Danger Will Robinson: Lost in Space Revisited

Airing in 1965, Lost in Space follows the travels of a family whose ship is off course, traveling through outer space. The show was on the air for three seasons, producing 84 episodes.

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The premise of the show was that in 1997, earth becomes overpopulated. Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams); his wife Maureen (June Lockheart); and their kids, Judy (Marta Kristen), Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Billy Mumy) are selected to go to the third planet in the Alpha Centauri star system to establish a new colony. Major Don West (Mark Goddard) is also accompanying them. Doctor Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) an enemy government agent is sent to sabotage the mission. He becomes trapped on the ship after he reprograms the robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld), altering the course for the spaceship, the Jupiter 2. The group is now lost and trying to find their way back home. During the course of the show, Smith becomes less sinister. It was no secret that the show was a science fiction version of Swiss Family Robinson.

The pilot, created by Irwin Allen, was titled “No Place to Hide.” A ship called the Gemini 12 was supposed to take a family on a 98-year journey to a new planet. When an asteroid knocks the shop off course, the family must try to find their way back. CBS bought the series, choosing Lost in Space over another new show, Star Trek. Dr. Smith and the Robinsons’ robot were added to the cast and the ship was renamed Jupiter 2.

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Dr. Robinson was an astrophysicist who specialized in planetary geology. Williams who played the part was a well-known actor who had starred in the show Zorro. He thought his lead role would be a dramatic part, but the show became increasingly campy like Batman, and Williams’ role was more of a supporting character than a star. He was bitter about the turn of events and when the show was cancelled, he moved to Argentina where Zorro was popular and never acted again.

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Maureen Robinson was also a doctor; she was a biochemist who also performed housewife duties such as preparing meals and tending the garden. Her chores were not too taxing though because the “auto-matic laundry” took seconds to clean, iron, fold, and package clothing in plastic bags. The dishwasher also did a load in seconds. In addition to the hydroponic garden maintained by Maureen, the crew had protein pills available that would substitute for food during emergencies. One fun fact I learned about Lockhart was that she had the largest parking spot on the 20th Century Fox lot because she often drove a 1923 Seagrave fire truck.

West was the pilot of the Jupiter 2 and the only crew member who could land the ship.

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Judy is the oldest child. Being the oldest, she was allowed a more glamorous wardrobe and hairstyle. There was always the undercurrent that she and West would get together. Penny is eleven and loves animals and classical music. She finds a pet similar to a chimpanzee which she named “Bloop.” Will is nine and the youngest member of the family, but he is a genius when it comes to electronics and computer technology.

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Dr. Smith is an expert in cybernetics. Carroll O’Connor, Jack Elam, and Victor Buono were all considered for the part of Dr. Smith. Smith was only supposed to be a guest star but became the best-loved character in the show. Harris rewrote many of his lines that he considered boring. He redefined his character as an attention-getting egoist with a flamboyant style and arrogant dialogue.

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The Robot is an M-3, Model B9, General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Robot which had no name. It did have superhuman strength and weaponry that was futuristic in nature. It can display human characteristics such as laughter, sadness, and mockery.

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The robot was designed by Robert Kinoshita. It cost $75,000 to produce and weighed more than 200 pounds. Kinoshita also designed Robby the Robot for the Forbidden Planet in 1956. The Lost in Space robot was a Burroughs B-205. It had a flashing light and large reel-to-reel tape drives. It could be seen in a variety of movies and television shows, including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964), Batman (1966), The Land of the Giants (1968), and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).

A number of stars chose to appear on the show including Werner Klemperer, Kurt Russell, Wally Cox, Lyle Waggoner, Arte Johnson, Hans Conried, and Daniel J. Travanti.

The pilot and many shows from season one used Bernard Herrmann’s score from The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1951 film. John Williams wrote the opening and closing themes for the show. Season three used a faster tempo version and the opening featured live action shots of the cast. The theme music is unforgettable, and although I haven’t seen the show since its original airing until recently, I immediately remembered the entire score.

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In season one, the ship crashes on an alien world, later identified as Priplanus. The crew spends most of the season on the planet, surviving many adventures. Most of the episodes emphasize the daily life of the Robinsons adjusting to their new conditions. The show was on Wednesday nights against The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Patty Duke Show on ABC and The Virginian on NBC.

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In season two, the ship is repaired and launched into space. Priplanus is destroyed after a series of earthquakes. Eventually, the spaceship lands on another planet and is delayed there. The show became campier during this time because it was scheduled against Batman for a second year. Costumes were brighter and the show was filmed in color. Most of the plots featured outlandish villains. More emphasis was placed on Will, Dr. Smith, and the robot and serious science fiction was sacrificed. Like season one, each episode ended with a cliff hanger.

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Season three shows the Jupiter 2 travelling through space visiting a new setting on each episode. A space pod allows transportation between the ship and the planets they explore. Humor was still a mainstay of the show and the crew encountered space hippies, pirates, intergalactic zoos, and ice princesses. The cliff hanger disappeared, and the robot would show highlights from the upcoming episode before the closing credits. The show continued its slot on Wednesdays and was still on opposite The Virginian on NBC but also The Avengers on ABC

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The show was probably best known for its technology and futuristic props. The Jupiter 2 was a two-deck spacecraft, nuclear powered. It used “deutronium” for fuel. The crew slept in Murphy beds. A laboratory was also designed as part of the spaceship. The characters could travel between two levels by an electronic glide tube elevator or a ladder. The ship could be entered or exited through an airlock on the upper deck or landing struts on the lower deck.

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The crew traveled on the Chariot. It had six bucket seats for passengers, a radio transceiver, a public address system, a rack holding laser rifles, and interior spotlights.

The crew members could use a jet pack, the Bell Rocket Belt. The robot ran air and soil tests. He could detect threats with his scanner and produce a smoke screen for protection. He could understand speech and speak to the crew. He claimed he could read minds by translating thought waves back into words.

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One of the things Lost In Space is best remembered for is the catchphrase, “Danger Will Robinson.” What is funny is that it was only used one time in the series. Smith also had several lines he is remembered for: “Oh, the pain, the pain” and “Never fear, Smith is here” are two of them. He also was famous for his alliterative phrases such as “Bubble-headed booby,” “Cackling Cacophony,” “Tin-Plated Traitor,” “Blithering Blatherskyte,” and “Traitorous Transistorized Toad” which he used to insult the robot.

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Lost in Space ranked in the top 35 shows all three seasons it was on the air (32nd, 35th, and 33rd respectively). It was ranked number three in the top five favorite new shows of 1965-66, along with The Big Valley, Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, and F-Troop. The show was nominated for an Emmy for Cinematography Special Photographic Effects in 1966 and for Achievement in Visual Arts & Make-up in 1968 but did not win either award.

Despite its good ratings, CBS Chairman William Paley hated the show and didn’t understand why it was popular. He instructed his executives to cancel it the minute its ratings dipped. Unfortunately, it was never able to air a finale.

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In the 1970s, Mumy wrote a script for a reunion movie. He arranged for the casting and had approval from 20th Century Fox and CBS. However, Allen who was worried that Mumy might be entitled to a copyright claim on the original, refused to even review the script. Without his okay, the reunion was never able to be filmed.

Lost in Space was successful in reruns and syndication. All three seasons are available on DVD. Like many science-fiction shows and movies from the 1960s, it was eerily predictive of technology and glaringly wrong at the same time. The show is campy, but I don’t mind that. Along with The Monkees and Batman, it seems to fit the times it was produced in.

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Perhaps it’s not that bad that Mumy was not able to film the reunion. The show was made into a movie in 1998 which received poor reviews. Legendary Television has brought a reboot of the show to Netflix in 2018.  It is currently getting ready for its second season. It has not received the greatest reviews either. Lost in Space can be seen on Antenna TV on Saturday nights, so you might want to catch an episode or two this winter. Sometimes the real thing just can’t be duplicated.

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At The Summit of Coolness: The Rat Pack on Television

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For some reason, the group including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr. have been referred to the Rat Pack since the 1960s. The original rat pack was coined by Lauren Bacall about a group who gathered at her home whom she referred to as a pack of rats. The group we know as the Rat Pack preferred to call themselves the Clan or the Summit. Whatever they chose to call themselves, they had a hip, cool aura.

When one of the members of the group was scheduled to perform at Las Vegas, another one or two of the Clan would often show up as well. Because concert goers knew this, their shows tended to sell out. The Sands marquee promoted the possibility during one of Dean Martin’s shows when they put up “DEAN MARTIN – MAYBE FRANK – MAYBE SAMMY.”

I thought it would be fun to look at the Rat Pack on television and see how much influence this group had. Let’s start with Old Blue Eyes.

FRANK SINATRA

Frank began his film career in the 1940s. In 1953 he had one of his most famous roles in From Here to Eternity. I was surprised to learn that he began appearing on television in the mid-1950s as well. He showed up in The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1954, The Producer’s Showcase in 1955, and The Thin Man in 1958.

In the 1970s we find Frank showing up on Laugh-In for several appearances.

He also sang a few lullabies on Make Room for Granddaddy, Danny Thomas’ revival of his hit show Make Room for Daddy from the 1950s. I was amazed at the talent of actors who guest starred on the reboot considering the short time it was on the air, but that is a topic for a future blog. On this episode, he bumps into Danny. His wife Kathy is not happy Danny is bringing home a guest for dinner on “hamburger night” but then she learns it’s Frank. He sings “All the Way” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” for Danny’s grandson, Michael.

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Jumping ahead a decade, we find Frank’s last two television roles, one as himself and one as a New York cop.

Frank had met Tom Selleck in Hawaii on one of his trips. In 1987 Frank appeared as Michael Doheny, a retired police sergeant on Selleck’s show, Magnum PI. Frank and his entourage traveled to Hawaii (although he worked for scale) and took over a floor at The Colony Surf in Diamond Head. In this episode he returns to help find the men who kidnapped his granddaughter. There were plans for Sinatra to return in season eight as well but Selleck cut back on the number of episodes he was filming, and the show was never written.

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In 1989 Sinatra showed up on Who’s the Boss as himself. Angela is invited to an exclusive party, but she gets waylaid by a work issue. Mona and Tony decide to take the tickets, but they can’t get in when they get there and then Angela shows up, which results in all three of them being thrown out of the gala. As Frank is showing up to sing, Tony gets to meet him and tell him he is his idol.

DEAN MARTIN

Not surprisingly Dean’s first appearance on television was on Make Room for Daddy in 1958. He portrayed himself. Danny calls on Dean to help him out with his daughter Terry who has been not very nice to a boy at school who likes her. Danny learns she is ignoring the boy because she has a crush on Dean. The plan works, and she and Donald get together.

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During the same year, Dean shows up on The Phil Silvers Show. Bilko (Silvers) is sent to Yucca Flats to work on a nuclear test program. Ritzik is amazed by one of the scientist’s machines. They skip the base and head for Las Vegas, so Rupert can demonstrate his gambling skills. Dean Martin is an unnamed gambler they run into.

In 1964 Martin got on the western bandwagon, appearing in Rawhide. Martin is stalking Hispanic cattlemen. His wife wants him to drop the assignment and retire to her family’s plantation with her, but he refuses, and she seeks help from Gil Favor, the boss of a never-ending cattle drive.

We see Martin pop up on a Bob Hope special in 1968 and a Red Skelton show in 1970.

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In 1978 Martin made an appearance on a show that surprised me: Charlie’s Angels. Martin plays the owner of the Tropicana Casino who hires the Angels to investigate several suspicious deaths that he thinks are part of a plot to make him think he’s going crazy. This was a two-part season opener and instead of singing, Martin got to display his magic skills. Naturally, he becomes romantically involved with one of the Angels, Sabrina played by Kate Jackson.

Fittingly, Dean’s last appearance was in the show Vega$ in 1979 as himself.

JOEY BISHOP

Bishop’s first role was not much of a stretch. He played a comedian on Richard Diamond in 1959. Bishop’s plays Joey Kirk and hires Diamond to determine who is following him and why, leading to a complicated murder plot.

He appeared in the DuPont Show of the Month in 1960 and The Dick Powell Theater in 1963.

Like most of the Rat Pack, Bishop made an appearance on Make Room for Daddy in 1961. As Joey Mason, he helps out Danny. Danny has flown from the east coast to the west coast and took two sleeping pills. However, there are four conventions in town and his assistant forgot to make him a reservation.

In 1965 he is Fred Jackson on an episode of Valentine’s Day starring Tony Franciosa and Jack Soo about a young eligible bachelor who lives with his valet, a poker-playing con artist who saved his life while they were in the Army.

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From 1961-1965, Joey stars in The Joey Bishop Show as Joey Barnes. Barnes is the host of a talk show. He has to deal with his personal and professional life as a celebrity. A lot of guest stars show up playing themselves as guests on his show or friends of his. The show produced 125 episodes. I have recently been watching it on Antenna TV where it now is shown every morning.

In 1967, Joey had a cameo on Get Smart. Max and 99 are sent on an assignment to rescue Don Carlos, the dictator of San Saludos. A general has imprisoned him and wants to marry his daughter. Max and 99 try to disguise themselves as flamenco dancers. When they are also thrown in jail, a guard, played by Bishop, attempts to bribe the firing squad.

In the 1970s we find Joey on Chico and the Man in 1976. He plays an inept burglar and when Ed doesn’t press charges, every lowlife crook appears at the business.

In 1981 Bishop appears as Dr. Burton on Trapper John MD.

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In 1985 Bishop again takes on the role of a comedian on Hardcastle and McCormick. That same year he also played another comedian on Murder She Wrote.

PETER LAWFORD

Drama shows were very popular in the early days of television. Lawford appeared in quite a few of these shows from 1953-1965.

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In 1954 he took on the role of Bill Hastings on Dear Phoebe. The show was on the air for two years, resulting in 32 episodes. Hastings works for a daily newspaper in a large city. He becomes the author of a lonely hearts column and advises his readers as “Phoebe” while trying to deal with his own issues in his personal life.

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From 1957-1959, he was Nick Charles on the television version of The Thin Man. The show was very popular with 723 episodes filmed. Similar to the films, Nick marries Nora and lives in a luxurious Park Avenue apartment in New York. He was previously a private detective and many of his underworld friends get him involved in mysteries he has to solve.

Lawford appeared as himself on an episode of Jack Benny’s show in 1961.

He also played himself on The Patty Duke Show in 1965. Patty is selected to find a star to perform at the high school prom. Sammy Davis Jr. also guest stars on the episode.

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Apparently, Sammy and Peter enjoyed working together because they guest starred on an episode of The Wild Wild West in 1966. Lawford is a wealthy ranch owner and Davis is a hired hand Jeremiah.

While Bishop showed up on Get Smart, Lawford chose the more realistic I Spy in 1967.

Like Sinatra, he also appeared on Laugh-In but must have enjoyed it more because he was on ten different episodes.

During the 1970s, Lawford shows up on a variety of television show genres. He would be on the western The Virginian in 1971, Born Free about Elsa the lion in 1974, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, the bizarre comedy High Cliffe Manor, the crime drama Hawaii Five-0, the dramady Supertrain, and The Jeffersons.

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In addition, he was featured on Bewitched in 1972. Lawford played Harrison Woolcott, a client of Darrin and Larry’s. Sam’s cousin Serena decides she wants to date him and try the mortal life for a while.

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He made several appearances during seasons four and five of The Doris Day Show. As Dr. Peter Lawrence, he begins a romance with Doris in 1972-1973.

SAMMY DAVIS JR

Sammy probably appeared in the most television shows. Like Peter, he began in drama shows and guest starred in several episodes of General Electric Theater.

He then appeared in The Lawman in 1961, Frontier Circus, Cain’s Hundred, 77 Sunset Strip, The Rifleman, and Hennessey in 1962.

In 1963 he was on Ben Casey.

Like the other Rat Pack actors, he was on Make Room for Daddy in 1963 and the revival Make Room for Granddaddy in 1970.

As mentioned before, he guest starred in The Patty Duke Show in 1965 and The Wild Wild West in 1966, both with Peter Lawford.

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In 1967, he showed up on I Dream of Jeannie as himself. Tony tries to get Sammy Davis Jr to sing for General Peterson’s party. When he is already booked, Jeannie tries to help by duplicating himself, so he can be in two places at one time.

Davis also took a role in The Beverly Hillbillies in 1969.

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The same year he took on his first of three roles on Mod Squad. His first role was a black priest who becomes the target of a bad guy after the church suspends him. The hood is afraid he will reveal his confession now that he no longer is part of the church. The next episode he appeared on was in the role of Billy Lee Watson, a recovered drug addict. He runs a half-say house and is accused of rape of a man’s daughter who he has been trying to help. Her father accused Billy of the rape and after investigating, it turned out Billy was her actual father.  The last episode of Mod Squad he appeared on in 1970 had Davis portraying Willie Rush and actor and friend of Linc’s. He says someone is trying to kill him.

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The 1970s continued to be a productive time for Davis on television. He would go on to appear in The Name of the Game in 1970, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in 1972, nine episodes of Laugh-In, and like his friend Dean Martin, an episode of Charlie’s Angels in 1977. He plays himself on Charlie’s Angels. When he hosts a charity event that includes a celebrity look alike contest, an attempt is made to kidnap him. The Angels take on the job of his bodyguards and Bosley becomes his chauffeur.

The 1980s were also busy times for him. He appeared as himself on several Norman Lear shows including Archie Bunker’s Place and The Jeffersons. He also could be seen on Fantasy Island, Pryor’s Place, Gimme a Break, The Cosby Show and Hunter in the 1980s.

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One thing that surprised me was his roles on One Life to Live and General Hospital. I have seen a few stars like Carol Burnett who chose to appear on a soap opera. Davis had a recurring role on General Hospital; he didn’t seem to me to be the type of actor who would be interested in a soap opera, but he did receive an Emmy nomination for his role on General Hospital. Sammy was also nominated for an Emmy for his work on The Cosby Show.

While Joey Bishop hosted some of the Emmy Award shows, I did not find any nominations for the other members of the Rat Pack.

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Overall, I was surprised how extensive the television careers were for the Summit members. I think of them more in their performing or movie careers and did not expect them to see that they guest starred in so many shows and starred in some of their own television series. Check out some of these shows or make a batch of popcorn and watch the ensemble in the original Ocean’s Eleven.

Is It A Western? A Spy Show? A Thriller? No, It’s The Wild Wild West

There was no specific category for the Wild Wild West when it first debuted in 1965.  Part western, part spy, part thriller.  Now, it would be called steampunk. Westerns had been extremely popular through the 1950s and into the 1960s, but in the mid-1960s, the spy genre was gaining ground. Creator Michael Garrison combined the two. Secret Service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), work for President Ulysses Grant and travel the country by luxury train, the Wanderer.  Oh yeah, and they have a ton of technology to make the job more exciting. Artemis is a master of disguise.  Like James Bond, they had clever gadgets on hand, beautiful women in the wings, and delusional, but brilliant, enemies to fight against.

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The series debuted in 1965 and ran for four seasons, resulting in 104 episodes. Unfortunately, Garrison died a year into the show and didn’t live to see its completion. The show was filmed at CBS Studio Center. The 70-acre lot was used for Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Gilligan’s Island as well.

The theme song was written by Richard Markowitz. The intro had an animated sequence that continued to be filled in throughout the show. This was quite unique to this program.

Conrad claimed to be the 17th actor to audition for the role of James West. Originally, Rory Calhoun was announced as the co-star. Conrad wore three-inch heels to hide that he was only 5’8”. The casting office was not allowed to hire women over 5’6” for the show. The first few episodes used stuntmen, but Conrad felt that it slowed production down too much, so he volunteered to do his own stunts. During season three, he fell from a chandelier and hit a concrete floor, leaving him with a concussion and weeks of hospitalization for dizziness.

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Ross played over 100 different characters during the run of the series. He sketched out the ideas for the characters himself and then worked with the make-up artists to get the right look. During the fourth season, Martin broke a leg when he dropped a rifle, stepped on it, and rolled his foot over it. When the shell ejected, it burned his eye. Ross also suffered from a heart attack in 1968. Several other agents “filled” in for Martin while he recuperated.

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Considering the show was only on for four years, it featured a number of guest stars including Ed Asner, John Astin, Jim Backus, Ed Begley, Victor Buono, Jackie Coogan, Yvonne Craig, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Elam, Norman Fell, Bernard Fox, Mary Frann, Beverly Garland, Alan Hale Jr., Boris Karloff, Richard Kiel, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Martin Landau, Sue Ane Langdon, Peter Lawford, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead, Phyllis Newman, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Pat Paulsen, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Pernell Roberts, Katherine Ross, William Schallert, Vito Scotti, Ray Walston, Jesse White, and Keenan Wynn.

The train was also a co-star of the show. The spies had two different trains. The first was used for season one when the shows were filmed in black and white. It was a Sierra Railroad No. 3 which was not built until 1891, a mere technicality I guess. The Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works built it in New Jersey. Footage was shot in Jamestown, California. This same train was the Cannonball in Petticoat Junction.

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The shows filmed in color featured a train decorated with green and gold and it was full of fun gadgets. This one was built in 1875 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It was used in many films over the years.

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Both these trains are on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. They were only featured in exterior shots. The interiors of the trains were designed by art director Albert Heschong with set decorator Raymond Molyneaux. It reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965. To put this in perspective, the average house in 1965 cost less than $4,000! The train was as resourceful as West and Gordon. A remote control under the table could immediately lock the door. A statue turned upside down unlocked a wall safe. A telegraph set was hidden in a book on the desk. Pistols could be fired by activating a fireplace switch. The pool table had exploding balls while cue sticks could fire bullets.

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Many of the above-mentioned stars were villains in the show. The most famous villain was Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn. He had a recurring role, appearing on ten episodes. He always managed to escape at the end of the show. West and Artemis never did catch him and a TV movie filmed later relays that he died in 1880 from ulcers brought on by the stress of his plans always being foiled by West and Gordon.

Like Batman, Jim West always seems to have the right gadget at his disposal when he needs it. Some of his more fun props included a sleeve gun as well as a gun concealed in his heel. He also occasionally carried a blowtorch in his heel. Passkeys were stored under his lapel. He kept a variety of fuses sewn into hems in his clothes. To descend into a pit or be hoisted up on a roof, he had a hand-held motor-driven winch. Glass cutters which often are useful were available. Wires placed in his hat had many uses. Battery-powered drills helped the boys escape metal cages. His kit bag held a large balloon. A miniature player made villains think shot guns were being fired. Of course, every smart secret service man wears a bulletproof vest and is always equipped with tear gas or smoke bombs. They even had a cigar that would produce smoke when thrown on the ground and a coin that exploded when exposed to heat.

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There typically were two fights in each episode choreographed by Whitey Hughes. Following the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed. Violence on television was listed as one of the problems, and The Wild Wild West was cited as a violent show. So, despite high ratings, the series was cancelled near the end of its fourth season as a concession to Congress over television violence.

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However, the show was then released into syndication and at one time was listed on 99 different local channels, so the violence on television was not curbed by its cancellation.

Several books and comic books were created based on the show. In 1979, the two stars returned to television with a movie, The Wild Wild West Revisited. In 1980, they showed up again in More Wild Wild West. Rumors existed that the duo would do a reboot of the series, but Ross died in 1981 so it never came to fruition.

A movie was made in 1999 based on the original show, but it was not received well. Will Smith later expressed regret for his role in the film. The Golden Raspberry (Razzie) is awarded to the worst films. When the 1999 film was awarded five Razzies, Conrad accepted them on behalf of the movie to show his displeasure with the remake.

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The show’s success primarily stemmed from the fact that Artemus and West trusted each other completely, and their banter and technological gadgets made the show a pleasure to watch. We’ll let the characters have the last word:

Artemus Gordon: “Naomi. ’My sweetness’. That’s what Naomi means in Hebrew, did you know that ?”

Naomi Buckley: “Really ? And what does Artemus mean ?”

James West: “It means ’He who wastes little time‘.”

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Artemus Gordon: “I didn’t know you liked toys.”

James West: “Toys, no. Dolls, yes.”

Jack Benny: Perhaps the Nicest Guy in Television

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We kick off this new year getting to know one of my favorite entertainers, Jack Benny. While many radio stars had a hard time transitioning to television, Jack, along with his best friend George Burns, made it look easy. Jack’s radio show started in 1932. In 1950 he decided to make the leap to tv, and his show would be on the air until 1965 when he decided it was time to quit.

The series produced 258 episodes. Jack tested the water first, appearing randomly on television before settling into a weekly schedule ten years after the first show debuted (From 1955-1960 he was on every other week). George Balzer and Sam Perrin would write for the show for the entire run, given credit for 255 episodes. Ralph Levy, who helped George and Gracie get their show underway, came on board in 1951 and left in 1962. The well-respected Fred De Cordova directed the most episodes, 75.

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Jack’s first shows were filmed at Burns’ McCadden Productions studio and later at Universal Television. His opening and closing monologues were done in front of a live audience but a laugh track was inserted for consistency. Jack brought his quirky radio crew with him: Don Wilson, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Dennis Day, Mary Livingstone, and Mel Blanc. Benny’s wife was Sadie Marks. He met her at age 14 in 1919, and they didn’t exactly hit it off. However, in 1927 they realized they were in love and married that year. Benny asked his wife to fill in for a live comedy show to play “Mary Livingstone.” Sadie did and showed her comic persona. She began to appear regularly and later legally changed her name to Mary Livingstone.

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Benny understood the radio show was so successful because listeners bonded with the characters and considered them friends. Television just added another dimension for viewers to be able to see the characters.

Jack always underplayed his character, often giving the best lines to his cast. He had great timing, knowing when to tell a joke and when to say nothing. It was often said that he did not say funny things, but he said things funny. His catchphrases, “Well” (with a long pause) and “Now, cut that out” are still part of pop culture today.

In the classic age of comedy, sponsors were the key to survival, and Jack was always able to obtain some of the most well-known companies. During his run, he was sponsored by Lucky Strike, Lever Brothers Lux, State Farm Insurance, Lipton Tea, Miles Laboratories, and most memorably, General Foods’ Jell-O. The sponsors never minded that he often made fun of them or their ads. Often, they were some of the funniest moments in the show.

The first show aired in October of 1950. Benny’s first line on that live Sunday night telecast was, “I’d give a million dollars to know what I look like!”

The show’s format didn’t vary much from week to week. Typically, it began with a monologue. The orchestra might play a song or Jack and announcer Don Wilson might have a discussion such as:

DonWilson: I don’t think you know how much it means to me to do the commercial. After all I’m not a funny man. I can’t sing or dance. I don’t lead a band. What are you paying me for?

Jack: Don, you’re hanging yourself.

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The cast would discuss a current situation, often referring to Benny’s age or frugality, or Mary would read a letter from her mother. Dennis Day would then sing a song followed by a skit, a mini-play, or a satire of a movie. Before Carol Burnett’s incredible movie satires, Jack Benny’s writers created some humorous shows. One example was a 1952 show. It was based on Gaslight from 1944. Called “Autolight,” it starred Barbara Stanwyck.

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Jack continued to feature special guest stars, was a penny pincher, refused to admit he was over 39 years old, and continued to drive his old Maxwell. Here he is with Marilyn Monroe discussing his age:

Marilyn Monroe: What about the difference in our ages?

Jack: Oh, it’s not that big a difference. You’re twenty-five and I’m thirty-nine.

Marilyn Monroe: I know, Jack. But what about twenty-five years from now when I’m fifty and you’re thirty-nine?

Jack: Gee, I never thought of that.

Photo: worthpoint.com

Jack’s view on saving money: “Any man who would walk five miles through the snow, barefoot, just to return a library book so he could save three cents – that’s my kind of guy.”

Photo: imdb.com

Mel Blanc not only “played” the Maxwell but portrayed a variety of characters. Once Benny made the comment, “There’s only five real people in Hollywood.  Everyone else is Mel Blanc.”

Viewers today criticize the way Rochester was treated on the show, but when comparing Benny’s show to Amos ‘n Andy and other shows during the time period, a stark difference can be seen. Rochester was the first black actor to have a recurring role on a radio show. He called Jack, “Jack” or“Mr. Benny” and quite often got the best of him by outwitting him or pointing out one of his deficiencies.

Here’s a typical conversation between Jack and Rochester:

Jack: What do you think of this card I wrote for Don? “To Don from Jacky, Oh golly, oh shucks. I hope that you like it, it cost forty bucks.”

Rochester: It would’ve been hard to rhyme a dollar ninety-eight.

Jack Benny: We’re a little late, so good night, folks.

Photo: americacomesalive.com

The character interactions and the great skits are what made the show so popular. In Jim Bishop’s book about President John F. Kennedy, A Day in the Life of President Kennedy, he wrote that JFK was too busy to watch television, but he always made time for The Jack Benny Show.

Photo: tvnewfrontier.blogspot.com

Jack passed away in 1974. In real life, he was the opposite of the character he played, very generous and a gifted violin player.

His papers, including television archives of his series and special broadcasts and more than 296 television scripts were given to UCLA.

The Jack Benny Program can currently be seen early mornings Sunday through Thursday on Antenna TV.