Monday, October 28, 2013

On Call, Vol. 2, No. 2 - O.R. Scheduling: Abby Singer, and the Shot Heard Round the World

From On Call, the official newsletter of the St. Elsewhere Appreciation Club, volume 2, number 2, July 1998.

Industry insiders speak with reverence about the "Abby Singer Shot", while fans of St. Elsewhere continue to ask about the origin of the episode titled "The Abby Singer Show". To understand the derivation of both, we spoke with a number of people who know Abby, including Abby himself. Part of our article is taken from a humorous (and informative) conversation ON CALL had with Abby and his protege Bernie Oseransky, who gathered in Bernie's office for the interview.

Abby Singer
"Dear Abby"
ABBY SINGER ... "I was born in New York City, and after high school in 1936 I went to night college in NY. My father was a designer and my mother was a housewife. I came out here during World War II when I was in the Navy, and stayed here after the War. I got into the business in 1946 and I was hired as Secretary to the head of Production at Columbia Pictures - a man by the name of Jack Fear... "Black Jack Fear" (Bernie, then Abby in unison) We used to say 'We have nothing to fear, but Fear himself'" (laughs).

NORMAN LLOYD ... "Jack Fear had the wrath of God put into him by Harry Cohn who ran the studio, the toughest, meanest guy in the business. Jack Fear translated that to the guys who worked for him, of whom Abby was one. Now, the other guys came out of that rather unpleasantly, but Abby's the one guy who came out of Columbia with an amenable personality... there was a kindness, a goodness in him. They all came out with a tremendous ability on their jobs - it was the best training ground in the world."

In 1957, following his stint at Columbia, Abby joined Universal Studios.

NORMAN LLOYD ... "When I was producing on the Hitchcock Show, Abby was my Unit Production Manager. Those who had a chance to work with Abby learned how to do it right."

After leaving Universal, Singer worked on a number of projects ranging from the Doris Day Show to Gunsmoke. Earlier though, he had also pulled a tour of duty on Laramie and Wagon Train, where he met Robert Fuller, who has been JENNIFER SAVIDGE's soul mate for many years."

JENNIFER SAVIDGE ... "Bob used to pull things on Abby all the time. When they were doing westerns, they would have what was called a 'falling' horse because the rider would touch it on its shoulder, and the horse would fall over. All the animals had wranglers, and it was an expense, Abby was always concerned about money. So Bob was doing 'Laramie' and he called up to Abby's office one day and said, 'Abby you've got to get down here.' Abby said 'What's the matter?' And Bob said, 'My God, one of the wagons ran over one of the 'falling chickens,' and Abby said, 'Oh my God I'll be right down.' Well, there was no such thing as a 'falling chicken' (laughs). Abby's a sweetheart."

In 1972 Abby joined MTM to oversee all productions, including Hill Street Blues, which employed a young Dick Wolf, now Executive Producer of Law & Order.

DICK WOLF ... "I think what anybody who was there took away was, you ain't gonna be able to reshoot it, so you better figure out how to make it work. Abby was a master at that in terms of getting the most mileage out of a piece of film."

Abby continued in his administrative role for the first two seasons of St. Elsewhere, then became ill and decided to "limit" his activities to Coordinating Producer of St. Elsewhere only. He also helped pick his successor.

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "Abby stepped down as head of production. I came from CBS and Abby recommended me for the job, and that was the overview of all the shows at MTM including St. Elsewhere, Remington Steele, Hill Street, we had the Newhart show. Abby (became) like the nuts and bolts, day to day - I was back in the office doing the overall stuff he had done before."

And though Singer no longer faced the pressures of administrative duties for MTM, his responsibilities on St. Elsewhere were just as demanding, as he also assumed the mantle of Unit Production Manager.

ABBY SINGER ... "I was in charge of all the production in its entirety. I would hire the crew, was in charge of the crew, and would advise the producers and the writers of what could, and could not be shot, what the cost would be. And I was in charge of keeping the costs within the budget, and to see that the show would come in on schedule."

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "Abby was responsible for scouting the locations, making crew assignments, keeping on budget, keeping on schedule, layout a schedule with the preparing director, and the shooting director."

ABBY SINGER ... "I'd get a script and break it down, and we'd lay it out to see what could be shot, how we could 'kill' the set, how we could 'kill off' the actors."

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "He doesn't mean kill them - he means schedule them and get them out (laughs). We had seven days to make a show."

ABBY SINGER ... "Seven days, and we had a policy of shooting 12 hours a day, and we tried to keep within that schedule. Most shows don't do that, but Bruce Paltrow insisted on seven 12-hour days."

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "And we worked from seven to seven, normally. In my job I used to argue with Bruce (laughs) that we could do it in six days because it was all shot mostly inside - we didn't go on a lot of locations."

ABBY SINGER ... "At one time we shot three shows in six days, but they never did that again, because they felt it would hurt the show."

And with grueling schedules, often times actors required special consideration. Denzel Washington, for example, needed time off to work on his film career.

ABBY SINGER ... "I always tried to help them (the actors) and switch scenes."

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "He'd always schedule the board around to accommodate the actors. I used to say, 'Don't do it' because sometimes it may cost us overtime."

ABBY SINGER ... "It did."

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "Bruce was very good about that."

ABBY SINGER ... "Bruce would say to me, let's try to help them out, and I would always do it."

JENNIFER SAVIDGE ... "I went to ask Abby a favor one time. I said, 'Gee, there's this thing that I have to do, and if I could get out early, I could make this trip to go with Bob.' And Abby said, 'Bob?' And I said Bob, my boyfriend, and he said 'No, we can't rearrange things.' And I said, 'You know, Bill Daniels has this scene before me with the same set up and' - Abby interrupted 'Oh no, we don't do that to Bill. Who IS this Bob?' And I said 'Robert Fuller', and Abby said 'Robert Fuller?' Well come on honey,' and he goes and says to Billy 'You don't mind going after Jennifer? - it's BOB FULLER!'"

STEPHEN FURST ... "Abby's absolutely fantastic. I didn't find him to be a tough task master. I found him to be a sweet gentleman. He would always try to accommodate people."

And Abby's balancing act between responsibility to the show, and lenience with actors, made him rather unique.

DICK WOLF ... "Those were the good old days. There was not a production problem that ever came along that Abby couldn't solve."

ON CALL ... And everybody seems to love him.

DICK WOLF ... "Exactly, and you can imagine that his job is usually one where everybody hates you. I think the biggest thing with Abby of probably anybody I've worked with in that position over the years, was that he just wanted it to be really good, but he also maintained tight control."

ON CALL ... Did anyone ever resent you?

ABBY SINGER ... "Oh, I'm sure they did. You can't be in my position and not have people get angry at you. I always felt that the Production Manager should never say 'No' to a Producer who wants to do anything. Too many Production Managers right away said 'No', and even though I think we can't make it, I don't want to come down on them like gangbusters. I just want them to know I'll give it a try, and if we can do it, we'll do it. I feel very strongly about that."

SAGAN LEWIS ... "I felt Abby was like family, like a grandfather. He was always full of humor. I never knew the pressure he was under. But when he would come in, he would schmooze with the actors - just a wonderful presence."

And though he is retired, Abby's presence is still felt today, not only for his professionalism and kindness, but for his world famous namesake - "THE ABBY SINGER SHOT".

DICK WOLF ... "He's the only person I know who had a shot named after him."

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "I've been on-location in Europe and Mexico... everywhere you go. The Abby Singer shot is known all over the world."

ABBY SINGER ... "All over the world."

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "It's the next to last shot of the day. Abby, years ago as an assistant coming up in the business used to drive Directors crazy and say 'When are you going to get finished?' He'd look at his watch and say 'My God, we're going into overtime, we've got to wrap.'"

ABBY SINGER ... "That isn't true" (laughs).

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "So the Director would say, 'Well, I've got this one and one more.' And that became the Abby Singer Shot."

ABBY SINGER ... "I was always on top of the Director. We'd be on the back lot, say, and we were going to move a stage. And in television you have a half dozen moves during the day, and I would always say, 'Fellas, this and one more, and we're going to move to Stage Nine,' and they would right away call for the gurneys and transportation, and everybody would start getting ready, and we'd take maybe 10-15 minutes on a move. Then we'd go on (toward lunch) and I'd say the same thing 'This and one more, and we're going to lunch,' then, 'This and one more, and we're going home for a night.' During the course of the day, you could save a Director an hour of time."

BERNIE OSERANSKY ... "He always got the crew well prepared to make the move or to get the next shot ready for the Directors."

NORMAN LLOYD ... "So today, on any set, when people say this is the penultimate shot, this one, and one more, they call it the Abby Singer Shot. (With phony French accent) And in France, they call it the 'Abee Singair!'" (laughs)

As St. Elsewhere wound down its last season, Fontana and company paid tribute to the legendary production genius by title episode #136 "The Abby Singer Show". It was, after all, the next to last episode, that is, "This, and one more."

In recent years, Abby worked for Aaron Spelling, then retired to spend time with Lotte, his wife of twenty years, their three children and one grandchild. Once a month or so, he also manages to meet Norman Lloyd for lunch, and recently, Abby has been volunteering his services to AFI where he mentors to aspiring young production wizards.

According to Abby, he once agreed to portray a patient laying on the St. Eligius O.R. table. It's just too bad that Mark Craig couldn't have performed a cloning procedure, creating for us an exact replica of Singer, so that we could all enjoy Abby clones for hundreds of years to come. It would have been a great bit, with Craig dubbing the operation, the "Abby Singer Surgery", and saying, "Well there you have it... This, and one more!"

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