The Jimmy Stewart Show: Past Its Prime Before It Started

For this blog series, “It’s My Show,” we are looking at stars who had shows named for them.  This blog takes a look at The Jimmy Stewart Show which aired in 1971.

The Jimmy Stewart Show - Where to Watch Every Episode Streaming Online |  Reelgood
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At the beginning of the golden age of television, several stars decided to plunge into the small screen, but most stars kept their distance, not trusting that television would ever go anywhere. Stars like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and Lucille Ball created successful shows that continued for years. Once Hollywood realized that television was here to stay, they were okay with their stars dipping their feet into the series life.

In the 1970s another round of stars decided to try their luck at their own show. Jimmy Stewart was one of those screen stars, and he had a huge fan base. Viewers were greatly anticipating watching his show.

The Jimmy Stewart Show - Complete - 1971 - 7 DVDS – TV Museum DVDs
Photo: tvmuseum.com

Hal Kanter was the creator, writer, and sometimes director for the series which showed viewers the frequently chaotic home and work life of Professor Jim Howard. Kantor developed the show Julia and would later create Chico and the Man. Howard teaches anthropology at the Josiah Kessel College in Easy Valley, California which happened to be founded by his grandfather. Also living in the house are his wife Martha (Julie Adams), his son Peter (Jonathan Daly), daughter-in-law Wendy (Ellen Geer, daughter of Will Geer) and grandson Jake (Kirby Furlong). Martha and Jim also have a younger son, Teddy (Dennis Larson) who is almost the same age as Jim’s grandson. Peter’s family is living there temporarily after their house burns down. In a twist I didn’t see coming, Jim was babysitting and fell asleep with a cigar which is what caused both the house to burn down and his son to be unhappy with him for the first few episodes.

Howard’s best friend, Luther Quince (John McGiver), a local bachelor and professor, often stops by for meals and to discuss life with Jim.

When Jimmy Stewart Had His Own Sitcom – (Travalanche)
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Rounding out the cast were a few recurring characters including Jo Bullard (Mary Wickes), president of the Women’s Action Group; Agatha Dwiggins (Jeff Donnell), a scatterbrained busybody, Dimitri Karpopolis (Richard Annis), college football hero; local businessman Fred Shimmel (Rickie Layne), chatty milkman Woodrow Yamada (Jack Soo), and students Janice Morton (Kate Jackson), Norman Lansworth (Lou Manor) and Ida Levin (Melissa Newman).

I read that except for Stewart, the casting for the family seemed to be off and never engendered any warmth for viewers. Jimmy wanted his real wife Gloria to play Martha, but after she was tested, the network said they wanted someone more experienced. More than fifty women were considered for the role, and twenty of them were brought in to read with Stewart.

However, John McGiver received a lot of praise for his character. Luther and Jim were quite different. Jim rode his bike to school while Luther drove a Rolls Royce.

The show really didn’t speak to viewers, and ratings, which weren’t great, got worse. The series was cancelled after 24 episodes. Stewart was not sad about the cancellation. Apparently, he was given the option to do the same type of work schedule Fred MacMurray had arranged for My Three Sons where he only filmed a small part of the year and everyone else filmed around him, but he declined. However, Stewart said he later regretted not trying that because he didn’t enjoy the long hours filming this show.

THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW Guest Star KATE JACKSON 1971 VERY RARE - YouTube
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The show debuted in the fall of 1971 on Sunday nights. It was sandwiched between The Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza, both big hits.

Like George Burns, James Stewart talked directly to the television audience during the opening and closing when he says “And, as always, my family and I wish you peace and love—and laughter.” During some episodes he makes an aside to the camera, and the rest of the cast thinks he’s just mumbling to himself.

This was one of the few shows during this time period that didn’t use a laugh track. Maybe that’s for the best because it doesn’t sound like there was much to laugh about in this show. It definitely shows its age today with Stewart making remarks about student protests, women’s lib, and industrial development. It obviously pandered to an older, conservative audience.

The show was filmed on a few sets and backlots. The building used for the university was known as “Hank’s School” because it first was used on a show from the sixties called Hank. It was also Boatwright University on The Waltons.

The Jimmy Stewart Show (TV Series 1971–1972) - IMDb
Photo: imdb.com

Sometimes there is a downside to blog writing about the past and our favorite stars. Jimmy Stewart has always been someone I admired and respected. A couple of his movies like The Philadelphia Story and Harvey are some of my of all-time favorites. When doing research, sometimes you learn things you wish you didn’t know.

Apparently, Stewart had gotten a reputation during the filming of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence as a racist, but no one ever talked about it, and there didn’t seem to be any other controversy in his films.  However, during the production of this show, he had actor Hal Williams fired. I read several accounts that all supported that view that Stewart told Kanter that he didn’t think it would be appropriate for a black person to be ordering him around on television. His words, often quoted were, “Blacks are bossing white people all over the country, and now we’re going to have the same damn thing on prime-time television? A black is going to be lecturing me with millions of people watching? No way. I get casting approval and Williams is out.” I never read how Kantor reacted or how it affected their relationship; however, after casting Diahann Carroll as the first black actor to star in a series, it must have been disheartening to hear this from Stewart.

I understand those were different times and many people were raised as racists. We could debate the causes of people being prejudiced for hours.  However, this makes me very sad and I can’t look at Jimmy Stewart the way I did before. It doesn’t help to realize that there are still somehow a lot of Jimmy Stewarts out there sixty years later.

Comfort TV: Peace, Love, and Laughter: The Jimmy Stewart Show
Photo: comforttv.com

As far as his show goes, I think it was just not where fans were at in that time period. Some of the other series on at the time included The Partridge Family, The Doris Day Show, Love American Style, Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and All in the Family. By comparison, Jimmy’s show seems out of touch and old fashioned. Its competition was the F.B.I and Sunday Night at the Movies, both shows that started during The Wonderful World of Disney. If a show didn’t succeed following Disney and leading into Bonanza, it must have greatly disillusioned viewers. Jimmy was not alone as a star who couldn’t make the successful leap to television. Other stars who bombed with their shows include Jack Lemmon, Celeste Holm, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, and Henry Fonda.

Although this show is available on DVD, my suggestion is to bypass it and read a good book instead.

The Phyllis Diller Show: So Much Potential

This month’s blog series is “It’s My Show.” Today we are beginning with a show I’ve discussed a few times over the years that had the perfect cast and concept, but it was cancelled after only one season: The Phyllis Diller Show which also went by The Pruitts of Southampton.

Image result for images of the pruitts of southampton
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The show was created by David Levy in 1967 and was loosely based on the book House Party by Patrick Dennis.  Levy was also the creator/producer for The Addams Family which aired from 1964-1966. The shows also shared composer Vic Mizzy who wrote the themes for both series. Mizzy also wrote the catchy tune from Green Acres. The opening theme song had Phyllis Diller dancing, skipping, and singing through the mansion, and the lyrics were:

PD: Howcha do howcha do, howcha do my dear
What a LOVELY surprise, nice to see you here.

RG: All the bills have been long overdue my dear.

PD: File them under I.O.U…
Howcha do, howcha do, Well HELLO, it’s you!
Like my beads, like my dress?
Aren’t they marvy-poo?
They belong to the internal revenue.
And they got us eating stew.

CHORUS: The Pruitts of Southampton,

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Live like the richest folk,
But what the folk don’t know is that
The Pruitts are flat broke!

PD: Howcha do, howcha do, howcha do, my dear

RG: We are out of champagne, and I’m stuck, my dear.

PD: Ask the butler to lend you a buck, my dear.
Howcha do, howcha do, howcha do…

The Pruitts, an incredibly wealthy family, live in the Hamptons. After going through an IRS audit, the family realizes they owe so much in back taxes, $10,000,000 in fact, that they were now broke. The IRS agrees to let them continue living in their mansion because they think exposing such a wealthy family’s poverty would cause a lot of repercussions.

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Phyllis Diller starred as Phyllis Pruitt. Phyllis lives with her uncle Ned (Reginald Gardiner), her brother Harvey (Paul Lynde), her daughter Stephanie (Pam Freeman), brother-in-law (John Astin), and their butler (Grady Sutton). Midseason, the show was revamped and the family brings in boarders to raise money, including Norman Krump (Marty Ingels) and Vernon Bradley (Billy De Wolfe). They should have been able to raise a bit of money with 68 bedrooms in the house. Other characters included Regina Wentworth (Gypsy Rose Lee), their nosy neighbor and Baldwin (Richard Deacon), the IRS agent. The incredible Charles Lane plays Max.

In addition, there were a lot of guest stars during that single season including Ann B Davis, Bob Hope, Arte Johnson, John McGiver, Louie Nye, Hope Summers, and Mary Wickes.

The shots of the family home were filmed at the Vanderbilt mansion, Biltmore.

The show began on Tuesday nights. At the time, The Red Skelton Hour was one of the most popular shows on television and was tough competition. When the show was revamped, it moved to Friday nights where it was up against Friday Night at the Movies and T.H.E. Cat.  If you don’t remember that show, don’t feel bad, you probably remembered very few of the new series that debuted that year.

Image result for images of the pruitts of southampton
Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

1967 was not a very profitable year for sitcoms specifically. Besides Phyllis Diller’s show, the season aired Run Buddy Run, Mr. Terrific, The Jean Arthur Show, Occasional Wife, and Pistols and Petticoats. That Girl was one of the few shows to return the following season.

Even though it was named as one of the worst sitcoms ever in several TV Guide listings, critics at the time praised the show. Phyllis Diller was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress in 1967. Marlo Thomas won, but there was some great competition including Elizabeth Montgomery, Barbara Eden, and Barbara Stanwyck.

Image result for images of the pruitts of southampton
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One reviewer on imdb.com titled their review “The worst thing I have ever seen in my life” and followed up with a review that said, “Just kidding, this show is amazing and hilarious and that is why I gave it a 10/10.”

When Vic Mizzy discussed the show in a Televison Academy interview, he said the director was not any good, the scripts weren’t as funny as they could have been and sometimes Phyllis didn’t know her part. He thought those were the reasons the show failed. He thought it could have been unbelievabley funny.

One day Vic got a large check from England and it turns out the show was a hit there decades after it was aired in the United States.

I watched a couple of the episodes on youtube for this blog. Phyllis Diller was in rare form. Her hair is crazy like always and slapstick was part of her performance. The laugh track was annoying, but the show was funny at times. Pam Freeman was a breath of fresh air. In one of the episodes, Phyllis and her brother-in-law were trying to finance a pizza-making machine. They had to work around the fact that Baldwin from the IRS put a pay phone in the home to keep them from making so many long-distance calls.  One of the funniest scenes was when Phyllis and her brother-in-law climb up one of the phone poles to tap into the line to talk to Baldwin pretending to be other people in order to get Baldwin to approve their financing. Phyllis had to come up with a variety of different voices during the calls. You could definitely hear a bit of Green Acres influence in the background music for this show. This was a show that only could have been produced in the sixties.

One of the best parts of watching the show was seeing the old commercials.  I had forgotten the one about Joy dish soap when the dinner guests could see themselves in the plates. It just reminded me it was joyful to see these old shows in their entirety.

It was a fun show to learn about with an outstanding cast and should have been much more successful than it was. Whether the failure came from the director, the scripts, or some other behind-the-scenes issue, I’m not sure. It’s worth watching an episode or two just to see the wackiness that was associated with some sixties shows, but if I have to watch ten episodes of a show, I’ll take That Girl every time.