Every once in a while something comes along that encapsulates the banality of so much network television like one of those tinfoil snow scenes set in a paperweight. It seems to me that just such an incident occurred when novelist Dan Wakefield quit the show he created, James at 15, after losing a battle with NBC censors over an episode that aired February 9, “The Gift.” It’s too bad, for Wakefield was the creative force behind an unusual series, one that provided the rare insight on a regular television program that adolescence is not all Happy Days. But beyond the waste of one man’s time and talent, the story of the show’s development — or “How The Catcher in the Rye Went Awry” — helps explain why the boob tube got its name.
Salinger’s novel, in fact, plays a role in the story. During a lunch at “21” in the fall of 1976 David Sontag, the vice president for primetime television at Twentieth Century-Fox, asked NBC programming chief Paul Klein what kind of show he’d really like to develop. “A show about an intelligent kid growing up in an urban environment,” Klein said. “Oh, you mean Catcher in the Rye,” Sontag suggested, knowing full well that NBC could as easily sign up J. D. Salinger as appoint Roman Polanski head of children’s programming.
So Sontag successfully pitched an original “comedy drama” about “the rites of passage of an American male in contemporary society” to Klein, who agreed that it should be “hard-hitting” and “honest” and would require “special nurturing” from the network. (Lunch at “21” can do that to you.) Next, Sontag approached Dan Wakefield, whose novel about the rites of passage, etc., Going All the Way, he much admired, to write the pilot as a two-hour TV movie . The rest of the production company was just as much a class act. Executive producer Martin Manulis had been the creator of Playhouse 90. Director Joe Hardy had Broadway credits to his name. Story editor Ron Rubin was a published novelist who longed to write fiction for little magazines. Nor was Sontag himself, who wore cowboy boots and drove a Cherokee Chief to work, your average studio Gucci two-shoes. “It was like a religion,” Wakefield, who moved from Boston to Los Angeles to do the show, says of the early days of the team effort. “I can’t remember so many months in a row when I looked forward to getting up in the morning.”
The rest of the story plays out one of the television industry’s favorite behind-the-scenes plots — a kind of reverse “Rocky” where a show that seems to have everything going for it doesn’t begin to go the distance. The problems began at the top, with the show’s original title, James at 14. The network wanted the hero prematurely aged by a year in case those rites of passage the producers had in mind went beyond moving James to the back row in glee club. Nor did it help matters, from NBC’s point of view, that 17-year-old Lance Kerwin, the star of the show, looked closer to 12. For the fact is that nothing keeps those cards and letters coming to affiliate stations from irate parents like the suggestion that kids have sex on their minds, not to mention their heated waterbeds. It was the Catch-22 of the whole concept — a “hard-hitting” show that constantly had to pull its punches.
The biggest battle prior to Wakefield’s resignation took place over the pilot, in which James and his family prepare to move from Oregon to Boston, where his father, a college professor, has a new job. Anticipating a hot and heavy farewell scene with his girlfriend, James asks his best friend Richie for a condom — only he doesn’t actually say anything as hardhitting as condom:
JAMES: Can I have that thing you carry around in your wallet all the time?
RICHIE: My membership card in the Hi-Y?
JAMES: No, no. The thing you carry around “just in case.”
RICHIE: You mean old “Be prepared.”
In what came to be known as the infamous “Be prepared” scene, James finally trades Richie his official Bobby Orr hockey stick and regulation NHL hockey puck for the condom (a neat conjunction of boyish and adult concerns) and heads for the woods with his girlfriend — where it is made abundantly clear that they never go all the way. Even so, the NBC Broadcast Standards department just about went through the roof when they read the script, refusing to allow the slightest mention of birth control in the pilot. Wakefield and the rest of the production company protested vehemently that with 700,000 unwanted teenage pregnancies a year in this country the issue could not be skirted. Jerry Stanley, NBC’s West Coast vp for Broadcast Standards, told Wakefield that “you big city fellows have no idea what the Midwest is like.” (Wakefield was born and raised in Indiana, has taught at Midwestern universities and researched the show in a friend’s high school classroom in Geneseo, Ill., where they hand out birth control literature as readily as copies of Silas Marner.) The dispute was kicked up to the top network brass for arbitration, alternative versions of the scene were shot and four days before the final edit was due, Wakefield and co. learned that they had been overruled. The whole episode left Jerry Stanley feeling that Wakefield had “some kind of obsession with birth control,” and the production company convinced that NBC was kowtowing to the Catholic Church.
But as one script followed another it became clear that Broadcast Standards was guided not so much by Catholic dogma as by a kind of unremitting Puritanism for postpubescents. In its portrayal of adolescence, at least, television had become Cotton Mather’s last stand. It was OK for teenagers to sin so long as the sword of heavenly vengeance was terrible and swift. For example, in the pilot James could drink (beer) with his friends if he was shown with a massive hangover the next day. In another episode it was fine for a classmate of James to admit that she had slept (well, “did it”) with a prior boyfriend so long as she was made to suffer the kind of social ostracism that makes Hester Prynne look like a homecoming queen.
Despite such heavy-handed supervision, the reworked two-hour pilot aired Labor Day to both critical praise and “good numbers” (it was, in fact, the highest rated show of the week). Aside from routinely changing any reference to sexual intercourse to “doing it,” Broadcast Standards had few problems with the scripts in succeeding weeks. Wakefield admits, however, to a great deal of self-censorship, using euphemisms that made the point he was trying to make barely comprehensible at times. In an episode in which the Hunters learn that their older daughter has been “doing it” with her college professor, James and his mother have the following exchange:
MRS. HUNTER: I had a good time in college. But I wasn’t happy. Not the way Kathy is happy.
JAMES: How about Dad? Was he happy in college … ?
In another episode James’ street-wise black friend, Sly, sells marijuana in the schoolyard that turns out to be “fried eggplant laced with oregano.”
After the pilot the real problems with James at 15 came from NBC’s programming department, which had promised, remember, to give an admittedly sensitive show about a touchy subject “special nurturing.” Special nurturing turned out to mean that the series did not begin until late October (long after the intense publicity for the new TV season had died down and viewers had picked out their favorite shows) and even then it was preempted about every third week because of NBC’s catch-up strategy of “stunting” (running specials) so frequently. In addition, James at 15 was scheduled in a hopeless time slot, Thursday at 9:00, meant that it was opposite two of the longest-running shows on the air, Barney Miller and Hawaii 5-0, and had as its lead-in on NBC one of the biggest turkeys of-the year, CHiPs. At one story conference Ron Rubin said, “Here’s what NBC means by ‘special nurturing.’ Say this is a fly…” He pointed to a spot on the table top and brought his hand down with a resounding thwack.
Naturally, the ratings plummeted from the opening segment — and NBC panicked. Instead of issue-oriented shows, one network directive suggested “more of the fun of being a teenager.” Then just after Thanksgiving NBC ordered nine additional scripts and sacked executive producers Manulis and Hardy. Since a like-minded member of the same team, story editor Ron Rubin, was appointed to replace them, the move made little sense except as a purely ritual sacrifice to the god of the numbers. Even worse, for the first time Paul Klein ordered up several specific stories. In one of them — slotted for the crucial February “sweep” week when Nielsen surveys the ratings of affiliate stations — James was to lose his virginity on his sixteenth birthday at a local brothel, all expenses paid (hence, “The Gift”) by a doting uncle.
Wakefield did what he could to salvage the idea, which meant first of all playing the hooker scene for laughs instead of sex — in effect, looking a gift whore in the mouth. (The irony of the whole silly brouhaha is that if Wakefield had allowed James to sleep with a prostitute he would probably still be working on the show.) Instead, James would lose his virginity with a Swedish exchange student he fell in love with named Gun (even censors knew about Swedish girls). The crucial point for Wakefield in writing his script was to make James’ first affair a tender experience in which the lovers acted “responsibly” — his code word for the dreaded specter of birth control:
JAMES: Well, I’ve been real chicken, ’cause I love you, but I keep putting off talking about it…People ought to be responsible.
GUN: I am responsible, James.
JAMES: You are? Hey, that’s great.
GUN: Well, I was chicken too. I didn’t tell you I loved a boy last summpr, and I got to be responsible…
Not only did Broadcast Standards refuse to allow any reference to Gun’s past affair but the entire issue of birth control was still taboo — and not, it was now made abundantly clear, because of pressure from the Catholic Church. “We can’t allow kids to use contraceptives,” 56-year-old Jerry Stanley explained to me, “because it mitigates the remorse we feel they must demonstrate afterwards. If they have sex at all, it must be in a moment of spontaneous passion. Anyway, it’s more real that way. I think adults tend to get too analytical about what occupies a teenager’s mind. Most kids aren’t running around thinking of getting laid. Their problems are getting into a club or getting their picture in the school newspaper. Maybe one in a hundred is thinking of getting laid. When I was a kid my main problem was getting a job.”
A note in the NBC Broadcast Standards “acceptability report” on Wakefield’s version of the script reads: “As discussed with Twentieth Century-Fox TV president Sy Salkowitz the revised ending of James at 15 episode ‘The Gift’ will now reflect that our two lovers weren’t prepared for the final act and Gun now fears that she could be pregnant. James will go through a guilt process which erodes their loving relationship, emphasizing the point that sex holds serious consequences even though they later learn Gun is not pregnant.”
And that’s essentially the way the script Wakefield refused to rewrite now plays. In a letter to Sy Salkowitz before his resignation, Wakefield wrote: “To put on national television a story about an intelligent, perceptive, responsible boy without dramatizing in any way his awareness of the consequences of sexual intercourse and his effort to be responsible about such consequences in a loving relationship is in my own belief a moral travesty.” (When Salkowitz read the letter to Paul Klein over the phone, the NBC programmer reportedly said: “Wakefield’s the one who isn’t acting responsibly.”)
Stay tuned for the further adventures of James Hunter, now retitled James at 16. According to the story lines ordered up by Paul Klein, two episodes from now (with time off — ah, youth! — for a show about a Valentine’s Day party) James will be fearful that his moment of misspent passion has given him a dose of clap. On television, at least, the Lord works in not-so-mysterious ways.
Received in New York on February 13, 1978
©1978 Richard Levine
Richard Levine, a free-lance writer, is an Alicia Patterson Foundation award winner. His fellowship subject is the making of the television season. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Levine as a Fellow of the Alicia Patterson Foundation. The views expressed by the author in this newsletter are not necessarily the views of the Foundation.