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Alan J Levi’s interest in film dates back to his youth in St. Louis. By the time he entered college, he had already made 43 short films. At Northwestern University, he studied electronic engineering and drama.
Best known to Battlestar Galactica fans as the director of Gun on Ice Planet Zero, his actual BG directing credits must include about half or slightly more of the premiere. Filming on the three-hour premiere, at the time the most expensive three hours in television history, was around half completed under the leadership of director Richard Colla when BG executive producer Glen Larson called the unsuspecting Levi to his office. Levi recalls Larson “said to me he wasn’t happy with the way the movie was going and would I take it over. I was reticent to do that. He said he was going to replace Richard one way or the other and he knew my reputation and he and I knew each other, and so….” Asked why Colla was being replaced, Levi said, “From what I understand, Glen wanted things done a certain way and Richard said, ‘you hired me as director and I’m going to do it the way I think it’s best. And he did some great stuff, obviously. Richard is a very talented guy.” After his meeting with Larson, Levi considered the offer for a day or two, then had to tell Larson he couldn’t do it. “My parents, who lived in St. Louis, had never been out here since I came out, since I really started directing and being successful, and we were very close. I had made a date for them to come out and spend a week with me,” which, as it happened, was the week after Levi would have taken over directing the premiere. “I said to Glen, I really can’t, my family means more to me than anything.” Larson, however, was not to be dissuaded, and, according to Levi, “He said, ‘I tell you what. I will put my limousine in your hands for the entire week that they’re here. We’ll pick them up at the airport, we’ll chauffeur them around, anyplace you want to go, anyplace they want to go, we’ll pick them up and bring them to the studio, the whole bit.’ And I thought, well, this could be kind of a kick for my folks! So I said OK, you’ve got a deal.”
Levi’s first day of shooting proved an exciting one, involving a nighttime reshoot of the escape from the casino sequence. As Levi explains, “Glen didn’t like the way the exterior of the casino was shot, just didn’t have any great feeling of murder and escape and such. That was my first night of shooting, and everybody’s looking at me like I’m the new kid on the block and they’re going, ‘you want me to do what?’ And I’m screaming through the megaphone and people are running back and forth and this and that and the cameras are racing from here to there…well, I wore everybody out, but it turned out to be a good sequence. It did kind of put a feeling of respect for me in people’s minds as to what I was after.” There were no problems with the cast and crew because Levi had previously asked Larson to explain the situation to them.
There also was no problem with Richard Colla. Levi called Colla and they talked the situation over. “It wasn’t easy but it was cordial.” Levi assured Colla that he would not cut Colla’s footage, and when the time came to edit the episode, Colla edited his footage, Levi his, and then Larson edited a final cut, which is standard procedure in the entertainment industry.
Credit after the episode was more complicated, and Levi did not receive any screen credit for his work in spite of the fact that at least half of the aired footage was his. The credit issue went into arbitration before the Director’s Guild and the decision was made as it was because, as Levi explains, “the Guild basically felt that Richard had prepped the whole thing which was probably six or seven weeks of prep and then shot the first half and I had come in and shot the second half. They awarded me one third of all residuals but no screen credit adhering to what at that time they were being very strict on, which was dual-director credits on anything on television. They’ve slackened that up since then,” he added.
Levi also shot a lot of the scenes on the bridge set, which was one of the last sets completed. He recalled, “It was marvelous to shoot, I mean it was really accessible. A lot of it was shot on a crane where you can get the arm all the way over or in from the side. It was great.”
Asked if ABC tinkering had affected his work on the pilot at all, Levi replied, “No…it would affect me only in that, if ABC saw the dailies and they wanted to tinker with it a little bit and we had to go back and reshoot or something like that I would get the script or pages or whatever and have to go back or alter…we were always getting new pages and new scenes, by new I mean rewritten ones, as we were shooting, so I don’t think that’s unusual.”
After finishing the premiere, Levi immediately went to work on Gun on Ice Planet Zero, the original second episode of the series. The director of photography for the premiere did not want to continue working on the series, so Levi was able to recommend to Larson Enzo Martinelli, who, according to Levi, “was my director of photography on probably 30 or 35 episodes of Invisible Man, Gemini Man, Bionic Woman, he had done all of those with me. That makes it terrific, the director having his own director of photography, which normally only happens on movies of the week, not episodic television.”
Gun on Ice Planet Zero was based on an early one hour script by John Ireland titled Crossfire. Asked how it had become the basis for the two hour Gun, Levi said, “The show if I remember right was a little long. They would have had to cut about 25 pages out of the script. Now once they got into the budgeting of it with the big ice planet and everything else…it was easier and more efficient to go to the 2-hour format.”
Interestingly, the most difficult part of filming Gun was dealing with the heat. Levi remembers, “The wardrobe was quite heavy. Earl Bellamy, who was a friend of mine, was also Head of Production at Universal Studios and I said to Earl, ‘Earl, you’ve got to do me a favor. You got to let me rent two air conditioners for that stage. The entire crew are dressed up in these parkas. And if I can’t cool that stage down to say, 50 or 55 degrees, we’re never going to get this thing shot because people are going to be sweating themselves to death!’ And so he said, ‘Let’s see how it goes the first couple of days.’ Well, the makeup guy must have gone through 400 boxes of Kleenex the first day! Every time we were ready to roll we had to quit because everybody wore these plastic masks. Well, people would sweat, they would frost up, and it was just impossible the first couple of days. I started shooting on Wednesday, and on Friday afternoon Earl called me and said, ‘the second air conditioner is on its way,’ so we hooked it up Friday night and to my recollection it was right between 50 and 55 degrees by Monday morning. And what we did is we told the whole crew, ‘wear your parkas, crew,’ so the entire crew were wearing parkas and things that at 50 degrees would keep them comfortable and made the filming immensely easier to commence and to keep going. When you’ve got a 2-hour movie and you’ve got 24 days to do it, you’ve got to do six or seven pages a day, six or seven pages a day is almost an episodic schedule and you can’t shut down every two minutes because you’ve got perspiration running down people’s noses.”
The second problem with Gun was dealing with the artificial snow. “We had probably 15 or 20 what are called sieves on the ceiling that held this plastic snow which is like a cornflake. And it was constantly showering down on us. We all had to wear masks with regulators, because you did not want to inhale that plastic. And some of us wore full masks because it was easier for us to keep the snow out of our eyes as well. So the entire crew was running around with parkas and masks on, as is the cast, and I’d yell across to Enzo, ‘mumblemumblemumble!’ and he’d go, ‘Take the mask off and tell me what you want!’ I would say that those were the most difficult two items to overcome.” Problems aside, filming went smoothly. “Filming, now, that went really marvelous, just great. The cast was terrific and the sets were great. It was a whole stage, the entire stage, big stage, rigged with mountains and snow and caves and all kinds of stuff. We did matte jobs where a blue screen was placed above us at certain times and the snow was coming down and we’ve have Cylon ships racing overhead and firing and we blew up things in the snow which was quite fun. Of course,” Levi added, “that’s where I met Don Bellisario and now I’ve done 66 shows with him.”
Asked about his relationship with producer/director Bellisario, Levi said, “He’s probably one of the most creative guys I’ve ever known. He is fair but difficult to work with. By difficult I mean demanding and the best. I have the utmost respect and love for that man.” After BG, Bellisario and Levi worked on Magnum P.I. “I told Don, ‘I’ll direct ’em, but I only want to direct your scripts!’ And he said, ‘oh, OK.’ So I started directing his scripts, only after about seven shows I had to renege because he wasn’t writing enough! He used to call me up, he’d say, ‘Come on down here, I want to read you the first act.’ I’d sit and read, I’d come to the end of the first act and I’d look up and I’d go, ‘This is terrific! Where are you going with it?’ He’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ I’d go, ‘What do you mean, you don’t know?!’ He said, ‘I don’t know. Thanks. Here, give it back. I’ll call you back when I’m done with Act Two’.” About Bellisario’s talent as a screenwriter, Levi said, “He definitely wrote the best Magnum scripts. I want to tell you, he still writes the best scripts. If I know Don’s writing a script I know I’m not going to have any problems.” Levi remembers working on Magnum fondly. “Magnum was definitely the most fun of all of them to shoot. The crew on Magnum was terrific, obviously the location was fantastic. I loved to work with the cast, each and every one of them was great, the scripts were good. It was just a fun show. There were no inside fights, no ego problems.” Asked if there will be a Magnum reunion show, Levi said, “They’re talking about it now.”
Today Levi is a frequent director on Don Bellisario’s long running hit series JAG, a series that in its early days had its share of problems. “It’s one of the few shows that’s ever been canceled and picked up by another network.” Asked why JAG has proven so successful, Levi cited, “I think it’s the writing, and Don is relentless. He demands the best from everybody.” Levi also credited the popularity of lead actors David James Elliot and Catherine Bell, plus a strong supporting cast. Levi enjoys the diversity of scripts he’s been able to direct on JAG. “I’ll just go over the last year, OK? Last year I made a film that allowed me to go onto an active aircraft carrier at sea (the USS Stennis) and shoot for three days. I’ve been a pilot for 36 years but what I learned, what I experienced on board that ship was incredible. I literally had to learn the workings of the ship before I even got on it, for what we wanted to film and how I could film it and under what conditions because we didn’t take over the ship to film, we were there to film what was happening on the ship, we had to abide by their rules and regulations and schedules. So I did that. Then I did a film that was on the birthing of a baby. And then I did a film that had to do with satellites. It’s incredible.”
The US Navy and US Marine Corps obviously take an interest in JAG. Asked if the armed services cooperate in the filming, Levi said, “They do if they like the script, and the producers have to submit the script to the Navy all the time because we do utilize their stock footage of aircraft, go film on their bases, with the Marines. I’ve been down to Camp Pendleton quite a bit. So we submit our scripts to them and if there isn’t anything in there they object to then we get their sanction and we work with them. If there is a touchy subject and they don’t want it we certainly have the right to continue.” Asked if the Navy had objected to scripts, Levi said, “Yes.” Asked if this happened often, he hastened to say, “No, no. They’ve been very touchy about the homosexual aspect of some of the shows…there was one just recently that the producers did not get their sanction on.” The Navy and Marines are aware, however, that JAG helps encourage enlistment. And the fact that Don Bellisario is a former Marine himself has also helped.
Levi revealed that his friend Ed McMahon is a big fan of JAG. “Ed was a Marine pilot and he watches every show and he calls me and says, ‘Boy, you were right on the edge with that one, weren’t you!’ and we talk about it a lot.”
Responding to a comment that Glen Larson has not been nearly as successful as Don Bellisario, particularly lately, Levi compared and contrasted several well-known producers: “You know, there’s a niche for everybody. He had great ideas without the ability to carry them through. He’s a great idea man. If you know the history of him, you know he created a lot of shows and did not stay with the shows. Don is not only a great idea man, but he can carry them out. If you take a look at all the people, we were all buddies over there (at Universal), Bellisario, Steven Bochco, Steven Cannell, all successful. Cannell is just as successful as they are, but he fills a different niche. He went off and did the lower budget, very commercial shows, and was terrifically successful. He’s now writing books. The most successful man in this entire industry never did the type of shows Bellisario did, but Aaron Spelling has done 4039 hours of television! But he fills a different niche. David Wolper did nothing but quality shows. Don Bellisario does nothing but quality shows. Glen went on to do cartoon shows.”
But before Glen Larson went on to do what Levi aptly described as “cartoon shows,” there was Battlestar Galactica, a show of quite another caliber. Asked if that was because others, Don Bellisario or Leslie Stevens, possibly, had had more input into it, Levi immediately responded with this revelation: “Well, Leslie Stevens wrote the original script. Leslie was one of my best friends. I do know that Leslie had told me at one time way before he ever got into the script that he had this great idea for a script that he was going to take to Glen Larson and talk about. Now whether in a court of law that would mean that Leslie came up with it and took it to Glen and Glen said, ‘Fine, we’re going to co-do it’ or not, I can’t tell you. I wasn’t there.”
Levi remembers working with the BG cast fondly. One who he had the opportunity to work with later at length was Jane Seymour. “I did a slew of Dr. Quinns. We met back then and became friends and when we started doing Dr. Quinn it was like a reunion. She’s the most terrific and professional lady I’ve ever known.”
Lorne Greene became an especial favorite of Levi’s. “Nobody was as great to work with as Lorne was. Lorne and I became good friends. It was a pleasure to have known that man. He was very understated and always in command, always in control.”
Of Terry Carter, Levi recalled, “Terry was also fun to work with. I like Terry a lot. He’s a lovely man.”
About Richard Hatch, Levi said, “I enjoyed working with him a lot. I know that he would get upset at times with the intent of scenes or what he had to do more than the other people around him, but he was great to work with. He was professional, he knew his lines, he was always right there, he came up with some good ideas.”
Dirk Benedict proved Richard’s temperamental opposite, according to Levi. “Dirk was easy going, easy to work with. Had a very involved personal life! I do remember that a lot of times he would ask to get off early or come in late. This was Dirk’s first thing, so he was basking in it, he was just having a ball. He was a young star and he was eating it up and using it wherever he went and not unkindly, I don’t mean unkindly, he was just really enjoying his stardom and the show. He always wanted the show to be better. But he was also fun. Always terrific to get along with, talk to, have a beer with.” Levi felt that the differences between Richard and Dirk helped the show. “What was good is that he and Richard were not the same peas in the same pod and I think that’s what made their relationship work because they always disagreed, or most of the time. I don’t mean personally, I mean on the show, their characters. They were best buddies but one of them was always trying to argue the other one out of doing something. My opinion was, in augmenting the character with the real person, is that it was a real easy thing to do because they were different characters. I found that from a director’s point of view to be a real advantage.”
Remembering the late John Colicos, Levi laughed. “John…John was marvelous. He was pompous and grand and always on stage. That voice of his alone…but he was fine to work with, but he was larger than life. You couldn’t sit down with him like you could Lorne and just sit and chat…well, you could, but you felt as if you were talking to an image rather than a real person! He was very grand. He carried his position from his writing onto his person. He very seldom went out of character! And I did bump into John at times afterwards and he was just as senatorial then as he was during the show. He was a very much larger than life person.”
Levi is back at work this season directing new episodes of JAG. Asked how long he plans to continue working, he replied, “As long as I love it. I still love it.”

2000, Susan J. Paxton

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