Dick Berg: Writer and producer who helped pioneer TV movies and mini-series

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The writer and producer Dick Berg played an important part in the evolution of television entertainment in the United States. He was one of those who inaugurated the television movie and mini-series, and he created the cult series Johnny Staccato, which captured the mood of the beat generation in its noirish tales that blended crime-solving with superior jazz performances. His son A. Scott Berg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of biographies, stated, "People really loved to work with him because he was a great producer – smart, funny, thoroughly scrupulous, and he knew how to draw the best out of people... he had a strong commercial sense, but he never compromised quality."

Born Richard J. Berg in New York City in 1922, he was educated at Lehigh University in New Rochelle. With ambitions to be a writer or producer, he went to Hollywood after graduating in 1942, and became a dialogue coach at Republic Studios, where his star pupil was the movie cowboy Roy Rogers. Some years later he returned to the East Coast, running Poor Richard's Art Gallery and a supply store for art materials, The Paint Bucket, in Connecticut.

Television was still enjoying its golden age of live drama, and in his spare time Berg wrote original plays for such prestigious series as Kraft Television Theatre, Studio One and Playhouse 90. In 1957 the publication of his un-produced play The Drop of a Hat, a scathing satire about the struggle for power within a magazine's staff, led to an invitation from the production company Hecht-Hill-Lancaster to go to Hollywood, where he also wrote scripts for MGM and 20th Century Fox before signing a long-term contract with Universal Studios, for whom he created the series Johnny Staccato, which ran through the 1959-60 season. John Cassavetes starred as a pianist who plays in a Greenwich Village night club owned by his friend Waldo (Eduardo Ciannelli), who supplements his income by taking assignments as a private eye.

The series was superbly photographed, had a theme tune by Elmer Bernstein and featured music by trumpeter Pete Candoli's combo which included variously the drummer Shelley Manne, the guitarist Barney Kessel, the pianist Ray Brown, the xylophonist Red Norvo, the bassist Red Mitchell and the pianist Johnny Williams, who was to become John Williams, Oscar-winning composer of Jaws and Star Wars. Only 30 minutes in length, the taut plots and a fine array of guest stars made Johnny Staccato riveting viewing, its outstanding episodes including "Solomon", with Elisha Cook Jr as a megalomaniac lawyer, "The Mask of Jason", with a pre-fame Mary Tyler Moore, "Murder for Credit", with Charles McGraw as a jazz musician, and "The Nature of the Night", starring Dean Stockwell as a psychotic killer.

Though it proved particularly popular in Europe, only 27 episodes were made; its brash, moody style, the intensity of Cassavetes' performances and the show's uncompromising use of jazz music were among the reasons given for its brief life, while its now self-conscious use of "hip" dialogue, utilising terms such as "daddy-o", makes it more problematic for revival than similar shows like Peter Gunn.

Berg had greater commercial and critical success with the crime series Checkmate (1960-62), created by Eric Ambler, which he produced, and he prolonged the life of the genre of original television drama with such series as Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, which gave a chance for aspiring newcomers to get their work showcased, utilising such writers as William Inge and J. P. Miller, directors Sydney Pollack and Mark Rydell, plus a sterling array of acting talent, including Anne Bancroft, Robert Redford, Simone Signoret, Rod Steiger and an actor who became a close friend, Cliff Robertson – who described himself as an exception to Berg's rule that actors were not allowed to intrude on his family. He described Berg as one who never lost enthusiasm for his work. "Even as he got older," Robertson said, "he never lost that buoyancy." A writer Berg championed was Rod Serling, who also became a lifelong friend.

The two feature films Berg produced were failures – Counterpoint (1967), a fanciful Second World War melodrama with Charlton Heston as a symphony conductor forced by the Nazis to put on a private concert, and House of Cards (1968), starring George Peppard and Orson Welles. Berg admired Welles, but was later to make one of his rare compromises when, after battling the network in an effort to secure the actor for a television movie, he bowed to their request that he instead hire William Conrad.

Berg had his greatest success in television, and he formed his own company, Stonehenge Productions, which over a 30-year period produced many notable television movies and mini-series. These included Louis Armstrong – Chicago Style (1976), a dramatisation of an incident in the early life of the great trumpeter, with Ben Vereen making his debut as the young "Satchmo"; The Martian Chronicles (1980), with Rock Hudson in Ray Bradbury's impressive evocation of humans colonising Mars after fleeing from an atomically devastated Earth; Gerald Green's Wallenberg: A Hero's Story (1985), with Richard Chamberlain as the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust; and Space (1985), starring James Garner in James Michener's fictional account of the American space programme from the end of the Second World War to the Apollo launch in the early 1970s.

Berg is survived by his wife of 63 years and their four sons. Besides Scott, whose acclaimed biographies include works on the producer Sam Goldwyn, the actress Katharine Hepburn and the aviator Charles A. Lindbergh, Jeff is chairman of the leading talent agency ICM, Tony is a record producer, and Rick is a manager and producer.

Tom Vallance

Richard J. Berg, film and television screenwriter and producer: born New York City 16 February 1922; married Barbara Freedman (four sons); died Los Angeles 1 September 2009.