Opening night. The butterflies. Checking those lines that refuse to stick in your brain. Focus. Focus. Stop thinking about those fifty chores that have to wait. Concentrate on the blocking. You mustn't be an inch out of line. It's not opening night on Broadway. It's opening - and closing - night on television. Live television. Television's Golden Age. Kraft Television Theater. Armstrong Circle Theater. The Philco Television Playhouse. The United States Steel Hour. This week, Playhouse 90.
Back: Edmond O'Brien, Mel Torme
Front: Constance Ford, Mickey Rooney, Kim Hunter
Announcer: "From Television City in Hollywood, Playhouse 90. Tonight starring Mickey Rooney, Edmond O'Brien, Kim Hunter, Mel Torme, Constance Ford. To introduce tonight's show, Miss Claudette Colbert."
Claudette Colbert: "Good Evening. Tonight's Playhouse 90 presents The Comedian. The story of a ruthless, but fascinating entertainer. The Comedian is the work of two distinguished writers. The author of the original story Ernest Lehman, who has written the screenplays for such popular motion pictures as The King and I, Somebody Up There Likes Me and Executive Suite. The adapter, Rod Serling whose long list of original television dramas includes the award winning Patterns, Forbidden Area and Requiem for a Heavyweight."
AND - away we go. The director of The Comedian was John Frankenheim (The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Iceman Cometh). At 27, he was the youngest of the directors associated with Playhouse 90, and its most prolific. At 37, playing the title character was Mickey Rooney, already a stage and screen veteran of 30 years. It was early in the TV portion of Mickey's career which would include 76 credits, 5 Emmy nominations and a win in 1982 for Bill. His first Emmy nomination would be for Actor - Best Single Performance - Lead or Support for playing Sammy Hogarth in The Comedian. John Frankenheimer was nominated for Best Direction - One Hour or More and Rod Serling would win for Best Teleplay Writing - One Hour or More for Rod Serling.
The door to the studio reminds everyone who's boss.
Sammy Hogarth, described in the introduction as "ruthless, but fascinating" is indeed all that and it took an actor with Mickey Rooney's legendary brand of energy to bring that character to life. Sammy Hogarth is a star with a star's outsized ego. He's a bully with power. He may have had to struggle to get to the top. He may have buried loneliness and self doubt. However, the day-to-day Sammy is not a nice man.
A special 90 minute comedy special is in the works and the skits don't work. Sammy is not happy, and when Sammy is not happy nobody is happy. A couple of days before air and the only thing working is the monlogue. Sammy's monologues always work. Some guys do wife jokes. Some guys do mothers-in-law jokes. Sammy has a brother, and that kid brother is a joke. Mel Torme plays Lester, Sammy's devoted lackey. One thing Lester has that Sammy hasn't is Julie played by Kim Hunter. It's not that Sammy hasn't made a play for his sister-in-law, or that she isn't as attracted as she is repulsed, but Julie loves Lester. She wants this constant publicly whipping of her husband to stop. If it doesn't stop, she will leave. Lester is desperate.
Head writer Al Preston is played by Edmond O'Brien. O'Brien is the heart of our story and the actor with most of the screen time. Al is just about dried up as a comedy writer. Secretary Connie played by Constance Ford doesn't care what Al does, she just cares about Al. Al knows his stuff is gone, but out of sentimentality he has kept in his drawer the work of a young writer who died in the war. It's good stuff. Maybe he should pass it off as his own. Anything to make Sammy happy and get him off his back. Al is desperate.
Is Sammy oblivious to how those in his circle really feel or does he like being top dog too much to care? Someone who really irks Sammy is a columnist named Otis Elwell played by Whit Bissell like Addison De Witt with a dash of Waldo Lydecker. Elwell is looking for a story on Sammy. He doesn't care what it is as long as it's juicy enough to hopefully be a career breaker. No love is lost between these two.
All of this heightened emotion and these secrets swirl around the blustering and magnetic Sammy Hogarth as rehearsals go on and show night nears. King Donovan is The Director and it is a fascinating aspect of the program that we get a glimpse of the backstage atmosphere of live television while enjoying the drama. Who will survive, and how? You might be surprised.
We can see Mickey Rooney at all stages of his career thanks to film. Some of us have the memory of seeing him on stage. It is the same with his castmates in this Playhouse 90 production. Each time we watch a film performance or TV guest spot, these departed performers are alive for us once more, giving us their art and creativity. A performance captured on a night of live television is something extra special, something we can share in a way that is denied us in a movie. We get to share that opening night.
“This post is part of The getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club taking place throughout the month of September. Please visit the getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and any of the host sites for a complete list of entries.”