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The Paper Chase

“The study of law is something new and unfamiliar to most of you, unlike any other schooling you have ever known before. You teach yourselves the law, but I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush and, if you survive, you leave thinking like a lawyer.”
–Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. in The Paper Chase

Hart and Kingsfield

Easily one of the most intelligent series ever on American television, The Paper Chase focuses on first-year law students at a prestigious northeastern university.  The students are in awe… and occasionally in terror… of Professor Kingsfield (John Houseman), who teaches their course in contract law.  He is demanding, sarcastic, overbearing, and yet one of the most principled men you’d ever meet.  He holds his charges’ professional futures in his hands, a responsibility he takes extremely seriously.  He’s the best legal mind in the country, and he’ll challenge every single student each and every day to make them the best lawyers possible.  And in addition to learning the law, they just might learn something about life, and about themselves….

The biggest challenge is for new student James T. Hart (James Stephens), who’s left his mid-western home to learn from his idol Kingsfield, and runs afoul of him immediately.  Unprepared on the first day, Hart ends up being “shrouded” by Kingsfield for his inability to perform in class.  Metaphorically, Hart is dead to Kingsfield, proving the point to the rest of the students about the high expectations he has for all of them.  Hart tries to get Kingsfield to relent, but that really isn’t going to work….

Hart:  “Please give me another chance, Professor Kingsfield.  Please don’t keep me shrouded all year long….”

Kingsfield:  “Mr. Hart, you are no longer in high school, nor in college.  You’re in a professional school, a law school, where there is no room for error.  It is my obligation to prepare my students to exist in the most competitive of all worlds… where there is also no room for error.  Good day, Mr. Hart.”

Hart:  “But Professor Kingsfield….”

Kingsfield:  “Mr. Hart.  Can you imagine a lawyer who goes into court unprepared?  And after he’s lost his case, goes crawling to the judge’s chambers to beg for forgiveness, to ask the judge to give him another chance?  Good day, Mr. Hart.

Hart:  “I…”

Kingsfield:  “Good DAY!”

the study group

But Hart didn’t come here to be ignored, and he didn’t really come here just to learn.  He came here to prove his worth, to himself and to Kingsfield.  He forms a study group with other students, including the privileged Franklin Ford III (Tom Fitzsimmons), who is the latest in a long family line of lawyers; and Willis Bell (James Keane), whose disheveled looks and manner hide a perceptive legal mind.  Ford and Bell become Hart’s best friends, and like true friends they often come to each other’s aid when necessary, despite the incredible competition involved with the rigors of law school.

Rounding out the group are Robert Anderson (Robert Ginty), a smooth orator who is as good with the opposite sex as he is in the classroom; Elizabeth Logan (Francine Tacker), who sees the law as a social and political crusade; and married student Jonathan Brooks (Jonathan Sagall), who divides his time between his new wife and the demands of his studies.

Hart finds his way out from under Kingsfield’s “shroud” (in one of the best sequences of the series, the finale of the pilot episode), and begins his journey through both law and life, learning all along the way.  His friends do the same, and each of them have moments when they fall, some further than others.  One student doesn’t even last the year, others struggle, and together they all do what they must to find a way through.

Intimidating as ever

The series showed flashes of brilliance, especially when CBS didn’t get in the way of the intelligence.  There were a few episodes where the drama turned into a bit of melodrama, focusing instead on the private lives of Hart and company instead of their studies and how their schooling (and Kingsfield) affected them.  (Notoriously, Houseman even refused to appear in one episode, citing its poor writing and plot… but then, when you’ve been as good as this show usually was, the rare poor episode was rather surprising.  Houseman got his message across, and the “external” plotlines were dispensed with in favor of the regular characters and their “trials”, both legal and interpersonal, as framed by their study of the law.  Don’t mess with Professor Kingsfield….)

Kingsfield teaches contract law, which is appropriate since The Paper Chase is really a portrayal of the implied contract between students and their teacher.  Knowledge is exchanged for performance, with the understanding that either party withholding their part would make the experience meaningless.  The cases used in the classroom are real ones, and they usually reflect in some way on the personal conflicts of the students.  Contracts are about fulfilling obligations, perceived and real expectations, agreed terms, and reward and compensation for performance.  That’s not just classroom theory or legal-speak, it is how people live their real lives… and real life is what Kingsfield demands that his students prepare for every single day.

Kingsfield has a measured presence, with no tolerance for fools or excuses, and permits himself none as well.  He wants his students to become even better than they think possible, and makes sure that they realize the price of failure.  There’s a difference between being a tyrant, and demanding the best, and Kingsfield only seemed like a tyrant to those who would prefer the easy way.  To those (like Hart) who want to be the best, there’s the unspoken “contract” between student and teacher to live up to, and therein lies the drama.  Because Professor Kingsfield is a man you didn’t dare disappoint.

Ford, Hart, and Bell

There’s a challenge to the students… and there’s also a challenge to the viewer of The Paper Chase.  This show doesn’t have car chases, or cops finding a killer.  The Paper Chase celebrates intelligence, and the idea that the acquisition of knowledge is worthwhile in and of itself.  It shows learning as a noble goal, and that people’s lives could (and would) change because of it.  How many “entertainment” shows in the history of television can say that?

“Mr. Hart.  Here is a dime.  Call your mother, and tell her you are not going to become a lawyer….”
–Professor Kingsfield

Unfortunately, popular television (especially in 1978 when the series premiered) wasn’t exactly known for going hand-in-hand with intelligence.  This was the era when disco was king, and two of the top three shows on television were Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley… and guess what show was scheduled against them?  If you said The Paper Chase, go to the head of the class….

In a rare display of faith, CBS actually gave the low rated series a full season to try to prove itself, and although it was critically hailed, it didn’t really make a dent in the ratings, especially given such popular competition.  The people’s verdict had been returned, and after 22 episodes this case was closed.  However, there might be grounds for appeal….

“This is law school.  The whole point is to argue, to disagree.”
–Hart to Ford

This is where, technically, The Paper Chase breaks the law, not only on this website, but television “law” in general.  I could argue the letter of the law, that the CBS run of the show was only one season, therefore making it eligible for coverage here.  But reruns of the show found a home on, of all places, PBS the following year, achieving rather respectable numbers for the ratings-challenged network.  Others took note, especially then-fledgling cable channel Showtime, which was looking for something to add to their slate of Hollywood movies to make them unique.  The literate cache of The Paper Chase was perfect, so in 1983 (five years after the original series had premiered — actual law school only lasts three) Showtime began airing The Paper Chase — The Second Year.  Two more short seasons followed, with the students graduating in 1985, ending the series.

On cable, The Paper Chase was able to tackle more controversial subjects, including drug abuse, abortion, and senility (which were pretty much taboo subjects on network television back then), and an infusion of new students brought new perspectives and new storylines.  The series won two Cable Ace Awards for Best Dramatic Series, and proved for the first time that there was life after a network run.  (Would that more shows got a reprieve from death row cancellation.)  The “contract” with the audience had been fulfilled, and for once, a series that deserved more than one season actually got one.  Justice had been served.

JOHN HOUSEMAN (Prof. Kingsfield) started his theatre career in a fruitful and occasionally stormy partnership with the legendary Orson Welles,  involving him with both Citizen Kane and the memorable radio production of The War of the Worlds.  Houseman started the drama department at the famous Julliard School for the Arts, and later produced numerous pictures for Paramount.  In 1972, director James Bridges asked him to play Kingsfield in The Paper Chase film, a role for which he won an Oscar (in only his second major movie).  Bridges notes, “Before there was Kingsfield there was John Houseman.  He was the Kingsfield to many of the actors, producers, directors on the American stage today.”  He wrote three volumes of his memoirs (Run-Through, Front and Center, and Final Dress; later combined into an omnibus edition entitled Unfinished Business).  He died in 1988.

JAMES STEPHENS (Hart) is best known (other than his starring role on The Paper Chase) as Father Phillip Prestwick, turning a couple of guest shots into a regular role on the Father Dowling Mysteries.  Other guest parts included Diagnosis: Murder, Matlock, and multiple episodes (and characters) on Murder, She Wrote.  He also directed an episode of The Paper Chase in its final season (we’ll call it his senior thesis!)

TOM FITZSIMMONS (Ford) was primarily a stage actor, appearing in many Broadway and regional productions.  His most significant stage role was in the long-running production of The Elephant Man on Broadway, playing the lead role of John Merrick off and on for two years.

JAMES KEANE (Bell) is an experienced voice actor, doing projects as diverse as Hey Arnold! and Spawn.  He also played recurring roles in both 7th Heaven and October Road, and is still active as an actor today, most recently in an episode of CSI this past year.

ROBERT GINTY (Anderson) and FRANCINE TACKER (Logan) met on the set of The Paper Chase and later married.  Ginty had been a regular on The Black Sheep Squadron, and later segued into directing and producing, including episodes of China Beach, Xena, Nash Bridges, and Charmed, and starring in the cult hit movie The Exterminator.  He died of cancer in 2009.  Tacker was a regular on the series Goodtime Girls, and later left acting and became a schoolteacher at the prestigious Sidwell Friends school in Washington D.C. (which you may have heard of, as it’s the school that President Obama’s daughters attend.)

JONATHAN SAGALL (Brooks) left Hollywood not long after his short stint on The Paper Chase (where he was credited as “Jonathan Segal”).  Sagall moved to Israel, where he’s become a leading movie and theatre producer/director.  His movie Urban Feel (which he wrote, directed, and starred in) won two Israeli Academy Awards, and many of his other prize-winning productions have been featured in film festivals around the world.

The CBS year of The Paper Chase is available on DVD, as is part of the Showtime run.  These are relatively recent releases, so hopefully further episodes will be available in the near future.  The initial “shrouding” sequence from the pilot is on YouTube as well as the show’s opening, and there are a couple of great TV Guide articles (one of which is even written by Houseman himself) about the larger-than-life figure of Kingsfield.  Of course, there’s also the source material of the original movie and book on which the series is based.  (The book is by John Jay Osborn Jr., who was also heavily involved in the series, writing a quarter of the episodes.)

“What I have learned a great deal about is the philosophy of the law as expounded by Professor Kingsfield and the nature of what the law should be in our national lives.  And I believe the popularity of The Paper Chase stems not just from Kingsfield but the whole conception of the law as a dignified, important, and philosophically justifiable function of our society.”
–John Houseman, on the impact of the series and its emphasis on the law

“Law” is really the rules society makes in order to get along.  It constantly evolves and changes as we change, becoming a living, breathing thing — just like the people who make it, interpret it, learn it, and teach it.  So much of our modern society has become about trying to take advantage of the law that we forget why it’s there in the first place.  It is not designed for us to find the loopholes… it is to make sure that we all have a standard to live up to.  Professor Kingsfield set an incredibly high standard for his students, and The Paper Chase set just as high a standard for its viewers as well.  More shows should demand the same, of themselves, and of us.  And, like Kingsfield, Hart, and the rest, we should never settle for less.

Vital Stats

22 aired episodes (CBS) — 37 aired episodes (Showtime) — none unaired
CBS Network (later revived on Showtime)
First aired episode:  September 9, 1978
Last aired episode:  April 24, 1979 (CBS); August 9, 1986 (Showtime)
Aired Friday 8/7 Central?  Tuesdays at 8/7 Central for the CBS run.  Multiple airtimes on Showtime.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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