Telling this man’s story is a way to repay the debt I feel I owe to him. It was from thinking about him that I decided to write this series about working on “Number One with a Bullet”. There’s nothing particularly special about this film. It’s competent and moderately entertaining. One can work on an average production and still have a profound experience. I met so many people who have gone on to bigger things since, and I’ll write about them in the next installments. This installment is about the director of the film, Jack Smight. His career had peaked and was in decline by the time this film was made, but he was a man of good character and had a more realistic view of the nature and value of his work than critics did. I learned a lot watching Jack work, and he was helpful and generous to those working at all levels, including me.
Jack Smight had originally been an actor and musician in Minneapolis. As a teenager he met and befriended Peter Aurness, and when Peter’s older brother (James “Arness”) went West and got work, Jack and Peter, who changed his professional name to Graves, followed soon after. While Peter Graves got a good variety of acting jobs, Jack became an assistant director in TV, then in 1957, a director. Jack was a superb director of live TV. He understood actors, knew music, and knew how to make the TV camera view the scene as if it was another character. He directed a legendary program starring Billie Holiday called The Sound of Jazz.
Jack also directed a special “live” Christmas episode of The Twilight Zone starring Art Carney as a drunken store Santa whose wish is granted. This is from that episode, “Night of the Meek”, which I helped restore for DVD release:
He won an Emmy for directing Eddie, a play on the Alcoa Hour starring Mickey Rooney, in 1959. He also directed episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Jack moved on to feature films, and his early ones were stylish and successful. This scene is from Harper with Paul Newman and Janet Leigh:
The studios liked hiring Jack because he kept to budgets and brought in pictures on schedule. Though he directed some big-budget films like Airport ’75 and Midway, they were reviewed as pedestrian. I’ve seen these films. The scripts aren’t good. You should understand that Jack Smight was not an egotistical man, so he worked within the constraints he was given. He was able to admit that some pictures didn’t interest him as much as others and he approached these films as a job, a task to complete, something to check off the list because the boss wanted it done. He didn’t invest his entire self-esteem in it. He was a workman who understood that much of life happens away from work.
Jack returned to directing for television throughout his career. He helmed episodes of Columbo, McCloud and Banacek. His made-for-TV “Frankenstein, the True Story” was a hit. The films he liked making best were quirky, more personal efforts like The Traveling Executioner and No Way to Treat a Lady, but these films didn’t make money so by the end of the ‘70s he was only given second-tier productions such as Fast Break. I do know Jack liked the sort of laid-back funky jazz used in that film, because he often requested the sound mixer to play similar music on the set while crews worked:
Next Up in Part Three – The Sound Lounge