Wednesday, October 15, 2008
"The Guru", one of The Mod Squad's greatest episodes, benefits from a solid script by Leigh Chapman, inventive direction by legendary Richard Rush and an amazing out of sight guest star list including counter-culture icons Max Julien and I.J. Jefferson as well as future star Dabney Coleman.
Focusing on a underground San Francisco paper called "The Guru" that is bombed as the episode begins, the twelfth show of the first season gets off to literally an explosive start and never lets up in its fifty minute running time. While perhaps some of the situations and topics might now seem dated, the show’s focus on the corruptibility of the press seems more topical than ever, and "The Guru" more than holds up nearly forty years after its initial airdate in December of 68.
Most famous for his 1980 Oscar nominated film The Stunt Man, Richard Rush proves to be an ideal and inspired choice as a Mod Squad director and his fresh and inventive hand guides the episode to previously unreached heights. Rush’s skilled direction pushes the medium as far as it can go here, and at its best it has an almost documentary feel about it, as in the explosive student riot sequence in the middle of the episode that climaxes in a bracing series of still photographs.
Rush was no stranger to the counter-culture himself as he had just come off directing the terrific Roger Corman produced Psych-Out (a real undervalued gem from 68 starring Susan Strasberg), a film that had also featured Max Julien in a smaller role. Rush, had in fact, become one of the key players in the sixties cinematic counter-culture movement specifically with his biker pictures (which included the Jack Nicholson vehicle Hells Angels on Wheels from 67) and his films would have a huge impact on many including Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, whose Easy Rider seems unthinkable without Rush's earlier experiments.
"The Guru" unfortunately marks the only time the talented if less than prolific Rush would work on The Mod Squad. Within a year he had the unforgettable Getting Straight in theaters, and that alone should have marked him as one of the premiere directors of his generation. Sadly, despite the vocal support of everyone from Ingmar Bergman to Stanley Kubrick to Francois Truffaut, the career of Richard Rush remains sadly undervalued. His work on The Mod Squad, while hindered by the hour long Television formula, is a minor triumph and it belongs among the top tiers of progressive programs from the late sixties.
Actress turned screenwriter Leigh Chapman is also worth celebrating and her work on "The Guru" remains one of her best television achievements. The North Carolina born Chapman started out as a television actress in the early sixties before graduating to screenwriting by the mid-part of the decade. She remains best known for the incredible double shot of Truck Turner and Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, both from 1974. Her script for "The Guru", while filled with many of the sometimes dated slang that one would expect from a show in 1968, is loaded with lots of subtleties, subtext and heart. Thankfully the producers of the show and Rush were able to delivery a cast to make the best of Chapman's solid script.
The legendary Julien wasn’t the only one from Rush’s reliable and wild former crews on hand. Also on board playing the head of the underground paper is handsome Adam Roarke, an actor who had appeared in both Hells Angels on Wheels as well as Psych-Out. A reliable actor, Roarke would continue to have an intriguing career in television and film (including more work with Rush) before his untimely death in 1996. As the over ambitious and corruptible newspaper publisher in "The Guru", Roarke gives a slightly sinister and very effective multi-layered performance.
Playing Roarke’s sometimes girlfriend and secretary is Jane Elliot, a Daytime Emmy nominated actress, who many people will recognize from her performance opposite Elvis Presley, Barbara McNair and Mary Tyler Moore in William Graham’s undervalued Change of Habit from 1969. She’s fine in a role that could have been aggressively over the top in the hands of a lesser actress.
I’ve written on the legendary Julien here before so I will leave it by just mentioning that he turns in his usual solid work here, with special mention going to a couple of really effective scenes he has with Clarence Williams III's Linc.
Rounding out the cast is future Golden Globe winner Dabney Coleman, whose just great here as Elliot’s close-minded brother, and a young Barry Williams in a one scene role about a year before he brought the character of Greg Brady to life in the beloved series The Brady Bunch .
Head turning former dancer I.J. Jefferson also appears briefly in the episode. She had also appeared in both Hells Angels on Wheels and Psych-Out for Rush and had just made a huge splash in Bob Rafelson’s Head, billed as ‘lady pleasure’ in one of that masterful film’s funniest and most off the wall scenes. Jefferson isn’t giving much to do in "The Guru", but fans of sixties cinema will instantly recognize her in her brief moments on screen.
Our regular cast is fine as well, particularly Lipton who essays a very difficult scene with a conniving Roarke and Tige Andrews makes a big impression when he admits that not only does he read "The Guru" but he supports it as well.
While it is hard to deny that many of The Mod Squad's episodes feel simply like Hollywood's view of the youth culture of the late sixties and early seventies, "The Guru" has a refreshingly knowing and authentic feel about it. Thanks to the extremely skilled and confident direction of Richard Rush and an exciting group of actors, "The Guru" remains an extremely bracing and compulsively watchable hour of television nearly four decades after it first premiered.