To most of us, the nearest television comes to being live anymore is when they say that a show was shot live in front of a studio audience. Of course that's still not live television, as the actors will still get a chance to re-shoot scenes and the show isn't being broadcast live out over the airwaves as they film it. Yet, hard as it may be to believe, that is something that used to happen all the time in television — shows would beam out to audiences un-edited and actors would run the same risks that their cousins in theatre did when it came to forgetting lines or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Although there were similarities between live theatre and live television, there were sizable differences as well. Live television was made to be performed for the camera, while live theatre is made to be played in a large hall with a live audience. If you don't think that makes much of a difference, think of what an actor has to do to make himself heard and seen from the fortieth row of the theatre. Then think of putting that same person in front of a camera and having him or her doing the exact same performance — it would look and sound ridiculous. His voice would be far too loud and facial expressions that look normal up on stage to people in an audience would look horribly exaggerated when captured by the television camera.
One of the hardest things to do is to take a live performance of any play and put it on the screen. To do it successfully usually involves re-staging it specifically for the camera instead of for the audience. To actually stage it for both and make it look convincing both on camera and for those in the audience is a very tricky proposition that not only requires particularly skilled actors, but a director skilled in editing camera shots live to ensure you get the right mix of television and theatre. Shooting flat with one camera – just opening the lens so you can see the whole set and all the action taking place on it – makes for both lousy television and lousy theatre, so you'd want to be able to cut back and forth between close-ups of central characters, mid-range shots to show the reactions of those in the immediate surroundings, and long-range shots to capture the fact that it is indeed taking place on a stage set.
In 1984 NBC TV took the risk of staging a live television broadcast of the one time Broadway hit play Mister Roberts, and now the Acorn Media Group have just released a DVD of that performance. Based on a novel by Thomas Heggen, it was originally staged on Broadway in 1948 starring Henry Fonda in the title role, a role he later recreated when it was made into a film in 1955. In the version that was telecast in 1985 the producers returned to the Broadway script to attempt the exceedingly difficult feat of televising a piece of live theatre.
The plot centres around the relationship between officers and crew aboard a cargo ship in the American Navy during the closing months of WWII in the Pacific Ocean. Lieutenant (Mister) Roberts not only serves as cargo officer, but acts as a buffer between the crew and the ship's ambitious and overbearing Captain. While he is respected and admired by the crew, Mister Roberts chafes at what he considers a useless assignment and is constantly submitting requests to be transferred to a combat ship, which the Captain stamps as not approved, assuring they will be ignored by those higher up in the chain of command. According to Navy protocol a ship's Captain can't refuse to pass along an officer's request for transfer, but he can make it impossible for the transfer to be considered by not approving it.
Aside from Lieutenant Roberts and the Captain, the ship's officer complement includes Ensign Pulver, a young man who spends as much time as possible asleep and his waking hours trying to avoid coming to the Captain's attention, and Doc, who serves as mentor and confessor figure to the crew, as well as providing essential services like grain alcohol from medical stores for parties. While initially the story line and the behaviour of the crew might feel a little dated, the performances have been so carefully directed that they contribute to creating the atmosphere of the times. What in 1948 would have been realistic behaviour looks and sounds strange to our ears, but in the end it makes the play all the more authentic.
It's one of many intelligent choices the director of the production, Melvin Bernhardt, made. The other was to use only three basic sets to shoot on. The set where the majority of the action takes place is an exterior of the ship's fore-deck. This included two levels and a multitude of places for actors to exit and enter from, so that a few actors could create an impression of a ship hard at work merely by appearing and disappearing either up, down, or to the left and right. The other two sets were both interiors, the quarters shared by Roberts and Pulver and the Captain's office. Both of these sets allowed the director to focus our attention squarely on the primary characters and gave him the opportunity to establish the relationships between the ship's officers as well as getting to know them individually.
Of course this type of performance is entirely dependent on the skill of the actors who are entrusted with the lead roles, and in this case none of the four — Robert Hays as Mister Roberts, Kevin Bacon as Ensign Pulver, Howard Hesseman as Doc, and Charles Durning as the Captain — disappoint. Not only do each of them do a convincing job in creating their character's obvious traits, they are also talented enough to make them more than one-dimensional. Although Durning is playing what is basically an unsympathetic character, he does manage to make us understand where his attitude comes from. We may not like him any better then we did after but he's not just a bully anymore, there's something deeper and almost more malign at work in his character than just enjoying bossing people around.
In some ways Hays has the most difficult job, as he's playing the straight man to everybody's character around him, but he carries it off by paying close attention to the details that make up his character's personality and the way he treats the crew. Kevin Bacon does an equally excellent job with his performance of Ensign Pulver, as he allows his character's insecurity to come through his brash exterior and does a credible job in showing his development into maturity so that his actions at the end of the play are believable. The biggest surprise, though, was Hesseman, as he showed that not only does he have a wonderful instinct for timing when it comes to comedy, he can put that same gift to use when it comes to more dramatic acting. He is so supremely comfortable on stage and in front of the camera that everything he does is completely believable.
There are a few glitches in the sound and audio on the DVD, but that's to be expected when you're dealing with the digital transfer of old footage and they don't detract from the overall production. One thing is for sure though, you know this was live television, because there is no way that the occasional glimpses of boom microphones you catch in the footage would have been left in otherwise. There aren't many special features, but there is a nice overview of the script's history and the attempts to make a sequel to the movie and a television series in the early 1960s.
I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by not only the quality of the acting involved but with the overall production itself. The cast and crew have managed to carry off the very difficult task of bringing a stage production to the television screen without sacrificing any of the excitement of a live performance and making full use of the intimacy offered by cameras. Mister Roberts is one of the classics of the post-war American stage, and watching this production is probably as good as seeing it live on stage, if not better.