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May 1970 - 'Hollywood Television Theater,' KCET's First Major Drama Series, Debuts

Scene from Steambath
A scene from 'Steambath,' one of the most popular 'Hollywood Television Theater' productions.

In May 1970, the KCET-produced "Hollywood Television Theater," a series of original televised plays and classic dramas, utilizing the station's Hollywood connections to rein in all-star talent, made its debut nationwide on the National Educational Television (NET) network.

The series' premiere production was Saul Levitt's play "The Anderson Trial," directed by George C. Scott and starred William Shatner, Martin Sheen, and Buddy Ebsen, among many other stars. Set just after the Civil War, the play, which dealt with the conflict between conscience and duty, was based on the 1865 court martial of Henry Wirz, a captain in the Confederate army who commanded a prisoner of war camp.

The national Emmy award that "The Anderson Trial" garnered in 1971 showed just what a relatively new public television station broadcasting from the heart of Hollywood could do, and the series soon set the standard for American dramatic productions on public television.

Fifty-four productions of "Hollywood Television Theater" ran from 1970 to 1978, including a stretch of weekly installments running from October 1971 to January 1972. The program also featured 10 productions directed by Norman Lloyd, including "Awake and Sing" (1972), "Carola" (1973), and "Actor," the final "Hollywood Television Theater" production in 1978.

By far the most-watched, highest-acclaimed, and even most-controversial production was Bruce Jay Friedman's "Steambath," which aired in April 1973. The Burt Brinkerhoff-directed installment, which starred Bill Bixby, Valerie Perrine, and Jose Perez, featured an experimental, unconventional perspective of human values, spirituality, and beliefs. Set in a Turkish-style public steambath -- a metaphoric depiction of limbo - most of the cast was clad in nothing but towels, and some scenes even barely skirted broadcast standards for nudity. Even decades later, "Steambath" videotapes were an in-demand item from KCET's VideoFinders home video ordering service, which operated from 1989 to 2003.

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