As former NBC Senior Vice President Stanley G. Robertson noted about his friend and mentor, Wendell Franklin, "He preached the gospel of the optimist, and [told] those of us who grew up in L.A.'s African-American community in the WWII years [we] had to be prepared for the new day coming with more than dreaming and wishing."
Indeed, Franklin, the first black member of the Screen Directors Guild and the second black stage manager to work in network television, was as determined as he was skilled. He rose through the production ranks, starting out as a parking lot attendant at NBC when the network established a minority hiring policy and successfully lobbied for a job as a TV stage manager. Seizing the rare opportunity, Franklin worked throughout the 1950s on shows with Ralph Edwards, Jerry Lewis, and Nat King Cole. But with few if any black peers, he says he frequently encountered shades of racism, sometimes overt.
"On Queen for a Day," Franklin related in his autobiography, "the stage manager had to cue the [female models] to pull back the curtains and show the gifts" by lightly tapping them on the shoulder. "Jack Bailey, the host of the show, personally came backstage to cuss me out. He said, 'If you ever touch a white woman again you're fired.'" Ever the professional, Franklin skirted the bias by tapping his foot lightly on the stage floor prior to each model's appearance.
Later as a member of the DGA, Franklin helped form the Ethnic Minority Committee and was active on the AD/UPM Council. But with the lull in TV, Franklin found himself back in the NBC parking lot for a second stint until DGA National Executive Secretary Joseph Youngerman called and asked if he wanted to become an AD in features. Before he knew it, he had landed a 2nd AD position for George Stevens on The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
"I didn't know what a call sheet was or a breakdown," he fretted in his memoir. In live TV "the booth runs the show and [the] stage manager never gets into the booth. I didn't see any comparisons to film whatsoever." Fortunately, ADs John Veitch and Ray Gosnell took Franklin under their wing, and Franklin quickly blossomed. "I was carried away by the talents of the assistant directors who were famous in this business for staging colossal productions like Ben-Hur," he recalled. "This was spectacle."
After his time with Stevens, Franklin spent five years on-staff for Universal, working on films like McHale's Navy (1962), the cult classic Kitten with a Whip (1964), and The Night Walker (1964), the latter directed by William Castle and notable to Franklin for another racial incident, this time by the LAPD.
"We were shooting at night on Wilshire Boulevard," he wrote. "I'm standing with my walkie-talkie…and the police drive up, grab me and slam me upside the wall. The only thing I remember saying was 'light the goddamn set now.'"
Such incidents only made the flames of professional desire burn brighter. Franklin's shining moment undoubtedly came when he was offered the chance to direct The Bus Is Coming (1971). The African-American themed, Vietnam-era tale was notable for securing deferments from the major guilds to shoot with an all-union crew. Franklin, who broke down racial barriers in the industry as president of the NAACP's Hollywood chapter, was stirringly proud the day he saw a billboard for his film. "I rode up and down Sunset Boulevard for a full day," he recounted. "I didn't believe it."