Behind the Scenes: “The Borgia Stick” / “FBI vs Gangsters” (1967)

It was a gamble all round. Reputations could be made or seriously dented. Male lead Don Murray had been trying to get Hollywood to pay serious attention since nabbing an Oscar nomination for Bus Stop a decade before. Female lead Inger Stevens had been a wannabe for just as long, named as a “youngster to watch” in the mid-1950s alongside the likes of Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Anthony Perkins who had all more than made the grade. Director David Lowell Rich had only one feature, Madame X (1966), a remake of the 1930s classic, to his name. Studio Universal was not so much risking its financial shirt as its prestige.

For all four were embarking on a new kind of enterprise – the made-for-television movie. That notion in itself had been born out of crisis. If exhibitors were claiming that with the mid-60s production crisis there weren’t enough movies to go round, the situation was worse for the television networks which had begun to rely heavily on movies to fill out their programs.

Television had “drained the vaults of Hollywood studios” by using up “the ready supply of motion pictures faster than a grind house.” With too few new motion pictures coming down the pipeline the networks, facing being drawn into a costly rights battle, might welcome a new source of product as easily as they could be exploited by someone savvy enough to come up with a new idea.

In theory, the mini-genre that would become known as “made-for-television” had begun a few years before with Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), but that had been considered too violent for television and released in cinemas instead. So, although in one sense it was a success it was also deemed a failure since it showed the difficulty of trying to make original movies for television. Instead, anything made-for-television would have to find a format that fitted tighter parameters. See How They Run (1964), also from Universal and starring John Forsythe (The Trouble with Harry, 1955) and rising European star Senta Berger (The Secret Ways, 1961), proved a better template.  

Although considered one of the biggest studios in Hollywood at the start of the decade, what with Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Alfred Hitchcock on the payroll and willing to spend $12 million on a roadshow like Spartacus (1961), Universal had since pulled in its financial horns, balking at splashing out on bestsellers and Broadway material. But it perceived the television movie drought as a gap to be exploited, believing that a modestly-budgeted picture would make a decent profit from a network showing (and repeat showing), syndication and overseas theatrical sale.

Quality was the watchword. This would not be like the “quickly-made ersatz segments of a TV series…not going backwards in time to make cheapies.” Originally entitled “Project 120” and based in New York, the movies, “something of a stepchild” to the main film-making operation, would run 97-100 minutes allowing space within a two-hour time frame for advertisements.

While still not in the big bucks book market, which in themselves tended to require a major star to guarantee a return on heavy literary investment, Universal hired William Darrid to find less expensive works, beginning with snapping up the novel House of Cards for $70,000. That proved too expensive for television and ended up as a movie. Darrid believed it simpler and less risky to find original screenplays such as The Borgia Stick, embarking on an “intensive program to purchase…original stories for screen production.”

Universal had another aim – to develop a television segment, a movie series if you like – rather than a one-off, creating an identifiable programmer that could last a season and attract sponsors and advertisers to a recognised brand. There were nine films on the original slate and they would be sold under the generic title of “World Premiere.”

But to make a host of smaller films in a relatively short space of time, Universal needed to find talent that could be marketed to a television audience. Established movie stars were out of the question and in any case such talent would consider it below their dignity. There was no shortage of television stars but this was seen as an opportunity to showcase talent, rising stars and actors who already had some movie marquee value.

Breaking out of television into Hollywood was virtually impossible. But it had always been that way. Stars emerging from the small screen like James Garner (Maverick) or Steve McQueen (Wanted: Dead or Alive ) were few and far between. Clint Eastwood (Rawhide) had to reinvent himself in Italy. “A television star rarely makes a successful transition to pictures,” was the general observation.

Even Gene Barry, with Bat Masterson (1958-1961) and Burke’s Law (1963-1966) behind him, had to head for Europe and Maroc 7 (1967) to catch an even break, something denied him in television where the profit shares he had in both series had amounted to little once sharp practice and high production costs were taken into account.

For Inger Stevens and Barry Nelson it was a potential step up. For Don Murray a definite step down. As mentioned, Swedish-born Stevens had been a genuine ingenue, but despite nabbing the leading female billing opposite Rod Steiger in Cry Terror! (1958) and Harry Belafonte in The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), her career didn’t take off and she ended up a television regular, guest star in series like The Aquanauts and Route 66. But in 1963, despite an initial flaying by critics, she was top-billed in half-hour television comedy series The Farmer’s Daughter. It ran four seasons, and 101 episodes later she was a better known quantity, enough to be able to front a documentary about her homeland.

On the face of it, she was not an obvious fit for The Borgia Stick unless you were simply looking someone whose glamor might add a sad touch to a character who was nothing more than a pawn in a sordid business. The idea of such a beautiful woman going from fashionable housewife to tawdry hooker would be enough to tug at audience heartstrings whether or not she could supply a deeper emotional pull.

Don Murray was so quickly disenchanted with Hollywood that he turned producer on The Hoodlum Priest (1961) but that gamble didn’t pay off and he was relegated to top-billing in small pictures like Escape from East Berlin (1962) and biopic One Man’s Way (1964). There was a hint of potential redemption when Universal, reviewing the footage for The Plainsman (1966) originally intended to form part of the initial “World Premiere” made-for-tv strand, gave it a cinematic release.

But that didn’t hit the ground running either and he stepped into The Borgia Stick as a makeweight while he attempted to advance his career his own way, once again back in the producer’s seat, with the independent Tale of the Cock, whose title alone caused an earthquake at the offices of the Production Code (the industry censor).

With budgets so tight, Universal often hired moonlighting Broadway actors who were generally free during the day – Barry Nelson, currently starring in Cactus Flower with Lauren Bacall, was one such, with Fritz Weaver, Marc Connelly (better known as a playwright) and Sudie Bond (making her movie debut) drawn from the stage.  

In-house producer Richard Lewis, who handled The Borgia Stick, took a different approach to writers and directors. He saw them, especially the writers, as “necessary” collaborators, not as mere employees to be replaced at whim. Writers were on hand during production rather than banished from the studio floor. “It’s a lot better to have him (the writer) around if a line of dialog has to be switched than let anyone else tamper with his work which was excellent enough originally for us to do it.”

The way The Borgia Stick was acquired was typical of the operation. Lewis kept in touch with most of the literary agents, finding out what kind of work their clients were considering, almost looking for a pitch. A.J. Russell’s agent thought his client had come up with “a good story.” Lewis arranged a meeting with the author and “that’s how it (The Borgia Stick) started.” Russell was a television veteran, credits going back to 1950, so this represented a major opportunity. “I gained identity as a writer with a show such as this,” explained Russell, “which is impossible to get in a regular series. The script is wholly mine…it’s something that belongs to me.”

At a time when most directors were freelance or struck non-exclusive short-term deals with studios, David Lowell Rich was an anomaly. He was a contract director, having signed a six-year deal with Universal, replacing Norman Jewison. It was a very old-fashioned deal, harking back to the Hollywood “golden age” when actors and directors were hired for seven-year stints. They worked on whatever the studio saw fit or could be loaned out to other studios if need be. That scenario would not have suited an Otto Preminger or a John Sturges. But for a television director not in the league of Martin Ritt or John Frankenheimer, whose television work had provided Hollywood calling cards, it was a big step up. “At the time Universal offered me a pact I thought it the best thing to happen and a wonderful opportunity and I still do.”

And small wonder. He, too, was a television regular, starting out in the business in 1950, and eventually entrusted with episodes of Wagon Train, Peter Gunn, Route 66, The Twilight Zone and Dr Kildare. Earlier attempts at a movie career had disintegrated after the likes of  No Time to Be Young (1957) and Have Rocket, Will Travel (1959) featuring The Three Stooges stiffed at the box office.

So the prospect of regular work at Universal as the in-house director, potentially handed prestige projects if predecessor Norman Jewison’s career was anything to go by, was too big an opportunity to ignore. He was only too happy to make what he was told to make.  But he was far from just a hired hand. He was considered “a New York director” with a distinctive style, revealing the Big Apple as “a surfaced, multi-layered, steely place.”

As if the made-for-television arm was a mini-studio, Universal did not, as one might expect, make one picture and wait for industry reaction before embarking on another. It started off with a complete slate, and before the nine movies in the first wave had even been televised – The Name of the Game launched the “World Premiere” format on November 26, 1966 – a second tranche, including The Borgia Stick, was already underway.

Initially, the picture was due to start shooting in New York on a five-week schedule in July 1966, but that shifted to August with production complete by early October. According to the critics The Borgia Stick exceeded expectations. Variety called it “an achievement,” and considered A.J. Russell an “exceptional story-teller” and the bold decision to shoot on location in New York working to “striking advantage.” The public tended to agree. It was ranked third among the first tranche in the ratings battle according to Nielsen.

More importantly, when up against all the Hollywood movies screened on television that year, it came in at number eight when measured by “total audience appeal” beaten only by major motion pictures making their network premieres such as The Robe (1953), Lilies of the Field (1963) with Sidney Poitier’s Oscar-winning performance, Doris Day comedy Move Over Darling (1963), The Longest Hundred Miles (another made-for-tv film), Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Marlon Brando in The Young Lions (1958) – screened over two nights it counted as two entries. Perhaps more vital, when the results were broken down by demographics, The Borgia Stick took pole position in both the 18-34 age ground and the 35-49 and was “generally considered to be the best made-for-tver to date.”

The Borgia Stick was sold to some television networks – the BBC screened it in Britain on September 9, 1969 – around the world but the Mafia theme made it a straightforward sell for cinema distribution in other areas where it went out under titles such as FBI vs Gangsters, Murder Syndicate or Gangster Syndicate.  

The Borgia Stick proved to be the ace in the pack for Inger Stevens. She was snapped up immediately for the movies and over the next three years was leading lady to Clint Eastwood (Hang ‘Em High, 1968), Dean Martin (5 Card Stud, 1968), Henry Fonda (Firecreek, 1968), George Peppard (House of Cards, 1968) and Anthony Quinn (A Dream of Kings, 1969). But she had mental health issues, probably exacerbated by being forced to keep secret her marriage in 1961 to black musician Ike Jones in case it adversely affected her career, and in 1970 she committed suicide.

Don Murray’s Tale of the Cock (1966) sat on the shelf for three years before being released, minus a censor rating, as These Childish Things to neither critical acclaim nor box office interest. David Lowell Rich made three feature films on the trot – Rosie! (1967) with Rosalind Russell and Sandra Dee, Kirk Douglas/Sylva Koscina thriller A Lovely Way to Die (1968) and Eye of the Cat (1969) before subsiding back into television only emerging for an occasional movie like That Man Bolt (1974) starring Fred Williamson and The Concorde…Airport ’79 (1979).   A.J. Russell also achieved breakout success, going on to write A Lovely Way to Die (1968)  and Stiletto (1969).

Made-for-television movies became a regular feature of network programming and from time to time threw up a genuine success – Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) starring Robert De Niro and The Jericho Mile (1979) with Peter Strauss among the most notable. And you could argue that the genre is currently booming on streaming giants like Netflix and Apple, making movies to win audience share and expand their subscription base.

SOURCES: “Youngsters With Star Potential,” Variety, July 24, 1957, p13; “Competitive Spirit Moves MCA (& U),” Variety, May 4, 1966, p3; “Wm Darrid Is MCA’s Literary Head,” Box Office, May 23, 1966, pE6; “Gotham Draws More Film Prod,” Variety, July 6, 1966, p1; “Broadway,” Box Office, August 29, 1966, pE4; “Universal Sets 11 Features For NBC-TV,” Box Office, September 5, 1966, pE4; “Broadway,” Box Office, October 3, 1966, pE4; “U and Metro Favor Features Made-For-TV,” Variety, October 19, 1966, p4;  “Gene Barry Seeks To Prove A TV Star Can Make It Theatrically,” Variety, October 19, 1966, p4; “First U’s Film Made-For-TV Due Nov 26,” Box Office, November 21, 1966, p20; “Review,” Variety, March 1, 1967, p31; “NBC’s Ersatz Pix Hottest Package,” Variety, April 26, 1967, p165; “Last Season’s Most Appealing Pix,” Variety, July 5, 1967, p18; Stuart Byron, “Economics Can Work Out Okay For House Director – D.L. Rich,” Variety, July 5, 1967, p18; “U’s Premiere Status In TV,” Variety, August 16, 1967, p33;  “Survivors, U-Pix Bought by BBC,” Variety, September 10, 1969, p59; “15 New MOTW Titles Packaged for O’Seas,” Variety, August 26, 1970, p39.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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