"I knew that I wanted to have something to do with the camera. I didn't know whether I wanted to be a cameraman, or whether I wanted to direct. Directing, in a sense, was some crazed thing you never thought about. I mean, yeah, it would be great, but it was like trying to be President of the United States."
About This Interview
In his six-hour Archive interview, John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) gives a vivid description of his early television work as an assistant director on You Are There, Danger and Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person. He speaks about his first directorial assignments on You Are There and Danger and recalls making a name for himself directing live anthology dramas ("The Comedian" and "Days of Wine and Roses") on Climax! and Playhouse 90. He discusses his feature film work and his return to television to direct the acclaimed programs Andersonville for TNT and George Wallace for HBO. Michael Rosen conducted the two-part interview on March 21 and April 13, 2000 in Century City, CA.
John Frankenheimer is sometimes likened to a "wunderkind in the tradition of Orson Welles" because he directed numerous quality television dramas while still in his twenties. He is also one of a handful of directors who established their reputation in high-quality, high-budget television dramas and later moved on to motion pictures.
As with other television directors of the 1950s, Frankenheimer began his training in the theater, first with the Williams Theater Group at Williams College and then as a member of the stock company and director at Highfield Playhouse in Falmouth, Massachusetts. He later moved to Washington, D.C., where he acted in an American Theater Wing production. While in Washington, he both acted in and directed radio productions and began working at WTOP-TV.
After a stint with the Air Force, during which he directed two documentaries, Frankenheimer began his television career as an assistant director at CBS. He worked on weather and news shows, and moved on to Lamp Unto My Feet, The Garry Moore Show, and Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person. As his career advanced, Frankenheimer directed dramatizations on See It Now and You Are There (working under director Sydney Lumet). He also directed episodes of the comedy series Mama (based on John Van Druten's play I Remember Mama), but it was his directorial efforts on television anthologies where Frankenheimer made his mark.
Frankenheimer began directing episodes of the suspense anthology series Danger in the early 1950s. Producer Martin Manulis hired Frankenheimer as a co-director on the critically acclaimed Climax!, an hour-long drama series which was originally aired live. When Manulis moved on to CBS' Playhouse 90 in 1954, he brought Frankenheimer with him. Over the next few years, Frankenheimer directed 140 live television dramas on such anthologies as Studio One (CBS), Playhouse 90, The DuPont Show of the Month (CBS), Ford Startime (NBC), Sunday Showcase (NBC), and Kraft Television Theatre (NBC). He directed such productions as The Days of Wine and Roses, The Browning Version (which featured the television debut of Sir John Gielgud), and The Turn of the Screw (which featured Ingrid Bergman's television debut).
Frankenheimer's production of Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls (Playhouse 90) was one of the first dramas to be presented in two parts (12 and 19 March 1959) and, at $400,000, was the most expensive production at that time. Unlike most of his other productions, For Whom The Bell Tolls was taped for presentation because the actors were involved in other theatrical productions in New York. The production's intensive five-week rehearsal and ten-day shooting schedule had to be organized around the actors' other theatrical appearances.
Most directors of live television came from a similar theatrical background and, as such, used a static camera and blocked productions in a manner similar to a live stage play. A firm believer that a production is the sole creative statement of its director, Frankenheimer was one of the first directors of the "golden age" to utilize a variety of camera angles and movement, fast-paced editing, and close-ups to focus the audience's attention (some critics have labeled his technique as gimmicky or contrived). Frankenheimer's most famous use of the camera appears in his 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, in which one shot is slightly out of focus. Ironically, the shot, which has been widely acclaimed as artistically brilliant was, according to the director, an accident and merely the best take for actor Frank Sinatra.
Frankenheimer went on to make other memorable films, such as The Birdman of Alcatraz (which he had, at one time, wanted to do as a live Playhouse 90 production in 1955), Seven Days in May, Grand Prix, The Fixer, and The Iceman Cometh. Personal problems and a decline in the number of quality scripts offered him forced Frankenheimer into an absence from the industry. Returning to television in the 1990s as a means of rediscovering himself, Frankenheimer directed the original HBO production Against the Wall about the 1971 Attica Prison riot. Always drawn to intimate stories and psychological portraits, in this production Frankenheimer explores the relationship between the officer taken as hostage and the inmate leader of the uprising.
Frankenheimer has received five Emmy nominations for his directorial work on television including: Portrait in Celluloid (1955, Climax, CBS), Forbidden Area (1956, Playhouse 90, CBS), The Comedian (1957, Playhouse 90), A Town Has Turned to Dust (1958, Playhouse 90), and The Turn of the Screw (1959, Ford Startime, NBC).
JOHN (MICHAEL) FRANKENHEIMER. Born in Malba, New York, U.S.A., 19 February 1930. Died 6 July 2002. Williams College, B.A., 1951. Married 1) Carolyn Miller, 1954 (divorced); children: two daughters; 2) Evans Evans, 1964. Served in Film Squadron, U.S. Air Force, 1951-53. Began career as actor, 1950-51; assistant director, later director, CBS-TV, New York, from 1953; director, Playhouse 90 television series, Hollywood, 1954-59; directed first feature film, The Young Stranger, 1957; formed John Frankenheimer Productions, 1963. Recipient: Christopher Award, 1954; Grand Prize for Best Film Director, 1955; Critics Award 1956-59; Brotherhood Award, 1959; Acapulco Film Festival Award, 1962. Address: c/o John Frankenheimer Productions, 2800 Olympic Blvd., Suite 201, Santa Monica, California, 90404, U.S.
TELEVISION SERIES (selection)
1953-1957 You Are There 1950-1955 Danger 1954-1958 Climax 1948-1958 Studio One 1954-1959 Playhouse 90
1982 The Rainmaker 1994 Against the Wall 1994 The Burning Season
The Young Stranger, 1957; The Young Savages, 1961; The Manchurian Candidate, (& co-produced), 1962; All Fall Down, 1962; Birdman of Alcatraz, 1962; Seven Days in May, 1963; The Train, 1964; Grand Prix, 1966; Seconds, 1966; The Extraordinary Seaman; 1968; The Fixer, 1968; The Gypsy Moths, 1969; I Walk the Line, 1970; The Horsemen, 1970; L'Impossible Objet (Impossible Object); 1973; The Iceman Cometh, 1973; 99 44/100 Dead, 1974; French Connection II, 1975; Black Sunday, (+ bit role as TV controller) 1976; Prophecy, 1979; The Challenge, 1982; The Holcroft Covenant, 1985; 52 Pick Up, 1986; Across the River and Into the Trees, 1987; Dead Bang, 1989; The Fourth War, 1989.
"Seven Ways with Seven Days in May." Films and Filming (London), June 1964.
"Criticism as Creation." Saturday Review (New York), 26 December 1964.
Au Werter, Russell. "Interview." Action (Los Angeles), May-June 1970.
Gross, L., and R. Avrech. "Interview." Millimeter (New York), August 1971.
"Filming The Iceman Cometh." Action (Los Angeles), January/February 1974.
Applebaum, R. "Interview." Films and Filming (London), October-November, 1979.
Broeske, P. "Interview." Films in Review (New York), February 1983.
"Interview." Films and Filming. (London), February 1985.