What Makes Sammy Run?

Sammy runs…right over you!

If you’re a media history geek like myself, you’ve probably heard the phrase “The Golden Age of Television” ad nauseum, but it refers to a now-hallowed period – most of the ‘50s – when many prime-time dramas were aired live, and tackled numerous social issues that the TV brass would quietly sweep under the rug in the ‘60s. Yes, the irony here is rich, considering the turbulent headlines of the Kennedy-Eisenhower years.

As far as television dramas go, it’s arguable that now represents a sort of golden age, as we’ve had The Sopranos, the criminally under-viewed The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and assorted Steven Bochco shows for emotional stimulation in the past two decades or so. Still, the live TV dramas of the cool medium’s growth years – and this era produced such talents as Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, and John Cassavetes – were no less electrifying for their time than Tony Soprano’s amoral suburban bloodletting is in ours. This is evidenced by Delbert Mann’s punchy adaptation of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 crackerjack tome What Makes Sammy Run?, premiered in 1959 on the Peacock Network’s Sunday Showcase, and now out on DVD.

What Makes Sammy Run? tells the tale of a slick, hungry gonif named Sammy Glick, who, through opportunistic backstabbing and lies, rises from lowly newspaper copy boy to film studio emperor, pushing aside friends and mentors in the process. The book was so controversial that numerous studio bigwigs, including Budd’s father B.P., warned him against submitting it for publication, but Schulberg stuck to his guns, sacrificing his footing in Tinseltown as “Sammy” shot up the bestseller charts.

What Makes Sammy Run? was presented for television once earlier, ten years before Mann’s project, with Jose Ferrer in the lead role, however, that version was little seen, as few households had sets, and that version may no longer exist. One could fill a book with details of failed attempts to bring Sammy’s story to the big screen, so, for now, the Sunday Showcase edition, aired in two parts, remains definitive.

Our protagonist, if you want to label him so, is played with white-hot, nervous intensity by the late Larry Blyden(a Danny Thomas lookalike), employed as a copy boy at a fictional Gotham daily, and his cheerful, loquacious demeanor does little to mask a seething hunger for upward mobility. Sammy insists that his current position is a good one, but adds, “If I still got it next year, it would stink!”

Sammy answers to Al Manheim(John Forsythe), a Ted-Koppelesque figure and veteran journalist, both exhilarated and chilled by Sammy’s steely determination. Odd for an early-Gen Xer like myself to see a youngish Forsythe, as I’m accustomed to the silver-haired Blake Carrington of the ‘80s potboiler Dynasty, but Forsythe made his bones in solid film and TV work in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and he gives Al a WASPy, professorial bearing, a perfect counterpoint to Blyden’s pushy striving.

After Sammy cons a heavyweight Hollywood producer into doing business with him, he’s off to LA to write his name in lights. Soon following him are Al, Sammy’s erstwhile squeeze Kit Sargent – the lovely Barbara Rush, a dead ringer for Faye Dunaway at the time – and another colleague, the hapless Julian, who’s in over his head trusting Mr. Glick.

Schulberg’s knife-edged dialogue stabs deep in this production, and fortunate we are that he adapted his book, as opposed to some hack with friends in high places. In one heated scene, as Al and Kit entreat Sammy to be fair with Julian, Glick screams, “What kind of sissy word is fair?!!” And after a perceived betrayal, Al, upon running into Sammy in a bar, exclaims, “Well, if it isn’t Sammy Glick, as I live and bleed.”

Later, as Sammy explains his philosophy of getting ahead – a twisted variation on ‘What’s good for General Motors is good for the country’ – to the horrified Kit, she mentions that Adolf Hitler shared a similar belief system, then says, “Sammy uber alles” and “Sieg heil!”, as she heads out the door. Her quips are especially pointed when you consider that Sammy is Jewish – as are most of the characters – and he’s being likened to the most renowned anti-Semite in history. It should be mentioned that although these are Jewish roles – and more explicitly so in the novel – it’s never actually stated in the teleplay, an indication, perhaps, of the timidity of the primarily Jewish executives guiding network TV.

Some years ago, you may recall Marlon Brando’s final appearance on Larry King Live, when he boldly stated that scheming, villainous Jews are all but unseen – prior to Entourage’s venal Ari Gold — in mainstream American films and television. There was virtually no publicity fallout for the film legend, and it’s easy to muse that only Marlon, an eccentric but godlike pop figure, could get away with such a pronouncement, however true it may be.

Anyone steeped in Hollywood history will know that all the major studios were founded by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and that Jews have been disproportionately represented in the picture biz. You may also be aware that they’ve traditionally avoided portrayals of themselves – good or bad – since the early days of Hollywood, in order to cool the fires of anti-Semitism, and fashion an idealized, assimilated America onscreen, as historian Neal Gabler lays out in his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, and its attendant miniseries Hollywoodism. Most Jewish actors played WASPs or other ethnicities onscreen, and if they did play Jewish, it was seldom a baddie.

In this tense climate, it’s hardly surprising that it was a terrific struggle to bring the story of Glick to television, and to allow Schulberg’s involvement. But What Makes Sammy Run? isn’t merely about the struggles of maintaining – or transcending – one’s ethnic identity in the American mosaic. Barry Levinson’s somber Avalon is a sharp meditation on that subject, but also a parable of socio-economic stratification and the desire to mingle with “the right people”, as Dina Merrill’s frosty Laurette Harrington puts it.

A patrician, statuesque blonde, Laurette is, to her own surprise, utterly smitten with movie world nightlife, slumming in La-La Land while her fellow country club swells vegetate on their verandas back home in Greenwich or Palm Beach. Sammy is eager to play in her gilt-encrusted sandbox, as Miss Harrington is the trophy Anglo-Saxon debutante he’s always lusted after. In his naivete, however, he never suspects that his golden-haired goddess plays the game even better than him.

Like many Jews of his generation, Sammy Glick came up fighting. His family didn’t summer at Kutsher’s, or take delivery of a new Packard every couple of years. His folks were uneducated strivers, eking out an existence in an overcrowded tenement neighborhood like Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Sammy reminds his detractors of this fact, and uses his hard-knock upbringing as an excuse for cutthroat dealings.

This reminds us of Sammy Glick’s spiritual son, Michael Douglas’ slippery Gordon Gekko, a mentor to Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox, who undergoes a Glickish transformation under his master’s tutelage in Oliver Stone’s anti-capitalist morality play Wall Street. Although Gekko possesses an easy, insinuating suavity that escapes Glick, they’re inarguably cut from the same cloth. Neither man hails from the Ivy League, which they resent for excluding them. And it seems likely that Stone, and his collaborator Stanley Weiser, studied What Makes Sammy Run? while they were plotting their film, because the parallels are striking.

Can it be a coincidence that John Forsythe’s Al and Hal Holbrook’s preachy Lou are both Manheims? Both men serve as a moral conscience to the young hotshots played by Blyden and Sheen, respectively. Both represent old-school thinking, musing about fairness, decency, and delayed gratification. But there’s little room for them in a world order of predatory capitalism, a world still lurking in the wings in ‘50s America, waiting to bare its fangs. A world which, in 2009, has led us into a global financial miasma some feel may never abate.

As a product of television’s early years, What Makes Sammy Run? has a different texture than its descendants. For one thing, as a live broadcast, it was shot on videotape, as opposed to film, the norm for prime-time dramas today. Live feeds do occasionally expose little glitches, however. There’s an amusing moment where the camera tilts askew suddenly, then rights itself, and you can picture the cameraman tripping over an undetected wire. And non-diegetic music is scant, letting the drama stand on its own, without telling the audience which emotions to feel. These factors impart a somewhat stagy feel to the program, and if it lacks the polish of more lavish productions, the pathos comes through undiluted.

Extras are quite skimpy in this DVD release. We do get a lengthy interview with the aged Schulberg, which includes subtitles, as the writer’s voice is gravelly and asthmatic, as might be expected of anyone of such advanced years. Some intriguing tidbits he shares: his membership in the Communist Party and eventual disgust with the party’s stark cruelty in the USSR, his decision to abandon Hollywood after publishing “Sammy”, and the revelation that famed scribe Jerry Wald was the inspiration for Glick, although he insists that the film business was – and is — infested with Glick-like tricksters.

Would that What Makes Sammy Run? could be dismissed as a period piece from a less progressive era, but we know better. Michael Tolkin’s Griffin Mill – coolly portrayed by Tim Robbins in Robert Altman’s wicked corporate satire The Player – emerges as yet another craven Glick figure clawing his way to the top. Sammy has all too many disciples, but nobody does it better than the master.

RATING 7 / 10