Remembering Joseph Sargent

December 22nd, 2014
Joseph Sargent

We're sad to learn that director Joseph Sargent passed away this morning at the age of 89 in Malibu, California. Sargent directed episodes of Lassie, Gunsmoke, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and the now-classic "The Corbomite Maneuver” episode of Star Trek. He directed the films "The Taking of Pelham 123" and "Jaws: The Revenge," and worked with Hollywood screen legends James Cagney (Terrible Joe Moran) and Elizabeth Taylor (There Must Be A Pony). Sargent worked with Stanley Kubrick in the pre-production stages of "One-Eyed Jacks," and helped cast an unknown Pierce Brosnan in the miniseries The Manions of America. He also directed the Emmy-winning television movies Miss Evers’ Boys, A Lesson Before Dying, Something the Lord Made, and Warm Springs

Below are some selections from his 2006 Archive interview:

On directing James Arness on Gunsmoke:

The lesson I learned, because Jim is not the kind of human being or actor that would do anything just for arbitrary ego reasons, or because he’s a diva about his role - ‘cause that also happens when an actor or an actress will absolutely demand certain things be done because of my character, using the character to justify probably something that makes her feel uncomfortable, or makes her look too old, or makes him look too weak, or whatever the problem is. In this case, what I learned was that a man who plays a character for as long as Gunsmoke was on the air - by that time, and I think it was probably in its fifth, sixth year - is committed really to the integrity of his role. Because of that he knows he can’t suddenly depart from that commitment and that part of the relationship he has with that role to satisfy a director’s need to be fancy with a camera angle. I had to settle my anger a little bit to come around to realizing that. ‘Cause at first, my immediate reaction is, "Oh come on, this is nonsense. He wouldn’t miss," etc. But he was absolutely right. In terms of the Marshal Dillon mystique, if he draws on a man that man is dead - that’s the way the mythology had been constructed, and that’s the way it had to stay. I had to dismantle the shot, and he doesn’t shoot the man. The man draws his gun, he pulls his gun, the man runs away. I averted a disastrous confrontation, and at the same time learned a valuable lesson, which is not to set up any kind of shot, any kind of scene, any kind of staging without a rehearsal. Now I’ve fallen into that trap several times since then in all these glorious years of directing where you think it’s so simple. The actor is late, "I’ll go ahead and set it up on second team, or the actor needs a break or has to rest. It’s okay, we’ll set it up on their stand-in..." And every time I learn the same lesson. I finally have learned it thoroughly. I will never ever set up any scene or shot, however fancy, especially if it’s fancy without a rehearsal.

On his experience with the Hollywood Blacklist:

I barely squeaked by that period. I was not big enough target quite fortunately, despite the fact that I was very vocal against it, as virtually all of us were. I had an enormous circle of friends, all who had been blacklisted and suffered different levels of unemployment and a lot of pain. A lot of families broke up, divorces, people running off in order to make a living going off to Europe, etc.

On directing Star Trek:

They had shot a pilot that they didn’t want to use as a first episode, and I think the pilot played as the third show. I was called in to produce and direct with Gene Roddenberry, “The Corbomite Maneuver.”  I loved the show, so I was all too anxious to get into it. I had started doing long form at that time, but this was such a marvelous challenge that I couldn’t resist it. I must say working with Gene Roddenberry was quite an experience. He was a very interesting guy, and as a Southern gentleman he proved his metal when I suggested that the crew of the Enterprise was rather well diverse. They had Japanese, they had people from Vulcan, and a Scot, and a nice mix, except there was no black person on the crew. He instantly jumped on that and followed through on it, and that’s how Nichelle got her role.  

On directing The Marcus-Nelson Murders and winning his first Emmy:

Abby Mann sent me the script - CBS was very high on it - and I was at Universal, and Sid Sheinberg called me and said, "This is one you’re gonna like." Sure enough, it was a very important piece. It was really basically an examination of the events that led up to the Miranda decision that we now take for granted. It's very much part of the canon of law. But before the Marcus-Nelson murders there was no limit as to the different techniques used to draw a confession out of a suspect so that they would literally sign a confession rather than undergo any more torture. Now they had to have their rights read to them, etc., etc., and that’s what Marcus-Nelson was. I loved the film. It’s one of my favorites. And evidently it was a lot of other people’s favorites ‘cause it won all kinds of Emmys. It was my first.

On advice to aspiring directors:

Learn, learn, learn, learn, but most importantly, learn what one of your major resources is, and that’s the actor. The more you can absorb what the actor must absorb, which is a different way of saying the more actor training you can include in your education, the easier it’s gonna be for you to relate to actors, to get the most out of actors, to help them overcome a lot of the obstacles. It becomes a very, very valuable, and very necessary credential to have as a director. In addition to all the stuff that the film schools are teaching, unfortunately one of the biggest omissions is the training -- the actor training that should be part of directing 101. The emphasis unfortunately has been a little lopsided toward the use of camera, the F-stops, all of the film stock. These are all valuable, but they are not necessarily the full responsibility of the director, as much as it is the responsibility of the director of photography. The director has to know camera. He has to know what the role of camera is in articulating the content of a scene, and what the role of the camera is in terms of presenting the most vivid, dynamic images to hold the audiences emotional involvement. Everything is valuable. The camera, the script, the sets, the make-up, the costumes, but as I said before it starts with making the actor as comfortable, and as willing to take a risk as you can. That’s basically it. Then my other advice is get a good friend in the business to give you a hand, ‘cause everybody needs that.  

Watch Joseph Sargent's full Archive interview and read his obituary in Variety.

 

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