Forgotten Television: Ernst.

In the spring of 1974, NBC’s rotating showcase of evening crime dramas, the NBC Wednesday Mystery Movie, suffered from flagging ratings. None of Wednesday’s quirky prime-time sleuths had connected with audiences the way Sunday night’s Columbo, McCloud, or MacMillan & Wife had (with the qualified exception of Banacek), and viewer interest was evaporating. The network needed a colorful new quasi-detective, as quickly as possible.

Producers of the show turned to Joachim Fessender, an experienced television writer at NBC since the mid-sixties. Writing under the pen name Joe Fest, Fessender had earned a reputation as a talented “fixer”, punching up weak scripts for a variety of popular shows, often under extreme time constraints, but had yet to win a solo writing credit. Though Fessender submitted his own scripts — hundreds of them, at one count —  they were unfailingly rejected. Said one producer: “Joe was writing for Bonanza for a while. Did great revisions and sent in at least one script a week of his own. But his work was too… esoteric for prime-time back then. I mean, you don’t get Little Joe hopped up on peyote and have him wander around in the desert hallucinating for three episodes. Maybe today you could get away with the stuff he was writing, but in 1968? Not even the hippies would’ve watched that.”

Impressed by Fessender’s prolific output and desperate for new material, executives met with the writer to discuss any original show ideas he had that could be used for the Mystery Movie “wheel”. The producers hoped his personal eccentricities would mesh with the program’s needs. Fessender was enthusiastic as well, and pitched them more than a dozen mystery show concepts. After some consideration, NBC agreed to produce an unspecified number of episodes of Ernst, with Fessender as head writer and uncredited assistant director.

Ernst depicted the exploits of its title character, famed Surrealist painter and (in Fessender’s words) “tiny German” Max Ernst, as he solved various crimes. Though the term was never officially applied to the character in the course of the show, Ernst acted as a private investigator, assisting the police or solving mysteries for private citizens on a for-hire basis. Ernst was played by famed character actor John Cazale. The show was Cazale’s only appearance on television.

Fessender worked with Cazale in crafting the character, which bore little resemblance to the real-life, still-living painter. Cazale’s Ernst spoke in a thick Brooklyn accent and, other than the absent-minded construction of a few dreamlike collages during the introductory or wrap-up segments of some  episodes, displayed no artistic skill or interest throughout the course of the show. The setting of the series was 1970s New York City, though Cazale played the painter as a man his own age, four decades younger than Ernst at the time of the program. The liberties taken with reality made NBC executives uneasy, but they were already committed to the project and felt the Americanization of a lauded but far from widely recognized foreign artist would only increase the show’s popularity.

Network qualms became more pronounced when Fessender insisted on staging shots to accentuate Ernst’s “tininess.” The writer believed that this tininess was the quintessential element of Ernst’s character, and he hoped to achieve this with careful framing, blocking, forced perspective and when necessary, risers and trenches. When the producers questioned the need and positive effect of these actions, Fessender responded with an official memo entitled “How Tall Is Max Ernst?”, which he sent to all members of the cast and crew, as well as all pertinent executives at NBC and Universal. “While none of us can ever know for certain how tall our hero is, Max Ernst is most certainly a tiny German, at most – at most – five-foot-four. Because television is both a fictional and a subjective medium, we should exploit and even amplify this tininess whenever necessary, for dramatic effect.” When producers responded that Max Ernst’s height is an easily determined empirical fact (most likely a matter of public record), and that they were also relatively certain he was taller than 5’4″, Fessender laughed and shook his head. He relented on most of the “tininess” directives, but always insisted, sometimes by screaming, that Ernst be visibly shorter than his associate and ostensible love interest Miss Nightingale (played by Ellye Shawn). Shawn spent most of her scenes with Cazale standing on a milk crate.

How Fessender retained such control over the show is not clear. Normally an amiable and talkative man, he was prone to outbursts when his vision of Ernst was challenged, but these moments of violence never created any lasting animosity. Even the directors whose authority he usurped deferred to his judgment without ego or fear. “I was young,” said Van Porter, who directed the third and fourth episodes of Ernst. “It was one of my first directing jobs, and Fest seemed pretty clear on what he wanted. I knew if our places were reversed, I’d’ve wanted some respect as the creator of the show. To me it was just a gig, so I let him have his way. I don’t think he yelled all that much. And there were mixed signals coming from the higher-ups. They needed a show, but they didn’t want to spend any time guiding it. So Joe, he got what he wanted.”

When asked about the show by a reporter for Der Spiegel, the real Ernst professed an unsurprising ignorance. Fessender read the interview, and sent copies of two episodes (“The Hat Makes The Man” and “Max Versus Max”) to the artist. Ernst responded in a letter best described as flattered yet befuddled. “Mr. Cazale is a talented, powerful actor,” Ernst wrote, “and the narrative, even when interrupted by commercials for shaving cream or breakfast cereal, transfixes me. But I must admit I am still a bit perplexed. I don’t know who you are attempting to portray in this tele-drama, but I am fairly certain it is not me. If your intent was to toy with the concept of identity and the conscious mind, well done. If this was not your intent, I applaud you just the same, albeit with fewer hands.”

As part of the NBC Mystery Movie rotation, the network most likely approved no more than four episodes of Ernst, but Fessender’s book-length “Ernst bible” (one of the first instances of such a reference document in broadcast television) created an entire world full of recurring characters, villains and back-stories. Assisting Ernst in his sleuthing were his statuesque female companion Miss Nightingale, and the enigmatic Mr. Luplup, a silent individual with the body of a man and the proportionately-sized head of a sparrow. Mr. Luplup communicated through small printed cards which always contained appropriate statements and responses to conversations as they occurred, though he was never seen preparing the cards. He reached inside his suitcoat with a white-gloved hand and produced the proper card as it was needed. The actor who portrayed Luplup appeared on set in costume and spoke only to Fessender, in private, for the duration of filming, a condition Fessender insisted upon to “maintain the sanctity of Mr. Luplup’s character and the actor’s performance.” A non-disclosure agreement keeps Luplup’s secret to this day, though unfounded rumors have suggested a diverse group of performers, including Alan Alda, Dean Stockwell, Patrick McGoohan, Roscoe Lee Browne, and David Bowie.

Less mysterious, but more tragic, was the fate of Ellye Shawn. A long-limbed natural beauty, Shawn’s resume had been limited to non-speaking roles like “Dancing Girl #4” and “Beach Bunny with Umbrella” in various ephemeral matinee reels. As Miss Nightingale, she displayed impressive acting chops, holding her own against Cazale and bringing both a keen intellect and a smoldering, yet refined sensuality to Ernst’s forensic expert, all while dressed in an open billowing shroud of crimson feathers. (How Miss Nightingale’s constant near-nudity got past the producers, network executives, and the censors is uncertain to this day, though once again, Fessender’s obsessive attention to every shot ensured that FCC regulations were adhered to, sometimes to the amazement of actors, crew and audience alike.) Following Ernst’s broadcast premiere, Shawn received several offers for high-profile dramatic roles in both television and film. However, just after filming ended on the last episode, she met and began a passionate affair with Brazilian soybean magnate and amateur pilot Joao Porciúncula. As the couple headed from California to Porciúncula’s estate, his Cessna encountered turbulence on approach to Rio de Janeiro. His body washed ashore two weeks later; Shawn’s was never found.

Beyond the trio of prinicpals, very little of Fessender’s Ernstwelt, as he jokingly called it, ever made it into the filmed scripts. Ernst had a collection of quasi-nemeses, including the creepy and alluring Madame Wernicke, with her numerous braces and orthotics (“Sharon Tate would have been perfect for that role,” Fessender told a friend, an indicator of how long he had been working on his ideas); the impossibly svelte catburglar Le Pin (a handwritten note in the margins of his personal copy of the “Ernst bible” reads: “Contortionist? Puppet?”); and Herr du Cloux, the only human able to provoke a reaction from Mr. Luplup. Unbroadcast footage shows a silent standoff between Luplup and du Cloux, in which Fessender and whoever wore the Luplup mask are somehow able to produce an unsettling depiction of fear using only an inarticulate bird head.

NBC made seven episodes of Ernst (“The Hat Makes The Man”, “The Robbing of the Bride”, “Max Versus Max”, “The Woman Without A Head”, “Just A Machine To Pass The Time”, “A Little Kindness” and “The Seven Deadly Elements”), and over its short run, the show evolved from a relatively traditional if quirky “whodunit” to an wildly eccentric “howcatchem” to an incoherent disjointed “whahoppa?” Jewel thefts and locked-room killings gave way to stolen human heads (their owners still living, though decapitated), a treacherous “mirror Max” (a living reflection that tried to frame Ernst for murder), and the only fictional instance of a mannequin committing, being arrested, and tried for murder.

The surrealism culminated in “A Little Kindness”, a series of long unedited takes of a faintly smiling Ernst, dressed in a velvet smoking jacket and seated in a chair in his study, staring into the camera. One nearly-identical shot dissolves into another for nearly 90 minutes. Intercut with these long takes at random intervals are static shots of a knife, a man in a green bowler hat, Ernst looking pensive, an extreme close-up of Miss Nightingale’s pouting lips, a revolver with smoking barrel, a clubhouse sandwich, a rainy city street at night, the word “burnish” handwritten on an index card, and a Bartlett  pear. Then the camera pulls back, revealing Mr. Luplup standing just behind Ernst’s chair. Mr. Luplup removes a card from his inside suit pocket and presents it to the camera. A close-up of the card reveals the text: “Best of luck in the new year.”

Shortly after broadcasting “A Little Kindness,” NBC canceled the show, citing “poor ratings and profound confusion.”

Fessender, still in shock from Shawn’s death and disillusioned by the network’s change of mind, stole all footage from “The Seven Deadly Elements” and fled the country, claiming he would return “when the networks were ready for the episode as he intended to edit it.” He was last sighted in Buenos Aires by a private investigator, who reported that Fessender had a black metal briefcase shackled to his wrist. He was unshaven but smiling when he noticed his observer. Fessender bought plantains from a street vendor, held the bunch in front of his face as he looked at the investigator, and walked sideways into an alley. By the time the detective reached the alley, it was empty, except for a single white card. The card was blank.

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