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A Beginner’s Guide to the Golden Age of Live Theater on TV


Whether playing a bad boy (holding a square, virtuous Ronald Reagan hostage in “The Dark, Dark Hours”) or a good boy (in his final live performance in “The Unlighted Road”), James Dean always hurts so good, a writhing, masochistic mass of youth betrayed.

For those who know his screen work, there won’t be may surprises in his television appearances; his persona was carved in cracked marble from the beginning. But he remains an equally mesmerizing and annoying presence. And you can see how much he purely enjoys acting in 30-minute joy ride called “Padlocks” (from the “Danger” series), in which Dean and the venerable Mildred Dunnock have a whale of a time playing a punk thug and the crafty little old lady whose apartment he invades.

“MARTY” (1953) The show that gave center stage to a homely, inarticulate butcher in the Bronx and had America gleefully quoting the question, “What do you feel like doin’ tonight, Marty,” the next morning. Paddy Chayefsky’s benchmark script would be reinvented by Hollywood (with the same director, Delbert Mann) in a 1955 film starring Ernest Borgnine that won both the Oscar and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. But the small-screen version, starring an agonizingly insecure Rod Steiger and Nancy Marchand, feels both fresher and more subtle.

“TWELVE ANGRY MEN” (1954) Another archetypal beauty that went on to Hollywood glory. Reginald Rose’s drama, which explores social prejudices and preconceptions, is set in an airless jury room at the height of summer, and the sweat on actors’ brows regularly produced by live television feels most appropriate here. As the juror with a stubborn conscience, Robert Cummings is no Henry Fonda, who played the same role in Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film. But the cast, which also includes Franchot Tone and Edward Arnold, generates plenty of high anxiety and restless claustrophobia.

“REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT” (1956) This one comes from the pen of a master of the short television form, Rod Serling, with Ralph Nelson directing. Anthony Quinn played the broken-down title character in the 1962 film. But Jack Palance is even more heartbreaking. His supporting cast ain’t bad either, what with the father-and-son team of Ed and Keenan Wynn playing his managers and Kim Hunter as an understanding social worker.

I watched “A Doll’s House” (1959) — the same one I saw in my impressionable childhood, directed by George Schaefer — in its entirety for the first time only weeks ago on Amazon Prime (in color!).

It didn’t disappoint. In addition to Harris and Plummer, the grade-A cast has Eileen Heckart, Jason Robards and Hume Cronyn. And Harris is wonderful, finding the awakening tragedy and triumph in Ibsen’s Nora. I couldn’t have had a better curtain raiser to a life of passionate theater going.

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