Apr 192017

E. Michael Burke

We were still in Italy when Mike Burke, the head of CBS Europe, asked me to evaluate a pilot film made by David Schoenbrun, the Paris bureau chief. David very much liked himself and his job. When David summoned government officials he had himself announced as le télévision americain: he was all three networks in one.

The Prime Minister of France had changed 22 times since the liberation. To talk to America was important for any leader of France. David presented himself as the doorknob to America. I saw David close a Head of State in a CBS News clothes closet. Schoenbrun did an introduction; nodded to an aide who opened the door. On the second nod the released Premier came to the interview table.

In that turbulent period Schoenbrun’s knowledge of France was extensive, His book Ainsi Va La France (As France Goes), became a best seller in that country, and a basic text in American college political science courses.

He knew his beat. He just didn’t know when to stop.

Schoenbrun had secured CBS funds to make a pilot he would host: Meet Me at Maxim’s.  His documentary opened with a parade of beautiful models, and a tease stating, “This very Vietnamese doctor is on the verge of curing cancer.” As backdrop, at Maxim’s plush tables, were Jeanne Moreau, Michele Morgan and Sacha Guitry.

It was too bad that the middle camera of the three camera was slightly out of focus—but this was a pilot made only to sell to the New York executives.

At the Studios of Boulogne Marlon Brando was playing a Nazi officer in the film version of The Young Lions by Irwin Shaw. Shaw had visited the set.  David persuaded both men to meet him at Maxim’s for a dual celebrity interview. But Irwin Shaw was not a pleasant celebrity.  He was angry with Brando.

“You are playing that Nazi sympathetically!” said the writer.

Brando said, “I’m finding the human qualities in a villain.”

“I wrote the character, and he doesn’t have any fucking human qualities!”

“I can’t play a cartoon!”

Even though the middle camera covering both men was blurred, it was evident that a news-making fight between celebrities was about to happen on screen. It would have guaranteed success with the programmers in New York.

Alas, there’d be no news, because at that moment the correspondent stepped in. He analyzed the news before it happened.

“It seems to this reporter that this is an age-old argument between the written and spoken word,” said David.

The two principals stopped talking and glared at each other.

David continued his overview. The viewer ached to see Brando and Shaw go at each other. But to David the meaning was more important than the experience.

Because the pilot was too long, David’s producer cut the interview with the Vietnamese doctor who might have had a cure for cancer. When the screening was over Mike Burke turned to me.

“What do you think?”

“Burn the print and burn the negative.”

“What will I tell Schoenbrun?”

“Tell him he’ll lose his job at CBS News if it’s shown in New York.”

That’s what Burke did. David was sent to a hospital and given the French cure for hysteria—a week of coma induced by large doses of seconal. The correspondent was furious with me.

Burke said that if we moved to Paris he could give me some freelance jobs. He’d pay for the move. I found out why later.

Wife, child, cat and baggage left Naples for France.



E. Michael Burke, undated photo: http://www.veterantributes.org/TributeDetail.php?recordID=1064