[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/58445?ns=guardian&pageName=Arnold+Laven+obituary%3AArticle%3A1310261&ch=Television+%26amp%3B+radio&c3=Guardian&c4=Television+%28Culture%29%2CCultural+Olympiad%2CUS+news%2CChicago+%28Travel%29%2CLos+Angeles+%28Travel%29%2CPaul+Newman+%28Film%29%2CBroadway&c6=Ronald+Bergan&c7=09-Nov-25&c8=1310261&c9=Article&c10=Obituary&c11=Television+%26amp%3B+radio&c13=&c25=&c30=content&h2=GU%2FTelevision+%26amp%3B+radio%2FTelevision[/img]Producer-director behind a raft of 20th-century TV classics
It is no exaggeration to declare that the name of the film and television producer-director Arnold Laven, who has died aged 87, has been seen by millions of people all over the world, even if it might not have registered. Think of all those viewers of the TV series The Rifleman (1959-63) and The Big Valley (1965-69), made by Laven's company, Levy-Gardner-Laven Productions, many episodes of which he directed.
Laven was also credited as director on scores of episodes of such archetypal 1970s series as Marcus Welby MD, Gunsmoke, Mannix, Ironside, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Rockford Files and Fantasy Island. In the 1980s he directed, among others, several episodes of Hill Street Blues and The A-Team. In addition, Laven directed 11 feature films from 1952 to 1969, some for companies other than his own.
In the late 1930s, the Chicago-born Laven moved with his family to Los Angeles, where he got a job in the mail room at Warner Bros. In 1943 he met Jules V Levy and Arthur Gardner while they were making training films for the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Force, stationed at Culver City, California. The three friends determined to start their own independent film company, which they did in 1951, six years after they got out of the air force.
The trio's first production was Without Warning! (1952), produced by Levy and Gardner and directed by Laven. Shot in a semi-documentary style, it is a taut low-budget film noir about a killer (Adam Williams) who plunges garden shears into blonde women because his blonde wife left him for another man.
Vice Squad (1953), a day in the busy life of a police captain (Edward G Robinson), was directed by Laven like an efficient traffic cop. Down Three Dark Streets (1954) ends after a chase-rescue-capture under the huge hillside sign that spells Hollywood. The film also typified the best of Hollywood's low-key crime thriller tradition, mainly due to the well-paced direction of Laven, who kept up the tension to the very end.
Arguably, The Rack (1956), made for MGM, was Laven's best film as director. A sensitively handled drama, it starred Paul Newman, in only his second movie, as a brainwashed prisoner of the Korean war who returns home to face a court martial trial for treason. In contrast was The Monster That Challenged the World (1957), the eponymous creature being a giant mollusc, frightening enough to please sci-fi fans, while the human element was more interesting than in most films of this genre.
Anna Lucasta (1959), the first all-black Broadway play, was turned into an all-black picture starring Eartha Kitt in the title role. She gives a nervously energetic performance as a prostitute on the San Diego waterfront whose attempts to start a new life are ruined when her shady past catches up with her. Laven's rather stagy direction failed to restrain some of the more melodramatic moments, but the film was a step forward in presenting African-Americans on screen.
Levy, Gardner and Laven were also instrumental in giving leading roles to black people in their TV series and in films such as their production of Sydney Pollack's revisionist western, The Scalphunters (1968), in which Ossie Davis stars opposite Burt Lancaster, and in Sam Whiskey (1969), the last feature Laven directed, co-starring Burt Reynolds.
The liberal-minded Laven, as producer-director-writer, had earlier shown more sympathy for the redskins over the palefaces in Geronimo (1962), starring the rugged, blue-eyed Chuck Connors as the famous Apache chief. Connors was Lucas McCain in 168 episodes of The Rifleman, as fast with his Winchester as most men are with a six-shooter. The hugely popular, Emmy-nominated series promoted fair play toward one's opponents, equal rights and the need to limit the use of violence. "A man doesn't run from a fight, Mark," Lucas tells his motherless teenage son (Johnny Crawford), "but that doesn't mean you go looking to run to one." The convincing father-son relationship was inspired by Laven's own with his son, Larry. According to Laven: "Chuck's relationship with Johnny was just what we wanted, tough and straightforward, with love, but also a sense of making a boy be prepared to grow."
The other standout TV series from Laven's production company was The Big Valley, which had the advantage of much outdoor colour photography, the formidable Barbara Stanwyck as the matriarchal ranch-owner Victoria Barkley, and scores of well-known guest stars.
Laven is survived by Wally, his wife of 58 years, his son and a daughter.
• Arnold Laven, producer, director and screenwriter, born 23 February 1922; died 13 September 2009
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