The making of a Western television pilot
In December of 1975 I was working at Warner Bros. Studios wrapping up a Movie of the Week about James Dean when I got a call from QM Productions over at Goldwyn Studios. They wanted to know if I’d be interested in working for Quinn Martin once again (I had been David Janssen’s costumer on QM’s successful television show, The Fugitive, back in the 1960s). I had loved working on The Fugitive; loved working on the Goldwyn Studio lot; and loved working for Quinn Martin. So of course, my answer was “Yes.”
“This isn’t going to be the usual Quinn Martin TV pilot,” I was told. “It’s a pilot for a Western series.”
A Western, I thought to myself. Quinn Martin doesn’t do Westerns. He does police shows, modern-day law enforcement programs like The FBI, Barnaby Jones, Dan August, Cannon, and The Streets of San Francisco.
“Quinn Martin is going to do a Western?” I asked thinking I just might have misunderstood what he’d said.
“That’s right, a Western,” he told me. “Quinn calls it a 19th century Streets of San Francisco. It’s all about a sheriff and his deputies in 1880s Denver, Colorado. Picture Karl Malden and Michael Douglas, If you can, only there are five Mike Douglas characters. The deputies do the investigative work while the sheriff solves the crime.”
“Wow, that sounds great,” I said. “When do we start?”
“You start preparation in four weeks,” I was advised. “We begin principal photography a couple of weeks after that.”
“Do you want me to report to the same old Goldwyn QM wardrobe department we used on The Fugitive?”
“No,” he said. “Quinn wants to shoot this one on the CBS Studio Center lot in the Valley. It used to be Republic Pictures. They still have a standing Western Street set. Do you know where Studio Center is?” he asked. Of course I knew where it was. CBS Studio Center had become my second home lot, right behind Columbia, where I’d begun my costuming career. I had only been over at Warner’s for the one show. Throughout the ‘70s, you usually found me at CBS Studio Center working on a Movie of the Week – I eventually helped make over fifteen of them at Studio Center.
On January 21st, several weeks after I had finished wrapping my James Dean Movie of the Week in Burbank, I began my new job on the QM Western pilot in Studio City. On my arrival at Studio Center, I was informed by my old boss, costume department head, Frank Delmar, that even though I was not an official CBS employee on this project, my new employer, QM Productions, was renting studio facilities which allowed me to still make use of my old desk and also take full advantage of the studio tailor shop – plus other facilities. I thanked him, said “Hi” to a bunch of old friends then sat down to read the script.
The pilot for The Deputies, written by John Wilder and Sam Rolf, was somewhat unique as far as Western stories go – it was a murder mystery set in the Old West. Or as a bona fide Western buff like me might say – a murder mystery disguised as a Western.
While I prepared wardrobe for the next couple of weeks, QM Productions sent in a construction crew to do a major makeover of the CBS back lot Western Street. They added several new building fronts to the already familiar Mexican Square which had been used in nearly every Republic Pictures B-Western ever made. They removed a facade here and another there then built even more false fronts until another brand new street appeared where none had stood before. This would be our Denver Street set for the pilot; and would become our permanent set if The Deputies was picked up as a series.
Casting is always the last thing done on any movie, and it was no different on this one. Unlike the prop department where a gun, a knife, or a pair of handcuffs, will fit in any actor’s hand, the wardrobe people depend on having a living, breathing, human body. Actors cannot perform without costumes, and costumers need as much time as we can get when outfitting them. First we must find, or make to order, a costume that suits the character. Then we have to fit the actor, tailoring the costume to that of the period, while at that same time pleasing the personality of the performer who will be wearing it. And for a Western, particularly, we have to age the fabric beforehand so it won’t photograph as new. We must also satisfy the producer, the director and the director of photography – as well as a bunch of know it alls who will always tell the actor they could have done a much better job had they been in charge of the wardrobe. Once the casting begins and actors start signing contracts, a show’s costume department becomes a swirling asylum of total confusion.
Jim Davis (before he gained fame as Jock Ewing on Dallas) was cast as the Sheriff. His deputies would be, Cal Bellini (Little Big Man), Nicholas Hammond (TV’s Spiderman), Charles Martin Smith (Terry the “Toad” in American Graffiti), Glenn Corbett (Route 66, Chisum), and Don Johnson (Miami Vice). Others in the cast were Barbara Parkins (Peyton Place), prolific television actress Darleen Carr, and Andrew Prine (Rooster Cogburn, Chisum).
There were a lot of other odds and ends to take care of besides the principal actors. We had to rent heavy wool suits and buffalo skin coats (the story took take place in winter) and US Cavalry uniforms with great coats, plus other period, seasonal clothing for the extras who would be playing townspeople. All in all, the ladies costumer, Donna; my set man, Mike, our tailor, Humberto; and myself, filled a five-ton truck with our final wardrobe collection, not to mention our supplies, the on-truck tailor shop, plus what seemed like tons of rain gear for the entire crew (just in case the weather turned foul on us).
The Friday before we were scheduled to leave for location we began – unofficially – by shooting an interior at the studio. Only two actors were involved in the several scenes, Nick Hammond and Jim Davis. I’d had a brown three-piece period suit made to order for Davis, modeled after the black, three-piece outfit James Garner wore as Wyatt Earp in Hour of the Gun. Producer John Wilder and I tried a lot of hats on Jim Davis and it was finally decided to go with a flat-brim style, one with a Montana crease in the crown – headgear similar to that worn by silent actor, William S. Hart – authentic in every historic detail. We shot all that day with Davis wearing that hat. And when we wrapped that night I put the hat in a safe place because Jim wasn’t scheduled to be on location with us the coming week.
On Sunday, my crew and I were flown to Sacramento then driven to the old mining town of Sonora, where we would be staying. After a quick lunch we were off to another old mining town nearby: Columbia, California. We were met there by our wardrobe truck then spent the rest of the day, and part of that night, setting up our location wardrobe department – putting up racks, re-hanging all the clothes, and doing some meaningful fabric aging. We were preparing for the next morning when we’d have to fit at least 80 extras in about half the time needed.
Location shooting for the Quinn Martin pilot titled The Deputies began shooting – officially – in Columbia, California, on Monday, February 9th, 1976. Our costume team had the 80 extras, plus the principal actors, dressed and ready in record time. Humberto stayed behind in his makeshift tailor shop in case there was an emergency, while the rest of us stood by on the set and watched veteran director Virgil Vogel rehearse his actors then call out the very first “Action” of the day.
For The Deputies, we were using the historic Columbia, California Main Street in a way similar to the way it was used in the classic movie, High Noon, with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. It was to be the entrance to town. To make it even more believable that this was Denver, Colorado, the special effects department spread phony snow and watered down the dirt street until it was a mixture of gooey, mucky mud. For the rest of the town, where most of the story would take place, we would be using the new street back at the studio – the one QM Productions had just spent all that money remodeling.
For the remainder of the week we filmed bits and pieces that would be used to tie into those other scenes we would be shooting once we got back to the studio. We had two stunts – Don Johnson’s character is chased by one of the deputies and is bulldogged from his horse. A short fight ensues then he’s arrested and carted off to jail. In another scene, Don gets into a squabble with two bad guys played by stuntmen, Louie Elias and Dave Cass (my screenwriting partner at that time). Don and the two guys engage in a short fight. Nothing outstanding, but a little more work for the wardrobe department as far as cleaning up the mess and getting on with the next shot.
Our one night scene involved a squad of cavalry escorting several covered wagons into Denver. We ended up using every single piece of lighting equipment we’d brought with us because director Virgil Vogel wanted to photograph the cavalry column approaching out of the darkness then do a 180-degree pan as they enter the town, combining what had been written as several little shots into one single big one. The entire panorama had to be bright enough for everything to register on the film; and believe me, preparing for a shot like that takes one hell of a lot of electrical cable and lighting equipment. A second unit would film the same column of troops and wagons later on at a location much higher in elevation where there would still be snow on the ground. To make things match, phony snow was laid down in patches on the Columbia main street using a white foam similar to the suds a fire department crash unit uses on an airport runway to lessen the possibility of fire. The same foam for snow technique was used throughout the filming to add realism to the story.
The company moved to Jamestown for the final two days of location shooting. Jamestown is well known in Hollywood for being host to one of the few period Western trains in the nation – a 19th Century steam engine and several wooden railroad cars. For The Deputies, we used Jamestown as another part of Denver where our actors could search for clues in an Old West railroad roundhouse. Jamestown would be our final location. Several hours before the company was scheduled to wrap, I left Mike, my set man, with the company while I returned to Columbia with Humberto to tear down our department and pack up our truck.
Quinn Martin never traveled to our location. Just as he did on all his other shows, he was invisible to the filming crew. He made his critiques and corrections after viewing each day’s rushes back at the studio. When everything was quiet, we knew we were doing okay. When someone got a call from Quinn’s office, we knew we were in for some retakes.
That final evening, after principal location photography was complete, and the cast and crew were packed and changed, we were flown by charter back to Los Angeles. If you’ve ever wondered what a movie crew does while traveling home from a distant location, just picture an overly-inebriated New Years Eve Celebration, with everyone fighting over who will wear the one lampshade.
We had come back on a Saturday. That made Sunday my first day off; plus Monday was Washington’s Birthday – a rare holiday in the movie business. I was ready for two quiet days of rest and relaxation.
All was going according to plan until I got a phone-call from the QM production manager: Quinn Martin wanted to see me – and Jim Davis. He asked that we both join him in the Studio Center wardrobe department the next morning at 8:00 a.m. sharp. Quinn Martin hadn’t liked the way Jim’s hat photographed. He was afraid the audience would think his sheriff looked like Smokey the Bear.
In front of all, I took Jim’s hat, steamed the Montana crease out of it which made the crown full again. Then I popped several good-looking cowboy creases in the crown while at the same time working the front of the brim into a slight curl on both sides. It gave the hat that John Wayne look. I knew Jim would look great in a hat shaped that way because it was the type of hat he usually wore in films. Once Quinn saw it on him, our problem was solved. Quinn went back to Beverly Hills a very happy producer. Jim and I hit the bar across the street to celebrate what could have been a disaster.
The next day, shooting resumed on the CBS Studio Center lot with some interiors so everyone could have some time to unload the trucks. I spent the day shifting our costume collection from the truck to our racks in the wardrobe department. Then we sent out a slew of cleaning – nearly all of the clothing I had rented for the extras who had played townspeople on location.
The following day began as a costumer’s nightmare. We had 22 extras to fit and when I went to get the cleaning, it wasn’t there – it hadn’t come back. We improvised by using Western wardrobe out of the CBS stockroom: costumes from every show CBS had ever done were stored there.
The Company was now shooting on the newly constructed Western Street. I silently said goodbye to the now gone Republic Mexican Street and Hacienda Square where so many of my favorite Gene Autry and Roy Rogers movies had been filmed. Then, drying my tears, I welcomed The Deputies new Denver, Colorado Western Street set. The only thing recognizable, to me at least, was the old adobe mission which had been converted into a white clapboard courthouse, recognizable only because of its size. Muddied down with snow patches here and there, the street would now photograph as if we hadn’t left location at all, but were just in another area of Denver.
A good part of the script called for night shooting and we all knew Quinn Martin never shot day for night (filming night scenes in broad daylight with a filter to tone down the brightness); therefore, we shot night for night. We actually ended up shooting half days and half nights. We began each day at nine in the morning with either daylight exterior scenes or interiors on a sound stage. Then we would move outside to the Western Street, and finally wrap it for the day somewhere between ten and one in the morning. This actually made it quite enjoyable. Most crew members are used to staying up late anyway, so a nine a.m. call allowed us to sleep in a little later than usual.
Jim Davis brought in his portable TV and invited anyone who wanted to join him in his dressing room between scenes. Those of us who could, did just that. The Universal Studios’ mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man had just begun airing and Jim was very impressed with one actor’s performance in particular. I had recently done a TV movie and two pilots with Andy Griffith in which that same actor had been featured alongside Griffith. I had become pretty good friends with the guy and told Davis I’d give him a call and introduce the two so Jim could tell him what he thought of his performance in person. The call was made and the two actors got along great – so great, in fact, that Jim Davis invited the actor to drop by the set the next evening so they could meet, and also watch that night’s episode of Rich Man, Poor Man together in Jim’s dressing room.
The whole idea of having this actor come by to visit turned out just fine. Don Johnson and the actor had co-starred in a feature movie together (Return to Macon County) and had a lot of reminiscing to do. That young actor who visited us that night was Nick Nolte. His career took off like a rocket after that due to the fine performance he gave in Rich Man, Poor Man.
Glenn Corbett, who played Jim Davis’s number one deputy, gets killed midway in the pilot. His character’s death opens the way for Don Johnson to become one of the deputies. The night we filmed Glenn’s demise was a sad one, for if the pilot had gone on to be a series, we all wanted Glenn Corbett to be a part of it. He was a really great guy to work with, very likeable, with the down to earth manners of a real cowboy.
Things seemed to be going along pretty smooth until I got a call one Sunday night informing me that Don Johnson had been in a car accident on Laurel Canyon Boulevard Friday night after he’d left the studio. The “problem” stemmed from the fact that the prop man had let Don take his gun-belt and Colt-.45 home with him so he could practice his fast draw. Don, after his car rolled (he was uninjured but not thinking logically), decided he better grab the holster and gun and split before the cops got there because, I suspect, he was afraid he would be arrested for possession of a firearm that didn’t belong to him. I tried to reach him that night and eventually found Andy Prine at the Playboy Mansion (one of Don’s hangouts). He told me Don was “laying low” until the heat was off. On Monday, Don got to work on time but was still “laying low” because the police wanted to talk to him about the accident. The studio even gave the guards at the gate orders to not let any police onto the lot that day, and not to divulge anything about Johnson’s whereabouts until things could be worked out with the DA’s office. Wow, and here I thought I had missed out on all the infamous Hollywood intrigue when Errol Flynn died.
Lambert Marks, a costumer friend of mine, was working on the George Segal Jane Fonda picture, Fun with Dick and Jane (the original). Ironically, they were filming on the street directly across from the CBS studio gate. When I was on my way to lunch at the little cafe opposite the studio I heard him call my name and was invited into George Segal’s motor-home for a few minutes to talk about old times with both he and Segal. Lambert and I had worked on the Goldie Hawn, George Segal movie, The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, the year before and we all had some really good laughs reminiscing about the location shoot in and around (the real) Denver, Colorado.
After a few more days of interiors, the show finally wrapped. Most shows have a cast and crew party to finalize shooting. Ours, for The Deputies, was scheduled to begin as soon as the company was finished shooting on Friday, March 5th, 2006. Unfortunately, and it happens quite often, we got behind schedule and ended up shooting past midnight. The setup for the wrap party was on one of the stages we had recently vacated where a caterer had been hired to wine and dine us. But by the time we all got there, dribbling in one by one as each concluded their own departmental chores, most of the cast who had not been needed for the closing scenes, plus friends and family – the ones who had all been able to shower and dress up – had been there for at least three hours or more. All of them had eaten and most had been at the liquor for more than quite a while. Because it was so late, the rest of us, the tired and sweaty working cast and crew, ended up guzzling a few beers, chowing down the remains of what was left, then we staggered home, dead tired, to our warm beds, significant others, and hopefully some pleasant dreams.
The Deputies was eventually shown as an NBC Movie of the Week. It got good numbers and good reviews; but the pilot was never picked up as a series.
Quinn Martin never did another Western.