The Tony Randall Show: It May Have Been Judged Too Quickly

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.”

Photo: wikipedia.com

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.

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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.

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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.)

Photo: wikipedia.com

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.”

Photo: imdb.com

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.

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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.

Sirota’s Court: It Never Got a Fair Trial

We are in the middle of my “Don’t Judge Me” blogs. Today I am picking up my gavel to make a ruling on Sirota’s Court.

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This sitcom made its debut December of 1976. By April of 1977, it had disappeared from the airwaves. It was produced by Peter Engel Productions and Universal Television.

The show followed Judge Matthew Sirota (Michael Constantine) who sits on the bench for the night court. He works with, and has an off-again, on-again romantic relationship with, court clerk Maureen O’Conner (Cynthia Harris). The liberal public defender is Gail Goodman (Kathleen Miller) who battles with private attorney Sawyer Dabney (Ted Ross) and assistant district attorney Bud Nugent (Fred Willard). Bailiff John Belson (Owen Bush) has the judge’s back. Like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the series devotes time to Judge Sirota’s professional and private lives.

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If that concept sounds eerily familiar, it should. Seven years after Sirota’s Court left the air, Night Court appeared. Maybe Sirota’s Court was ahead of its time or could not survive the scheduled competition, but it’s hard not to see Night Court as an almost identical clone of this show. The newer judicial comedy featuring Harry Anderson would last nine seasons and produce 193 episodes.

In the original version, the Honorable Sirota incorporates a sense of humor and a boatload of common sense into his courtroom. Being in a large metropolitan city, Sirota is a surprisingly compassionate judge, considering the bizarre cases, the odd clients, and the eccentric court comrades he has to deal with. He often had to take on the role of referee between public defender Goodman who was trying to make the world a better place however she could, attorney Dabney who only cared about making a buck, and totally inept assistant district attorney Nugent.

The show employed a lot of different writers for only thirteen episodes. Twelve different writers were credited on the series. Some of the plots included Judge Sirota trying to prevent being named one of the ten worst judges in America, dealing with dentists who were using laughing gas on election night, or the night a full moon brings in an even more ridiculous roster of bizarre situations to rule on.

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The show was on Wednesday nights. There was no way this series was going to obtain satisfactory ratings going up against All in the Family and Baretta. All in the Family was in the seventh year of its nine-year reign and still was in the top twenty. Baretta, which was in its third year, had a solid following and was in the top ten. In addition, the show took a lot of heat for one of its episodes, “Court Fear,” when the judge performed a same-sex wedding. It’s creator, Peter Engel, mentioned several times that the show “never got cancelled, it just sort of faded away.” Another factor may have been too many writers. Considering Jack Winter wrote 4 of the 13 episodes, that left 11 writers covering the other 9 shows. Perhaps there was not enough time to fully develop the characters with so many different perspectives.

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Considering there were only 13 episodes, it’s impressive that Sirota’s Court was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction or Scenic Design for a Comedy Series and for a Golden Globe for Constantine for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy. Constantine was up against Tony Randall for The Tony Randall Show, Freddie Prinze for Chico and the Man, Alan Alda for MASH, and winner Henry Winkler for Happy Days.

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Unfortunately, I could not find DVDs for this show anywhere, even the rare and hard-to-find DVD sites. It would be interesting to compare it with Night Court and see how similar the two shows actually were. My ruling is that the show was competent to stand trial, but the powers that be were too quick to negotiate a settlement.

His Honor Homer Bell: Was It a Comedy? A Western? A Legal Drama? It Was a Mystery.

As we continue our “Don’t Judge Me” series, we check out a show full of mystery: His Honor, Homer Bell.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

This show seemed to be unsure what genre it wanted to be. Was it a drama? A comedy? A western? Some shows were written by Si Rose who wrote for Bachelor Father and McHale’s Navy, but other writers included Michael Cramroy, a Dragnet writer and Jerome Coopersmith who wrote for Hawaii Five-0.

It also didn’t have a definite home. The show was made to go directly into syndication by NBC Films and taped in Brooklyn. There are different statistics about how many episodes were made of the show. Imdb lists only one episode. Some other sites indicate 38 episodes were made. To the best of my research ability, I believe there were 39 episodes including the pilot. It had a budget of one million dollars and episodes were listed in TV Guide.

Those TV Guide descriptions lead to another mystery. The show talks about being in the West but it must be a more contemporary west. In one episode, Judge Bell tries to acquire tickets for a sold-out football game and in another one he delivers a speech to the town traffic commission.

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What we do know for sure is that the show debuted in 1955. The show followed the ups and downs of Homer Bell (Gene Lockhart) who was a respected and much-loved justice of the peace living in a small western town of Spring City. Bell was a widower who lived with Casey (Mary Lee Dearing) and their housekeeper Maude (Jane Moultrie).

Adding to the mystery is whether Casey was his daughter or an orphaned niece he was raising. I found several descriptions listing both cases. However, Casey was a tomboy, and her antics often caused problems for the judge. He was a caring man who went to great lengths to help others. He relied more on good old common sense than legal technicalities to make his decisions. The show was produced by Hy Brown and directed by Derwin Abbe.

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Gene Lockhart, father of actress June Lockhart, transitioned from the big screen to the small screen for this series.

He was born in Ontario, Canada in 1891. His father was musical, and when a band he played with went overseas on tour, he took his family along with him. During most of that time, Gene went to school in London. When the family returned to Canada, Gene’s mother encouraged him to try out for a Broadway play. He moved to New York and received his first offer in 1917 as part of the cast in “The Riviera Girl.” He also began to write for the stage. One of his projects, “The Pierrot Players” toured Canada.

In 1924, Gene married Kathleen Arthur, an English actress and musician. Gene stayed busy. He continued to appear on the stage, he could be heard on radio, he became a writer for theatrical magazines, and he lectured on drama techniques at the Julliard School of Music.

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In 1933, he was offered the role of Uncle Sid in “Ah, Wilderness.” His great reviews in the play led to a contract with RKO Pictures. While he occasionally returned to Broadway, notably in 1949 as Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” he found his true calling as a Hollywood actor. He appeared in more than 125 films and was nominated for an Oscar for his work in Algiers in 1938. With 146 acting credits, he had about ten appearances on theater shows in the fifties on television.

Lockhart suffered a heart attack in his sleep in 1957.

Mary Lee Dearing (another mystery was her last name; most places credit her as “Dearing” but I’ve seen “Dearring” and “Deering”) was born in 1939 in New York City. She only has eight acting credits in addition to Homer Bell. She began her career on several theater dramas in the fifties, was on The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Danny Thomas Show, and The Brian Keith Show. I could find very little about her; most of her fame stems from appearing on the episode of Dick Van Dyke as a babysitter when Rob talks Laura into going to a party, leaving a sick Richie with the sitter.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com
Mary Lee Dearing as Janie on The Dick Van Dyke Show

Very little is known about Mary Moultrie as well. She was born in 1903 in Los Angeles. Her only other acting credits occurred in the fifties in several theater drama shows and on Mister Peepers and The Goldbergs.

By this time, you might be asking yourself—If there is more unknown than known about this show, why even write about it? We are losing so much information about the classic age of television. My philosophy is that if we keep the shows in the conversation, they won’t become totally lost. If anyone has any of the answers to the many questions about this show, I would love to hear from you. Besides, what television fan doesn’t love a mystery?

I Married Joan: Fans Said I Love Lucy

This month my blog theme is “Don’t Judge Me.” We’ll take a look at sitcoms featuring judges. The first show on the docket is I Married Joan. Debuting on NBC in 1952, the show starred Joan Davis and Jim Backus and was typically described as the marriage of a respected judge and his scatterbrained wife, Joan and Bradley Stevens. It ran for three seasons and produced 98 episodes.

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The early shows begin in the judge’s chambers where he recalls one of his wife’s wacky adventures followed by the episode and ending with the judge summing up his tale of his wife’s mishap and its similarity to a case he was working on. It was very similar to I Love Lucy; however, this show featured more slapstick comedy by Davis. Marc Daniels directed both shows. The shows also were both filmed in Los Angeles at General Service Studios and debuted October 15 (one year apart). Time hated the show—“It might have better been left on the shelf.” Variety, on the other hand, found it filled with “comic zest and vitality.”

I Married Joan was created and produced by Joan Davis Enterprises. She was a successful businesswoman and a workaholic. Joan earned $7500 a week; in today’s equivalent, that would be about $70,000 per episode. Joan was apparently not a very easy person to work for or with.  Sherwood Schwartz wrote about a third of the episodes. (He would later go on to create The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island.) He did not care for Davis and said that Joan made one of the writers stick close to her when they ran through the show because she often wanted a better joke substituted. Jesse Goldstein also wrote a third of the shows. He had written for Burns and Allen and Red Skelton.

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Other actors also complained about working with Joan. Apparently, Backus detested her because she was not kind to the crew and fellow actors. Sandra Gould (who would later appear as Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched), Hal Smith, and Hope Summers (who both showed up in Mayberry as Otis the drunk and Bee’s friend Clara) confirmed Backus’ stories. There are a couple of other stories floating around that Joan once slapped a child for asking for her autograph and threw a temper tantrum at a salon, knocking over a bottle of bleach. Backus had worked with her on radio before signing on for this role, so I’m surprised he had not been aware of her work abuses before. She was described as a bit quiet and shy in her non-work life and spent her spare time fishing, golfing, watching boxing, or reading her extensive gag files.

Rounding out the cast were Dan Tobin as their friend Kerwin, Geraldine Carr as Mabel, Sheila Bromley as Janet, Sandra Gould as Mildred and Hal Smith as Charlie.

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For seasons two and three, Joan’s daughter Beverly Wills played Joan’s sister on the show. I guess it was a family affair because Henny Backus, Jim’s wife, also had a role on one episode as Mrs. Bunker.

The plots were about what you would expect on a show from this time era. In one, Joan and her friend admire each other’s houses and decide to swap for a week which quickly cures them of their envy. When Joan finds a dress that her husband is hiding for a friend for his wife; she assumes it is for her and “alters” it–a lot. In one episode, Joan wonders what life would be like if she had never married. In another show, she realizes she doesn’t have enough chicken to serve when Brad brings unannounced guests home. Any of these plots could have come from Burns and Allen, The Ann Sothern Show, Our Miss Brooks, or The Life of Riley.

Photo: wikipedia.com

However, in one show, Joan crawls into an enormous commercial soup pot in order to spy on the kitchen crew to learn the recipe for a chef’s famous soup. As you would expect, all the ingredients suddenly begin to get thrown in all around her. Even reading this description, you can picture Lucille Ball in the predicament. Perhaps this is another reason the show didn’t succeed. It was just too similar to the top-rated show in the nation.

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Many people remember the theme-song lyrics.

I married Joan
What a girl, what a whirl, what a life.
Oh I married Joan
What a find, love is blind, what a wife!
Giddy and gay, all day she keeps my heart laughin’
Never know where her brain has flown.
To each his own
Can’t deny that’s why I married Joan.
I married Joan!

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For the entire three seasons it was on the air, it was up against Arthur Godfrey and His Friends on CBS and news shows on ABC for seasons one and two. The show did so-so in the ratings for the first season. The second season the ratings increased to the number 3 show. Part of it might have come about from the negative publicity Arthur Godfrey got when he fired Julius LaRosa. The third season Disneyland was on ABC, and the ratings declined again. The ratings were especially low in the New York market, so the show was cancelled. Howdy Doody had just gone off the air, so reruns of the show replaced the popular kids’ show in the mornings. Jim Backus had signed a three-year contract and declined to come back; I’m not sure if that contributed to the cancellation of the show or not.

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With guest star Bing Crosby

Joan Davis tried to get a few other sitcoms on the air in later years; one interesting idea was for a woman astronaut who was training for a flight to the moon. She officially retired in 1959 and passed away in 1961 after suffering a heart attack.

Photo: wikipedia.com

Jim Backus would go on to have a very successful career. He would cross paths with Sherwood Schwartz again when he accepted the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. A fun aside is that when the I Married Joan sets were later re-used, Backus’ lines were found written in various places.

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As I noted earlier, the theme for my blog this month is “Don’t Judge Me.” In that spirit, I am trying not to judge Joan Davis too harshly without learning more about her as a person. One thing I have learned in writing television blogs for so long is that several of my favorite characters were not my favorite people; I decided long ago that I could adore the character and abhor the actor. Fortunately, most of the actors in classic television were wonderful people.

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I do remember watching this show in reruns in the late seventies and early eighties. It was not really my cup of tea, but I am not a big lover of slapstick comedy. Most of the fans that bought the DVDs (91%) gave the series 5 stars and made comments like “extremely funny,” “I couldn’t stop laughing,” and “clever writing and great comic acting.” If you are an I Love Lucy fan, you should probably give I Married Joan a try. There are worse ways to spend an evening.