Sol Saks: Creator of Bewitched
Comedy writer Sol Saks only wrote one episode of Bewitched, but has been rolling in the royalty checks long after the players in the cast stopped getting paid for the syndicated shows. Why? Because that one script set in motion a wave that would travel for the next 8 years. Saks created the premise for the show and wrote the pilot episode, I, Darrin, Take This Witch, Samantha. That’s right, he’s the guy that wrote the 24-minute episode that was so ingeniously done it seemed to meld three primary story lines into one show: the courting, the confession, and let’s not forget the infamous dinner party where Samantha meets her nemesis Sheila Sommers.
Saks had an easy time developing the premise for the show. He drew inspiration from the 1942 classic I Married a Witch starring Fredric March and Veronica Lake and Bell, Book, and Candle with James Stewart and Kim Novak. Both movies were stories of typical American men bewitched by young, beautiful witches who had chosen to live in the mortal realm. I Married a Witch was actually based on Thorne Smith’s book The Passionate Witch. Saks discussed the similarities of the Bewitched theme with the two movies in the E! True Hollywood Story: Bewitched when he said that they didn’t have to worry about being sued because Columbia Pictures owned both of the movies, as well as the Screen Gems television division. So, Saks got busy zapping up a script about a pretty witch named Cassandra (later changed to Samantha) and her new husband, Darrin.
In fact, Saks has stated in his book, The Craft of Comedy Writing, that “the idea of a witch living as a mortal…has been used in Greek mythology, in fairy tales, in novels, on the stage, and in motion pictures. The only real originality, I’m quite willing to confess, was that Bewitched was the first to adapt the concept successfully to the television screen.”
Saks’ first choice for the lead actress in Bewitched was the elf-like Tammy Grimes whom Saks had seen in a movie and instantly liked. But casting her would mean that the pilot would be delayed a year as she was committed to doing a musical. Saks was so enchanted that he was willing to wait for her to free up, but the executives at Screen Gems weren’t. Saks recalls that the Ashers (Bill Asher and wife Elizabeth Montgomery) came in to discuss an idea for a series that they developed and that Harry Ackerman handed them the rough draft of Bewitched to take home. They called back a few hours later to accept the offers.
As for the famous "witch twitch" of the nose, Saks says that he had been searching for an “interesting, unique gesture with which Samantha would manifest her magic.” At a meeting, Bill Asher (director in the first year, and later producer of the show) announced that one of his wife’s special talents was that she could twitch her nose. That revelation will go down in TV history as one of the great eureka moments and was immediately incorporated into Samantha's character.
During the time that the script was being sold to ABC, the Ashers announced that they were expecting their first child. Saks and the Screen Gems crew re-wrote parts of the script to avoid showing Montgomery in a maternal way, since the pilot episode featured Samantha’s “honeymoon.” Close-up shots and stand-ins were used as her pregnancy progressed in the first season. Of Montgomery, Saks said, “in an unbelievably short time she was back on stage, and if she hadn’t had an infant to prove it, it would have been difficult to believe the reason for her hiatus.”
Regardless of the quantity of writing that Saks contributed to Bewitched, his name appeared on the credits of every single episode. Saks left the writing on this series in the capable hands of great writers such as Barbara Avedon (who could forget the quicksilver speech she wrote in episode # 2?), Ed Jurist, and Bernard Slade (who went on to write for the Partridge Family and other hit shows), Michael Morris, and Richard Baer. Each contributed greatly to the 254 episodes of Bewitched that we’ve been watching for the past several decades.
Prior to Bewitched, Saks got his start in writing shtick for radio shows as was typical of that time. He attributes his comedy writing career to the fact that he would have done anything to avoid entering the family business and always wanted to write essays for obscure literary magazines. However, he wanted to get paid well, and found his niche as a “joke man,” even though he claims in his book that he wasn’t even the funniest of his two friends when he was growing up!
Saks also had writing credits in the 1966 screen gem called Walk Don’t Run. This is a 4-star comedy set in Japan during the Olympic games. In Cary Grant’s last role in a romantic comedy, he plays cupid to an Olympic athlete and a straight-laced, serious young woman (coincidentally named Samantha) that he shares an apartment with during a housing shortage in Tokyo.
All of this talk about rolling in royalties after penning only one episode may seem like Sol Saks didn’t earn his fame and fortune. This is not true. The man is funny! Saks wrote a clever book in the mid 1980s about his craft. It was updated in 1991 and is most-recently titled Funny Business: The Craft of Comedy Writing. It is a how-to manual for those that aspire to be screenwriters. Using his experiences from creating the premise for Bewitched, and other hit shows, Saks shares his life lessons on dealing with the art of the joke, writer’s block, idea development, and more with aspiring comedy writers. Also, Saks recently appeared on the show Inside TV Land where he shared insight into the creation of Bewitched.
Although Saks did not contribute creatively to another classic TV show, Gilligan’s Island, he watched its genesis as the network supervisor of comedy at ABC. He feels that Gilligan’s Island is “close to the perfect format for a television comedy series.” He likes the idea of seven totally different people thrown together on a deserted island where anything is possible. Hmmm, Saks must have been working with the creators of Survivor this past summer. He definitely knows what sells…
There is a chapter in this book entitled, “Bewitched – Anatomy of a Television Pilot Script.” Unfortunately, Saks does not recall why the heroine’s name was changed from Cassandra to Samantha. But the book does have the pilot script with interesting notes and tidbits about its creation throughout the scenes. It’s interesting to read his notes and things he would like to change in the script. For more information about how this original script differs from the episode, please see The Scripts, the Shows, and Their Differences.
Saks retired and occasionally lectured on his experiences in comedy writing, and he appeared on the E! True Hollywood Story: Bewitched to discuss the creation of the show. In December 2010, he celebrated his 100th birthday with family and friends and he passed away on April 16, 2011.
© 2011 Harpiesbizarre.com. All rights reserved.
Funny Quotes From the Funny Man:
To write comedy–or any other form for that matter–requires a combination of arrogance and humility.
The famous and the beautiful don’t have to be funny, except for their own amusement. We others need to be, if we want to be invited back.
Art is the manipulation of someone else’s imagination.
If you fail, you go down the tubes. So if you succeed, make them [audience] pay. Make them buy you the Mercedes, beg for your autograph, thank you for your kindness, and make up for all past hurts. You’ve earned it.
Don’t try to ad-lib with a comic. He can remember much faster than you can think.
Note: These quotes appear in The Craft of Comedy Writing published by Writer’s Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH. © 1985 by Sol Saks. As with most good books concerning the Bewitched TV show, it is currently out of print, but readily available on the secondary market. It’s well worth the trouble of finding it through a used bookstore.
Sites to See for More
Saks in the 1960s: The Bewitched Years
Saks in the 1960s, pt. 2: Does He Ever Put the Pipe Down?
Saks in 1999: Appearing on the E! True Hollywood Story: Bewitched