God Bless Public Television: Joan Kramer and David Heeley’s IN THE COMPANY OF LEGENDS

God bless public television. The public funded, by-the-bootstraps programming of the ’80s and ’90s, produced a seemingly endless wonderland of high-caliber, star-studded productions that, oh-so-cleverly, had education, not mere entertainments, at its core. From that rich repository of documentaries, docudramas–and of course the ever popular costume drama– wherein names like Ken Burns and Alistair Cooke reign supreme, come two names that, hitherto, might elicit a blank stare even to those of us who warmly remember their shows with great fondness.

From the early ’80s through to the early 2000s’, producer Joan Kramer and director David Heeley brought to American television sets a string of highly entertaining, and deeply informative, Emmy award-winning profiles on the legends of the Classic Hollywood era: James Stewart: A Wonderful Life; The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn; Fonda on Fonda;  Katharine Hepburn: All About Me; Bacall on Bogart (all of which are airing on Turner Classic Movies today, April 7th) to name but a few. A number of the luminaries were still very much alive and spirited at the time, although advancing in years, and Kramer and Heeley were in the right place at the right time to capture everyone from Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, to Katharine Hepburn, to Jimmy Stewart, to Henry Fonda, discussing in intimate detail their own careers as well as their recollections of fellow film brethren.

Their new book In the Company of Legends, which hits book stands on April 16, allows exclusive access to the often dizzying, sometimes mystifying, and always exciting universe that the two documentarians navigated for the better of 30 years.  Edited together by Kramer and Heeley, the pair paints a vivid, larger than life picture of their life spent among the rich and famous, in a joyous and buoyant fashion that never pales, never ceases to surprise, and makes for an absolutely irresistible page-turner to even those with merely a passing interest in Classic Hollywood.  Their energy is palpable, making the 430 page read nothing short of a breeze–and a highly re-readable one at that.

Heeley, an English-born Oxford graduate found himself as an assistant director in New York in the late 1970s, working for the new public television station WNET where the ambitious young Joan Kramer had recently joined on as an associate producer, after having been a booking agent for the recently canceled Dick Cavett Show. Fate threw them together, and Heeley’s friendly but firm bedside manner and Kramer’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to producing made them a natural pair.

As is the case with edited interviews of this nature, well, let’s be honest: we’re really here for the stories. In the Company of Legends does not disappoint.  The you’ve-gotta-be-kidding-me moments are too numerous to mention.

While Katharine Hepburn was busy working with Heeley and Kramer on The Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda introduced her to a young Michael Jackson. The star-struck and soft-spoken pop star spent the weekend with Hepburn who didn’t know who he was, nor did she care: she was only concerned with the fact that the young man didn’t know how to do his laundry. She remedied the situation immediately, taking Jackson to a Laundromat to showed him how to properly fluff and fold.

During the production of Judy Garland: The Concert Years, Heeley and Kramer were determined to get to the bottom of whether or not Liza Minnelli had been fibbing when she declared that her mother used to phone JFK often and the president would ask her to croon the last 8 bars of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to him. Jackie Onassis flatly denied it. Kennedy’s personal secretary upheld it. Caroline Kennedy couldn’t confirm, nor could Edward Kennedy. But Kennedy’s closest aide absolutely attested to it happening–having listened in on the line himself on more than one occasion.

Image via Classic Movie Hub
Johnny Carson, James Stewart and director David Heeley. Image via Classic Movie Hub

And while Heeley and Kramer were in the middle of production on James Stewart: A Wonderful Life, the sudden news of Cary Grant’s death deeply shook them, just as it did the rest of the world. Johnny Carson who had agreed to host the Jimmy Stewart special, had a been a good friend of Grant’s and called Joan Kramer after the news broke:

“Well,” said Carson, “I guess you’ve heard the news.”

“Of course. I’m so sorry, I know you were good friends.”

There was a short pause. “Yes, he was a good friend of mine and I really cared about him. so don’t get upset when I tell you what I thought of saying when you answered the phone.”

“OK, go ahead. I’m sitting down.”

“I wanted to say: I asked Cary Grant to host your show and he dropped dead.

Add in a battle of the balls with Betty Bacall, hobnobbing with Newman and Woodward, stealing paper towels from Frank Sinatra’s bathroom, and possibly the most awkward teatime ever courtesy an aging Bette Davis, and it’s easy to understand why In the Company of Legends delivers much more than you bargained for. And yet, to the credit of the authors, their reflections are always decent and highly respectful. Even less-than-positive encounters (we’re looking at you, Mickey Rooney) are recounted with the fairness and clarity one would expect from seasoned docmentarians.  In other words, Heeley and Kramer are a class act.

Which is why, in spite of the wildly entertaining fare, what truly unites the book is the implicit trust and unflinching bond between the two white-knuckled mavericks who weathered hell and high water and never gave up–yes, even long after the fat lady sang–to realize their vision. Thirty years on, we’re so grateful for their inexorable tenacity, providing us with insights into lives of the legends that we would otherwise have been bereft of.

Pre-order your copy of In the Company of Legends on Amazon today, and tune into TCM tonight to catch a full evening’s lineup of Heeley and Kramer’s most critically acclaimed documentaries.

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