Joseph Pevney: Director of journeyman versatility

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The Independent Online

The film and television director Joseph Pevney had an immensely varied career. First a child performer in vaudeville, he became involved in the left-wing Group Theatre in the Thirties and Forties. In Hollywood, he was an actor before becoming a prolific director at Universal in the Fifties, guiding such stars as James Cagney, Joan Crawford and Frank Sinatra and shaping the talents of three of his studio's young contract players, Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson and Jeff Chandler. Though he excelled at gritty urban thrillers, he could not be pigeon-holed and was equally proficient with exotic eastern adventures, romantic dramas or war stories. Moving into television, he directed episodes of many popular series, including Bonanza and Star Trek. He directed 14 segments of the latter, including at least five of the most celebrated episodes.

A native New Yorker, he was born in 1911, and made his début as an entertainer in 1924 as a boy soprano in vaudeville. He attended pre-med school at New York University with plans to become a doctor, but soon became involved in college dramatics and left before graduation to seek work as an assistant manager and bit player on Broadway. He played his first speaking role in Paul Green's satirical anti-war play Johnny Johnson (1936), which had the first score for the American stage by Kurt Weill, who had just fled Nazi Germany. His first credit as a director was a one-performance production of a play about a steel-mill strike, Press Time (1938).

Pevney played a prominent supporting role of a tragic laundry worker in Sidney Kingsley's play about mental illness, The World We Make (1939), and he was a gangster in Maxwell Anderson's blank-verse drama Key Largo (1939). In an adaptation of Richard Wright's powerful novel about racial prejudice, Native Son (1941), Pevney's performance as a "well-meaning Communist agitator" was directed by Orson Welles. His predilection for sombre roles continued with Ben Hecht's Lily of the Valley (1942), set in the city morgue, in which he played a photographer of the unclaimed dead.

In 1939, Pevney met Mitzi Green, also a former child performer, who became a star after introducing "The Lady is a Tramp" in Rodgers and Hart's Babes in Arms. In 1942 Pevney directed her in a short-lived revue, Let Freedom Sing, and later that year they were married.

Pevney's stage career was interrupted by the Second World War, during which he served in Europe as a staff sergeant in the US Army Signal Corps and helped organise troop shows in Europe. He returned to Broadway to play with Paul Muni in a hit revival of Elmer Rice's Counsellor-at-Law (1944). His last Broadway role was in Home of the Brave (1945), Arthur Laurents' first play, in the key part of Coney, a young Jewish soldier who has lost the ability to walk through nerve shock. The following year he directed his last Broadway play, the appropriately titled Swan Song.

In 1946 Pevney made his screen début with a small but important role in Edward L. Marin's excellent film noir Nocturne – Pevney was "Fingers", a nightclub pianist who is revealed as the killer when he plays the "nocturne", composed by the victim, which could only be known to the assassin. He also had a prime role as Shorty, the best friend of a boxer in Robert Rossen's powerful Body and Soul (1947). William Keighley's The Street with No Name (1948) and Jules Dassin's Thieves Highway (1949) were other taut thrillers in which he featured as hoodlums, after which he directed his first film, a minor but gripping, original and impressive thriller, Shakedown (1950). He had his first major success with The Iron Man (1951), a lively remake of a 1931 movie about a mild-mannered coal-miner (Jeff Chandler) who becomes a prize-fighter in order to raise money to start a store, but when in the ring displays the instincts of a killer.

Pevney then directed two veterans, Charles Laughton and Boris Karloff, in The Strange Door (1951), a ripe piece of Grand Guignol based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, then further displayed his versatility with a musical about a singer involved with racketeers, Meet Danny Wilson (1951), starring Frank Sinatra. The crooner's career was recovering from a lean period and Pevney gave him a fine chance to display his acting range as well as vocal skills – a highlight among the musical performances was Sinatra's good-natured duet with Shelley Winters, "A Good Man is Hard to Find".

Another boxing tale, Flesh and Fury (1952), gave Tony Curtis, as a deaf mute boxer, his first chance to display his acting talent. Curtis worked with Pevney again when he played a juvenile delinquent in Six Bridges to Cross (1955), and The Midnight Story (1957), in which Curtis tracked down the killer of a priest.

Pevney made three or four films a year throughout the Fifties, other titles including Desert Legion (1953) with Alan Ladd and a total of seven films starring Jeff Chandler, including Yankee Pasha (1954), with Rhonda Fleming, Foxfire (1955), with Jane Russell, and Female on the Beach (1955), which teamed Chandler with Joan Crawford. His journeyman versatility precluded his ever being considered an "auteur", but surprisingly he was more highly regarded in France than in his own country. "Pevney hurt his directing career by not demanding the quality of production he really needed," according to Tony Curtis. He was given a sizeable budget for the naval war yarn Away All Boats (1956) starring Chandler, and the result was a big box-office hit, as was Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), a rustic romance featuring that benefited from charming performance by Debbie Reynolds.

Pevney then directed his most prestigious film, Man of a Thousand Faces (1957), a splendid biography of the silent star Lon Chaney, with James Cagney as the actor famed for his range and myriad disguises. He moved to television in 1961, directing such shows as Wagon Train, The Munsters and The Incredible Hulk. But he is now best remembered for his contributions to Star Trek – he ties with Marc Daniels for the most episodes directed (14).

Several of Pevney's episodes are among the most fondly remembered, including the poignant "The City on the Edge of Forever", in which Dr McCoy goes back to the Depression era and saves the life of forward-thinking social worker (Joan Collins), thus upsetting the timeline – Collins' peace-keeping movement would delay US entry into the Second World War, allowing the Germans to win. Kirk and Spock have to go back to rectify the history-changing event, and Kirk, having fallen in love with Collins, has to be restrained from saving her life.

Another of Pevney's episodes was one of Star Trek's funniest and most endearing, "The Trouble with Tribbles", featuring cute little furry creatures devoted to eating and reproducing.

Joseph Pevney, actor and director: born New York 15 September 1911; twice married (four children); died Palm Desert, California 18 May 2008.