"The mysteries were intellectual exercises full of twists and surprises. We had fun doing them -- as much as you can have fun under very tight television schedules and budgets and trying to get the best work out of your actors."
About This Interview
In his four-and-a-half hour Archive interview, William Link speaks about his long collaboration with partner Richard Levinson on such projects as television movies My Sweet Charlie and That Certain Summer. He discusses further collaborations with Levinson on the TV series Columbo and Murder, She Wrote. He also speaks about writing for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Fugitive. Stephen J. Abramson conducted the interview in Beverly Hills, CA on August 23, 2002.
William Link and Richard Levinson formed one of the most notable writing and producing teams in the history of U.S. television. Working in both series and made-for-television movie forms, they moved easily from what they considered light entertainment to the exploration of serious and immensely complicated social problems. Their collaboration was of much longer standing than even their television careers suggest, for they had begun to work together in the early years of high school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Even at that time the two wrote plays together, inspired by radio dramas which they frequently wire recorded. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania and completing service in the U.S. Army, they quickly formed an adult partnership that was to last until Richard Levinson's death in 1987. Intent upon building a career in television, they followed the migration of talent to California in 1960 and were quickly identified for their talents.
After almost ten years of working with series television the "boys," as they were identified by Martin Sheen, who often starred in their movies, began to explore "social issues." It may have begun with their questions regarding the violence of television shows such as Mannix, their own creation. As Link put it in an interview, "Dick and I did not know whether television violence had an effect or not, but we just decided we were not going to do that kind of writing anymore." Columbo was the natural answer. In Link's words, "It portrayed a bloodless murder followed by a cat and mouse game. Columbo was a meat and potatoes cop who brought low the rich and famous."
The partners made these social concerns explicit in the character of Ira Davidson, central figure in their made-for-television movie, The Storyteller (1977). In that piece Davidson, a television writer, engages his producer in a debate about TV violence. The producer questions the writer's deletion of violent scenes from his original treatment. Davidson replies that he could tell the story just as well without vehicular mayhem. The producer then accuses him of acquiring a conscience just when non-violence was fashionable and insists he does not want the PTA or anyone else telling him what kind of television to make. He wants to use violence when it works for the plot without interference from the network. Ira responds, "Agreed." Surprised, the producer says, "Agreed? but I thought ....." Ira ends the discussion by stating, "I was telling you what I am going to do. What you do is your business."
Discussing those social dramas Link commented, "The best things come to you--they fall into your hand or you see a human life situation like That Certain Summer and you say that would make a good drama. It's hard to begin by saying 'Let's do a social drama.' These things just occur to you." Of course, Link would admit that they "just occur" to him because of who he is and what he thinks.
Link's philosophy of film making is summed up in remarks made in the early 1980s. "In the films where we have serious intentions, we tend to understate. This comes from a feeling that if you're going to deal with subjects such as homosexuality, or race relations, or gun control, you should show some aesthetic restraint and not wallow in these materials like a kid who's permitted to write dirty words on a wall. Our approach is that if you're going to use these controversial subjects--play against them. Don't be so excited by your freedom that you go for the obvious. The danger, of course, is that sometimes you get so muted that you boil out the drama. In The Storyteller we were so concerned with being fair and with balance that we lost energy and dramatic impact."
When Link spoke movingly about Richard Levinson upon their induction into the Television Hall of Fame in 1995 the extremely difficult task of admitting to himself that there was no longer "Link and Levinson" was completed. Even as he oversaw the final production of United States vs. Salaam Ajami (aired as Hostile Witness), that fact had perhaps led to reviving a story idea which Levinson had rejected.
Link wrote and produced The Boys dealing with a writing partnership in which one man smokes, but the other does not, but who informs his colleague that he has contracted cancer from second-hand cigarette smoke. Here was a social drama on at two levels. While not strictly autobiographical, the drama was surely related to individual experience. Levinson smoked heavily during most of his adult years, and the practice most probably shortened his life. The Boys, then, was personal, but it also dealt with a real social issue.
After Levinson's death Link remained active as a writer-producer at Universal, working on new stories for Columbo. By continuing to hold to the producer credit he held creative control over the words. As Link expressed it in an interview, "We produce for two reasons. One is to protect the material. And the second is that we've discovered that producing is an extension of writing. The day before they're going to shoot it you walk on a set designed for a character you've written. You say to the art director, 'The man we've written would not have these paintings. He would not have that dreadful objet d'art sitting there. It's much too cluttered for a guy of his sensibilities. So clean out the set. . . .' We created that person as a character. We're also interested in how it's extended."
In the late 1980s Link served as supervising executive producer of The ABC Mystery Movie. Leaving Universal in 1991, he became executive producer and writer for The Cosby Mysteries on NBC. He also became an actor in the series when Bill Cosby insisted on casting him as a saxophone instructor for Cosby's character. Appearing infrequently, Link was a natural for the part.
As the season of 1996-97 approached Link was working on a two hour pilot for a light mystery series for ABC, a series of movies featuring Michael Caine as, if Link has his way, Alex Risk. He was also developing a series of movies featuring the novels of Jonathan Kellerman, the first of which was Bad Love.
William Link has a lively sense of humor and frequently employs it to assail what he perceives as the current decay of the industry he loves. He is an avid reader of mysteries, extremely knowledgeable concerning music and cinema, and an active collector of Latin American art. He and his wife, Margery Link, live surrounded by the collection.
-Robert S. Alley
WILLIAM LINK. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 15 December 1933. Educated at University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, B.S. 1956. Served in U.S. Army, 1956-58. Married: Margery Nelson, 1980. Scriptwriter with his partner Richard Levinson for many television series; with Levinson created a number of television series; also with Levinson wrote and produced a list of made-for-television movies dealing with social problems; wrote The Boys, 1991, loosely based on the partnership with Levinson; writer-producer, The Cosby Mysteries, 1994-95; as actor, appeared as Sapolsky in The Cosby Mysteries, 1994; producer of television series and made-for-television movies, from 1995. Recipient (all with Richard Levinson): Emmy Award, 1970, 1972; Image Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1970; Golden Globe Award, 1972; Silver Nymph Award, Monte Carlo Film Festival, 1973; Peabody Award, 1974; Edgar Awards, Mystery Writers of America, 1979, 1980, 1983; Christopher Award, 1981; Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, Writers Guild of America, 1986; Ellery Queen Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1989, for lifetime contribution to the art of the mystery; Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Television Hall of Fame, 1995.
1994-95 The Cosby Mysteries
TELEVISION SERIES (episodes written with Richard Levinson; selection)
1955-65 Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1958-60 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse 1961-77 Dr. Kildare 1963-67 The Fugitive
TELEVISION SERIES (created with Richard Levinson)
1967-75 Mannix 1969-73 The Bold Ones 1971-93 Columbo 1971 The Psychiatrist 1973-74 Tenafly 1975-76 Ellery Queen 1984-- Murder, She Wrote
1989-90 The ABC Mystery Movie 1991 The Boys
MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES (with Richard Levinson)
1968 Istanbul Express 1969 The Whole World is Watching 1970 My Sweet Charlie 1971 Two On a Bench 1972 That Certain Summer 1972 The Judge and Jake Wyler (also with David Shaw) 1973 Tenafly 1973 Partners in Crime 1973 Savage 1974 The Execution of Private Slovik 1974 The Gun 1975 Ellery Queen 1975 A Cry for Help 1977 Charlie Cobb: Nice Night for a Hanging 1977 The Story Teller 1979 Murder by Natural Causes 1981 Crisis at Central High 1982 Rehearsal for Murder 1982 Take Your Best Shot 1983 Prototype 1984 The Guardian 1985 Guilty Conscience 1985 Murder in Space 1986 Vanishing Act 1986 Blacke's Magic 1988 Hostile Witness