He helped the TV western grow up
“Somebody ought to write a book about Monty Pittman,” Will Hutchins said. Hutchins, who starred as Tom Brewster in Sugarfoot (1957-61), continued, “Pittman saved my show.”
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He was a writer and director at Warner’s,” explained Hutchins.
I scribbled Pittman’s full name, misspelled, I later learned, in the margin of the sheet of paper on which I took notes during an interview with Hutchins about stars of late 1950s television shows.
I am interested in that period of television production partly because of the nostalgic undertow that is pulling some of us baby boomers away from the contemporary shoreline of television back toward the offshore of our childhood heroes and partly because I wanted to learn about the proficiency of that era’s actors, directors, writers, etc., a concept that never entered our thinking as adolescent fans of the cowboys, detectives, and soldiers that populated the 1950-’60s airwaves and that were brought down to us in our living rooms by rotary antennas.
In subsequent interviews with Hutchins, he persisted in mentioning Pittman, so I set out to learn more about him. I googled “Montgomery Pittman,” and the search engine dredged up some 3,100 sites, many listing his several writing, numerous directing, and occasional acting credits, but almost nothing about his life.
One intriguing site was a blog discussing The Twilight Zone. One blogger wrote:
Pittman did some nice episodes for The Twilight Zone: “Two,” “The Grave,” “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank.” Pittman also worked on Maverick. He is an utterly forgotten figure today. (Grost, screen 64)
From other Pittman sites, I confirmed that Mike Grost of the Internet Film Discussion Group is right to some extent on all three of his statements. First, Pittman wrote and directed the three episodes of The Twilight Zone mentioned by him. In addition, Pittman directed “Dead Man’s Shoes” and “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” for The Twilight Zone. Second, Pittman wrote and/or directed episodes not only of Maverick but also of eight other television series produced by Warner Bros., including Sugarfoot. Third, Pittman is “forgotten” – if he was ever noticed at all – by the casual viewer of 1950-’60s television, such as myself. However, he cannot be “utterly forgotten” if 3,100 sites – not all of them repetitious – remember him.
Moreover, Pittman is remembered by his surviving colleagues, including Hutchins and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who starred as Stuart Bailey in 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64). On another internet site, I learned Pittman’s name appears often in a memoir Zimbalist wrote titled My Dinner of Herbs. Upon scanning his memoir, I discovered that Zimbalist devotes most of a chapter to a summary of Pittman’s life story.
I located many of Pittman’s scripts in the Warner Bros. Archives at the University of Southern California, and I found a video distributor of 1950s Warner Bros.’ television series in Pennsylvania, Jim’s Rare Serials & B-Westerns. After reading multiple, typewritten, pencil-corrected drafts of scripts Pittman wrote, watching several flickering, fading video copies of episodes Pittman wrote and/or directed, and consulting various, interlibrary-loaned scholarly histories of 1950s classic television programming, I agree with Hutchins that Pittman’s screenwriting and directing are worth revisiting.
For a mere outline of Pittman’s life, I have had to rely almost exclusively on Zimbalist’s biographical sketch supplemented with a few, short newspaper accounts, an infrequent fact or two from internal memos by Warner Bros. executives, and occasional extemporaneous anecdotes from Hutchins. I sent letters to Pittman’s wife, Maurita; stepdaughter, Sherry Jackson; and stepson, Curtis Loys Jackson, all show-business relatives, but the letters remain unanswered. Regrettably, I read that Maurita died in January 2007.
Pittman was born in Louisiana on March 1, 1917 and grew up in “the farmlands of” Arkansas (Zimbalist 139). Before he was twenty, he left home and was hired to work in a carnival, “where he sold snake oil” (Zimbalist 139). After World War II military service, he migrated to Broadway where he “haunted stage doors in the hope of meeting someone who would give him a spear to carry” (Zimbalist 139). One “someone” he met was actor Steve Cochran, perhaps best known for his role in White Heat (1949) as Big Ed Somers, the gangster who tries unsuccessfully to move in on Cody Jarrett’s wife Verna, played by James Cagney and Virginia Mayo. Around 1950, Cochran hired Pittman to janitor his California home.
Between the vacuuming and the washing, Pittman found time once again to “haunt” the doors of casting agents, this time looking for film work. He came by a few “spear-carrying” parts, including an uncredited appearance in The Enforcer (1951), starring Humphrey Bogart. Then the idea occurred to him that he should write screenplays or teleplays that included bigger and better parts tailor-made for him. He learned a process, which Zimbalist does not explain and which probably varies from screenwriter to screenwriter, by which an unknown writer could submit scripts to studio story departments that would be “received verbatim, with no suggestions and no comments” (Zimbalist 140).
Zimbalist recalls that:
Warner Bros. was particularly regardful of his gifts, and it wasn’t long before Monty came to realize that his interest in acting was giving way to a new calling. As an actor he was subject to the restrictive limitations of age, height, personality, type, culture, et cetera, while as a spinner of yarns he gave wings to his imagination and called worlds into being. (140)
When Pittman began writing and then acting for Warner Brothers Television in 1956, television westerns were mired in a creative rut. As J. Fred MacDonald observes in Who Shot the Sheriff? The Rise and Fall of the Television Western, “[f]or years in literature and motion pictures the Western had been a mature, inventive art form; but in television in the mid-1950s, the genre was unmistakably for children” (33). Children like me, for example, who in 1956 sat in front of our television sets wearing our cowboy boots and hats and watching enraptured The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, The Lone Ranger, and The Roy Rogers Show.
MacDonald submits the guidelines of George W. Trendle, producer of both the radio and television programs of The Lone Ranger, as typical of the strategies employed in the formula plots for mid-1950s television westerns. Trendle insisted on:
making the hero the embodiment of all that is morally desirable; providing the script with the absolute minimum of violence; completing each episode in a single broadcast; basing the plots on events that are not immediately referable to the child’s framework of experience; avoiding “false cliff-hanger” suspense points contrived to appear before the middle commercial to sustain a child’s continuing interest; interspersing educational data with adventure. (26)
As to be expected, not only were the plots formulaic, the characters and themes were too. MacDonald categorizes the heroes of these westerns as “flawless types who blended strength and savvy to overcome injustice, [. . .] exhibited no personal vices, [. . .] were always gallant around women, and [. . .] were never tempted by money to stray from their sanctimonious paths” (27). The themes were unvarying blueprints for ideal conduct and perfect demeanor. “Here,” MacDonald points out, “were self-confidence and moderation in adult action. Here, too, were paradigms of dedication to purpose, responsibility to civilized standards, and concern for one’s fellow man” (27).
Here, however, were no reflections of flawed human beings who were not always strong, not always smart, not always virtuous, not always valiant, and not always adult: unless, of course, they were the bad guys. If television westerns were to become a mature, inventive art form, rising to the level of their literary and film counterparts, the adolescent clichés would have to be exploded. At Warner Brothers Television, Pittman contributed noticeably to this detonation.
Pittman’s first scripts for Warner Brothers Television follow the character formula for children’s westerns, as explained by MacDonald. An example is “The Iron Trail,” written for Cheyenne, which was produced from September 1955 to September 1963 on ABC. This western featured a single male lead, Cheyenne Bodie, a white man who had been raised by the Cheyenne Indian Tribe and who now traveled the frontier United States circa 1870 picking up occasional odd jobs in towns and on ranches and chancing upon various adventures. This itinerate cow puncher, town tamer, and jack-of-all-trades was played by Clint Walker.
“The Iron Trail,” which first aired on January 1, 1957, refers to railroad tracks, and the episode is the story of a small group of passengers on a train that is hijacked by a gang of outlaws who take explosives from off the train and kidnap the passengers, whom they rob and probably have in mind to murder. The outlaws, a band of home-grown terrorists, intend to use the explosives to blow up a second train carrying the President of the United States, Ulysses S. Grant. At the center of this incident is Cheyenne, one of the passenger-prisoners, who eventually plans and leads an insurrection against their captors, killing them all and foiling the assassination conspiracy.
The plot of this episode follows Trendle’s formula in general. As the hero, Cheyenne is “the embodiment of all that is morally desirable”; the plot is “completed in a single broadcast”; the events in the plot “are not immediately referable to the child’s framework of experience”; cliffhangers appear before each commercial break but are truly suspenseful moments designed to hold the audience’s attention through the thirty-second advertisements; “educational information,” such as the presence of Grant and references to General George Armstrong Custer and William Bonny, give the plot a slight historical context; and, while the deadly violence is at maximum, most of it is postponed until the final act when it is all but inevitable and is over quickly.
Cheyenne certainly fits most of MacDonald’s profile of the adolescent western hero. He blends strength and savvy to overcome the injustice of the passengers’ predicament and of the threat to the President. He exhibits no personal vices such as boasting and drinking, which the outlaws, of course, do. He is always gallant around the three women passengers, even when one of them is a saloon dancer who pretends to flirt with one of the outlaws and instead steals his six-gun from him. He is never tempted to steal the $5,000 he is carrying for his employer, a cattle rancher. Neither is he sanctimonious nor humble and irreverent in his heroics.
Cheyenne exhibits grace under pressure, what MacDonald identifies as “self-confidence and moderation in adult action.” The other characters, both Cheyenne’s fellow passengers and the outlaws, are flawed variations on Cheyenne’s patience, bravery, skill, and open-mindedness. He is a synthesis of their good traits freed from flaw. Because Cheyenne rescues the passengers, he is a local hero, but because he saves the President’s life, he is a national hero, and, by implication, the outlaws are national traitors. He is, in MacDonald’s words, a paradigm “of dedication to purpose, responsibility to civilized standards, and concern for one’s fellow man.” Pittman understands the essence of the adolescent western plot and hero and skillfully showcases them for us in “The Iron Trail”; however, he does not attempt to explode their clichés in this episode. He does that a year and a half later in two episodes of Sugarfoot.
As Zimbalist indicates, Pittman wrote for himself in “The Iron Trail” a very minor but much larger part than a silent “spear-carrier.” He is an apparent passenger actually in league with the outlaws. He supposedly transports a coffin containing the remains of his wife. The coffin actually contains the explosives the outlaws need for their grandiose scheme. He has a few short lines and is shot and killed by Cheyenne just before the rest of the passengers are kidnapped. Pittman looks like a young, plump Orson Wells and speaks with a slight southern drawl.
In the eight episodes of Sugarfoot that Pittman wrote and/or directed, he rejuvenated it. Eight episodes out of sixty-nine do not make a successful series. However, this small number is enough to demonstrate to any viewer today the appeal of the series’ suspenseful, at times comic plots, and likable character that Warner Bros. invented, that subsequent writers appeared to have lost sight of, and that Pittman rediscovered and re-energized.
Sugarfoot was produced from September 1957 to September 1961 on ABC. The western also featured a single male lead, Tom Brewster (Will Hutchins), who, like Cheyenne Bodie, traveled the frontier United States circa 1870 picking up occasional odd jobs in towns and on ranches and happening on various adventures. Brewster, however, also studied via correspondence college to become a lawyer.
During the second season of the series, Hutchins wrote a letter to the Executive Producer of Warner Brothers Television, William T. Orr, complaining of the condition of Sugarfoot, a copy of which he shared with me. Hutchins criticized the character of Tom Brewster and the emotional tone of the plots. Hutchins warned that, “Tom Brewster is in grave danger of becoming a dullard and the tenor of the shows is getting pretty monotonous – melodrama, melodrama, MELO-DRAMER [sic]!” (Hutchins).
Hutchins believed the cause of this “quagmire of monotony” was the writers. Their scripts:
give me nothing interesting to do or say this season. I don’t take part in the plots — things happen around me, but nothing really happens to me. This season I’m like a Greek chorus. I stand around and comment on the action which is happening to the principals. I spout phrases of law — act pure and good and one-hundred percent — never take a drink — and in general act like the sissy down the block who never gets dirty. (Hutchins)
why melodrama all the time? I hardly ever smile any more — there is no sense of humor to my character — nothing humorous to say anymore — no scenes of characterization — fun scenes — scenes just for their own sake — scenes folks remember.” (Hutchins)
Hutchins’ description of Brewster sounds like MacDonald’s description of the TV western hero in the mid-1950s.
There is ample evidence in the second-season episodes for Hutchins’ claim that Brewster had become a good and pure dullard trapped inside a monotonous, humorless melodrama. Hutchins listed nine such episodes. One episode, “The Ghost,” which aired on October 28, 1958, a month before he wrote his critique, serves as a good example.
This episode recounts Brewster’s eventually successful effort to return a young man to Missouri so he is legally eligible to inherit a relative’s fortune. Arriving in the town where the young man performs in a traveling medicine show, Brewster finds himself looking for the sheriff who has just been killed, discovering the young man is an indentured servant physically abused by his “owner,” meeting the deputy sheriff who wants to charge the young man with murdering the sheriff, and encountering a possible ghost haunting the mansion where the sheriff is killed and the young man is sighted. Brewster believes the young man is innocent of murder and, with the young man’s help, solves the mysteries of who killed the sheriff and who haunted the mansion.
In terms of Hutchins’ letter, “The Ghost” presents no memorable “fun” scenes. No character smiles for any reason. When Brewster is not being stern, he is grim, serious, and somber. The young man is also limited in his emotional palette: cautious, suspicious, and frightened. Except for his paid mission to find the young man and escort him back to Missouri, none of the plot elements have anything personally to do with Brewster and merely happen around him. A Greek chorus in a Stetson hat, Brewster nonetheless readily dispenses psychological analysis and practical advice to the young man, to his “owner,” and to the deputy sheriff. Thus, the good and pure Brewster becomes the economic, ethical, and legal counselor to anyone who will listen to him. I distinctly remember watching this episode when I was seven and feeling it was gloomy and scary.
In his letter, Hutchins characterizes the narrative as “Tommy Rettig’s story [the actor who plays the young man] with Marty Landau [the actor who plays the very much alive ghost] wrapping it up” (Hutchins).
Hutchins proposed a solution to this artistic quagmire. He states in his letter:
“The Canary Kid” episodes are an exception. Monty Pittman [who at the time Hutchins wrote the letter had written and directed “The Canary Kid” and “Return of the Canary Kid”] has always written dialogue and situations that fit me like a glove. He seems to know me better than I know myself. He lets me do things in his scripts that I have always wanted to do, and he also has me doing things I thought I could never do until he gave me a chance” (Hutchins)
High praise from an actor to a writer!
The focus of “The Canary Kid” and “Return of the Canary Kid” episodes is Tom Brewster’s doppelganger: a man who looks just like Brewster; is a selfish, deceitful outlaw to boot; and, thus, is the big-hearted, honest character’s dark alter ego. The outlaw and the hero as Pittman conceived them are two sides of the same coin and share equal billing in the episodes. Pittman, therefore, invented an incessantly evil twin modeled on the persistently good Brewster (“He seems to know me better than myself”) and, in a split-screen performance, cast Hutchins himself as The Canary Kid (“He also has me doing things I thought I could never do”).
In the first episode, “The Canary Kid,” which aired November 11, 1958, Brewster arrives in a small town to visit his mentor, a retired judge, and the judge’s twenty-something daughter. Two members of the Canary Kid’s gang, in town to case a bank for a potential robbery, spot Brewster and are amazed by his resemblance to their leader. The two gang members kidnap Brewster, take him to a ghost town where the gang is hiding out, and introduce him to the Canary Kid. Both Brewster and the Kid are astounded by their resemblance to each other and discover a remote family connection. The Kid, a Machiavellian, decides to change clothes with Brewster and impersonate him back in the town. He lives with the judge and his daughter and dupes his way into a guided tour of the inside of the bank from the bank president himself.
Being around the judge, his daughter, and other townspeople, the Kid begins to yearn for a settled life in a flourishing town rather than his vagabond existence in ghost towns hiding from the law. He postpones robbing the bank, stalls the gang members with excuses, and begins to court the judge’s daughter. However, he has none of Brewster’s graciousness, treating the judge rudely at times, forcing himself on the daughter, and picking a vicious fight with a young man who shows interest in her.
Meanwhile Brewster, locked up in jail in the ghost town, begins a divide-and-conquer strategy with the two female gang members, appealing to their long unused sense of decency in the face of his kidnapping and possible death at the hands of the Kid. He succeeds with Prudence but not with Brimstone, both aptly named by Pittman. At one point, with Prudence’s help, Brewster attempts to escape, puts up a good fight with these self-styled tough guys, but is recaptured. Nonetheless, he wins both the gang’s approval of his masculinity and their wariness of any attempt by him to talk, let alone reason, with the women again.
The Kid, once again true to his genuine and not his recently affected character, decides to betray the gang to the sheriff by helping to organize a posse to capture them. The gang’s lookouts spy the posse’s onslaught, and the gang clears out of the ghost town just in time, leaving Brewster alone in the jail. The Kid – still posing as Brewster – tells the judge and the sheriff that he wants to capture the Kid – Brewster – by himself. Finding Brewster in the jail, the Kid explains to him that he will kill him and pretend to be Brewster for good. However, Prudence again interferes; the Kid and Brewster fist fight until the sheriff and the judge enter and break it up.
Also amazed by the two men’s resemblance to each other, the judge invents a legal question to test which man is Brewster: only a lawyer – or a student of the law – could answer the question correctly, which Brewster proceeds to do. The Kid is arrested and sent to jail. Law and order is restored. Brewster is now free to leave the judge and his daughter to travel to another town where he is scheduled to try a case.
By writing and directing “The Canary Kid,” Montgomery Pittman hauled Hutchins out of his artistic quagmire by rediscovering the likeable character of Tom Brewster and the suspenseful – and at times comic – plots of Sugarfoot. Even while locked up in the ghost-town jail and surrounded by outlaws with guns, Brewster remains relatively calm, logical, hopeful, and a little Machiavellian, too, as he attempts to turn the women to his favor: in short, likable. Hutchins told me that he modeled his performance of the Canary Kid on the performances of Alan Ladd as he appeared in This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1943), and The Blue Dahlia (1946). The Kid moves cat-like, he wears a smile that does not reach and warm his eyes so that it leaves the viewer cold, and he speaks in a low, sharp voice. Not likable. So while Pittman does not alter, let alone explode, Trendle’s plot formula for 1950s westerns, Pittman explores the hero’s decent personality as MacDonald describes it by linking it to a plausible alternative: a wicked yet identical-looking twin.
In “The Canary Kid,” one surprising funny scene occurs just after Brewster tries to escape. Back in the jail, he uses a wet rag to wash the blood off his face and to soothe his bruises. The shot is a long one designed to encompass not only the standing Brewster but also two of his captors, Arkansas and Hoyt, sitting on either side of him. The two men congratulate Brewster on his fighting skills, smiling and laughing their approval of him. Brewster puts down the rag, looks directly into the camera, and says with a grin: “It’s nice to be loved” (“The Canary Kid”). His statement is ironic in light of his captive condition, in which his fate lies not in his own hands but in the hands of his look-alike nemesis.
That actors still in character address the camera was not new to television, let alone film, even in the late 1950s. However, Pittman often used this technique with several of the heroic characters in the Warner Bros.’ series to offer ironic, light-hearted, whimsical commentary by them on their serious even dire conditions in particular episodes. Another example of the technique, written but not directed by Pittman, occurs in “The Saga of Waco Williams,” an episode of Maverick. This time having a character address the camera caused some artistic disagreement on the set.
Maverick was produced from September 1957 to September 1962 on ABC. The western featured a two male leads, the brothers Bret and Bart Maverick, who, like Cheyenne Bodie and Tom Brewster, traveled the frontier United States circa 1870 picking up occasional odd jobs in towns and on ranches and chancing upon various adventures. The Mavericks, however, were also professional gamblers and to some extent the opposite of MacDonald’s flawless western hero. These itinerate gamblers and jack-of-all-trades were played primarily by James Garner and Jack Kelly, although, to be precise to the fans of the series, cast changes introduced Roger Moore as Beau Maverick and Robert Colbert as Brent Maverick.
Roy Huggins, Maverick‘s creator, producer, and sometime writer, deliberately set out to imagine a western hero – or in this case heroes – who were the opposite of MacDonald’s 1950s adolescent western hero, characters such as Cheyenne Bodie and Tom Brewster. To standardize his vision within the assembly-line working conditions of the Warner’s studio, he wrote “The Ten-Point Guide to Happiness While Writing or Directing a Maverick.” The points include:
- Maverick is the original disorganization man.
- Maverick’s primary motivation is that ancient and most noble of motives: the profit motive.
- Heavies in Maverick are always absolutely right, and they are always beloved to someone.
- The cliché always flourishes in the creative arts because the familiar gives a sense of comfort and security. Writers and directors of Maverick are requested to live dangerously.
- Maverick’s activities are seldom grandiose. To force him into magnificent speculations is to lose sight of his essential indolence.
- The Maverick series is a regeneration story in which the regeneration has been indefinitely postponed.
- Maverick’s travels are never aimless; he always has an object in view; his pocket and yours. However, there are times when he is merely fleeing from heroic enterprise.
- In the traditional Western story, the situation is always serious, but never hopeless. In a Maverick story, the situation is always hopeless but never serious.
- “Cowardly” would be too strong a word to Maverick. “Cautious” is possibly more accurate and certainly more kind. When the two brothers went off to the Civil War, their old pappy said to them: “If either of you comes back with a medal, I’ll beat you to death.” They never shamed him.
- The widely held belief that Maverick is a gambler is a fallacy. In his hands, poker is not a game of chance. He plays it earnestly, patiently, and with a abiding faith in the laws of probability (Robertson 26).
With these seriously comical points as context, let us return to the episode under discussion, “The Saga of Waco Williams,” which aired February 15, 1959. Waco Williams is an intrepid hero. He stops in Bent City to meet his friend the outlaw Blackie Dolan. Williams intends to convince Dolan to mend his ways and give himself up to the sheriff. Bret Maverick also a friend of Williams stops, too, in Bent City. He intends to capture Dolan, turn him in to the sheriff, and collect the $2,500 reward posted on him. While Williams – and Maverick – wait for Blackie, Williams is very busy as he beats up the town bully in a fist fight; undermines the corrupt sheriff; shoots and kills a hired gunman sent to eliminate him; successfully defends himself, with Maverick’s help, in an ambush set up by a tyrannical rancher; becomes engaged to the rancher’s daughter and thus will inherit the ranch; and probably will be elected unanimously sheriff of Bent City. Maverick plays some poker and quietly rides out of town unnoticed even by Williams.
The one objective Williams does not accomplish is to meet Blackie Dolan. However, Maverick does meet Dolan, yet does not know it is him. He mistakes Dolan for the hired gunman sent to kill Williams. To save Williams, Maverick ties up the man, leaves him in a box car of a train, and supposes the sheriff at the next stop will arrest him. This, of course, happens. The incident is reported in the local newspaper. Williams is surprised to read of the arrest of his friend and then resigned to it because he had intended to convince Dolan to turn himself in to the Bent City sheriff. Maverick is surprised then chagrinned at the loss of the $2,500 reward.
As Montgomery Pittman wrote the narrative of this episode, just before the fade out, Maverick is to stop his horse, face the camera, and reflect on the character of Williams. He might as well be reflecting on the character of the faultless hero as described by MacDonald. Maverick is to say: “He did everything a man should not do. But he’s still alive. Looks like he’ll be elected sheriff. I know he’ll end up with the biggest ranch in the territory. And I’m broke. Nobody even knows I’m leaving – or cares. Could I be wrong?” (“The Saga of Waco Williams”).
Director Leslie H. Martinson refused to shoot this brief soliloquy because he did not want to break through the dramatic “fourth wall” and have a character speak directly to the audience. Roy Huggins liked Pittman’s stage direction because he enjoyed Maverick questioning himself satirically. Maverick had satirized other TV westerns and detective shows, such as Gunsmoke and Dragnet, so why not mock itself? Huggins directed the shot himself (Robertson 80). The shot is a medium one with the camera tipped up to record Bret Maverick sitting on his horse and delivering his reflection against a gray background. Pittman often wrote and occasionally directed episodes of Maverick, contributing favorably to this anti-heroic series. By the way, the episode of “The Saga of Waco Williams” was the most watched episode of the Maverick, “scoring a 35.3 rating and 51 share” (Robinson 101).
Now back to our story of Sugarfoot. “Return of the Canary Kid,” which aired February 3, 1959, is a sequel to “The Canary Kid,” as is obvious from its title. At the end of the latter episode, the Kid’s gang cleared out of the ghost town before the posse arrived, but the Kid himself was captured and sent to prison. In the beginning of the sequel, Tom Brewster has been reluctantly recruited to impersonate the Kid. Brewster masquerading as the Kid is transported from one prison to another by train in the hopes that the recouped gang will hijack the train, rescue the Kid from the authorities, and bring him to their new hideout. The authorities, in turn, plan to trail the gang to the hideout and capture them there.
This plan is successful except for three incidents that put Brewster in jeopardy and may keep the viewers on the edge of their seats. First, the authorities lose track of the rescue party, so they do not know where Brewster is. Second, by coincidence, the real Canary Kid breaks out of prison. Third, the real Kid shows up at the gang’s hideout surprised and exasperated that Brewster is there posing as him. Fortunately for Brewster, the dense gang leaders cannot tell the difference between the two, still cling to their assumption that Brewster is the Kid and the real Kid is somehow Brewster in disguise, and take so long to test each man that the authorities finally arrive at the hideout and capture all the outlaws.
Convoluted as Pittman’s plot seems in summary, the narrative actually expands his concept of the characters of Tom Brewster and his doppelganger cousin and provides Will Hutchins with the opportunity to develop both his actor’s range and his character’s emotional depth. Hutchins plays actually three characters: Tom Brewster, Tom Brewster pretending to be the Canary Kid, and the real Canary Kid.
In the first scene of the first act, we see Hutchins as a nervous Brewster doubting he can fool the gang members into thinking he is the Canary Kid. Christopher Colt, a federal agent charged with capturing the Kid’s gang, tries to re-assure Brewster that he looks the part, is certainly dressed for the part in the Kid’s black costume, and is sufficiently intelligent to remember enough of the Kid’s past to seem credible. Being nervous is a typical Brewster trait, so Hutchins is not trying anything new with his character. Incidentally, Colt is played by Wayde Preston, the star of another Warner Brothers Television series Colt .45.
By the end of the first act, Brewster as Canary has been rescued by two of the gang members, Arkansas and Hoyt. As the episode progresses and he meets the gang members again, we can see Brewster was justified in doubting he could fool the gang. As Colt pointed out, Brewster looks, dresses, and remembers the part, but he can not wear a smile that does not reach and warm his eyes and he does not speak in a low, sharp voice. In short, he is too warm and likable to make his own personality disappear into the cold, difficult personality of the Kid’s. Failing at play acting is not a typical Brewster trait, so Hutchins is trying something new with his character. Brewster’s legal, logical mind and gallant personality will not allow for outlaw-like duplicity, even when such behavior is lawful and beneficial for society. Brewster is still a resolute example of MacDonald’s description of the TV western hero in the mid-1950s.
In the third act, we see the real Canary Kid break out of prison. He starts a fist fight with the guards, so he can be thrown into an isolation cell with an older inmate. Together, they tunnel out under the prison wall and walk away to freedom. Eventually they split up at the Kid’s insistence, and the Kid makes his way to the gang’s new hideout and into a new confrontation with Brewster. Hutchins as the real Canary Kid continues to act the character as he did in “The Canary Kid.”
However, in one scene just after the real Canary Kid and the older inmate escape prison, the older inmate becomes trapped in quicksand. He begs Canary to save him. At first the Kid does nothing but eventually helps free the other man from certain death. For a moment, the Canary Kid exhibits a spontaneous compassion toward his fellow human, a Tom Brewster trait. Unlike Brewster masquerading as the Canary Kid, the real Kid is not pretending to fool anyone. His genuinely compassionate moment comes, goes, and apparently has no permanent affect on his character. Hutchins is trying something new with the Kid’s character, too: a warm moment for the cold man. For once, the bad guy acts smart, virtuous, valiant, and adult, to use MacDonald’s terms. Pittman’s scripts and direction allowed Hutchins to do things that he had always wanted to do and things he thought he could never do. Also Pittman allowed the bad guy to show momentarily a hero’s unaffected gallantry, to blur briefly the formulaic distinctions between the flawless protagonist and the flawed antagonist.
Pittman could be autobiographical in his scripts and direction. Zimbalist remembers:
From the outset the [Steve] Cochran whiskey began to disappear at such an alarming rate that its owner had a special compartment built for it, with iron bars reaching to the floor and a lock to which he alone had the combination. He might as well have saved his money for the strategy not only fizzled, but supplied Monty with a grand piece of business he later gave me in a 77 script where I was posing as an alcoholic. [Being an alcoholic is the opposite of Zimbalist’s character, Stuart Bailey, so Pittman once again created a twin character for the star of a Warners’ show, this time not evil but de-habilitated, and gave another actor an opportunity to discover his character’s emotional depth]. Monty simply slipped a wire coat hanger through the bars and secured it around the neck of one of the bottles. Then he lay down on the floor, from which position it was childishly simple for him to draw the business end of the bottle to his lips and enjoy, as it were, the fruits of his labors in comfort and ease. (Zimbalist 140)
This scene appears in “Downbeat,” which aired May 8, 1959, and affords a hint at Pittman’s typical style of directing. In a long shot, Bailey enters a kitchen. The camera dollies forward to a medium shot as Bailey discovers the liquor cabinet and crouches down to investigate its bars and lock. With the medium shot continuing over Bailey’s left shoulder, he turns to look around him for some tool to enter the cabinet or at least retrieve a bottle through the bars. He sees a shirt draped on a coat hanger, removes the shirt, twists one end of the hanger into a narrow loop, and lassoes a liquor bottle. He tilts the bottle forward, untwists the cap, finds a cocktail glass, and spills the liquor into the glass. The camera tilts upward and dollies back as Bailey rises with a smile of triumph at his handiwork. The camera, Bailey, and the viewer then discover a man, one of a gang of kidnapers of Bailey, who is leaning on the kitchen counter above the cabinet and looking straight at him. The gag, shown in one continuous shot, is now over for Bailey and the viewer. The sound tract features neither dialogue nor room tone but only a jazzy theme played with cymbals, a snare drum, a bass, a trumpet, and a clarinet, the latter rising to a crescendo as Bailey rises in triumph. The jazz rifts are standard background music for 77 Sunset Strip.
Pittman’s shots are often straight-forward, long running, and focused on the action. Occasionally, he will pan the camera to feature a surprise for the character in the shot and the viewer alike by revealing another character who is off camera and who is in control of the action on camera. That character can be menacing, as in this scene from “Downbeat,” or that character can be reassuring, as in a shot from the final sequence of the pilot episode of Lawman, “The Deputy,” which aired October 5, 1958. The sheriff of Laramie, Wyoming, Dan Troop (John Russell), discovers that the young man who has wanted to be his deputy, Johnny McKay (Peter Brown), has shot and killed one of the two gunmen whom Troop was forced to face alone; thus McKay saves Troop’s life, demonstrates he can be trusted to support Troop, and is worthy to be hired as Troop’s deputy. That is a clever move for both the would-be deputy and for the director controlling the character’s actions.
Zimbalist recalls Pittman became ill with “a tumor on the side of his neck that grew rapidly to grapefruit-size. He had it excised, but it left a gaping hole, which he covered with a kerchief” (Zimbalist 143). Zimbalist recommended to Pittman a cancer doctor for treatment. Pittman went to the doctor; however, the cancer did not go into remission. Pittman died June 26, 1962.
Zimbalist delivered a eulogy at Pittman’s funeral, which is now lost, according to what Zimbalist told me. Nonetheless, the partial chapter Zimbalist devotes in his memoir to Pittman serves adequately and agreeably as a permanent substitute eulogy. Will Hutchins was invited to be a bearer but refused because when he was a teenager he dropped a relative’s casket. He did not want to do that, he told me, to Monty.
Incidentally, William T. Orr never answered Hutchins’ letter. Screenwriter and director Montgomery Pittman’s collaboration with actors Will Hutchins and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. and with creator, producer and writer Roy Huggins, among others on the sets of the Warner Bros. series, seems to have been the result of a happy coincidence for all involved rather than a deliberate decision of management ordered by Orr. Nevertheless, Pittman’s career is worthy of note, not only for Sugarfoot in specific but also for Warner Brothers Television in general. Thus, he should be plucked from obscurity and remembered, at least among admirers of classic television, if not in a book, as Hutchins suggested, at least in an appreciative essay that can offer a quick look into his life and a hint of his career achievements.
“Canary Kid, The.” Teleplay by Montgomery Pittman. Dir. Montgomery Pittman. Sugarfoot. ABC. 11 Nov. 1958.
“Deputy, The.” Teleplay by Dean Riesner. Dir. Montgomery Pittman. Lawman. ABC. 05 Oct. 1958.
“Downbeat.” Teleplay by Maurita and Montgomery Pittman. Dir. Montgomery Pittman. 77 Sunset Strip. ABC. 08 May 1959.
“Ghost, The.” Teleplay by Catherine Kutter. Dir. by Lee Sholem. Sugarfoot. ABC. 28 Oct. 1958.
Grost, Mike. “Auteurs on the Twilight Zone.” Internet Film Discussion Group. 01 Jan. 30 Mar. 2006 http://www.fredcamper.com/afilmby/0005901.html.
Hutchins, Will. Letter to William T. Orr. 25 Nov. 1958.
Hutchins, Will. Telephone interview. 16 April 2006.
“Iron Trail, The.” Teleplay by Montgomery Pittman. Dir. Leslie H. Martinson. Cheyenne. ABC. 1 Jan. 1957.
MacDonald, J. Fred. Who Shot the Sheriff? The Rise and Fall of the Television Western. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1986.
“Return of the Canary Kid.” Teleplay by Montgomery Pittman. Dir. Montgomery Pittman. Sugarfoot.ABC. 03 Feb. 1959.
Robertson, Ed. Maverick: Legend of the West. Beverly Hills, CA.: Pomegranate Press 1994.
“Saga of Waco Williams, The.” Teleplay by Gene Coor. Story by Montgomery Pittman. Dir. Leslie H. Martinson. Maverick. ABC. 15 Feb. 1959.
Zimbalist, Efrem, Jr. My Dinner of Herbs. New York: Limelight Editions, 2003.
Zimbalist, Efrem, Jr. Telephone interview. 27 April 2006.