Q & A: WCBS-TV’s Caught in the Middle

I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about television shows, made-for-TV movies or miniseries they remember from years or decades past. I try to answer each question as best I can. Every now and then I like to dig through my inbox and pull out a few choice e-mails to answer here at Television Obscurities for everyone to read. Keep reading for today’s questions and answers.

I have it stuck in my cerebral matter that there was a videotaped television movie about a successful black man who returns to the ghetto where he grew up. The movie was entitled “Man in the Middle” and featured a young Morgan Freeman as a street hustler. I guess the time period as anywhere from 1968 to 1972….DOES ANYONE REMEMBER THIS TV MOVIE???

Amy was close with the title. It was called “Caught in the Middle” and aired locally in New York City on WCBS-TV on Wednesday, December 16th, 1970 from 7:30-9PM. The station commissioned Gordon Watkins to write and produce the drama. Here’s a brief summary from the day’s television listings in The New York Times:

Drama, taped on location in Harlem, about the frustrations of a welfare worker torn between urgent needs of the community and limitations imposed on him by rules and regulates. The cast is headed by Lawrence Cook, Morgan Freeman, Dorothi Fox, Camille Yarbrough [sic]. [1]

Lawrence Cook starred as William “Bear” Walker, the aforementioned welfare worker who returned to the ghetto where he grew up in the hopes of doing some good. Fred Ferretti, in a lengthy review published December 17th, called the drama an anomaly, “less than professional as a structured dramatic piece, it is, nevertheless, shot through with brutal, raw strength. On paper it is a badly drawn play, but on videotape last night it charted with considerable success and honesty, to me, the why of black rage.” Ferretti praised the cast:

Dorothi Fox as the cynical Mrs. Thomas who has slept around some is excellent, as is Camille Yarborough as the young mother of a brain-damaged, illegitimate child, who might, in some other time, have loved Bear Walker. Lawrence Cook as Bear grew in intensity as the play progressed, with his final desperate assault on the police both dramatically believable and incredibly chilling. But to me, Morgan Freeman as Cuz towered as the silk-suited operator who sold his soul and subsequently his people, his neighborhood and finally his friend, Bear.

Ferretti also liked the look of the drama, writing that “the play looks, even feels, as if it were breaking news, or a documentary.” It was videotaped in Harlem over the course of ten days in May of 1970. This location shooting, said Ferretti, added “a dimension to the play that would be lost in a studio production.” The first 25 minutes of “Caught in the Middle” were uploaded to YouTube in 2009. Hopefully the remaining hour of “Caught in the Middle” also exists somewhere. I wonder if Morgan Freeman has a copy.

Works Cited:

1 “Television.” New York Times. 16 Dec. 1970: 95.
2 Ferretti, Fred. “TV: Pressures of the Black Ghetto.” New York Times. 17 Dec. 1970: 95.

5 Replies to “Q & A: WCBS-TV’s Caught in the Middle”

  1. WCBS-TV had guts at the time to schedule this kind of videotaped drama instead of taking the network’s usual line-up of “THE GLEN CAMPBELL GOODTIME HOUR” and “THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES”. Today, they don’t even care…

    I believe the complete version of “Caught in the Middle” exists, but ‘tvdays.com’ cannot present it for various reasons. And I’m sure Morgan Freeman would like to forget he ever appeared in it, much less have a videotape or kinescoped copy [like the one presented here] in his possession. He tends to dismiss his earlier TV work, especially “THE ELECTRIC COMPANY”.

  2. Never despise “small beginnings”, Mr. Freeman. Films like “Caught in the Middle”afforded you an opportunity for employment ( a sheer blessing for a Black actor in 1970), and experience in making a film. Most folks can accept that actors improve as their body of experience becomes broader. If you felt that this film, or your acting was substandard, you have to take in the context of when it happened and what tools where at your disposal at the time.

  3. The 60’s had just ended. I had begun my career at CBS working on a documentary series called Of Black America. My next assignment was to a WCBS series on Black History called Black Heritage for which a Black career AD named Roy Allen was finally promoted to Producer Director. I then went on a CBS News Foundation fellowship year at Columbia. But it was during that time The American Presidency went from Johnson to Nixon. Dramatically, affirmative action was over and with it, at CBS at least, Black programming. Caught In The Middle, conceived before the election, was the last. In terms of TV history it will be remembered as the first remote drama shoot using TV cameras. But really it was the end of an era during which Black creatives got our turn at bat on American television. Sure, since then we have forced our way back in through the front door rather than the back with talent, business acumen and money making creative concepts rather than insincere post 60’s tokenism. But guys like Morgan Freeman should remember guys like the now late Roy Allen for their suffering and for the ultimate victories achieved with the help of guys like Morgan. Besides, as I remember Morgan did put on a good show. Wish I could get in touch. with him.

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