Joseph Pevney: Director of journeyman versatility

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
REX/Eye Candy
science
News
A photo of Charles Belk being detained by police on Friday 22 August
news
News
i100
Sport
Alexis Sanchez celebrates after scoring his first goal for Arsenal in the Champions League qualifier against Besiktas
sportChilean's first goal for the club secures place in draw for Champions League group stages
Arts and Entertainment
Amis: 'The racial situation in the US is as bad as it’s been since the Civil War'
booksAuthor says he might come back across Atlantic after all
Extras
indybest
Life and Style
Google Doodle celebrates the 200th birthday of Irish writer Sheridan Le Fanu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
News
i100
News
In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett medically erase each other from their memories
scienceTechnique successfully used to ‘reverse’ bad memories in rodents could be used on trauma victims
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Developer (C#, ASP.NET Developer, SQL, MVC, WPF, Real-Time F

£40000 - £48000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Devel...

C# Swift Payment Developer (C#, ASP.NET, .NET, MVC, Authorize.N

£45000 - £60000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: C# Swift...

Front-End Developer (JavaScript, HTML5, CSS3, C#, GUI)

£55000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-End Deve...

Graduate C# Developer (.NET, WPF, SQL, Agile, C++) - London

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Graduate C# De...

Day In a Page

Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

What is the appeal of Twitch?

Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

How bosses are making us work harder

As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

A tale of two writers

Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

Should pupils get a lie in?

Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

Prepare for Jewish jokes...

... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

A dream come true for SJ Watson

Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
10 best cycling bags for commuters

10 best cycling bags for commuters

Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

Paul Scholes column

Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

The science of herding is cracked

Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

This tyrant doesn’t rule

It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?