• ‘Helter Skelter’ an April Fool

‘Helter Skelter’ an April Fool

Apr. 1 – A poster arrived from CBS last week proclaiming in jagged, blood-red letters that “Helter Skelter” would be shown in two parts, tonight and Friday night. Then KNXT yelled “April fool!” or words to that effect. The local station — after so much management vacillation and indecision that all the TV weekly listings are wrong — decided not to run the four-hour film until after the June 8 primary.

As you must know, “Helter Skelter” is Vincent Bugliosi’s account of the investigation and prosecution of members of the so-called Manson family for a grisly series of 1969 murders that included the mass slayings at the Benedict Canyon home of actress Sharon Tate. Bugliosi’s best-selling book, written with Curt Gentry, was adapted by JP Miller for this film, produced and directed by Tom Gries for Lorimar Productions, producers of The Waltons. Bugliosi, the chief prosecutor of the case, is running for district attorney and it was presumably KNXT’s feeling that showing the movie here might be construed as influencing the election. Bugliosi cried “Foul,” pointing out that the Federal Communications Commission ruled that the film would not violate the equal-time provision for political campaigns and KNXT was thus exercising “arbitrary censorship.”

Maybe. But the four-hour film, which I saw a couple of weeks ago in one long, stomach-turning gulp, has Bugliosi as its hero and he’s as gallant and as forthright and as dedicated as any Galahad in his dogged, determined crusade to bring these wayward killers to justice. Vincent Bugliosi could ask for no better election poster than this movie and the skillful manner in which he is portrayed by a fine young actor named George DiCenzo. There’s restraint and dignity in the performance in sharp counterpoint to Steve Railsback’s haunting portrait of that glittery-eyed, hairy “Jesus” of the clan: Charles Manson. Yet it was neither Manson nor the fleeting glimpses of the bloody crimes that I found revolting — it was the pretty girls who committed murder and who told about it in such calm, matter-of-fact tones that they could have been describing a Saturday night double date on Happy Days.

In another, more serious development on “Helter Skelter,” Don McGannon, head of the powerful Westinghouse Broadcasting Corp., rejected the film for the two Westinghouse stations that are the CBS affiliates in San Francisco and Pittsburgh. Noting that “the Manson tragedy was one of the most publicized incidents of human depravity,” McGannon said he found no compelling reason to recount it. He acknowledged that “explicit presentation” was minimized but said he found conduct and attitude of people in “descriptive statements” extremely offensive. To which producer-director Gries (“Migrants,” “QB VII,”) angrily replied in the trade press that McGannon seemed to have missed the point that “the Manson family and their 35 murders were not an isolated phenomenon in our society but a symptom of an illness which we had best identify and isolate…”

The CBS network has had its concerns about “Helter Skelter” and for a time the film was placed in a kind of off-schedule limbo. Then, quite suddenly for such a heavy project, it was jerked off the shelf and scheduled — at a time, coincidentally, when CBS ratings are sagging badly. Instead of the four-hour film, KNXT is offering two TV movies that first played on NBC — “The Badge and the Cross” with George Kennedy tonight, a pedestrian film, and the excellent version of John Steinbeck’s “The Harness” with Lorne Greene and Julie Sommars on Friday. We’ll get “Helter Skelter” around June 10 and 11. Right in the middle of reruns, it’ll be the only show in town…


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