HUGGINS, ROY

U.S. Producer

Roy Huggins is a prolific and influential producer who created several of the most enduring dramatic series in the history of television, including Maverick (1957-62), 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64), The Fugitive (1963-67), and The Rockford Files (1974-80). Huggins has spent much of his 44 career in television as a producer for two large studios, Warner Brothers and Universal. Working within these studios, Huggins served as producer or executive producer on made-for-television movies, miniseries, and more than twenty dramatic series. While Huggins supervised a wide range of projects, many of which were simply studio assignments, he was one of the first writer-producers to emerge once television production shifted to Hollywood in the 1950s. Many of his series bear the distinctive stamp of his irreverent, self-deprecating wit and his fondness for characters who operate on the margins of society.

As a civilian employee of the U.S. government during the war, Huggins spent his spare time writing hard-boiled crime fiction, inspired by the work of Raymond Chandler. In 1946 his first novel, The Double Take, was published. Huggins sold several serialized mysteries to The Saturday Evening Post, and soon published two more novels, Too Late for Tears and Lovely Lady, Pity Me. When Columbia Pictures purchased the rights to The Double Take in 1949, Huggins recognized an opportunity for more steady employment and signed to adapt the script. From here he entered the movie industry, working as a contract writer at Columbia and RKO. In 1952 he wrote and directed the feature film Hangman's Knot, a Randolph Scott western produced by independent producer Harry Joe Brown for Columbia. Afterwards, he signed a contract with Columbia, where he worked as a staff writer until 1955.

Huggins made the transition to television in April 1955, when Warner Brothers hired him as a producer for its inaugural television series, Warner Brothers Presents, an omnibus series which featured three alternating dramas, King's Row, Casablanca, and Cheyenne. Huggins agreed to produce King's Row, but after creating the series he was reassigned to Cheyenne in order to salvage the faltering series, which faced withering reviews from both critics and sponsors. Huggins rescued Cheyenne by recycling scripts from Warner Brothers movies such as Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), often simply inserting the character of Cheyenne Bodie (Clint Walker) into familiar stories from the studio vaults. These changes brought the series a measure of respect as an "adult" western and made it the studio's first full-fledged hit.

Huggins immediately moved from Cheyenne to Conflict (1956-57), a short-lived anthology series that alternated with the western. During the production of Conflict Huggins met James Garner, an actor who perfectly embodied his wry sense of humor. When Warner Brothers asked Huggins to create a new series, he thought immediately of Garner and tailored Maverick as a star vehicle. In a crowded field of TV westerns, Maverick quickly moved into the top ten and won an Emmy for Best Western in 1958.

Maverick was a refreshing antidote to the strained seriousness of so many westerns, including Cheyenne, but it was also ground-breaking because it redefined the heroic protagonist and brought a sly self-mockery to television drama. For the first time, Huggins built a series around a flawed central character, a reluctant hero who lives on the fringes of society. Huggins wanted Bret Maverick to have none of the "irritating perfection" of TV's western heroes. Instead, Maverick is a much more complicated character than those found at the center of most dramatic series up to that time. Although obviously charming, he is an unrepentant rascal whose moral code is molded by expediency, greed, and the need for self-preservation. As Garner and co-star Jack Kelly, who played brother Bart Maverick, proved adept at balancing a subtle blend of adventure and comedy, Huggins guided the series in the direction of comedy. While generally sending up the entire western genre, Maverick soon began to needle its more serious competitors, offering razor-sharp parodies of Gunsmoke and Bonanza. The touch of irony that Huggins brought to the western genre in Maverick--an irreverent blend of drama and comedy--has become one of the defining characteristics of dramatic series in the subsequent years.

During the second season of Maverick, Huggins created the detective series, 77 Sunset Strip, which was based loosely on his novel, Lovely Lady, Pity Me. 77 Sunset Strip revived the crime drama on television, much as Maverick had revived the western, by injecting a healthy dose of humor into a genre trapped in grim rites of law and order. In place of the stolid cops who governed most crime series, 77 Sunset Strip brought the hard-boiled private detective into the endless summer of Los Angeles circa 1958. Starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Roger Smith as private detectives Stuart Bailey and Jeff Spenser, the series defined Sunset Boulevard as the epicenter of hipness on television, a sun-drenched world of cocktails, cool jazz, and convertibles.

77 Sunset Strip lacked the satirical edge of Maverick, because after producing the pilot episode Huggins had no responsibility for the series. Nor did he have anything to do with the clones generated by the Warner Brothers brass--Hawaiian Eye (1959-63), Bourbon Street Beat (1959-60), and Surfside 6 (1960-62). Huggins also stopped producing Maverick after the second season, wearied by the pace of production at Warner Brothers and by the studio's tight-fisted finances. As a matter of policy, Warner Brothers refused to share profits with its television personnel--including Huggins, its most gifted and indispensable producer. Huggins was directly responsible for the studio's three most successful series, but was not even given credit for having created Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip, which studio executives claimed had been based on properties already owned by the studio.

Huggins left Warner Brothers and in October 1960 became the vice -president in charge of television production at 20th Century-Fox. This proved to be a strange interlude in his career, because while he was only able to place one series in prime time, that series stirred up an inordinate amount of controversy. Bus Stop (1961-1962), adapted from the play by William Inge, was set in a small town in Colorado, a way-station on an otherwise endless highway. The central location served as the premise for an anthology series featuring the stories of wandering, disenfranchised characters who passed through the bus stop. The program gained national notoriety when an episode titled "A Lion Walks Among Us" starred pop icon Fabian as a charismatic psychopath who commits several cold-blooded murders. In the climate of criticism that was soon crystallized by the chair of the Federal Communications Commission (Newton Minow's "Vast Wasteland" speech), the episode became a target of television critics and politicians, who seized upon it in order to decry television's degrading influence on American culture.

Stung by the criticism of the series, 20th Century-Fox placed Huggins in a kind of administrative limbo by refusing to allow him to develop other series and essentially waiting for his contract to expire. Huggins used the unexpected free time to write a stinging rebuttal of Minow that appeared in Television Quarterly. In writing the article Huggins became one of the few members of Hollywood's creative community to defend the artistic merit of commercial, popular culture and to question Minow's essentially elitist criticism of television. He criticized Minow and other cultural elitists for allowing their contempt for kitsch--"their dread of being caught in a profane mood"--to cloud their judgment. Huggins's essay amounted to a sophisticated and subtle defense of popular culture in an era when television producers did not make artistic claims for their work. "The public arts," he wrote, "are created for a mass audience and for a profit; that is their essential nature. But they can at times achieve truth and beauty, and given freedom they will achieve it more and more often."

After the debacle at Fox, Huggins returned to graduate school at UCLA, determined to get his Ph.D. and to leave television behind. He needed a bankroll and came up with the idea of creating a series that he could sell to another producer, then sit back and watch the residuals roll in. This series was The Fugitive, which he sold to independent producer Quinn Martin after overcoming ABC's initial resistance to a series with an escaped convict as its central character. The story of Dr. Richard Kimble (David Janssen), suspected of murdering his wife and forced to flee the police while in pursuit of the actual killer, carried the mythic resonance of quest narratives from The Odyssey to Les Miserables. Huggins wanted to update the western by placing its wandering hero in a contemporary setting. In transposing the stock figure of the wanderer from the mythic landscape of the West to the landscape of 1960s America, he created a new and unsettling dramatic hero for television, a rootless, paranoid loner, the most unsettled character on the New Frontier of Kennedy-era America. The quest--the ongoing tension between pursuit and capture--was new to prime-time series and gave The Fugitive a powerful narrative momentum which paid off in the record-setting ratings for the final episodes. The Fugitive did not exhibit Huggins's characteristic sense of humor, but it developed his fascination with heroic outcasts and revealed his skepticism toward what he considered the American "cult of optimism."

In 1963 Huggins gave up his plans of graduate school and accepted a job as a vice president in the television division at Universal, where he spent the next 18 years. During this period, Universal became the predominant creator of dramatic series, often accounting for much of the NBC schedule throughout the 1960s. Huggins adapted to the programming formats that evolved over the years at Universal, producing series, made-for-TV movies, and miniseries. He began by producing The Virginian (1962-71) and Kraft Suspense Theater (1963-65). He created and produced Run for Your Life (1965-68), a variation on The Fugitive in which attorney Paul Bryan (Ben Gazzara) sets off on adventurous journey after discovering that he has a mysterious fatal illness and only two years to live.

In 1969 Huggins set up an independent production company, Public Arts, at Universal and began a series of co-productions with the studio. He created The Lawyers segment of the omnibus series The Bold Ones (1969-72) and produced several other series, including Alias Smith and Jones (1971-73), Toma (1973-74), and Baretta (1975-78). The crown jewel of Huggins's period at Universal is certainly The Rockford Files, which he co-created with Stephen J. Cannell. Huggins produced The Rockford Files for only two seasons, but his influence is unmistakable in the self-deprecating, slightly disreputable private eye played by James Garner.

In the late 1970s Huggins turned to producing miniseries, including Captains and Kings (1976) and Arthur Hailey's Wheels (1978). His association with Universal ended in 1980, when he left to concentrate on writing. In 1985 he returned to television at the request of his former protégé Stephen J. Cannell to produce Hunter (1984-1991). Recent feature-film versions of The Fugitive (1993) and Maverick (1994) have been fantastic successes at the box office. Their success is a tribute to Huggins's lasting importance as one of television's great storytellers.

-Christopher Anderson

 


Roy Huggins
Photo courtesy of Broadcasting and Cable

ROY HUGGINS. Born in Litelle, Washington, U.S.A., 18 July 1914. Educated at the University of California, 1935-41. Married: Adele Mara. Worked as a special representative of the U.S. Civil Service, 1941-43; industrial engineer, 1943-46; screenwriter, 1952-55; producer, Warner Brothers Television, 1955-60; vice-president of 20th Century Fox Television, 1960; producer, MCA Revue, Universal Television, 1963-80; president of production company, Public Arts, Inc. in Universal City, California; writer, director, producer for television, since 1968.

TELEVISION SERIES (producer)

1955-56 Warner Brother's Presents: King's Row              (creator)
1955-63 Warner Brother's Presents: Cheyenne
1956-57 Conflict
1957-62 Maverick (creator)
1957-60 Colt .45 (creator)
1958-64 77 Sunset Strip (creator)
1961-62 Bus Stop
1963-67 The Fugitive (also creator)
1963-65 Kraft Suspense Theatre
1965-68 Run For Your Life (also creator)
1969-73 The Bold Ones
1971-73 Alias Smith and Jones
1973-74 Toma
1974-80 The Rockford Files (creator)
1975-78 Baretta
1
976     City of Angels (creator)
1984-91 Hunter

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES

1974 This is the West
1974 The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd
1976 The Invasion of Johnson County

TELEVISION MINISERIES

1976 Captains and Kings
1978 Arthur Hailey's Wheels

FILMS (writer)

Pushover, 1954; Fuller Brush Man, 1948; Good Humor Man, 1950; Sealed Cargo, 1951; Woman in Hiding, 1949; Hangman's Knot, 1952; Gun Fury, 1953; A Fever in the Blood (producer only), 1961.

PUBLICATIONS

The Doubletake (novel). New York: Morrow, 1946.
Too Late for Tears (novel). New York: Morrow, 1947. Lovely Lady, Pity Me (novel). New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1949.
"The Bloodshot Eye: A Comment on the Crisis in American Television." Television Quarterly (New York), August 1962.

FURTHER READING

Christopher Anderson. Hollywood TV: The Studio System in the Fifties. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Marc, David, and Robert J. Thompson. Prime Time, Prime Movers: From I Love Lucy to L.A. Law--America's Favorite TV Shows and the People Who Created Them. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1995.

 

See also Cannell, Stephen J.; Cheyenne; Fugitive; Rockford Files; Warner Brothers Presents