STAGE TO SCREENS: Twelve Angry Men on TV, Screen, and Broadway

By Michael Buckley
24 Oct 2004

The role which has given him the most satisfaction, thus far, "is the baseball coach in Rounding Third. It was the most difficult thing I've done; it was well-received. I felt I had accomplished something special." And Robert Clohessy feels something special about his current assignment as Juror #6. "It's a great group of actors, and here I am, at 47, in my first Broadway play."

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The TV cast, directed by Franklin Schaffner, consisted of Norman Feld (later Fell, Juror #1), John Beal (#2), Franchot Tone (#3), Walter Abel (#4), Lee Philips (#5), Bart Burns (#6), Paul Hartman (#7), Robert Cummings (#8), Joseph Sweeney (#9), Edward Arnold (#10), George Voskovec (#11), and Will West (later Larkin Ford, #12). The actor playing the Court Officer did not receive onscreen credit, but a book of Reginald Rose teleplays lists the part as having been played by Vincent Gardenia. The show was nominated for an Emmy as Individual Program. Cummings, Schaffner, and Reginald Rose won Emmys for Actor in a Single Performance, Director and Writing, respectively.

Attracted to the property, Henry Fonda was pleased to learn that Rose had 20 extra minutes of script that had to be cut, in order to fit the "Studio One" (50-minute) time slot and could be easily restored for a movie version (which ran 95 minutes). When he could not interest a studio in making a film, Fonda decided to produce the drama himself. It was his sole producing venture, and he shared that credit with Rose, who wrote the screenplay.



Sidney Lumet, a stage and TV veteran, was hired to make his feature-film directorial debut. Filmed in Manhattan in 20 days (some sources state 17), the budget was $340,000. Fonda starred as Juror #8, and the remaining cast included Martin Balsam (#1), John Fiedler (#2), Lee J. Cobb (#3), E.G. Marshall (#4), Jack Klugman (#5), Edward Binns (#6), Jack Warden (#7), Joseph Sweeney (reprising his TV role as #9), Ed Begley (#10), George Voskovec (the other carryover, #11), Robert Webber (#12), Rudy Bond (Judge), James Kelly (Guard), Bill Nelson (Court Clerk), and John Savoca (Accused).

The actors rehearsed it as they would a play before filming began. United Artists, who had put up the money, decided to give "Twelve Angry Men" a wide commercial release, rather than the art-house-type release that "Marty" (which had won the 1955 Oscar as Best Picture) had received.

It opened in Manhattan at the Capitol, Broadway and 51st Street, which seated over 4,600, and closed a week later, before being released to local theatres. Critics gave it favorable reviews and it went on to win prizes in Berlin and countries such as Australia, Japan and Italy. The film received three Academy Award nominations (Picture, Director and Screenplay), but won none. It barely broke even and there were no profits; Fonda never received his deferred salary.

In 1997, William Friedkin directed a cable-TV adaptation, which featured Courtney B. Vance (#1), Ossie Davis (#2), George C. Scott (#3), Armin Mueller-Stahl (#4), Dorian Harewood (#5), James Gandolfini (#6), Tony Danza (#7), Jack Lemmon (#8), Hume Cronyn (#9), Mykelti Williamson (#10), Edward James Olmos (#11), William Petersen (#12), Mary McDonnell (Judge), Tyress Allen (Guard) and Douglas Spain (Accused).

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Thanks to Jane Klain, Manager of Research Services for the Museum of Television and Radio, I was able to view the original teleplay, which was reconstructed in 2003. The first half had been available, but not the second. Following a defense attorney's demise, his daughter found a copy of the "Studio One" presentation that her father had requested at the time of its telecast, and donated it to the Museum.

Only six of the cast are billed in the opening credits: Robert Cummings, Franchot Tone, Edward Arnold and Paul Hartman, John Beal and Walter Abel. The end credits read "With George Voskovec, Joseph Sweeney, Bart Burns, Noman Fell, Lee Phillips, Will West." The teleplay holds up very well, although the ending is not as well done as in the movie. Cummings is surprisingly good in a dramatic role and deserved his Emmy Award. (Fonda's film performance is superior, because he was a better actor.) Tone plays Juror #3 in a more sinister way than did Lee J. Cobb in the film. A much more forceful figure, Cobb gave the role tremendous impact. At one point in the drama, which was telecast live, the front of a camera appears on the screen very briefly.

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Larkin Ford (then Will West) has only fond memories of the original "Twelve Angry Men" experience. "We had two weeks-plus of rehearsals, down at the Phoenix Theatre on Twelfth Street and Second Avenue. There was a rehearsal room upstairs. There were technical problems, because the action was confined to one room. We shot it live, with two cameras; the actors had to dodge the cameras.

"Bob Cummings was splendid. He usually played roles of a lighter nature. George Voskovec and Joseph Sweeney who I thought gave the best performance were the only two to repeat their roles in the film version. Edward Arnold was supposed to, but he had a [fatal] heart attack [and was replaced by Ed Begley]. Arnold was one of my favorites; I liked him in the movies."

Ford remembers that following rehearsals, "Several of us would take a [Checker] cab to Midtown, and when we'd get to 48th Street or so, Bob Cummings would say, 'I have to get out.' He'd hop out, and say, 'See you fellas tomorrow [and beat contributing to the fare, which increased five cents every so often].' The rest of us would laugh.

"Norman Feld became a good friend of mine. He had a very nice career [especially as Stanley Roper in the sitcom "Three's Company"]. I got to know Franchot Tone, who was very serious-minded, an intellectual-type actor. Frank Schaffner was a terrific director." Ford was not fond of the 1997 cable-TV version of "Twelve Angry Men," mostly "because of the profanity. I don't think it was necessary. I doubt Reginald Rose could have been happy about that."

The California-born actor attended Harvard and was a member of the Brattle Theatre Company "for seven years. We did the classics." He shares wonderful stories of Betty Field, Blanche Yurka, Julie Haydon and Vanessa Redgrave. The latter, Ford considers, "along with Brando, Olivier and John Gielgud, the greatest actors of the twentieth century."

About a year after the "Twelve Angry Men" telecast, he had to change his name from Will West, because there was already an actor by that name in Equity. Larkin Shackelford had been his grandfather and he shortened the surname. The role that's brought Ford the most satisfaction is "On Golden Pond. Although he wishes that he'd been asked to audition for the Joseph Sweeney role in the new production, Larkin Ford is still happy: "I've been invited to the opening night."

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com, and is the author of the book "Between Takes (Interviews with Hollywood Legends)," to be published in 2005.