Richard Burton and Rosemary Harris in “Wuthering Heights.”
When I last caught up with Jane Klain, the tireless research manager at the Paley Center for Media, on West Fifty-second Street, she had unearthed a long-lost television version of “The Glass Menagerie,” which had aired in 1966 and then vanished for half a century. Klain has a knack for these kinds of quests: she spends years, sometimes decades (on and off), tracking down treasures of lost classic television. Among her discoveries was the second half of a television adaptation from 1959 of the Budd Schulberg novel “What Makes Sammy Run?”—it took her ten years to find. And she’s still on the hunt for the color tape master of “Evening Primrose,” a TV musical by Stephen Sondheim, from 1966, about a poet who joins a secret community that lives in a Manhattan department store.
Not long ago, Klain sent me a somewhat cryptic e-mail. “I have just discovered a ‘lost’ TV classic that hasn’t been seen by anyone since 1958,” she wrote, adding, “More importantly, I set out to find it almost twenty years ago because a Broadway actress had a fascinating backstory about the show.” A live one!
Here goes: In 1999, Klain was at the Cannes Film Festival—her then-husband worked at Miramax—waiting on the buffet line at a tented luncheon on the beach. There she spotted Rosemary Harris, the legendary English actress and nine-time Tony Award nominee. (Younger audiences may know her as Aunt May from the Tobey Maguire “Spider-Man” movies.) “I went over to her and I told her how much I admire her, and blah blah blah,” Klain recalled recently, in her cluttered office at the Paley Center. Harris told her about a broadcast that she had always wanted to track down: a 1958 televised adaptation of “Wuthering Heights,” in which Harris played Cathy opposite Richard Burton as Heathcliff. It had aired on CBS, as part of the series “DuPont Show of the Month,” and then been sucked into a black hole.
The show was part of a popular mid-century genre: live telecasts of literary classics starring top-shelf dramatic actors. Other DuPont presentations included “Treasure Island,” featuring Boris Karloff, and “Aladdin,” starring Sal Mineo. Harris, who turned thirty-one in 1958, appeared with George C. Scott in “A Tale of Two Cities” and Christopher Plummer in “The Prince and the Pauper.” When she was asked to play Cathy, she had to pass—she was already booked for a live-TV version of “Dial M for Murder”—but urged the producer, David Susskind, to hire Yvonne Furneaux, a young French actress whom she had met at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. They had acted in “Wuthering Heights” as students, with Harris as Isabella and Furneaux as Cathy. “She was just as beautiful as Vivien Leigh, with wonderful Siamese-cat eyes,” Harris, who is now ninety-two, told me recently, on the phone from her home in North Carolina.
Not long after she suggested Furneaux, the phone rang at Harris’s studio apartment in Greenwich Village. It was Susskind, informing her that Furneaux had been fired. “He used a rude word,” Harris recalled. “He said, ‘You’d better come and put the fire out.’ ” With four days until the broadcast, Harris stepped into the role—and into Furneaux’s dresses and wigs. Harris was comfortable working with Burton, having played opposite him in “Othello” at the Old Vic. An eleven-year-old Patty Duke played the young Cathy. The show was broadcast from a studio in Brooklyn and received mixed reviews. In the Times, Jack Gould wrote that Emily Brontë’s novel “perhaps is too formidable a work to compress into twenty-one inches in a single evening’s sitting,” although he praised Harris for achieving “moments of tenderness.”
One thing haunted Harris, however. In her rush to learn the part, she had been a bit shaky on the lines for her deathbed scene and had been sneaking glances at the script between shots. “I remember lying in bed and seeing these huge cameras lumbering toward me and Richard appearing and thinking, I don’t know what I say!” Harris recalled with a chuckle. “I had to read it very quickly and then stuff it under the pillow just before he took me in his arms, saying, ‘Cathy, Cathy, don’t die!’ ” She had always wondered: Had the camera caught her stuffing her cheat sheet under the pillow?
Cut back to 1999, at Cannes, where Harris told this story to Klain and asked if she could look for the kinescope (a film-reel recording of a TV show). Klain told me, “I said, ‘Yes, of course. I’m a very good detective. I’ll find it.’ And I tried for twenty years.” She looked in all the usual places: the Library of Congress, U.C.L.A.’s Film & Television Archive. She even checked the Hagley Museum and Library, in Wilmington, Delaware, which houses an archive of business history, including records from DuPont. Nada. Then, this past spring, she ran into Harris once again, at an after-party for the Theatre World Awards. (Harris was playing Mrs. Higgins in the Broadway revival of “My Fair Lady.”) “I wanted to tell you I have failed,” Klain recalled telling her, to which Harris replied, “Well, that’s O.K., but do keep trying.”
Then, a breakthrough: a few weeks earlier, Klain’s friend David Schwartz, the in-house historian at the Game Show Network, had sent Klain an e-mail. The archives of the late television historian J. Fred MacDonald had just been acquired by the Library of Congress, and Schwartz thought that she might be interested in seeing the inventory. She looked, and—eureka!—there was “Wuthering Heights,” with the note “Only kinescope made of this show.” The archive hadn’t yet been incorporated into the library’s collections, but Klain had a contact there, and she had a digital copy made. She watched it at her desk. “I thought it was very steamy,” she said.
She mailed a copy to Harris, who watched it at home and was relieved that her death scene did not reveal any script shenanigans. “It was sort of surreal,” Harris said, of watching her younger self. A tech guy was with her in North Carolina, helping with the remote control. “He couldn’t believe what he was seeing,” she told me. “He said, ‘That’s you?’ I said, ‘I suppose it is.’ He went away very bemused.” One scene, in which Cathy wanders the moors, reminded her that the set had been festooned with pink plastic crocuses, one of which she kept for years as a memento. And she had fond memories of Burton. “He was a lovely person,” she said. “I got to know them both when he and Elizabeth were married. Oh, well. All a long time ago, and everybody’s gone.” (Actually, that isn’t quite true. Furneaux is ninety-one and apparently living in Switzerland. And Michel de Carvalho, the child actor who played the young Heathcliff, went on to appear in “Lawrence of Arabia,” compete as an Olympic skier and luger, and marry into the multi-billion-dollar Heineken fortune.)
“Wuthering Heights” may not have a happy ending, but this tale does. After her discovery, Klain alerted the head of programming at TCM. This Friday, at 8 P.M., the unearthed “Wuthering Heights” will be televised for the first time since 1958, complete with vintage DuPont commercials, as part of an evening called “Burton Before Taylor.” As for Klain, she’s back to her quests. “I’m a Capricorn,” she told me, “and I don’t believe in any of that stuff, but Capricorns are goats—we’re plodding and determined, going up the mountain.”