The late Quinn Martin was a benevolent dictator. Not a stereotypical, cigar-chomping Hollywood mogul, as the press sometimes depicted him. No, he was a super well-organized, super hard-working, super-creative … benevolent dictator. They're his own words.
"People compare me to the old moguls of the movies," said Martin in a lengthy 1983 interview from The Producer's Medium, by Horace Newcomb and Robert S. Alley. “And I am really a controller. I believe in control. When I say I am a benevolent dictator, I really mean that. I was always brought up that the guy at the top had the responsibility of control … I grew up in this town seeing strong father-figure images: Mayer, Cohen, Warner, Zukor. So I patterned my style without even thinking about it.”
He patterned himself after Mayer? Warner? Superficially, maybe. But the "benevolent" part, to hear his friends and family tell it, was more integral to Martin's style. Karl Malden, who starred in Martin's Streets of San Francisco, will tell you his friend was a "handshake guy," and "totally honest." Robert Stack, who starred in Martin's The Untouchables, talks about how this dictator would listen to ideas from anyone in the crew, top to bottom.
Here's how Martin explained the seeming oxymoron: "We laughed when I used the term benevolent dictator," he said. “But I do believe that it's necessary to have a single focus or point of view [to a show]. Once that is established, I give people a lot of freedom … I mean, we all worked together to a point where the company is the producer … Two of my best directors are former script clerks … But there is a stamp that is placed on each show. You create a point of view in terms of story, look, casting, everything else. Then people can do as much as they want.”
That is as good as any summary of the Quinn Martin formula — a technique that, coupled with Martin's legendary Sisyphean endurance, produced some of the most compelling single character-driven drama series in television history. Maybe the most compelling. (And, he would probably want added, the most logically, narratively plotted — for Martin was a stickler for storyline.) Here's a partial QM Productions portfolio: The Untouchables, The Fugitive, The FBI, The Invaders, Barnaby Jones, Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, Dan August — a total of 16 network series, 20 movies for television. At one point, QM put four shows in the top 10, all for ABC: The FBI, Cannon, Streets of San Francisco, and Dan August.
This achievement, his widow believes, was the high point of his career. "That was very satisfying for him," said Muffett Martin Bowie. “What really pleased him was that the public liked what he made. You know, he thought the public was owed a certain amount. He thought that people liked beginnings, middles, ends. Some people said that the audience wouldn't know the difference, but he always felt the audience did know the difference.”
Quinn Martin grew up around film, quite literally. His father was film editor and producer Martin Cohen, the man credited with inventing the "changeover" reel in theaters to facilitate uninterrupted screenings. Born in New York City May 22, 1922, Martin moved to Los Angeles at age two, eventually attending Fairfax High School (with his pal, Ricardo Montalban). He was weighing ambitions of journalism when World War II broke out, and instead joined the Army. Young Quinn saw combat in Europe as part of the Signal Corps, and was eventually shipped to the Philippines, where his unit was to intercept the first message that the Germans had surrendered. Returning to the States sick with a tropical illness, and a permanent back injury suffered in the war (when a wall collapsed on him), the man soon healed enough to enter UC Berkeley. His journalistic aims had given way to more artistic notions, and he turned to creative writing "till it came out of my ears," as he put it, graduating with a B.A. in 1949. Says daughter Jill, "He always told me that writing was the way to start out, that if you could write, you could use that skill to go anywhere."
Martin chose to go into his dad's business, securing work as a cutter — film editor — at Universal and MGM. Son Cliff picks up the story:
“He realized that he was stuck in the long-term for advancement, as an editor. So he moved over to the production side, and was suddenly able to supervise people that it would have otherwise taken seven years to reach the equivalent position.”
Martin wrote his way into that production job. He wanted to prove that he was a creator at heart, not merely a cutter. "I don't think a producer is a producer," he once said, "if he can't write or fix a script by himself." Prolific, the man sold enough scripts in a short time to establish a reputation of sufficient size that when a producer on The Jane Wyman Show was fired, Quinn got the job. The year was 1957. Next stop: Desilu Playhouse. Seems Desi Arnaz wanted to work up a two-hour special, The Untouchables, and tapped Martin for the task. It was a television movie, really — arguably the first one. Emblematic of what was to be Martin's real contribution to television — to treat the little screen like it was the big one — The Untouchables proved a critical and popular hit. Arnaz, realizing he had something special on his hands, promptly asked Martin to turn Elliot Ness and company into a series.
"In those days," said Untouchables star Robert Stack, "doing a television series was kind of a dirty word." (Before taking the job, Stack was an Academy Award-nominated film actor for Written on the Wind.) “I told Quinn, and I told Desi, that there have been four or five actors who have done series, and have “died": Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck and others. And Desi said, in front of Quinn, ‘It’s going to be the best damn series in television.’ I said, ‘Tell you what, Desi, if it's no good, I'll kill you.’” Stack laughed at the memory.
“The bottom line was that Quinn brought motion picture technology to TV series. He brought special effects, cinematography … In other words, Jack Webb used to stand up in front of a wall, and that was pretty much it. But Quinn shot night for night, on location, and we wound up with an Emmy for cinematography. We wound up with the best actors in America (Thomas Mitchell and young Robert Redford guested, among others). Quinn took a medium and he made it have class to a degree that in the first year, the show got four Emmy Awards.”
Stack soon got a taste of Martin's leviathan capacity for work. Sixteen-hour days were the norm. Martin seemed to require no sleep. The Untouchables, which tallied 120 episodes in four years, became a sort of untouchable production.
"They called us fanatics," said Stack. “We were out on 40 acres in the boondocks, blowing the hell out of everything with machine guns! There were very few visitors. They sort of left us alone and hoped we didn't kill each other! But Quinn was trying to pour a quart of water into a half-pint glass. By that I mean, he was trying to make something better than it had a ‘right to be.’ You had to push something to the extreme … He did not accept ‘good enough.’ I respected Quinn because he was not satisfied with the status quo, and there aren't many like that. There are the [Irving] Thalbergs and the [Brandon] Tartikoffs … Quinn was a special kind of guy, a visionary.”
It should be noted that at this point in the man's career, something else remarkable happened. A divorce’ (and father of a young son, Michael), Martin was dining at Dominick's in Beverly Hills one night, alone, when a couple chatted him up. Turns out the couple was on a blind date that was not going so well. They shot the breeze about TV, and Martin suggested they have dinner sometime. A few days later, they did — and when the male half got up to visit the men's room, Martin asked the female half for a date. Quinn and Muffett were married a year later, and stayed that way for the next 27. ("Such a silly story," laughs Muffett Martin Bowie.)
Next stop: ABC, which offered Martin a production deal — thus giving birth to QM Productions in 1960. One of the first QM shows was also one of the very best — the show that, up until the "Who Shot JR?" episode of Dallas, would eventually boast the largest audience ever for a single TV episode. The show was the Emmy-winning The Fugitive (best dramatic series), and the episode, of course, was the one where Dr. Richard Kimble corners the one-armed man. Of all his work, Martin held The Fugitive closest to his heart because it cemented the company's name as a producer of quality TV.
And another actor got a dose of Martin's drive: "David Janssen used to say, 'it's QM in the PM!’” laughed Stack. "Janssen would say, 'he never makes a friggin' show that doesn't run all night!"'
It was on a Sunday that ABC President Tom Moore phoned Martin at home and announced that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation had expressed a preference for Martin as the man to bring the FBI to television. Moore offered the moon-with-a-ring-around-it: an on-the-air deal for 32 episodes, 18 repeats, and complete control. Amazingly, the benevolent dictator balked, pleading philosophical incompatibility. "I am much more politically left of the FBI," he told Moore. At last, he relented, explaining, "it's very difficult when the president of the network calls you 10 times and you're offered … the kind of show you like and is monumentally good financially."
Enter J. Edgar Hoover. Martin flew to D.C. to meet with Hoover — who, he said, spent part of their short meeting ranting and raving about Martin Luther King. Martin was then turned over to second in command, Cartha DeLoach, who was to become a longtime friend and confidant. DeLoach wanted a program that would promote the Bureau, but promised Martin he could have carte blanche with stories, as long as no informants were named, etc. Instantly, 4,000 FBI case files were turned over to QM — almost tantamount to receiving 4,000 scripts! One that Martin quickly passed on was the story of three civil rights workers killed in Mississippi in 1964. Why did he pass? He didn't feel a weekly series could do the story justice. So he turned it into a TV movie, Attack on Terror, starring Wayne Rogers, Ned Beatty and Rip Torn. It received a 40 share two nights running on CBS, and was, Muffett Martin Bowie notes, one of the man's proudest achievements. Meanwhile, The FBI debuted, starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.
"The FBI approved Quinn," Mrs. Bowie said, “and he wasn't sure he would be able to do the show with their butting in and restrictions in terms of procedure [like use of handcuffs in a particular situation, etc.] But he was able to battle them through. After a while they realized the shows were good, and eased up. Some of the people on that show always felt their phones were bugged, but no one ever really knew!”
A who's who of stars — the kind of high-profile presences who carry their personalities from role to role — wandered in and out of QM series over the years, including Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Charles Bronson, Sylvester Stallone, Diane Keaton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Don Johnson, Leslie Nielsen, Suzanne Pleshette (as well as a potent list of directors: Sydney Pollack, Mark Rydell, Joe Sargent among them.) Michael Douglas got his start in the long-running QM show Streets of San Francisco. Karl Malden got his start there, too — as a TV star, that is. It raises the issue of Martin's belief in character-driven drama.
"With Karl Malden, with Bob Stack, with anybody," Martin remembered in The Producer's Medium, “I would sit down for hours before I ever started a series and find out everything about that guy. We'd get a tape going and I knew what he eats for breakfast, his hobbies, whatever. I tried to get that man's emotional attitudes involved in the character because I feel that the character in a show should only be about 15 percent of the person. If you're playing a college professor, I've got to play it as you, because you're going to play it better … That's the way stars were made when I grew up. Clark Gable played Clark Gable whether he was playing Rhett Butler or anyone else.”
Martin had long planned to cast the inimitable Malden in a cop series, but the veteran film star had had next-to-zero interest in TV. “Before Streets, he called me a couple of times to do a series with him," remembered Malden, “and I kept saying ‘No, no, no.’ The third time he called — this was over a long period of time — he said, ‘Now don't say no until I finish!’ He said, ‘I've got a show based on a novel, Streets of San Francisco. No pilot, 26 weeks guaranteed.’ I said, ‘I'm listening.’ That was a year's work, right there. I read the novel, then the agents got involved.”
Malden reveres the memory of dealing with Martin. “The deal we set up on a handshake, he absolutely honored. I owned part of that show, and I can only tell you I've gotten every nickel that belongs to me. He was a handshake guy. That is all. He is the most honest man I have ever worked for.”
In that quality, the two men had something in common. After Streets was a success, Malden's agency suggesting renegotiating the deal for more money — standard operating procedure in Hollywood, really. Malden would have none of it. I said, ‘We signed a five-year deal, we gave our handshake, and that's the way we go.’ [The agency] didn't like it. Quinn heard about it, came to me and thanked me profusely. He said, ‘I've never had anyone do that before,’ and we became dear friends.”
When Quinn Martin finally sold QM Productions to produce feature films in 1979 (and spend a lot of time around his other lifelong passion, horse racing), he must have felt a little like Mayer, Warner, et.al. — in their latter years, when the business was moving away from domination by a few major studios. TV was changing. Shows were choppier, relying more on jump cuts and unexplained twists — a result of either more sophisticated audiences, or fractured attention spans. You no longer could sell a network on 36 advance episodes, either; four was more like it. And there was a meddlesome, committee mentality that Martin thought gummed up the works. Butting heads with increasingly powerful networks was taking the benevolence away from this dictator. As he told it:
“It got to the point that if you just fought for your point of view, you were looked upon as a heavy, and it just got to be a bloody bore. All my life, I had creative control and I fought for that before I fought for money … The people who put up the money always have the right to some input, but in the final analysis it should be you … The networks want total creative control now.”
Quinn Martin was cut down from a heart attack in 1987 at age 65, before he was able to launch his intended feature career. Telegrams and tributes flooded in — from former President Reagan, from John E. Otto, acting director of the FBI, and a number of educators. It seems Martin — and here's that benevolence part, again — established a scholarship in drama at UC Santa Clara, endowed a chair in perpetuity to the drama school at UC San Diego, lectured in entrepreneurship at USC, and in production at UCLA. One of the most touching tributes, and telling in terms of how loved the man was, came from the Musso and Frank Grill, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood (a favorite Martin venue). Manager Frederica Kaye promised to wash and polish QM's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, found outside the famed restaurant, each morning. "He shines very brightly not only in our memory," she wrote, "but also on the Walk of Fame."
Tales were many at his funeral — not of a man obsessed with work, which is how Martin might have portrayed himself — but of a gregarious guy who took keen interest in those around him, even strangers. A barber who lost his shop to the wrecking ball was re-established at a posh country club in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., courtesy of Martin. An owner of a tanning salon told QM of being bilked by a former owner, only to have Martin get on the phone to the attorney general's office to help her get her money back. And so forth. His daughter, Jill, a photographic artist, perhaps caught the great producer's essence:
“I think he had a mentor-type relationship with a lot of people. I think he especially had a soft spot for young writers because that's how he started out. He was a very generous person, not afraid to get involved in people's problems and help them. He always told me to do what I loved, and that success would come out of that.”
Quinn Martin was living proof of that advice.
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Quinn Martin's induction in 1997.