Director Leslie H. Martinson, who worked on more than 100 television series during his prolific career and helmed Batman: The Movie in 27 days between the first two seasons of the wildly popular 1960s ABC show, has died. He was 101.
Martinson, who seemingly directed episodes of every TV program from The Roy Rogers Show in 1953 to the late 1980s syndicated comedy Small Wonder, died Saturday of natural causes at his home in Los Angeles, his family announced.
Martinson also helmed several features, including the John F. Kennedy naval tale PT 109 (1963), starring Cliff Robertson, the beach comedy For Those Who Think Young (1965) and the light-hearted Raquel Welch adventure Fathom (1966).
Moving easily from genre to genre, the Boston native with the wicked New England accent put his stamp on TV Westerns (Maverick, Cheyenne, Sugarfoot), crime stories (Mannix, Ironside, 77 Sunset Strip), action (Mission: Impossible, Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman), drama (Dallas, Eight Is Enough) and comedy (The Brady Bunch, Love, American Style, Diff’rent Strokes).
Martinson’s credits range from some of television’s most popular hits, including Fantasy Island, CHiPS, Cannon and Barnaby Jones, to such long-forgotten shows as Dusty’s Trail, The Alaskans and The Chicago Teddy Bears.
It’s hard to find a series that doesn’t bear his name on at least one episode.
“If you want to be a director, you can start studying before you’re anywhere near a set,” Martinson said during a 2003 interview with the Archive of American of Television. “Every time you watch a television show, you’re learning your craft. You don’t watch a show for entertainment, you watch to study.”
Though Martinson directed only two installments of Batman — the first-season two-parter in which The Penguin appears to go straight — he was asked to bring the series to the big screen to capitalize on its surging popularity. Batman: The Movie was shot in less than four weeks and reached theaters in July 1966, about two months after the end of season one.
A jam-packed, pop-art explosion, the movie pitted Batman (Adam West) and Robin (Burt Ward) against four of the Dynamic Duo’s most devious adversaries — The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Penguin (Burgess Meredith), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether, in for Julie Newmar) and The Riddler (Frank Gorshin).
The 20th Century Fox film has an 80 percent approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, with the general critical consensus being that “Batman: The Movie elevates camp to an art form — and has a blast doing it, every gloriously tongue-in-cheek inch of the way.”
He had a way with other superheroes as well, directing episodes of The Green Hornet and Wonder Woman.
Martinson was born in Boston on Jan. 16, 1915. He began his career as a columnist for The Boston Evening Transcript, and during a trip to the West Coast to pen a series about his adventures in Hollywood, he decided he wanted to stick around and work in show business.
Martinson got his foot in the door at MGM and landed a job in the studio’s mailroom — but only because he played softball.
“Softball was the big thing, [games against] Fox and Columbia,” Martinson recalled in a video that appears on his website. “I took a breath and said, ‘I’m a catcher.’ [The man doing the hiring] said, ‘Send him over.’ That week, their catcher had left the office, and they had an opening. And that’s how I got into MGM.”
Martinson worked his way up to script supervisor, working on such films as The Yearling (1946), Easter Parade (1948), The Pirate (1948), The Stratton Story (1949) and Annie Get Your Gun (1950). The experience proved invaluable, he noted.
Script supervisors are “in there from the beginning and they can see a director’s input,” he said. “You learn. You watch what he does with a script. What bothers him. The scenes he changes. Why things don’t work. You’re privy, as no one else is, to what a director’s input is.”
Wanting to direct and with prospects at MGM slim, he quit the studio in 1951. Several weeks later, he ran into a colleague, Robert G. Walker, a script supervisor who was preparing to direct the first season of NBC’s The Roy Rogers Show. Walker talked Martinson into coming on board as script supervisor. With a wife and three children at home, he said he had little choice.
Television was far more down and dirty and the pace much quicker than what Martinson was used to at MGM. He refers to that first season as his “lost year.”
“I was up at 5:30. The bus left at six with 13 of the crew in the bus. There was not even a honey wagon,” he said. “That camera was turning at 7:10 at Iverson Ranch” [the set in Chatsworth, Calif.].
When it came time to do the second season, Martinson got a call from Rogers himself. He wanted Martinson to return — but as a director.
In addition to directing 11 episodes of The Roy Rogers Show, he was behind the camera in the next few years for The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, Chevron Theatre, City Detective and Cowboy G-Men. In 1954, he made his feature directing debut on The Atomic Kid, starring Mickey Rooney.
Other TV series that bore Martinson’s stamp throughout the 1950s include Topper, The Millionaire, Conflict, Colt .45, Tales of Wells Fargo and Bourbon Street Beat. He also directed the features Hot Rod Girl (1956) and Hot Rod Rumble (1957).
Through the next two decades, Martinson seemed to work nonstop. Among his many directing credits in the 1960s were Hawaiian Eye, Room for One More, Bronco, The Roaring 20’s, No Time for Sergeants, Run for Your Life and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.
During the ‘70s, he helmed episodes of Alias Smith and Jones, Room 222, Cannon and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. And he rounded out his career strongly in the ‘80s, directing episodes of The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, Quincy M.E., Private Benjamin, Manimal, Airwolf and Small Wonder.
Survivors include his longtime spouse Connie Martinson, an author and the host of the syndicated talk show Connie Martinson Talks Books.