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Q&A with veteran TV writer Sam Hall by Jay Blotcher

Weekend residents. It doesn’t take a sociologist to recognize the fascinating—and thorny—interpersonal dynamics that govern this area: lifetime locals and weekenders intermingle uneasily. Locals resent the weekenders for their urban polish and sense of privilege—yet welcome their influx of income; weekenders claim to adore the rustic ways of their country cousins, while wanting to bring more city conveniences to the area. (Hence the reason why Rhinebeck now resembles Sag Harbor, another country redoubt which has become a playground for the wealthy Manhattan professional.) The stalemate between the separate camps never approaches resolution.

In short, this is the stuff of soap opera. Veteran writer Sam Hall, a Rhinebeck resident since 1977 (in local parlance, a newcomer) saw the dramatic potential of this ongoing saga and decided to transform it into a local TV mini-series he calls So You Want to Live in the Country. It will air on PANDA, the Dutchess County public access channel.

Hall first began writing teleplays during the late 40s, the so-called “Golden Age of Television.” His scripts appeared on Westinghouse’s Studio One and Matinee Theatre before Hall fell into the soap opera game, serving first as head writer for the series The Brighter Day, a 1954 weeper that made the jump from radio to TV. Mainstream critical acclaim came later for his 1976 PBS series The Adams Chronicles. But Hall is best known for a soap that broke all the rules: the cult series Dark Shadows, whose central figure was not a courageous housewife but an emotionally conflicted vampire. Turning out scripts for the audacious (and often ridiculous) series, Hall was able to work alongside his actress-wife Grayson Hall, who played bloodsucking Barnabas Collins’ lovesick ally, Dr. Julia Hoffman. (A stage and screen performer as well, Hall was Oscar-nominated for 1964’s Night of the Iguana.)

Now 88, Sam Hall is again working on a soap opera. The first episode is stuffed full of delicious contrivances and hoary soap-opera trappings, as well as sharp sociological observances about this benign class war. To summarize: Dr. Ames Westerly (David Anderson) has moved for good to Rhinebeck, but his workaholic wife Heather (Ann Osmond) is still commuting, tied to her Manhattan advertising agency; sweet-hearted farmboy Hank (Michael Brooks) is trying to comfort his pregnant wife Val (Harmony Stempel), a cranky native who wants out. Kendrick Gleason (Dan Region), an ambitious developer is sizing up river property for a bungalow colony while conducting a love-hate relationship with gold-digging wife Dorian (Lisa Linds). And what about the mime (Gregor Trieste) who appears mysteriously on a moored tugboat? The 30-minute segment, boasting strong production values if uneven acting, ends with a hospital cliffhanger that stokes the viewer for episode two.

In March, Hall talked to Roll writer (and Dark Shadows fan) Jay Blotcher. In an exhaustive and often dishy 90-minute telephone conversation, Hall discussed the early days of television, why his late wife didn’t really like acting and why the creator of Dark Shadows was a madman.

Was So You Want to Live in the Country your creation? How did it come about?

Kathy Hammer, head of [the local cable access TV station] PANDA is a friend of mine. I was having lunch with her one day at Gigi’s. She was lamenting the fact that they had no original programming on PANDA, the public access affiliate. So I said very casually—it must have been that second glass of wine—Do you want me to write you a soap opera about Rhinebeck? And she said yes, of course. I started out writing for nothing when I was in high school, and I didn't think I would end up writing for nothing. But at least I got a few good years in between.

What were you writing in high school?

I wrote my senior play. It was called—wait a minute; I have to go back in time. It was called “And Still Magnolias Bloom.” I don’t even think I have a copy of it. So anyway, I knew because of War Games (a Hall script performed in 2005 at The Center of Performing Arts at Rhinebeck) and working with Wally (Carbone, who directed War Games) that there are a lot of very talented people up here and they were all eager to work—and willing not to be paid. Wally immediately liked the idea and so I wrote a script and we got a local foundation to finance the shooting of the first script. So that’s what happened.

You began as a weekend resident up here in 1979 with your wife Grayson Hall, who we all miss immensely…

Well, I do too. Still.

…so you’ve seen a lot of changes in this area over the time.

We rented a house in Ulster County actually, for three years (1976-79), before we bought this house. A 1770 stone house called Rest Plaus. It’s between High Falls and Stone Ridge. It’s a great house; it had a gristmill and a stream and waterfall. It was quite marvelous. It had been restored beautifully by a local farmer who owned a lot of real estate there. We finally left Ulster County because he would never sell it and was saving it for his son. The last time I heard, he was living in it. But we met some people who lived in this side of the river, and they told us about Wildercliff, which was for sale in 1979—when things were considerably cheaper.

Is there a marked contrast in the type of people who live or weekend in Dutchess and Ulster counties?

No, I don’t think so. There are lots of marvelous, interesting people who live in Ulster County. People go where the bargains are. The kind of people who interest me are the artists and the writers. What’s so odd about this whole area is that Millbrook, for example, attracts a whole different type of society that we don’t have in Rhinebeck or Clermont or Hudson or any of these towns. And Millbrook looks down on Rhinebeck—or has in the past—because it has a whole different aura about it. But marvelous things happen in (Ulster County) towns like Accord or Rosendale, which was always a disaster area but is an interesting town now. The fact that land was cheaper on that side of the river then and probably still is—that’s a good thing.

The pilot of So You Want to Live in the Country is equal parts drama, comedy and social satire. Was the social satire intended?

Yes, because it’s easily satirized—the manners we were trying to depict. You don’t stop being who you are because you move to Dutchess County or Ulster County. People who want to make money from the natural beauty of the area have existed ever since white man appeared here.

You’re talking about the character Kendrick Gleason, the unscrupulous developer and his wife Dorian. Are they based on anybody you know?

They’re a lot of people I know (laugh). No, they really aren’t based on any individual people. There are always people you know, trying to figure out ways to make money out of land. I was careful not to, because I have lots of friends who live and have money here and are weekenders, and they have rescued some of the great houses on this side of the river. And on your side of the river, too.

Did all of these characters spring from your imagination?

Having written soap operas for years, I knew there were certain types of people (in the story). There has to be a doctor. There have to be people who were born here and don’t particularly like it and want to get out. And there always has to be people who are very happy to make their livings here.

As you were writing the first episode, did you sit out at a sidewalk café in Rhinebeck to observe passersby, or did you already have enough material?

Oh, I had enough material, believe me. More than enough. I would not have written the episode you saw as I did, had I reflected more. In many ways, I didn’t succeed in doing what I wanted to do; but hopefully, I will correct that in the next segment. We originally planned on doing five segments and whether or not we will survive that, I don’t know, because you keep losing people. For example, Wally’s not going to direct the second segment. We have a television director who’s now living up here who’s going to do it. His name is Ted Saad. Fortunately, he’s very nice and very talented and very enthusiastic about it.

It is said that when a writer sits down to a new project, he brings to the table the sum experience of his previous works. Regarding your daytime drama work, from One Life to Live to Dark Shadows, were there any aspects of those shows that you brought to this one?

In the second installment, we are going into ghosts. My interest in ghosts probably started with Dark Shadows—certainly not with anything else in my life. We have discussed briefly bringing on a vampire, just for old time’s sake.

Is Jonathan Frid [Barnabas Collins in Dark Shadows] available?

I’m sure he is! He is alive. He was very odd; he turned down the second Dark Shadows movie (1971’s Night of Dark Shadows) because he felt that the idea of appearing in two movies as a vampire would ruin his career in the theatre. Jonathan was never very realistic about his talent.

Do you have a chance to watch current daytime dramas? Had you heard about the NBC daytime drama Passions (1999-2008) that involved witches and magic, starring Juliet Mills?

Yes, I’ve heard about that. That kind of programming was founded on the success of Dark Shadows. But back then, the networks never really liked the program because it broke too many rules. And they didn’t trust it; they thought it was a fake success. A success, but faddish. I [felt] the show did end prematurely since the man who owned it—he was the lifeblood of it—was a true madman. (Creator-producer Dan Curtis) kept trying to make it scarier and scarier and scarier, until finally even I, who was writing it, couldn’t follow his thought process. For example, he had one plot whereby one character suddenly had another character’s mind and (without) subtitles it couldn’t be followed. He spent his entire life trying to re-do Dark Shadows. I worked on two versions of it. One was on the air, but it wasn’t any good. It was Dan’s personal madness; he wanted to condense everything. He also cast very oddly. The original Barnabas Collins had been cast while Dan was in Europe. When Dan came back, they had already shot several programs with Jonathan Frid as Barnabas. And Dan hadn’t wanted Jonathan Frid; he wanted someone else.

If Dan was such an autocrat, why did he allow Frid to stay in the role?

Jonathan had done five programs, and it was simply too expensive to replace him. He would have to have redone the five programs that Jonathan had done. Dan was an amateur. He produced a show called Golf Classics and that was his total experience. But he was a friend of the head of daytime (programming) at ABC, which is why Dark Shadows got done. He was a true madman and he caused enormous unhappiness in his life and had a miserable life. He made lots and lots of money.

And lots of enemies?

Yes, yes.

How did you handle working with him and remain immune to his insanity?

Well, I finally said to him, while we were working on the second version of Dark Shadows (for NBC in 1990), that I wouldn’t work with him anymore. We were great friends in a weird way. I said, You won’t let your writers have any dignity now. It’s true. He would have one writer in one room and another writer in the next room, both unaware of each other and each writing the same scripts.

Of the daytime dramas you worked on, which are you most proud of?

I’m not particularly proud of any of them; I really regret having spent my life doing daytime. Being that one gets trapped by money…

So you feel soaps are inferior to the teleplays of the 50s you worked on, like The Robert Montgomery Show and Studio One?

Yes. But I always really wanted to write plays, and kept writing plays throughout my entire television career. Without much success. In my regretful moments, I think: God, why did I do this? I did it because I had a wife and a child. One had to support them. [Son Matthew would eventually join Hall, writing daytime dramas.] Well, I ended up living as well as anyone can on a good salary. Now, in my declining years (laugh), as I said, I’m writing for nothing again. And here we go.

But are you enjoying this current project?

Yeah; I can’t stop writing. It’s almost a disease. I have been writing a play for three years, since War Games really. I know it has very little chance of being successful because of the subject matter. So this has been self-invigorating for me, doing So You Want to Live in the Country, because it gets done and I feel useful rather than working in a vacuum.

Would you care to expose this project to the light of day?

It started out, as all ideas do, in fact. A friend of mine’s daughter fell madly in love in college with a bipolar guy. I became fascinated with the situation, because the poor guy was an interesting man of 20. But it was a tragic relationship for them both, and that was the inspiration for the play. I’ve been psychoanalyzed, but I’ve never been bipolar. So I’ve had a hell of a time writing it. I’ve spent weeks thinking, I really do not understand these people enough to write what I want to write. But I keep doing it. That’s just pure Ohio stubbornness, I think. I refer to it as Snakeskin. I guess it will end up with that title—if I ever finish it, which I will force myself to do!

Please share your memories of Shirley Grossman [wife Grayson Hall’s real name].

Oh! Well, of course I’m mad about her still. When she was dying, she said to me, “If I beat this”—she had cancer, which I knew she wasn’t going to beat, but she was still believing she could—she said, “I’m never going to act again.” And I knew she was quite serious. I realize now—it’s so amazing to know someone so well and to live with someone in a happy marriage—was that she had forced herself to act mostly because she thought that I had wanted it. She actually had very serious asthma. She was a great con woman in a way: she could walk into a drugstore in Wichita and without a prescription emerge with any drug she wanted. She was overdosing to go on stage all the time; she was more interested in that than in movies. She was overdosing just to be able to keep her breath—to seem as if she was breathing normally when she was not. She loved being an actress. But I think the great actors don’t have much personality; they are like translucent vapor. There are some people who thought Grayson couldn’t act at all, because she was such a personality. In a way, her personality did interfere with her career.

Of all the programs you have worked on, Dark Shadows has had the greatest longevity. Fan conventions continue to be held across the country, almost four decades after the show was cancelled. Did you ever expect this renown for the show and do you think it is well deserved?

No, I don’t think it is. But it still exists and still has fans. I don’t really understand it. —R

Jay's article also appears on TV Party:

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