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Interview with DARK SHADOWS writer Sam Hall

 

Sam Hall Interview / Grayson Hall & Dark Shadows

by Jay Blotcher

Dark Shadows comic bookSam Hall, 88, began writing teleplays starting in the late 40s and early 50s, during the legendary Golden Age of Television. He worked for the visionary director Fred Coe, and his dramatic scripts appeared on Westinghouse’s Studio One, Robert Montgomery Presents and Matinee Theatre before Hall fell into the soap opera game, serving first as head writer for the series The Brighter Day, a 1954 weeper that made the jump from radio to TV. He also wrote the acclaimed 1976 PBS series The Adams Chronicles.

But Hall is best known – to his chagrin -- for a soap that broke all the rules: the cult series “Dark Shadows” whose central figure was not a courageous housewife but an emotionally conflicted vampire. Turning out scripts for the audacious (and often ridiculous) series, Hall was able to work alongside his actress-wife Grayson Hall, who played bloodsucking Barnabas Collins’ lovesick ally, Dr. Julia Hoffman.

A 90-minute telephone interview was conducted with Hall from his Rhinebeck, New York home Wildercliff by TVparty cub reporter Jay Blotcher on Saturday, March 14, 2009. The interview concerned a new soap opera Hall had just written for local television, titled “So You Want to Live in the County”. This exclusive excerpt – concerning teleplays, Dark Shadows, Grayson Hall and Hollywood life -- is for TVparty fans.

JAY BLOTCHER: It is said that when a writer sits down to a new project, he brings to the table the sum experience of his previous works. Regarding your daytime drama work, from Santa Barbara to General Hospital to Dark Shadows, were there any aspects of those shows that you brought to this one?

SAM HALL: In the second installment, we are going into ghosts. My interest in ghosts probably started with Dark Shadows – certainly not with anything else in my life. We have discussed briefly bringing on a vampire, just for old time’s sake.

Dark Shadows jonathan fridJay: Is Jonathan Frid [Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows] available?

Sam: I’m sure he is! He is alive. He was very odd; he turned down the second Dark Shadows movie because he felt that the idea of appearing in two movies as a vampire would ruin his career in the theatre. Jonathan was never very realistic about his talent.

Jay: He began as a Shakespearean actor.

Sam: Yes, he had trouble learning the lines.

Jay: And was that the case on the set of Dark Shadows as well?

Sam: Yes, yes, yes. [laugh] He’s a nice man, but – all of us have problems in life in facing how talented we are. Or whether or not our talent is as good or as big as we want it to be. It almost never is.

Jay: Had you heard about the [now-cancelled] NBC daytime drama Passions that involved witches and magical elves, starring Juliet Mills?

Sam: Yes, I’ve heard about that. That kind of programming was founded on the success of Dark Shadows. But back then, the networks never really liked the program because it broke too many rules. And they didn't trust it; they thought it was a fake success. A success, but faddish. I [felt] the show did end prematurely since the man who owned it – he was the lifeblood of it – was a true madman. [Show creator and producer Dan Curtis] And he kept trying to make it scarier and scarier and scarier, until finally even I, who was writing it, couldn't follow his thought process. For example, he had one plot whereby one character suddenly had another character’s mind and [without] subtitles it couldn't be followed. He spent his entire life trying to re-do Dark Shadows. I worked on two versions of it. One was on the air, but it wasn’t any good. It was Dan’s personal madness; he wanted to condense everything. He also cast very oddly. The original Barnabas Collins had been cast while Dan was in Europe. When Dan came back, they had already shot several programs with Jonathan Frid as Barnabas. And Dan hadn’t wanted Jonathan Frid; he wanted someone else.

Jay: If Dan was such an autocrat, why did he allow Frid to stay in the role?

Sam: Jonathan had done five programs, and it was simply too expensive to replace him. He would have to have redone the five programs that Jonathan had done. Dan was an amateur. He produced a show called Golf Classics and that was his total experience. But he was a friend of the head of daytime [programming] at ABC, which is why Dark Shadows got done. He was a true madman and he caused enormous unhappiness in his life and had a miserable life. He made lots and lots of money.

Jay: And lots of enemies?

Sam: Yes, yes.

Jay: How did you handle working with him and remain immune to his insanity?

Sam: Well, I finally said to him, while we were working on the second version of Dark Shadows [for NBC in 1990], that I wouldn't work with him anymore. We were great friends in a weird way. I said, "You won't let your writers have any dignity now." It’s true. He would have one writer in one room and another writer in the next room, both unaware of each other and each writing the same scripts. He said he could write anything but music. So Bob Colbert, who wrote the score for Dark Shadows, was sure of his job and worked with him until the end of Dan’s life.

Jay: Are your memories of working on the show overshadowed by Curtis’s behavior?

Dark Shadows / Grayson HallSam: At the time, I had done other shows but had not been as big a success. The early years of Dan Curtis were fine. And my wife was on the show [as Dr. Julia Hoffman, who falls in love with Barnabas and keeps his secret from the other characters]. We were all friends. I ended up not wanting to work with him at all. He ended up not wanting to work with me.

Though we still had a kind of weird relationship where we would see each other occasionally if he were in New York, or if I was out there. But my wife didn't like Hollywood, despite having been nominated for [a 1965 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for] Night of the Iguana. We never wanted to live there at all.

Jay: You also wrote several screenplays for the ABC Movie of the Week. Which one.

Sam: I don't even [remember]. I wrote one I don’t like called The Two Deaths of Sean Dolittle (1975). I sold a couple of Jane Austen plots, but I don't even remember. The only decent, respectable television I really did was The Adams Chronicles (1976) on PBS. I started another series for PBS based on a Southern family during the Civil War. And the letters [the plot was based on] were from 1830 to the Civil War. It would have been a marvelous series, except I did it in the late 70s and PBS became very worried about how the blacks were treated in the letters. But after I wrote a couple of sequences, it was discovered that the [author] had written a few of the letters himself. And PBS just gave it all up. The only time they talked about the slaves in the letters were when they misbehaved and ran away. Or were making an effort to catch slaves. [PBS] had ample reason not to want to get embroiled. We’re still going through the black experience. It was tempestuous time to try and deal with slavery on television. Roots had done it, but Roots wasn’t about the whites’ attitudes around their slaves.

Jay: You worked frequently as a TV writer during the so-called Golden Age of Television during the 1950s. Tell me about the program The Brighter Day? [The show ran from 1954-62.]

Sam: Which I remembered. I was really young and rather silly. I was in my late 20s. Brighter day was the creation of one of those legendary women of television. [Ima Phillips] I loved the producer of Brighter Day, Terri Lewis, and she was a fan of mine. She loved what I was doing with the show. The main character was this very pompous minister and I would make fun of him by writing he most pompous possible speeches for him and then coaxing Terri to keep them in for my own enjoyment. I remember one of the most pompous speeches – because he was always talking in fake minister-isms – in which he told his sister – this is a direct quote – “If life is a river, love is a channel through which the ships pass.” I conned Terri the producer into letting it go through. The actor, of course, loved it and gloried in it. And it was one of the worst moments of television of the year. A sponsor objected to it for whatever reason until the head of the network’s wife called personally and said, “There’s this beautiful, beautiful thought on ‘Brighter Day’ and I want the exact quote so I can do it in needlepoint.” So a friend of mine did it for me in needlepoint; I think I still have it somewhere.

Jay: Were you able to have that level of fun on other programs, interjecting insider jokes which pleased you?

Sam: Yes [laugh], I always kept trying. None of them were ever as blatant as that. As a head writer, I didn't really write the scripts ever. I just plotted them. If I didn't like the writing [my staff] did, I could certainly rewrite it. But it became more of a routine: editing and plotting and dealing with network s. The networks became more and more important in the course of the years.

Jay: Meaning they became more intrusive as well?

Sam: Yes, oh yes. [Ima Phillips] finally got me fired because I had had the minister defrocked. So she took the show over again.

Jay: Of the daytime dramas you worked on, which are you most proud of?

Sam: I’m not particularly proud of any of them; I really regret having spent my life doing daytime. Being that one gets trapped by money –

Jay: So you feel soaps are inferior to the teleplays of the 50s, like The Robert Montgomery Show and Studio One?

Sam: Yes. But I always really wanted to write plays, and kept writing plays throughout my entire television career. Without much success. In my regretful moments, I think: God, why did I do this? I did it because I had a wife and a child. One had to support them. [Son Matthew would eventually join Hall, writing daytime dramas.] Well, I ended up living as well as anyone can on a good salary. Now, in my declining years [laugh], as I said, I’m writing for nothing again. And here we go.

Jay: But are you enjoying the writing of this current project?

Sam: Yeah; I can't stop writing. It’s almost a disease. I have been writing a play for three years, since War Games really. I know it has very little chance of being successful because of the subject matter. So this has been self-invigorating for me, doing So You Want to Live in the Country, because it gets done and I feel useful rather than working in a vacuum.

Jay: Would you care to expose this project to the light of day?

Sam: It started out, as all ideas do, in fact. A friend of mine’s daughter fell madly in love in college with a bipolar guy. I became fascinated with the situation, because the poor guy was an interesting man of 20. But it was a tragic relationship for them both, and that was the inspiration for the play. I’ve been psychoanalyzed, but I’ve never been bipolar. So I’ve had a hell of a time writing it. I’ve spent weeks thinking, I really do not understand these people enough to write what I want to write. But I keep doing it. That’s just pure Ohio stubbornness, I think. I refer to it as Snakeskin. I guess it will end up with that title – if I ever finish it, which I will force myself to do!

Jay: Do you think TV came closest to reaching its potential in the 50s with the teleplays, with Playhouse 90?

Sam: Oh yes, I think so. Just before Fred Coe died, he called me and said, We did a show of yours badly years ago and I’m going to get some of the old scripts and redo them as I think they should have been done. I was very flattered, because I admired Fred very much. But he died before he did it. He didn't tell me which ones he was going to do. We just met about mine: The Center of the Maze. It was based on a woman I knew who was a great liberal, a very rich political type whose only child, a daughter, fell in love with a black gardener. And she found out she was not a great liberal at all. The daughter was played by Marjorie Post’s daughter, Dina Merrill – ‘cause Fred was still in his Grace Kelly period.

Jay: Of the actors you worked with back then in the 50s, were there some you enjoyed?

Sam: Some of the soap actors were actually quite good. Erica, the One Life to Live woman who is still on the air. And I even like Susan Lucci [on All My Children]. I didn't think she acted particularly well, but she had a catching personality.

Jay: She finally won that Emmy that long eluded her.

Sam: [laugh] Yes, she did. And undeservedly.

Dark Shadows / Grayson HallJay: For posterity, please share your memories of Shirley Grossman [wife Grayson Hall’s real name].

Sam: Oh! Well, of course I’m mad about her still. When she was dying, she said to me, If I beat this – she had cancer, which I knew she wasn’t going to beat, but she was still believing she could – she said, I’m never going to act again. And I knew she was quite serious. I realize now – it’ so amazing to know someone so well and to live with someone in a happy marriage – was that she had forced herself to act mostly because she thought that I had wanted it. She actually had very serious asthma. She was a great con woman in a way: she could walk into a drugstore in Wichita and without a prescription emerge with any drug she wanted. She was overdosing to go on stage all the time; she was more interested in that than in movies. She was overdosing just to be able to keep her breath – to seem as if she was breathing normally when she was not. She loved being an actress. But I think the great actors don't have much personality; they are like translucent vapor. There are some people who thought Grayson couldn’t act at all, because she was such a personality. In a way, her personality did interfere with her career.

Director Harold Clurman said to us once, “I don't know why no one casts you for your weaknesses rather than your strength. Ideally, I would not cast you in things you get cast for.”

Jay: What qualities were being overlooked?

Sam: A real gentleness and a thoughtfulness. I haven’t thought about this in a long time, so I could answered that glibly at one point but I really have to think about it now. [laugh] I’ll call you if I remember.

Dark Shadows / Grayson HallJay: How was Grayson at home versus Grayson onstage?

Sam: She was a great cook and she was constantly going to cooking classes when she was in New York. When she got jobs, I took off [from work]. I could make 18 Mexican egg dishes because I worked with [a Mexican cookbook author]. I can make three curries because I did [Indian cookbook author] when Grayson was in a play. We had one son who didn't particularly approve of our lives. He didn't like to have kids to sleep in at our apartment because if Grayson were in a play, we would have people in after the play for supper. His 8- and 9-year-old friends thought we were weird – which we very likely were.

Dark Shadows / Grayson HallBut she was very charismatic. There were people who said that until Grayson died, they never knew me because I am lazy; she could take over the charm department and I could just sit and watch and decide who we were going to see later – because she attracted so many people that wanted to be around her.

Jay: What was she most proud of, in terms of her work?

Sam: Probably The Balcony.

Jay: Were you with her when she went to Paris for [the cult film] Qui Etes-Vous Polly Magoo?

Sam: We had met Bill Klein in New York and we knew he was a great fashion photographer originally. Then he went to Paris and began making films. We saw him by chance in Rom when she was doing Spoleto, and then he thought of her when he was doing Qui Etes-Vous, Polly Magoo. {he asked her], Are you free? Would you like to do this? She loved the idea. I did not go to Paris for the full shoot; I was working. But she enjoyed it. She said. You don't have to get up so early. Gore Vidal we had known briefly, but he became a friend; a kind of friend of hers. A very critical friend, I might add. At one point she stayed in his apartment while she was shooting Qui Etes-Vous. Bill Klein was a very talented man. We never became very close, but he was responsible for our staying in a bed and breakfast in a 13th century post house which was run by a famous American sculptor’s son. [married to Alexander Calder’s daughter] in a town called Balzac in the Loire valley. It’s one of the great places I stayed in.

Jay: Of the many people whose lives intersected with yours and Grayson, were there any who had an impact on your work?

Sam: I have more negative memories of really dreadful people like Ava Gardner [on the set of Iguana]. She just didn't like me. She loved Grayson and they remained friends. But I never wanted to see her; she was such an anarchist; so really rude and impossible. I remember one night I did go in New York to have dinner with her. She accumulated something like 14 people when it was just to be the five of us. We went to a restaurant of her choice, of course. After everyone ordered, she decided she wouldn't stay there for dinner and everyone had to leave. I ended up paying the check and I hated her for that.

But Elizabeth Taylor I liked. I didn't like Burton. Elizabeth was always very sweet. And her daughter Eliza Todd, lives up here in Greene County but lived in Dutchess County for awhile. So I have seen her a lot.

Jay: Did you expect the success of Dark Shadows and do you think it is merited?

Dark Shadows / Quentin CollinsSam: No, I don't think it is. But it still exists and still has fans. I don't really understand it. One of the actors, Kathryn Leigh Scott, has published endlessly. I have occasionally seen David Selby. His wife didn't like Grayson, because she felt that Grayson had encouraged David to have an affair with another actress I won’t name [who was part of the cast]. David was not allowed to come here when he was in Duchess County. David was a great fan of the Aerodrome and brought his children up to see it every year. Occasionally we would run into him. [I don’t stay in touch with any of the cast members.] I liked Nancy [Carolyn Collins Stoddard] but lost touch with her. And I liked the original Victoria Winters [Moltke] and I have seen her; and I would stay in touch with her if I stayed in touch, but I’m not a stay-in-toucher. No, I don't really know many of them anymore.

I am, as of yesterday or the day before, 88. [laugh] I have not lived all of those years well, but I’m glad to be here.

Portions of this interview originally appeared in the April 2009 edition of Roll magazine. www.rollmagazine.com Jay Blotcher may be contacted at jblotcher - (at) - hvc.rr.com.
Copyright 2009 Roll magazine

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