But as the creator and chief steward of CBS' high-end dramatic anthology series, Manulis, who died last week at the age of 92, presided over many more great hours of television, most of them live, though "Playhouse 90" also ran "filmed presentations" about once a month. (Click here for Manulis' Variety obit.) Thanks to the Archive of American Television, click here for vid of a comprehensive 11-part interview of Manulis in 1997.
It's maddening that those of us born long after the skein ended its 1956-61 run have had scant opportunities to see these smallscreen gems. I've seen a kinescope of the original "Requiem," and it lived up to every inch of its advance billing. (With all due respect to Anthony Quinn and the 1962 feature version, once you've seen Jack Palance as the hard-luck boxer, you can't never go back.) I've also seen a beat-up copy of another breathtakingly good Rod Serling teleplay, "The Comedian," helmed by John Frankenheimer with a fearless perf from Mickey Rooney. And that's about it.
I'd love to see the original "Days of Wine and Roses" starring Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. I'd love to see Serling's "A Town Has Turned to Dust," with Rod Steiger and James Gregory. And I'd like to see at least some of the "Playhouse 90" segs that I've never heard a thing about. If I can turn on the tube any time day or night and find a repeat of the Ultimate-Fighting-Xtreme-Street-Skate'n'Spandex-Challenge semi-finals from 1997, why can't we have the Ultimate-Badass-TV-Dramatists-Showdown airing once a week or so on an artsy channel? Or how about a comprehensive, anotated DVD set? A "Playhouse 90" download-on-demand website?
(Pictured above: "Requiem" stars Keenan Wynn, Jack Palance and Ed Wynn. Pictured right: Manulis in 2004.)
Sure, there are probably rights issues, tech-quality issues, music clearance hurdles, etc. but somehow smart people have to put their heads together to find a way to get these priceless bits of mid-20th century American art back into circulation. I'm thinking it starts with the good folks at CBS. Come to think of it, CBS Corp.'s pay cabler Showtime just launched the Smithsonian Channel -- here's a worthy restoration/reclamation project for the keeper of the national scrapbook.
There are a handful of "Playhouse 90" clips on YouTube, but only a handful. Here's a meaty one from "The Velvet Alley," a Serling-penned 1959 tale of a budding TV writer trying a little too hard to make the Hollywood scene. (Rod is never better than when writing about Hollywood scribes and their frustrations.) It features Art Carney and Katharine Bard, who was married to Manulis for 44 years.
As Daily Variety noted frequently back in the day, "Playhouse 90" was never a big ratings hit, but it was always a prestige play. It added luster to the Tiffany network and made William S. Paley proud (though Serling and others would famously have issues with how far CBS was willing to go, prestige or no.)
When Serling accepted the award for best single program of the year for "Heavyweight" -- which ran as "Playhouse's" second episode in October 1956 -- he humbly and rhetorically asked "How much do you pay for the invaluable services of a producer like Marty Manulis?" (Don't take my word for it. Click here for an audio clip of Serling's acceptance speech.)
In the 1995 "American Masters" seg "Rod Serling: Submitted for Your Approval," Manulis recalled the rush of the night when "Heavyweight" first aired. (Thanks to RodSerling.com for the handy quote.)
"Even these many years later, I feel everything that I felt then about the night of the performance ... We sat in the control room and for ninety minutes, it just held. The excitement was unbelievable. Rod Serling's work was so electric to begin with, and it just was a triumph.
"I was about to run out to the floor when they called me back. Mr. Paley was on the phone. It was the first time we'd heard from him after a show. "And he said, 'Tell everyone, especially Rod Serling, that tonight we put television about ten years ahead.'"
Paley was right. Surely, with all the vid-distribbing options at our disposal some 50 years later, we can find a way to celebrate the legacy of a show that moved the medium past selling soap -- one night, one script, one perf at a time.