Friday, May 30, 2008

Joseph Pevney, 1911-2008

The Los Angeles Times has reported that Joseph Pevney, the film and television director who directed some of the most memorable episodes of the original Star Trek TV series, died on May 18 at the venerable age of 96.

Pevney was a former Broadway actor who played supporting roles in several notable films noir—always inevitably the “sidekick”—in the late 1940s before turning his talents to directing feature films. If the Internet Movie Database is correct, I count he directed 32 feature films during the period 1950-1961, many of these B pictures with short shooting schedules, to be sure, but a remarkable stretch in any case. He made his debut as a director with Shakedown (1950), a film noir with Howard Duff, Brian Donlevy and the inimitable Lawrence Tierney. I seem to be one of the few who admire Pevney's atmospheric The Strange Door (1951), featuring two fine performances by Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton. And although the film was made late in the actor's career, the Errol Flynn-starring Instanbul (1957) has a lot to recommend it, including a reasonably good role for Nat King Cole. The James Cagney-starring Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), about the silent film star Lon Chaney, is also widely admired, while Torpedo Run (1958) is a classic of the subgenre (pun intended). Other films Pevney directed during that prolific decade include Meet Danny Wilson (1951), starring Frank Sinatra and Shelley Winters; 3 Ring Circus (1954), starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis; Female on the Beach (1955), starring Joan Crawford; and Twilight for the Gods (1958), starring Rock Hudson and Cyd Charisse.

Beginning in 1961, he turned to television, directing episodes of numerous series such as Wagon Train, The Munsters, The Fugitive, Bonanza, The Virginian, Adam-12, Marcus Welby, M.D., Emergency, The Incredible Hulk, and Fantasy Island—all of which are television shows that are as familiar, to me anyway, as old friends. But it was, of course, Star Trek (TOS) that became Pevney’s most enduring television credit as a director and made him a familiar name to Star Trek fans.

Since his death, several Star Trek fan sites have noted that Pevney directed fourteen episodes of the original series—many of them fan favorites—tying with the late Marc Daniels as the credited director of the most episodes. He directed those favored episodes over the course of 1967, averaging slightly over one show a month:

Arena – 1/19/67
The Return of the Archons – 2/9/67
A Taste of Armageddon – 2/23/67
The Devil in the Dark – 3/9/67
The City on the Edge of Forever – 4/6/67
Amok Time – 9/15/67
The Apple – 10/13/67
Catspaw – 10/27/67
Journey to Babel – 11/17/67
Friday’s Child – 12/1/67
The Deadly Years – 12/8/67
Wolf in the Fold – 12/22/67
The Trouble with Tribbles – 12/29/67
The Immunity Syndrome – 1/19/68

The episodes he directed exhibit a wide range of subject matter, from some of the strongest dramatic episodes to comedy. “The City on the Edge of Forever,” from a script by Harlan Ellison, is generally considered to be the best episode of the original series by virtue of its compelling moral drama, although “Arena,” in which Captain Kirk battles the nasty, thuggish, and devious Gorn (pictured), is perhaps more famous episode among “non-Trekkies.” But there are some very good episodes in the above list: the Robert Bloch authored “Catspaw” featuring two byzantine aliens named Korob and Sylvia; “Journey to Babel,” in which Mr. Spock’s parents were featured, played by Jane Wyatt and Mark Lenard; "Wolf in the Fold" (also written by Robert Bloch), in which the soul of Jack the Ripper (Red Jack, or “Redjac”) has managed to transmigrate from planet to planet through outer space; and, of course, the inevitable “The Trouble with Tribbles,” a comedy in which the Enterprise gets infested with a gaggle of little furry creatures. (I've always loved the bit at the end of the show when Captain Kirk prepares to sit in the Captain's Chair and stops himself, thinking he might be crushing a Tribble.) I was barely a teenager when I first saw these episodes, and they have remained indelibly etched in my mind ever since. They are classic television.

Not a director ever likely to be championed by auteur critics, the films of Joseph Pevney have nonetheless formed a part of my identity every bit as significant as those made by more celebrated names, those of the putative "Great Tradition."

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