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Tribute to Levinson and Link

The Execution of Private Slovik
March 8, 2015 - 7:00 pm
Amelie Hastie; Dan Einstein, television archivist, UCLA Film & Television Archive.

In an historic collaboration that was active over four decades, writers, producers and best friends, Richard Levinson and William Link were responsible for a remarkable legacy of quality television series and telefilms across genres, including critically-acclaimed projects such as Columbo (1971-2003), My Sweet Charlie (1970) and The Execution of Private Slovik (1974).  Inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in 1995, the multi-Emmy award-winning creative team, best known as top-tier mystery writers, also tackled social issues as personified in their groundbreaking made-for-TV movie, That Certain Summer (1972), one of the first sympathetic prime-time explorations of the life of a gay man.  That drama would go onto to win a Golden Globe for Best Television Movie, and would be honored decades later with Producers Guild Hall of Fame Award in 1998.  In between the accolades, Levinson and Link also landed major hits with popular fare, ranging from the long-running TV series Mannix (1967-1975) to Murder, She Wrote (1984-1996), to screenplays for the feature films, The Hindenburg (1975) and Rollercoaster (1977).  The prolific team would remain in-demand until Levinson’s premature death in 1987, with Link soon after solo-penning The Boys (1991), a loving tribute to their partnership in the form of a loosely autobiographical telefilm about an inseparable writing duo.  —Mark Quigley

The Execution of Private Slovik

NBC, 3/13/74

Not since the Civil War had an American soldier been executed for desertion until Private Eddie Slovik was shot by a firing squad in January 1945.  This unfortunate incident, unknown even to Slovik’s wife Antoinette, only came to light with the publishing of journalist William Bradford Huie’s account some nine years later.  In 1960, Frank Sinatra optioned the movie rights intending for blacklisted writer Albert Maltz to pen the screenplay and Steve McQueen to play Eddie Slovik.  Although the Pentagon had tried to suppress Huie’s book, the military reluctantly agreed to allow the production of a film version, providing Slovik not be portrayed in a sympathetic light.  That fact, plus pressure from the Kennedy family (which felt that Sinatra’s involvement with such a controversial subject might adversely affect John F. Kennedy’s presidential prospects), caused Sinatra to abandon the project, which lay unproduced until Richard Levinson and William Link brought the story to television over a decade later.

Artfully directed by Lamont Johnson and starring Martin Sheen in an absolutely heartbreaking performance, The Execution of Private Slovik premiered on NBC on March 13, 1974, and was subsequently trimmed to 97 minutes for theatrical distribution overseas.  Unfolding in a series of flashbacks from the day of his execution, the film tells Slovik’s sad story, starting with his days as a youthful petty criminal, to his brief happiness with his wife Antoinette before being drafted, to the awful chain of misunderstandings leading up to the film’s most famous scene: Slovik’s death by gunfire in a cold and lonely French courtyard; the young soldier repeating “Hail Mary” after “Hail Mary” as the black hood is placed over his head.

The broadcast attracted a record audience for a made-for-television movie, eventually earning eight Emmy nominations (with two wins) and a Peabody Award.  Featuring strong supporting performances from Ned Beatty and Gary Busey, the film also marks the first screen appearance of Sheen’s young son, Charlie, who can be seen as a child at Eddie and Antoinette’s wedding.  —Dan Einstein

Director: Lamont Johnson.  Universal Studios.  Executive Producers: Richard Levinson, William Link.  Producer: Richard Debelman.  Based on the book The Execution of Private Slovik by William Bradford Huie.  Screenwriters: Richard Levinson, William Link.  Cast: Martin Sheen, Mariclare Costello, Ned Beatty, Gary Busey, Matt Clark.  DigiBeta, color. 122 min.

Preserved from D2 videotape.  Video transfer at DC Video.  The Execution of Private Slovik courtesy of NBC/Universal, Inc.

Chevy Mystery Show: "Enough Rope"

NBC, 7/31/60

In an acclaimed career that included major parts in films by notable directors, including John Cassavetes, Academy Award-nominated actor Peter Falk will be forever best remembered as “Lieutenant Columbo,” one of the most-beloved characters in the history of television.  For over three decades, Falk was indelible as the disheveled, genius detective, with the actor’s own persona often seemingly indistinguishable from the eponymous role for which he would win four Emmy Awards.  As intimately inseparable as Falk and the character of Columbo would become, Falk, surprisingly, did not originate the iconic part on television.  That distinction belongs to character actor Bert Freed in the Chevy Mystery Show episode, “Enough Rope,” an NBC “living color” production that was broadcast some seven years before Falk would first don Columbo’s trademark raincoat.

In creating “Enough Rope,” writers Richard Levinson and William Link employed an anti-whodunit structure that would serve as the template for the long-running Columbo TV series, wherein a sophisticated murderer is revealed early in the first act with the ensuing drama revolving around how a working class detective, seemingly a supporting player, would give the criminal “enough rope” to implicate themselves.  Levinson later recounted that during the production of “Enough Rope,” the deceptively small, but central role of Columbo caused one of the drama’s leads to proclaim that, “the cop was stealing the show.”  As a result, the character was toned down, though Freed conveys glimpses of the bemused, sly sensibility that Falk would later fully illuminate.

In 1962, Levinson and Link would adapt “Enough Rope” into a stage play, Prescription: Murder, starring film veteran Thomas Mitchell (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946) as the second actor to play Columbo before Falk.  Levinson and Link once again adapted the work into a 1968 NBC telefilm (also titled Prescription: Murder), ultimately casting Falk in the role of his career.  Ironically, however, the actor was not the creative team’s first selection for the Columbo television series.  In a 1990 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Falk noted that “their first choice…was Bing Crosby.  Thank God, he liked to golf.”  —Mark Quigley

Director: Don Richardson.  A Sewanee production in association with NBC.  Executive Producer: Henry Jaffe.  Producer: Hiram Brown.  Screenwriters: Richard Levinson, William Link.  Cast: Richard Carlson, Bert Freed, Joan O’Brien, Barbara Stuart, Duncan McLeod.  DigiBeta, color, 60 min.

Preserved from the original master 2” videotape and a 16mm kinescope.  Video transfer by DC Video.  Kinescope transfer by UCLA Film & Television Archive.  “Enough Rope” courtesy of Jaffe Partners and Retro Video.