The Hillside Strangler Nearly Killed My Christian Soap Opera
The year was 1978. The TV show was going nowhere. And then a strangely charismatic man appeared…
The sets were cheap, the acting cheesy, and the scripts badly plotted and embarrassingly simplistic. Not that any of it really mattered, since no one was watching.
The year was 1978 and I had managed to land my first job as a story editor on a show called Westbrook Hospital, a half-hour drama set in a fictional Christian hospital, produced at a small studio in Thousand Oaks, California.
The star of the show, the wise and kindly Dr. Geoff Mason, was played by Robert Clarke, whose brief claim to fame was his 1958 sci-fi cult classic, The Hideous Sun Demon. (“The Blaze of the Sun Made Him A Monster!”) Clarke, while affable as hell, was no Lord Olivier.
The premise of the show was simple. Someone would be admitted to Westbrook hospital suffering from the disease of the week and, by the time the show had reached the 20-minute mark, Dr. Mason would arrive, perch on the edge of the bed and explain to the frightened patient that it was all according to God’s plan.
Most patients left under their own power. Occasionally, someone would die, but only after they had accepted the promise of life eternal, and usually died peacefully in their sleep, not with a cardiac team zapping them with the paddles. Westbrook hospital was a good place to be a patient, but a lousy place to be an ambitious writer.
When I say nobody watched the show, it was not hyperbole. Although we were syndicated in dozens of markets, including WABC-TV in New York, we seldom earned more than an asterisk from Nielsen. There were simply too few viewers to count. Fortunately, that didn’t seem to matter since the producers took great pains to remind us that ratings were the metrics of man, not God. Our mission was to win souls, not rating points.
My mission, on the other hand, was more pragmatic: I intended to use this backwater little show as a foothold from which to begin my climb, from Egypt to the promised land, from Westbrook to Warner Brothers. There was really only one gnat in the honey. I had tied my fortunes to a show that nobody watched, that nobody would watch. Ever.
That is, until Ned York showed up.
I’m not sure where Gary, the show’s producer, found him, but most likely at FCAME, the Fellowship of Christians in the Arts, Media and Entertainment, one of those groups in Hollywood created to aid and abet those souls sifting through the moral implications of a completely amoral industry. There, you would find kids fresh off the bus from Topeka, clutching a Bible in one hand and a copy of Backstage in the other, meeting in some church fellowship hall and huddling together like shipwreck victims to ward off sharks. Gary, bowed but not broken from his 60 episodes on Peyton Place, would occasionally be asked to share his testimony about life in New York in the shadow of Mia and Frank. Wherever it was, Ned had managed to surface and Gary was only too happy to drag him to shore.
As a type, he was vaguely handsome in an everyman sort of way. Boyish with thinning hair. Muscular build. That kind of high-wattage charisma some actors learn to develop. I’m sure Gary recognized it. He, himself, had long ago mastered the craft. So, it was probably only natural that the whole subject of “Distress Call” would come up.
“Distress Call” was the next script being prepped. An inspirational little yarn about a recovering accident victim, a depressed paraplegic who was furious at God for dealing him such a lousy hand.
“If a man can’t even be a man, what reason is there to live?” he asks Dr. Mason, right on cue, at about the 20- minute mark. The former hideous sun demon is thoughtful.
“Sometimes we just don’t know what God has planned for us,” Mason tells him. “But that doesn’t mean He doesn’t have a plan.” It was the kind of line that would make even a doting screenwriter’s mother wince.
As usually happened, the next bed is occupied by a convenient foil, in this case a kid who seems more than a little chipper for having been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Valiantly, he tries to buck up his depressed roommate, but Ned is in no mood. And then, as only could happen at Westbrook, the universe conspires.
Suddenly, the kid flies into a grand mal seizure, flailing and choking, wheezing and gagging. And, of course, being it’s the middle of the night, the door is closed. Ned yells for help but, of course, no one can hear him. His only hope is to reach the call button, but, of course, he’s paralyzed. He strains, trying to will his arms to work the chair, to wheel himself over, but no dice. He tries harder, straining with every fiber of his being, but it’s simply no use. The boy is gasping for air, nearly asphyxiated, and Ned is powerless. And then the words of kindly Dr. Mason come home to roost.
Tilting his head heavenward, Ned acknowledges his helplessness and prays for strength. He tries one last time, and this time his hands quiver. They move slightly. Then, more. Within seconds, he is able to move the chair. Finally, with the last of his strength, he grasps for the call button and manages to reach it as, a second later, the door flies open and a small platoon of doctors and nurses burst through, just in time to save the boy’s life.
It was the perfect deus ex machina ending for a typical episode, but, somehow, this time it was different. Ned York sold it. The strain and desperation seemed real. The existential despair seemed thoroughly convincing. Here was an everyman truly being heroic, and as I watched the rough cut, I was oddly moved. This guy, whoever he was, had a rare gift. He could actually act.
“Distress Call” turned out to be the standout show of the season. Even more surprising was we were beginning to see more than just asterisks from Nielsen. People were beginning to watch the show. Enough people to actually count.
It has been said there are a handful of moments in life that will forever be fixed in time and space. The JFK assassination. Or, the first moon landing. You remember exactly where you were. And, I remember exactly where I was that February morning—eastbound on the 101—listening to the uvula-busting falsetto of “Stayin’ Alive,” when it was interrupted by a news bulletin.
The so-called Hillside Strangler, a notorious serial killer who, for months, had been terrorizing the Southland had been caught, after confessing to the crimes in a phone call to the LAPD. He was described as a part-time actor. A part-time actor named Ned York.
I arrived at the production office to find a war room had been set up in the Executive Producer’s office. Studio brass were there. People from syndication. From PR. All were asking the same questions. How many stations had the show? Could we get them to pull it? (Probably, but they’re going to want to know why.) And what if people start calling? What do we tell the switchboard? “Thank you for calling the production offices of Westbrook Hospital. We apologize for the fact that the actor starring in today’s episode is in police custody having just confessed to torturing, raping and murdering 10 women? In the meantime, we invite you to continue to support the ministry with your generous gifts and love offerings.”
James, the show’s Executive Producer, listened carefully before finally weighing in. His plan was pure Nixon. Syndication would pull whatever tapes they could. If anyone asked, we knew nothing about the guy currently cooling his heels in police custody. If they saw the name Ned York in the credits, it was a different Ned York. The Station Relations people should reissue revised program logs, edit out show descriptions, and pray to God nobody connects the dots. With any luck it would eventually blow over. After all, nobody ever watches the show anyway.
Over lunch, Gary was despondent.
“That’s it,” he said. “They’ll cancel the show.” I figured he was probably right.
“Do you think he did it? I don’t know many serial killers, but he didn’t really seem the type.”
Gary shrugged. “They never do. John Wayne Gacy dressed up like a clown for kids’ parties. Talk about method acting.”
“So how many people you think have actually watched our show? Since the beginning?”
“I don’t know. Not very many.”
“And how many people watch Cronkite?”
Gary shrugged. “A lot more than that.”
“Millions,” I said. “Every night. And that’s just one network.”
Gary pinned with me a look. “Don’t you dare. Don’t even think about it. They would fire us so quick.”
“Yeah, but think of the ratings.”
As Gary picked up the check, I headed to the restroom, stopping long enough at the payphone to call CBS.
“They know everything,” James slumped over his desk, his face ashen.
“CBS. They just called here. They know about Ned and they know about the show. They’re asking for a clip.”
He had the panicked look of a man about to see his whole career go swirling down the porcelain bowl. For the first time, I actually felt sorry for the man.
“You know, Jim, you’ll have to admit, it is a powerful scene. Saving that boy’s life. A broken man who prays for redemption and God gives him a second chance. If they’re gonna be plastering Ned York’s picture all over the airwaves, we could at least control what they’re seeing.”
James thought for a second. “So you think we should do it?”
“Look at it this way. More people will see Westbrook Hospital in those few seconds than will ever see it otherwise. Think of the people we could reach?”
I met the runner from CBS at the Arco Station in Calabasas and handed him the video cassette, which he stuffed into a canvas bag without so much as a look.
“You should probably know. LAPD just released the guy. He was out of his fucking mind on PCP. He would have confessed to anything.”
As it turned out, he was right. Ned had been hitting the angel dust pretty hard and talking to a friend about the murders, and somehow in the wee hours of the morning, thanks to some scrambled synapses, managed to convince himself that he was, in fact, the Hillside Strangler. A quick phone call to the LAPD did the rest. It would be nearly a year before the real killers, cousins Kenneth Bianchi and Angelo Buono, would be caught.
In the end, Westbrook Hospital limped on for another couple of seasons, until the decision was made to switch to a talkshow format. By then I was long gone.
Pat Boone is said to have sought out Ned York and offered him some pastoral advice. “The Lord will forgive you,” he supposedly said. “But the public won’t.” Pat was right about at least two things. Ned York and April love. Both of which can slip right through your fingers. Ned York never worked again.
Several months ago, I got an email from a Brazilian reporter asking what I knew about Westbrook Hospital. Seems it had been dubbed into Portuguese and recently released as Hospital Adventista.
“Think anyone will watch?” I asked.
“Everybody’s watching,” she said. “It’s a big hit.”