- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2008

Reginald Rose’s vintage teleplay “Twelve Angry Men,” which manipulates the deliberations of a jury meant to undergo a collective change of mind while debating — often heatedly and prejudicially — the fate of a young murder defendant, was first performed for the public on Sept. 20, 1954. It began the new season of an hour-long live drama series on CBS called “Studio One.” Already a prestige anchor of the network’s Monday-evening programming, the series had provided early showcases in New York for such emerging movie stars as Charlton Heston, Grace Kelly and James Dean.

Mr. Rose held down a day job as an advertising copywriter until his moonlighting work as a TV dramatist led to a more satisfying career. He was destined to join a handful of writers who fashioned distinctive identities in the early 1950s while learning their trade on the live anthology shows. The others were Paddy Chayefsky, Rod Serling, Robert Alan Aurthur and Tad Mosel. Shortly after “Twelve Angry Men” won Emmy Awards for Mr. Rose and director Franklin Schaffner, the TV generation broke through in a big way in Hollywood: Mr. Chayefsky’s adaptation of his endearing romantic tearjerker “Marty” dominated the 1955 Academy Awards.

At the invitation of the same enterprising studio, United Artists, Mr. Rose expanded his 48-minute TV script into a screenplay. Running about twice as long, it also acquired a slight title change: “12 Angry Men.” A success with the critics but a negligible box-office attraction, the movie wasn’t a serious threat to “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in the 1957 Oscar finals, but it did secure nominations for screenplay, direction (Sidney Lumet, another television newcomer making his film debut) and best movie (Mr. Rose and star Henry Fonda shared producing credits).

A house writer at “Studio One” for several seasons, Mr. Rose began a prolonged familiarity with courtroom forensics by writing a teleplay so ambitious it required two weeks to complete. Titled “The Defenders,” it co-starred Ralph Bellamy, William Shatner and Steve McQueen. This 1957 prototype inspired a prestigious series with the identical title in the early 1960s. More or less the dramatic pride of CBS while it lasted, the serial “Defenders” co-starred E.G. Marshall (Juror No. 4 in “12 Angry Men”) and Robert Reed as a father-son team of criminal attorneys. It won additional Emmys for Mr. Rose as a writer and co-producer.

“Twelve Angry Men,” or “12 Angry Men,” has remained a durable brainstorm. Mr. Rose adapted his movie script to the stage in 1964. The most recent touring company, with Richard Thomas and George Wendt as co-stars, passed through Washington a year ago. William Friedkin directed a television remake of the film a decade ago, from Mr. Rose’s update of his eminently flexible model. They demonstrated that group dynamics may always flourish when you place a dozen capable and distinctive actors on the same set and orchestrate their wrangling and camaraderie effectively.

At a certain point, actresses naturally wanted to get in on the fun. Mr. Rose played along with theatrical variants called “Twelve Angry Jurors” and “Twelve Angry Women.” A tradition of sitcom episodes that parodied the Rose plot has endured from Andy Griffith (where Aunt Bea held out for the acquittal of a robbery suspect played by the unknown Jack Nicholson) through “Happy Days” and “The Simpsons.” I regret never having seen a British variant from comedians Tony Hancock and Sid James, who played jurors determined to stretch out deliberations in a robbery trial because they considered it soft work. For years, I hoped that Mel Brooks would have a go at the Rose blueprint, with himself as the foreman and a stock company of Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, Howard Morris, Imogene Coca, Harvey Korman, Madeleine Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, et al., as irrepressible playmates. Maybe there’s still time for him to try a musical version.

A somewhat belated 50th anniversary DVD edition of the original movie has just been issued, in part as an advance salute to the 90th anniversary of United Artists in 2009. Regrettably, there don’t seem to be commentaries from the last surviving principals, director Mr. Lumet and cast member Jack Klugman. Mr. Rose died in 2002. A memorable pair of 1957 jurors, John Fiedler and Jack Warden, have died since then. An exotic version still approaches: Sony Classics will soon distribute “12,” a homage from the Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov.

So, there’s not much reason to fear that “Twelve Angry Men” will ever fade away, even if the original teleplay and movie cry out for modernizing touch-ups. During the earliest transition from TV to film, Mr. Rose seemed to recognize his own card-stacking in favor of the liberal voice of reasonable doubts: Juror No. 8, played by Robert Cummings and then Henry Fonda. The writer added a clever interlude in which Mr. Fonda is confronted, confidentially, by Mr. Warden as wise-guy juror No. 7, who would prefer to reach a quick verdict so he can make a night game at Yankee Stadium. Sizing up the holdout for acquittal as a master of the soft sell, Mr. Warden quips, “Suppose you talk us out of this [i.e., a guilty verdict] and the kid really did knife his father?”

It’s an impudent question that continues to mock the script’s high-minded and virtuous pretensions. One of the reasons “Anatomy of a Murder” seemed more satisfying two years later is that it acknowledged — and sometimes reveled in — the devious nature of a murder defendant. Although we viewed the case from the point of view of defense attorney James Stewart and his associates, the untrustworthiness of their client, Ben Gazzara, who had undoubtedly committed a murder, gave the courtroom procedures and rivalries a more cynical and persuasive emphasis. There’s a reason why it’s always been easier to poke fun at “Twelve Angry Men.”

TITLE: “12 Angry Men”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (released in 1957, a decade before the advent of the film rating system; adult subject matter)

CREDITS: Directed by Sidney Lumet. Screenplay by Reginald Rose, expanded from his own teleplay. Produced by Henry Fonda and Mr. Rose.

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

DVD EDITION: MGM Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.mgm.com/dvd or www.foxhome.com

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