Peyton Place… 76 acres of real life
An in-depth look at the people behind the scenes at hit soap opera Peyton Place in 1967
THE spring thaw had set in and green shoots were thrusting through the melting snow around the bandstand. Life was unfolding in Peyton Place — although it was still December.
April comes in December there because each episode is screened in America four months after filming.
Peyton Place is superimposed over 76 acres of 20th Century-Fox studios in Los Angeles. Yet, the whole world, it would seem, is looking in on Peyton Place.
What a tricky town it is. You may have been distracted, or gone away and missed the latest developments, then wondered what was happening.
No need. You pick up the thread as if you’ve never been away. Why? Has nothing happened? Of course it has. Plenty, if it isn’t apparent to you it’s because the people who determine the destinies of Peyton Place had planned it this way.
“The pace of life in Peyton Place,” says executive producer Paul Monash, “has been specially evolved to make you think, if you’ve been away, that you haven’t missed a thing. Yet in reality you have missed plenty. How else could we make our audience, millions of people on five continents, want to stay with us?” A Rolls-Royce has just pulled up outside the office of The Clarion, the town’s newspaper, and the chauffeur is helping old Martin Peyton through the slush on the pavement. It’s spring 1968.
What is happening in episode 418 is a secret no one in Peyton Place is allowed to reveal.
Anyone breathing it to a friend in a bar may be fired. At the time one leading figure was about to leave Peyton Place, an actor was written out of the series for revealing the plot to a newspaper friend.
American television viewers who go to Britain gained prestige by telling friends what will happen in Peyton Place in months to come. After all they are episodes ahead of the Peyton Place episodes in Britain — but British TV viewers in turn are ahead of viewers in other places. The tale is unfolding in 32 countries to reach such faraway spots as Thailand and Korea, El Salvador and Guatemala, Australia and New Zealand.
The only continent that has yet to become aware of the intrigues in Peyton Place is Africa — if you leave out the United Arab Republic.
Let’s admit it to Mr. Monash. A lot has happened in this town of his. It all began with Rodney Harrington being tricked into marrying Betty Anderson.
Eventually, she ran off to the big town and then their marriage was annulled. Meanwhile Rodney was really in love with Allison, only he didn’t know it. His father was having an affair with Betty’s mother, and in the state prison Elliot Carson, innocently convicted of the murder of his wife Elizabeth, was defying the parole board. Remember..? “We unfolded the story step by step,” says Monash. “We’ve had no masterplan. If you had asked me a year ago I wouldn’t have been able to pinpoint the events of today. A lot just happened.
“Other events could have gone this way, or that way, and we spent sleepless nights and argued for days until I knew where to go from there.”
Monash, who earns £100,000 a year [£1.8m in 2018, allowing for inflation], has been close to quitting his job so many times, he doesn’t remember the number of real life crises that shook Peyton Place
“Originally, Constance was to kill Elliot Carson, the father of her illegitimate child, when he returned to Peyton Place, but I was able to prevent that and now they’re a happy if troubled couple…
“Sometimes you set down a course of events because you are out to please a certain audience. And we know our audience.
“Then there are times when our actors refuse to accept a turn of events in Peyton Place and we have to go along with that. It is not healthy to lose principals. May they be happy and live forever…” So far, Monash has “lost” only one regular in Britain, Leigh Taylor-Young, so that as casualties go Peyton Place‘s mortality is very low indeed. Meanwhile, at least three dozen actors and actresses to hold major parts for as long as a year have come and gone.
This traffic of featured players is necessary to keep the story exciting, and nothing accomplishes that better than new faces. But Monash admits that he is never sure that a new face, added to the cast for a limited period, may not catch on and become a valuable acquisition. Young Pat Morrow, who plays Rita, is a case in point.
“We thought we’d keep her around for three months or so,” Monash reflects. “As you know, she’s still with us, and Peyton Place would never be the same without her.”
They never thought of following author Grace Metalious’ format, though, and if today the only similarity between the original book and the series is the title, then it’s by design, not by accident.
“I thought they had gone much too far in taking the pepper out of Peyton Place,” was the way Barbara Parkins (Betty in the series) put it not long ago. “They didn’t let me and my husband have love scenes for fear it would offend our viewers.”
To keep her happy, producer Everett Chambers, let Barbara do a love scene with her “husband” in one episode.
But Betty is the one protesting. Most of the rest of the cast are fond of Peyton Place. “I call ours a family show,” says Dr. Michael Rossi — Ed Nelson, a father of six, including four little girls.
“I know not everybody will agree with me. but this is what I believe in.” Nelson is another who has caused quite a few script revisions, granted because of his definite value to the series.
“As TV stars go,” Monash says happily, “our 11 regulars are a strong team.”
It would seem that time has proved him right because the regulars now before the cameras are the same as those appearing on British screens this week.
Most of these 11 were in the “pilot” show which was filmed on Peyton Place‘s £370,000 [£7.5m] exterior set in September 1963.
Surviving almost 400 half-hour episodes over four-odd years these Peyton Place “regulars” have found themselves a “home” they may hate to leave if and when the series ends.
Allison Mackenzie’s haircutting rebellion was an incident which had international hairstyle reverberations and was the one occasion when television pointed up a strange inter-dependence of Peyton Place‘s make-believe and the outside world of reality.
“Mia,” actor Ed Nelson said, “was very much on edge during several preceding weeks and we all felt something was going to happen.
“By then she was very much at odds with the character. She had outgrown it, and was fighting it.”
What triggered the “rebellion” was the studio keeping people late the night of Frank Sinatra’s birthday party. Mia was to attend.
“She cut her hair while in her dressing room,” Nelson said. “I must hand it to Monash. His reaction to the news that Allison had lost her Alice in Wonderland hair was to order a scene in which Allison comes to the hospital to test Dr. Rossi’s reaction to an impulsive act of self-disfiguration. We were handed a new page of script and within two hours of Mia cutting her hair we were shooting a different scene.”
One member of the company commented: “When we told the boss he said: ’Great, let’s see the script.’ He was cool as a cucumber. He then improvised the psychological reasons why Allison would cut her hair which largely paralleled Mia Farrow’s own reasons.
“He felt that, in fact, she was partly reflecting what was happening to the character in the story.”
This incident pointed out the basic truth that each and all of the characters populating Peyton Place had been gradually changing, some growing older and wiser, others “evolving”.
“The people who determine our destinies have deliberately left us a lot of elbow room so we may move around within our characters,” actor Jim Douglas (Steven Cord) said.
They’ve all “evolved”. “As Elliot Carson,” says actor Tim O’Connor, “I began as the embittered convict seeking to find the truth about the crime I was not guilty of, and to find the real murderer.
“From this I moved on to a love affair, a second love, in a sense, for Constance. I married, I became a very involved father and all that, yet essentially I’ve been playing the same character — a man quick to anger and essentially fair. A man who has a strong sense of justice.
“The reason I became the editor of the town’s newspaper? They were very careful to give me something to do in the story. I couldn’t just be there. My sense of justice was what determined my job. Suddenly, we arrived at the conclusion that I could be nothing else…”
Possibly, the Harrington boys “evolved” even more over the years but then, as Ryan O’Neal said: “We were like all young boys growing up. Only comic book characters never change.” Rodney was originally the spoiled rich young boy with some good instincts who has gradually grown into a young man determined to make it on his own.
Norman went through a greater change. He started as a sensitive young companion of Allison, something of a bookworm, and he is now a young man in the throes of a marriage to a girl who has more troubles than she should have.
“It is true,” says Barbara Parkins, “that I often feel as though I am Betty Cord. And if the things that have happened to her have not happened to me in real life—well, they could, or they might yet.”
Betty Anderson (as she was) is another character who has “evolved” over the year, but so has Barbara Parkins.
The leeway that the producers have given their characters, never dotting all the “i’s” and crossing all the “t’s,“ allows for the dramatic explosion that has to take place to keep Peyton Place what it is.
“I have the feeling,” said Dorothy Malone, “that as often as not they translate the drama in our personal lives into events in Peyton Place. It is we who offer them material.”
Miss Malone has had some stormy encounters in real life with ex-husband Jacques Bergerac. Monash denies that he has made a point of it. But then, the last episode of the series has yet to be written.
In fact, the writing team is about three months ahead of the events taking place in Peyton Place, the writers continually exploring new possibilities. But viewer reaction cannot be taken into consideration since American viewers are seven months behind the writers.
“It’s very complicated,” actor Chris Connelly said. “They know what’s going on, but they won’t tell us.
“In the beginning we had a pool, guessing how certain things would turn out, such as, I remember, Rodney’s trial. I lost. Nowadays we sort of take things for granted. Do as we are told. At least I do.”
The Peyton Place stars’ cars are as motley as they themselves. Dorothy Malone has a black Cadillac. Barbara Parkins owns a green Jaguar, Ryan O’Neal’s is a powder-blue Mercedes Benz. Chris Connelly’s is a red Corvette, usually parked next to Pat Morrow’s silver Corvette. Tim O’Connor’s black Porsche is tucked away in a corner, as is Ed Nelson’s white Mustang. Which, occasionally, is joined by another “loner,” George Macready’s silver grey Humber.
Some of them are “loners” because this is their nature. Jim Douglas, for instance, makes a point of always lunching alone at a small table in the studio restaurant, very much the brooding Steven Cord.
George Macready, alias Martin Peyton, is never around until he is needed on the set — he is in his portable dressing room, as often as not, having a cup of tea he prepares himself.
But Ed Nelson plays chess with members of the crew. Chris Connelly spends all his free time pottering around his car.
At lunch time. Ed Nelson entertains visitors from Pomona where he lives, or a couple of his kids, while Pat Morrow usually joins the Harrington boys for lunch.
Dorothy Malone drives home to lunch to be with her two little girls. She lives 10 minutes away from the studio.
None has become a millionaire, but Dorothy Malone is extremely well off, having had a steady job since the series began.
So is Ed Nelson. So is George Macready, and so are the show’s “youngsters” — Ryan O’Neal, Chris Connelly and Barbara Parkins.
Their salaries are another of Peyton Place‘s well-guarded secrets, but it is known that originally Miss Malone was getting the only high salary, a reported £650 a week. [£11,520]
Today, it is said that the total star salary is £7,000 a week. [£124,100]
To be sure, they are worked hard, and the money does not come easily.
Two episodes are filmed every week, each taking up four concentrated days of shooting with the actors expected to report to work knowing their dialogue. Since television does not allow for fluffing of lines, the Peyton Place regulars spend their evenings at home cramming.
No more than two takes a scene are allowed and anyone who causes a slowdown may expect to confront Mr. Monash or Mr. Chambers after horns and he had better have a good explanation.
Monash readily admits that one additional reason why his regulars have remained regulars is that all are quick at studying. In other words, they’re pros.
At the breakneck pace of life in Peyton Place — it is essential that filming proceeds at a lively clip.
As a rule, two companies work simultaneously, each headed by its own director, one occupying the well-used town square set while the other is at work on one of the five sound stages.
Occasionally, the regulars have worked for both directors on the same day. Nothing is allowed to come in the way of production, with ‘Life goes on in Peyton Place‘ having become as much of a maxim as the famous “The show must go on.”
When Dorothy Malone became very ill, she was replaced by actress Lola Albright and audiences were expected to accept the temporary replacement without protest. They did.
Until the spring of 1967 the regulars worked with less than a fortnight’s annual holiday.
A change of policy — from three half-hour episodes in America to two a week — gave the regulars their first solid vacation — three months.
It didn’t affect Barbara Parkins, though. She spent her holiday doing “Valley of the Dolls” on a different 20th Century-Fox sound stage.
Not that she minded that. An ambitious girl, Barbara hopes that a movie career may free her to do bigger and better things.
“The only way for me to be written out of Peyton Place,” she says, “is to prove to my bosses that I can do better for them in movies.”
She adds that she will “feel lost” for a while but that one is never a star unless one switches to movies. And she is resolved to be a star.
Not as outspoken, the two Harrington boys are also looking forward to a chance at movie stardom, convinced, though, that Peyton Place was the best thing that could have happened to them: the acting world’s best drama school.
Monash readily and happily concurs: “Anyone who’s gone through the Peyton Place mill has won himself the rank of colonel.” Most recently, agents have begun sustained campaigns on behalf of their clients, usually experienced actors, to get them stints in Peyton Place.
Old-timer Dan Duryea’s proudest day came when not long ago he was allowed to join the Peyton Place gang as Ida Jack’s long-lost husband.
Beautiful Gena Rowland followed in the footsteps of Lee Grant. Today, the line of applicants, all excellent actors more than willing to work in Peyton Place, if necessary at a financial sacrifice, forms to the right.
Significantly, regulars and non-regulars have formed a tightly-knit actors’ family that is as concerned with what will happen in Peyton Place tomorrow as the most avid viewer.
Peyton Place has brought about only one personal involvement — Ryan O’Neal marrying Leigh Taylor-Young whom he met in the series.
“They finish work and go home,” is the way publicity woman Doris Kaler sees things in Peyton Place. “Each in his own direction.”
To be sure, all Peyton Place regulars with the exception of Barbara Parkins, Pat Morrow and Chris Connelly are married, with families of their own.
They, then, are the people of Peyton Place. Count them off, the two producers, one story editor, four writers, four directors, the eleven regulars, and some 60 members of the Peyton Place crew.
Between them, one must admit, they’ve caused quite a global stir.