Here is a recent piece on the late actor/director Joseph Pevney that was published in the current edition of the Noir City Sentinel, the house newsletter of the Film Noir Foundation. I recently transcribed about four hours worth of conversation with Joe when I visited him and his wife Margo at their Palm Desert home last year. I’ve always believed that Joe’s films have been overlooked and underrated; he was one of the last of the true studio system directors while at Universal during the 1950’s and has a fine body of work. His tremendous contributions on television from Johnny Staccato, to the original Star Trek to Trapper John M.D. were seminal. I found Joe to be a sweet, tough and funny man who I wish I got to know sooner.
BTW- I encourage everyone to join the Film Noir Foundation. In addition to supporting the mission of film preservation, you will receive a cyber copy of the Noir City Sentinel every other month. It’s a sweetheart deal straight from the Dark City!
Last Man Standing (1911–2008)
By Alan K. Rode
Sentinel Senior Editor
When Joseph Pevney died on May 18 at 96 years of age, it rang the curtain down on a life well lived. His distinguished career spanned three-quarters of the last century. Pevney’s screen acting credits were pure noir, and his directorial résumé included such gems as Shakedown (1950), Undercover Girl (1950), Six Bridges to Cross (1955) and, The Midnight Story (1957).
I became acquainted with Pevney last year when I interviewed him by phone for my book on Charles McGraw. I was rewarded with vivid recollections dating back to 1937 when the two young actors appeared in a play together — “Charlie got into a fistfight with another actor in the company and got his clock cleaned . . .” — to tales about the challenges of directing the rough-hewn tough guy in a couple of Universal features in the 1950s.
“I have very little memory left, let’s face it,” said Pevney, when we met again at his Palm Desert home the following year. I took his disclaimer with a grain of salt. Sure enough, when I brought up his his screen debut in Nocturne (1947) and flashed a still of him pulling a gun on George Raft, he grinned and remembered: “Raft was a nice guy, a very nice guy. He couldn’t act, though, and he knew it. He hated to memorize dialogue, so he actually gave up lines to me and others in the cast. He would tell the director, ‘Have Joe say this instead.’”
After starting out in 1924 as a vaudeville boy soprano in his native New York, Pevney went onto Broadway to act in Home of the Brave, Battle Hymn,The World We Make and Native Son. He disliked the vaudeville circuit but loved working onstage. He remembered the lean days that nearly made him quit the production of Native Son despite having Orson Welles as the director. “After the first or second rehearsal, I walked out. Orson grabbed me in the hallway and said, ‘Where are you going?’ I told him, ‘I can’t live on this $40 a week that you pay your actors, I’m sorry.’ Welles asked, ‘How much do you want?’ I told him that I was going to need $100 a week. So I ended up getting $100 a week. I played Canada Lee’s trainer, I had a bandage on my head, it was a good show.”
During his stage period, Pevney began a fruitful working relationship with John Garfield that culminated in 1947 with Body and Soul, His recollections of the film, in which he played John Garfield’s sidekick, Shorty Polaski, included one of the classic laments of the film actor: “I had a really a good sequence in Body and Soul, a long speech, that got cut out of the picture.” Pevney appreciated Garfield’s talent but wasn’t in awe of his mental prowess.
“He wasn’t that intelligent, you know. He wanted to boast about how important he had become and wanted me to appreciate his development as a person, a human being. He had just married, and he invited me to dinner at his new apartment. He was trying to impress me. I tried to act impressed.”
Pevney couldn’t recall a lot of details about his truncated screen-acting career, probably because he logged too many decades working (and thinking) as a director. His acting credits are confined entirely to noir: Nocturne (1946) the aforementioned
Body and Soul (1947), Street with No Name (1948) Thieves Highway (1949) (featuring a compelling sequence where Pevney zips his jacket while standing before a burning truck containing the actor Millard Mitchell), Outside the Wall (1950) and a cameo appearance in Shakedown (1950).
Shakedown wa also his directorial debut. “The opening sequence had Howard Duff running down a long sloping street. We shot it and I said, ‘I’m not crazy about that. Can we do it once more?’ and [the assistant] Joe Kenney took me aside and said, ‘You don’t need to do that. Just cut in anytime you want.’ And I thought, ‘My God, I am directing motion pictures! You can cut, and cut and cut!’ I learned my principal lesson as a director from that very first moment.”
Matters became stickier when he met Brian Donlevy, Duff’s costar in the picture. “He was terribly short. He wore lifts in his shoes. Rock Hudson was the nightclub doorman, and he was six foot four, and Donlevy was about five foot two! It was a horrible situation. I had to show Rock how to open the door and how to stand so the height disparity wasn’t so obvious. Donlevy was a good actor, very professional, but you wouldn’t believe how short he was.” Pevney had been warned about another of the film’s actors, the infamous Hollywood Bad Boy Lawrence Tierney – but had no problems with him. “Tierney was very moody and the things they said about him were probably true. I didn’t know. I didn’t care. As far as I was concerned, he was a likeable guy. He didn’t have that many lines, but he was fine in the picture, easy to work with.”
Shakedown elevated Pevney into a permanent position as a contract director at Universal International for the next eight years until the studio, bought out by Music Corporation of America (MCA), terminated most of the contracts it had with long-term talent. Pevney was one of the last of the studio-system directors. He directed 25 features for Universal in all different genres and worked with nearly every major star in Hollywood. The high point of his career came in 1957, when he had three pictures in theaters simultaneously: Man of A Thousand Faces, a tremendously popular biopic starring James Cagney as Lon Chaney, Tammy and the Bachelor a lighthearted comedy with Debbie Reynolds and The Midnight Story a crime-noir filmed on location in San Francisco with Tony Curtis and Gilbert Roland. Reminiscing about his Universal years, he extolled the virtues of his stars, including Joan Crawford (“I loved her; she was the consummate professional.”) and Jeff Chandler (“Sweet, simple, wonderful, no problems) problems. We did eight pictures together. I enjoyed him as an actor and close friend.”). He particularly remembered Charles Laughton from The Strange Door (1951) Laughton took overacting to unparalleled heights and Pevney let him run wild. “At that time, Charles Laughton was preparing a four person show, (Don Juan in Hell) that he was going to take on the road. So he only wanted to have fun with our picture, and did he ever! Universal thought they were making a horror movie. Not Laughton. For him it was camp! He also insisted on doing his own stunt work at the end where he dies in the moat with the waterwheel. He got right in the water and loved it. Laughton just loved being a ham actor.”
Although Pevney enjoyed directing features, working for a major studio was not without its frustrations. “They would answer my request to cast Jeff Chandler with Tony Curtis in Six Bridges to Cross (1955) or alongside Rock Hudson in Twilight of the Gods (1958) with a great big WHY? ‘We can get two pictures out of them—one from Tony and one from Jeff — you don’t need to put them together.’ I told the studio, ‘But if you put two of the studio’s biggest stars together you’ll make twice as much money!’ They would never believe me and never go along with me.”
Pevney began directing television in 1959 as the studio system was falling apart and discovered that he was temperamentally suited to the small screen’s tight schedules. He helmed more than 150 TV episodes before retiring in 1985; his résumé is a veritable history of the medium’s first quartercentury. He recalled the early episodes of Mission Impossible with Steven Hill :”Talk about about mission impossible! Steven Hill was an observant Jew and had to quit at 5 p.m. on Friday and I had to finish the show!” There were also eleven episodes of The Munsters:
“Fred Gwynne had good makeup and heels to build him up to seven feet. He was as gay as a $3 bill, but who cared! He had a ball doing that show.”
Pevney did a lot of shows for producer Jack Webb, including 11 episodes of Adam 12 and seven episodes of Emergency! “Webb was a horror! He had a rule that a director couldn’t direct one of his shows and something else simultaneously. I did, and never directed any more of his shows. There was something very strange about him.”
Pevney’s work in the original Star Trek series from 1967 to 1969 remains his principal legacy. He directed a total of 14 episodes, many of which are now revered for their originality and humor.
“I had a great cast. I really liked Leonard Nimoy. I wasn’t crazy about William Shatner. I was the one who found Walter Koenig, who played Chekov. The kid had a terrible Russian accent, but he was a hit; audiences loved him. The shows I liked most were the ones that [writer] Gene Roddenberry said were too funny, like ‘The Trouble with Tribbles.’ I told him that in the future, people will still behave normally and be funny. I loved ‘The Trouble with Tribbles.’ It was my favorite.”