This month we are learning more about some of our favorite robots in this blog series called “I Robot.” Today we go back to the mid-sixties for My Living Doll.
This was both a science fiction and comedy show that debuted in September of 1964. Jack Chertok produced it for Television Productions with CBS. The show was filmed at Desilu studios. Chertok had been the creative force behind My Favorite Martian. James Aubrey, president of CBS, approached Chertok about doing another show. He did not even require a pilot to be made. Chertok’s writers from My Favorite Martian, Bill Kelsay and Al Martin, created the show from an idea proposed by Leo Guild. Kelsay wrote many of the episodes for Date with the Angels starring Betty White and several My Three Sons plots. Martin wrote for many earlier shows and screenplays including Roy Rogers.
The plot they created was that Dr. Bob McDonald (Bob Cummings), a psychiatrist for the Air Force, was given Rhoda Miller (Julie Newmar), a lifelike robot to protect. He was trying to keep her out of the hands of the military. Rhoda’s formal name was AF709. Dr. Carl Miller (Henry Beckman) built her for the US Air Force but she eventually lands in McDonald’s care when Miller is transferred to Pakistan. His job is to help educate her to be the perfect woman while keeping her true identity a secret. Beauty marks on her back were the control buttons. Her main power switch was on her right elbow. Her eyes could be covered to prompt a system relaxation. Rhoda’s memory bank contained 50 million pieces of information. Bob told his coworkers Rhoda was Dr. Miller’s niece, and she took on the role of his secretary at the office, typing 240 words a minute. On other episodes, she learned to calculate where dice would fall and how to make trick shots playing pool.
In one episode, Rhoda is asked to play Chopin’s “Fantasie Impromptu” on the piano. Newmar actually played the piece herself. She had studied under concert pianist Dr. MacIntyre, and she said that scene is the only one she’s done with her playing the piano which had been her career choice before acting.
Like I Dream of Jeanne, many of the episodes deal with Bob trying to keep Rhoda out of trouble while she is learning what society and the current culture is like. Rhoda learns human emotions throughout the first season; perhaps this would have led to a romantic relationship between the robot and the doctor.
Rounding out the cast was Peter Robinson (Jack Mullaney), Bob’s neighbor and coworker who thinks Rhoda is someone he wants to date. Irene Adams (Doris Dowling) plays Bob’s sister who moves in to act as housekeeper and chaperone so the neighbors are not suspicious of a single woman living there. On Love That Bob, Rosemary DeCamp played Bob’s sister who moves in to take care of the household for him. Mrs. Moffat was added later on as Peter’s housekeeper.
The show never really found its viewer base. The New York Times reviewer Jack Gould noted that it “very probably had the makings of a popular novelty hit . . . with Miss Newmar giving a light and amusing performance as the automated dish, the premise could work out . . . Bob Cummings, an old hand at chaperoning pretty girls, again is cast in his familiar assignment.”
Newmar didn’t feel that Cummings was the right actor for the role. She said that “They originally wanted Efrem Zimbalist Jr. It was not a flip part—it needed a straight actor who could play opposite this bizarre creature so the comedy would come off. That quality was lost when they hired Bob. The show could have been wonderful. I think it would have run for many seasons had they hired Efrem because he had the right qualities.”
The ratings were not good; however, another issue was the fact that it was on Sunday nights against Bonanza, one of the most popular shows ever. In December, CBS moved the show to Wednesday nights but the ratings did not improve. In January, Cummings asked to be written off the show. CBS agreed but never got a replacement for him. He was said to have been transferred to Pakistan, and Robinson took over caring for Rhoda with his housekeeper living in his house again to keep the neighbors from talking.
Apparently, Cummings and Newmar never hit it off. She complained that he had tried to teach her to act and that he seemed unhappy that she was getting more press attention. Later Newmar stated that the real trouble on the set was Cumming’s addiction to methamphetamines. She said he had erratic behavior and became increasingly more depressed and insecure.
After Cummings left the show, another five episodes were aired, and then the show was canceled. The show ended up ranking 79th out of 96 shows. Two decades later, producer Howard Leeds would go on to create the show we will discuss next week, Small Wonder.
I was not able to confirm it, but I read several sources that said this show coined the term, That does not compute” which is what Rhoda said when she was asked something she did not understand.
During the summer of 1965, CBS aired repeats of the show. After that, the show was never seen on television again in the United States. Rumors were rampant about whether the 26 episodes had been damaged in a fire, hidden by Chertok, or destroyed. Two episodes seemed to have survived, but there were also reports that six or ten existed in all. CBS was able to obtain about half the episodes somewhere and released a DVD with them on it. We will have to see if the additional episodes ever show up or not.
This was another of those shows that seemed to suffer from an identity complex. Cummings was known as a ladies’ man to viewers from his seasons on Love That Bob. If the show was not going for romance, then it seems that Newmar was correct in her assessment of Cummings being the wrong person for the role. With Bewitched debuting the same year and I Dream of Jeanne coming right on the heels of My Living Doll, it seems like one of the shows might not obtain enough viewers. Cummings’ addiction problems certainly did not help the show. Newmar should probably be happy the show ended when it did, allowing her to step into the role of Cat Woman on Batman. Like My Living Doll, Cat Woman had all the qualities Batman admired and wanted in a romantic partner, but unlike Rhoda who was not human, Cat Woman was all too human and too much of a villain to allow Batman to act on his passion for her.
Although the show debuted almost sixty years ago, many of the issues of working with a robot are still with us today as scientists work on giving robots a sense of humor and some empathy. We are seeing more of them in the workplace, and it will be interesting to see if any new shows take up the subject in the near future.