Photo courtesy of Frank Price
In the first of a two-part interview, Frank Price talks about his early days as a television writer and producer of shows like The Virginian and Columbo. [28:40]
Frank Price, part 1—Podcast Transcript
Frank Price: I loved doing "The Virginian." I felt that I was a ranch owner in Wyoming because I immersed myself in it. And I loved telling the stories. It was a wonderful form.
Jo Reed: If you're of a certain age, you might recognize the theme music from "The Virginian," a tv series that was produced by Hollywood legend and member of the National Council on the arts, Frank Price.
Welcome to Art works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host Josephine Reed.
Frank price has had enormous impact on media culture in the second half of the twentieth century. It's actually hard to imagine what television would be like without Frank Price. He came to television as a story editor and writer, and became head of Universal TV in the 1970's, where he developed or supervised "The Six Million Dollar Man," "Battlestar Galactica," "The Rockford Files," "Kojak," and "Columbo." He was the first person to expand the length of a tv series to 90 minutes; he also created the mini-series and made-for-tv movies. Yet, at this point, Frank Price was only in mid-career. He left Universal TV to make movies. First as President of Columbia Pictures where he oversaw the productions of award-winning films such as Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, and Gandhi . Then to Universal Pictures where he supervised the productions of Back to the Future and Out of Africa. He returned to Columbia as chairman and greenlighted more award-winners like A League of Their Own and Boyz in the Hood. In 1991, he began his own company Price Entertainment and has produced films such asShadowlands and The Tuskegee Airman. By any standard, Frank Price's mark on media entertainment has been both deep and wide. In the first of a two-part podcast, we explore Frank Price's time working in television. Next week, in part 2 we'll focus on his films. Frank Price and I met in New York and I wondered if the film and entertainment industry was somehow imprinted on Frank since I knew he had spent in his early childhood in LA where his mother worked on the Warner Brother's lot.
Frank Price: That's true. She was a waitress in the commissary. And that was between, what, 1937 and '42. We moved away from California and I wound up in Flint, Michigan, and went to high school there. The connection was I think impressed in my mind in the sense that I'd been on a shooting stage and they were shooting "The Sea Wolf." which they were shooting with Edward G. Robinson. I got a tour, and watch as they were shooting a close-up on Edward G. Robinson, and they were hosing him down with water, and laying the fog in. So that was impressed on my mind. But in actuality, if anything, the whole experience of being around Warner Brothers drove me away from it, because it loomed too large. That was unreal. The people on the screen were, you know, 30 feet high or whatever, which is why I came to New York when I left Michigan. I came to New York because you know, I understood actors on a stage. That made sense to me. I had I acted in high school and college. So I was not drawn immediately by the whole Warner Brothers commissary experience.
Jo Reed: So being able to be on that ship, it didn't inflame your imagination with the possibilities of film?
Frank Price: It probably did. But if I looked at the people on screen a Humphrey Bogart, a Tyrone Power, so on, those images were just beyond recognition to sort of, you know, I couldn't identify with that. I could identify with theater. That I understood. There were actors there. You could put on makeup. You could look like anything on a stage. So that that appealed to me. Again, that's that's why when I left Michigan State, I came to New York and looked for a job here.
Jo Reed: Was it for theater or was it for television?
Frank Price: I set out to go into newspaper work. And I had worked while I was in high school. I'd worked for a year as a copy boy and then became a sorta cub reporter doing night, police, and fire. So I had that experience. I'd been in the Navy for a year and had the experience of editing the ship's newspaper. "Well, New York City's big, so I'll apply to Columbia." So I applied to Columbia; they accepted me. I came here actually to do two things. One was to go to Columbia, and the other was to have a job that I could support myself with. It became clear to me I wasn't gonna be able to do a full-time job and go to school. So couldn't get a job at a newspaper. I tried every newspaper. Every magazine. That was at a point when television was coming in and everything was folding. What I did find was a job in the CBS Television story department as a clerk, receptionist. And I got that job because I could type fast. So and I happen to have always been a very good and fast reader, and one of the key things that was done in that department was reading, looking for story material. So I said, "Well, I can do that." So I moved from clerk/typist/receptionist to reader. And that was very good, because I started writing out of that. I sold a story to a show called "Casey, Crime Photographer," which was an early live show.
Jo Reed: What's so interesting about an industry that's just beginning is how fluid in some ways it is, because it's inventing itself as it's going along. So the opportunities that it can present to people with determination and imagination is pretty extraordinary.
Frank Price: That's true. That's true. We had Studio One at that time that we were supplying stories for, and- and the fun thing was that almost every show that you put on, it was an original. Like we did one called the "Battleship Bismarck," and it was the first time that a live show had been done, that was a sea story. That you know, that was a huge production or theoretically aboard a battleship at sea. So all of that had to be done with sound effects and, you know, carefully chosen and scenes and angles.
Jo Reed: You also wrote for a show, I read, called "Matinee"?
Frank Price: "Matinee Theater."
Jo Reed: "Matinee Theater." And that was an original 60-minute show, five days a week?
Frank Price: Yeah, that's right. That's right.
Jo Reed: That's astounding now to think about.
Frank Price: Pat Weaver, who was head of NBC, came up with three major concepts. "The Today Show," "The Tonight Show," and "Matinee Theater." So morning, midday, and late night. "Matinee Theater" was produced by Albert McCleery, who'd done "Cameo Playhouse," and the concept was doing a live show that was produced in Burbank at the NBC studios there. It went on on the West Coast at 12:00 noon and went on, of course, at three o'clock in the afternoon in New York and we did an hour dramatic show every day, five days a week. Our budget for the week was $75,000. It was $15,000 a day. We won many Emmys because you know, we used many name Hollywood players. What we would do with a writer who was getting, say, 5,000 for a script, we would say, "We will guarantee you five scripts. But you do them for us for a thousand." So w- we bought in bulk.
Jo Reed: Wow. And did you have a hard clock for that?
Frank Price: I was story editor on it, and what happened was I had to be 30 scripts ahead. The story operation was huge. The one that was really in charge of all the scripts was a woman named Ethel Frank. Ethel was in New York. Ethel had four other story editors working for her. They were developing scripts. I was West Coast story editor, so my job was to develop scripts on the West Coast, but to take every script through production. So we were, you know, the 30 scripts ahead. But I would get the timing that we had on the air on the day of the first reading. And on that day, we could have as much as 52 minutes available out of a 60-minute hour. It was all dependent on advertising sales. If it was sold out, we had 37 minutes. If nothing was sold, which rarely happened there would be 52 minutes. So the script that had been prepared the month before, we had tried to prepare them long normally, because it was a lot easier to cut than to start adding. So I'd be given that timing and start making cuts, give out the cuts on the first reading, and then spend the week making cuts or adding or whatever we needed to do to make the time thing work out.
Jo Reed: Do you look back at that and think, "My God, the amount of work we did and what we produced is astounding"?
Frank Price: Our statement on "Matinee Theater" was "Matinee" was not a job, it was a way of life.
Jo Reed: I would think it would have to be.
Frank Price: Now, I was paid nothing, but the wonderful thing was the experience because you know, doing five shows a week, doing all the rehearsals and getting that thing on. Doing the dress rehearsal and then, "bang," you're on the air live.
Jo Reed: Of course we hear so many stories about live television, and from a wonderful point of view, because it's live, there really is a certain energy that just happens. But at the same time, the challenges that being live can produce.
Frank Price: There was the immediacy about live television that made it fun. And it was putting on the show and there was that nervousness about it, because everything you did, you know, could lead to an error. So you were on and there was no way to correct it. You couldn't say, "Stop. We'll do take two now." I witnessed various things. We- we had a show on I think Studio One where it was set in Vienna. And it was a period piece. And there were two people, a wonderful production shot. It was way beyond our production capabilities. The two actors were walking down the street in Vienna and we're following, tracking with them, and it's snowing. There's a light snow falling. And they enter a door, come in to the this wonderful parlor, elegant and unfortunately, the snow keeps falling into the living room.
Jo Reed: Did one of the actors have the wit to ad-lib something about the hole in the ceiling?
Frank Price: They just played the scene through, so… But we had the thing of on our suspense, danger show, that every so often an actor that had been killed would be lying there, not know that the camera was still on, and think that they had gone to the next scene. He would get up. And so the audience would see the dead body rising.
Jo Reed: Like Lazarus.
Frank Price: So yeah. That was embarrassing when that sort of thing happened, so…
Jo Reed: At that time also, there was, I think, a deeper sense of the networks. That they were also-- they needed to devote some time to programs that served the public interest.
Frank Price: Right.
Jo Reed: --which is a clear shift.
Frank Price: in many ways, the worst thing that ever happened to television was PBS. And I say that because at CBS where I was, and, of course, NBC, there was that sense of operating in the public interest. So NBC had the NBC Symphony. Arturo Toscanini conducted that. Uh.. they commissioned original operas. "Amahl and the Night Visitor" was well-known. CBS had "Omnibus," it had Leonard Bernstein, with the children's--
Jo Reed: "Young People's Concerts."
Frank Price: "Young People's Concerts." So in about 1965, with strong support from Bill Paley and the other networks, but specifically Paley. PBS was created. The effect of PBS was to basically say that they will do that kind of programming, and that will be taxpayer supported and the networks are relieved of the public interest responsibility. They can point to that kind of program if you say, "Why can't I see the symphony or the quality program and so on?" They could point to the PBS programs and say, "You can see that over there." It also removed from the network some of the worst critics. People that wanted something better could be told, "I think the kinda thing you want is over on that public television channel."
Jo Reed: Was that part of the motivation for creating PBS, do you think? Or was it an unintended consequence?
Frank Price: I can't get inside the minds of the network people who backed it, but I would say that it certainly helped the bottom line of the networks. They no longer had those expensive shows to put on that didn't draw huge audiences.
Jo Reed: Well, one thing the network certainly did put on in scores and scores of were Westerns. When I think of early television, or mid-television, like in the ‘60s, the Western really dominating at that point.
Frank Price: That was bad news for us at "Matinee Theater," and all the live anthology shows. Because the Westerns proved that they got huge audiences and I think most of the dramatic shows wound up being canceled. They were replaced with Westerns. "Matinee Theater" was canceled. I got a job on some terrible Western called "Rough Riders," which lasted for 26 episodes or so, but I learned how to act around a Western. I had to rush off to the bookstore and get books on horses and how you saddle a horse or how you feed a horse. You know, all of this lore that you needed if you were going to be writing or editing scripts about the West.
Jo Reed: Well, you're also responsible for the first 90-minute Western.
Frank Price: "The Virginian."
Jo Reed: "The Virginian."
Frank Price: That was a radical concept, to do something in 90 minutes. It basically was doing a movie a week. Fortunately, I'd had that "Matinee Theater" training….
Jo Reed: After that everything <laughs> must seem like a piece of cake in some ways.
Frank Price: It was, "What do you mean? Only one movie a week?"
Frank Price: Now, "The Virginian" which ran for nine years, I had written the original format for it. What happened was I worked at MCA/Universal, and "Wagon Train" had been a very successful show on NBC. And after its five-year-- after it'd run five years, NBC messed up, didn't win the bidding to renew it, so ABC took the show. So we at MCA/Universal wanted to sell NBC a replacement show. They were horrified, ‘cause they had this huge Wednesday night hole in their lineup. So we said, "The thing to do is to do a bigger, better show than ‘Wagon Train,' and that will be ‘The Virginian.'" The granddaddy of Westerns. From the book from which all Westerns have come. So-- the Owen Wister book. I got a call to write a format for it. I had looked at the movie. I hadn't read the book at that point, but I looked at the Gary Cooper movie and and I read the book so I based the format on the book. The only thing I really added was a daughter. I felt that there needed to be a young woman in that show. So she got added. We started developing "The Virginian" and the network decided they wanted a name producer, my name wasn't big enough, so they then brought in a star producer, Roy Huggins, who at that point, was working on his doctorate in political science at UCLA. Roy was offered the role of executive producer on it, and said he would take it if I worked with him. So what happened was he went to school all day, I would run the show, so we got the show done that way. Roy would come in about five o'clock and I would then work until about two o'clock in the morning with him. So we had a long day.
Jo Reed: Whew. For seven years?
Frank Price: No. I did the first three years. Roy had left after the first year. So I did the next the two years after that. Went away on the fourth year. The reason I got off the show was that I was called a Western expert in some interview, and I thought, "I don't wanna be a Western expert. That's a good way to unemployment someday," so…
Jo Reed: You've worked on so many television shows. Do you have a favorite or one that you're particularly happy that you worked on?
Frank Price: I would put it in the category of, "What's your favorite child?"
Jo Reed: Of course it is.
Like Charles Dickens picked David Copperfield, I'm just saying.
Frank Price: Oh. Well he clearly had good powers of discrimination. In my case, I loved doing "The Virginian." I felt that I was a ranch owner in Wyoming because I immersed myself in it and I loved telling the stories. It was a wonderful form. I did a story, for instance, show ya how un-Western it was. I did a story about a woman who was on the run, and she comes into our ranch and- and gets acquainted with The Virginian, and the back story is that this is a woman who had fled a divorce in Illinois. And I found out the divorce laws in Illinois at that time, and that was true of many states, were horrendous. A woman owned nothing, not the clothes on her back, let alone her children. So anyway, I thought that that was a great way to deal with the time, and, you know, it was in a- an action-adventure story. Clearly. With suspense and all that. But it was also educational. Wyoming was the first state to grant women the vote. The first state with a woman judge or woman mayor. So I liked exploring that stuff when I was doing the Westerns. So were interesting things, were educational things. We made soap on the ranch one time. I did that in that episode because, you know, they had to make their soap and I wanted people to be aware of that. The network people thought that this long sequence I had of how they made soap would be boring to the audience. It wasn't. People were fascinated. They had never seen soap made before, so anyway. I liked "The Virginian" for that. I liked doing "It Takes a Thief," because it was like a total reversal in morality. Here was a guy who had been a crook, who was working for the government only because they forced him to. He did not have the morality you would see on "The Virginian." I liked doing "Ironside." Working with Raymond Burr was- was wonderful. A fabulous actor. If I had a story that didn't quite make sense, all I had to do was have Ray come on at the end and explain it.
Jo Reed: It's good.
Frank Price: But I enjoyed the fact that I was able to get something like the uh.. "Six Million Dollar Man" on because that appealed to my boyhood comic book days of Superman and Batman and that. And we had some s- super detective shows, whether it was "Columbo," or "Kojak" or…
Jo Reed: Hmm. You also are responsible for the invention of the miniseries with "Rich Man, Poor Man," which was just such a stupendous hit.
Frank Price: Yes, that was.
Jo Reed: Everybody was talking about that.
Frank Price: Right. That was a pleasure to do, because, started with working with Irwin Shaw. That, you know, I mean, just I enjoyed that. I love books, so here was uh.. here was a guy that I had I think, admired since I was in high school. So being able to put on an important production on television involving his work was very satisfying to me. And we got Nick Nolte outta that. One of the things I wanna do with the book was I wanted, because it was a multi-part thing, I wanted to make sure there was a consistency to it. So I wanted one writer to do all the scripts. And the writer that I wanted was Dean Riesner. I worked with Dean a lot. Very good writer. He'd been around Hollywood all his life. He was a child actor.
But he was a very good writer so I took the time, got him to do all the episodes. I got the right producer on it. Harve Bennett. And for various reasons, internal politics and so on, it was difficult to get the show finally green-lighted, financed by the network. But they did it. We were a huge success. They put us on Monday night at ten o'clock which worked fine for us. I had said, you know, "We can get bigger ratings if instead of doling it out week after week. If we concentrate this, we can really have some more impact." They didn't do that. But I had many restaurant owners complain to me that they just shut down on Monday night because there was no audience while "Rich Man, Poor Man," was playing…
Jo Reed: Yeah. This was pre-VCR.
Frank Price: Yes.
Jo Reed: You were home watching or you missed it.
Frank Price: That's it. Yes.
Jo Reed: Now, why, from this incredibly rich and varied television career, did you decide to move to Columbia Pictures?
Frank Price: During all the time I'd been in television, it got bigger and better every year. I loved that, because, you know, part of success was being in the right place. And if it's bigger and better every year, I was in the right place. I also was running the biggest, most successful television operation that had ever existed, that was Universal Television. I built it to where we had one-third of all network programming back when there were just the, you know, the three networks. But HBO suddenly came into being. I looked at that and I said, "Whoops. Television is going to change radically. that's going to start taking away the audience. Where should I be? ‘Cause I don't wanna ride this down." And basically my analysis, I'd been doing the novels for television. you know, I'd had "Centennial" that NBC did the "Captains and the Kings." I thought, "Well, one form will always exist." And that's- that's existed for 2500 years and it's about two hours long, whether you call it a movie, a play or whatever. "That will be around. So I'd better be doing that." I mean, I- I'd been doing Movies of the Week all along too. So and some of them I, you know, extremely proud of that you know, we did "Farewell to Manzanar," imprisoning the Japanese in World War 2.
Jo Reed: And you did "That Certain Summer," at that time. That was really groundbreaking.
Frank Price: Very radical.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Frank Price: Hal Holbrook and Marty Sheen, and they were gay men. The central plot was his son was visiting him and he had to break the news to him that he was gay and changed his lifestyle, so that in the early ‘70s, that wasn't a subject being dealt with, so …
Jo Reed: That was the first time on television, wasn't it?
Frank Price: Yeah. I like doing important social shows that dealt with interesting topics, or topics that needed attention. I did "Case of Rape" with Elizabeth Montgomery, that got the rape laws throughout most of the United States changed because you know, the whole thing of attacking the character of the woman was and that, of course, was what happened in the Elizabeth Montgomery story that we told.
Jo Reed: But Columbia beckoned.
Frank Price: Actually, as much as I like doing television, there was a certain frustration there that I really knew that we were filling the gaps between the commercials. You know network was an ad selling operation. It's like the snake oil salesman. We were the act to get them into the tent, so…
Frank Price: And I really wanted to do things that people would pay for. That they would, you know, they weren't drawn in ‘cause it happened to be on the network. They would say, "I really wanna see this picture," and they'll go put their money down. I wanted that. And there- there are no commercial interruptions. That was part of the draw. And again, the fact that I saw television was going to change and basically I'd done all I wanted to, you know. I felt, you know, just be doing more of the same. As long as I could reinvent it in ways, you know, do the miniseries. I'd learned that the novel form, as much as I loved it, because I thought, "This is the one unique form for television. You can't do this, you know, something 10 or 20 hours long, in any other way." You can't do it in theater, you can't do it with movies. Only in television could you do this. So it's a uniquely good television form.
Anyways, done all I had wanted to. I don't wanna look in the mirror when I'm 65 and say, "Gee, I wish I had done that. I wish I'd done movies.
Jo Reed: That was writer, producer, executive and member of the National Council of Arts, Frank Price, in the first of a two-part interview. Next week, in part two, we'll hear about his move to Columbia pictures and talk about some of the movies he's responsible for, like Gandhi and Boyz in the Hood.
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from "A Stranger's Map of Texas" by Michael Chapman and the Woodpiles from the album Natch 7, used courtesy of Creative Commons and found on WFMU's free music archive.
Excerpt from the theme music for "The Virginian," composed by Percy Faith.
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To follow how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening