Most producers have meetings with ratings-obsessed network execs. Herbert Brodkin had showdowns. His business partner of 28 years, producer Robert “Buzz” Berger, remembered one:
“It took two years to get Skokie [the film about neo-Nazis confronting World War II deathcamp survivors in Illinois] produced. CBS would not agree on any casting, and they wanted to cut it from three to two hours. Herbie Wise [I, Claudius], who eventually directed, was with us. We left a meeting with CBS, where Herb [Brodkin] had just told them all to take a flying leap. Herbie Wise said he had been to many meetings at the BBC and all over the place, but he’d never heard a producer talk to the network that way.”
Brodkin’s response was that when he told someone off in the saltiest of language, “it’s like anyone else saying hello.”
Six-feet-two, red-headed, hawk-nosed, flinty-eyed, with a foreboding facial expression that chilled executive blood, Brodkin managed to produce some of the most thought-provoking and gripping programs in television history. Among them: Studio One, Motorola Hour, Alcoa Theater, Playhouse 90, The Defenders, Shane, The Nurses, Coronet Blue, Espionage, plus original TV movies and miniseries including The People Next Door (1968), Pueblo (1973), The Missiles of October (1974), Holocaust (1978), Skokie (1981), Sakharov (1984), Mandela (1987). Over the years, Herb Brodkin-steered shows attracted more than 40 Emmys.
Yet as he once told an interviewer in 1979, when he numbered 600 — that’s six hundred — network programs on his resume. “I still have to go through the same nonsense as if I had no track record at all. You continually deal with young network executives who never heard of The Defenders and couldn’t care less. It’s a fight all the time.”
So it was for the late Brodkin, who passed away in 1990 at age 77. A fight all the time, but not just against the tyranny of youth. His was a fight to put intelligent drama on that psychotic little screen, drama that might provoke thought, even enlighten. It was a fight to produce programs about ugly subjects that conveyed difficult lessons: programs about Hitler’s extermination of 12 million souls; about abortion, interracial love, prisoners of war, American white supremacists, such humanists as the scientist Andrei Sakharov and Nelson Mandela, mercy killing, government restriction of travel, medical malpractice, nuclear war, drugs and even cannibalism. (And yes, to entertain in the process.)
Headlines about the man often read like these: “Producer Brodkin, a ‘Very Stubborn Fellow’” or “Brodkin vs. the Networks” or “A Producer of the Provocative.” Yet, if he was crusty, fiercely principled, blunt (even his friends call him, with amusement, “tactless”), as writers often described him, he was also doggedly compassionate, and basically retiring. Consider: he felt “deep pride” for the miniseries, Holocaust, as he told the press, “for having enhanced understanding of a terrible fact” — yet rejected the B’nai B’rith Society’s ensuing attempt to name him Man of the Year. Berger remembered:
“They asked Herb to limit his remarks to no more than 20 minutes, and no less than 15. He said, ‘I have to talk for fifteen minutes? Make my partner Man of the Year.’ So they made me Man of the Year! You know, everybody thought Herb was angry and forbidding, which drove him nuts, because he thought he was a pussycat!”
Maybe so, but he sure didn’t purr and meow his way into the networks’ good graces. What is arguably his finest achievement, The Defenders, was canceled before it started after the producer almost literally pounced on CBS vice president of programming Oscar Katz. Perhaps Katz hadn’t been exposed to the Brodkin credo, "Whenever a network can destroy anything, it will … "
“He really believed in The Defenders,” recalled fellow Hall of Fame inductee Ethel Winant, friends with Brodkin for many years after they worked on Playhouse 90 and CBS Playhouse. “I was going to be associate producer on it and was really excited. We were shooting the pilot at MGM, on film. I remember we were coming back from lunch at CBS Television City, and we were in an elevator with Oscar Katz. Katz said to Herb, ‘Well, the dailies look pretty good.’ Well, Herb turned white, and said, ‘You’ve been looking at my dailies? Who told you could look at my dailies?’ When the door opened, he had Oscar off the floor, holding him, facing him, saying ‘How dare you look at my dailies!’ Then the doors would close, we went up, they opened again, and Herb was yelling ‘Nobody sees my dailies!’ The doors closed, we went down, up, and after three or four trips, Oscar finally got out. I said, ‘Oscar’s going to be mad.’ And he was.”
Mad enough to see to it that The Defenders was put away in a closet, where it rested for two years.
“Then [CBS Chairman William] Paley was making a big scene about not having anything of quality on the air,” Winant added, “so they pulled it off the shelf and then it was on in about 30 seconds.”
Yet Brodkin was rarely daunted by such debacles. They were just things to step over. “He felt, if that was the price of the show not getting on the air, then that was the price,” Winant said. “He didn’t bitch about things. The funny thing is, Katz was being polite! You know, ‘The dailies look pretty good.’”
As a boss, Brodkin managed to marry two qualities that seem almost irreconcilable: frugality and generosity. One concerned the budget, and the other the spirit; he was as nurturing to the people he hired as he was careful with costs. Berger is perhaps the premiere graduate of The Herb Brodkin School of Getting Ahead. When Brodkin needed a casting director for a project in ‘62, he phoned Winant. She was busy working for John Houseman, but recommended Berger, who was a casting director at MGM.
“My friend Herb Kirston said that if I wanted to be something other than a casting director, the guy to work for was Herb Brodkin,” Berger said. “Herb Brodkin had this belief that if you hired young, ambitious people and gave them a shot, they would work their butts off for him. And they did. What you had to do was train your successor. As long as you could learn the other job, you could move up to it. So we had assistant directors who wanted to be production managers. We had production designers who wanted to be directors, and got to be directors. We had secretaries who wanted to be casting directors, who got their shot. We all got our shot. It was one of the things Herb did. He was a great producer, a legend.”
The legend begins, legendarily, with a tale of Brodkin’s skills at handling a budget. The setting is the set of a 1950 live, low-budget CBS show called Charlie Wild, Private Detective, where the 37-year-old worked in his first TV job as set designer. When the line producer left, Brodkin volunteered to take over production. Married and the father of one, he struck a deal that would give him whatever savings he made if he brought the show in under budget. Seeing as the budget for Wild was, as Berger put it, “infinitesimal,” the producers figured it was a safe bet that Brodkin wouldn’t take home a penny. He wound up taking home enough pennies to support his family.
“Herb, being Herb, made a fortune,” Berger said. “He brought the show in well under budget all the time. He knew every nail that was pounded into it. It was a great training ground. And that was his start.”
Born in the Bronx to Russian Jewish immigrants, Brodkin was the youngest of six kids raised in Brooklyn, and later, Amityville, Long Island. With his dad busy working as a manufacturer of ladies’ hats, and his mom consumed with raising a family, young Herb was a loner, left largely in the care of a doting Polish nanny. A precocious teenager who skipped a couple of grades, he enrolled at the University of Michigan at 15, declaring an engineering major until his roommate (Arthur Lewis, son of producer Al) corralled him into helping paint scenery for the drama department. Brodkin gradually found himself more and more taken with theater, especially the production aspect, so much that he switched his major to drama and transferred to the Yale drama school. Upon graduation, he joined the Army and spent five years in theaters — military “theaters,” that is, during World War II — where he conceived, organized, and produced USO shows for troops all over the world. “There would have been very little entertainment overseas,” said Winant, “if it hadn’t been for Herb’s creativity.” Col. Brodkin’s entrance into the world of film was decidedly unspectacular. He was asked to make a series of Army training films, one of the more interesting being Horses’ Gas Masks, which, as you might deduce, carefully demonstrated the art of affixing gas masks to horses’ snouts. Still, Berger said, the Army experience amounted to a crash course in production.
After the breakthrough with Charlie Wild, Brodkin went on to become a guiding force in TV’s golden era of live drama, at Studio One and Playhouse 90. In one year, he produced 19 Playhouses alone. “He was,” Berger says, “already a bastion by the time I joined him.” In 1959, Brodkin realized what was perhaps his most memorable Playhouse, the trials of World War II Nazi war criminals, Judgment at Nuremberg, starring Claude Rains, Paul Lukas, and Melvyn Douglas (directed by his longtime colleague George Roy Hill.) It made its mark for both sublime and ridiculous reasons. The producer was ordered to remove all references to “gas” — as in “gas chamber” — from the Nuremberg script. Why? The show was sponsored by The American Gas Association.
“He refused to do it,” remembered Playhouse casting director Winant, “and he had no right, really, because he was an employee. Well, they said they would fire him, and he said fine. Finally, they sent someone to the booth to bleep out the word ‘gas,’ making what should have been one of the great classic shows something less. Herb had put his job, and maybe his career, on the line. He’d gone up against the network, and it was very possible that no other network would hire him after that. But he just did it. When the show was over, we went to a restaurant, but he couldn’t eat dinner. He said, ‘I’ve got to go home.” He realized he had a young family, and might never work again. I went back to the network, and people said, ‘What’s going on with your show?’ Well, there were thousands of calls. The switchboard lit up. The operators said people thought Judgment at Nuremberg was the greatest show they’d ever seen, and it was outrageous that somebody bleeped out ‘gas.’ There were three bags of telegrams the next morning. Herb was very brave.
So devoted was Brodkin to the now-lost art of live TV drama, that when Playhouse was canceled in 1961 by CBS chief James Aubrey, the producer collared every TV critic he could find and demanded that they do something about it. “Exactly what,” Los Angeles Times TV scribe Cecil Smith once wrote, “he didn’t say.” Eventually, Brodkin and his Plautus Productions (named for the Roman playwright who wrote Comedy Tonight — the basis for A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum — which Brodkin produced at Yale) turned their attentions to series.
The 1961-1964 portion of the Brodkin resume includes as demanding a show as ever confronted an audience, The Defenders, with E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as father-and-son defense lawyers, plus The Nurses, For the People, and Coronet Blue — altogether, some 300-plus hours of high-quality TV. Among the actors who graced those productions, many of whom were just breaking into their careers: Jon Voight, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Ossie Davis, James Earl Jones, James Farentino, Martin Sheen, Gene Hackman, William Shatner, Louis Gossett, Jr., and Alan Alda, plus a number who had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era and were still persona non grata, as far as the networks were concerned.
“We were told by the networks,” Brodkin told the New York Times in 1981, “who we could use and who we couldn’t. I didn’t pay any attention, so I never discovered that I’d hired someone who was blacklisted until he was already working for me. When the network would tell me I’d have to get rid of him, I’d tell them, ‘If you want him fired, you come over here yourself and fire him.’ Of course, it never happened.”
The Defenders began as a 1957 episode of Playhouse 90, starring Ralph Bellamy and Shatner. The Nurses, starring Zina Bethune and Shirl Conway, began as a whim. “He often got ideas for his shows by looking out his window,” said Winant. “He and his wonderful wife, Patty, lived on 14th Street in the [Greenwich] Village for many years, and his apartment looked across the street at St. Vincent’s Hospital. That’s where he got the idea for The Nurses, for example. One day he decided to go across the street to find out what they were doing.”
Another feature of that Village apartment led to a distinctive — even signature — Brodkin stylistic trademark. Berger explained:
“He had a theory about close-ups in television, that there couldn’t be enough of them. He would say to every director, ‘If you give me twice as many close-ups as you think I need, it’ll be half as many as I want.’ This went on to the point that a close-up became known to a certain bunch of directors as a ‘Brodkin.’ Well, it all stemmed from the fact that Herb and Patty lived across the street from St. Vincent’s, and his television was blocked by that stupid hospital. So he had terrible reception. If you were in a wide shot, and there were three people on the screen, he saw nine. Close-ups were very important to Herb, and that’s the reason for it.”
For all his pugnaciousness, the man chose his battles, Berger insisted, noting that when CBS wanted to change the title of the highly-rated, award-winning The Nurses to The Doctors and the Nurses — or cancel it — Brodkin went along with the change. “There was some feeling at the company that we shouldn’t change the name, and Herb said, ‘Are you crazy? Take the order, we’ll worry about it later.’” In another instance, CBS head Aubrey directed Brodkin to make The Defenders more like Perry Mason, with a love interest for Robert Reed. Brodkin ordered scripts to please Aubrey until, that is, the show debuted, and promptly shot to the top of the ratings. “Then,” said Berger, “he threw out the new scripts immediately, and went back to doing it the way we did before.”
Disenchantment with networks led Brodkin to sell Plautus Productions, only to, three years later, reemerge with Titus Productions (the playwright Plautus’s first name), and begin a distinguished career in TV movies and miniseries. The high point: Holocaust, which starred a young Meryl Streep and James Woods, and earned the second-highest ratings numbers in Nielsen history. The cost: another struggle with the network, in this case, NBC, which handed Brodkin a 20-page, single-spaced list of proposed cuts. In particular, shots of nude women and children being marched to their slaughter had to go.
“Herb fought them tooth and nail,” remembered Berger. “The [nude] shots were the least lascivious things anyone could imagine! They were tragic. We ended up cutting, I think, four seconds of material out of ten-and-a-half hours of television time. But Herb would have considered a loss of four seconds a lost fight.”
Perhaps not. Apprised of the ratings for Holocaust, Brodkin told the L.A. Times, “I never had any doubts about the quality of the production, but there was no way of telling whether people want to watch it. Quite frankly, I’m astounded. I think that proves that no one can tell what the public will look at … The public wanted to see this, and it’s marvelous. That’s why I’m in television. You could do 10 Star Wars and not reach the audience we did. That’s the fun and the glory of it.”
Brodkin had other loves besides his work, starting with his family. He was also a serious angler who was always heading off to remote areas of the planet where the fishing was good and the conversation minimal. “Guys that fish,” said daughter Lucinda, “go for days without two or three sentences, trekking through the wilderness by canoe. That suited my father perfectly. He was terrible at cocktail parties.” He was “never the same,” said Berger, after his beloved wife, Patty, died in 1983. Married while they were both drama students at Yale, Patty Brodkin was “the woman behind the man,” said Lucinda. Added daughter Brigit: “They were soulmates. I remember him saying to me he couldn’t have succeeded without her.”
Brodkin, friends and family agreed, would have loved being inducted into the Hall of Fame. And while he would have certainly spoken less than fifteen minutes in accepting the award, perhaps he would have said something like this, from an interview with Emmy magazine in 1982:
“I don’t want you to go away thinking I’m bitter about television. Television has been wonderful to me, and I have a great life. I do what I want, and I make a lot of money, and I enjoy everything I do. I come and go as I please. I tell people exactly what I think of them. It’s no way to make friends, but it short-circuits a lot of trouble. I have no complaints whatsoever.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Herbert Brodkin's induction in 1999.