It has been far too long since we wrapped up our second trip through television-time, reaching the 1990s with a look back at HBO’s early groundbreaking series ‘The Larry Sanders Show.’ Since we reached the 1990s that means it’s time to go back… back to where it all began.
And in the case of this edition’s focal point, we have truly found ourselves where it all began. Today on Television Time Machine we are looking back at a series that could be called the most important show in the history of the medium. This was a series that not only forged what we now take for granted as the structure of television drama, but it helped to launch the careers of James Dean, Steve McQueen, Leslie Nielsen, Warren Beatty, William Shatner and countless other superstars. The series in question this edition is ‘Studio One.’
Wait a tic, Baddie: do you mean ‘Westinghouse Studio One?’ Or ‘Studio One in Hollywood?’ Or maybe ‘Studio One Summer Theatre?’
I mean all of the above, dear reader. The storied history of this indelible series saw it featured under any and all of the headings above. So just what was ‘Studio One,’ anyhow?
In 1947, CBS Radio launched a 60-minute dramatic anthology series under the heading ‘Studio One.’ The radio broadcast featured star performers like Burgess Meredith and Walter Huston, adapting such classic tales as “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Red Badge of Courage” for radio teleplay. But then, come 1948, CBS made a very bold decision to take ‘Studio One’ to this new, exciting medium called television…
Proudly sponsored by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation (which owned CBS until 2000), ‘Studio One’ was a weekly hour-long dramatic telecast that was broadcast live across the country. Each episode was an entirely new tale with an entirely new cast; the only familiar faces week to week were Announcer John Cannon and Betty Furness, the pitchwoman who would perform the live commercial spots during the broadcast.
Yes you read that correctly: given the fact that none of the performances were pre-taped (at least when ‘Studio One’ began), the commercial advertisements were performed live, in-studio as well. Here’s Betty Furness doing one of the commercial spots that she performed for a whopping four-hundred-and-sixty-five episodes:
“But Baddie: how could they possibly adapt some of these fine works of literature into a single hour broadcast?” Well they didn’t, silly voice-in-my-head! Often, adaptations would be broken into several parts to be broadcast over a number of episodes, but it didn’t change the fact that each and every time you tuned in to ‘Studio One’ you were catching a live performance of brand new material, in some cases never to be seen again.
Take, for example, Charlton Heston’s stunning turn as Edward Rochester from “Jane Eyre,” which played out over thirteen ‘Studio One’ episodes; or Everett Sloane’s unforgettable performance of Aaron Burr from “The Man Without a Country” (which played out over eleven episodes). In many ways, taking an acting role on ‘Studio One’ meant you were rehearsing for a theatrical performance—the catch was, you had to learn it all perfectly for only one show, a stark contrast to the usual day-in-day-out performances theatre provides. Actors like Heston would have to learn their part, perform it live, and then immediately move on to the next week’s teleplay; the dedication was immense.
Not every ‘Studio One’ was part of a longer serial: James Dean’s famous 1953 episode entitled “Sentence of Death” was one of many one-shot, perfectly encapsulated stories. Dean plays a man wrongly accused of a brutal murder, sentenced to the electric chair. The sentence doesn’t sit well with one detective, who believes Dean’s character when he says he is innocent. The entire hour of gripping suspense leads up to Dean’s eventual execution… a shining example of live television at its finest.
‘Studio One’ received Emmy Award nominations every single year from 1950 until its end in 1958. Many of the episodes of ‘Studio One’ were so brilliantly produced and well received that they were adapted into full-length Hollywood feature films after airing. That means that ‘Studio One’ didn’t only define television drama, what it was and how it was structured—it was also responsible for many classic feature films including ‘Nineteen-Eighty-Four’ and the unforgettable ‘Twelve Angry Men.’
At the Emmy Awards in 1955, the ‘Twelve Angry Men’ episode of ‘Studio One’ took home three trophies: Best Written Dramatic Material, Best Direction, and Best Actor for Robert Cummings in the role that Henry Fonda would later make famous. The episode was a smash success and perhaps the single greatest achievement in television drama to date… and then the episode was promptly lost.
Yes: it was lost. No recording of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ on ‘Studio One’ could be found anywhere. The episode was the crowning achievement of television and it was lost to the ages, existing only in the memories of the viewers fortunate enough to have tuned in… until 2003. In that year, Joseph Consentino, a researcher for History channel discovered a complete, surviving kinescope of ‘Twelve Angry Men’ in the home of the late New York defense attorney (and later judge) Samuel Leibowitz. So thankfully, there now exists a copy of the incredible performance.
But such losses were commonplace for the era. Today, it seems entirely foreign to think of anything being lost to history, given our endlessly-promulgated digital media. Everything we could ever want is at our fingertips—hell, I was able to link entire ‘Studio One’ episodes into this very column! But sadly, many of the original episodes have been lost to time, going the way of so many DesiLu productions of the era as well.
Another fascinating example of the enduring legacy of ‘Studio One’ can be found in the fourth-season episode of ‘Boston Legal’ entitled “Son of the Defender.” I am such a fan of ‘Boston Legal’ that I even own one of the ties James Spader wore as Alan Shore during a fifth-season episode, so I mean it when I say that “Son of the Defender” is the finest single episode of the entire David E. Kelley series—and the beauty of the episode comes directly from ‘Studio One.’
Back in 1957, William Shatner starred opposite Steve McQueen in a ‘Studio One’ episode called “The Defender.” In the tale, Shatner played a young attorney on his first case: helping his famous attorney father (played by Ralph Bellamy) defend a murder suspect (McQueen). Decades later, Shatner would earn Emmy Awards as Denny Crane on ‘Boston Legal,’ a famous attorney who was raised in the profession by his attorney father…
The coincidence was not lost on David E. Kelley, who quickly snapped up the rights to use clips from “The Defender” in his episode, “Son of the Defender.” In the ‘Legal’ episode, Denny Crane is forced to relive the case he first tried with his father, featuring clips from “The Defender” throughout. Finally, the heart-wrenching conclusion to “The Defender” is played at the close of “Son of the Defender,” giving such a moving backstory to the Crane character. Seeing young, fresh-faced Shatner have his heart broken by his father in black & white before returning to the William Shatner of today experiencing the memory produced the most unique and poignant moment I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness on television. The quality of ‘Studio One’ was such that it can still out-perform the majority of television dramas available today.
‘STUDIO ONE’ TODAY:
In 2008, Koch Vision finally released an anthology DVD collection of ‘Studio One,’ featuring the episodes "1984", "The Arena", "Confessions of a Nervous Man", "Dark Possession", "The Death and Life of Larry Benson", "Dino", "Julius Caesar", "June Moon", "The Medium", "Pontius Pilate", "The Remarkable Incident at Carson Corners", "The Storm", "The Strike", "Summer Pavilion", "Wuthering Heights" and the recently-restored “Twelve Angry Men.” In a stroke of genius, the anthology elected to retain the original Westinghouse commercials in each episode, allowing viewers to see the broadcasts as they originally aired. Do yourself a favour and go purchase the anthology from Amazon; oh and, if any of you out there would like to buy one for me, you go right ahead. Web-writin’ aint as lucrative as we’d like, after all!
There is actually plenty more to say about ‘Studio One’… so much so that it necessitates another edition of the Television Time Machine! Expect more from this incredible series when our time-travels take us back to the 1940s once more…
But for now, this is your Friendly Neighbourhood Baddie wishing you happy viewing, no matter what decade you’re viewing in at present.