Doorbells Ringing

The television was still on, and Fritz was sitting watching it, yawning.
Wolfe was leaning back with his eyes shut ...

-- The Doorbell Rang (1965), p. 73.

Notes on the Television Series made for A&E; featuring Nero Wolfe

I am a big Nero Wolfe fan, and if you are interested in the Rex Stout novels you will find a complete, annotated bibliography at my Nero Wolfe site, Merely a Genius.

I was also involved tangentially in the production of The Golden Spiders, the first Wolfe tv movie in this latest incarnation, through the courtesy of Michael Jaffe, the producer for that show. That was exciting enough, and you can read elsewhere online my notes about my visit to the set of TGS. However, this particular page is oriented to the followup Braunstein/Jaffe tv series dedicated to Wolfe, and specifically to the first season. A&E; has a schedule & misc other info for the series (bios of cast, etc) online here.

Moreover, A&E; is also apparently now [May '03] releasing the first season of the TV series on DVD (w. free Archie poster 'while supplies last'). One can only applaud the release of more & more Wolfe material, in more & more formats. Whoohoo! (And thanks to Corry Devin from A&E; promo for the URL.)

Note [Dec '01]: Some of the info on this page is out of date -- a second season is due to air in April 2002, but I don't have a lot of info about it. I got to submit a list of stories for these s2 episodes, but over this past year (2001) I was mostly writing my PhD thesis & moving to Australia, and I think I've been superceded by the collective expertise of the Wolfe Pack e-list. To join the electronic mailing list and get the latest Wolfe news (as well as a tonne of spam, unfortunately), write to wolfe-list-request@mirror.org .

This page includes:

The Warning Note

I am gleeful to announce that I have been coopted by the Corporate World, corrupted by the tentacles of grasping Capitalism ... yes, I have become a paid lackey for the demon forces of the small screen. My point: I was lucky enough to be paid to provide suggestions for the potential episodes for this series, plus I also got to visit the set of the production of The Doorbell Rang, and look over the scripts, in my capacity as "consultant" (snort). Not that my web page comes under the purview of my consulting, but I feel the need to inform my readership of this change in my status. Instead of being merely a starry-eyed fan, I am now a starry-eyed fan with some investment in the system. Muahahahahahaha!

The Facts I Have Gleaned re: the Series

Timing: Filming started September 11th and is due to run until February 2nd. The series will air on A&E;, at the earliest in March; more likely April 2001.

Episodes: I'm not sure if they will run in this order, but the schedule for shooting is: #1 The Doorbell Rang; #2 Prisoner's Base; #3 Champagne for One; #4 Over My Dead Body; #5 Xmas Party Murders; followed by Door to Death; Eeeny Meeny Murder Mo [Does anyone else think that Stout lost it when he selected that title?] and Disguise for Murder.

Cast Notes Excitingly, all of the main guys are back with the exception of Saul Rubinek as Saul Panzer. Apparently, Rubinek is in heavy demand, and Saul's role qua role is actually kind of low-key: Saul is in a lot of scenes, but he doesn't have a lot of lines. So, weirdly, Rubinek is shifting over to play Lon Cohen in this series: fewer scenes, more lines; fits in better w. his schedule, etc. I was disappointed to hear the news, but excited when I met Conrad Dunn, the new Saul. Rubinek was wonderful in the Hungarian DP scene from TGS, but he was way more cuddly than I pictured Saul; Dunn is much more aloof, and struck me as eeriely like the Saul I had imagined. Thus, in summary: Wolfe = Maury Chaiken; Archie = Timothy Hutton; Cramer = Bill Smitrovich; Fred = Fulvio Cecere; Orrie = Trent McMullen [All the same as TGS]; Saul = Conrad Dunn; Lon = Saul Rubinek. I didn't get to see Mrs. Bruner on my visit, but she is apparently to be Deborah Monk.

Many of the supporting cast are also going to come back, and are also going to be recurring through the episodes. This recycling struck me as odd, but apparently it is a "repertory" set-up, which allows for higher-caliber supporting people generally, but in particular allegedly allows the producers to retain those actors who seem to understand the spirit of the Wolfe stories. (More on this spirit in the commentary section; the whole explanation was very interesting, though the system did remind me of the 30s Hollywood.)

In re crew: The most startling news, for me, was that Timothy Hutton is to direct TDR, and every second episode thereafter, including Champagne for One. More on this role clash in the comments section. Neill Fearnley will direct Prisoner's Base, which will start filming October 16th. The executive producers are Jaffe, Braunstein, and Hutton; the producer is Sue Murdoch; the production manager is David Till. Lindsey Hermer-Bell is the production designer; I particularly want to single her out because she is the person I wrote about in re TGS who organized the beautiful Brownstone set. This time I didn't lose my notes. ;)

Comments on the visit

Comments on the choices for the stories: If you are curious about the prevalence of novels versus stories: it was explained to me that many of the stories have unfilmable aspects to them, because of Stout's habit of describing key plot moments in summary paragraphs. This is a problem that can be resolved with extra writing, but in the short term they just went with novels which are easier adaptations.

Regarding the specific stories: TDR & PB I think require no justification; they're great novels, and EEEM, DFM, and DTD are all IMHO great stories. CfO was handpicked by Timothy Hutton, presumably because he likes the Archie moments. OMDB and XPM were selected in part because they fill in Wolfe's background and the Wolfe-Archie relationship for novice fans. This is particularly important because -- get this! -- the producers are feeling very good about the prospects for a second and even third season of the show! *Muahahahahaha!* This is not at all written in stone, since it would depend on ratings for the first season, but apparently the cumulative viewers for TGS -- around 4.3 million -- puts it in the top five ever of A&E; tv movies. So: the classic novel The Silent Speaker and the Zeck books are all being saved for later on in the series, in the hopes that season 1 will set viewers up to understand the full intensity of Wolfe's reactions. All I can say is, if in fact the series bombs after year one I will bitterly regret not getting to see TSS and The Second Confession brought to the small screen.

Two- vs. One-Hour Format: Now this is a saga! Apparently, A&E; insisted on the one-hour format, so all the novels will be filmed as two-parters, while the stories will be solos. Accordingly, in North America the series will be run as 12 one-hour time slots. Meanwhile, in Europe they are insisting on only two-hour slots, so the stories will be shown two at a time. Furthermore, in Europe somehow they chronically luck out and have 2 minutes' fewer of advertisements every hour. So: not only will Europeans get to see all the novels in 2-hour movie formats, they actually (if I understood this right) get an extra 4" per show. Hilariously, for the one-hour stories Braunstein/Jaffe will use the 4" to put in connecting scenes for the Europeans -- tentative plans are to have, for example, Archie playing poker with the guys, going "Do you remember that story?" (first story); then "What about that one?" (second story). Who knew life was so complicated? ;)

A look ahead: The PB script was written by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin. Sarah Jessica Parker is lined up as a possibility for Sarah Jaffe. The OMDB script is written by Janet Roach. I got to read these scripts, along with the one for "X-mas Party Murders", for which I did not note down the author name; the most striking thing to me about the scripts is their length. From what I could see, a two-hour movie script runs to only 100 or 120 pages, so even a two-hour version of the novels requires a drastic amount of editing out of material. Given that in general I regard every word of the books as precious and fulfilling, this editing provides me with a clear explanation of why I tend to be irritated by adaptations ... With that caveat out of the way, though, I have to say I was excited by the scripts. These are really some of my favourite stories, and I can't wait to see how they play in 2d.

Spirit: One of the most interesting parts of my visit to the TDR set this year was when the producer, Michael Jaffe, was explaining his views on the nature of TV, and what makes the Wolfe series special. There are two kinds of television, he said, 'representational' and 'presentational'. Part of the difficulty of filming the Wolfe books is that in some ways they are contrary to the spirit of most TV now, which is very much in the representational mode: focused on realism as the ultimate goal; focused on grit, plot, "noir" dramatics; cf all the police & hospital dramas there are around. But bringing the Wolfe books to the screen is not a project aimed at representing a 'reality' of events in the 1950s, but on creating a world that is self-contained; presenting a vision of Wolfe's world, involving its own idealized code of honour and affection. The plot is secondary to the characters and the dialogue, because the world being presented is not events, but rather about Wolfe, Archie, their relationship, and their values. When we're casting for the parts, he said at one point, everyone comes in with this method acting, sense memory attitude: reading the lines as if the goal is to express emotional intensity. But the lines have to be read lightly, in a way -- they have to be read with wit and humour, rather than grim emotionality.

Finding and retaining people who appreciate the true point of the stories is part of the reason the producers appear to be into this 'repertory' system, whereby the supporting cast appear in a variety of minor roles throughout the series. For example, I ran into Peter Mensah on the set of TDR, looking spiffy as one of the Evers security guards who tosses Archie out into the street; he was also one of the gangsters in the Lips Egan scene in TGS. Viewers I suppose can be distracted by trying to id the familiar faces, but the crucial advantage is that actors who appreciate the Wolfe spirit can be conscripted into the long-term project.

Speaking of supporting cast: I have to say, on Day 2 of my visit the main focus in the morning was the Evers scene, and I was totally impressed, in my non-film-expert way, with the supporting guy for that role, David Schurmann. This is one of the rare scenes in which, as Hutton put it to me, Archie totally fails to achieve his goals; it was great fun to see filmed and I hope it comes across as well in the final cut. I can testify that it really is Hutton being hurled down the steps; it was an impressive sequence, and provoked mild wonder from some of the makeup & hair people I was hanging out with at the time that he hadn't used a stunt guy.

Role Clash: [Timothy Hutton as Director] And speaking of Hutton, periodically I asked the crew I was talking to whether they had any views about Hutton as director; they seemed unfazed by the issue. As a layperson, I would have thought that the roles of actor and director are (a) both individually so much work that together they would be overwhelming; (b) conflicting in their demands: boss vs colleague; manager vs participant. But in fact I received a great deal of positive commentary re the overlap: (1) Timothy Hutton has in fact directed before, a film called Digging to China, so some experience is there; and (2) he is a huge fan of the novels, and so is better able to appreciate the importance of nitpicking details fans obsess about [Hutton assured me he is fully invested in the concept of Wolfe's yellow shirts]. So this bodes well.

But actually just being on the set was reassuring, in terms of the new vision of the series. I boggled mildly when I was told by the director that he wanted to bring out the "cinematographic qualities" of the novel (TDR). I had no idea what he meant by this ominous phrase, though naturally I told him I approved fully. ;) But as I saw it over the next 2 days, and in conversations with crew, this focus on "cinematographic qualities" was a positive development. One of the things that most struck me was that care was being taken to bring out the bright colours of Wolfe's life: not just with the yellow shirts, but even with details like Fritz's clothes (Fritz is not a butler!, I said to the costume designer, Chris; he laughed and said he was aware of the issue) and even the colours of the cars on the street. So that was exciting. And on other levels as well: there was a whole drama, as Hutton explained it to me, with the Evers building set -- he told me that he had personally selected as a set the brick factory where the scene was being filmed, and seemed excited to explain the vistas that would be afforded to the camera by the brick facade, and the black-and-grey walls, and the old freight elevator. It was nice to observe his level of excitement and commitment to the project -- but then, as he reminded me when I asked him whether he was happy with how things were going, it was only Day 2 of the filming. ;)

So, once again, I left after two days with a positive view of the project. So far so good!


Many thanks to the people who were hassled by me, esp Lynn Delaney, Janet Gayford, and Matt "The Lackey" on the production side; and Michael Katz (3rd AD), Nicole Reid (production assistant), and Allison (assistant to Tim), on the set.

You are probably the only person who has ever accessed this web page, while I myself have logged on times since October 2000.

Over to Merely A Genius or my page for The Golden Spiders...

Copyright 2000-2001 Winnifred Louis. Any of my links not working? More links I should add? Random commentary? I have a guestbook, which you are welcome to view or sign.

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