Forget a few details and for the month of June Melissa Sue Anderson, America's favorite corn queen from "Little House on the Prarie," was a regular Harvard freshman. Ignore the fact that her dress was a little flamboyant, her language a little flamboyant, her language a little cliched. Don't worry that her make-up was thicker than Rustoleum, or that her blue eyes could stop you like a rabbit in front of headlights. So what if she made no move without two directors, three camera operators, light men, sound men, make-up men, script supervisor, innumerable assistants with blaring walkie talkies.
For 20 days of shooting at a $2 million tuition, CBS put her through a Harvard "Freshman Year" in a made-for-television film. The TV movie, which will be aired next fall, is about a girl from Nebraska who comes to Cambridge on hefty scholarship. Struggling for grades to keep her scholarship, toughing out the competition for the Crimson. Anderson asks it all in a found affair with Joel "Silver Spoons" Higgins husband of her expository writing teacher, Loretta (M A S H) Swift.
Some might question the accuracy of this picture of Harvard undergraduate life. But Anderson and her encourage did give the University a glimpse of what television life was like. An army of 40 crew members, 500 extras, five camper vans, six trucks and a catering service appeared throughout the Yard and the Square (Harvard did not allow the network to film interiors so CBS was forced to reconstruct classrooms and dorm rooms at other schools). More than 50 Harvard students got to play pedestrians or crowd members, and several hundred more gawked from the sidelines.
What they saw was an intricate, finely co-ordinated process where a 30-second segment could take several hours of filming. The directors insisted on absolute quiet--which meant, for example, that after closing down Plympton St on Monday for The Crimson scene, they ordered the Adams House construction workers to take a break. They insisted on authenticity--which meant that extras wilted in their sweaters and down jackets in the 90-degree heat pretending it was late fall And they demanded thorough coverage and perfect expression. Which meant, then, that each scene had to be filmed at three or four angles, and that each angle required three or four takes (Even these were skimping on what a theatrical feature might entail.)
One typical scene was filmed last Thursday in mid-afternoon. It seemed simple: Anderson was entering Harvard Yard for her first time; Charles Lang, an interested sophomore showed her to her dorm. But from rehearsal to master shot to the several "coverage" shots, the process stretched out to two hours.
"OK, rolling!" the director shouted. Whatever he said echoed around the neighborhood on the crew's walkie-talkies. Workers stopped digging; gawkers stopped talking; the make-up man stopped waving a fan over Anderson as if she were Cleopatra. Someone drew chalk lines around the actors' feet to mark their positions.
"Background...OK, background action." The extras march by the gate peeking at the camera trying to look casual, "Action."
Anderson: Excuse me, do you know where Holworthy is?
Lang: Yes, it's right over there. Do you need help?
"Cut! Cut!" yelled the director. He took Anderson aside; assistants yelled "Cut! Cut!" into their walkie-talkies.
"Melissa, you're an actress," he scolded, "Be nervous here Remember, let's have feeling on this."
Then again "Rolling! background action! Action!"
Anderson EXCUSE me' (Eyes pleading) Do YOU know where HOLWORTHY is'
Lang Yes, it's right over there Do you need help?