Thursday, September 20, 2012

Studio One's "The Defender" Examines the Drama Outside the Courtroom

Shatner and McQueen.
A courtroom drama in which the verdict doesn't matter? That's the case with "The Defender," a 1957 two-part television play by Reginald Rose that was originally broadcast on Studio One. Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner play father-and-son attorneys who are appointed to defend a moody young man (Steve McQueen) accused of felony murder. As zealous prosecutor Martin Balsam explains to the jury from the outset: A "felony murder" is an unpremeditated murder or accidental death caused while performing a felony--and it can result in a death sentence.

Walter Preston (Bellamy) plays to the jury.
Walter Preston (Bellamy) is a veteran attorney nearing the end of a long career. His gut instinct is that his client, Joseph Gordon (McQueen), is guilty. Disgusted with the crime--a young woman murdered in her apartment for a small amount of money--Preston decides to mount a decent defense...but no more. When he tells his son, Kenneth (Shatner), the recent law school graduate is shocked to learn his father is unwilling to do anything to defend his client. In fact, Kenneth wants to push the boundaries of ethics by employing a courtroom trick to increase the odds of getting the charges against Gordon dismissed.

The best scenes in "The Defender" occur not in the courtroom, but in the back rooms and hallways of the justice building. Father and son each state their point of view with conviction. It's clear that Walter will do what's expected of him, but that he will stop short of exploiting all his skills as a lawyer. As for Kenneth, his win-at-all-costs approach is constrained by the law. He's willing to violate courtroom etiquette, but understands his legal boundaries.

The discussions between the Walter and Kenneth evolve into arguments that also reveal the frailty of their own relationship: Walter as a father who spent more time with clients than with his son; Kenneth as a son who aspired to be like his father without understanding why. Yet, despite their emotional confrontations, it's a key out-of-court exchange between Walter and the prosecuting attorney that changes the outcome of the case.

Vivian Nathan as McQueen's mother.
Although Bellamy, Shatner, and McQueen all deliver believable performances, acting honors go to Vivian Nathan as McQueen's simpleminded mother and Eileen Ryan as his meek girlfriend. Nathan belonged to the Studio One "repertory" from 1956-58, appearing in six other teleplays.

Writer Reginald Rose, the son of a lawyer, is best known for 12 Angry Men and the TV series The Defenders. Rose originally wrote "12 Angry Men" as a teleplay for Studio One in 1954. He later adapted it for the film version directed by Sidney Lumet and earned an Academy Award nomination (his screenplay lost to The Bridge on the River Kwai).

Marshall and Reed in the TV series.
In 1961, Rose adapted "The Defender" into the legal TV series The Defenders. E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed played Walter and Kenneth Preston for four years. The series tackled many controversial issues such as abortion, custody rights, censorship, the insanity plea, and capital punishment. The Defenders won 13 Emmys, including three for outstanding dramatic program. In 2009, TV Guide ranked it at No. 31 among its Top 50 Shows of all-time.

In 1997, Rose developed a reworking of The Defenders, with Beau Bridges and Martha Plimpton as Walter Preston's grandchildren. The series was cancelled when E.G. Marshall died after completion of the second episode.Clips from the 1961-65 series have appeared on Boston Legal and Mad Men.

Amazingly, the original Defenders TV series is still unavailable on DVD. While awaiting its eventual release, one can still enjoy its origin on Studio One. "The Defender" does for attorneys what 12 Angry Men did for juries--and that is high praise.

7 comments:

  1. I don't think I've ever seen an episode of The Defenders, nor the movie that launched it. It would be interesting to watch Bellamy interact with both Shatner and McQueen. I wonder, was Shatner hammy back then, too?

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  2. Rick, I really enjoyed your excellent post about "The Defender." It was indeed interesting to see the behind the courtroom scenes shape the story. This was a gem to see. And, Kim, I don't think Shatner was overly dramatic in this turn. Rick, you were spot on in your assessment of the two females in this work, especially Vivian Nathan's remarkable performance. This was a great post to bring to everyone's attention. Well done!

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    1. Toto, I agree about Shatner. It was a restrained, believable performance.

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  3. I'm glad to see the Studio One series is getting more attention recently, and in particular "The Defender". It's a fabulous script and very well acted - and the fact that it was done LIVE is rather mind-blowing.

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    1. Thanks for mentioning it was shot live, which was indeed amazing (no margin for errors on a bad shot or acting gaffe!). These shows were recorded (on wire, I believe) for archive purposes only. It's surprising that the quality is as good as it is.

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  4. Fascinating. I have never seen "The Defenders", but my mother speaks of it as "legendary". One of these days.

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  5. Shatner's role in "The Defender" plays no small part in the "Boston Legal" season 3 episode titled, "Son of the Defender".

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