Kirk Douglas first appeared on television when he and Marilyn Maxwell did a live performance of a scene from their 1949 movie “Champion” to promote the film.
“I really think I was a pioneer in television,” says the 83-year-old legend, who recently guested on the CBS drama “Touched by an Angel” and has been nominated twice for an Emmy for “Amos” (1986) and “Tales From the Crypt” (1992).
Fifty-five years after Douglas’ small-screen bow, Noah Wyle began working on the series “ER.” The two actors met last month at Douglas’ Beverly Hills home to discuss television and how it has evolved.
One thing the two actors have in common is work in live television. In addition to his performance of the scene from “Champion,” Douglas remembers going on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and singing “A Whale of a Tale.”
“In those days,” he says, “I think almost everything was live.”
Now, the small screen seems to have come full circle, and Wyle has performed without the comfort of reshoots and second takes on both a live episode of “ER” and in the telepic “Fail Safe.”
“There’s something about doing live television,” says Wyle. “I think if you enjoy doing any kind of theatrical stage play, and you like working in front of a camera, it’s the perfect marriage of both.
“The nice thing for me about doing a live broadcast was you never get to work in television in sequence. You’re always shooting out of sequence, and at a far more accelerated pace than some of the features that I’ve worked on.”
Douglas says he enjoys the rapid pace of TV, finding that feature work sometimes can be too leisurely.
“When I recently did ‘Touched by an Angel,’ I liked the speed of it,” confesses Douglas.
Wyle, in turn, says Douglas should take a turn on “ER.” “We’re shooting 14 pages a day these days.”
Experiments such as live television may be the result of pressure from rival forms of entertainment, particularly cable.
“Probably more the success of cable, rather than the Internet, has lit a fire under television networks to push the envelope into more aggressive storytelling,” says Wyle.
Douglas believes that TV offers a lot to the performer.
“I think in television, you can do lots of things you can’t do in the movies. You have more chances to express yourself in television,” he says. “There are a lot of shows on television that are better than theatrical movies. And also in movies, they tend to rely more on special effects and violence.”
“You certainly have the opportunity to play one character for an extended period of time,” says Wyle, who has been Emmy nominated five times for his portrayal of the sensitive Dr. John Carter. At the same time, this can be a mixed blessing, because the cumulative effect of working on the same show, day in and day out, can be tiring.
“I think the one thing actors never want to do is punch a clock, and television is very much punching a clock. But as long as the writing stay fresh and challenging,” Wyle says.
Douglas admits he’s consistently amazed by the overall look and production on “ER.”
“That’s a very well done show,” he says. “My God, the way they move that camera, I can’t believe it.”
One important change that both have noticed in television has been in the relationship between the shows and their studios.
“When I first came here, the studios were the boss,” says Douglas. But now, thanks largely to the rise of independent production in television and in features, the power has shifted away from the studios.
“I think for better or worse, the stars have a more active role,” says Douglas.
Wyle notes that in the six years that “ER” has been on the air, Warner Bros. Television has gone through three different regimes.
“The men that put us on the air in the first place are long gone, to other jobs and other shows. So the studio involvement has been minimal over the last few years, other than just sort of supporting what’s already been laid down,” he says. “But I would agree, they’re certainly not like the studio system in the old days. They have the infrastructure of a studio, but they still have to sell the projects to other venues, like everybody else does. In a sense, they’re not calling the shots so much as they are in the same sales game.”
Most importantly, though, Douglas believes that television itself, and its growing need for more and more programming, creates an ever-better pool of acting talent.
“Television is inexhaustible. They need so much talent, and it’s a proving ground for people,” he says. “People always say, ‘The actors, they’re not as good as the old-timers.’ I think they say that every 20, 25 years. Talent is always there, and if anything, it increases. I think there are so many good actors now.”