“Most people , I believe, initially shun jury duty. The summons always seems to come at the least opportune time, and one might go kicking and screaming.”
Introduction, Twelve Angry Men, Penguin Books
Some writers begin with character, some with a situation, some from theme, but today we’ll look at a writer who once started with setting. A setting most try to avoid—the courtroom.
The first time I stepped foot in a courtroom I was 18 years old and fighting a traffic ticket. It was intimidating, and stimulating to the senses. And it was made all the sweeter in I presented my case, showed some photographs, and won. I was relieved and the police officer even gave me a pat on the back when it was over. That was a good day and left a positive impression of the legal process. My next time in court was a wake-up call.
I was a 22-year-old film school student when I was given a ticket in North Hollywood for what I believed was a mistake of perception on the police officer’s part. I took pictures once again and was confident that the judge would understand the situation and rule in my favor. And he might have, except I didn’t factor in one thing—that the police officer would lie. I was stunned. The judge believed his story, I lost, and the cop called me a punk as we walked out of the building. My hands shook as I drove back to my apartment in Burbank, constantly looking in my rearview mirror.
After that day I started to listen to those who complained of police improprieties. Yes, Virginia, there really are good cops and bad cops. (And good doctors, bad doctors, good money managers, bad money managers…) Sooner or later you realize we all live outside the garden. Once your eyes are opened, it doesn’t take much to realize the depth of depravity in the world.
But fortunately we live in a country where in general the law and the courts seek the truth. The water may get a little muddy, and it may not always be found, but truth and justice are the goal. And that leads us to Reginald Rose and what led him to write the classic story 12 Angry Men as a successful teleplay (for which Rose won an Emmy), play, and Oscar-nominated screenplay and movie. (In 2005 , the play also won an Tony for “Best Revival of a Play.”)
Rose began writing plays as a teenager and sold his first teleplay when he was 30. Four years later he wrote 12 Angry Men as a one hour teleplay for Studio One and its popularity grew into the play and the 1957 film starring Henry Fonda directed by Sidney Lumet. (A great study for independent filmmakers because the bulk of the movie takes place in one room.) In 1997, another TV version was made starring George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon and Edward James Olmos and would win a collection of Emmy, DGA, SAG, and Golden Globe awards.
And what was the impetus for the story that would go on to win so many awards and be performed so much? A court case where Reginald Rose was part of the jury.
”It was such an impressive, solemn setting in a great big wood-paneled courtroom, with a silver-haired judge. It knocked me out. I was overwhelmed. I was on a jury for a manslaughter case, and we got into this terrific, furious, eight-hour argument in the jury room. I was writing one-hour dramas for ‘Studio One’ then and I thought, wow, what a setting for a drama.”
1997 interview with The Daily News.
I don’t know if Rose looked at his jury duty as a pain or a civic duty but I do know that it was that it resulted in a story that was the pinnacle of his career. And since today is Memorial Day let me say that since Rose was a veteran I’d like to think that he, to borrow Mamet’s phrase, saw himself an “essential component of American Democracy.”
Rose enlisted in the Army in 1942 after Pearl Harbor and served in the Philippines and Japan as a First Lieutenant until 1946.
He was nominated for a total of six Emmys winning three and belongs to mentioned with his TV contemporaries Paddy Chayefsky and Rod Serling.
So the next time you get that dreaded jury duty request, remember Reginald Rose and 12 Angry Men.
Twelve Angry Men (Play published by Penguin Books with David Mamet intro)
12 Angry Men (50th Anniversary DVD starring Henry Fonda)
Twelve Angry Men (L.A. Theatre Works CD)
Twelve Angry Men (DVD of original 1954 Studio One production)
Scott W. Smith
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