77 Sunset Strip

(November 3, 1997, Palm Springs, CA)

Interview by Sylvia Stoddard

Before he became head of Warner Bros. Television and executive producer of Cheyenne, Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, SurfSide 6, etc., William Orr was an actor. He began on Broadway, then moved into films, including The Hardys Ride High, The Mortal Storm, Thieves Fall Out, Unholy Partners and The Big Street with such actors as Ronald Reagan, Jane Wyman, Edward G. Robinson and Robert Stack.

SS: How did you come to Warner Bros.?
WO: I started as an actor. I was in a play called Meet the People that got all sorts of kudos all over town and everybody came, and often. It started in the Writers Guild building--an old, dilapidated, terrible place that was condemned. It was a big, big hit. Chaplin came 17 times, bringing his friends. From that, virtually everybody in the show got offers from the studios. I got offers from every studio except the one I really wanted, where I'd done some pictures, Metro. Their talent scout didn't come because he already knew me. So I went to them all, but Warners made me the best offer. I did a lot of pictures there, none of which made me a big star, but good parts.

Then I went into the service and Warner's didn't pick me up because they knew I was going in and then they'd have to put you back under contract for a year after the war. First I went into the Air Force's radio unit, which did four shows a week, then I went to OCS and became an officer. I then went into the Motion Picture Unit with a guy who had been in shorts at Warner Bros. I directed some pictures for them, and acted in some. In fact, one night in Florida--it was New Year's Eve, and I went into a bar that was filled with G.I.s and someone called out, "Hey, you." Well, I was an officer and a gentleman [laughs] and he couldn't mean me, but then he said, "Hey, Lieut!" and I knew he meant me. Well he was a noncom with lots of stripes and was with a lot of men and I went over and he asked if I was an actor. I said yes, and he asked if I'd been in an Army picture as a flier. I nodded and he yells at to top of his lungs in this bar, "What did I tell you, this is the guy with the clap!" It was a picture about venereal disease, and I was the big man. I was there half the night signing autographs. Later, I did a top secret picture which was about making a run to Tokyo, and the air roads to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We didn't know it was going to be the targets for that kind of bombing.

SS: So after the war, you didn't go right back to Warners?
WO: Well, I got out and married the daughter of Jack L. Warner's second wife, Ann. He thought I might be a terrible actor--he'd never seen Meet the People where I did everything, sang, danced, acted, told jokes, did a whole act of my own. But Jack hadn't seen that. In the meantime, a lot of guys were playing my kind of parts, and so Jack Warner said to me, "Get out in front where you pay the actors--get into the production end of it." He didn't know what to do with me, and I think he did it because I was married to his step-daughter. First, he told me to go down on the sets and make sure everybody was doing their jobs. I said "Jack, I'm not going to be your stooge. I refuse to do that. First of all, I'm your son-in-law, and I'll have a terrible reputation." I had no job, I wasn't anybody. He took me to dailies. He told me to go down and see what was wrong with Ronnie's [Reagan] collar. It was bigger than it should be. Well, I knew him and I went down there and told him what was wrong and he said to me, "Don't you know what's happening? I'm getting a divorce from Jane [Wyman] and I'm very upset about that. I've lost 32 pounds." I told him I hadn't heard and apologized and went back and told Jack. When I came back from lunch, a man was standing there and he said, "Young man, do you know who I am?" I said, "I think you're Harry Warner. Are you?" He said, "Yes I am. I want to talk to you. You've got to stop throwing your weight around." I said, "My weight?" I didn't even have a job! "Where'd you get this idea?" And he said, "Well, the director said you were there getting Ronnie Reagan upset."

SS: Did you finally get a real job?
WO: I told Jack, "Look here, you hire people--scouts who go out and find people and you hire them, and nobody ever does anything with them. They do little bit parts. Let me see if I can't get one or two of them a decent role, so you can find out if they've really got a chance to be stars. So I did that. Our talent scout also found the woman who became our drama coach. I found a whole bunch of people and got them out there to make tests. Marlon Brando tested for Rebel Without a Cause and he was terrible. A year later we made the picture with Jimmy Dean. So Steve Trilling was the number two guy under Jack and they made me the number three guy. I didn't know how to decide what pictures to make, and I had to learn it. I think I was a good judge of who was good for what and what scripts were good--thanks partly to going to the theatre so much growing up in New York. I loved the job.

SS: Why did Warner Bros. get into television production?
WO: That was due to the fact that we dropped a lot of money coming in from pictures, I guess due to television's impact. In those days, money was a little different than it is today. For instance, one year we did $18 million. That was the whole thing. Now an actor gets that. But then the following year, we lost $18 million. A $36 million change. So that's why we got into television [in 1955]. Jack didn't like television. His wife Ann had a set at home and he'd say, "What are you looking at that box for? We've got a big screening room downstairs and you can see anything you want and you're looking at that little box." He hated it. Benny Kamenson came out and he'd talked to Jack about television before and Jack would say, "No, I don't want to be in television." But Benny would say, "Jack, it's either that or we're gonna go broke." And he told him about the losses. Warner's was always very quick to do something about it if something came in that was eating money and wasn't making any. They moved fast. They'd close that down and do something else. Ben said "We have to do something." Leonard Goldenson, who was head of ABC, told Ben they were trying to get people who were in the business of pictures who had pictures they could put on television. They were third base compared to the others.

SS: CBS and NBC.
WO: Yes. So J.L. says "We don't have anyone to do it. Who could we bring in?" Meantime, we heard of a guy who was their head of publicity. Ben said we've got him out there in the L.A. office, he knows about television and he'd be great for you. So Jack says, "Great. let's get him and they gave him the job. So he came to be the head of television and Jack said to me, "Bill, you make their deals for them, but I don't want you to have anything to do with the creative part. Just make their deals." So that's what I did. I knew three or four guys who I knew might move over to television if given a chance. The secondary group were already moving into television, but the first level gang weren't.

SS: There was a great deal of snobbery about television then.
WO: Oh yes. The studios wouldn't put their actors on and the actors didn't want to be on anyway. As you say, very low class. So this fellow was on board, and this friend of mine, who'd done a lot of lesser pictures but who was a good director who would have gone on to the bigger stuff as time went on. I talked to him and said, "Listen, why don't you get into television with me and do some good and your name will get better known." He agreed. I hired him, his name's Richard Bare. Dick came to me about three weeks later and said, "Bill, have you read the so-and-so script? I said, "No, Jack ordered me not to have anything to do with the creative part. You guys are supposed to do it, this guy's in charge." Dick said, "This is the worst script I ever read. You can't make this script." I said, "Oh come on, get together with him and fix it." He said "I can't fix it. I went to see him and he's up on the roof playing volleyball. Just read it." So I read it and he was right, it was God-awful. Everything you could do wrong was in it. So I went to Jack finally and we were at a preview and Jack reminded me I wasn't to do anything but make deals. I said I read this script and I was trying to do something for the company.

SS: And that was that?
WO: Yes, and Jack went to his villa in the south of France for a month and one day he called Steve and me about an article he'd read where the guy in charge of television was quoted as saying Warners made great movies and would make great television, but the article's writer thought that if they didn't, Jack might as well put on a white coat and play parking attendant on the lot. Now Jack was very testy about people saying funny things about him. So he said, "Get him off the lot. Now who are we going to get to do it?" Steve said, "Bill here is the only one here who knows anything about television and the two of us will try to get together and find somebody." And Jack said, "Bill's there?" And I said, "I'm here, Chief." And he said, "Do it yourself then." And that was that. He put me in charge of television.

I took the next day, Sunday, off and went to Vegas, and on Monday, I went to the television offices and started dictating to a secretary there and she couldn't even spell the word 'scene.' So I fired about five people that the guy had hired--he didn't know anything either. I didn't know this.

SS: There wasn't anyone who knew anything?
WO: There was one guy who was pretty good, and I made him story editor. I told him to come to my house that night and he said he couldn't because he was going grunion hunting. I fired him. I fired 'em fast. They weren't any good to me. He went into real estate. So I went down to a bookstore on little Santa Monica and I went in there and told them what I needed, and they suggested I look at these books that had prize-winning western stories in them, because we were doing Cheyenne. So I bought them all.

SS: You bought the rights?
WO: For $750 each. Some of them were good, others not so good, but it was easier to buy all of them. They'd have an idea in there. So we started off with something, and I got a couple of writers in there. To make a long story short, we had a hell of a time of it. I'd stay up nights, guys would come over and we'd work 'til four o'clock in the morning and there was one time I didn't get any sleep, I just went to work after this fellow was gone.

SS: So you were supplying ABC with a lot of its prime time programming?
WO: We had ten shows on the air by the third year. It wasn't everything, but it was a lot. When we signed the deal with them they had Make Room for Daddy and the next year, Disney came aboard [Disneyland actually premiered in the fall of 1954]. So we added Maverick and of course we already had Cheyenne, which was very popular. You know it started as a triple thing [Warner Bros. Presents] alternating Casablanca, King's Row and Cheyenne. King's Row had been a giant hit in films, so anyway, we were making those at the same time, but later on, King's Row was too mental and went off. Now Casablanca we should have kept. I don't know why they told us to take it off. It would have worked as a series. We had a little trouble with the first one, but we got better. We did about seven of those. And they [ABC] said it wasn't doing as much as Cheyenne, let's do nothing but Cheyennes and cut the other two off. I think we made a mistake cutting off Casablanca. We had the wrong look for it first, but we'd have got it, I think.

SS: The next year [1956], Cheyenne alternated with Conflict.
WO: We got sued over Conflict by some guy who said he put something on Jack Warner's bench called Conflict. We had made a picture called Conflict, we had taken the title from the picture. This guy was absolutely crazy, but he won the arbitration. That's why it went off the air. Plus, ABC liked Cheyenne so much, they said "Make as many Cheyenne episodes as you can." But Conflict was all right; that one was doing pretty well. We finally got a good group together--Huggins was a good man as a writer and we made him a producer. So Maverick and then 77 Sunset Strip were our next big hits.

SS: Then came Sugarfoot, Bronco, Hawaiian Eye, SurfSide 6 and Bourbon Street Beat. As executive producer, you couldn't have run these shows all yourself?
WO: I ran them all. In the early part, I ran them all. Only at the very end when we had ten shows on the air, did I...I got a call from ABC and they said they wanted me to concentrate more on the new things and forget the old things, they're fine. I said I liked to check on them and see that they're fine. But they said, "Just concentrate on the new things." So I let Hawaiian Eye go. I was still having meetings and someone asked me if I knew what was going on and I looked at the 25 or so episodes that had been done while I concentrated on the new shows and there wasn't one of them that didn't need re-doing. And I re-did them. There was one that was almost a whole new show, which cost a lot of money. At that point, we were getting, I think, $75,000 an episode from ABC for them.

SS: So there was no such thing as deficit financing?
WO: Not with us. Absolutely not at Warner Bros. I said, "We're going to make these for exactly what we get for these or less. And the less was summer stuff, where we made money on reruns. And then one of the 77 producers, Howie Horwitz, he took over that show and did some very special things such as "The Silent Caper," with no dialogue. And we didn't have to dub it, we didn't have to dub it for other countries--we made a lot of money on that one episode alone. As a matter of fact, they called me from New York and said, "Can you make another one of those?" So we did one then with Efrem Zimbalist and no other actors ["Reserved for Mr. Bailey"].

SS: So the budgets were tight as a drum.
WO: If we could do something inside, we did it. We didn't go outside unless we had to. If we had somebody on staff who could do something, we used them. Montgomery Pittman was a writer, director and actor. He was a wonderful writer. He died young of cancer. If he had lived he would have been a very important writer in the business. He had a knack for writing scenes that had nothing to do with anything but were most interesting. I got him over from Universal. I made him a producer and director. His wife also wrote and his daughter was an actress. Howie Horwitz found him for me. Howie was a very good man, which is why I let him take over on 77. He isn't with us anymore, either. He bought a little house somewhere in the mountains and there was a slide and the house crumbled and he was killed.

SS: Why did george waGGner spell his name in lower case with the capital "Gs"?
WO: I don't know. He liked it. It made him different. I allowed him to do that. He came to me and said, "You know, I do this with my name," and I said we'll do it.

SS: And you shortened your name too.
WO: Yes. They put my name on the screen so big, it filled the whole thing and I thought the other guys are smaller and I'm so big, so I made them change it to Wm. T. Orr, and made it smaller. Later they made me head of production, both sides, film and television. Then J.L. told me ABC had made a squawk that I wouldn't pay enough attention to TV if I was paying attention to film. That wasn't true. I was trying to be both at the same time. There wasn't that much to do on the picture side, there weren't that many. You just had to find things for development and I found time to do that. When they gave me that job, I immediately went to New York to see what [plays and musicals] hadn't been bought. So I saw Camelot and I bought it for one million when they wanted two. I was very good at getting people to take less money. That was my first film purchase. I bought three or four more things. I bought another one I had seen [dramatized] on television and I loved it and I read it and I called Jack and said I was sending it up to him and that it was great. He sent it back and said "I didn't send you back there to get me a bunch of pictures about drunks." He hated drunks on the screen. Earlier, I broke my [neck] to get The Country Girl. We'd seen it together and he hated it. We had everybody in our studio who could play it. We had Bogart for the guy, Jan Clayton for the girl, or Jane Wyman, and Kirk Douglas. Bogie had that softness about his eyes even when he was doing something tough and Wyman, and I couldn't get Jack to make it. It's very easy to do. You didn't even have to go outside for it. I was on him every day, telling him, "Chief, this picture is going to win awards for people and it's going to be made for nothing and we've got the perfect casting." But he hated pictures about drunks. He finally made an offer and I was so glad. But he only offered $75,000 and Paramount found out what we offered and got it for very little more. They made the picture and everybody got awards.

SS: You never did act again?
WO: Not till I got down here [Palm Springs] and somebody said they wanted me to do On Golden Pond and that's the first time I'd acted in all those years. No, now that's not true. After I was there [at Warner Bros.] a while, about a year, they asked me to come down here and emcee a show in the old movie house. It was the only movie house here when I first came here in 1936. So the people who put it on, I told them I couldn't, I'm in the production end of the business now. They said I had to come down because I had acted in about three things here before that. I said I'd talk to the boss about it. I knew he wouldn't want me to do it because in those days we worked six days a week. So I went to Jack...I think I called him "Chief" by that time--he was a colonel in the army and some people called him "Colonel"--so I said, "Chief, they asked me but I turned them down. They said 'please come, we don't have anybody else'. So I said I'd come if you'll let me come." He said, "All right, but I don't want you turning into a hambone. Go on down but you'd better come back and don't do any nonsense."

Interview with Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.

Interview with Roy Huggins

Season 1 1958-1959 Season 2 1959-1960 Season 3 1960-1961
Season 4 1961-1962 Season 5 1962-1963

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