BOOK REVIEW: BEFORE I FORGET
Just finished reading James Sheldon’s pleasurable memoir Before I Forget: Directing Television: 1948-1988 from BearManor Media. I had never heard of Sheldon before until I met him at a Players Club function in NYC where he was interviewed about his career. At 92, he is in wonderful shape and truly a gentleman’s gentleman. Though I was not familiar with his name, I knew all the TV shows he worked on. Sheldon was one of many unsung, talented and very prolific TV directors of the time. He began his career in live television working on such classic anthology programs such as Studio One and Robert Montgomery Presents and comedies such as Mister Peepers. In the late Fifties he relocated to Los Angeles and went from directing such low-budget syndicated fare as West Point Story and Harbor Command to such classic shows as The Twilight Zone, Naked City, Route 66, My Three Sons, The Virginian, Batman all The way into the Seventies with M*A*S*H and MacMillan and Wife, to Cagney & Lacey and The Equalizer in the Eighties.
Sheldon presents a straight forward look at his directing career (well illustrated with behind-the-scenes photos of him at work) that began in radio and progressed by chance to live TV with the variety show, We, the People, the very first commercial program to be broadcast by CBS. He recalls the days of early television when the ad agencies, and not the Networks, were in control of the TV programs—and later how the whole TV industry changed when programs went from being produced live in New York to being taped in Hollywood. Being there from the beginning, Sheldon creates an important historical document and you learn how the business really took a turn for the worse during the Seventies and Eighties with extreme Network interference.
Having worked with a lot of famous people, the author’s most interesting tale is the relationship he developed with James Dean. It was interesting to learn that Dean almost wound up as a regular on the Mama TV series, but the original actor who was drafted was rejected by the military. It causes one to wonder how Dean’s career would have progressed if he got the role. There are many other big names that pass through this book (including a wonderful anecdote about Clint Eastwood fibbing that he could ski to get a role and a night out with Miss Julie Newmar while filming Batman). When Sheldon likes the person, he pours on the praise. But he also dishes about the actors/producers that he didn’t care for or had difficulties with. However, he does so in an almost apologetic, gentlemanly way, such as his recounting of working with the troubled Billie Holliday who was a guest on a variety show he was directing.
Sheldon is very forthright with confronting the mistakes he made in the past such as passing on directing the feature Fear Makes Out with Tony Perkins in 1957 due to his insecurities about taking on a motion picture, and the squabbles he had with some big name producers and Network executives that kept him from working on a few really popular shows.
While reading the former director’s book, I was struck by the difficulties there were in directing TV shows. Most actresses I interviewed for my books dismissed the TV directors they worked with. They claimed the directors never helped the actors give a performance—it was all about hitting your marks, saying your lines, and moving on to the next scene due to time constraints. Sheldon proved not all TV directors were like that with some very amusing anecdotes about trying to get better performances from such thespians as George C. Scott and others.
A breezy, fast read, my only criticism of the book is that I wanted more! At a slim 152 pages, I would have loved to have read additional anecdotes about the actors he worked with in more detail. That said, James Sheldon’s Before I Forget: Directing Television: 1948-1988 is a must for lovers of TV history—don’t you forget to buy a copy today: