I Know That Girl From Somewhere: The Career of Meredith MacRae

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Meredith MacRae is one of those actresses almost everyone recognizes but are not always sure why they remember her. Perhaps it was one of her 14 movies. Then again it could be the two television shows she had a regular role on or one of the other 18 shows she appeared on. It might be from a game show where she was a a panelist or as a singer on a variety show or one of her many commercials. Some folks saw her talk show in LA. She also worked hard for a variety of charities and traveled around the country speaking on alcoholism. Viewers might not be exactly sure how they know her, but everyone realizes they liked her. She had that friendly and caring quality.

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MacRae was born on May 30, 1944, in Houston, Texas on a military base where her father was stationed. Her father, Gordon MacRae was a big star, featured in Roger & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma and Carousel. Her mother, Sheila MacRae was an actress and comedienne, appearing as Jackie Gleason’s wife on The Honeymooners.

Meredith began her acting career at a young age, receiving a part in By the Light of the Silvery Moon in 1953, which starred her father. Her part was later cut.

Her father struggled with alcoholism, and her parents divorced when she was ten.  Meredith was always close with her siblings.

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She attended UCLA and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. She had roles in two of the ever-popular beach blanket movies—Beach Party in 1963 and Bikini Beach in 1964. That same year she married Richard Berger, former president of MGM. They divorced four years later.

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Meredith would appear on the big screen ten more times, none of the movies being well remembered.

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In 1963, Meredith was offered a role on My Three Sons. She played Sally, Mike’s girlfriend and later wife from 1963 until 1965. Although the show was on the air until 1972, Tim Considine who played Mike, left the show in 1965 and the story line was that he and Sally moved to Arizona.

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MacRae was offered another sitcom role when her work on My Three Sons ended. She took the role of Billie Jo Bradley on Petticoat Junction, appearing in 114 episodes. She was the third star to play Billie Jo. In 1970 the show as cancelled.

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In 1969, Meredith married again, this time to actor Greg Mullavey (best known from his role on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman). They divorced in 1972 but remained friends and had a daughter Allison. Meredith was extremely close to her daughter and she traveled with her often.

Meredith released two singles with Lori Saunders and Linda Kaye Henning, her sisters on Petticoat Junction. She also had two singles as a solo artist. She was also seen on many game shows including Match Game, Family Feud, and the $10,000 Pyramid.

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Meredith would continue her television career throughout the 1970s and 1980s. She was seen in The Interns, The FBI, The Rockford Files, CHiPs, Fantasy Island, Webster, Magnum PI, and was on my favorite episode of Love American Style.

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Eventually Meredith became a television producer and writer. She also made several PBS specials tackling women’s issues, medical problems, and the aging of America. She received her own talk show which was really an investigative show called “Mid-Morning Los Angeles” for which she won an Emmy.

During the late 1990s, MacRae complained about vertigo and a loss of short-term memory. She was misdiagnosed as having issues related to peri-menopause. In 1999, she struggled with severe headaches and was told it was muscle spasms.  When she went in for a second opinion, she discovered she had Stage 4 brain cancer. She had the tumor removed and then agreed to join an experimental cancer drug treatment group, but she had an allergic reaction which caused her brain to swell. She had more surgeries and then broke her hip.

Many people praised her for maintaining her dignity and sense of humor during this painful time.

Meredith had a way of making others feel important. She had a genuine warmth and was friendly, appearing sincerely interested in others. I read about a Ladies’ Fun Night which she held every month or two. She would invite her friends and a guest speaker. Typically, about 25 women were invited including her old friend Linda Henning.

Meredith always found time to travel to discuss the effects of alcoholism on families. She enjoyed seven years with her father when he was sober before he passed away, and he approved of her speaking engagements.  She also worked for many charities including the League of Women Voters, Women in Film, Committee for the Children’s Burn Foundation, and the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation (UCPF). Her parents had also supported UCPF, and Meredith was their telethon host for 20 years. After she passed away, the MacRae/Edelman Center, a place where adults with cerebral palsy can get help, was named for her.

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When asked what helped her get through some of the tough times in her life, she replied “I believe in getting help from your friends. I don’t know what I would do without my women friends.” Many viewers who never met Meredith in person considered her a friend. She lived an incredibly meaningful life.

 

 

The Show That Captured America’s Heart: Eight is Enough

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Beginning in 1977, Eight is Enough was a hard show to categorize; not really a drama but not a comedy either, even though it featured a laugh track. The show was based on the 1975 autobiography of newspaper editor and columnist Thomas Braden. Tom Bradford (Dick Van Patten) was a columnist for a Sacramento, California newspaper. He and his wife Joan (Diana Hyland) have eight children:  Mary (Lanie O’Grady), David (Mark Hamil), Joanie (Laurie Walters), Nancy (Kimberly Beck), Elizabeth (Connie Needham), Susan (Susan Richardson), Tommy (Chris English), and Nicholas (Adam Rich).

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A few changes were made from the pilot episode. ABC questioned the performances of the actors who played Nancy and Tommy and replaced them with Dianne Kay and Willie Aames.  Another change from the pilot occurred in the role of David. Originally, Mark Hamil was signed but after he received the offer to appear in an upcoming movie Star Wars, he received permission to break his contract and the role was taken over by Grant Goodeve.

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When the show began, David lives on his own.  Mary is going to school to be a doctor while Joanie, Susan, and Nancy are late studying acting, fashion, and modeling. Elizabeth and Tommy are in high school, and Nicholas is still in elementary school. Tommy would later be part of a rock ‘n roll band.

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Four episodes into the series, Diana Hyland who played Joan, the mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer and died soon after. For the rest of Season 1, she was said to be away. In Season 2, Tom was portrayed as a widower and later in the year he meets and marries Abby, played by Betty Buckley. Abby is a school teacher. The series deals with the trials and tribulations every family tackles, including school concerns, sibling rivalry, and relationship issues. The kids were quite different in personality, and it seems like everyone could relate to at least one of them. While The Brady Bunch sometimes seemed a bit syrupy, everyone wanted to be part of a family like the Bradfords.

The show captured the hearts of many viewers, being number one for a while. In the first season the show finished 23rd overall, but seasons 3-4 had the show 11th or 12th each year.

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In Season 3, Susan marries Merle “The Pearl” Stockwell (Brian Patrick Clarke) who was a baseball star, and David marries Janet (Joan Prather) in a double ceremony. In the last season, Goodeve suggested he and Janet divorce because he didn’t think David was being featured in enough storylines. With so many of the kids flying the coop, Ralph Macchio was brought in as Abby’s orphaned nephew who lived with the Bradfords.  You always know when an orphaned relative is hired, the show is not going to last long.

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The show was developed by writer William Blinn. The first three seasons were filmed at The Burbank Studios (now the Warner Brothers Ranch) and the last two years were filmed at MGM Studios in Culver City. Writers were often shared with The Waltons, which was another Lorimar-produced show.

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During the first couple of seasons, an instrumental version of the theme was played during the opening. However, in later seasons, lyrics were added, and the theme was sung by Grant Goodeve. Those lyrics are:

There’s a magic in the early morning, we’ve found,

When the sunrise smiles on everything around.

It’s a portrait of the happiness that we feel and always will,

For eight is enough to fill our lives with love.

 

Oh, we’re lucky we can share this beautiful stage.

So many find the world an empty place.

Anyone who asks to stand alone is always standing still,

And eight is enough to fill our lives with love.

 

Oh, love makes all the difference now,

And one that really shows.

Just look at every one of us —

See how it overflows!

 

Though we spend our days like bright and shiny new dimes,

If we’re ever puzzled by the changing times,

There’s a plate of homemade wishes on the kitchen window sill,

And eight is enough to fill our lives with love.

Yes, more than enough to fill our lives with lo-o-o-ove.

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After five seasons, with production costs rising and ratings falling, the show was cancelled.  Their “sister” show The Waltons was also done. Later in a 2000 interview, Van Patten said that he learned about the cancellation in a newspaper story.

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Two television movies aired in the 1980s. “An Eight Is Enough Reunion” was seen in 1987 when everyone came home to celebrate Tom’s 50th birthday, and “An Eight is Enough Wedding” aired in 1989. Mary Frann and Sandy Faison, respectively, played Abby in these movies.

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Unfortunately, the show is rarely seen in syndication. DVDs were released between 2012 and 2014.

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Most of the articles I read portrayed the set as a fun place to work, due to the positive influence of Van Patten.  He stayed close to many of the actors and actresses and truly viewed them as family. It was a critically acclaimed show, nominated for several Emmys. While clothing styles may have changed, family issues haven’t. The Bradford family handled their problems together in a realistic manner. It would be a fun show to binge watch this winter.

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She Was Maid For TV: Hazel

June 4 is Old Maid Day, and what better way to celebrate than with Hazel, the show that Shirley Booth played an unmarried maid on.

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The show debuted in the fall of 1961. The sitcom was based on Ted Key’s cartoons which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post.

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Hazel Burke is a live-in maid for the Baxter family who consists of Dorothy (Whitney Blake), who Hazel calls Missy; George (Don Defore), who Hazel calls Mr. B; and their son Harold (Bobby Buntrock), who Hazel refers to as “Sport.” Hazel worked for Missy’s family and helped raise her, so they are very close. As an aside, Whitney Blake had previously been married to a Baxter and her real daughter was Meredith Baxter.

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Hazel was on the air for five seasons, producing 154 episodes. Hazel was 4th in the Nielsen ratings for its first year. By the end of Season 4, the show had fallen out of the top 30. Season 1 was black and white except for one episode. Hazel purchases a color television set. RCA owned NBC, which aired the show for the first four years, and this show seemed to be a blatant commercial for colored televisions. Beginning in Season 2, all the shows were filmed in color. The show moved to CBS for its final year. Shirley Booth won an Emmy Award for Best Actress in both 1962 and 1963 and was nominated again in 1964 when she lost to Mary Tyler Moore for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

In 1963, the NAACP threatened to boycott the show’s sponsor if a black member was not added to the cast and, two months later, the network announced a black production executive had joined the show.

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Hazel is more than a maid for the Baxters; she is family. We also get to know several of Hazel’s friends: the postman Barney Hatfield (Robert Williams), taxi driver Mitch Brady (Dub Taylor), and her best friend, Rosie Hammaker (Maude Prickett) who is also a maid. Apparently, there were a lot of maids in the city because Hazel was president of The Sunshine Girls, a club for maids.

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Hazel often stuck her nose into issues where it didn’t belong, but she “fixed” the situation in the end. She constantly frustrated George, who would try to put down his foot about an issue. She often would restrict his desserts to get her way or his wife would defend her cause, and he usually gave in.

George had more control at work where he was a successful lawyer at Butterworth, Noll, Hatch, and Baxter. However, Hazel often got involved in issues regarding his clients as well. She pre-empted his authority at work like she did at home, especially when the case involved Harvey Griffin (Howard Smith), one of George’s clients who spent a lot of time at the Baxter house.

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When the house and George’s work life were running smoothly, Hazel found issues to battle around the community.

The series was filmed at Columbia Studios in Hollywood. The house façade for the Baxter home was used in several Three Stooges films and was the Lawrence home on Gidget. The house next door was Darrin and Samantha Stephens home on Morning Glory Dr featured on Bewitched.

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Sammy Cahn and James Van Huesen wrote the instrumental theme song that played during opening of the show; and The Modernaires sang it at the closing for the first eight episodes in Season 1. Beginning with episode 9, the instrumental was the only version played in both the opening and closing credits. The lyrics were:

People love you everywhere you go Hazel.

Children cross the street to say hello, Hazel.

You charm every Romeo and Casanova,

It’s your personality that wins them over.

You may never be a millionaire Hazel.

Count your friends and you don’t have a care, Hazel.

You’ve got more than wealth untold,

You’ve got a heart of solid gold.

We love you, Hazel,

Just because you’re you.

When NBC ended the show after Season 4, CBS picked it up.  They changed most of the cast, keeping only Hazel and Harold.  The premise is that Dorothy and George are sent to Saudi Arabia for George’s career, so Hazel and Harold move in with George’s younger brother Steve (Ray Fulmer), his wife Barbara (Lynn Borden), and their daughter Susie (Julia Benjamin). A minor character was also added with Ann Jillian as Steve’s receptionist. The ratings were not high but were acceptable.  However, Shirley was ill and required a nurse on set. She decided she could not continue with the show, so Season 5 was its last.

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During its first four seasons, Hazel was sponsored by Ford Motor Company. Ford cars were often featured in the shows. The episode was the first show to display the Ford Mustang on television. Bristol-Myers came in as a cosponsor for Season 4, and when the show moved to CBS, Procter & Gamble and Philip Morris were the co-sponsors.

Unfortunately, most of the cast has passed away.

Bobby Buntrock, the youngest member, was the first to die. Only 21, he was in a tragic automobile accident involving a bridge in South Dakota in 1974. That same year, Booth retired to her Massachusetts home.  She passed away at age 94 in 1992 after suffering several health problems including blindness and a broken hip. The next year, Don DeFore died from a cardiac arrest at age 80. Whitney Blake died from esophageal cancer in 2002 at age 76, also living in Massachusetts. Lynn Borden passed away in 2015 after an extended illness. Julia Benjamin and Ray Fulmer are still alive.

 

Hazel gained a younger audience fan base in the 1970s and 1980s when it was seen in syndication. It currently can be seen on Antenna TV. The first season was released on DVD in 2006 and the last season was released in 2014.

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Hazel seems to be one of those shows that people love or hate.  I enjoyed watching Hazel in reruns, although I didn’t really care for the final year—it seemed to be working too hard to be fun. TV. Although, this show is not one of those that I watch with fond nostalgia, it is not as syrupy as some shows and better than many shows still on the air. I occasionally catch an episode on Antenna TV. If you want to check it out, Hazel is on daily at 11 EST. It also airs Saturday evening at 6:30 EST and at 8 am both Saturday and Sunday mornings.

 

 

 

Survey Says . . . Pick Richard Dawson to Win

We end our series about getting to know Match Game regular panelists with Richard Dawson.

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Richard was born in England in 1932. His birth name was Colin Lionel Emm, but he legally changed his name to Richard Dawson as an adult. His mother worked in a munitions plant, and his father drove a moving van. His home life must not have been too happy because he joined the Merchant Marine at age 14. He served for three years moving from the laundry room to a waiter. To keep others from learning his real age and to make some money, he began boxing on board the ship and apparently earned $5000.

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After his stint with the Marines, he began performing stand-up comedy under the name Dickie Dawson. He began playing clubs in London’s West End. One of those was the Stork Room where he met Diana Dors, England’s blonde bombshell version of Marilyn Monroe. The couple married in 1959. They had two boys, Mark born in 1960, and Gary born in 1962.

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When Diana was booked on a talk show in Los Angeles, Richard lied, saying he was a talk show host in England, and told them what he thought was not working on the show. They then hired him, and he hosted the local show for 13 months. In 1964, Diana walked out on Richard and the boys. Richard obtained full custody and the couple officially divorced in 1967. Richard remained in love with her for quite a while. He continued to send her flowers for every birthday and defended her to his friends.

While living in Los Angeles, Richard began auditioning for television.  His first acting job was on The Jack Benny Show in 1963. He continued to receive roles throughout the 1960s and was seen on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Outer Limits, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Mr. Terrific, and McCloud.

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In 1965, Dawson was offered the role of Captain Robert Hogan on a new show called Hogan’s Heroes. The show was set in a POW camp during World War II where the prisoners run the camp without the German commanders realizing it. He declined the offer because he thought his voice was too British to be realistic. Bob Crane took the part of Hogan, and Dawson accepted the role of Englishman Corporal Peter Newkirk. The show entered the top ten its first year and remained on the air for six seasons, generating 168 episodes for Richard.

Dawson loved to sing and in the early 1970s he released a 45-rpm record. The A side was a psychedelic tune, “His Children’s Parade” and the B side was titled “Apples and Oranges.” During the run of Hogan’s Heroes, Dawson, along with Robert Clary, Ivan Dixon, and Larry Hovis put out an album, “Hogan’s Heroes Sing the Best of World War II,” all songs from the 1940s.

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When Hogan’s Heroes was cancelled, he joined the cast of Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. He continued to appear on television during the 1970s, showing up on Love American Style, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, McMillan and Wife, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.

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After the demise of Laugh-In, producer Mark Goodson offered Richard a regular spot on Match Game with Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly. He would be seen on 1397 episodes, the celebrity almost always chosen for the Head-to-Head Match. He was very popular with the fans, displaying a boyish charm, a bit flippant but always a gentleman.

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While still participating on Match Game, Richard took on the role of emcee for a new game show, Family Feud that debuted in 1976. His quick wit and ability to put people at ease made him a popular celebrity. His trademarks were saying “Survey says . . .” and kissing all the female contestants. He was nicknamed “The Kissing Bandit” and smooched with about 20,000 women. He said he “kissed them for luck and love,” but the producers did not like it and tried to pressure him to stop. He asked his viewers for their opinion. Fans responded with 704 voting to stop and 14,600 to continue.

In 1978, Richard asked to be released from Match Game, but that request was denied.  He was not happy about it, feeling like he was working too much. He apparently became quiet and sullen on the show, refused to interact with the other celebrities and contestants, and stopped joking and flirting. He was then let go. That same year he won the Emmy for Best Game Show Host. He was so popular that he was considered as a replacement for Johnny Carson when he thought about leaving The Tonight Show.

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ABC cancelled Family Feud in 1985 and CBS relaunched it in 1988 where it aired till 1993. Dawson would film 2335 Family Feud episodes. The show is still on air having been hosted by Louie Anderson from 1999-2002, Richard Karn from 2002-2006, John O’Hurley from 2006-2010, and Steve Harvey from 2010 to the present.

In April of 1981, the Johnson family appeared on the program. Richard, 49, met Gretchen Johnson, 27.  After being together for nine years, they had a daughter Shannon and the couple married in 1991. Richard became a US citizen during their relationship as well.

Dawson was offered the host position on the revival of Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life, but the pilot wasn’t picked up. He also was passed over as host for a game called Trump Card.

In 1994, Family Feud was back on the air in its third version, but it only lasted a short time. Dawson said he promised his young daughter he wouldn’t kiss anyone but her mother, so he did not kiss contestants in the revival.

During the 1960s, Richard appeared in seven big-screen movies, but his most critically acclaimed role was in 1987 when he costarred in Running Man with Arnold Schwartzeneggar, a science fiction movie. He portrayed Damon Killian, an egotistical emcee of a game show. Several people described this character as Richard’s mirror image at various times in his career. Rumors of his dark side emerged from time to time. It was said he was temperamental and that he drank too much. He wanted to be known as more than a game show host.

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Unfortunately, he never appeared in another television show or movie, so a game show host and panelist is how most people remember him.

Early in his career, Dawson participated in politics. He marched for civil rights in Alabama with Dr. King, and he campaigned for McGovern. He was described as a “far-out liberal,” but he said he made known he was against Communism.

Richard liked to golf and play pool.  He converted one of his bedrooms into an antique pool room.

He was a night person and stayed up late to read and write.  He said he read about five books a week.

Richard Dawson passed away in 2012 at 79 from esophageal cancer complications.

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Obviously, Dawson had the capacity to become a great actor based on his roles on Hogan’s Heroes and in Running Man.  Unfortunately, whether it was being in the right place or being offered the right role, he never got the chance to prove it. While he gave many viewers a lot of pleasure during his thousands of game show episodes, it must have been bittersweet to realize that was his main claim to fame. Hogan’s Heroes can be seen week nights on Me TV.  The shows have kept their charm and humor and are fun to watch.

 

A Man of Many Talents: Charles Nelson Reilly

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We continue our series getting to know some of the Match Game regulars. Today Charles Nelson Reilly is on my celebrity panel. Little did Charles Joseph Reilly, an Irish-American, and Signe Elvera Nelson, a Swedish-American, know when they gave birth to Charles in 1931, they were creating one of the country’s best-known celebrities. From details he later shared, his home life was not a particularly happy one.

At 13, he had a traumatic experience that he would refer to often. He was at the circus in Hartford, Connecticut when a fire broke out, killing 167 people and injuring another 700. It left him with a fear of being in public-filled areas, and he avoided being a member of the audience anywhere, including theaters.

However, he did not fear performing in these spaces. He studied at the Hartt School of Music, with the goal of becoming an opera singer, but realized he did not have the voice skills he needed and turned to the theater and acting. He paid his dues working as a mail clerk at the Waldorf Astoria, an orderly, and an usher. He received a small role in A Face in the Crowd in 1957. He then went on to become a regular comedy performer in Off-Broadway shows. Opera continued to be a passion of Charles, and he would later guest star on many opera radio broadcasts and become close friends with many opera singers.

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In 1960, he transitioned to Broadway with a part in Bye Bye Birdie, where he was also Dick Van Dyke’s understudy. This led to his being a member of the cast of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1962 for which he won a Tony for the role of Bud Frump. The rest of the 1960s found him on Broadway performing in various shows, including Hello Dolly with Carol Channing, for which he earned another Tony nomination.

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He also began appearing on television in the 1960s, showing up in Car 54, Where Are You?; The Farmer’s Daughter; The Patty Duke Show, and became a cast member of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir from 1968-70. Charles played the nephew of Captain Gregg, the ghost who befriends Mrs. Muir and her family. As the bumbling Claymore he was fussy and sarcastic, traits attributed to Charles from then on.

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The 1970s continued his television acting career, and we saw him on Here’s Lucy, The Doris Day Show, McMillan and Wife, and Love American Style among others. He had a recurring role on Arnie in 1971-2 and starred in a show, Uncle Croc’s Block. When you see characters named Witchy Goo-Goo, Uncle Croc, Mr. Rabbit Ears, and Basil Bitterbottom, you know it’s not your normal show. This spoof on kid’s shows only lasted for 16 episodes.

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Charles also appeared on game shows, talk shows, and was a favorite on The Tonight Show, appearing about 100 times. Nelson Reilly shared a story about one of his Tonight Show appearances.  A pretentious fellow guest asked Reilly, “What do you know about Shakespeare?” Charles stood and performed a long Shakespearean monologue, concluding with, “That’s what I know about Shakespeare!”

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He also did commercials for Excedrin, Purina Kibbles, and Bic Banana Crayons which he promoted in a banana costume.

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Beginning in 1976, Charles transitioned to directing both Broadway and television shows, although he continued to show up on series during the 1980s and 1990s, including The Love Boat, Madame’s Place, Evening Shade, and The Drew Carey Show. He won his third Tony nomination for directing Julie Harris in The Bell of Amherst.

Charles also continued making movies over the years, including the musical Two Tickets to Paris in 1962, the comedy The Tiger Makes Out in 1967, and the star-filled Cannonball Run II in 1984.

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CANNONBALL RUN II, Telly Savalas, Charles Nelson Reilly, Frank Sinatra, 1984. ©Warner Bros.

In addition to all of his other talents, Reilly was a well-respected teacher. Burt Reynolds was a close friend of his, and Charles moved to Florida in 1979 to teach at the Burt Reynolds Institute. He also taught at the HB Studio of Herbert Berghof and Uta Hagen. Some of his students were Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Lily Tomlin, Gary Burghoff, and Christine Lahti.

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Charles may not have had the voice skills for opera, but he was perfect for animation and was kept busy during the 1980s and 1990s voicing characters for Wind in the Willows, Rugrats, Goof Troop, The Pink Panther, SpongeBob, Tom and Jerry, and as Hunch in the big-screen film, Rock-A-Doodle.

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With his vast array of acting and directing fame, it seems ironic that he is best remembered for Match Game where he and his friend Brett Somers became a feature of the show.

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The original Match Game can be seen on The Game Show Network. The concept of the show was easy and fun. Two contestants were each given two questions with a blank in them, such as “The surgeon said, ‘The man I’m operating on must be a magician. When I reached in to pull out his appendix, I got a ___________ instead!’” Six celebrity panelists wrote down their answer to the question and then the contestant got a point for each person who matched their answer.

Brett and pal Charles Nelson Reilly, who often referred to her as “Susan,” kept each other in stitches and provided entertainment for the other panelists. In a September 12, 2012, Whitney McIntosh (in the blog ”This was Television”) referred to them as “rambunctious school children left to their own devices” which captures their relationship on the show perfectly. Their banter and quick quips kept viewers tuning in. For example, on one show, someone had mentioned that one of the younger panelists had a nice body. Charles turned to Brett remarking that her body was just as beautiful as the other woman’s.  The audience clapped, and Brett had just finished saying thank-you, when Charles added, “But you should take yours back because you’re putting a lot of wrinkles on it.” No one laughed harder than Brett.

I mentioned in my blog last week that Somers toured the US with an autobiographical performance. She was diagnosed with cancer while doing the show and passed away in 2007.

Reilly had a similar show, “Save It for the Stage: The Life of Reilly” which also became a film. Like good friend Brett, Reilly became ill during his show as well. He retired due to respiratory problems; unfortunately, the illness got worse and he died of pneumonia in 2007 also.

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Reilly was one of the few performers who never hid his gay lifestyle. An NBC network executive once told him, “They don’t let queers on television.” He proved him wrong, becoming a television star.

Despite his extroverted television personality, Charles was a very private person. One of the most surprising things I learned about Charles was that he was bald and wore a toupee during the 1970s and 1980s. If you watch Match Game often, you will notice he went through a period where he wore a variety of hats; this was because his toupee was being adjusted. In the late 1990s, he accepted his baldness and quit wearing hats.

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One of the best descriptions I read about Reilly came from Danny Miller on his blog dated May 28, 2007. He said “As anyone who met him knows, from his celebrity friends to the fans on the street to his nurses in the hospital, being in Charles’ presence was like being a willing victim of a high energy tsunami. Hearing him tell anecdotes about his crazy life was irresistible and you never wanted him to stop, he was so much fun to be around. He seemed to know everyone in showbiz, from the sublime to the ridiculous, and he spoke reverentially of many of his talented friends, including Uta Hagen and Julie Harris.”

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Paul Linke, his director for his one-man show, wrote after his death: “The world is a slightly less funny place now.” I have to agree.

 

 

This Panelist Gets My “Blank” Endorsement: Brett Somers

I had so much fun learning about Fannie Flagg, that I decided to tackle getting to know some of the other regular Match Game panelists. Today we meet Brett Somers.  For someone who has fewer than ten acting credits for any given decade, Brett Somers became a well-known star. She became a household name after appearing on Match Game. Let’s learn a bit more about her life.

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Brett was born in July of 1924, and her real name was Audrey Dawn Johnston. While she was born in Canada, she was raised in Maine and spent much of her life in New England. She left home at 18 to pursue an acting career. She chose her stage name for the character “Brett” in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and her mother’s maiden name of “Somers.” She settled in Greenwich Village, married Robert Klein, and had a daughter. She was not married long before they divorced.

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Brett joined the Actors Studio in 1952. She married Jack Klugman in 1953; they would have two sons. In the 1950s, Brett’s television appearances  were all on drama series such as Robert Montgomery Presents and The Kraft Theatre. In the 1960s she appeared primarily on westerns and legal dramas, including The New Breed, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Defenders. In the 1970s, she showed up on a lot of sitcoms. She was in Love American Style, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Odd Couple with her husband Klugman to name a few. On The Odd Couple, she played the role of Blanche, Oscar’s ex-wife.

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In addition to The Odd Couple, Brett had recurring roles on The New Perry Mason Show and Battlestar Gallactica.

Brett had her Broadway debut in Maybe Tuesday in 1957, which closed after five performances. She would appear onstage in Happy Ending, The Seven Year Itch, and The County Girl. She also appeared in three movies: Bus Riley’s Back in Town and A Rage to Live, both from 1965 and in Bone from 1972.

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Despite her many television series appearancs, she is best known for her role as a panelist on the various versions of Match Game, amassing 1591 episodes overall. Some viewers compared the show to a cocktail party with money given away. What’s surprising, given her popularity on the show, is that she was not originally part of the cast. Klugman appeared on the first week of the show in 1973, and he suggested they try Somers. They did, and she never left. Her dry sense of humor and great wit provided her a job for nine years.

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Match Game can be seen on The Game Show Network. The concept of the show was easy and fun. Two contestants were each given two questions with a blank in them, such as “The surgeon said, ‘The man I’m operating on must be a magician. When I reached in to pull out his appendix, I got a ___________ instead!’” Six celebrity panelists wrote down their answer to the question and then the contestant got a point for each person who matched their answer.

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Brett and pal Charles Nelson Reilly, who often referred to her as “Susan,” kept each other in stitches and provided entertainment for the other panelists. In a September 12,  2012, Whitney McIntosh (in the blog ”This was Television”) referred to them as “rambunctious school children left to their own devices” which captures their relationship on the show perfectly. Their banter and quick quips kept viewers tuning in. For example, on one show, someone had mentioned that one of the younger panelists had a nice body. Charles turned to Brett remarking that her body was just as beautiful as the other woman’s.  The audience clapped, and Brett had just finished saying thank-you, when Charles added, “But you should take yours back because you’re putting a lot of wrinkles in it.” No one laughed harder than Brett.

In a Playbill interview in July of 2003, Andrews Gans asked Brett why she thought Match Game was still so popular. Somers paused and then answered, “Because of the fact that there was no structure to it. It was just six people having a good time and teasing one another. There was never any meanness. And people really sensed when Charles [Nelson Reilly] would jerk his head and go, ‘She seems a little odd today’ — they knew there was no meanness in it. And, Gene was the greatest straight man who ever lived. He would ask you the questions and would set it up for you. He was wonderful. And I think the relaxation of the atmosphere.”

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After Brett died, Marcia Wallace, on of her best friends, discussed Brett’s career on Match Game. “She was my best friend. I made a lot of friends there. She and Charles were the heart and soul of the show. Their relationship just was magic. And then, of course, I think there was no better host in the world ever than Gene Rayburn. He was funny, he was sassy, he was naughty, he kept the game going, he made the contestants feel good, he set up the celebrities. He was perfect.”

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Not long after Somers started with Match Game, she and Klugman separated. Three years later, in 1977, they divorced but remained friends. Although I read in many reports they never divorced, and many sites listed them as separated but never divorced. I believe California documents exist to show they did divorce a few years after their separation.

In 2003, Somers wrote, co-produced, and acted in a critically acclaimed one-woman cabaret show, An Evening with Brett Somers. Somers wrote the show with Mark Cherry, and he accompanied her on the piano and served as the director and arranger.

Brett shared her thoughts on doing a cabaret show–“It never occurred to me in a million years that I’d be doing a cabaret show. I was standing backstage, and I thought, ‘You’re an older person. You should be lying down somewhere in a nice cool bed watching TV!’ And I went out there, and I just had a great time.”

In 2004, Somers was diagnosed with stomach and colon cancer, but she continued to perform in the show. Brett had a period of remission but passed away in 2007 at her home in Connecticut.

In 2005, Somers reunited with Jack Klugman onstage in Danger, People at Large, three short comedies presented at Fairfield University. It was the first time in three decades that the former couple had performed together.

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In my blog on Fannie Flagg a few weeks ago, I found her reflection on her friendship with Brett and Charles:

 Besides being hilarious, Brett and Charles were two of the smartest people I have ever known. On Match Game, they got such a big kick out of each other! They razzed one another and everybody else on the panel mercilessly, and they were particularly relentless on the people they really liked. It was never mean or hurtful, and they loved it when you razzed them back.

One of the happiest times in my life was in 1980 when I was doing “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on Broadway, and Charles, Brett, and I were staying at the Wyndham Hotel at the same time. Every day at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon they would come to my room for cocktails. Many is the time I would come home from after the show and they would still be sitting there having a good time. The only thing that changed was the position of Charles’ toupee.
In the Gans interview, he asked Brett how she would like to be remembered. Her answer was “I would like them to think that I gave them pleasure and joy.”

I think we can all agree that is how we remember her!

 

The Not-So Odd Couple

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Today we look at a show that never received its due credit post production.  Unless you watched Kate and Allie, you might never have heard of the show. Yet, it had two major female stars in Jane Curtin and Susan St. James. It ran for six seasons. It was in the top 20 until the last season. The series was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows of 1984. The show won at least four Emmys and had many nominations.

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Sort of a female Odd Couple, the premise of the show is that Allie Lowell (Curtin) divorces her husband, a doctor, after he was having an affair. They have a son and a daughter. She moves to New York to live with her childhood friend Kate McArdle who is also divorced raising a daughter. Her ex is a part-time actor. Allie’s son Chip is played by Lowell Frederick Koehler and her daughter Jennie by Allison Smith. Kate’s daughter Emma is played by Ari Meyers.

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A lot of stars appeared on the show including Wendie Malick, Dylan Walsh, Andrea Martin, David Groh, Holland Taylor, Patricia Richardson, Barbara Barrie, Ben Stiller Lindsay Wagner, Ricki Lake, and Debra Jo Rupp. Dick Cavett, Dick Butkus, and Joe Namath all played themselves. A fun trivia fact is that Kelsey Grammar had his series acting debut. He played a man who had a blind date with Kate but hit it off with Allie while waiting for Kate to get ready. When he and Kate don’t have a connection, he then asks Allie out, but she spends the entire evening talking about her ex-husband and her divorce.

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John Loeffler sings the theme song, “Along Comes a Friend” composed by Ralph Schuckett. During the first season, Loeffler appeared as a piano teacher in one of the shows. Bill Persky, well respected in television, was the director for the first five years. Persky directed other shows such as That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Alice and Who’s the Boss. He was the producer for the entire run of That Girl as well. The last season was directed by Linda Day.

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Sherry Coben created the show. She got the idea after attending a high school reunion.  She noticed that the divorced women seemed to relate to each other and received encouragement from each other, so she thought it would make a great show. The working title for the show was “Two Mommies.”

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Kate is free spirited while Allie is more traditional. When the show first begins, Kate is a travel agent, so Allie decides to stay home and take care of the domestic duties for the three kids. At the beginning of the fifth season when the kids are older, Kate quits her job, and Kate and Allie start their own catering company. They both date off and on; the finale for season 5 shows Allie marrying Bob Barsky (Sam Freed), a sportscaster. They get their own apartment for season 6, but the ratings declined so the writers found Bob a new job that required a lot of travel, so Kate moved in with the couple.  The concept never worked because she seemed to be intruding on the newlyweds’ privacy. By this time Kate’s daughter Emma had left the house. In real life, Meyers left the series to attend Yale, but she was in the opening credits and appeared on the show at least once.

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Kate never marries but she has several serious relationships. She dates plumber Ted Bartelo (Greg Salata) during Season 2 but they break up at the end of the year. He re-enters her life in Season 5, but things just don’t work out.

Allie’s husband Charles (Paul Hecht) marries Claire, played by Wendie Malick during the run of the show.

Each episode began with Allie and Kate having a conversation. It reveals how close they were and introduced the episode. At the end of the show, the theme song played and another discussion between the two brought closure to the issue.

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The week the show debuted, it was number four in the ratings. It was consistently in the top 20 for the first five seasons. Persky left after five seasons once Allie married because he felt that the show had accomplished what it set out to do. Allie has learned more about herself, become confident in taking care of herself and relying on her friends to help her navigate life. She now is able to enter a new relationship as a stronger and more independent person. After the drastic changes of Allie getting married and the kids beginning to leave the nest, the ratings declined during Season 6. At the end of the year it was cancelled.

Two of the funniest shows were a parody of I Love Lucy and the episode when the girls go on the Dick Cavett Show.

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St. James and Curtin were friends. St. James’ husband Bob Ebersol worked on Saturday Night Live, which Curtin left in 1980. The two starred in The High Cost of Living, a movie from 1980.

After the show was over, Curtin had several other series including Working it Out and Crumbs which both lasted an unlucky 13 episodes and Third Rock from the Sun, a huge hit and long-running show. Recently she has appeared on The Good Wife and The Librarians.

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St. James was best known for her roles in The Name of the Game, McMillan and Wife, a variety of movies, and an appearance on M*A*S*H.

In an interview with People in June of 2006, St. James said on the show “Jane ran a serious poker game with the kids and crew like Triple Card Cowboy or Blackjack Over Easy.” It sounded like a fun set to work on.

St. James was happy to take on the show because it allowed her to continue living in Connecticut with Dick and their five children. Her TV kids became friends with her own children. Ari Meyers said “I loved Susan . . . I went to her house many times and hung out with her kids.”

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The series spawned two spin-offs but neither went anywhere. Roxie starred Andrea Martin. It aired in April 1987, but after two episodes it was cancelled. Late Bloomer was a season replacement to star Lindsay Wagner, but the show was scrapped before its debut on the air.

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Kate and Allie’s first two seasons were released on DVD in May of 2006, but I don’t think any other seasons have been packaged. The lack of DVD presence and the fact that reruns never ran on a major station keep the show from being remembered. Take some time to watch an episode or two on YouTube and enjoy the camaraderie of these two stars.

 

Rain, Rain, Go Away

The old cliché is that April showers bring May flowers. So,  today we get a glimpse of April Showers.  I’m just grateful that I did not have to research shows about snowstorms, since Wisconsin received one to two feet of snow two weeks ago, and we’re still waiting for our first April shower. Let’s look at some of the best sitcom episodes about rain.

I am not a fan of Married . . . With Children, but when looking at sitcom episodes about rain, “Who’ll Stop the Rain” needs to be on the list. The title was taken from the Creedence Clearwater Revival song. During a weekend of rain, Al tries several times to fix the house’s leaky roof. He keeps falling off, and his family can’t decide if his worst trait is stupidity or being cheap. While Al continues to climb the ladder, and his family continues to debate his mental status, in a subplot, Steve lands a job at a pet store. He brings home a guinea pig for a pet. Unfortunately, the guinea bites Marcy and she finds out that the bite is full of venom.

 

One of my favorite rain episodes is a My Three Sons show titled “The Sky is Falling.” This episode is from the seventh season. Robbie and Katie are married and now have three sons. Rob is under some pressure to provide for his family. A friend of Robbie’s, Steve Franken, convinces him he can make a ton of money selling real estate, so Robbie considers quitting school. During a torrential rain, the storm reveals several flaws in a house he’s selling. Robbie must decide if he will cover up the problems or be honest with the potential buyers and lose the sale.

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Another great rain show is the Barney Miller episode “Rain,” an episode from Season 2. Written by Tony Sheehan, the episode features Stanley Brock, Phil Leeds, and Sidney Miller. The team must continue their work even though the precinct roof is threatening to collapse due to a downpour. As the show opens, everyone is unhappy with the weather. There is a deluge of rain out the window, and you can hear the drop of water hitting a pan. Harris and Chano are sent to a nightclub to break up a fight.

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The maintenance man reports that there are 6 inches of water on the roof.   Fish opens an umbrella when a large leak occurs. Everyone who looks out the window gets depressed and complains about their life.

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Harris and Chano bring in a comedian, Jackie Ace. When the audience didn’t like his jokes, he started insulting them. It turned into a free for all, and the owner wants him to pay for damages. He is booked on disorderly conduct. His act is Bicentennial impersonations such as Benedict Arnold turning to Ethan Hale and saying, “Just hang in there kid.” Barney asks Fish if they found a crime for the comedian, and Fish says only his monologue. Jack Soo who plays Yemana with deadpan delivery and a wry sense of humor, uses the rain coming from the ceiling to make coffee.

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Every time we see the room there are more containers collecting water. Eventually the maintenance man reports they now have 5 feet of water on the roof, and it is coming from the buildings surrounding the precinct. Even the file drawers fill up with water. The emergency department for the city says there is no way the roof can collapse. When no nightclub guests press charges, the officers let Jackie Ace go. Eventually part of the roof collapses and Barney, who is typically mild mannered and calm, loses his temper. He has finally had it, and he decides to call the City and give them a piece of his mind, but now the phone line is washed out. At the end of the show when the rain has finally stopped, Barney apologizes to the crew for getting so mad, but they tell him not to worry about it. He just said what they all were feeling.

My favorite rain episode, hands down, is “The Rains Came” from Green Acres. This quirky episode is from the first season. It begins in the Pixley Courtroom. As everyone enters, Mr. Haney introduces Oliver and Lisa to his attorney, Diller Fangworth, played by J. Pat O’Malley. Fangworth doesn’t believe Oliver is really a lawyer because he’s never seen him hanging out with the other lawyers at the saloon across the street. Mr. Haney reprimands Oliver for not settling the lawsuit and gives him another chance to pay. He does take time to compliment Lisa on her sophisticated outfit in the middle of the speech. Fangworth removes his coat and plays with his suspenders. Haney tells Oliver the judge’s favorite actor is Spencer Tracy, and as Fangworth begins questioning the witnesses, he is obviously using his impersonation of Spencer from Inherit the Wind. At one point, the judge tells him he’s seen enough of his Tracy mimicking in the past and to put his coat back on.

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When the judge asks who is representing Oliver, and Oliver says he is an attorney, the judge asks why he’s never seen him across the street at the saloon. We learn that Haney is suing Oliver for $350 for services rendered. Oliver says he did agree to pay $350 but services were not rendered. They begin to recall what led up to the lawsuit.

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Eb is the first witness. He takes the stand, and the judge makes him remove his hat. Eb bought the hat just to go with the suit, so he is not happy. Plus, he worries his hair is now a mess while he testifies. Eb recalls that on the 86th day of the drought, Lisa was talking to Rudolph the sunflower outside their back door. Oliver finds Lisa talking to the plant and thinks the heat has gotten the better of her. When she waters the flower, Oliver reminds here they have acres of plants dying from lack of water. She says she is not wasting water because there is a story from her old country that if you water a sunflower right outside your door, you can ask him for one favor and he must grant it. She is going to ask him for rain. Oliver tells her she is being ridiculous and sends her inside. Then he stops and stares at the sunflower and, making sure no one sees him, he waters it.

The second witness was Hank Kimble. He’s eating lunch when they call him up which leads to some confusion. He takes the oath but feels compelled to say while he doesn’t lie, he did in fact lie to his mother once. The judge stops him and tells him just to answer the questions. Kimble admits Oliver asked him how they could get it to rain, and Kimble said they could seed a cloud; unfortunately, there were no clouds to seed.

Everyone retires to the saloon across the street for lunch. When they reconvene, it’s Mr. Haney’s turn to take the stand. He explains that he and Oliver discussed the drought, and Haney offered to make it rain for $100 with his rain machine. When Oliver says there is no such thing, Haney reveals Chief Thundercloud, played by Robert Strauss. The chief begins playing a drum, but Oliver cuts him off and refuses to pay $100. Haney pulls out jars of water specimens from different areas around the country where the chief has brought rain.

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A couple days later, Haney comes back to give Oliver a second chance. The Chief says he has to work harder now because it’s dryer, so the cost is $350. Oliver agrees to a double or nothing payment. If the Chief brings rain, Oliver will pay, but if not, they get nothing. The Chief does his dance, but after a couple minutes he stops because he is tired and asks Oliver for a glass of water.  Oliver sends then both away. Haney tells the Chief he no longer wants his services. The Chief is walking around Hooterville and meets Lisa at the house; he tells her he needs a job. She tells him to do whatever handyman chores he sees need done and they will pay him. She relays this to Oliver who realizes who he is. He goes outside and finds the Chief washing his car. Oliver tells him to stop wasting water on the car. Suddenly, a rain storm begins.

Mr. Haney is sure it was from the Chief’s dancing, Lisa thinks it is the sunflower, and Oliver says it’s because the Chief washed his car, and everyone knows as soon as you wash the car, it rains.

The judge (played by Howard Smith), tired of the entire bunch, dismisses the case. Everyone returns home.

At home, Oliver finds Lisa talking to Rudolph again. She said she asked Rudolph to bring rain when Oliver was arguing with the Chief about washing the car. Oliver tells her that is silly, so she asks Rudolph to make it rain. Instantly, Oliver has rain coming down on him and looks amazed till he looks up and sees Eb squirting him with a hose.

The characters make this episode funny. Their expressions and mannerisms from Fangworth’s Tracy impersonation to Eb worrying about his hair to Kimble feeling the need to admit he once lied to his mother add dimension to the quirkiness the characters always exhibit. I liked the fact that the judge was not portrayed as a country hick; he is an intelligent and no-nonsense guy who just wants to get his job done right. I also thought it was great that while Oliver knows its crazy that watering a sunflower could produce rain, he still takes time to water Rudolph. It’s a well-written script featuring the true traits of the Hooterville citizens at their best.

Enjoy these rainy days of spring when you can stay indoors and watch old tv episodes.

 

 

 

Ruth Buzzi: Born to Be a Comedienne

As we continue our look at actors and actresses who made great character roles their own, our last meeting is with Ruth Buzzi.  While she was primarily known for her characters on Laugh-In, she has had a long and full career.

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Ruth was born in July of 1936 in Rhode Island. Her father was a famous sculptor who was born in Switzerland. He carved the marble eagles at Penn Station in New York City, the Leif Erikson Memorial in Providence, and several animals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For his family business, he created thousands of tombstones. In one article I read that he was asked to work on the Mount Rushmore presidents, but declined because he had a fear of heights.  I was not able to confirm that story however. She was raised in Connecticut. Her brother took over the family business and sold it a couple of years ago.

Ruth was head cheerleader in high school. At 17, she enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse for the Performing Arts where she studied voice, dance, and acting, graduating with honors. Her classmates there included Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman.

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Her first job was while she was still in school, traveling with Rudy Vallee in a musical and comedy act. After graduation, she moved to New York City and appeared in revues throughout New England. She teamed up with Dom DeLuise in a skit where he was an incompetent magician and she was his assistant. Buzzi decided to name her character, who never spoke, Shakuntala. They appeared to a national audience when they were booked on The Garry Moore Show in 1958. In the late 1960s Buzzi received a role on The Steve Allen Show.

Buzzi married Bill Keko in 1965. They would divorce a decade later.

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During this time, Ruth was hired by Bob Fosse to perform in a Broadway show, “Sweet Charity.” She also had an appearance on The Monkees. While she was in the play, she auditioned for a role on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1967.

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She received the role, and it was on that show that many of her funniest characters were created. Along with Dick Martin and Dan Rowan, she was the only person to appear in every episode of the show. (Gary Owens also appeared every series episode, but he was not in the Laugh-In special.) Buzzi was a versatile performer; her quirky characters included Busy-Buzzi, a Hollywood gossip columnist; a prostitute, Kim Hither; Doris Swizzle (sometimes Sidebottom), who ends up drinking too much with her husband; and one of two inconsiderate flight attendants.

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Her most beloved character was Gladys Ormphby, a spinster dressed in a hair net and drab clothing. She always carried a purse and would use it to hit people when she was frustrated. Gladys was often paired with Arte Johnson as Tyrone, a dirty old man who was hit many times. (I have read about a lot of strange cartoons in the 1970s and one of them was The Nitwits, a cartoon about Gladys and Tyrone. Johnson and Buzzi voiced their characters.) Her performances on Laugh-In earned her a Golden Globe Award and five Emmy nominations.

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While I remember Buzzi from Laugh-In, the role I knew her best in was Pete Peterson, Ann Marie’s friend on That Girl which she appeared on during her Laugh-In tenure.

Buzzi was one of the many starts who frequently appeared on Sesame Street. She was nominated for an Emmy on that show for her role of Ruthie, a store owner. She later appeared at the dedication of Jim Henson’s star on Hollywood Boulevard after his death.

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In the early 1970s, Buzzi would continue to appear on television series, including Walt Disney, Night Gallery, Here’s Lucy, Love American Style, Lotsa Luck, and Medical Center.

In 1975, she starred with Jim Nabors in The Lost Saucer. This was a Sid and Marty Krofft production, so you know it was a bit odd. The stars were time-traveling androids Fi and Fum. The show was cancelled after 16 episodes.

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During the 1970s, Ruth also was the spokesperson on a number of products, including Clorox 2, Clairol, Ban deodorant, the Santa Anita Raceway, and Sugar Crisp Cereal. In the Sugar Crisp ads, she was Granny Goodwitch, a role she created for a 1960s animation show, Linus! The Lion Hearted.

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In 1978, another important milestone occurred for Ruth when she married her husband, Kent Perkins.

Her television work continued into the 1980s when she appeared on CHiPs, Trapper John, and The Love Boat. She was Chloe, the never seen, but often mentioned wife of Henry Beesmeyer on Alice. She also made eight appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She was in 25 films during her career including The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again and Freaky Friday. She currently has two movies in post-production:  One Month Out with Barry Bostwick and John Schneider and Glen’s Gotta Go.

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Buzzi is also well known as a voice actress. Most of her roles since 1985 have been for animation series. She voiced characters in the series Pound Puppies, Mama Bear in The Berenstain Bears, Smurfs, Chip and Dale, Darkwing Duck, Rocket Power, and Angry Beavers.

She also had a nightclub act which toured the United States for a year. In addition, she was on most of the Dean Martin Roasts, typically playing Gladys.

Ruth currently lives with her husband in Texas on a 600-acre ranch. Her hobby is painting. The couple also collects antique automobiles, primarily post-war English cars. She also volunteers for a variety of charities.

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Like Fanny Flagg, Bill Daily, and Howard McNear, Buzzi can be described as delightful. I’m happy to celebrate such a full career for such a fun woman.

 

 

 

“Oh, he was a nice, nice man.”

With all the research I have done, I have discovered a lot of nice folks in the entertainment industry (as well as a few not so nice people), but I have never read about anyone more liked than Howard McNear.  Everyone went out of their way to say what a kind and caring man he was.

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McNear was born in Los Angeles in 1905. He studied at the Oatman School of Theater and then joined a stock company in San Diego. During World War II, he enlisted as a private in the US Army Air Corps. He went on to a career in radio, films, and television. In the mid-1960s, he had a stroke and died from complications of pneumonia in 1969. Parley Baer, a life-long friend, delivered his eulogy. He was buried in Los Angeles, completing his California life cycle.

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Howard began working in the radio industry in the 1930s. He was featured in many radio shows, including The Adventures of Bill Lance – a detective drama starring John McIntire as Lance. McNear played the part of Ulysses Higgins, a friend and assistant to Lance. He also filled the role of Clint Barlow on Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police. Some of the other shows he often appeared on included Suspense, Lux Radio Theater, Escape, CBS Radio Workshop, Family Theater, Let George Do It, The Adventures of Masie, Fort Laramie, Wild Bill Hickock, and Richard Diamond, Private Eye. He and Parley Baer were part of the cast of The Count of Monte Cristo, a drama. He continued to work often Baer they both voiced characters frequently on Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. He played congressmen, hotel managers, French detectives, and occasionally the villain.

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He was still working with Baer when they both created their most famous radio characters—Baer as Chester and McNear as Doc Charles Adams—in Gunsmoke which was on the air from 1952-1956. Baer would later show up in Mayberry as the mayor.

McNear made his film debut in the 1951 sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. He followed that up with Escape from Fort Bravo. In 1959 he played Dr. Dompierre in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Some of his most famous films were Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and two Elvis flicks, Blue Hawaii and Follow That Dream. He was also featured in three Billy Wilder comedies: Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, and The Fortune Cookie.

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Overall, he appeared in more than 100 films and television shows. He transitioned into television in the 1950s, appearing The Jack Benny Show and the Burns and Allen Show. He appeared in comedies such as I Love Lucy, Private Secretary, December Bride, The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He also showed up in dramas like The Thin Man, Playhouse 90, Richard Diamond, The Twilight ZoneThe Zane Grey Show, Maverick, and Alfred Hitchcock. Ironically, he had a role as a barber in Leave It to Beaver.

Although McNear had a long career on radio and in films, he will forever be remembered for his memorable and scene-stealing portrayal of chatty and naïve Floyd the Barber in the long-running The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS). Don Knotts once said that playing Floyd wasn’t much of a stretch for McNear, as his real personality was pretty much like Floyd to begin with.

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The first episode of TAGS to feature Floyd did not star McNear; Walter Baldwin was Floyd Lawson. After that episode, McNear took over and made the role his own. On his first appearance he was Floyd Colby, but the next time his name was mentioned it had become Floyd Lawson. Floyd’s shop was where the Mayberry men gathered to gossip and play checkers, and they occasionally got haircuts.

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We usually see Floyd wearing his well-groomed mustache, thick glasses, and his white barber coat. We learned several things about Floyd during the course of the show. He is a widower. His wife was named Melva and they had two children, a son and a daughter. His son Norman plays the saxophone and baseball. When he retired he moved in with his daughter and her family. Floyd had a niece in town named Virginia Lee who entered the Miss Mayberry Pageant. He was also Warren Ferguson’s uncle; Ferguson would replace Barney as deputy when he moved from Mayberry to the big city.

Floyd often (incorrectly) attributed famous quotes to Calvin Coolidge. Floyd had a dog named Sam and raised pansies. He typically drank coffee but enjoyed a Nectarine Crush or a Huckleberry Smash soda now and then, and he thought Wally had the best pop in town.

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Floyd liked to write. He wrote the song for the Miss Mayberry Pageant: “Hail to thee, Miss Mayberry; All hail to thee, all hail; Your loveliness, your majesty; Brings joy to every male; All hail, all hail, all hail; All hail, all hail, all hail.” He even tried to write a novel but had writer’s block after creating a brilliant first sentence: “The sun is dropping lazily down behind the purple hills in the western skies.”

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In the middle of the show’s run, McNear suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving half his body paralyzed. He took some time off to recover. Andy asked him to come back, and the production crew went to great lengths to make things comfortable for him. Although he could not walk or stand, he was seen sitting outside on a bench. There was a special platform built so he could cut hair looking like he was standing while sitting.  Often a he holds a prop with his left hand, using his right hand as he spoke his lines. In 1967, he left the series for good when he could not remember his lines.

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My two favorite Floyd episodes were “Floyd, the Gay Deceiver” and “Convicts At Large.”

In “Floyd, the Gay Deceiver,” Floyd has been corresponding with a wealthy pen pal, a widow. She wants to visit Mayberry which gets him frustrated. He wants to meet her, but he has painted himself as an equally wealthy man. Andy helps him maintain the ruse by using a mansion of a man who is out of town. Eventually, Floyd realizes that the widow was not the wealthy woman she made herself out to be either.

In “Convicts At Large,” the normally excitable Floyd displays a calm demeanor after he and Barney are taken hostage by three escapees from the women’s prison–Big Maude, Naomi, and Sally. When they go into town to buy food, Andy realizes that there is something fishy going on and recaptures the women.

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The cast members who worked with McNear can best describe the type of man he was. In Richard Kelly’s book, The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Griffith, Jack Dodson, and Richard Linke share their memories of Howard McNear. It seems fitting to let them have the last words of this blog.

Andy Griffith:

Howard, first of all, was a leading man in the San Diego theatre years ago. He never was in New York in his life. He developed this comic character, I believe, on The Jack Benny Show. Howard was a nervous man and he became that man, Floyd.

Then Howard had a stroke and was bad off for a long time. He was out of our show for about a year and three-quarters. We did a lot of soft shows, that is, those that were not hard on comedy — stories about the boy or the aunt. But we needed comedy scenes to break up things.

We were working on a script one day, and Aaron [Ruben] said, `Boy do I wish we had Howard.’ And one of us said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can get him.’ So right then we called up Howard’s house and we got his wife, Helen. ‘Oh,’ she said, `it would be a godsend.’

Well, we wrote him a little scene. He was paralyzed all down his left side and so we couldn’t show him walking. We had him sitting or we built a stand that supported him. He could then stand behind the barber chair and use one hand. Most of the time, however, we had him sitting. His mind was not affected at all. He was with us about two years after that before he died. Finally poor Howard died. I’m sorry because there was never anyone like him. Kind, kind man.

Jack Dodson:

Unfortunately, I didn’t know Howard before his stroke. Even after his stroke he was just a wonderful human being and a splendid actor. Sadly, it was during the playing of a scene with Howard that we realized he couldn’t go on anymore.

It was the segment where I wanted to raise the rent on the barbershop. The characters had a great falling out and then, at the end of the show, they were brought back together in the courthouse. Howard had a little difficulty with that segment. We had to change our shooting schedules a little so that his days were not quite so long as they had been. And then, finally, we had a very simple scene of reconciliation. He couldn’t remember it. He went over it and over it, frustrated with himself. Seeing his despair and anxiety was the most painful experience that I’ve ever had. And then he didn’t come back after that.

Richard Linke:

We went to the funeral, and I have to say that it was the only funeral I’ve ever been to where the laughs exceeded the tears. There were a couple of people who knew him well. They spoke in the form of a eulogy — I guess you could call it that. Oh, but it was funny. They related Howard McNear stories from the pulpit. It was something else. Really, it made a nice thing. I think Hal Smith, who played Otis, got up there. It was something else, those stories. And yet, it was all done with dignity. Oh, he was a nice man.