Truman and TV (from TIME magazine)

 When Truman Capote first viewed the TV adaptation of his autobiographical tale, A Christmas Memory, he broke down and wept. Viewers across the country also found it one of the most affecting dramas ever seen on U.S. television. Then Capote wrote The Thanksgiving Visitor, another chapter in his portrait of the artist as a young boy. As before, Frank and Eleanor Perry, the husband-and-wife moviemaking team (David and Lisa), adapted and produced the film. And once again, the result, which ABC has scheduled for Thanksgiving night, is a rare, lyrical hour for television.

Thanksgiving Visitor, set in backwoods Alabama, elaborates on Capote’s glowing relationship with his only boyhood friend, an old spinster cousin named Miss Sook. She had no education and had never traveled beyond the county borders. She was “a poet of a kind but deeply suppressed. She might have been an Emily Dickinson in another culture.” In the simple TV tale, she coddles young “Buddy” (as Capote is called) and tries to shield him from his dour and insensitive relatives in the parentless household. The casting, supervised by the author, is impeccable. Geraldine Page, who won an Emmy award as Miss Sook in Christmas Memory, returns in what Capote calls “one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen.” Michael Kearney, 13, is a touching and believable young Truman. The narrator is Capote himself—squeaky-voiced, but obviously authentic.

In the past two years, Truman Capote has become a strikingly successful light industry for the ABC network. His programs have won four Emmies and a Peabody award. Among the Paths to Eden, a bizarre, lovely tale set in a New York City cemetery, was on ABC last year (TIME, Dec. 29). Capote adapted Laura for the first (and farewell) TV performance of his friend Lee Bouvier Radziwill; it gained no Emmies, but good Nielsens. And Miriam, a TV film based on an early short story, will run next year.

Capote has also just written and directed a TV documentary on capital punishment, Death Row, U.S.A. This program was an ABC venture too, but the network has decided not to put it on the air. And that decision may well shatter the whole beautiful Capote-ABC collaboration, for hell hath no fury like a Truman scorned.

Prison Vignettes. What angers Capote most is the explanation from the ABC-TV president. The footage in Death Row, said Elton Rule simply, was “too grim.” “Well,” retorted Capote, “what were you expecting—Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm?” Capote, who has since acquired rights to the $250,000 film, screened it for TV critics in Manhattan recently. There were chilling prison vignettes and fascinating interviews with condemned convicts, as well as a defense of capital punishment by Ronald Reagan. But the film lacked organization and a coherent point of view. With some favorable reviews to his credit, Capote obviously hopes that another network or syndicate will take the documentary and, if nothing else, embarrass ABC. It would serve them right, says Capote. “All I ever did for that damn company was win them a lot of Emmies and great distinction! What fools they’ve become!”

The author is also trying to square accounts with the network concerning another property: an ABC collaboration with Paramount Pictures on Holly Golightly, a TV pilot based on Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He always hated the movie version (“a mawkish valentine to Audrey Hepburn”) and predicts that a TV spinoff, starring Stefanie Powers (The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.) will be even more “jerky.” The fact that highly seasoned producing and writing talent is at work on the show fails to moderate Capote’s opinion. He insists that he will not stand for the TV version “if they give me all the money in Christendom.” Since Paramount already paid for the book’s movie rights, and interprets this to include TV rights as well, Capote may well lose that battle.

Paramount began shooting Holly Golightly party scenes on its Hollywood lot last week. Capote still threatens to get even with ABC. He is now toying with “three or four new television story ideas, one really amusing,” and all of them, he says, will go to some rival network.

Children Who Read. For all his seeming absorption with TV, Capote is no fan. As a boy, he used to feign illness so he could stay home from school and listen to radio soap opera. Television does not have that kind of clutch on him. He doesn’t even have a set in his Manhattan co-op apartment or his mountain lodge in Switzerland. There is one in his beach house on Long Island, but the area is so remote that “you can’t get anything.” He does keep a working set at his desert retreat in Palm Springs, but he says, “I never find anything on it.” He is contemptuous of adventure programs (“Fictionalized crime doesn’t interest me”) but thinks that TV violence is harmless: “Crime comes from people with a caged-up obsession, something locked up inside. Reading a dirty book doesn’t stir up a sex maniac. Just the opposite.”

Capote last watched TV at length during the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. He finds that this kind of coverage reaches “high artistic levels.” As for news in general, he prefers the newspapers. “Everyone,” he says, “gets his news from print.” There are no Nielsen families in the Capote crowd, and he doesn’t think that there is any such thing as a TV generation. “The general impression seems to be that children nowadays have abandoned print in favor of that small screen. But I think that this is untrue—numerous children of my acquaintance are great readers.”

Capote does recognize that TV has “a huge audience starving for quality,” but he has not wanted to do his own adaptations. “My primary thing,” he says, “is that I’m a prose writer. I don’t think film is the greatest living thing.”

But when Thanksgiving Visitor was being shot last December in Alabama, he was on hand. Joining him for a “beautiful” reunion were a dozen of his relatives. Miss Sook died in 1938, but two other members of the household were there. They had seen Christmas Memory on TV, and it was not what they had expected. But neither was Truman. The shy, companionless and seemingly unpromising boy whom they remembered was now, at 44, dressed in a Cardin cape-and-cap ensemble, and with him, in a pony-skin suit, was Princess Lee Radziwill.                                   

Friday, Nov. 29, 1968

Published in: on September 4, 2007 at 2:20 am  Leave a Comment