Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A Chat with Little House Producer Kent McCray

Today, I am honored to have as my guest, Kent McCray, Producer for the hit family show Little House on the Prairie, which ran from 1974 – 1983. In addition to his work on Little House, Kent was also an integral part of Bonanza, The High Chaparral, Highway to Heaven, and the feature film Sam’s Son, and served as the Executive Producer for Michael Landon: Memories with Laughter and Love. We’ll be chatting about Kent’s work on Little House and he’ll share his reflections on Michael Landon and this family show that continues to gain new viewers each day.

C: Hello and welcome, Kent. It’s great to have this opportunity to speak with you. Let’s start off by finding out how you met Michael Landon and how that led to you working with him on Little House.

K: I was on staff with NBC starting in 1951 and they assigned you to different shows. Through the years I did a lot of different shows and then in 1962 I was assigned to be the production supervisor on Bonanza. I could not be a production manager because that was a Directors Guild title. I only assumed that after I went off of staff and went to freelance. Being on Bonanza in 1962—I think it was the third year—I met Michael Landon on the set of Bonanza at the start of that given season.

C: How many years did Bonanza run?

K: Fourteen years, but the fourteenth year was not a complete year. We were shut down about three quarters of the way through the year.

C: Did Dan Blocker’s passing have a little bit to do with that?

K: I think it had a great deal to do with it. When Pernell left the show we brought in David Canary to work as Candy. When Dan passed away very unexpectedly, it left a large void in the show. And also, going back into the years that I was on it, for the most part Chevrolet was the sponsor, and they were the sole sponsor. They bought 34 new shows a year and had 16 repeats; in other words, the sale to NBC with Chevrolet was 50 weeks out of 52; they were a sole sponsor. That’s unheard of today.

When they stopped sponsoring the show, NBC moved us to a different time slot; we lost the Sunday night and went to Tuesday night, and that didn’t help it, so it was a combination of things, and to be honest with you I do think the show did run its gamut. Like all things it needed to come to an end.

C: So you already had an ongoing relationship with Michael at that point. Now, did someone approach Michael about the show that turned into Little House on the Prairie?

K: At the end of Bonanza, NBC knew the value of Michael Landon and they had him under contract to develop shows; it was a package that they retained with Michael so that he would hopefully work for them either on shows that he came up with or that they brought to him. In 1974, Ed Friendly came to NBC with the package of Little House on the Prairie. They knew Michael wanted to act and they also knew that he wanted to produce, so they went to Michael and offered him the part of Pa Ingalls on Little House and he would also be Executive Producer with Ed Friendly.

Michael read the script and liked it and then he went home, and I think it was Leslie Landon, his daughter, who said, “What do you mean you’re going to be Pa Ingalls on Little House? I’ve read all those books. They’re great.” I think that made a little twang in his heart because his daughter thought it would be good because his daughter had read the books. Michael had not read the books, nor had I.

I was working on another show at Paramount, when Dick Larson, at NBC called and wanted me to do the show. So, I started in November. They gave me The Pilot script and I went out and talked to Michael on weekends and nights and whenever I could. On weekends I started looking for locations, because I was actually not working for them, but I did a lot of work for them before they decided to do The Pilot. I finally had to resign my position at Paramount and I was put on payroll with NBC. We started shooting The Pilot in January of 1974.

C: What kind of response did The Pilot get?

K: NBC used to send all their shows out to what they call a testing house. People from off the street, all different classes of people, wealthy, poor, all ethnic groups were asked to come in and sit down and watch the show and they had little buttons that they could press on the arm of the chair, whether they liked a scene or didn’t like a scene. There were four different buttons they could press as to the quality or the likeness that they thought the show was giving them. Then after the show Michael and all of us were there and we answered questions. They filled out a questionnaire as well. Little House, at the time, received the highest testing of any show that NBC had ever shown. Anybody who had any doubts about its success turned around completely at that point and were behind it. The Highway to Heaven Pilot—which was many years later—had the same kind of test. That’s the only show that beat Little House.

C: Do you think that was because Michael was involved in that project (Highway to Heaven)?

K: Of course, he had a tremendous draw. He had a tremendous following. I mean, he had a following from Bonanza that carried over to Little House, and it carried over to Highway. There is no question that he was the driving force of all three shows.

C: Michael was on TV constantly for how many years?

K: He was on for 14 years on Bonanza, 10 years on Little House, and 5 years on Highway to Heaven.

C: When he passed away, he was shooting a pilot for another series, right?

K: We had already shot the pilot, called US, and it was for CBS. After all those years at NBC, they told Michael at the end of Highway to Heaven that they didn’t need him anymore. It irked me that they treated him that way. He was loved by so many people, but the network had changed people. In other words, all the people who had loved Bonanza and Little House and Highway to Heaven, like Brandon Tartikoff, had left. There was a whole new regime coming in and the new people wanted to put their stamp on everything, and Michael was not part of that stamp. We did the pilot for CBS called US. It would have been a very good show. We completed the pilot and we got a pick up for it to be a new series. I was in the process of setting up the company to start shooting in June or July. Michael got sick on April 1st and passed away in July.

C: Little House was primarily shot in two locations—Simi Valley and Sonora, California, right?

K: Yes, Simi Valley was our main location, and of course we had the stages at Paramount. When we lost our lease at Paramount I moved everything to MGM studios, but basically that’s where we shot. We did go to Arizona to Old Tucson to do some different things down there we got into and it worked well for us. We were trying to get a different look in some of the shows just to give it a little spark, but for the most part I would say we did shoot probably a third of the shows outside of Sonora, California. They have great vistas. Up in the high country they have streams and pine trees and all those kinds of things that are unbelievably great.

C: Shooting in two different locations, how did this impact your shooting schedule? Did you shoot scenes from a variety of episodes at one location and then move the cast and crew to the other location for different scenes?

K: You try to shoot each episode complete, as much as possible, because of the cost. Your permanent cast is on salary regardless of where you shoot. You can shoot out of continuity show by show as long as they are paid for every show. But your guest actors, you’re required to keep them on salary once you start them until you finish them. So, we would try to start a show in Los Angeles shooting Wednesday, Thursday, Friday.

We would travel to location Saturday and Sunday. We’d finish the show on location. The next show would be all on location. The third show would start on location and would finish back in the studio.

Some of the scenes where we only had permanent cast--Michael, the kids, and whoever--if we had a scene for a show down the road that I knew about, I would always try to work that in so we could get that done on location.

Once the show was a success, NBC would give us a pickup before Christmas for the next year. Which meant that Michael could already start working on shows with our outside writers for the following season. So, when the season started in May, I really had 15 to 18 scripts in my hand that I knew what was going to happen. I had 15 to 18 scripts and I would lay them out on what we call breakdown boards and I almost had them all scheduled, so if I saw a scene that I felt would work real well out in Sonora, I’d pull that out and shoot it out of context.

C: Now, with Little House we are talking about a time period piece with a town and a community of people that live in the late 1800’s. What kind of challenges does that present to production and for the actors when they have to be in this mode of living and working in a different time period?

K: The 1870’s is where we were at, and when we first started The Pilot we had a set dressing crew that used to dress the set. They would travel around to antique shops and buy things. We had to try to find all the bottles for Doc Baker’s office; all those apothecary jars, which weren’t a cork bottle, they had a glass stopper. All those things we had to find and where we couldn’t rent them we had prop people out buying them at antique places. They would travel on weekends and we would pay for them to buy these things so that we could build up a supply of things that we could use.

We had to take kerosene lamps and lanterns, for instance, and some of them we would take them and rewire them, and we would frost the glass a little bit so we could put a bulb in it, so that we could get a the more constant light that we could control better than a kerosene lamp would give you to shoot a scene. And we made all our own wardrobe. All the wardrobe for the show was made, we had a wardrobe department, Richalene was the first gal, and Linda Taylor was the second. We had a shop set up on stage where we had two seamstresses.We would buy big bolts of material and make the clothes.

C: Is that the way it was usually done (having your own wardrobe department)?

K: Well, you have to remember that for anybody’s dress we had to have six of whatever dress you were talking about, because a) she wears one and that has to go to the cleaners that night, so you have to be able to match that dress, plus if she has a double you have to have the dress for her. They have six pieces of every piece of wardrobe that you have. Michael had the same thing. For cleaning, if you’re rolling around in the mud, you can’t ask them to wear that again. If you look at the shows you can see from day to day they were in the same wardrobe, but it was a different matching piece.

Some of Laura’s clothes, as she grew out of them, we would keep them and give them to extras like kids in the schoolroom and we would change and redye it, so it didn’t look like an old dress of Laura’s.

You can rent things like that, even though there are great wardrobe facilities in Los Angeles, but it was better to make our own and own our own and control it.

C: One of the comments I often hear from fans is that there aren’t a lot of episodes with snow in them, even though Walnut Grove is in Minnesota. What was involved in creating the scenes from episodes like “Blizzard” and “The Christmas They Never Forgot” where snow was part of the set?

K: There again, some of the shows where we knew we had snow we would shoot what we could on the stage and fake it on the interior set, actually a lot of the shows we did shoot in Sonora—which was up in the high country—and we did get snow. There’s a stage at Paramount Studios, which was a huge stage with a high twelve foot cement wall all the way around it. One area in the front of the stage, this wall would go down into the basement, but then you could go into it and this wall could come up so you close yourself into a complete cement barrier. A flood scene or a show where I think we were doing a thing where there was a plague or something and we had people in rowboats going back and forth, that was a stage, but we could do it because it was this kind of stage. And also with this kind of cement stage with drains in it we brought in big ice machines and created our own snow.

There was a show where they were all stuck in a cabin somewhere* and we made that whole set on a stage. We brought in 300 hundred pound chunks of ice and shredded it and put it around the stage and packed it in around and made mounds and things out of the ice. We would shoot there one day, but the next day by four o’clock in the morning we had to bring in more ice and repack it all around again because it would melt.

Now, the stuff we did on the stage a couple of times for the Christmas shows, where you’re looking out the window, that was all fake snow. You used to use corn flakes for fake snow. Before it was bleached it was white. It was great because it dissolved in the ground and there would be no trace of it. Then we got into the plastic stuff when we shot up in Sonora, and I got in trouble with the Forest Service because I used this fake snow and it was plastic and they were afraid it was going to contaminate because when it melted the plastic would still be on the ground. After the snow melted, months later, I would send a crew in and rake the area that we had been working in.

* (Kent is referring to the Season 1 episode “Survival”)

C: Costs must really have skyrocketed for these episodes.

K: Well, we worked it out. We were never over budget; let me put it to you that way.

C: You regularly worked with animal talent. What challenges did that present?

K: Well, we had one gentleman, Dennis Allen, who was head of the livestock; horses, chickens, and cows. He had his own company and we would rent all the livestock through his company. He would supply the horses we needed on a daily basis. He would bring them in and then take them back to the barn at night. It was a real challenge, there was always something going on.

The dog had a bigger contract than some of the actors did, but that was just the way it worked. That was the first dog, Jack.

C: There were many child actors on the set of Little House. How did this affect your shooting schedule?

K: Child actor laws, which were started many, many years ago, called The Coogan Law by Jackie Coogan when he was a child actor. A child actor can only work within an eight-hour span and four of those hours the actors must have schooling. We had two teachers on the set at all times to teach the children, and they could do it in ten-, fifteen- or twenty-minute segments, so the teacher would have to keep track of the time. Say Laura or Mary were in a scene, they could come in and rehearse a scene, and while we’re lighting they would go back into school. When we were ready to shoot the scene they would come out and do the scene. That scene’s over, now we have to do another scene, they would go back into school. And they also had to, of course, have a lunch break and they used to have to have an hour of recreation. So we really only had them three hours of the given eight hours that we could have them on the set. So if you’re scheduling, and we worked basically a twelve-hour day, I would lay out scenes without the children that we could fill in the rest of the day or if there were other children in the scene, you could take a group of kids who were in that scene but not in the other, and kind of sandwich it around that way. It was a very intricate scheduling process.

C: In Season 9, Little House switched gears. The Ingalls family left, Laura and Almanzo became more of a focal point, and the Carter family was introduced.

K: All through the ninth year we called it Little House: A New Beginning and that was mainly featuring Laura and Almanzo and their aspect. Michael really felt he had gotten beyond what he could do with the show. No longer could Laura crawl up on his lap. We had to grow as Laura and the cast grew. Laura was the focal point of the show always, as far as storylines were concerned, and when she grew and she got married, Michael’s participation became less and less. So, he felt it was better that he not be in every show. Now, he directed a lot of them and in the final year of the show, the tenth year, we did three two-hour specials. Our schedule for that year; we did three two-hour specials for Little House, we did a feature show called “Sam’s Son” and the pilot of “Highway to Heaven”.

C: Did any of these changes impact production?

K: No, the crew was the same. The only time we deviated the crew was when we did a show called “Father Murphy”. That was a show that Michael did and I produced that one as well. What we did is we split the crew and brought in new people and operated so that we had two crews. Some stayed with Little House and some were put on “Father Murphy”. When “Father Murphy” ended they all came back to Little House.

C: Now, was Little House actually canceled after the ninth season or was it just a decision by Michael to not go any further with it? How did it come to an end?

K: It was a little bit of NBC, Michael, and everybody feeling that after ten years the show had run its gamut, like a lot of shows. Like Seinfeld said, I’ve done it enough. The audience starts to dwindle, although it didn’t dwindle that much on Little House. It became more of a logistical problem in everybody’s mind that the show had run its gamut and lets move on to something else. Ten years is a good run, you can’t deny that.

C: I agree. Did you guys have any idea that after all these years Little House would still be on the air every day?

K: It has a bigger audience today than when we first did it. In many cities its on three times a day. In many cities it’s on three different channels.

C: So, Little House is now over, Season 9 has come to a close. Were the three movies planned right away?

K: Yes, NBC committed to the three two-hour shows. They knew Season 9 was the end of the series, but they wanted to keep the specials just to keep the flavor of the show so it didn’t fade out abruptly. They released them at different times during that following year.

C: Out of those last three movies—Look Back to Yesterday, Bless All the Dear Children, and The Last Farewell, do you have a favorite?

K: Well, I can’t say I have a favorite. The Last Farwell came about when I was in the office working with a construction coordinator. Our original deal/agreement with the people who owned the ranch was - since this land was used as a feed lot—and we built the sets - we would take down the buildings and put the land back, as best we could, to normal use. The reason for that is that they still had cattle in there many times while we were working and if they let the cattle in after it was left they were afraid the cattle would get into the buildings and get hurt. We had to fill in the streams and all of these gullies that we dug so that they couldn’t get hurt that way. They were also afraid that if the buildings existed kids might get into them and if they were smoking they could start a fire. So, I had to take down the buildings, and I was in my office with a construction coordinator and we were going over how we would gradually take down the buildings and truck all the stuff out. Mike walks in—our offices were next door to each other—and he came in and was sitting around and was listening. He said, “Wait a minute, how are you going to destroy the buildings?” I was just going to come in with a bulldozer and similar to what you see today on the home makeover show just come in with a crane and knock it down and pick up the rubble. He said, “Wait a minute. Let me think about this.” So he went back in his office. About twenty minutes later he came back in and said, “What if we blew up every building? That’s going to level it and you wouldn’t have to bring in the crane to pick it up.” So he went back in and wrote The Farewell script. The gist of the script, as you know, is that the railroad is coming through and they bought the town, but the town said, well you bought the land, but you didn’t buy the buildings.

So, that was the reason behind blowing up all the buildings. Now, we did not blow up Little House and we didn’t blow up the church.

C: And Stan Ivar, who played John Carter, does he have a replica of the Little House or does he have the original house?

K: He has the original house. He came in on his own after the show was over and took down the Little House and put it on a flat bed truck—he has a ranch outside of L.A. It’s in a barn at his ranch today.

C: Fans have been clamoring for a Little House reunion for years, but Ed Friendly would never give his permission. What happened to the rights to Little House after Ed passed away?

K: I really don’t know. I can’t answer that. Ed’s wife passed away first and then he remarried. I don’t know if the estate still controls the rights to it, I assume that they do, and his son is in the business, and he is a producer. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it.

C: So, it’s not very likely that fans will see a reunion show even if were a tribute to Michael, Victor, and the other actors who have since left us?

K: No, it’s tough because Ed controlled the merchandising of the show, which means he controls the show, the characters, and their likeness. He didn’t control the film, NBC owned the film; but he controlled anything that reproduced that because he owned the rights to the books. I don’t know who has that control now.

C: Dean Butler, who played Almanzo Wilder on the show, along with his company Legacy Documentaries, shot some of the bonus features for the Little House DVDs and he’s also doing his Almanzo Wilder production and other things. Are you involved in any of these projects?

K: I know about some of them, and he interviewed me and Susan on a couple of occasions. We’re part of the documentaries that went into the DVDs. We keep in touch.

C: Do you think the future will hold more surprises for fans of Little House and Laura Ingalls Wilder?

K: I don’t think so, to be honest with you. At the tail end of the series, I started another company and I bought all the wardrobe, all the set dressings, and all the props. I had a warehouse here in town with all these things and then I moved it to Arizona. It was nostalgia in my mind, I wanted to keep it because I hated to let go. I finally sold it to a company in Tucson called Old Tucson, which was an area where we shot Chaparral and we shot Bonanza there as well, and two years after I sold it they had a tremendous fire and everything went up in smoke. It broke my heart. I sat down and cried. All those things that you look at, the props, the wardrobe, they brought back a lot of memories. I am happy to say I have two things in this house where we live now: on the wall in our great room I have the doorknocker that came off the Ponderosa house from Bonanza and the little figurine that came off the mantle in Little House. That’s on a table in our living room.

C: Melissa Gilbert has some of her things as well?

K: Yes, most of the people took pieces from wardrobe. I was in two or three different Little Houses and I didn’t keep any of my wardrobe. It wasn’t that great. (Laughs)

C: What are you up to these days?

K: I play a lot of solitaire on the computer. That’s the extent of my computer work. I can keep a database for some of the things that I do, but I’m basically retired. I don’t do too much except back up Susan when she needs something.

I need to go back and share something about Michael. He was one of the greatest people that anyone could ever work with and I respected his ability and how he worked. He and I were very close, as you probably know. I was best man at his wedding and he was the best man at my wedding. He always said that I was the brother he never had. We always had that very close relationship that grew out of Bonanza and Little House. I loved him dearly.

Image of Kent McCray taken from www.susanmccray.com


Dorothy Thompson said...

Wow, nice interview, Cheryl!

Theresa Chaze, Wiccan Writer said...

I loved High Chaparral. As a child, I had a big crush on Blue. It's too bad they don't make TV shows like that any more. I also loved Bonanza, especially the way Adam, Hoss and Little Joe interacted. But I did have a thing for westerns back then.

Cheryl it was a good interview.

Cheryl said...

Thanks ladies. It was great fun. A lot of work, but a lot of fun.

I loved Bonanza too, Tir. That's where my crush on Michael Landon started. But then Dean Butler enter the scene as Almanzo Wilder on LHOP and Michael took a back seat. LOL!

I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. Stay tuned for more!


Linda said...

I have been reflecting on the location since I found out it was California. I am from Australia and can relate to the California scenery, so I think it was a good choice.

The piece of wardrobe I find most interesting was a winter bonnet I think in one of the Christmas episodes. I would love for the pattern to be on the web!


I would like to know if stan Ivan is going to rebuild little house. It would be great!