As a tribute to a great American, someone in TV land needs to get a hold of the kinescope of the 1956 "U.S. Steel Hour" production of "Bang the Drum Slowly" and showcase this gem starring Paul Newman, Albert Salmi and George Peppard. TCM, AMC, PBS, ESPN Classic, TV Land -- I'm talking to you.
In doing a little research, I noticed that "Bang the Drum" first aired on CBS on Sept. 26, 1956 -- 52 years to the day that Newman died of cancer at age 83. It was the first adaptation of Mark Harris' heart-tugging novel, published the same year, about a baseball player who is desperate to hide his terminal illness from his teammates.
Newman plays the team's star pitcher Henry Wiggens, narrator of the novel, who tries to help his friend Bruce Pierson (Salmi) hide his condition.
I saw this version of "Bang the Drum" once years ago -- it was either on PBS or TV Land (back when TV Land wasn't afraid of black and white programs) -- and I remember the famous opening with Newman addressing the aud on a dark stage.
The presentation had that extra bit of crackle and snap that comes with live dramatic TV, plus the retro-excitement of knowing that you're watching an important moment in the career ascent of a great actor. As an added bonus, the young twinkly-eyed Newman is breathtakingly handsome.
Sure, the surviving kinescope has that fish-eye look that's off-putting at first, but Newman, his costars and the story are good enough to draw you past all that. It doesn't drag for a second; in an hourlong format (with commercials), how could it?
Newman did a lot of television early on in his career, including at least two other "U.S. Steel Hour" segs and the 1958 "Playhouse 90" installment "The 80 Yard Run." It would be a fine memorial to Newman if someone would round up whatever still exists of these productions and show them. Is it too late to register the domain name tv2good2be4gotten.com?
When I heard the news about Newman this ayem from my early-rising husband, the ditty from "Cool Hand Luke" ran through my head:
I don't care if it rains or freezes/long as I've got my plastic Jesus/sitting on the dashboard of my car.
In the late 1970s/early '80s, KTLA-TV Los Angeles gave its "fewer commercial interruptions" treatment to "Cool Hand Luke" at least twice a year, and whenever it was on, I was there. Before I had any clue what that movie was really about, I loved it, and I loved him. I gulped some years later when I saw him (oh those blue eyes) backstage at the Oscars when he was given the Hersholt award, and he quipped about how humbling it was to have his salad dressing out-gross his movies.
For the fantastic movie experiences too numerous to mention (ok -- some other faves are "Harper," "The Hustler," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Sting" and "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean"); for the great philanthropic efforts; for taking a socio-political stand when it mattered; for delivering the line "Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand" in a way that helped me get through my teenage years; for the fact that there never was a "Sting II" or "Butch and Sundance Ride Again" for him; for always being a fun guest on Letterman; and for the best basic Italian dressing anyone could ask for -- thank you, Paul Newman.