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Profile: He prepared the Island for its first close-up

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO Bob Markell in his attic studio with a self-portrait, painted, he said, when he was angry with himself.
Bob Markell in his attic studio with a self-portrait, painted, he said, when he was angry with himself.

When Bob Markell was 8 years old he got the measles, and was treated by a doctor who praised his young patient’s artistic ability. “He was just being nice, but I believed him,” Bob said.

From then on, he was determined to be a painter, but his father objected, “You are going to live in an attic, you are going to starve, and I’m not going to pay for it,” he was told.

More than eight decades later, Bob’s father’s predictions have come true except for the starving part. First came 50 years as a designer, producer and executive in television, five Emmys, and distinguished work such as art director for the film “12 Angry Men” in 1957, and the first televised production of “The Nutcracker.” Since the early 1990s, Bob has focused on fine art, and in August welcomed visitors to his well-lit attic studio filled with sketches and paintings during the ArtSI studio tour.

Bob was born in 1924 and raised in Roxbury, Massachusetts. His mother had emigrated from Russia, but his father’s family was “more Americanized,” and deeply cynical. “My father had a negative view,” Bob said. “He really didn’t believe that when people were nice to him they meant it.”

Bob went to Northeastern University and graduated in 1944 with a degree in civil engineering and some work experience at a Boston architecture firm. He and everyone he knew wanted to go fight Hitler, but asthma prevented him from combat; he ended up at Grumman Aircraft on Long Island doing stress analysis on airplanes. After World War II, Grumman began manufacturing canoes, but lacking the same enthusiasm for peacetime canoes he had for wartime airplanes, Bob left in hope of more creative work.

He and two roommates had been living in a house near Grumman when he found all of his belongings on the porch. The landlady declared she didn’t want foreigners (i.e. Bob, a Jew) in her home. So in 1946, Bob and his friends moved to New York City, and he decided to try his hand at set design.

His first experience was at a summer-stock theater in the Catskills, a bowling alley that had been converted to a theater, where he painted a set but failed to seal it with the adhesive known as “rabbit glue.” By the next day all the paint had run off, and someone said, “You didn’t forget to put the rabbit glue on, did you?”

“I didn’t forget,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

Bob met his wife, Joan Harris, in 1948 when she showed up as a volunteer stagehand for an Equity Library Theatre production in New York. Bob was the scenic designer. A Chicago native, Joan was a Northwestern University theater program graduate and moved to New York to pursue acting. When she didn’t get cast, she dressed the set.

“I said, ‘Listen, any of you guys know how to light a show?’” Bob said. “And she went up the ladder, and was hanging on, and I said, ‘Anyone who would climb up and hang lights for me is worth knowing.’” They married in 1949.

Bob and Joan have two children, Mariana Markell, a nephrologist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and Denis Markell, a dramatist and novelist, whose latest book, a young adult novel called “Click Here to Start,” was published in July.

In 1966, Bob was a producer on “The Trap of Solid Gold”  when he worked with Dustin Hoffman.

The young actor’s role was a New York accountant, and Bob told Hoffman — at the time considered too homely to play a leading man — that he’d have to cut his long hair for the part. Hoffman insisted that Bob be present during the haircut so Bob could listen to him scream (something about Samson and Delilah). “They gave him a really nice haircut and he looked great,” said Bob. “I think he got the job on “The Graduate” because of the haircut, so he kind of owed me.”

The day Bob got the assignment that would lead to his fifth Emmy, he almost blew it. He said he had been drinking when the call came from CBS higher-ups to come discuss a promotion and new assignment.

“I couldn’t get any ice cubes and I heard myself say, ‘I can’t come now, I’m waiting for my refrigerator to be fixed.’” He managed to make it to the meeting, was promoted to executive producer, and assigned to a project called “Bicentennial Minutes,” a series of hundreds of 60-second historical sketches that aired from 1974 through 1976.

CBS had undertaken “Bicentennial Minutes” as public service announcements; under Bob’s direction they were each tiny dramas with a beginning, middle and end. Norman Mailer, President Gerald Ford, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and First Lady Betty Ford were among the celebrities who participated, and in 1975 Bob received an Emmy as executive producer of the series.

When Tennessee Williams was asked to do a New Year’s Eve Bicentennial Minute, the hard-drinking writer insisted on writing his own script, but the script didn’t materialize and it came time to shoot. “He was so smashed you couldn’t believe it,” Bob said. “He just looked into the camera and said, ‘This is Tennessee Williams and I want to offer all of you a happy, happy New Year and a happy holiday!’ Someone asked me, ‘Who wrote this thing?’”

In 1960, Bob and Joan were living in Brooklyn Heights when friends suggested a visit to Shelter Island. They visited, bought a house on the Island, and in 1976 they moved into their current home on Midway Road, an antique beauty built by a whaler, Captain Samuel Sherman, in the early 19th century.

In October 1977, Dashiell Hammett’s “The Dain Curse,” starring James Coburn, with Bob as executive producer, became the first major motion picture to be filmed on Shelter Island.

Bob told The New York Times that the absence of traffic lights and antennas and the plentiful supply of photogenic Victorian homes was a factor in CBS’s decision to film here, but more important was the willingness of local people, such as Williette Piccozzi, Louis Cicero and then Supervisor Leonard Bliss to support the production as extras, with haircuts — Louis’ cut, short with sideburns, became known as “The Dain Cut” — and with their tolerance of the weeks-long disruption of Island life.
From his first visits to Shelter Island, Bob felt his creative juices flow.

His friends here were members of the Shelter Island Community of Artists, including Gus Mosca, and Luiz Coelho, now gone.

“They were marvelous, and helped me more than anyone else,” Bob said. “I miss them terribly.”

In his painting, Bob tries to reveal the emotions in his subjects. “You have to feel something,” he said. “Every time I get angry at myself, I do a self-portrait. When I paint someone else, I’m very concerned about insulting them, so I don’t do portraits that well, but I love painting myself.”

Last Sunday afternoon four deer loitered by the screened porch of the house on Midway Road. A six-point buck sat regally in the grass, with two does standing nearby and between them a spotted fawn on long, gawky legs. A cottontail rabbit hopped nearby.

Even by Shelter Island standards, this was an extraordinary assemblage. Did these ruminants sense they were gathered under the gaze of a celebrated designer, and formed this bucolic tableau, hoping to catch the artist’s eye?