When Steven Spielberg and Steven Bochco Worked on the Same TV Show (With Sean Penn’s Dad and Noam Chomsky’s Cousin)
In 1968, 'The Name of the Game' was the most prescient show on TV, predicting everything from cable-style dramas to 'Game of Thrones'-size budgets and even a magazine called 'People.' Then star Tony Franciosa had a flameout in Las Vegas. Here, on its 50th anniversary, is the forgotten history of a lost classic.
Fifty years ago, TV had mostly one flavor, and it was vanilla. In fall 1968, the airwaves were full of blandly loopy family-friendly fare like The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle and Petticoat Junction. But on Friday nights on NBC, slipped between a Bonanza-clone Western called The High Chaparral and the troubled third season of Star Trek, there was an unusual little series that, even more than Gene Roddenberry’s show, seemed to be beamed in from the future.
The Name of the Game was a 90-minute cable-style adult drama that came on the air decades before anybody had heard of cable TV. Centered on the glamorous Howard Publications magazine empire and the adventures of its various writers and editors — played by Tony Franciosa, Gene Barry and Robert Stack, with Susan Saint James as their frequently kidnapped secretary — it drilled down into the inner workings of a media company a half-century before HBO got around to doing it with Succession. With a Game of Thrones-size budget ($400,000 an episode, the largest of its day) and a roster of soon-to-be-famous behind-the-camera talent — including a just-out-of-college story editor named Steven Bochco and a 23-year-old neophyte director named Steven Spielberg, along with directors Marvin Chomsky (cousin of Noam) and Leo Penn (father of Sean) — it opened up a world of glamour and luxury that TV mostly wouldn’t explore until Dallas and Dynasty. Even the name of the magazine the characters worked for was prescient: It was called People, six years before Time Inc. launched the real publication (“The dumbest title I have ever heard of,” cracked Fanciosa when he read the script).
“It was flat-out entertaining melodrama,” says Sid Sheinberg, then the maverick Universal exec overseeing the show (he would later become the studio’s president). “I actually looked forward to it every week. I would go home and sit on the floor and watch it every Friday night.”
As it happened, though, The Name of the Game was as melodramatic offscreen as it was on-. And after a tumultuous three-year run, the show exploded in a spectacular flameout during an episode shot in, of all places, Las Vegas.
The series’ three leading men rarely overlapped on one another’s episodes; in fact, Stack and Franciosa never appeared on the other’s at all. As Jeff Dillon, Franciosa was a lady-killing rulebreaker who’d grown up in East Harlem, spoke fluent Italian and, when he wasn’t flaunting a breezy insouciance, surfed and drank vermouth cassis. Universal cast Gene Barry as imperious publisher Glenn Howard, a World War II veteran whose position atop his hard-built empire was epitomized by a sumptuous office with a private elevator and a Roman bath. Robert Stack, by then famous for his portrayal of Eliot Ness on The Untouchables, channeled that same stentorian sobriety into Dan Farrell, the senior editor of Crime magazine and a former FBI agent whose wife had been murdered when a meeting with an informant went horribly wrong. Tying the trio together was Saint James’ Peggy, a husky-voiced Seven Sisters-educated research assistant who typed 60 words a minute.
Never a huge hit, The Name of the Game failed to rank among the top 30 programs in any season. But its neoteric story arcs, groovy opening credits graphics and space-age bossa nova theme song (by Dave Grusin) helped NBC break out as the network of bold, innovative and comparatively highbrow programming. Its leading characters drove snazzy convertibles (Stack’s even had a car phone), bribed sources and upended the primrose publishing world of 1959’s The Best of Everything, the soapy tale of career girls taking Manhattan, turning it into a muscular boys’ club overflowing with cocktails, intrigue and penthouse sex. “Universal had sold NBC on the concept that Name of the Game was not going to be television, it was going to be movies. It was a pretty big sales job,” says Dean Hargrove, who produced Barry’s episodes. “And when it came down to it, it was pretty high-gloss television.”
The segments quickly took on each star’s personality. Stack’s law-and-order stories tended to stagger under the weight of his bellicose speeches. “Candidly, I thought Bob Stack’s episodes were the dullest of the three,” the late Bochco, who served as Stack’s story editor for two seasons, recalled, “because it was the dullest premise.” Adds Ed Asner, who appeared on the show, “He was not impressive as an actor at all. He was too stiff.”
Barry’s episodes tilted to the cerebral, and pivoted on international subterfuge and the misdeeds of the powerful. But the plots often took second billing to the star’s innumerable costume changes. “Gene was very interested in his wardrobe — perhaps more interested in it than he was in the scripts,” says Hargrove with a laugh. Bochco concurred, “What everybody used to say was, ‘If Gene has a problem, just get him a new blazer.’”
It was Franciosa’s character, prowling like a jungle cat amid a rogues’ gallery of loonies and wicked women, who gave The Name of the Game its snap, crackle and style. “[His shows] were more entertaining, more fun,” says Peter Saphier, a production coordinator who would later co-produce Al Pacino’s 1983 remake of Scarface. “There was more of a theatricality about them that played into what we were trying to do with the series.”
The mood on the three actors’ sets vacillated just as wildly. Stack, who reveled in his film-star bearing, showed up prepared and on time and played poker during breaks. He had a disarmingly wry wit but was slightly aloof and eminently unknowable. “I would look into his face,” says Ben Murphy, who played reporter Joe Sample, part of a trio of square-jawed, rheumy-eyed pretty boys brought aboard to inject some beefcake into the Stack and Barry sequences. “As an actor you do that, play off of someone’s expressions, emotions. And I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘This guy is not going to give me anything to work with.’”
The vibe on the Barry set was far more rococo, as if the star were appearing on Masterpiece Theatre. Saint James was instructed not to speak to him off camera; Dick Blair, Barry’s makeup artist, recalls the star regaling him about one episode filmed in London. “’Oh, they were so wonderful to me,’” Barry told him. “’They met me in a Rolls Royce — and the car had my initials on the license plates!’” Blair howls at the memory. “That was because [the letters] stood for ‘Great Britain.”
“I think he’d had so much smoke blown up his ass by this time he thought he was a demigod,” adds Cliff Potts, who played reporter Andy Hill. During one taping, Barry remarked to him, “I have a great idea: I think you should call me ‘Chief.’” Says Potts, “I think he meant on the show, but I wasn’t sure.”
By contrast, the Franciosa set was a roller coaster that rose and fell on its star’s notorious temper. He was forever micromanaging the props, lighting and camera angles. He occasionally disappeared for long stretches. He struggled to memorize lines. And he burned through producers. One of them, Leslie Stevens, told TV Guide, “Tony likes to be able to change the script. He likes to come in a half-hour late. He comes in knowing the lines but not ‘feeling’ it right. He is dedicated to The Tony Franciosa Performance. It is to his credit, but the physical drain leads to psychosomatic complaints.”
“To get the producers of the Tony Franciosa episodes, you’d need a group photograph,” says Hargrove. “He didn’t get along with very many people.”
At one point, Saint James approached Hargrove. “I was talking to Tony,” she said. “He saw one of [Barry’s] episodes and said, ‘Can we get him to come in and produce the show?’”
Hargrove went cold. “Whatever you do,” he told her, “tell him, ‘No.’”
There was a method to the Franciosa madness. His episodes were the highest rated and, by far, the best written and acted of the series. “It wasn’t just a job to Tony,” says Carla Borelli, who guest-starred a few times. “It was art.”
Despite the offscreen histrionics, The Name of the Game became appointment television for the younger, affluent demographic that advertisers craved. In its second season, it was nominated for an Emmy for best drama.
And then Tony Franciosa went to Vegas.
The episode was titled “I Love You, Billy Baker.” It revolved around a soul singer secretly tortured by his culpability in the death of a young woman years earlier. Planned as a 10-day shoot at Caesars Palace in summer 1970, it was a spectacle with a particularly dazzling array of guest stars, even by Name of the Game standards: Peter Lawford, Ray Charles, Redd Foxx, Ike and Tina Turner — with Xavier Cugat and Charo to boot. Billy Baker was played by none other than Sammy Davis Jr., wearing an odd Julius Caesar wig and enough groovy fringe to costume a Western.
Franciosa had only completed one episode of season three, and a lot was riding on the high-cost Vegas excursion. The executives in Universal’s notorious Black Tower, located on the studio’s sprawling lot smack in the middle of Hollywood, were nervous. They had reason to be.
For years, Franciosa’s mood swings and fickle behavior had rattled a string of publicists. There were volatile marriages to Shelley Winters and Judy Kanter, the daughter of Paramount Pictures CEO Barney Balaban. There was the time Franciosa belted an L.A. news photographer. And, once the show was in full swing, there was an incident in which Franciosa chased producer Dick Irving around the set with a two-by-four. During one scene, Franciosa deliberately kept darting into the path of guest star Darren McGavin and, after several frustrating takes, McGavin finally knocked Franciosa out of the way. “We used the shot,” Sid Sheinberg says dryly.
On another occasion, Franciosa threw a tantrum and stalked back to his trailer, phoning the unit manager to say he wouldn’t come out until he saw his psychiatrist. The doctor arrived and disappeared into Franciosa’s dressing room, finally emerging to announce the star would return to work after lunch. Perplexed, the unit manager asked what the problem was.
“His problem?” the psychiatrist asked. “He’s crazy, that’s what his problem is.”
For Norman Lloyd, the stage and film actor who produced four Franciosa episodes, the end had come a year before, during production of a gothic tale about a lost Shakespeare manuscript, a sort-of homage to Jane Eyre. (Peggy was, unsurprisingly, kidnapped.) At one point, Franciosa blithely announced he was going to perform a monologue from Henry V during the show.
A furious screaming match ensued between Franciosa and Lloyd, with the latter finally storming off the set. “I was on my way back to the office,” says Lloyd, today a hale 103, “and thinking, ‘I have to get out of this, this is ridiculous.’ This guy wants to do Shakespeare, and he can’t speak English properly.”
In the end, director Leo Penn agreed to film the Henry V bit — then edited it out. But Lloyd, who would go on to play Dr. Daniel Auschlander on the ’80s medical drama St. Elsewhere, broke his contract with Universal rather than endure the madhouse that the Franciosa set had become. “I don’t think it was any secret that he was on something,” he says.
By the time filming of “Billy Baker” commenced, gossip about Franciosa’s drug use was commonplace. Worried, Sheinberg assigned a staffer to tail him. “It’s one thing if you send a script to an actor on Thursday and start shooting on Monday and the actor turns to you and says, ‘It’s a piece of shit and I am not doing this,’” he says. “It’s quite another if you can’t find the actor.”
Rita Thiel, a German fashion model who was by then seriously involved with Franciosa and would become his fourth wife, accompanied him to Vegas. There, she often overheard the crew joking about his habit. “There would be all of this gossip going on: ‘Oh, you know, he’s probably going in his trailer to take something,'” she remembers. “That really hurt me.”
She admits that Franciosa went through a period where he was coping with what she calls “his demons,” but insists there were many days when shooting went fine. Sammy Davis Jr. gave impromptu concerts in his palatial suite; Franciosa arranged for Rita to meet Elvis Presely. She contends that Franciosa’s erratic behavior in Vegas wasn’t the result of drugs but rather a tactical effort by the star to get himself fired. “It was the third season,” she says, “and I think he already had so much hostility from people not having his back, especially friends, people he used to hang out with.”
Things quickly disintegrated. Franciosa became paranoid, believing that he was being shot in an unflattering manner; one day, he insisted on filming a scene in which he swims in the hotel pool in the rain, then comes out, sits by the edge in the lotus position and simply grins silently for a full minute. Director Barry Shear did his best to mollify his star, often to little avail. “They gave in a lot,” says Saint James, who remained agog at Franciosa’s talent, even as she watched him unravel. “And when you’re in a scene, and you’re doing 15 takes, and the one that the other actor finally gets right is not anything close to your best, and it’s after midnight …” She trails off. “What face do you put on after take three, after five, after eight?”
“Tony got into some fit and punched someone,” remembers Carla Borelli, who also co-starred on the episode. “It was quite a scandal.” Before filming concluded, Franciosa was fired.
“They love you, love you, love you,” says Saint James. “They’ll break their backs for you. And it’s, ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Yes sir,’ and then they’re, like, ‘We’re done.’ And then you might as well be dead.”
The remainder of “Billy Baker” was scotch-taped together with body doubles, solo scenes of Saint James and heavy padding with Vegas acts shown in their entirety: a staggering 13 musical numbers and three comedy monologues. To top it off, there was that scene of Franciosa swimming in the rain. NBC, desperate to stretch out Franciosa’s appearances, ran the episode in two parts — three hours in all. But even though he would continue to show up in the opening credits, Franciosa never filmed another scene. And without its No. 1 attraction, the series began to limp toward cancellation. It was Game over.
Franciosa’s remaining episodes were filled by guest actors such as Robert Culp and Robert Wagner, their characters Dillon in everything but name and swagger. “They didn’t rewrite,” Saint James says. “They were just waiting for Tony to come back.” Only he didn’t.
As it was, the third season had already gotten off to a rocky start: The Nixon administration had ordered every TV series to produce an anti-drug episode, resulting in arguably the series’ worst program ever, a feckless Stack story about a group of recovering teenage addicts. It was Bochco’s first solo TV writing credit. Writer Phil DeGuere called him after the second commercial break and said, “This is the worst thing I’ve ever seen.”
Realizing the curtain was coming down, Hargrove took some risks. In one episode, a Mamas and Papas-type Greek chorus sings spooky tunes in between scenes; in another, flashbacks show Barry as an Old West gunslinger wrongly judged by history. But it was with an episode titled “L.A. 2017” that The Name of the Game may have made its most lasting mark.
Spielberg was a wunderkind who’d just directed Joan Crawford in a gripping installment of the Rod Serling anthology Night Gallery. Sheinberg wanted Spielberg to direct “2017,” but got pushback from Dick Irving, who he says “acted like I had suggested Adolph Hitler. And I said, ‘What the hell is this? Do you think I get a commission on Spielberg or something? I am responsible for Universal. I wouldn’t suggest somebody I didn’t think was a good idea.’” After Crawford called Universal chief Lew Wasserman to personally lobby for the young director, Spielberg was hired.
The script, by Philip Wylie, centered on Glenn Howard waking from a car accident to find himself transported into a postapocalyptic Los Angeles. The episode’s dark edge and creative pedigree became Name of the Game lore. That particular show, Spielberg remembers, “appealed to me because it was a cautionary tale about a future United States, no longer a country but now a corporation. But I was ambitious with it and got in trouble with the executive producers for going into overtime, incurring many meal penalties.”
The Name of the Game’s final episode aired March 19, 1971. Stack would later insist that the banning of TV cigarette advertising, in 1970, had killed the show — and that it might have stood a chance if only he’d been allowed to star solo. “There arrives after a certain amount of time a matter of ego and identification,” he said in 1975. “It’s my show. I work so hard; therefore I want the credit, or I want the blame. I don’t want to be lumped into a package with two other guys.” He would find a new generation of fans as the booming narrator of NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries; Barry also reinvented himself, playing on Broadway in La Cage Aux Folles. (Stack died in 2003; Barry in 2009.) Saint James went on to co-star as Rock Hudson’s meddlesome spouse on McMillan and Wife, where once again she was kidnapped regularly.
As for Franciosa, Rita says that after leaving the show he detoxed alone, “just locked himself in a room, and just got rid of it all” — a Method actor to the end.
Franciosa would star in two short-lived ABC series. He suffered a heart attack in the living room of his rustic Brentwood cabin in 2006 and died shortly thereafter.
“Funny enough, I think he was quite proud of [the series],” says Rita, today still a wispy, ravishing brunette. “He wished it would have been different, whatever his issues were. But I think he liked it very much.”
Today, The Name of the Game is television’s Atlantis. It is a program that virtually no one has viewed since the Nixon administration. And most of its real-world traces have simply vanished. All, that is, except one.
Spielberg’s most enduring memory of the program revolves around a particular doomsday scene. “We shot the Los Angeles River,” he says, “and in futuristic font painted serial numbers above a sluice gate that has just enough room underneath it to allow our futuristic car to make its entrance. Weirdly, that gate is still visible from my office window on the Universal Studios lot. It has survived 41 years of erosion and flood-stage conditions.”
If only The Name of the Game — a cosmopolitan and cocky series ahead of its time — had, too.