor of the man talking,” then set to work developing a detailed description of characters and settings, the synopses of 20 potential plots and the rough script for an hour-long pilot episode. A couple of weeks after this, Weyman took up his option and signed Salverson to a contract on the usual terms. Salverson gets first crack at writing the scripts and a two-level royalty fee — one level for everything he himself writes and another
for everything anybody else writes.
All that happened last winter. The project then hung fire while the Man in the Middle series fizzled, spluttered and was finally snuffed out in July.
The lesson learned from that experiment was that The Actioneer would have to be trimmed back from a 60-minute to a 30-minute f 'rmat.
At this stage Weyman was a man in a muddle with an emergency on his hands. He wanted to keep his excellent technical crew in being — shooting is scheduled to start Oct. 15 — but all he had in the works was one rough script at the wrong length. He hastily summoned five of the trustiest writers to his house for a beer —
Salverson, Les McFarlane, Munro Scott, Donald Jack and associate producer David Petty — read them Salverson’s presentation, played the Drea tapes and handed out script assignments right and left. So that's where The Actioneer stands at the moment, Molly. Five writers scribbling feverishly and nobody with the faintest idea about who will play the main parts. And I once thought that only journalists put things together in a last mad rush . . .
Casting is “incredibly chancy”
Sept. 4, /968
Here’s a progress report. Weyman now has some shoo table material to work with and is looking slightly lessharassed. The first and hardest script to come in was by Les McFarlane (Salverson was apparently tied up moving house and finishing another project). The plot tells how our hero McQueen exposes and smashes the racketeers who run the shadier daticeand-social clubs; you know, the hope-chest merchants who entice forlorn spinsters and lonely bachelors into the fold and then milch the innocents of their life savings. The sub-plot to this, of course, is that those same clubs bring in a fair slice of the newspaper’s advertising revenue.
I should have made it clearer that although shooting starts Oct. 15, The Actioneer isn't scheduled to go on the air until the fall of 1969. Shooting will start, that is, if Weyman can decide who’ll play the lead. “Casting a series is an incredibly chancy operation,” he explained. “If you make a mistake with a one-shot show, people soon forget about it. But with a series you’re locked into the mistake week after week.” Top man on Weyman’s list right now is Bruno Gerussi, the actor who is currently rejuvenating CBC radio weekday mornings with a brilliantly topical chatter program. But Gerussi’s radio commitments may make it impossible for him to take on the grinding,
J 0-hour-a-day shooting schedule.
To answer your other question; yes, Ron Weyman is happily married, too. So is Frank Drea. Ran across him in a bar the other day and immediately realized why Weyman and Salverson think he’s such a great model. Drea comes on like Cary Grant in Ben Hecht’s Front Page — and what’s more, he rejoices in the role. “1 think the old-fashioned, gutsy journalist is making a comeback,” he told me straight. “We need him to give color to Ufe. This series will show people as they really are. There aren’t any more heroes. There aren’t any more nice guys in the world and the viewing public doesn’t want to be fed nice guys. This will be the first anti-hero series in Canadian TV.”
Drea is a husky 36-year-old who spent three years between newspaper jobs as a labor organizer. That, he says, is where he learned to badger and bluff people. He admits that many of the victories he achieves through Action Line are never celebrated in print. The details are too sordid and the kinds of pressure he uses on shady operators too questionable. Incidentally, Drea says the CBC is negotiating to use the Telegram offices as a permanent set for the series . . .
Sept. 11, 1968
My Dear Molly:
Please forgive me for reminding you of so sensitive a subject. I had no idea there was one of those dance-andsocial clubs in Moose Falls. Tm glad you saw the lie of the land and got out with your purse intact. I’m not
sure that the experience, in and by itself, provides you with enough material to “dash off” an Actioneer script yourself — but go ahead and try it. Weyman claims he spends a large part of his time scratching for new writing talent.
However, it’s a tough way to make a living in Canada. I learned that in a chat with George Salverson — a charming, soft-spoken westerner (who is married to radio and TV actress Sandra Scott). Salverson got his start as a Flin Flon radio announcer and graduated to Winnipeg in the early 1940s. His writing talents were discovered by the late Esse W. Ljungh, one of the primary pillars of radio drama in this country. Salverson wrote an unsolicited script for Ljungh. The producer merely glanced ¿it the first page and said, “Great! Be in the studio Sunday. We’ll need you to play one of the parts.” After that flying start, Salverson settled down to become one of the most reliable and productive free-lance dramatists around, working mainly for the CBC and the National Film Board. “1 keep the money coming in by diversifying,” he says. “Just like a business company. I write some drama, write some documentaries, write some drama-documentaries. The trouble with drama in Canada is that the whole thing can blow up in your face at a moment’s notice.” His great ambition is to do a historical drama series on the building of the CPR.
But so far the railway has declined to co-operate on the project.
Salverson uses old-fashioned words like “fantasy" where many of us would use “fiction.” Yet the topics he thrashes out, and thrashes out honestly, are as fresh as tomorrow: “I’m always getting into headlong and troublesome arguments with producers over things like pot and sex.”
Salverson says the main problem in creating a drama series is how to get into the skin of the central character. To flesh out McQueen in The Actioneer he recorded “a few miles of Frank Drea and then let Drea’s philosophy of life seep into me.” So that’s how a professional works,
Molly. By the way, still no signal from Weyman on who will actually play McQueen.
Sept. 24, 1968
Just a hasty note. Yesteday 1 weaseled my way into a test-shot screening for The Actioneer. Held at a lavishly appointed private theatre in Film House — plush, high-winged swivel chairs and a long, low, wide gazellehide chesterfield, the kind that film careers are made on. The dominating feature is a multi-track stereo soundmixing console, the biggest in Canada. It could easily double for the spaceship’s control panel in Star Trek. A suitable atmosphere for crucial decisions.
Only Weyman and Peter Carter, an assistant director on the series, were present. Screening itself both hilarious and sad. An hour-long pageant of old, familiar TV faces pathetically
pulling out every acting trick at their command. The tragedy was they were forced to stumble through a rough script containing some of the most turgid dialogue — “I can’t (slam) stand office tension; I’m going out to have a drink” — since Hemingway bombed with The Fifth Column.
Over and over again came the cliches. like a Fowler nightmare. Weyman and Carter gnawed their fingernails and exchanged comments: “This one’s too classical. Is he Stratford?”; “Her voice is impossibly shrill”; “Nice quality about this guy. He listens.” Generally agreed that one of the crispest performances in the McQueen role was delivered by Ted Follows.
You remember him, Molly. The sleek, Premier Robarts-shaped fellow who played Arnie Bateman, Crown attorney and all-purpose foil in Wojeck. When the lights went up Weyman shrugged and said, “Two or three things there worth thinking about, but it’s back to the drawing board.” I asked him why Gerussi hadn’t been given a test. “Because I already know what he can do for me.” Only three weeks to go . . .
Oct. 2, 1968
Break open the vintage ginger ale.
A decision at last. The Son of Wojeck, by a Sophoclean twist of fate that could only happen in the CBC, is none other than his old friend Arnie Bateman. Ted Follows beat out Gerussi to the plum part. Weyman, sounding considerably relieved, says the deal is signed to begin shooting October 15 in the Telegram offices. Four or five episodes should be in the can by December and the series finished by the end of March. Only hitch visible is a threat by CUPE, the Canadian Union of Public Employees, to cut the working day back from 10 hours to eight. That could raise costs and throw the five-day-perepisode shooting schedule out of kilter. Weyman is also doing some lastminute tinkering to the seven scripts he has in hand. (Plenty of time to hit him with your efforts, Molly.) Instead of his original Beatle-type assistant, McQueen now has been given a mature Gal Friday (still to be cast) and his pick from a revolving pool of five mini-skirted researchers. But that may change again before the cameras roll. '
I phoned Follows to congratulate him. He gave a convincing performance as a manic depressive, alternating between exhilaration and trepidation: “I feel great about it, like a kid with a lollipop. Then l remember that here’s a show that may rise or fall entirely on me.” Follows has played everywhere from London’s West End to The Neptune in Halifax in a 20-year merry-go-round caréelas an actor. This is the first time round that he has ever grabbed the golden ring and he knows he may never get another chance. He is still mildly irked by the experiences he went through being Spiro Agnew to John Vernon’s Nixon. For five hungry months between the two Wojeck series nobody in Canada would give him work because he was typecast as A rnie Bateman. “Everybody kept linking me with Vernon. It was Ted and John,
Ted and John, Ted and John. One producer offered me a role in a Hatch's Mill episode but only if Vernon came along with me on the deal. He was planning to write a couple of early-Canadian Steve and Arnie characters into the script.” Follows plans to spend the two weeks before shooting starts discussing various aspects of the McQueen character with Weyman and the writers. He’s convinced The Actioneer will click: “It’s clean and simple and
deals with the little things that worry real people. One script involves nothing more remarkable than a lady who has been sold a bum vacuum cleaner ...”
Oct. 12. 1968
Dear Cousin Molly:
Delighted to learn how well your talk went over with the literary guild.
Here are the answers to the questions you asked for your own information.
Follows (a) is happily married to actress Dawn Greenhalgh and they have four children; (b) has no present plans to follow Vernon to Hollywood but wouldn’t turn down the opportunity if it came up. As you say, the only thing we can do now is wait for the proof of the pudding next fall. Please try to warn me in advance if you're planning to come up to Toronto. Meanwhile I remain. Your obedient cousin,