As we wind up our “Don’t Judge Me” blog series, today we’ve been sent to the bench to sit along side Judge Walter Franklin (Tony Randall) on The Tony Randall Show. Judge Franklin is a middle-aged, single-parent, widower living in Philadelphia. His extremely bright kids–teenage daughter Roberta (Devon Scott) and preteen son Oliver (Brad Savage) live with the judge, along with daffy housekeeper Bonnie (Rachel Roberts). At work we get to know his severe secretary “Miss” Janet Reubner (Allyn Ann McLerie), court reporter Jack Terwilliger (Barney Martin), and Mario Lanza (Zane Lasky), no not THAT Mario Lanza, but an overbearing assistant the judge does not care for. Judge Eleanor Cooper (Diana Muldaur) plays his co-worker and “lady friend.”
In the second season, Penny Peyser took over the role of Roberta, and Hans Conried joined the cast as Walter’s father. A lot of famous guest stars found themselves in front of the judge during the two years it was on the air. A handful of stars who appeared around Judge Franklin included Victor Buono, Beverly Garland, Michael Keaton, Hal Smith, David Ogden Stiers, and Dick Van Patten.
If this sounds a little bit like the concept of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where we see a professional at work and at home, that’s because The Tony Randall Show was produced by MTM Enterprises and created by Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses. This was the duo that produced The Bob Newhart Show a few years earlier.
The Tony Randall Show debuted on ABC in 1976. When ABC cancelled the show, it was picked up by CBS for a second season. Surprisingly, the show was not cancelled by ABC for low ratings. The show was holding its own going up against Hawaii Five-0 and Best Sellers on Thursday nights. Apparently, Patchett and Tarses did not get along with Tony Randall. Unfortunately, they did not get along with each other either, and on top of that, they refused to take calls from ABC president Fred Silverman. Tiring of the drama, Silverman ended the show. On CBS, the show moved to Saturday nights and was on at the same time as Operation Petticoat and The Bionic Woman. When CBS cancelled the show, it was done for good.
Reflecting on the show, Grant Tinker remembered “Tony was born to work in front of a live audience, and the writing was largely first rate. Ultimately, however, three strong egos could not live together. Since Tony was obviously essential, Tom and Jay retreated to their office and oversaw from a distance, giving two of MTM’s younger writers, Hugh Wilson and Gary David Goldberg their first chance to produce.” (Wilson would go on to create WKRP in Cincinnati and Goldberg would create Family Ties and Brooklyn Bridge.)
At least this turmoil produced some good results. Goldberg said from his time on The Tony Randall Show, he learned you need to hire good people and let them do their job, and that if you have to remind people you are the producer, you’re probably not a very good one.
Ken Levine discussed working with Randall in his blog from June of 2007 (kenlevine.blogspot.com/2007/06/working-with-tony-randall.html). According to Levine, Randall “was the consummate professional. Not only did he know all of his lines, he knew everyone else’s too. . . . I loved working with Tony Randall. Of course, it helped that he thought I was funny and that I didn’t smoke.”
Everyone seemed to enjoy working with Randall. In a Television Academy interview, Asaad Kelada, one of the directors for the show, described Randall as a “fascinating, erudite, funny man.” He talked about the way he warmed up an audience before the show with his stories. It must have been a fun set sometimes because Kelada said he used to wear a sweater over his shoulders, and it became his trademark. One day he said there was a bit of extra energy on the set, and he suddenly realized absolutely everyone on set from the cameramen to gophers to stars were wearing sweaters, blankets, or towels around their shoulders. The Television Academy also did interviews with Abby Singer, production manager for the show, and Hugh Wilson about his writing and producing. Singer said Randall was “a good guy.” When asked if the rumors that Randall was particular were true, he said “Yes, he was so particular it was unbelievable. You couldn’t even whisper when he was on the set, but he was a sweet guy.” Wilson backed their comments up, saying “It was super to work with Tony Randall. He was a vast library of show business information and very nice.”
Despite all the problems on the set, Randall was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role of Judge Franklin. He lost to Henry Winkler for Happy Days.
I could not find any official DVDs for The Tony Randall Show, but some of the episodes can be found online. It sounds like the show had all the right ingredients but either did not have enough time to find its true voice or appeared a bit too late in the 1970s at a time when things were changing in television programming. Anytime you can watch Tony Randall on the small screen (or the big screen for that matter) is a special opportunity.