Sunday, April 8, 2018

Buck Houghton: The Unsung Hero of the Fifth Dimension


"The producer has to be sensitive to the human condition, to the human feeling about things, because you are in a sensory art. You are working in an art form depending on human feeling and on human reactions."

-Buck Houghton



Buck Houghton:
The Unsung Hero of the Fifth Dimension

by Brian Durant


Tall, soft-spoken, with a deep, sandy voice, Buck Houghton was an atypical Hollywood producer. A film or television producer’s job is to make sure that the production is completed on time and within the allotted budget. How they go about accomplishing this varies from producer to producer. Given the demanding schedules and stressful work environment, most resort to an attitude of stern authority while on set so that everyone remains on their toes. Houghton was unique in that he possessed a creative sensibility that many producers do not. He knew the people he was working with were the best in the world at what they did so he let them work with as little interference as possible, checking in from time to time to make sure everyone was on the same page. He was a calm and reassuring presence on the set and for the first three seasons of Rod Serling’s celebrated fantasy series he instilled in the entire cast and crew a creative and professional freedom that is rare in television. In short, Buck Houghton was The Twilight Zone’s unsung hero. And without him the show would not be the same.

Archible Ernest “Buck” Houghton, Jr. was born in Denver, Colorado on May 4, 1915. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was eight years old. While in high school he worked as a stagehand on several Cecil B. DeMille films. After graduating from UCLA, where he majored in English and Economics, Houghton was hired as a script reader for Val Lewton—after simply writing Lewton a letter and asking for the job despite his limited experience—and later as a story editor for Selznick International Pictures. To supplement his income, Houghton took jobs at Paramount Studios working first in the mail room and later in the casting and budgeting offices. With the onset of World War II, he took a position at the Office of War Information, making training films for the military. After the war he took a job at RKO Studios as an assistant to producer Jack Gross who was making films for Houghton’s former employer, Val Lewton. This allowed Houghton to be on set during the filming of several classic Lewton films including The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946).

After four years at RKO, Houghton took a position at MGM Studios. In 1951 he became the story editor for Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars working under well-known producer William Self and his production company, Meridian Productions. Self would play a key role in The Twilight Zone’s success years later. In 1952 Houghton first became a producer on the short-lived series China Smith which starred future Twilight Zone actor Dan Duryea. Over the next seven years he worked on a handful of series including Wire Service (starring Twilight Zone actor Dane Clark), Yancy Derringer, and Man with a Camera starring still another Twilight Zone actor, Charles Bronson. He also worked on a 1955 film directed by Leslie Goodwins called The Paris Follies of 1956 (also released as Fresh from Paris) featuring acts from Frank Sennes’s famous Moulin Rouge Night Club. On these early projects Houghton was credited as associate producer A.E. Houghton, Jr.

In 1959 William Self, now a newly-promoted CBS executive in charge of development, was assigned to help produce the pilot episode of a new fantasy series created by Rod Serling called The Twilight Zone. Self met with Serling and, after he voiced his doubt in the young writer’s first two teleplays, the two agreed on a half-hour script called “Where is Everybody?” about a man with amnesia who finds himself in a deserted town. The pilot was a hit and CBS greenlit the series. Serling asked Self to stay on as producer given his widespread knowledge of the industry. But Self chose to stay in his position at CBS. Instead, he recommended a producer who had worked on several projects for Meridian Productions named Buck Houghton. He also recommended other names including production manager Ralph W. Nelson, director of photography George T. Clemens, assistant director Edward Denault, and several others who had already worked with Houghton. This familiar work environment not only made it easier on Houghton, who was still relatively new to his role as producer and was taking on a highly publicized project, but it is likely a factor in why the show was a creative success right from the start. Serling hired all of Self’s recommendations and production began in the summer of 1959.

With Serling contractually obligated to write around seventy-five percent of the show’s episodes, the task of finding material that would comprise the remainder of the episodes fell largely on Houghton who was not an avid fan of fantasy and science fiction. Regardless, he was able to spot the right material when he saw it. This was his major contribution to the show. While his talents were mostly as a businessman, Houghton knew artistic quality when he saw it. And he knew whether it would translate well on the screen and which actors and directors to call upon to make that happen. “The first few episodes shape the series,” Houghton writes in his 1991 guide to the industry, What a Producer Does: The Art of Moviemaking (Not the Business). “In [Serling’s] first few scripts, his instincts led him to a pattern that he and I soon agreed upon as the bottom-line basis for buying stories.” He lists the seven criteria he relied on when purchasing material for the show. First, he says, the characters should be ordinary and the problem facing them must be resonant of the fears or desires of the audience even if the circumstances of the story are impossible in the real world. Also, allow only one miracle or imaginative circumstance per episode. More than one, he says, and the audience grows impatient. And probably most significant to the show’s success: mere scare tactics do not work. The focus should always be on the characters. This is the characteristic that most noticeably separates The Twilight Zone from other science fiction and horror programs. Its objective was to comment on the human condition. The horror elements grew from there.

Houghton was also responsible for hiring the right actors and director for each episode, approving set locations, resolving any grievances or personal conflicts among the cast and crew, overseeing the edit of the rough cut and approving the finished product, making sure everyone got paid, communicating with network executives, and seeing that everything ran efficiently so he could bring the episode in on time and under budget. He was usually doing all of this while balancing several episodes at once, each in a different stage of production. It was Houghton’s idea to shoot on the MGM backlot because he knew their extensive prop department would save both time and money.

In 1960 Houghton received a Producer’s Guild Award for Best Produced Series from the Producer’s Guild of America for a remarkable first season. He managed to keep the show afloat for the next three seasons-101 episodes-with the quality of creative content remaining, for the most part, as fresh as it felt at the beginning. Near the end of the 1961-62 season, CBS, under the leadership of President James T. Aubrey, changed the show’s time slot from Friday night at 10:00 pm to Wednesday at 7:30 pm, the middle of the primetime lineup. After getting wind of this, Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, who had sponsored the show since the end of the previous season, decided not to renew their contract for the upcoming fourth season. They didn’t believe the show would fare very well in its new spot as it was surrounded by westerns and situational comedies. Unable to secure a new sponsor in time, the show found itself off the air.

Although there was talk that the show might be brought back at some point, Houghton decided that he could not risk potential unemployment waiting to find out. He also decided that it would be a wise career choice to prove that he could be successful outside of the celebrity of Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone. Another reason still, was the talk of expanding the show to an hour which he was definitely not in favor of doing. So after being offered a position at Four Star Productions, Houghton left the show. His replacement was producer Herbert Hirschman who would stay for only twelve episodes before being replaced by Bert Granet near the end of the fourth season. In an interview with television historian Steven Bowie in 1998, Houghton said that Serling later asked him to return to produce the show’s fifth season—this was likely around the time that Hirschman left. Houghton was apparently on board with the idea but CBS ruled in favor of Granet instead.

Four Star Productions was formed in 1952 as the brainchild of actor Dick Powell. The company produced mostly television programs and is responsible for shows like Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Rifleman, Honey West, The Big Valley, and Four Star Playhouse, among others. In 1963 actor Richard Boone had grown weary of playing gunfighting poet of the west Paladin in the iconic series Have Gun – Will Travel and left the show to pursue something new. The result was The Richard Boone Show, an ambitious half-hour dramatic anthology series which aired each week on NBC. The show featured the first televised repertory theatre company in which a rotating group of actors played different characters each week. Boone served as host and he also directed and appeared in many episodes. The show featured numerous former members of The Twilight Zone’s production crew.

The series was produced by Four Star and Houghton was hired to oversee production. To aid him in getting such a highly publicized project off the ground was revered American dramatist Clifford Odets. Odets had signed on to write four original teleplays for the show in addition to acting as script supervisor—the project would be his last, however, as he died suddenly in August of 1963. Despite critical acclaim—a Golden Globe Award and several Emmy nominations—and an immensely talented roster of writers, directors, performers, and production staff, the show was not able to find an audience and ended in 1963 after only twenty-five episodes. After the death of founder and president Dick Powell in January of 1963, Four Star Productions appeared to be unraveling and Houghton left the company.

He worked almost exclusively in television throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. After The Richard Boone Show he served as producer on the short-lived World War II series Blue Light, created by Larry Cohen and Walter Grauman and starring Robert Goulet, and the subsequent feature film it inspired, I Deal in Danger (1966). Although he continued to find steady work in television, serving as producer on several made-for-television films and a handful of well-known and less well-known series including Lost in Space, The High Chaparral, Harry O, Executive Suite, and Hawaii Five-O, Houghton never found another long-term position in the industry and in the last decade of his career he turned his attention toward feature films.

In 1982 Houghton served as producer on the film The Escape Artist which starred Griffin O’Neal and Raul Julia. The film was directed by Caleb Deschanel with a screenplay by Melissa Mathison and Stephen Zito from the novel by David Wagoner. Francis Ford Coppola served as executive producer and the film was released by his company, Zoetrope Studios. Houghton and Coppola were close friends for many years. Houghton made a brief cameo as a senator in The Godfather Part II (1974) and a quote from Coppola appears on the cover of Houghton’s book. The Escape Artist is also notable as the last screen appearance of television icon Desi Arnaz. Houghton also produced the cult horror films Eternal Evil (1985) starring Karen Black and The Wraith (1986) with Charlie Sheen. His final role as producer was on the CBS film Spring Awakening in 1994.

Although he preferred to remain on the business side of the industry, Houghton did occasionally see his own work make it to the screen. The Internet Movie Database lists seven writing credits for various series including Big Town, Four Star Playhouse, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Nichols, Mission: Impossible, and Project U.F.O. 

Houghton was not involved in the Twilight Zone reboot which aired on CBS from 1985 to 1987. Although he was not in favor of reviving the series he was always careful not to criticize the show’s creators as he realized that they were making a very different show than the one he and Serling had made simply by default. “I think they should have started another series,” he told interviewers Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier in 1987. “It’s counterproductive to say you’re going to remake Back to the Future or Mutiny on the Bounty because remakes generally don’t work. There’s some self-consciousness that goes into the remaking process that is self-defeating.” He made similar statements about Twilight Zone: The Movie after seeing the bizarre set designs and elaborate special effects while on the set of director Joe Dante’s segment which was based on Serling’s season three classic “It’s a Good Life”—Houghton makes a brief cameo in Dante’s version.

Houghton’s career as a television producer inspired both of his children to seek careers in the industry as well. His daughter, Mona Houghton, who played the little girl on the sidewalk in Serling’s season three Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” went on to write for several television series during the 1970’s and 80’s. His son, Jim Houghton, who also appeared on The Twilight Zone during season three as a town rough hand in Montgomery Pittman’s “The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank,” has enjoyed an enormously successful career first as an actor (Knot’s Landing) and then as a writer (Tales from the Darkside, The Young and the Restless). He has received two Writer’s Guild of America Awards.


In 1991 Silman-James Press published What a Producer Does: The Art of Moviemaking (Not the Business), a step-by-step outline to being a producer of film and television in the elusive machine that is Hollywood. Running through a list of important bullet points, Houghton dedicates each chapter to a different aspect of the producer’s job from buying source material to hiring the cast and crew to marketing the finished product, explaining how each step differs from television to film. Since its original publication the book has become a standard of the industry and its straightforward approach makes it as relevant as it was twenty-five years ago. The book is dedicated to Serling’s memory.

After retiring, Houghton’s health began to decline. Suffering from a combination of emphysema and ALS, Houghton died in Los Angeles on May 14, 1999. He was 84.




Grateful acknowledgement is made to:

What a Producer Does: The Art of Moviemaking (Not the Business) by Buck Houghton (Silman-James Press, 1991)

The Twilight Zone Companion by Marc Scott Zicree, second edition (Bantam, 1989)

“Buck Houghton: Ghosts of Twilight Zone’s Past” interview with Houghton conducted by Randy and Jean-Mark Lofficier (Starlog #115, February, 1987)

The Twilight Zone Definitive DVD Collection, Season 1 (Image Entertainment, 2004)

“Notes from Buck Houghton” by Steven Bowie (The Classic TV History Blog, November 6, 2009), retrieved April 7, 2018


4 comments:

  1. Hear, hear! Great overview of (as you sketch out quite well) a key element of the Zone. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks! I tried to throw in as much information as I could find but unfortunately there isn't a lot out there. He lived a really interesting life and worked with some of the most influential filmmakers of all time. Maybe someone will publish a biography of him some day.

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  2. Good work, Brian. I always wondered about Houghton. I was particularly interested to read what a producer actually does.

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  3. To be totally honest I'm still not really sure either given the endless variations of the title (producer, executive producer, associate producer, assistant producer co-producer, etc.) which Houghton pokes fun at in the book. Thanks as always, Jack!

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