Friday, January 13, 2012

Mark Dawidziak on The Devil's Platform

By Mark Dawidziak

     On "The Devil's Platform"? Shaky place to be standing, but we'll try to keep our footing.

     One aspect of this episode has dogged me since it first aired. I have the same problem with The Omen, which hit movie screens two years later. Both used Rottweilers as the "devil dog." All right, here's the problem, and I'll cop to it being one born of personal experience: I've been in the happy company of too many terribly sweet Rottweilers. My brother has welcomed five of them into his house (the two current Rotties are Moose and Lola). They tend to be big fun-loving babies. As a kid, I delivered newspapers (yes, the whole newspaper thing started that young) for five years, and you develop a life-saving instinct with dogs -- which ones are friendly and which ones have bites as worse as their barks. I'm no Cesar Millan, but the instinct has served me well since those days delivering the Long Island Press. And despite the negative press Rottweilers suffered in the 1970s, thanks to movies like The Omen and director Curtis Harrington's Devil Dog: Hound of Hell (1978), I have consistently found that they live up to the international federation of kennel clubs' description of the breed: "good-natured, placid in basic disposition, very devoted, obedient, biddable and eager to work." That perfectly suits the Rotties I've encountered over the years, and I just can't look at "The Devil's Platform" without grinning every time the supposedly satanic pooch shows up. I have nothing but the happiest memories connected with the breed.

    To make matters worse for this episode, the image of the Rottweiler began to radically change in the 1980s and '90s with the widespread popularity of the Good Dog, Carl picture books for children. Carl, the hero, of these books is invariably left in the care of a toddler named Madeleine. The Rottweiler went from being the devil dog to being a babysitter entrusted with the care of an adorable tot. Even if it didn't have major structural problems (and it does), "The Devil's Platform" would collapse under the weight of this change in image (and politicians can tell you how important image is to a successful campaign). My daughter was given all of the Carl books as a little girl, and she thinks Rottweilers are just the cutest things. I showed her all the Kolchak adventures last year and she greatly enjoyed them (particularly the original film), but she was crying out in delight not screaming out in terror whenever the Rottie appeared in "The Devil's Platform." You see, there was a collision between the sensibilities forged by Carl the reporter and Carl the Rottweiler, and this crash occurred at the intersection of "The Devil's Platform."

     So even if I found this episode scary, I wouldn't find it scary. The evaluation from The Night Stalker Companion was as follows:

     No less than six writers worked on “The Devil’s Platform,” and it shows. The problem isn’t the story, it’s the structure. Still, the episode has a certain amount of fun with a notion that the average viewer is more than willing to accept -- that a politician has sold his soul to the devil.

     The episode does, indeed, wander into wonderfully deep metaphoric ground. Things should get pretty hot when you're using satanism as the basis for a political story, but "The Devil's Platform" is lukewarm at best. Now, the familiar refrain at this point is that any Kolchak episode has much to recommend it, so, here we go:

The hat.
     In addition to the obvious point made by having a politician in league with the devil,  the episode contains some of the series' snappiest exchanges. "You know, I once  thought of entering the priesthood," Tony says. Kolchak quickly responds: "Then the Inquisition ended and all the fun went out of it for you." Not bad, Carl.

     The episode also includes some wonderful material about Kolchak's shabby pork-pie straw hat. Back from a trip to Europe, Miss Emily has brought Carl a dashing new chapeau. Clearly uncomfortable, he can't wait to switch back to his old standby (much like, in Columbo episode aired after this, "Now You See Him," the good lieutenant couldn't get comfortable with the new raincoat his wife gave him as a present). Tony is disgusted by what he calls that "bird-feeder hat."  "What don't you like about this hat?" Kolchak asks him. "What's under it," Tony responds. Not bad, Tony.

     Another great Carl line: "There's two things that just can't be rushed -- anyone who is paid by the hour and an office-building elevator."

     TRIVIA ITEM 1: Stanley Adams, who plays Louie the Bartender in "The Devil's Platform," became the first actor, other than Darren McGavin and Simon Oakland, to appear in the Night Stalker movie and series. He would not be the last. Larry Linville was a guest star in "Chopper." Adams, who played Cyrano Jones in the "Trouble With Tribbles" episode of Star Trek, appeared in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents ("Pen Pal"), Thriller (Robert Bloch's "The Weird Tailor"), The Twilight Zone (Richard Matheson's Once Upon a Time" and Rod Serling's "Mr. Garrity and the Graves"), The Addams Family ("The Addams Family Meet the VIPs"), The Andy Griffith Show ("Deputy Otis") and Darren McGavin's Riverboat ("That Taylor Affair"). He also played Perelli in both the original Playhouse 90 and the 1962 film version of Serling's Requiem for a Heavyweight. Other films include Lilies of the Field, Breakfast at Tiffany's and Ship of Fools, but gotta love an actor who appeared in projects written by Richard Matheson, Robert Bloch and Rod Serling. 

     TRIVIA ITEM 2: “The Devil’s Platform” was the fourth and final episode directed by Allen Baron. He had directed four of the first seven episodes (also "The Ripper," "They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be. . . " and "The Werewolf."

     TRIVIA ITEM 3: To add to the Miss Emily confusion, Ruth McDevitt is billed as Edith Cowels, but Carl calls her Emily.

     TRIVIA ITEM 5: Pre-Kolchak, Julie Gregg played Sandra Corleone in The Godfather and was a regular on Robert Forster's short-lived private-eye series Banyon (1972-73).

     TRIVIA ITEM 6: Jeanne Cooper, mother of actor Corbin Bernsen, is best known for her long run as Katherine Chancellor on the CBS daytime soap opera The Young and the Restless. She also appeared in an early episode of The Twilight Zone, "Mr. Denton on Doomsday" and a 1960 episode of Thriller, "The Big Blackout."

     IF MEMORY SERVES: Maybe it was working with dogs. Only two actors have ever told me they couldn't remember a guest-star stint on a series. The first was Nicol Williamson, who said he couldn't remember much about playing murderer Eric Mason on the 1978 Columbo caper "How to Dial a Murder." He played a mind-control guru who conditions his pet Doberman pinschers to kill a colleague. The second was Tom Skerritt, who, of course, played Robert W. Palmer in "The Devil's Platform." Both these responses caught me by surprise, considering the time and effort it takes to make an hour or ninety minutes of prime-time entertainment. It's a week or more of your life -- learning lines, building a character, setting up shots, rehearsing, working under intense pressure. I can understand forgetting a day of voice-over work or a half-day on a commercial. But a whole week of your life (or more) flushed from the memory banks? I don't think either of these gentlemen, both of whom I've always admired as actors, were being insincere. But it was frustrating not to get more out of them. While the premise of "The Devil's Platform" may be memorable to some, it made no impression on Tom Skerritt. "I really have no memory of that show at all," said the actor who played Dallas in director Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) and Reverand Maclean in Robert Redford’s A River Runs Through It (1992). "I was doing a lot of episodic television at that time. I was very busy. I was going from one show to another, and a lot of it blurs together. I just don't remember doing that one. Sorry." Far more memorable was Skerritt’s Emmy-winning role of Jimmy Brock on Picket Fences. Other notable parts include Duke Forrest in M*A*S*H (1970), Wayne in The Turning Point (1977), the uncle in Poltergeist III (1988), Drum in Steel Magnolias (1989) and Evan Drake on NBC's Cheers. More recently, he has been seen on such prime-time shows as Brothers & Sisters, The Closer and Leverage.


  1. Attention Mark and Everybody - The dog in 1978's DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND FROM HELL was a German Shepherd, not a Rottweiler.

    Only THE OMEN and "The Devil's Platform" can be blamed for any bad press Rottweiler's received in the mid 1970's.


  2. Thanks, Doug. I'll confess that I haven't seen "Devil Dog: The Hound From Hell" since it first aired, and I tried refreshing my rapidly deteriorating memory with a glance at the poster, and that pooch looks more like a Rottweiler than a Shepherd. So much for truth in advertising. Gonna have to reacquaint myself with that one.

  3. Belive it or not, DEVIL DOG: THE HOUND FROM HELL was given a 2-disc deluxe DVD treatment a few years ago. There's a commentary, a documentary, the works. Our favorite Diablero expert, Victor Jory plays a similar role in the flick, only this time he helps our hero kill a Devil Dog instead of a Diablero!

  4. Would you like to know why Rottweilers have such a bad rep?

    It's that name.

    German names always sound agressive and warlike, especially when you say them out loud.

    Orson Bean once said as much on a talk show:
    "The French word for butterfly is papillon.
    The Spanish word for butterfly is mariposa.
    The German word for butterfly is SCHMETTERLING!"

    Admit it: Rottweiler sounds as though it should be a war dog, Primed for attack, ready to go for the throat.
    Way more dangerous than a terrier or a poodle or a chihuahua.
    But ask anyone who's had one of those three get a death grip on his ankle which is the true devil dog.

    1. Mike, so true. When I was delivering the Long Island Press for pin money, it was the small dogs, like miniature poodles, that would sneak attack you, not the big ones -- and I had two Great Danes, a Doberman, two Shepherds and a Saint Bernard on my route. Sweet dogs all. Nary a nip from one of them. But plenty of ankle damage done by the miniatures.
      German name notwithstanding, the image of the Rottie has undergone quite the transformation -- from one Carl to another.

  5. The Evolution of "COMPANION" Style:

    About a year ago I recall we raked one obsolete film-book style -- the kind where intrepid writers can no longer get away with just recounting whole films via hefty synopses. Over the past 30 years that method has been eclipsed by the availability of movies for which the viewer no longer needs a blow-by-blow recount.

    Similarly to Pete's earlier comment that he just didn't want to rehash every single credit for every single character actor, THAT style is gradually being displaced by things like the IMDb -- as wonky as THAT can be -- and the notion that people are now constantly trolling other devices WHILE supposedly "watching" a film -- never becoming immersed, forever distracted by another screen in the room as they spot-check trivia.

    The intersections of character actors across TV shows, from one to another, is interesting especially for fans of those actors, but it doesn't MEAN anything unless it is at least mildly relevant -- in this case, perhaps an actor's genre history as relates to the topic at hand, KTNS.

    The upside of this is that it is forcing essayists to become more critical. Meaning: they can't just get away with endlessly padding casts and credits anymore and expecting it to equal anything more than an episode guide. (Mark D. correctly logs this stuff as "trivia," because it is.)

    For all the interview resources still available, I'd love to read something that gives us a taste of what the day-to-day might have been like in the KTNS production offices.

    Mark D. has been wonderfully giving in his unilateral contributions to the blog. When PE & JS & I were busy doing WACT -- aka "An OUTER LIMITS A Day" -- I quickly came to view the blog not only as a repository for many things accumulated since completing the last edition of the Big Book, but also as a kind of 21st Century "appendix," the kind that could house and process any and all kinds of peripheral information and observations, a final word if you will (absent yet another edition of the book) -- something that can stand the test of time as a worthy supplement in its own right. I hope Mark D. sees KTNS the same way.

    Up Top: I've never seen that press photo of McGavin with Skerritt before. More, More!

    1. David -- very much so. I've said this about "The Night Stalker Companion" and "The Columbo Phile." I never meant them to be the last word on those characters and shows. I never intended them to define the discussion. My hope was that they'd start the discussion -- several discussions in fact. I really thought, particularly with "Columbo," that there would be other published studies of the character, using "The Columbo Phile" as a sounding board or launch pad for other approaches.

      Every semester I bring a stack of books into my Reviewing Film and Television class at Kent State, explaining how many of them were found on every desk of every movie and television critic in the country. Some are basic resource books, like "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows" by Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh (which my friend Earle Marsh tells me probably has seen its last edition) or Leonard Maltin's movie guide. I also bring a stack of companion-style books, explaining how all of these have become more or less obsolete. Mainstream publishers certainly are no longer interested in them, and I'm glad I wrote the two I did when I did. Companion books varied greatly in content and style, but the best of them, to my mind, offered more than just detailed synopses, interviews and trivia. They also offered critical analysis, historical perspective and, as you say, a sense of what it was like in trenches, so to speak. The Internet is the place where those discussions can continue. I've seen that happen for years at the Ultimate Columbo Site, where the analysis and research and discussion has gone far beyond what I did in the book. It is, indeed, a giant supplement, appendix, sequel, revision, continuation -- it's, in many ways, several new books at one site. And yes, I see this KTNS project the same way.

  6. Never mind the 2 disc treatment being a shocker,how about DEVIL DOG now being available on Blu-ray?!? Got to love living in a world where a minor and absurd TV movie like DEVIL DOG beats JAWS to the HD format.

  7. Re: Skerritt's memory lapse, I had the same problem with Nehemiah Persoff, who said he had no recollection whatsoever of appearing in Matheson's TV-movie THE STRANGER WITHIN, which aired the same year as "Platform." A shame.

  8. Tom Skerritt turned up in another production with Satanic themes shortly after his Kolchak appearance, Robert Faust's 1975 thriller "The Devil's Rain." Not just a gem from William Shatner's "lost years" period (as well as the big screen debut of an unrecognizable John Travolta in a minor role), "The Devil's Rain" has the unique distinction of being the only film on which Anton Lavey served as technical advisor.