Obituary: Buzz Kulik
Friday 29 January 1999
With the demise of the studio system in the Sixties, television became the haven for the sort of journeymen craftsmen who were once the backbone of the industry, and though Kulik made some good films (The Warning Shot, Riot) he rarely imposed a notable style or personality on his work. His television work, though, both on series episodes and TV movies, won considerable acclaim, Brian's Song winning the Emmy award as the outstanding single programme of 1971 plus an award for Kulik from the Directors' Guild of America.
Born Seymour Kulik in Kearney, New Jersey, in 1922, he served in the army during the Second World War, then worked in the mailroom of the large advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. Spotting a notice requesting directors for the young medium of television, he applied and began to direct advertisements. In 1947 he was directing the cameras filming games at Yankee Stadium, then moved to drama, directing live episodes of such television anthology series as Lux Video Theatre and Playhouse 90.
Moving to CBS in 1956, he directed episodes of the acclaimed series You Are There, and later worked on such shows as Perry Mason, The Defenders and Twilight Zone. Kulik received his first Emmy nomination with an episode of Dr Kildare called Shining Image, and a second in 1975 for the movie Babe, starring Susan Clark as Babe Didrickson, the Olympic track and field medalist who turned professional golfer. In 1970 he won the Emmy for his direction of A Storm in Summer, starring Peter Ustinov.
Kulik's first cinema film, The Explosive Generation (1961), like many films of its period, was aimed specifically at the teenage market with its story, based on fact, of a high-school teacher (William Shatner) sacked for teaching sex education. The director's next, The Yellow Canary (1963), was an ill-advised attempt by the pop star Pat Boone to shed his clean- cut image by playing a self-serving and generally unpleasant singer whose child is kidnapped.
Neither Boone nor thriller fans liked the film any more than the critics did, but a later thriller, The Warning Shot (1967), is probably Kulik's best film, an intriguing mystery in which a policeman (David Janssen) apparently kills an unarmed man and meets a colourful bunch of characters amidst considerable mayhem in his search for the truth. With a good script and a fine supporting cast, including Lillian Gish, Walter Pidgeon, George Grizzard, Joan Collins, Eleanor Parker and George Sanders, Kulik's no-frills direction served the material well.
Villa Rides (1968) is probably the film that stifled Kulik's cinema career. Given a big budget, a cast headed by Yul Brynner (with a hairpiece) and Robert Mitchum, and a script by Sam Peckinpah and Robert Towne, it should have been a fine adventure yarn, but despite some spectacular aerial shots of battling armies it emerged as unfocused, sprawling and, despite lots of violent action, somewhat dull. The New York Daily News, commenting on Mitchum's sleepy performance, added, "One can't really blame Mitchum for dozing off. This is perhaps one of the most tiresome action movies on record."
Kulik fared better with the modest Riot (1969), filmed in the Arizona State Penitentiary, though the film's excessive violence was criticised - it was suggested that the director was making the most of his freedom from the blander restrictions of television drama. His infrequent later movies included the Burt Reynolds thriller Shamus (1972) and Steve McQueen's final film, the disappointing Hunter (1980).
It was television, though, that found the director at his best, and Brian's Song (1971), based on the true story of the friendship between two football players, one of whom is dying of cancer, received so much acclaim (the critic Leonard Maltin calls it "a milestone of excellence in made-for- TV movies") that it became one of the few television films subsequently to achieve a cinema release. Later in the year, its victory at the Emmy ceremonies was greeted by a sustained cheer from the audience.
Kulik directed several mini-series including the first ever, Vanished (1970), plus From Here to Eternity (1979) and Kane and Abel (1985). He also directed an excellent account of a true crime, The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case (1976), with a fine performance by Anthony Hopkins as the kidnapper Bruno Hauptmann, and another powerful true story, Kill Me If You Can (1977), an anti- capital-punishment depiction of the 12 years the condemned Caryl Chessman spent on San Quentin's death row before being executed.
Seymour ("Buzz") Kulik, film and television director: born Kearney, New Jersey 1922; married (one son, one daughter); died Los Angeles 13 January 1999.
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