Thursday, November 10, 2011

NBC’s “Mystery Movie” Turns 40:
A Producer Reflects on “McMillan & Wife”

Paul Mason has enjoyed a lengthy career in Hollywood. A graduate of Northwestern University, he has written for such TV series as Arrest and Trial, Ironside, The Bold Ones, and CHiPs. He’s worked as a producer or production manager on It Takes a Thief, The Fall Guy, and Diagnosis: Murder, as well as on films such as The Amityville Horror and The Road from Elephant Pass. And for a decade, Mason was the senior vice-president of production at Viacom and Showtime, “responsible for $300 million dollars in annual production.” His 2004 book, Producing for Hollywood: A Guide for Independent Producers, has become a standard text in film schools.

But most importantly, at least for The Rap Sheet’s purposes, Mason served for three years as a writer and producer of the NBC Mystery Movie series McMillan & Wife. In the interview below, he recalls some of his experiences during that busy period.

J. Kingston Pierce: How did you come to be hired as a writer and producer for McMillan & Wife?

Paul Mason: I was a writer/producer under contract to Universal Studios at the time. I had done It Takes a Thief, Tammy, Ironside, and Laredo. Leonard Stern, the executive producer and creator [of McMillan & Wife], brought me the two-hour [pilot] movie and asked if I could overcome the concerns of management at Universal about doing such a difficult show on the budget he had been given. Even then I was known as a guy who got a lot for less. ...

I thought the idea of this series with Rock Hudson was terrific and would be a big hit. I convinced my boss, Sid Sheinberg [president and chief operating officer of MCA Inc.], that we could do the movie and the series for the budgets he had laid down and he trusted me enough to make the two-hour movie. NBC bought the series after seeing only three days of dailies with Rock and [Susan Saint James]. They were so great together. I hired Oliver Hailey as the head writer, and we were off and running. The TV series was a major hit from the first episode.

JKP: Do you think McMillan & Wife lived up to its potential?

PM: I thought it lived up to the high standards we set for the series in writing, performance, and production. It is still considered a classic. It is playing now in Australia and I am getting some e-mails. The values still hold. The humor is good, the mysteries are still interesting, and most of all the wonderful relationships between Rock and Susie and Nancy [Walker] and John Shuck are still wonderful. I chuckle still when I think of John Astin [who played a medical examiner, Sykes] explaining evidence to Rock. We were the first to do CSI scenes and make fun of them at the same time.

JKP: Am I correct that you wrote five McMillan & Wife episodes, scattered across the series’ first three seasons, but you produced more than a dozen episodes?

PM: I only wrote five of the first 25 episodes, but I laid out most of the story lines and did a major amount of rewriting. I was also heavily involved in casting, editing, and other projects. I was most fortunate in having Oliver Hailey as a head writer. Oliver could write 10 pages of brilliant dialogue for Rock, Susie, Nancy, or John. I was best with Astin.

JKP: What was your working relationship with the show’s stars, directors, and other scriptwriters?

PM: Generally very good. It was a difficult show. Ninety minutes shot in 10 days. We made eight little movies in eight months, so the talent had a right to get cantankerous now and then, but there was never anything that could not be solved.

JKP: So why did you leave McMillan & Wife after the third season?

PM: I almost always left a show after two seasons. I found that after two seasons one begins to cannibalize his own ideas and cheat on the characters, so I always tried to find something new and fresh to challenge me. I only stayed the third year because Rock took me to lunch and asked me to stay. He picked up the check. I told him that I had been to lunch with many a star, but never had one picked up the check. So I stayed for the third year.

Rock was really an exceptional guy. Very quiet and shy, but great character. Susie was still very young, in her own way, but wonderfully honest. I loved John Astin, and Nancy and John Shuck were a pleasure to work with, so staying an extra year was actually very pleasant. So I stole a few ideas from myself. Most worked the second time.

JKP: Do you have favorite episodes of the series?

PM: I suppose my favorite is the show (“An Elementary Case of Murder”) where Barbara McNair plays Rock’s old girlfriend and he has to prove she is not guilty of murder. Susie, who was pregnant at the time (and we played her pregnant), was mildly jealous and it made for some wonderful scenes between them. Also, at the end, when Rock discovers [McNair] is really guilty and he has to arrest her, it was a wonderful twist. It is also the first time on TV that a white male lead had a relationship with an African-American woman.

video
Commissioner Stewart McMillan (Hudson) agrees to help an old flame, played by Barbara McNair, in Season 1’s final episode.

NBC was terrified when we cast Barbara, but then decided to support it. I never forgot that years later when ABC threw me under the bus of Get Christie Love! because I did a story about a black man who was passing for white, and [undercover cop] Christie discovered he was the killer. I guess it wasn’t as funny.

JKP: Susan Saint James actually got pregnant twice during the show’s run, once at the end of the first season, and I think again in Season 4. In at least one of those cases, you didn’t try to hide her pregnancy, but incorporated it into Sally McMillan’s character. Yet when the next season of the show debuted, there was no more talk of her pregnancy or a baby. Didn’t that strike you as illogical? Did you ever consider just adding a child to the McMillans’ household? And how did viewers react to these mysterious pregnancies?

PM: We considered the possibility of a child, but when we explored the dynamics, the story lines changed too much. Instead of being a dynamic, sophisticated couple, they were parents with a child and that meant all the story problems that would go with a newborn infant. It took away from our original concept. In the first episode of the next year, we had a scene in a store that also sold baby clothes. Susan looked at the clothes fondly and said to Rock, “Do you think we should try again?” And Rock said, “I thought that’s what we had been doing all along.” They exchanged a loving smile, and we considered the subject closed. So did the audience.

JKP: That's interesting. I don’t remember that exchange, but I can see why you thought it sufficed. It suggested that they’d somehow lost the baby, and you could move on.

PM: Yes ... that’s the way we thought it out. I was pleased with the solution and we got a few complimentary letters as well.

JKP: I’ve read elsewhere that tensions brewed on the McMillan & Wife set when Susan Saint James started bringing her newborn babies to shoots, and breast-feeding them between takes. Hudson reportedly took umbrage at this turn of events. True or false?

PM: Not true.

JKP: How well do you think the various Mystery Movie series melded with one another? Were there any real dogs among the pack?

PM: I thought they did pretty well. I don’t really remember much. I did not always watch the other shows. And everything was judged by ratings and not quality. There were some excellent shows that just did not grab an audience. In those days, if you got less than 30 million people watching, you were a loser. Imagine that today, where hit shows might get less than a third of that.

JKP: At least one online résumé says that you also helped develop The Snoop Sisters for the Wednesday version of the Mystery Movie. That was another Leonard B. Stern production--was that the reason why you went to work on Snoop, too?

PM: Yes, Leonard asked me to help him develop Snoop, and I did. For awhile I was going to do both shows, but it became impossible. And at that time I had a very large offer to join David L. Wolper Company as head of development, and I think I left to go there. After more than 10 years and many, many series and movies, I was sorry to leave Universal and my dear friend, Sid Sheinberg, but it seemed like a good offer and a good time to freshen my skills. We had lots of fun with David and James Komack doing Chico and the Man and Welcome Back, Kotter and lots of different shows.

JKP: Did you write or produce any of the Snoop Sisters episodes?

PM: No.

JKP: You’ve gone on since the ’70s to have a distinguished career in Hollywood. But do you look back on The NBC Mystery Movie as an important part of getting that career started?

PM: No. I had done some successful series before and after. I thought McMillan & Wife was a terrific series because so many elements came together successfully, and I am very proud of the credit. But I can never assess how important it was to my career any more than I can judge how some of the series that failed held me back.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I just watched the whole entire series and on one of the seasons his mother comes to visit to see the new baby. Sally even mentions a baby sitter.