LEVINSON, RICHARD

U.S. Writer

Richard Levinson teamed with William Link to write and produce some of the most memorable hours of U.S. network television in the history of the medium. Moving easily from series to Made-for-Television Movies, they created, wrote and produced at a level which, by the 1970s, led many of their peers to describe them as the Rolls and Royce of the industry. They received two Emmys, two Golden Globe Awards, two Edgar Allan Poe Awards from the Mystery Writers of America, the Writers Guild of America Award, and the Peabody Award.

As high school classmates, Levinson and Link made early use of wire recordings as an aid to developing their dramatic writing skills, then continued their collaboration through university studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Following graduation and military service the two moved to New York to pursue a career in television, only to discover that the production end of the business had largely moved west. In 1959 their drama of army life, Chain of Command, was produced as an installment of Desilu Playhouse, then chosen by TV Guide as one of the best programs of the season. With that success the team, known fondly by many of their associates, as "the boys," moved to Los Angeles where, in 1960, they were the first writers placed under contract by Four Star Productions.

For the first ten years of their work in Hollywood they wrote episodes for various television series and created one of their own--Mannix, in 1967. That series was taken in a direction opposite their sensibilities by head writer, Bruce Geller. In 1969 the partners first grappled with contemporary problems in a pilot for the Lawyers segment of The Bold Ones. Their work on this series presaged their use of television to explore serious social and cultural themes in the Made-for-Television Movie format. They were to write and produce nine "social issue" films as well as launching one of the most popular of all Made-for-Television movies.

Frustrated by Hollywood production routines, Levinson and Link had returned briefly to New York earlier in the decade to write a stage play, Prescription Murder. That play, introducing their character Lt. Columbo, became the foundation for the Columbo series, starring Peter Falk, which began on television in 1971 as part of The NBC Mystery Movie. As Levinson noted in an interview, "Columbo was a conscious reaction against the impetuous force of Joe Mannix." Columbo was, at one point, the most popular television show in the world. Translated into numerous languages, the show still retains enormous popularity.

In November 1983 the team went to Toronto to film a movie for HBO that examines urban violence, feaqr, and responses to those realities. After a long and frustrating effort to cast the film on a very tight budget, Link and Levinson chose Louis Gossett, Jr. to play the title character in The Guardian--John Mack, and Martin Sheen to play the protagonist, Mr. Hyatt. A New York apartment resident, Hyatt and his fellow tenants feel so threatened by the growing violence in the neighborhood that they hire a professional "guardian," only to discover that this man quickly establishes his own authority over them, one by one. In the course of the story, Mack successfully intimidates all the tenants even as he physically subdues and ultimately kills one intruder. One after another the tenants trade freedom for security. Hyatt resists until, threatened by a street gang, Mack saves his life.

As always, Levinson worried about the climax of the piece. The final scene in The Guardian was an exchange of glances between Mack and Hyatt as the latter left the building for work the morning following his rescue. Sheen noted in an interview on the set that he played the expression to convey a sense of "What have I done?" Levinson, however, saw in the final freeze frame on Hyatt a "spark of hope." In either interpretation the underlying question of the drama is made clear: does security demand denial of freedom? Sheen saw it as a parable and related the story to his own concerns regarding U.S. military-political issues and the belief that the only way to get security is to give up more and more freedom. For the writers, the television movie was "only" posing questions. But they saw the implications of what they were doing. In the end the decent character was not a hero. And the frozen stare could signal either hope or despair.

Long and intense conversations between the writers on such issues regularly led to that same conclusion: "We don't have to have the answers, we just raise the questions." For Levinson those posed questions, though, set his personal direction as a dramatist. One sees this in the Crisis at Central High (1981), where Joanne Woodward portrayed assistant principal Elizabeth Huckaby in a drama set in 1958 Little Rock. Though even-handed, the moral high ground belonged to Huckaby and integration. It is equally evident in the sympathetic treatment of Private Eddie Slovik in the story of the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion in World War II, The Execution of Private Slovik (1974). And it informs the search for responsibility and judgment in The Storyteller (1977), an exploration of the role of television in instigating social violence.

In the summer of 1986, just a few months prior to his premature death, he explored the problems inherent in the dramatic treatment of another high-profile social issue-terrorism-in his last script, United States vs. Salaam Ajami. The television movie was finally aired in early 1988 as Hostile Witness. In the film, he sought to provide a valid defense for a Lebanese terrorist charged in an American court for a crime committed in Spain against an American tour group. In the story, the terrorist was kidnapped and brought to justice in a Virginia federal court.

Striving to achieve an objective portrayal of the motives for the terrorist and introduce to the audience some comprehension of his rationale, Levinson was determined to raise philosophical questions, but he wanted no weaknesses in the case against the terrorist.

Richard Levinson died at the age of 52, in 1987. When William Link accepted their joint election into the Television Hall of Fame in November 1995, his words were almost all devoted to Levinson who would, he said, be pleased with the recognition.

-Robert S. Alley

 


Richard Levinson

RICHARD LEVINSON. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., 7 August 1934. University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, B.S. in Economics, 1956. Served in U.S. Army, 1957-58. Married: Rosanna Huffman, 1969; one child: Christine. With his partner William Link wrote scripts for many television series, created a number of television series, and wrote and produced Made-for-Television Movies dealing with social problems; associated with Universal Studios, 1966-77; co-president, with William Link, Richard Levinson/William Link Productions, 1977-87. Recipient (all with William Link): Emmy awards, 1970 and 1972; Image Award, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 1970; two Golden Globe Awards; Silver Nymph Award, Monte Carlo Film Festival, 1973; George Foster Peabody Award, 1974; Edgar Awards, Mystery Writers of America, 1979, 1980, 1983; Christopher Award, 1981; Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, Writers Guild of America, 1986; Ellery Queen Award, Mystery Writers of America, 1989, for lifetime contribution to the art of the mystery; Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame (posthumously), 1995. Died in Los Angeles, California, 12 March 1987.

TELEVISION SERIES (episodes written with William                                    Link, selection)

1955-65 Alfred Hitchcock Presents
1958-60 Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse
1961-77 Dr. Kildare
1963-67 The Fugitive

TELEVISION SERIES (created with William Link)

1967-75 Mannix
1969-73 The Bold Ones
1970-77 McCloud
1971-77, 1989-90 Columbo
1971 The Psychiatrist
1973-74 Tenafly
1975-76 Ellery Queen
1980 Stone
1984-96 Murder, She Wrote
1985 Scene of the Crime
1986-88 Blacke's Magic
1987 Hard Copy

MADE-FOR-TELEVISION MOVIES (with William Link)

1968 Istanbul Express
1969 The Whole World is Watching
1970 My Sweet Charlie
1971 Two On a Bench
1972 That Certain Summer
1972 The Judge and Jake Wyler (also with David Shaw) 1973 Tenafly
1973 Partners in Crime
1973 Savage
1974 The Execution of Private Slovik
1974 The Gun
1975 Ellery Queen
1975 A Cry for Help
1977 Charlie Cobb: Nice Night for a Hanging
1977 The Story Teller
1979 Murder by Natural Causes
1981 Crisis at Central High
1982 Rehearsal for Murder
1982 Take Your Best Shot
1983 Prototype
1984 The Guardian
1985 Guilty Conscience
1985 Murder in Space
1986 Vanishing Act
1986 Blacke's Magic
1988 Hostile Witness

FILMS (with William Link)

The Hindenberg, 1975; Rollercoaster, 1977

STAGE (with William Link, selection)

Merlin, 1982; Killing Jessica, 1986; Guilty Conscience, 1986.

PUBLICATIONS (with William Link)

Prescription: Murder (three-act play). New York: Samuel French, 1963.

Fineman (novel). New York: Laddin Press, 1972.

Stay Tuned: An Inside Look at the Making of Prime-Time Television. New York: St. Martin's, 1981.

The Playhouse (novel). New York: Berkeley, 1984.

Guilty Conscience: A Play of Suspense in Two Acts. New York: Samuel French, 1985.

Off Camera: Conversations with the Makers of Prime-Time Television. New York: New American Library, 1986.

FURTHER READING

Broughton, Irv. Producers on Producing: The Making of Film and Television. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1986.

Burger, Richard. The Producers: A Descriptive Directory of Film and Television Directors in the Los Angeles Area. Venice, California: R. Burger, 1985.

Newcomb, Horace and Robert S. Alley. The Producer's Medium: Conversations with Creators of American TV. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

 

See also Columbo; Detective Programs; Johnson, Lamont; Link, William