Friday, September 16, 2011
Committed to Controversy
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
An August 2008 episode of AMC’s popular TV series Mad Men shares more than just a title — “The Benefactor” — with a 1962 episode of the seminal legal drama The Defenders. In the Mad Men episode, the Sterling Cooper ad agency attempts to interest one of its clients (a lipstick company) in to purchasing time on that very same CBS series when the show’s regular sponsors desert the program over the subject matter of the titular episode: an accused abortionist on trial for performing the procedure on a young woman who’s been raped. “Benefactor” marked a turning point in the direction of The Defenders in its first season which, despite its later reputation for tackling tough social issues, spent its freshman year mired in, according to TV historian Stephen Bowie, “silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics.” For the rest of The Defenders' four-year run (the show ended in 1965), the program fearlessly dealt with such hot-button and taboo-to-TV issues as capital punishment, the blacklist, child abuse, euthanasia, birth control and atheism, to name but a few.
Mad Men's producers may have whetted modern-day audiences’ appetites to get a gander at the inspiration for their homage to the program praised by The Museum of Broadcast Communications as “the most socially conscious series the medium has ever seen “…but if you’re looking to purchase or rent the show on home video you’re going to be sorely disappointed — and an online DVD search will more than likely result in the recently canceled Jim Belushi-Jerry O’Connell series that’s similar to the landmark 1960s program in name only. The last time The Defenders was seen on TV was in 1980 on a lesser-known (and now defunct) cable channel and according to Bowie: “It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly 30 years. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance.” So on the occasion of its 50th anniversary of its television premiere, I’d like to pay tribute to a program that deserves to be better-known…and whose absence on home video is a crime that even the show’s stars (E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed) would have difficulty defending.
The origins of The Defenders begin with stage, screen and television writer Reginald Rose — we recognize him, of course, as the author of such screenplays as Crime in the Streets and 12 Angry Men as well as co-writing the screen adaptation of Whose Life Is It Anyway? with the play's author Brian Clark, but during television’s Golden Age he was one of the medium’s most respected scribes, with critically lauded teleplays such as Thunder on Sycamore Street and The Incredible World of Horace Ford to his credit. For the dramatic anthology series Studio One (which also presented 12 Angry Men before its silver screen adaptation), Rose penned a two-part episode entitled The Defender, in which the father-and-son legal team of Walter (Ralph Bellamy) and Kenneth Preston (William Shatner) defend Joseph Gordon (Steve McQueen), a young man accused of a crime he swears he didn’t commit. The Defender is the only incarnation of the series to be released to home video (on DVD in 2006); it also bears the distinction of inspiring an episode of Boston Legal (“Son of the Defender”) — in which clips from the live telecast are used to paint the portrait of Shatner’s Denny Crane as a young man.
Producer Herbert Brodkin had worked with Rose on both The Defender and previous Studio One presentations, and it was Brodkin who convinced the writer that a viable weekly series could be made from the two-parter, which premiered on CBS in fall 1961. The role of the elder Preston (rechristened “Lawrence”) was recast with actor E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed played his son Kenneth, a recent law school graduate. The senior Preston was a veteran attorney (more than 20 years before the bar) who acted as mentor to his greener and more idealistic son, though over the course of the show’s four-year run, Kenneth did become a more seasoned practitioner of the law. By that time on The Defenders, however, Ken’s progress as a litigator had taken a back seat to the complicated and controversial legal issues spotlighted in each episode and because this character development eventually was diminished, minor first season players such as the Prestons’ secretary Helen Donaldson (Polly Rowles) and Ken’s girlfriend Joan Miller (Joan Hackett) soon became inconsequential as well.
Though the show’s inaugural episode, “Quality of Mercy,” offered up a then-daring-for-its-time plot centering on a physician needing legal representation for mercy killing an infant with Down syndrome, many of the plots on The Defenders rarely deviated from the similar subject matter featured on its first season lead-in, Perry Mason, the only difference being that the celebrated Mason seldom lost any of his cases while the firm of Preston & Preston was more fallibly human, subject to the realities of the legal system in facing such factors as better-equipped or more skillful legal opponents and arbitrary judges and/or juries. “The Benefactor” was chiefly responsible for changing the direction of the series. Asked by an accused abortionist to defend him in court, Lawrence and Kenneth mount a defense that essentially argued in favored of legalized abortion nearly a decade before the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. (Not surprisingly, the Prestons do not prevail at the show’s conclusion.) The Defenders' sponsors — a rotation that featured Lever Brothers, Kimberly-Clark and Brown & Williamson Tobacco — strongly objected to the episode’s content and decreed that they would have nothing to do with “Benefactor,” despite CBS’ defense that the installment was “a very fine, realistic and honest dramatization.” The network finally landed a backup sponsor in the Speidel Watch people (who probably obtained the ad time at bargain basement prices) and even though CBS exercised preliminary damage control by screening the episode via closed circuit television to its affiliates, 10 of the network’s 180 stations (including outlets in Boston, Buffalo and New Orleans) flatly stated “uh-uh.”
The sponsor defection during “Benefactor” did little to make CBS skittish about continuing with The Defenders. Despite the objections of network President James “The Smiling Cobra” Aubrey, who was against the series from the get-go, Defenders had a loyal ally in CBS Chairman William S. Paley — known for going to the mat for prestigious programs, a status he had acquired since his early days in radio. Paley and CBS executive Michael Dann also knew of both Brodkin and Rose’s reputations for program quality and the backlash after the telecast was relatively minimal — of the mail they received (close to a thousand letters) nearly 11 to one was in favor of the episode. The fact that The Defenders was CBS’ highest-rated new show of the season — not to mention its four Emmy Awards (including achievements in writing and directing, and acting honors for star Marshall) — surely didn’t hurt either. “Benefactor” galvanized the creative team behind Defenders, giving the program “the courage of its convictions” to address sensitive social issues of the day in a frank and unabashedly opinionated manner. As series creator Rose affirmed in an issue of The Viewer: “We’re committed to controversy.”
Regular TV viewers in the era of the 1960s knew instinctively that clients in need of the services of legal eagle Perry Mason rarely were guilty and just required Erle Stanley Gardner’s famous barrister to prove their innocence via his show-off courtroom histrionics. But the patrons hiring Preston & Preston were certainly no angels…and often misfits and societal outcasts; the father-and-son lawyers defended conscientious objectors ("The Objector"), illegal immigrants ("Stowaway"), civil rights demonstrators ("The Non-Violent"), pornographers ("A Book for Burning") and neo-Nazis ("The Indelible Silence"). One of the show’s most celebrated episodes — and one that garnered Emmys for author Ernest Kinoy and guest star Jack Klugman — was “Blacklist,” in which an actor (Klugman) who was blacklisted for alleged Communist affiliations is targeted by a group opposed to his hiring for a part after 10 years in “exile.” (Bowie points out that despite accepting the industry accolades for this entry, CBS continued to enforce a blacklist at least until The Defenders' final season, oblivious to any irony.) In short, The Defenders was never about justice but the pursuit of justice. As author Mark Alvey points out in a Museum of Broadcast Communications essay on the show, “The Defenders focused on the machinery of the law, the vagaries of the legal process, and system's capacity for justice.”
A final speech made by Larry Preston to his son at the end of “Blacklist” neatly provides a summation of the raison d’être for The Defenders: “The law is man-made, and therefore imperfect. We don't always have the answer. There are injustices in the world. And they're not always solved at the last minute by some brilliant point of law at a dramatic moment.” And that’s how the series built its reputation — addressing timely legal issues such as capital punishment, the insanity defense and illegal evidence searches while refusing to do so in a clear-cut, black-and-white manner — and taking judicious time to explore all the perspectives and gray areas present in the process. If you’re shrugging your shoulders in indifference because you’re witnessed this sort of thing on recent shows such as Law and Order and The Practice — where characters employed in the legal profession aren’t there to “win” but simply because it’s their job — this probably all seems tame. However, it’s important to remember that The Defenders not only broke the ground in establishing these now commonplace concepts, but it also ushered in a trend of series that focused on nonviolent “heroes” who usually possessed some sort of professional taint (doctors, teachers, etc.) and confronted important social concerns of the day. Its pedigree of writing and directing talent (Kinoy, David Shaw, Adrian Spies, Alvin Boretz) praised for their triumphs in live television ensured that the 1950s dramatic anthology tradition continued throughout the '60s (as marked by other shows such as Route 66 and Naked City) and though outside location shooting in the Big Apple was minimal, it provided a necessary shot in the arm to the once popular industry practice of producing TV shows in New York. The social relevance of The Defenders also inspired similar series attempting to trod the same ground (East Side/West Side, Slattery’s People) but in terms of critical attention and audience loyalty, The Defenders remained the champ.
During its four-year run, The Defenders received 20 Emmy Award nominations and collected 13 of those trophies, including outstanding drama series three years in a row. Among the episodes singled out for Emmy praise (either winning or being nominated): “Madman” (a two-part episode that probes the legal definition of insanity); “Moment of Truth” (son Kenneth is accused of bribing a juror); and “The 700 Year Old Gang” (also a two-parter, and a lighter-than-normal outing about an elderly vintner who’s being prosecuted for bootlegging). But author Stephen Bowie, who has described the series in past writings as “one of my pet TV history causes” draws attention to such integral Defenders outings as “Blood County,” which finds Preston pere and fils defending an accused murderer (a hunter) in an atmosphere of corruption set against a backwoods Pennsylvania burg; “A Man Against Himself,” a script about a black man (Ivan Dixon) who insists on defending himself on manslaughter charges (written by Raphael Hayes, the co-scenarist of the provocative independent film One Potato, Two Potato); and “Kill or Be Killed,” which focuses on the plight of a convicted murderer who killed a guard during his escape from prison, oblivious to the fact that he’s been cleared of the original murder charge. It was Stephen who brought to my attention that despite my previous belief that The Defenders had never been syndicated, the series did turn up in repeats on New York’s WPIX-TV (channel 11) in the late '60s; but its failure to establish itself in more markets could have something to do with the serious tone of the series (it’s probably not the sort of the show you’d program after, say, Gilligan’s Island on a five-days-a-week basis). The Defenders surfaced briefly during the home video era (circa 1980) on the Armed Forces Network and many of the “bootlegs” in circulation were culled from that AFN stint.
The Defenders now is in the control of CBS-Paramount, and though the rights to the series haven’t necessarily brought upon a legal entanglement that would require the services of Lawrence and Kenneth Preston, its DVD absence no doubt stems from the cardinal rule of home video: it’s not commercial enough to justify season-by-season releases. If shows such as The Streets of San Francisco or The Phil Silvers Show can be sidelined on DVD due to indifference and sluggish sales, the chances of The Defenders — which, despite its inclusion on TV Guide’s 50 Best Shows of All Time list (it ranked No. 31) in 2009, has been mostly unseen since its original network run (plus it’s a black-and-white series to boot) — being bought or rented becomes more remote with each passing year. (This may be pure speculation on my part, but if the show had the good fortune to have its rights controlled by NBC-Universal, it might be a different story — after all, that’s why the good Lord created Timeless Media Video.)
Stephen Bowie observes (courtesy of an e-mail exchange): “[I]f anything The Defenders not only meets but exceeds its original reputation as one of the greatest American television dramas. It is daring both dramatically (the Prestons lose a LOT of cases) and in its politics…in ways that no one in commercial television would be able to get away with today.” On a personal note, I can’t help but equate that the missed opportunity to see this extraordinary program (outside of bootleg copies) in its proper presentation virtually has played out like the conclusion to an episode of the series — and the earlier words of Lawrence Preston to son Ken keep ringing in my ears: “There are injustices in the world.”