David Susskind was dressed in his navy lieutenant's uniform when, in the winter of 1947, he showed up at the Manhattan headquarters of the talent agency Century Artists. He stood at a compact five feet seven inches tall. He once described his face as resembling “a bankrupt Dana Andrews,” the film actor who played the alienated World War II veteran in The Best Years of Our Lives. Susskind had a large head, with thick, wavy brown hair on top. His complexion was smooth, and his skin milky white, as if it had never been exposed to sunlight.
Susskind had become a familiar figure in waiting areas of the East Fifty-seventh Street office. He had made several appointments for job interviews with Dick Dorso, the dapper president of the company that represented such stars as Judy Holliday, Ethel Merman, and the Andrews Sisters at a time when radio was still the primary source for home entertainment, although not for much longer. Susskind finally made it through Dorso's door when another partner at the firm, Al Levy, had noticed how the young man kept showing up. Levy told Dorso that anyone with that much perseverance deserved a look.
Once he had an audience, Susskind launched into the details of his education at Harvard, his record of service during World War II, and his stints as a publicity agent for two movie studios. As Susskind summed up his story, he leaned that large head across Dorso's desk and fixed his intense blue eyes on him. His voice took on urgency as he said, “Now at this point, I should be able to stand up and say to you that I can bring clients here—Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Greta Garbo. I can't. I don't have a client. All I have is myself. But I think it's awfully good.”
Dorso had seen and heard many agency job aspirants, but never anyone with the intensity Susskind had on that day. “He made the best pitch I've ever had made to me,” Dorso recalled. “Most people come in and say, ‘I love show business and I want to be in it, and if you have anything here that I can do, I would love to do it.’ Those are the pitches that you get. And his was totally different. He said it so forcefully, so clearly, and so imaginatively.” Dorso hired Susskind as a junior agent for $85 a week. As he would prove over his career, David Susskind was a brilliant salesman and never better than when he was selling himself.
David Howard Susskind was born in New York City on December 19, 1920. Before he was one year old, his family moved to Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. By the end of the nineteenth century, Brookline was calling itself the richest town in America. When Susskind grew up there during the 1920s and 1930s, the children of Jewish and Irish families of different income levels attended the community's highly regarded public schools together, mostly in harmony. Susskind, who was Jewish, claimed he never experienced anti-Semitism during those years. “It was almost a place of fantasy,” he once said. Susskind spent most of his youth living in one of the redbrick attached buildings on Claflin Road, in a modest tree-lined neighborhood. His father, Benjamin, the son of Russian immigrants, spent most of his adult life working as a sales agent for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. While he was intelligent and had an appreciation for high culture, Ben Susskind spent his days “cold-canvassing,” as they called it in the insurance business. He went door to door in Boston neighborhoods to sell policies and take in premiums of 35 cents for $1,000 worth of coverage. “I had a sense that he was working far below what he thought he might be doing,” said Norman Lear, a first cousin of David Susskind. “Ben was a quiet man. He was meek.” Lear remembered the Susskinds living a reasonably comfortable middle-class existence in Brookline. But in the years after the Depression hit, in 1929, there were some lean times. David always carried the memory of the family car being repossessed by creditors, his son, Andrew, said.
Susskind described Saturday afternoon as a “sacred” time in the family house hold, when his father listened to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts over the radio. Sundays were devoted to attending lectures at Old South Church and Ford Hall in Boston. When he was thirteen years old, David began to join his father, reluctantly at first. But it soon became their Sunday ritual. Susskind recalled hearing the political theorist Harold Laski, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, and the economist John Maynard Keynes on some of those occasions. He was in the audience when Orson Welles and the Mercury Players came through town with a production of Julius Caesar. David soon developed an appetite for culture and the exchange of ideas.
Susskind once described his mother, the former Frances Lear, or Fanny as she was often called, as “the antithesis of Father.” Norman Lear, the son of Frances's brother, said the description was accurate. “Fanny was clearly the dominant figure,” he said. “But she would be the dominant figure if she had a hundred people in the house. She was a firebrand of a woman. A ballbuster on wheels.” Also of Russian descent, Frances Susskind's family settled in and around New Haven, Connecticut, in the late nineteenth century. Her generation of Lears was a collection of rogues and rascals. When Norman Lear was ten years old, his father, Jack, began a three-year jail sentence after being involved in a get-rich-quick scheme. Lear said he often described his father as “having a screw in his head which, if I could have turned it a sixteenth of an inch one way or another he would have known right from wrong.” Another of Frances Lear's brothers, Eli, was a radio sports announcer who took on a second career as a holdup man. The newspapers nicknamed him “the Nylon Bandit” after he was arrested in 1946 for the armed robbery of a store that sold women's undergarments. Frances may also have gotten in trouble with the law for floating bad checks, Norman Lear recalled. When the Lears got together for weddings or holiday gatherings, the occasions always ended unpleasantly. “My friend Herb Gardner spoke of his family living at the end of their nerves and the tops of their lungs,” Lear said. “I've always credited him, but I've always said that of my family.”
As different as their personalities may have been, Ben and Frances Suss-kind both recognized the intellectual capabilities of their eldest son. “He was precocious and exceedingly bright,” said Norman Lear. “They treated him as an adult. His mother gave him the car keys when he was fourteen.” Susskind said automobile privileges were a reward for good grades. But he developed a true affinity for English literature at an early age, having had to learn Shakespeare soliloquies in the seventh grade at Michael Driscoll Elementary School in Brookline.
Susskind took pride in winning a William H. Lincoln medal for his English studies at Brookline High School. Many years later, his second daughter, Diana, would wear the medal on a charm bracelet. In his junior year, he became news editor of the student newspaper Th e Sagamore. His first byline was an editorial that praised the student marshals’ efforts at policing the school. It ran adjacent to a humor column written by Murray Susskind, who was twenty months younger than David and spent much of his life in the shadow of his high- achieving brother. A doctor who performed cataract surgery on Frances Susskind in the 1960s said she once introduced Murray to him as “my other son.” Susskind also had a sister, Dorothy, who was eight years younger.
When Susskind graduated from Brookline High with honors in 1938, he listed his ambitions in the school's yearbook as “college, fame and fortune.” He received financial aid as he went on to study at the University of Wisconsin. There he met Phyllis Briskin, a bright, dark-haired coed who was not afraid to speak her mind. She came from a financially well-off Bronx, New York, family. Her father had been a drummer boy in tsarist Russia before coming to the United States, where he found success in the theater concessions business. Susskind and Briskin married in August 1939. “She was very beautiful when she was young and had a mouth on her like a sailor,” Andrew Suss-kind said of his mother. “That was a pretty compelling combination in those days.”
Ben Susskind was said to be opposed to his son marrying at the age of eighteen. Norman Lear, two years younger than David, said he envied his cousin. “I remember being so jealous because he was married and having sex every night,” he said.
In the fall of 1940, Susskind and his bride moved to Boston. He transferred to Harvard University's Department of Government and began to consider a career in teaching. “I guess what I was seeking was a captive audience,” he would say. Phyllis Susskind attended nearby Simmons College. For his honors thesis, Susskind wrote a lengthy analysis of organized labor's attitudes toward the events leading to World War II. Other papers he wrote on philosophy and literature reflected a genuine intellectual curiosity. Off campus, Susskind was likely getting another kind of education. He worked as a candy vendor at the Old Howard Theater, a famed burlesque house in Boston's Scollay Square. Between performances by such renowned striptease artists as the astoundingly curvaceous Sherry Britton and the snake-handling Zorita, Susskind hawked chocolate bars that promised an arousing picture card insert under the wrapper. “I would hold up a card and say, ‘In each and every Hershey bar, there is a card so revealing that we can't describe it to you,’ ” he recalled. Over time, Harvard and the Old Howard reflected the full spectrum of Susskind's interests and instincts.
After his graduation from Harvard in 1942, Susskind worked briefly as a junior economist for the War Labor Board until his commission in the navy came through. His four years of service during World War II started out with the dreary assignment of selling insurance to sailors in New York, quite possibly a dismal reminder of his father's toiling. He finished with a full year at sea as a communications officer on the attack transport Mellette, where he witnessed some of the most brutal action at Iwo Jima. “It seemed that all the wounded in the world must be here,” he recounted after one of the teams of the Twenty-fourth Marines landed on the island. “Men with shattered limbs, arms and bodies lay everywhere.”
In the spring of 1946, Susskind returned to civilian life and settled into a New York apartment with Phyllis and their first child, Pamela. Th eir second daughter, Diana, was born in September. The routine of the navy—even the time spent on the Millette—was an “excruciatingly stultifying experience,” Susskind said. It made him believe he was ill suited for the quiet life of a teacher, so he sought a more exciting career path in show business. He applied for a position at Warner Bros. publicity office. The job entailed planting newspaper column items about the studio's stars. Susskind once recalled how his learned persona put off the head publicist who did the hiring.
“You can't do this kind of work unless you're born to it,” the publicist told him.
With his innate confidence, Susskind said, “I can do anything.”
The publicist asked: “Can you change the way you talk with the big words?”
Susskind got the job, but soon left for a better one in the publicity department at Universal International Pictures, where his responsibilities included going on promotional tours with movie stars. Before long he determined he could never be happy with the publicity man's position in the show business food chain. During a trip with Yvonne DeCarlo in a small Texas town, he watched with envy as the actress's agent swooped into town and just as quickly got back on a plane to Hollywood after securing her approval of another film project. “I hated it,” Susskind told journalist Tom Morgan years later. “I was always the least important member of an actress's entourage. Her manager was important, her agent was important, her lover was important. I wasn't. So I started looking for a job as an agent because what you had to say then was important.”
After Susskind made his entry into the agency business by winning over Dorso at Century Artists in 1947, he immediately demonstrated that he was built for the job. For the persuasive Susskind, hearing the word “no” was the beginning of a negotiation. He was described as a Sherman tank that could not go in reverse. Dorso learned as much when a call came in that year from a West Coast agent, asking for help in resurrecting the career of his client Lucille Ball. “We represented the top agency in California, Berg-Allenberg,” Dorso recalled. “They represented Clark Gable and Judy Garland, and hundreds of other people. And we represented them in New York. So Phil Berg called me one day and he said, ‘Lucille Ball is coming to New York. She is dead in pictures. We can't give her away. I'm taking advantage of you by asking you to represent her in New York, because there's nothing you can do, either. But she's a client, and you represent our clients, so I'm asking you to do it.’ That was the gist of the conversation. And Lucille Ball came into New York. And so I called David into the office, and I said, ‘What can we do with Lucille Ball? What can we do?’ So we thought, and we talked about it at great length. And we finally had the idea—and I don't know whether it was his or mine—of having her go out and play summer stock. We found a play for her that had been successful on Broadway, called Dream Girl. No one would buy her. So David and I decided to invest the money ourselves. We thought that the play would work. He went out and forced—I don't know how he did it— the summer stock people to buy her in the play. He worked like a Trojan. He got the rights to the play. Made her do it when she was doubtful that she could do it. That's the wild kind of energy that he would invest in a project. The play opened in Princeton and she was a smash. The show was a huge hit and it went for forty weeks and it ended up in Los Angeles where she got her radio show. And she became one of the biggest stars in the country again. It was a direct result of Dream Girl and David sticking with it and finally getting it done.”
While working at NBC during the late 1940s and early 1950s, network executive Michael Dann said he dreaded having to turn down a pitch from Susskind. “When David went into a meeting he looked you in the eye, and if you turned him down, he could make it so personal you can't imagine,” he said. “He would explode at you. He was the toughest agent I had to deal with in my life.”
Within his first year on the job, Susskind was overseeing the New York office of Century Artists while the firm's partners were spending more time in Hollywood in an attempt to do more business in the movies. But a personal rift among them brought one, Al Levy, back east. Levy was a lawyer from Tucson, Arizona, where his family had a successful department store. He had been a personal manager for Frank Sinatra in the 1940s and produced the singer's radio show. He also discovered Doris Day in 1946 when she was a band singer and was instrumental in guiding her early career. “Al worked very well in the organization,” said Dorso. “But an unfortunate thing happened. He was in love with Doris Day, and she fell in love with Marty Melcher. And it really split the agency.” Melcher, the third partner in the agency, had been married to Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters, another Century Artist client. “They told Al that they wanted him out and that Doris was going to be managed solely by Marty Melcher,” according to screenwriter Larry Cohen, a protégé of Levy. Melcher divorced Andrews and became Doris Day's third husband.
After Levy joined Susskind back in New York, the two sensed that radio's days as a major purveyor of big-name stars were numbered. By late 1948, the Federal Communications Commission had issued one hundred licenses for television stations throughout the United States. Even when carrying only a few hours of programming a day, the new medium caused a major upheaval in the way Americans were spending their leisure time. The cities with TV saw a major decline in movie attendance. Jukebox receipts dropped. Library book circulation started to slide. Within three years, the national audience ratings for radio's biggest star—Bob Hope—were down by nearly 50 percent.
As the stars of radio moved to television, they were most likely to be represented by the same established agents. But television was generating a new crop of writers, directors, and producers. Levy and Susskind decided to focus their efforts on representing them. The two men were well suited as partners. The avuncular Levy had family money and experience. He chain-smoked cigars and when he spoke sounded a bit like James Cagney in the gangster movie Public Enemy. Susskind, seven years younger, pulsated with tenacity and drive. They soon began to pursue clients. But even as they gathered new business for their venture, they were still pocketing the agent fees on Century's New York clients. Word eventually got back to Dorso and Melcher. On Christmas Eve in 1948, Susskind and Levy found that their keys no longer worked in the doors of Century Artists.
OFFICIALLY SEVERED from the company, Levy and Susskind formally chris tened their new firm Talent Associates Ltd. (Susskind, a budding Anglophile, suggested adding the Ltd. affectation.) The two men set up headquarters in a townhouse on East Fiftieth Street between Park and Lexington avenues. Every day they rode up a tiny rickety elevator to a floor on which they shared a switchboard operator with a theatrical producer. Within four months, Suss-kind and Levy landed their first client, the Philco Corporation, a major radio and appliance manufacturer that had moved into making TV sets. Talent Associates negotiated the deals for writers and directors who worked on an hour-long live dramatic show that Philco sponsored on NBC. At the time, advertisers controlled TV programming, buying the entire time period from the network and then supplying the show. Philco's total cost for doing a one- hour program in 1948 was about $25,000 a week, a small marketing investment, since television set sales were on their way to exponential growth. But the producers struggled with the challenge that faced much of the nascent tele vision business, finding enough material to constantly feed the pipeline of a weekly live show. Videotape was not yet in use. Kinescopes—filmed off a TV monitor for playback—were generally of too poor quality for broadcast. The major movie studios were not yet in the TV production business. While movie companies were early investors in the technology of television, they were still wary of embracing the new competitor for their audiences. They held back on making their vast libraries of films available for broadcast. Hollywood studios also had the money to maintain their hold on the best and most popular stage plays for adaptations. As a result, a show such as The Philco Tele vision Play house had to settle for material the movies had rejected. Susskind and Levy signed the Book-of-the-Month Club as a client, in the hope of getting the Philco show access to new novels the company featured. But Fred Coe, director and producer of Tele vision Play house, urged Susskind and Levy to allow him to develop a new generation of young writers who would create original stories and scripts for television. Coe was a Mississippi native who had studied directing at Yale Drama School, a breeding ground for many of television's early producers. He landed a job as a studio manager for NBC during the mid-1940s when its New York station was broadcasting to only the few thousand homes that had television. After overseeing a number of early live-drama presentations for NBC, Coe was put in charge of The Philco Tele vision Play house, which aired live on Sunday nights out of Studio 8G of the RCA Building in New York's Rockefeller Center.
Coe was famous for his temper tantrums. The constant pressure of mounting a new live production every week likely contributed to a drinking problem.
But he was a father figure—Coe and his writers affectionately called each other “Pappy”—able to nurture talent and create an atmosphere that was the closest thing to a bohemia of the electronic age. Writers such as Paddy Chayefsky, Horton Foote, Robert Alan Aurthur, and J. P. Miller, all prolific in movies, television, or theater during the decades that followed, received their earliest exposure on Tele vision Play house. For Philco, they created powerful, emotionally charged human dramas in intimate settings that could be conveyed within the technical limitations of a cramped soundstage. Television sets were still luxury items for most Americans in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and those who could afford them were upscale and fairly well educated. There was little concern about scripts being too smart or sophisticated for viewers. Coe gave his writers an unbeatable combination of creative freedom and repeat business.
Writer-producer Robert Alan Aurthur encapsulated the era with this story. He was in Fred Coe's office when Paddy Chayefsky came in to pitch what became Marty, one of the most memorable live dramatic plays of the era when it aired in 1953. “Paddy came in and said, ‘I want to write a love story about a fat butcher in the Bronx,’ ” Aurthur said. “And Fred said, ‘Go and write it.’ ” What Coe got was a poignant, relatable portrayal of a lonely single man in his thirties who breaks away from the overbearing commitments of family and the pressure of friends to find his own life through a romantic relationship. “Nobody knew what they were doing, so there was nobody to say no,” was how Sidney Lumet, one of several great film directors whose career started in early television, once described the atmosphere.
Susskind was an effective buffer between the show's creative types and Philco's ad agency. He also learned about dealing with writers and developing material by watching how Coe shepherded his staff at story conferences. Eventually, executives at the Music Corporation of America took notice of how The Philco Tele vision Play house was prospering under the new management of Talent Associates. In 1949, MCA called Susskind and offered him a position as an agent in its New York office. It was a heady opportunity for a twenty-eight- year-old, and with Levy's blessing he pursued it.
MCA was big-time show business. At the time it represented such major stars as Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny, Cary Grant, and Marlon Brando. The agency's New York office on Madison Avenue and Fifty-seventh Street had a stately, elegant, English look, with dark wood furniture and lithographs of racehorses on the walls. Susskind adhered to the dress code established by agency bosses Jules Stein and Lew Wasserman. Dark suit. White shirt. Blue or gray tie. Writer Walter Bernstein described their look as “eager undertakers.” While Susskind was successful at selling projects with MCA clients, he chafed at what he believed was a stifling corporate culture that had little use for individuality and executives he described as Orwellian. “I was known as the egghead, the troublemaker—the iconoclast,” he once said. “But I was making a lot of money.”
One of Susskind's discoveries as an MCA agent came right off his family tree. In 1950, Susskind was on a West Coast trip where he saw comedian Danny Thomas at Ciro's, a Los Angeles nightclub. Thomas had killed the crowd with his six-minute routine. After the performance, Susskind asked the comedian who prepared the material. Thomas told him it was Norman Lear and his partner Ed Simmons.
Lear was living with his own young family in a one-room bungalow in Los Angeles at the time. He was selling baby pictures during the day and developing comedic routines with Simmons at night. A few years had passed since he had last heard from his cousin David. After seeing the Danny Thomas show, Susskind called Lear and told him to get to New York as soon as he could. MCA was putting together another season of Ford Star Revue, a comedy variety show fronted by Jack Haley, the actor who played the Tin Woodsman in The Wizard of Oz. Susskind wanted to make Lear and Simmons part of the package as writers for the show.
“Listen,” he told Lear. “I'm going to New York tonight. Send a couple of samples of your work over to the hotel so I can show them to Haley.”
“What samples?” said Lear, who revealed that he and Simmons had no material other than the one Thomas routine. They had never even seen a tele vision script and certainly did not know how to write one.
“Listen,” Susskind said. “You guys write?”
“You think you write funny?”
“You write a couple of funny things, send it over to the hotel, and I'll give someone $30 to make it look like a television script.”
A few days later, Lear and Simmons were in New York working on the Haley program. The show lasted less than three months. But Susskind landed the pair their next job as writers for The Colgate Comedy Hour, a wildly popu-
Excerpted from David Susskind by Stephen Battaglio.
Copyright © 2010 by Stephen Battaglio.
Published in 2010 by St. Martin's Press
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