The Mod Squad: The Show That Oozed Hip, Groovy, and Cool

As we continue our Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem series, we move from Maine where senior citizen Jessica Fletcher solved mysteries to the streets of Los Angeles, where a hip trio infiltrates the counterculture to solve crimes.

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Airing from 1968 till 1973, The Mod Squad was a unique concept. Created by Buddy Ruskin, a Los Angeles police officer, the show took eight years to become a reality. Ruskin based the concept on his time as a squad leader for an undercover narcotic division in the 1950s.

Aaron Spelling was the executive producer. Spelling worked on a number of projects from 1960 onward, but his biggest hit shows were still in his future when he took the helm of The Mod Squad.

As soon as the jazzy theme song by Earl Hagen began, we knew this was a different type of show. The sixties hippie culture and counterculture drug scene had not been explored in depth on television before.

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In order to get the necessary evidence, three young team members were trained to go undercover to solve cases. Michael Cole was Pete Cochran, a wealthy kid who was arrested for stealing a car; Peggy Lipton was Julie Barnes, who had run away from a bad home situation; and Clarence Wlliams II was Linc Hayes, who was arrested during the Watts riots. Captain Adam Greer (Tige Andrews) supervised the trio. He mentored them and provided “parently” advice and wisdom. He hand-picked them for his team. (Similarly, Spelling’s Charlie’s Angel’s would also feature a father figure hand picking three non-traditional members for his crime-solving team.)

None of these kids were innocent, and their records were eliminated when they chose to work with the LA police. But they soon realized they had the ability most cops did not to inconspicuously fit in to help stop criminals from killing or hurting other young adults.

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Similar to Room 222, which aired almost the same time, The Mod Squad covered a lot of socially relevant topics: abortion, domestic violence, drug addiction, child abuse, police brutality, illegal immigration, and racism. Though the pilot was written sixty years ago, these issues are still on the front page today.

The writers, including Tony Barrett, Harve Bennett, Sammy Hess, and Buddy Ruskin, created realistic characters. These three outcasts were a bit rebellious; they lived in the gray instead of black or white. They understood good people sometimes did bad things, and racism and domestic violence were not to be tolerated. Their speech and clothing marked them as quintessentially 1960s. Linc often said “Solid” or “Keep the faith.” You would probably hear “groovy” at least once an episode.

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The team traveled in an old green 1950 Mercury wood-paneled station wagon that they affectionately referred to as “Woody.” Unfortunately, it was burned in an accident at the end of the second season.

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The show was definitely controversial. It aired at a time when westerns, rural sitcoms, and Lawrence Welk were popular. The episodes pushed the envelope a bit on topics that had been taboo on television in the past. The team was like a family and on one episode, Linc gave Julie a brotherly kiss on the cheek which had the network up in arms, but not one complaint came in. Their relationship with Captain Greer helped America see how the generation gap could be bridged.

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Stars David Cassidy and Marion Ross

Despite the controversy, the show attracted a lot of famous guest stars. Some of the actors who can be spotted during the show’s run include Ed Asner, Jim Backus, Tom Bosley, David Cassidy, Tyne Daley, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Dow, Andy Griffith, Carolyn Jones, Leslie Nielsen, Stefanie Powers, Vincent Price, Robert Reed, Marian Ross, Sugar Ray Robinson, Martin Sheen, Bobby Sherman, Danny Thomas, Daniel Travanti, and Billy Dee Williams.

Each episode ended with the squad walking away from the camera.

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The show was extremely popular given its uniqueness. It was the 28th most popular show its first year and number 11 in its third season. The show received seven Emmy and four Golden Globe nominations. In 1970, it was nominated for Outstanding Series. During its final year, it only ranked 54 and the “hipness” of the show was starting to age a bit, so it was cancelled.

It did have an afterlife. In 1979, a tv movie, The Return of the Mod Squad, aired on ABC with the original cat. In 1999, a big-screen film was released starring Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, Claire Danes, and Dennis Farina. Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember it; not many people do.

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The Mod Squad could be seen on MeTV in 2014 and 2015. Apart from that, it has not fared well in syndication. Like Room 222, the show can feel dated quickly due to its language and fashion.

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The show is still celebrated for its ground-breaking scripts, and in 1997, TV Guide included an episode, “Mother of Sorrow” as 95th of the greatest 100 episodes of all time.

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While you probably won’t find it on television, it is available on DVD. Although the show may not be known by many people today, it was one of the first shows to break the barriers of going where television had not been before. In many ways, it paved the way for the creation of shows such as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Miami Vice. What more could you ask for: relevant topics, well-rounded characters, and exciting plots. Although its language and fashions date it, it captures a unique time in our history and is worth exploring.

My Secret, Guilty Pleasure: The Feminist and The Fuzz

For those of you who have been with me on this blog journey, I have shared quite a bit with you during the two and a half years I’ve been writing. You have learned I can’t stand All in the Family or Good Times. You have learned I think that perhaps the best sitcoms ever written were The Dick Van Dyke Show and M*A*S*H. You know that I love the Doris Day comedies from the 1960s. I became vulnerable enough to share with you that Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, That Girl, and The Partridge Family are some of my favorite classic sitcoms. Today I’m catching a long breath and taking my confessions a step further.

Television movies have been a staple since the 1960s. Different networks came up with a show that was an incentive for viewers to stay home and watch movies. In 1961, NBC Saturday Night at the Movies debuted. A movie previously released in the theaters was shown. Since each network had their own version of the show, eventually there was a shortage of previous movies to air. At that time, networks decided to fill the gap by producing their own “made-for-tv” movies. The first was See How They Run which aired October 7, 1964 on NBC.

I’m sure I watched more than my share of these movies growing up, but most of them left no impression on me. However, there is one that I do remember. I’m not sure if it was the incredible cast or just the topic of women’s lib which I was just beginning to understand at age ten, but I loved this movie. I watched it live on television and never saw it again. It was The Feminist and The Fuzz. Although I’m sure it’s full of politically incorrect dialogue and actions, I decided to learn a bit more about this treasure that I have not seen in more than 40 years.

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Screen Gems made the movie for ABC. It aired on The ABC Movie of the Week on January 26, 1971. Barbara Eden and David Hartman were the stars of the show. The movie was written by James Henerson. He wrote eighteen television movies, as well as scripts for several sitcoms including I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched. Jerry Paris, who was Jerry Helper, the Petries’ neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show, was the director. Claudio Guzman produced the movie, and Emil Oster was the cinematographer.

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Jane Bowers (Eden) is a pediatrician. She is engaged to Wyatt Foley (Herb Edelman). Wyatt is a lawyer and a bit of a mother’s boy. Jane has recently been drawn into the women’s liberation movement. Apartments in San Francisco are few and far between. We learn she has been trying to find one for a while. As she arrives at the latest apartment in her hunt, she meets Jerry Frazer (Hartman), a cop who is also looking for an apartment. The landlord assumes they are a married couple as he shows them around.

When he leaves, they argue about who gets the apartment. Neither one of them is willing to give in, so they finally come to an understanding that they will share the apartment. They work opposite shifts, so they decide they will rarely be there together. Jerry is dating Kitty Murdock (Farrah Fawcett), a bunny at the Playboy Club.

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Jane explains what is going on to Wyatt, but Jerry does not want Kitty to find out he is living with Jane. Jerry is a bit of a ladies’ man but treats women respectfully. Jane refers to Jerry as a “cop-lawyer-sexual bigot-Boy Scout,” and she insists he treat her like he would another man.

Although the plan is that Jane and Jerry don’t spend any time together, of course they end up being thrown together. Despite their first impressions of each other and their intention to dislike each other, the viewers realize that they are falling in love.

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While Jane has been exploring the entire feminist movement, she has not bought into it as much as her friends. Her best friend is another doctor, Debby Inglefinger (Jo Anne Worley). Debbie is a hardcore protester and women’s libber. She decides her club, Women Against Men, or WAM is going to stage a protest at the Playboy Bunny Club.

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Jane joins her friends at the Club. The women are all wearing swimsuits and carrying signs; Jane’s says, “Men are Playboys, Women are Playthings.” WAM refuses to leave the premises, so the manager calls the police. Of course, Jerry is one of the officers who come to get things under control. While the other women are being arrested, Jerry picks up Jane, who is in a bikini, and carries her to a taxi, telling the driver to take her home. She is incensed that she is not going to jail with the other women. While this is going on, Kitty spots him and realizes he is protecting Jane. Some of the women who are arrested at the Club include Sheila James, Jill Choder, Merri Robinson, Penny Marshall, and Amanda Pepper.

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Jane calls her father, Horace (Harry Morgan) who is also a doctor. She has not admitted to him that she has a male roommate. He decides to drive into town to talk to her in person. In the meantime, Lilah (Julie Newmar), a kind-hearted prostitute asks Jerry to arrest her, so she has a place to sleep that night. He feels sorry for her and lets her stay in his room at the house that night because he will be at work. When Jane’s father arrives, he runs into Lilah who he assumes is Jane’s roommate. Jane is not there because she was still angry and got even madder when she thought Jerry is sleeping with Lilah. She leaves him a note that she is moving out.

Jerry tries to call Jane at work and when he finds out she left early, he rushes home. Of course, by this time Horace and Lilah have gotten to know each other well. Kitty also shows up at the apartment and sees Jane and recognizes her from the Club. Wyatt and Debbie also stop by.

Jerry finally admits he loves Jane. Jane is in a fluster and runs out of the apartment. Kitty gets mad and asks Debbie if she can join WAM. Wyatt finds Debby’s controlling nature attractive and they begin a relationship.

Jerry catches up with Jane in the middle of an intersection where he kisses her, stopping traffic. Horace is happy because never liked Wyatt but likes Jerry a lot.

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Like Laugh-In, With Six You Get Eggroll, or The Brady Bunch, this movie could only have come out of this era. Everything about the movie screams the seventies—the clothing, the interiors, the cars, the language—which is probably why I was drawn to it. Everyone in the cast is a well-known star, which also made it fun to watch.

There were a lot of impactful and important television movies made in the 1960s and 1970s, so I’m not sure why this movie, primarily fluff, is so memorable for me. I guess I was not alone because it was the second-highest ranked television movie when it aired. It is on my bucket-list of shows to watch again. What is the movie that you love but hate to admit how much you love it?

Just A Girl From the Bronx: Penny Marshall

Today we look at the career of Penny Marshall. She comes across in most of her interviews as a “what you see is what you get” type of girl.

Penny Marshall was born Carole Penny Marshall in the Bronx in October of 1943. Her mother was a tap dancer and, according to Penny and her brother Garry, was quite a character. Her father was a film director for industrial films. Garry says Penny caused their mother the most problems of all the children. They knew it would be so when she walked on the ledge of the apartment building they lived in.

While attending the University of New Mexico, Penny became pregnant. She and her boyfriend, Michael Henry married in 1961 but divorced by 1963. Penny says she ended up there because her mother didn’t know geography and assumed New Mexico was close to New York, New Jersey, and New Hampshire.

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After working as a secretary, she dabbled in acting. One of her first jobs was a Head and Shoulders commercial with Farrah Fawcett.

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Her brother Garry cast her in the movie How Sweet It Is in 1968 with Debbie Reynolds and James Garner. Penny began getting roles on television shows including Love American Style, That Girl, and The Bob Newhart Show.

In 1971 she married Rob Reiner. That same year she began a recurring role on The Odd Couple as Myrna Turner, Oscar’s secretary. She appeared in 27 shows. penny3odd

 

Marshall had been considered for the role of Gloria Stivic on All in the Family, the television wife of her husband Rob.

Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall circa 1970s © 1978 Gary Lewis

 

In 1974 Garry was looking for a couple of girls to appear on an episode of Happy Days. Cindy Williams had previously dated Henry Winkler, and Garry cast Cindy and Penny as the “fast girls” dating the Fonz and innocent Richie Cunningham. The girls appeared in five different episodes.

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They were such a hit that a spinoff was created for them in Laverne and Shirley. The show ran from 1976-1983, producing 178 episodes. Laverne and Shirley were best friends and roommates. They worked at the Shotz Brewery Company in Milwaukee and had a wacky group of friends. After several seasons, the girls move to California when automatic bottle cappers replaced them at the brewery. Laverne could be a bit rash and spontaneous, but she had a heart of gold, and Shirley tried her best to keep her in line.

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One of my favorite books is My Happy Days in Hollywood by Garry Marshall. In a chapter about Laverne and Shirley he wrote that one of the producers on the show asked him to switch shows for a while because he had an urge to run Penny and Cindy over with his car. Garry said he switched but had to change back quickly because he understood that urge. He said they were terrible to work with. Rumors spread that they both had inflated egos and did not get along. Penny later admitted that she had not behaved the best and apologized to her brother. During the run of the series, Marshall and Reiner went through a rough divorce.

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Penny had directed four Laverne and Shirley episodes. In the 1980s and 90s, Penny began directing movies as well. Her most famous movies were Jumpin’ Jack Flash (1986), Big (1988), Awakenings (1990), and A League of Their Own (1992). She was the first female director to get more than $100 million when she directed Big. Marshall also appeared in a variety of movies and television shows during this time.

 

In 2013 she accepted a role on Murder Police, playing Sylvia Goldenberg. This was an animation comedy about two policemen, one a good cop and his partner a tough, rule-breaking officer. The show was set to air on Fox, but the network didn’t like the show. The 13 episodes taped have never been seen in the US.

In 2012, Marshall published a memoir, My Mother Was Nuts. She talked into a tape recorder and had someone type it up. She had many memories of her childhood and the sarcastic one-liners her mother was famous for.

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Marshall enjoys needlepoint, putting together jigsaw puzzles and shopping for antiques. Though I don’t do needlepoint, I’d be happy to join her to work on a puzzle or shop for treasures.

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She is an avid sports fan, especially baseball and basketball, and has a well-respected collection of sports memorabilia. A few years ago, announcements were made about a documentary Penny would be the executive producer of. It’s the true story of Effa Manley who managed the Negro League’s Newark Eagles during the 1930s and 1940s. I have not been able to find any current information about whether the film was made or not.

While Garry was instrumental in getting Penny her first roles, she proved that she was a great actress and a highly accomplished director. She has had an interesting and meaningful career and it will be fun to see what direction she decides to go as she  journeys into her seventies.

 

Webster: A Forgotten Sitcom

During my research for one of my blogs, I encountered a reference about Webster. I was surprised to learn that Webster was on the air for six years. It was a show I had watched a bit in the 1980s but have rarely seen since then.

Webster chronicles how life changes for three people when a young boy is adopted by his godfather, a former NFL player, and his new wife. Webster has lost his parents, and George was his father’s best friend. The show ran for 6 seasons, resulting in 150 episodes.

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Set in Chicago, Webster’s (Emmanuel Lewis) parents are killed in a car accident. George Papadopolis (Alex Karras) is retired and recently married to Katherine (Susan Clark), who comes from a wealthy family and has few domestic skills. Katherine is a consumer advocate in the first season but later works as a family psychologist. George is now a sportscaster at a local television station. Karras and Clark were married in real life also. Both of them had acting roles in movie and television series before they starred in Webster. Karras was also a favorite Tonight Show guest. Everyone seemed to like him. Former teammate Greg Barton described his humor: “He is one of the funniest men I have ever been around.”

After living in a high-rise apartment that was burned down during one of Webster’s science experiments, the family moved to a large Victorian house which is on Chicago’s Gold Coast. In 2016 the Chicago home was for sale for 9.5 million dollars.

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Webster called his “dad” George and his “mom” Ma’am. When she asked Webster why he was so formal with her, he explained that the name was as close as he could get to Mom without replacing his birth mother.

In addition to these three characters, the show featured Katherine’s secretary and confidante Jerry (Henry Polic II) and Webster’s uncle Phillip (Ben Vereen), who doesn’t approve of Webster’s adoption by a white couple.

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We also got to know many of Webster’s classmates. During the second season, George’s father, George Sr. (Jack Kruschn) appears. He would make more regular appearances in 1985.

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After Karras and Clark married, they started a production company called Georgian Bay Ltd. ABC wanted to create a romantic comedy series for them. After signing the couple, ABC’s programming chief Lew Erlicht saw a Burger King commercial featuring Emmanuel Lewis and wanted to develop a show for him as well.

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With the fall schedule quickly filling up, it was decided to combine the two shows into a new one, Then Came You. In September 1983 when the show premiered, the title had become Webster. After much infighting among the creators, the show focused both on the romantic angle of George and Katherine as well as Webster’s plots.

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The show was often compared to Diff’rent Strokes, where a white family adopted two black brothers. Personally, I found Diff’rent Strokes grating and predictable. I did not enjoy many of the shows or the spinoffs developed during this time, including All in The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, and Facts of Life. I think Webster was well written and the dialogue was more sophisticated. Webster was a little boy, but he was very intelligent, and the writers gave him credit for that.

 

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Karras became a surrogate father to Lewis. The relationships between the major cast members were very close. When Karras passed away, Lewis said “He was a giant of a man with a big heart, a great sense of humor, and very grounded outlook on life. He might have towered over you . . . but he had a knack of being able to get down to your level without being small about it.”

 

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The show sustained high ratings the first three years, but in season four, they dropped significantly. After landing in the top 30, it plummeted to 46. ABC made the decision to drop the show. Webster would continue two more years in syndication but never achieved the ratings of those first three years. In 1989, Emmanuel was outgrowing the show and he was beginning to get bored playing a younger child while in real life he had already graduated from high school.

One fun fact about Webster is that Jerry Seinfeld was employed as a writer for exactly one week. None of his material made it to the air.

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Webster seems to be one of those forgotten shows from the 1980s. While it appeared in reruns for a short time, I don’t hear much about the show anymore. It was heart-warming and tackled both social issues occurring at the time and private family issues that adoptive parents would face. George and Katherine had a great relationship, but it was different from most parents on television. They were equals in every way. Webster assumed an equal footing with them, even though he was their child. George was a nurturing and caring father, while Katherine often provided the practicality that Webster needed to learn life lessons. You can currently watch Webster Sunday mornings on Antenna TV.

“Don’t give up before the miracle happens.” ― Fannie Flagg, I Still Dream About You

Fannie Flagg is one of those performers who I have seen all my life but know little about. I thought it would be fun to learn about her show business career. Like me, she started writing later in life as her second career.  I wanted to know how that whole dream fulfillment came about. Let’s get to know Fannie Flagg.

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She was born Patricia Neal in Alabama in 1944. Flagg, of Finnish ancestry, spent most of her childhood in the Birmingham area. It sounds like she had a “normal” childhood. Although she liked writing, she had problems because she was dyslexic which she did not realize until she was an adult. She was an archery champion at age 12. By age fifteen, she thought about entering a convent. Luckily for us she didn’t. In high school she was a cheerleader and a saxophone player in the band.

As a teen, she entered the Miss Alabama pageant, where she won a scholarship to the Pittsburgh Playhouse Theater Acting School. Acting might have been in her blood because both her father and her grandfather were motion picture machine operators. The summer she returned home, the woman who cohosted the Morning Show in Birmingham was leaving, so Fannie was able to replace her.

Who knows what direction Flagg’s career would have taken if the head of WBRC-TV were not so tight-fisted. Flagg asked for a raise and they denied it, so she quit her job and moved to New York City. She had to take on a new name since there was already a quite famous Patricia Neal in show business. Her grandfather suggested “Fannie” because so many comediennes used the name and a friend came up with “Flagg.”

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Her first television job was on CBS Repertoire Workshop in 1964. During this time, Fannie recorded two comedy albums with various skits that included parodies of famous women. She appeared on a variety of talk shows including The Joey Bishop Show, The Dick Cavett Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Johnny Cash Show, Dinah!, and The Rosie O’Donnell Show.

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Flagg got her first film role in 1970 in Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson. The next year she appeared in Some of My Best Friends Are.

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It was also in 1971 that she received an offer for her first series. Fannie says she stumbled into the role.  She had been doing concerts and performing with stock companies. She was on the west coast and stopped in at her agent’s California office to meet the staff.  A man came in and looked her up and down and then left. The next day she learned she was given the part of Dick Van Dyke’s sister on The New Dick Van Dyke Show. The man in the office the day before had been looking for someone who could pass for Dick’s sister in real life.

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The New Dick Van Dyke Show was on the air from 1971 till 1973. Carl Reiner created the series for Van Dyke. Van Dyke was Dick Preston, a local talk show host. Van Dyke was signed to a three-year contract and given permission to film in Arizona where he lived. Hope Lange was his wife Jenny, Angela Powell their daughter Annie, Flagg his sister Mike, David Doyle was his boss Ted, and Marty Brill and Nancy Dussault were their best friends Bernie and Carol Davis.

The show began its life on Saturday night with All in the Family, Funny Face, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  The series didn’t garner very high ratings, so the second season found the show on Sunday nights when ratings decreased drastically. Flagg was mentioned by several critics as being very funny in her role. Fannie credited Dick Van Dyke as her acting mentor, as well as one of her best friends.

Because Dick had a three-year contract, rather than cancel the show, CBS changed the structure. Dick gets a role on a soap opera, so he and his family move to Hollywood. They changed out most of the cast members so Flagg moved on. The show followed Here’s Lucy. The ratings improved significantly, but after the third year, Dick quit to go back to Arizona.

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Throughout the 1970s, Fannie continued to get both television and film offers. She appeared on Love American Style, The New Candid Camera, Wonder Woman, and Fernwood Tonight. She was also in several films including both Rabbit Test and Grease in 1978.

During the 1970s, Flagg was a fixture on game shows. She is best known for Match Game where she usually sat next to Richard Dawson.  With all the different versions of Match Game, she appeared in 529 episodes of the show. She is famous for wearing unusual tops on Match Game. It was while on the game show that Fannie received a note from a teacher who noticed a particular pattern in her misspellings on the show. She mentioned she might have dyslexia which is when Flagg first began to investigate and learn she did indeed suffer from the disease. When asked about two her costars on Match Game, namely Charles Nelson Reilly and Brett Somers, Flagg said, “Besides being hilarious, Brett and Charles were two of the smartest people I have ever known. On “Match Game,” they got such a big kick out of each other! They razzed one another and everybody else on the panel mercilessly, and they were particularly relentless on the people they really liked. It was never mean or hurtful, and they loved it when you razzed them back.”

She continued, One of the happiest times in my life was in 1980 when I was doing “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on Broadway, and Charles, Brett and I were staying at the Wyndham Hotel at the same time. Every day at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon they would come to my room for cocktails. Many is the time I would come home from after the show and they would still be sitting there having a good time. The only thing that changed was the position of Charles’ toupee.”

In addition to “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Flagg toured with Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”

Fannie continued her acting career into the 1980s. From 1981-1982 she took a role as Cassie Bowman on Harper Valley PTA starring Barbara Eden. The show was based on the hit song, “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie Riley. Sherwood Schwartz produced the first eleven episodes.  The show moved around a bit from Thursdays at 8 to Saturdays at 8 to Saturdays at 8:30. Barbara played Stella, a mom who ignores Southern small-town standards by wearing mini skirts and speaking her mind. She reveals the hypocrisy of the other PTA members, making her a target of their comments. The show did not last long enough to accumulate enough episodes for syndication, but it occasionally shows up on independent networks.

Flagg was on The George Burns Comedy Week series and on The Love Boat three times. Her final films were done at the beginning and end of the 1990s. Her last movie was Crazy in Alabama in 1999 written by her friend Mark Childress.

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She also had a cameo in 1991 in Fried Green Tomatoes, a movie based on her novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. She co-wrote the screenplay and received an Oscar nomination. The book is told in the past and the present by Ninnie Threadgoode and Evelyn Crouch who talk about the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama and the bonds the women forged in the 1920s and 1930s. The novel, published in 1987, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 36 weeks. This was her most famous novel, but it was not her first.

Flagg felt a pull toward writing as a child. She had written a play when she attended Catholic school. Because her father worked at the cinema, she had seen a lot of movies. She wrote a play about two career girls who lived in an apartment over the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. A man named Mr. Truman called and asked to come for tea. The girls assume it’s President Truman and go all out getting ready and inviting their friends. It turns out to be an insurance salesman. Her teacher phoned her mother to say the nuns were concerned because she used the word “martini” 16 times. Her mother had to explain that Fannie watched a lot of movies and the family was not sitting around drinking martinis every night.

She won first prize at the county fair for an essay titled, “Why I Want to Be Bald Headed.” She wrote it because she hated her mother braiding her hair so tightly every morning.

In the 1960s, Flagg wrote skits for a night club in New York—Upstairs at the Downstairs. She filled in for a sick actress one night when Allen Funt was in the audience. He invited her to become a staff writer on Candid Camera where she acted as well.

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Flagg decided to attend a conference in 1978 to see Eudora Welty. She had to write a short story for a contest based on the word “childhood.” As Flagg tells it,

“I went to the grocery store, and I bought one of those spiral notebooks. I wrote a story called Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man about something that had actually happened to me in childhood,” says Flagg. “I wrote it as an 11-year-old child, and I thought that if they saw any mistakes, they would think I did it on purpose.”

Flagg won the contest. “I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled, but at the same time I felt like such a cheat and a liar,” says Flagg. An editor there said that he wanted to talk with her about her writing a fleshed-out novel based on her short story. Flagg burst into tears and said, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t write a book.” When he asked her why, she replied, “Because I can’t spell.” Flagg says the editor looked at her like she was crazy and said, “What do you think we have editors for?”

She’s been writing ever since.

Fannie Flagg has found her niche.  Since that first novel, she has continued to write, publishing ten books in all. Her most recent release was The Whole Town is Talking in 2016. In 2012 she won the Harper Lee Distinguished Alabama Author award and presented it to Fannie in person.

As an adult, Fannie collects lamps from the 1940s and 1950s. She loves going on cruise ships, which might explain her three appearances on The Love Boat.  If you were a Match Game fan, it will not surprise you to learn that she loves wearing stripes with polka dots.

Fannie just seems like a delightful and fun person to be around.  She is on my list of people to have dinner with. I have recently began reading her books and I love them.  She writes about quirky, not strange, characters who seem true to life. It’s been fun getting to know a bit more about her life and career.

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Why Pop Culture Makes Me Grateful

With Thanksgiving quickly approaching, I have been reflecting on what I am thankful for this year.  Of course, I am most thankful for my faith, family, friends, and good health like most people.  But I have been looking deeper, exploring gifts I don’t always appreciate.

Kids today are growing up in a digital society, and social media has always been part of their lives – that will shape them and the way they learn and interact.  When I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, our technology was television. I have been thinking about the way that shaped who I am, and I have been meditating on what I have learned from being a pop culture kid.

Here are some of the things I am thankful for that I have learned from sitcoms.

  1. Gracie Allen and Blanche Morton taught me having a best friend you can sit down and talk with over coffee is important. On Burns and Allen, every good or bad thing that occurred in their lives was shared and analyzed over a cup of quality roast coffee. Most of the time, these two women shared laughter, but your closest friends understand when it’s the time for tears as well. Having someone to navigate life with who totally gets you and never judges you (but can pull you back to reality with a loving reprimand when necessary) makes the journey much easier.

 

  1. Ann Marie taught me fashion is fun, and you can develop your own fashion sense. The last seasons of That Girl coincided with my middle grade school years when clothes were beginning to take on new importance. Before that, we basically had Sunday clothes, school clothes, and play clothes and didn’t give much thought to what was in our closet. During these years I was lucky to have a grandmother who bought me beautiful Sunday dresses and a friend who passed her clothes down to me. I remember that one of my Sunday best was a pink and white gingham skirt (with suspenders!) and a matching blazer. It came from Sak’s Fifth Avenue, and made me feel like a model when I wore it.  I didn’t understand the cost of expensive clothing, but I did know that Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Tiffany boxes were very desirable.  Thank you Lisa Spahr.  School clothes were always a dress or skirt with high knee socks until fourth grade.  That was the year that forced us to think more about our daily outfits because, for the first time, we were allowed to wear pants to school.  Not any pants, however; it had to be a pantsuit.  For Christmas that year I received a navy combination with red trim around the collar – a bit of a naval theme. Play clothes also began to change that year because our play changed.  No longer were we only running through the neighborhood; we were going to the movies, the Y, and other places where we might run into certain people – people like boys. My favorite outfit that year was a pair of ecru bell bottoms that had navy and maroon flowers splashed across them, paired with a navy blouse with a very straight collar and three buttons on the cuff.  I was convinced if I ran into Keith Partridge or Bobby Sherman in that outfit, they would notice me for sure. I also remember hot pants coming into fashion, and I had a pair of striped brown, tan, and orange ones that I wore with an orange tank with a zipper.  Be still my heart.  But my most special purchase was a black maxi coat that made me feel just like Ann Marie. Yes, she was a great fashion coach. I still love to watch the show to see what she is wearing.

 

  1. The Collins family helped me develop several interests. Dark Shadows came on not long after we arrived home from school, and we never wanted to miss it. As a neighborhood clan, we often played Dark Shadows, and all the girls wanted to be Daphne or Laura. I have not remained an avid Dark Shadows fan, but it did spark two passions for me.  No, not vampires and ghosts but mysteries and Maine. Mysteries were my favorite books to read during grade school and junior high. My first memory of the Bookmobile coming to our school was seeing several Nancy Drew books on the library carts. I checked them out, and I was hooked. I read through many series after that – The Dana Girls, Ginny Gordon, and Donna Parker – and then I moved on to reading adult authors that our local librarian had to approve for me to take out.  I especially loved Phyllis Whitney. I must have loved books more than clothing, because one year I received a pair of jeans for Christmas that I didn’t really like.  I was allowed to take them to Leitzinger’s Department Store myself to exchange them.  Exchange them I did for 8 Trixie Belden books  That was not my mother’s expectation, but I thought it was a much better deal.  Dark Shadows also gave me a fondness for Maine. I’ve only been there once, but I am looking forward to returning to New England next fall. I loved the large, old homes, the rocky beaches, and the quaint little towns. Something about that area spoke to my soul and drew me in.

 

  1. Steve Douglas provided me with sage advice and security. My dad and I had a great relationship when I was very little and later when I was an adult and a parent myself, but those years in between were a bit unpleasant at times, due to some personal demons he was dealing with. My Three Sons began the year before I was born and continued on the air until I was 12. After that, it was on television in reruns for most of my school life. In his sweater and holding a pipe, Steve Douglas became a surrogate father for me. I felt like I was a member of the Douglas family. Steve always had time to listen and had great wisdom.  He also understood kids would be kids and you had to pick your battles. He was kind and gentle. When I was dealing with a difficult issue, I would often consider what advice he might give me. When I was pregnant with our first child, a boy it turns out, I gave Dan a Steve Douglas cardigan to announce it. I think it was fitting that I ended up with three children – all boys.  Spending time with the Douglas family while growing up helped me understand what it was like to raise three boys. This show has always tugged at my heart.  On our first date, the show just happened to be on when we got back to my apartment.  Then we had three boys. Our youngest was named Seth for several reasons, one of them being that Seth Bryant had founded the town of Bryant Park where the Douglas clan lived. Somehow, I think I always knew I would have my own three sons.

 

  1. Hawkeye Pierce and BJ Hunnicutt taught me laughter is an essential part of life. During my formative tween years, especially in dealing with my father, I began to realize that life wasn’t always sunshine and rainbows. I learned that life held some highs and some lows, but most of life is lived on the bridges between the mountains and the valleys.  M*A*S*H taught me the importance of joy and laughter during these times. Humor became an important life skill which helped in making friends and getting through bumpy times.  We moved a lot between 8th and 11th grades – I was basically in five different high schools in three different cities and having a sense of humor helped me develop friends in each new place. My closest friends and my family understand that being able to laugh at ourselves and find humor in the mundane keeps life fun.  Our family conversations often sound like a M*A*S*H script. Life without humor would be very unpleasant.

 

  1. Rob Petrie, Mary Richards, and Michael Scott taught me that work would be much smoother if you accepted everyone and made the best of situations rather than dwelling on the negatives. From Rob Petrie, I learned that developing close relationships at work helped you be more creative and reduced stress. He probably also influenced me to love comedy and writing. Mary Richards taught me that for every Murray Slaughter you bonded with at work, there would be a Ted Baxter you had to put up with, and hopefully you would develop some affection for them by doing so.  Michael Scott taught me that we all have our quirks, and if we accept others, they will usually accept us.  If we wait for the perfect friend or coworker, we will be waiting a long time. The work has to get done, so stay positive. We all have professional gifts and talents, but our people skills are often what make us a success or a failure at our jobs.

 

  1. Shirley Partridge and Bentley Gregg taught me it was okay to love a show simply because you love it, without trying to reason why. There were a lot of shows on when I was growing up that I watched and thought were okay, but they didn’t capture my heart – shows like Gilligan’s Island, Hazel, or The Flying Nun.  There were also shows I thoroughly disliked for whatever reason – shows like All in The Family, Good Times, and The Beverly Hillbillies. However, some shows like The Partridge Family and Bachelor Father drew me in and became life-long love interests.  Okay, it might have something to do with the fact that I was secretly in love with Keith Partridge and Bentley Gregg.  There was just something about the series that would cause me to get up two hours early or stay up three hours later just to watch reruns when I could.  And I learned that was okay.  I don’t have to analyze why they have become important in my life; I just accept that they are.

Many people criticize sitcoms as fluffy and say that they don’t portray the reality of life.  I disagree.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are plenty of mediocre and just plain awful shows out there.  There always have been.  But there are those shows that touch our lives in some way.  We learn from them.  We laugh with them.  We develop an appreciation for people that we otherwise would never come to know. So, I am grateful for the lessons I have learned watching sitcoms.  I am also thankful for the passion I developed in sharing these shows with other people. After all, that is what this blog is all about.  And I am thankful to you for reading it and keeping these shows alive for another generation. Have a blessed Thanksgiving.

 

A Tribute To The Man Who Created So Many Happy Days For All Of Us

Today we get to honor one of my all-time favorites in the celebrity world – Garry Marshall.  By all accounts, whatever you read, he was hilarious, humble, and hard-working.  He was known as a family man, always putting them first. Let’s learn a little bit about his life.

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His Early Life

Garry Kent Marshall was born in The Bronx, New York on November 13, 1934, the son of Anthony Wallace Marshall, a director and producer of industrial films, and Marjorie Irene, a  teacher who ran a tap dance school. His father changed his last name from Masciarelli to Marshall before Garry was born.

Marshall had a typical childhood which included “the usual bruised knees, runny nose, dead frogs and stolen bases.” But he said his formative years were primarily devoted to discovering girls, making people laugh, and learning to play drums. “When I was growing up, there were three drummers I admired: Gene Krupa, Max Roach, and this little girl drummer in my school who used to blow in my ear after practice.”

His brother is Ronny Marshall Hallin, a television producer; his sister is Penny Marshall, actress and director; and his brother-in-law for ten years was Rob Reiner, actor and director.

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He decided to attend Northwestern University to major in journalism.  After graduation, he was drafted into the Army and sent to Korea as part of the Special Services.  He was able to write and produce shows which set him on a new career path once he returned to the United States. Discussing his service, he said, “The lowest musical experience of my life came when I was in the Army. I was a solo marching snare drummer and kept cadence for my battalion. One day while my battalion was marching, I was playing so badly that the Captain shot a hole through my drum with a .45 revolver.”

Garry moved to New York after the Army and met Fred Freeman.  The two of them began writing together.  To support himself while his writing career got underway, Garry supplemented his income playing drums and writing for the Daily News sports department.

His TV Production Career

Marshall began his career as a joke writer for comedians and became a writer for The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. He eventually secured a staff writing position on The Joey Bishop Show. There he met Jerry Belson in 1961, with whom he would go on to write two feature films, a Broadway play, and episodes for a variety of TV series including The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Lucy Show, and I Spy.

In 1963, he married Barbara and they would have three children.

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Marshall and Belson’s first television series as creator-producers was Hey, Landlord, which lasted one season (1966–67).

Their next series was more successful. They adapted Neil Simon’s play The Odd Couple for television. Felix Unger and Oscar Madison are total opposites but best friends.  Garry’s sister Penny would play Myrna in the show.

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Marshall continued to borrow from The Odd Couple throughout his career. Over and over again he employed the comic device of coupling two distinctly different characters: the hip and the square on Happy Days, the earthling and the Orkan on Mork and Mindy, the rich and the poor on Angie, and, later, the businessman and the prostitute in the movie Pretty Woman.

Most of his hit television series were created and executive produced by him. Rather than forming his own independent production company, which had become standard procedure for producers at the time, Marshall remained at Paramount to make a succession of hit situation comedies for ABC. By the end of the 1978-79 season, four of the five highest-rated shows of the year were Marshall’s.

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In the Norman Lear era, when series like All in the Family tackled social issues, Marshall focused on younger viewers with lighter, more escapist fare, most of it set in the supposedly simpler past. In an interview reprinted in American Television Genres (1985), Marshall recalled that, after producing the adult-oriented Odd Couple, he had been anxious to make shows “that both kids and their parents could watch.”

His philosophy to get younger viewers: “You have to do something silly to get their attention. Then I like to knock them off their chairs with laughter. I go for the gut. I want them to laugh hard.  I don’t want them quietly staring at a bright, witty show.”

Happy Days debuted as a series in January of 1974, and by the 1976-77 season it was the most popular show on TV. Most people don’t realize this, but the show began as a skit on Love American Style, and I remember watching it when it aired the first time. The show was set in Milwaukee in the 1950s, focusing on a group of high school friends; the Cunningham family; and Fonzie, the cool guy in town.

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Regarding Fonzie, Marshall said, “I knew that if I could get him over the garage, I could get him into the kitchen; he could become a member of the family.”

He worked with a variety of his family members throughout his career. His mother appeared in the Happy Days episode, Happy Days: Beauty Contest as “Mrs. Weiss,” the piano player.

Laverne and Shirley was a spin-off of Happy Days.  Two friends, Brewery workers, get involved in various kinds of trouble.  Marshall explained his idea for the show: “No one else on TV is doing early Lucy.  The other ladies on sitcoms are classy – they’re well off, smart, and they dress well. Laverne and Shirley are definitely not classy. They’re blue collar workers who went to work right after high school.  They’re decent people.”

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Happy Days would produce two more shows in Joanie Loves Chachi that explored the life of Joannie Cunningham and Fonz’s nephew Chachi after high school as they tried to figure out their relationship and Mork and Mindy, a show starring Robin Williams and Pam Dawber about an alien living in Colorado.

In a future blog, we’ll dig a bit deeper into Marshall’s television shows.

His Acting Career

A la Hitchcock, Marshall turns up as an uncredited actor in the background, occasionally appearing in cameos on his own hit TV shows.

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On Dick Van Dyke, he appeared as referee in a 1965 episode and a bartender in a 1966 episode. If you look closely, you will see him as a random man in three Odd Couple episodes. He showed up as a drummer in two Laverne and Shirley shows and on a Happy Days episode.

He had a small re-occurring part on Murphy Brown and provided the voice for two Simpsons shows (“Eight Misbehavin’” and “Homer the Father”).

In 2014, Marshall appeared in a guest star role in a Two and a Half Men.

He continued to show up in comedies until his death, the last one being Brooklyn Nine-Nine.

When he made the switch to movies, he continued to find small roles for himself. He plays a first baseman in  Runaway Bride, an audition director in Beaches, and a bum in Pretty Woman. It seems there was no part too small. He also played his real-life sister’s husband in Hocus Pocus in 1993.

His Directing Career

His career as a film director was just as impressive, yielding several gems and cult classics, from Pretty Woman to Runaway Bride to The Princess Diaries.

In the early 1980s, he met Héctor Elizondo while playing basketball and they became great friends. Marshall was known for his obsession with basketball: his contract often obligated studios to provide a basketball court on his film locations.

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Elizondo appeared in every film that Marshall directed, beginning with his first feature film Young Doctors in Love. Elizondo once noted that he is written into all of Marshall’s contracts whether he wanted to do the film or not.

In the opening credits of Exit to Eden (their eighth film together), Elizondo is credited “As Usual … Hector Elizondo.” In 1984, Marshall had a film hit as the writer and director of The Flamingo Kid. He later produced Nothing in Common with Tom Hanks and Jackie Gleason and Overboard with Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell.

In 1988, he directed the legendary weepie Beaches, starring Barbara Hershey and Bette Midler.

Although he was original choice to direct Sleepless in Seattle, Nora Ephron ended up with the job. His most famous movie as director also won him an Oscar nomination for Pretty Woman in 1990.

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Pretty Woman star Richard Gere said of Marshall in Variety: “He was a mentor and a cheerleader and one of the funniest men who ever lived. He had a heart of the purest gold and a soul full of mischief.”

Some people might be surprised to find out that Garry was the director for The Princess Diaries and The Princess Diaries 2 starring Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews.  Garry considers Julie Andrews one of his favorite actresses because “she could act, she can sing, she’s a lady who can curse with perfect diction.”

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He seemed to be surrounded by family whether at home or work.  In his last movie, Mother’s Day, he re-united with Julia Roberts, Kate Hudson, and, of course, Hector Elizondo. His sister Penny provided narration; his son Scott helped direct; and his wife, Barbara, a nurse, played a nurse in the film. (“She has her own costume,” Marshall joked.) There were also a few grandchildren  included in certain scenes.

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Awards

When he gave a speech upon accepting the Lifetime Achievement Prize given at the American Comedy Awards in 1990, Marshall said, “If television is the education of the American people, then I am recess.”

In addition, he received the Valentine Davies Award (1995), the Women in Film Lucy Award in recognition of excellence and innovation in creative works that have enhanced the perception of women through the medium of television, the Television Hall of Fame for his contributions to the field of television in 1997, the National Association of Broadcasters’ Broadcasting Hall of Fame in 2012, the Laurel Award for TV Writing Achievement in 2014, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

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Conclusion

On the morning of July 19, 2016, Marshall died at a hospital in Burbank, California at the age of 81 due to complications of pneumonia after suffering a stroke.

Robin Williams’s daughter Zelda wrote, “RIP Garry. You forever changed my father’s life, and thus, mine. Thank you for capturing so much joy on film, over and over.”

Henry Winkler tweeted, “Larger than life, funnier than most, wise and the definition of a friend.”

“How could one individual work parts of seven decades in the entertainment industry and make zero enemies?” Ron Howard asked, “Garry achieved that, and it was the result of his absolute integrity as a man and as an artist.”

Garry Marshall was an amazing and talented man.  He was a family man above all else.  He was an actor with 84 credits, a writer with 40 credits, a producer with 31 credits, and a director with 30 credits.  He was a drummer and a journalist.  His career covered more than six decades and his star was shining bright when he left show business.

He will be remembered for creating television shows that touched viewers and drew them into the world their characters inhabited.  We rooted for all of them and looked forward to spending time with them each week.  He created some of the most memorable characters on television. He also provided many lovable movies for our DVD collections with Pretty Woman at the top of the list.

HAPPY DAYS, from left: Penny Marshall, Robin Williams, Henry Winkler, 1974-84.

He wrote My Happy Days in Hollywood in 2012.  This is one of my all-time favorite classic television era autobiographies.  On one of our vacations we listened to Garry read the audio book version.  He not only discusses his successes but admits to all his screw ups and mistakes as well.  It’s a refreshingly honest account by a down-to-earth and humble man.  It’s one of the best ways to get to know this fascinating guy and is a wonderful tribute to a man who quietly influenced generations of actors and actresses. Here are a few of the reviews written by those people.

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“Garry Marshall is walking entertainment. He is smart, insightful, funny…and so is his book.” ―Henry Winkler

“Even though he speaks slowly with a distinctive New Yorkese Bronx accent, he has managed to quickly create, write, and produce a raft of beloved television series that speak ‘American’. I am happy that he gifted us with a witty memoir (about his Happy Days in Hollywood).” ―Carl Reiner

“Thanks to my brother I have a life.  I’m sorry I almost ruined his during Laverne & Shirley.” ―Penny Marshall

“I never thought my fairy godmother would look―or sound―like Garry. He is a gift of a human being, and this book is wicked sweet.” ―Anne Hathaway
 
“Garry Marshall is one of the most beloved and talented people I know…and maybe the most normal guy in the business. This wonderful biography will allow readers to discover for themselves the decent and kind man who writes and directs with such a huge heart—all grounded from humble beginnings in The Bronx. This is a must-read book.” —Julie Andrews
 
“Garry Marshall is quite simply one of my favorite people. He is loving, loyal, and hilarious! Having made movies with Garry when I was 20, 30, and 40…I guess you could say Garry and Barbara have raised me! In a time where people have lost touch with things to laugh about, this book is sure to be a cure.” —Julia Roberts

 

 

 

 

The Butler Did It

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When we mention the word butler, we usually think of the prim and proper English gentleman, stern-faced, polishing the silver, decanting the wine, and keeping an eye on the staff.

According to the International Butler Academy, there are a few million butlers serving today. They typically take care of travel arrangements, packing, household finances, and other general duties. Salaries vary from $50,000-$150,000 per year, but most include room and board, the use of a car, a cell phone, and 4 weeks of vacation.

When we think about butlers on television, some might come to mind quickly:  Lurch on The Addams Family, Alfred from Batman, Hudson from Upstairs, Downstairs, Benson from Soap, and Mr. Caron from Downton Abby.

Today, let’s look at shows that feature a butler as one of the main characters. This was an interesting blog for me.  I had only seen 1 of these 5 shows, so I learned a lot this week.

Our Man Higgins (1962-63)

Alice and Duncan MacRoberts are looking forward to receiving an unexpected inheritance from Scotland.  You can only imagine what they were hoping for.  Instead, they received a butler, Higgins. Higgins is the proper butler who lends a hand with their adventurous children while they teach him how to relax and have fun. Sterling Holloway played Higgins.  After 34 episodes, the network gave Higgins way more than 4 weeks of vacation.

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The Good Life (1971)

In between I Dream of Jeannie and Dallas, Larry Hagman starred in this show with Donna Mills, David Wayne, Danny Goldman, and Hermione Baddeley. Albert and Jane Miller were middle class citizens, tired of their boring routines.  They got the crazy idea to find work as servants for a wealthy family. Their employer, Charles Dutton, hires them as a butler and cook, not realizing they haven’t been professionally trained.  His wife is constantly trying to find ways to get them fired.  Dutton’s son Nick discovers their true identity and thinks the whole thing is hilarious, so he never gives their secret away.  The network apparently didn’t see the humor Nick did because they cancelled the show after 13 weeks.  In the show’s defense, it was up against All in The Family which scored incredible ratings when it aired.

The Two of Us (1981-82)

Nan Gallagher (Mimi Kennedy) is a television talk show host and a single mother.  She decides to place an ad to hire a nanny and ends up with Robert Brentwood (Peter Cook), an English butler. He is able to use his many talents, including being multilingual and a gourmet cook.  The show also features Nan’s agent Cubby Royce (Oliver Clarke) and her daughter Gabrielle (Dana Hill). The show came in as a replacement in 1981 and the critics gave it high praise.  Most of them wrote about the intelligent writing and the chemistry between the cast.  Unfortunately, when it entered the schedule the next fall, the ratings fell.  After 20 episodes, the network decided to send Brentwood back to England.

 

Mr. Belvedere (1985-1990)

Based on a novel and a movie, Mr. Belvedere debuted in 1985. Christopher Hewitt plays Lynn Aloysius Belvedere, a proper English butler, who previously worked for Winston Churchill and has connections to the royal family. The Owens place an ad for someone to help watch the kids and guess who answers the ad?  Mr. Belvedere has an ulterior purpose. He is recording their experiences in his diary so he can write a novel later. George Owens, played perfectly by Bob Uecker, is a sportswriter and his wife Marsha (Ilene Graff) is a law student.  Mr. Belvedere bonds with the kids no matter how hard he tries not to: teen Kevin (Rob Stone), tweener Heather (Tracy Wells), and grade school age Wesley (Brice Beckham).

Marblehead Manor

Randolf Stonehill (Bob Fraser) is the third generation to own Marblehead Manor which is somewhere in New England. Albert Dudley (Paxton Whitehead) is the third generation to work as a butler at Marblehead Manor. Randolf is the heir to a corn oil fortune. He is married to Hillary (Linda Thorson). The staff at the manor is quite a bunch of eccentrics.  There’s Jerry (Phil Morris) the chauffeur, Dwayne (Rodney Scott Hudson) the handyman, Lupe (Dyana Ortelli) the cook and her son Elvis (Humberto Ortiz), and Rick (Michael Richards) the gardner. To add an even weirder spin, the characters often dress as other people for comic effect.

After watching a few of these episodes, you just might decide to attend the International Butler Academy. It looks like an interesting life.

 

 

Not Everything is Black or White

As Black History Month comes to an end, I wanted to look at the early years of television featuring African American characters.  I don’t know if young people today realize how much culture has changed in the past fifty years.  While there are a lot of negative changes that have occurred in the movie and television industry, there have been a lot of positive changes as well.

It’s hard for young adults to realize today how different things are.  When I was growing up in the sixties, married couples on television had twin beds; you could not say “pregnant” on the air; black people and white people were not friends, and certainly did not date or marry; the “jobs wanted” ads in the newspaper were divided into jobs for men and jobs for women; and if a married woman wanted to join the armed forces, her husband or father had to sign a letter giving his approval.

Sometimes we get so caught up in how far we are from the journey’s end, we forget to appreciate how far we have traveled.  Looking at the current television schedule we see a variety of shows about capable women.  While certainly racism and gender discrimination exist, most people don’t think twice about whether a lead character is a man or a woman; is black, white, or Asian; or single or married.

Just a quick review of shows on the air reveal complex, intelligent characters who are African American.  We see this in Black-ish, This Is Us, Empire, Scandal, House of Lies, Last Man Standing, and Gray’s Anatomy, just to name a few.  This was far from the reality of early television.

We often think of that era as the golden age of television, but honestly, it was the white age of television.

In 1950, two shows debuted with main characters who were black:  Amos ‘N Andy and Beulah.  A radio transplant, Amos ‘N Andy dealt mostly with Kingfish’s schemes to gain wealth, often at the expense of his friends. Beulah also got its start on radio where she was a character in Fibber McGee and Molly.    She worked for a well-to-do middle class white couple with one son.  Both of these shows were demeaning and stereotypical.  In 1953, they were both yanked from the air due to NAACP protests.

Unfortunately, it would take almost 20 years before another show would feature a black character as a star.  In 1968, Julia debuted.  Julia, played by Diahann Carroll, was a black woman with a young son Corey (Marc Copage).  Her husband is killed in Vietnam and she moves to LA to start a new life in her nursing career.  Like Tom Corbett on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, she is raising a son; like Doris Day she is a working mother; and like Ann Marie on That Girl, she has a fabulous wardrobe.  She is hired at Astrospace Industries, an industrial-health office where she works with Dr. Chegley (Lloyd Nolan).  Her life is normal.  She goes to work, takes care of her son, and goes on a few dates, but the concept of an African American, or a woman, starring in a show as the sole breadwinner, intelligent and fashionable, was not normal for the times.  The show was on for three seasons until 1971.

Julia was a controversial show at the time, but it scored high in the ratings and became a popular series.  I think it gets a lot of unfair criticism today.  The show gets complaints because during the time of the Watts riots, sit-ins, and so much racial unrest, it portrayed Julia living a fairly normal life.  I think people forget how groundbreaking it was to have a working woman or a black character star in a show.  I think the fact that she was able to live a “normal” life gives even more credit to not bowing to stereotypes of the late sixties. It’s like criticizing someone who is just learning to walk for not running and doing handstands.  They might be small steps, but they are steps going forward. I am one of those people who actually prefer not to see too much “real life” in sitcoms.  Honestly, I watch them to escape real life.

I also wanted to mention a few other shows that were featuring black characters in their cast during the time Julia was on the air: Hogan’s Heroes, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Barney Miller.

Hogan’s Heroes had a diverse cast, including Ivan Dixon as Sgt. James Kinchloe, striving to stay one step ahead of the Nazis.  The Mary Tyler Moore Show included a quirky news staff including weatherman Gordy Howard played by John Amos.  Barney Miller centered around a police department made up of personnel who each had their own dysfunctions.  One of those members was Lt. Ron Harris played by Ron Glass.  Each of these shows quietly featured black characters.  The races of any of the characters could easily have been switched during an episode and the character would not change.  It was just real people living real lives and some of them happened to be white and some black. After these creative and well-written shows, I prefer to ignore the Norman Lear era of shows.  They may have their merits, but I couldn’t stand All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, or Good TimesThe Jeffersons was tolerable, but I would not choose to watch it either. In the mid-1980s, television began to get more diverse.

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Don’t get me wrong.  Things are far from perfect in the world of television and movies, but we have made a lot of progress.  We have a lot of work to do, but just think how many choices Diahann Carroll would have today if she wanted to develop a television series. She could pick any career she wanted, including the military without anyone’s else’s approval; she could marry a white man and not sleep in twin beds; she could announce on the air she was pregnant—small steps but 5280 small steps turn into a mile. So, let’s devote one day to appreciate the hundreds of miles we have come before getting too caught up despairing about the hundred we still have to go.

1917 Was A Very Good Year

This week I was inspired by the blog “Once upon a screen . . .” to take a look at television pioneers who were born in 1917. (For some great articles on pop culture, movies, and television, check out her blog at aurorasginjoint.com.) Let’s get to know 17 of the stars who helped shape the direction of television during the golden age.

Herbert Anderson. Best known for his role as Henry Mitchell on Dennis the Menace, Anderson began his career making movies.  He transitioned to television in 1953, appearing on 61 shows over the years.  He appeared in episodes on such shows as Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, Man from U.N.C.L.E., My Three Sons, Bewitched, and The Waltons.  One of my favorites is the first season of The Brady Bunch.  The kids are sick and both parents call a doctor.  The girls were used to a woman played by Marion Ross while the boys always had a man, Anderson.  After weighing factors to pick one of them, the family decides to keep both doctors. He died from a heart attack in 1994.

Carl Ballantine. Ballantine began his career as a magician and inspired many famous magicians since.  He began working in Las Vegas and on television as a magician.  Eventually he transferred to movie roles and after appearing in McHale’s Navy on the big screen, took on the same role of Lester Gruber on the television series. He went on to appear on 33 additional tv shows including That Girl, Laverne and Shirley, Trapper John MD, and Night Court. He passed away at his home in 2009.

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Earl Bellamy. Earl Bellamy directed episodes for 101 different television shows.  He is best known for The Lone Ranger and The Tales of Wells Fargo.  He directed 82 episodes for Bachelor Father, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms.  In the 1960s he specialized in sitcoms including That Girl, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and My Three Sons while the 1970s saw him transition to dramas including Marcus Welby MD, The FBI, Medical Center, and Eight is Enough. In 2003 he passed away from a heart attack.

Ernest Borgnine.  Best known of his Oscar-winning role of Marty in 1955, Ernest enlisted in the Navy in 1935 until 1941.  In 1942 he re-enlisted and served until 1945.  After doing some factory work, he decided to go to school to study acting and began his career on Broadway.  He was also in the movie McHale’s Navy and went on to tackle the role in the television series.  He loved working with Tim Conway and in later years they did the voices for Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy in SpongeBob SquarePants. He appeared in 47 different shows over the years, including the series Airwolf which he starred in. Borgnine appeared in the final episode of ER which he won an Emmy for. He was married five times, including a 32-day marriage to Ethel Merman.  His last marriage to Tova lasted 39 years. He died of kidney failure in 2012.

Raymond Burr. Best known as Perry Mason, Burr started his career on Broadway in the 1940s and then appeared in 50 films from 1946-1957. In 1956 he auditioned for the role of Hamilton Burger, the DA in Perry Mason.  He was told he could have the starring role if he lost about 60 pounds which he accomplished. He later starred in Ironside, another crime drama and appeared on a variety of other shows.  Burr had many interests including raising and cross-breeding orchids; collecting wine, art, stamps and sea shells; reading; and breeding dogs.  He was extremely generous, giving away much of his money over the years.  He passed away from cancer in 1993.

Phyllis Diller. Known for her wild hair and clothing, Diller was one of the pioneering stand-up female comedians.  She appeared in films in the 1940s, worked in radio in the 1950s, and began her stand-up career in 1955. Her first television appearance was in You Bet Your Life.  She appeared in 40 shows including Batman, CHIPs, Full House, and The Drew Carey Show.  She had her own show titled The Pruitts of Southampton, and in reruns The Phyllis Diller Show that ran from 1966-67.  She recorded comedy albums in the 1960s, wrote several books during her career, was an accomplished pianist, performing with symphony orchestras across the US and taught herself painting which she continued throughout the 1960s and 70s. Her husband Fang was not real, but she used him in her comedy routines.  She died of natural causes in 2012. My first memory of Diller was in the movie Boy Did I Dial a Wrong Number with Bob Hope which my parents took me to at the drive in.

Ross Elliott. A prolific actor on stage, film, and television, Elliott appeared in 184 different shows from sitcoms to westerns to medial dramas, all between 1951 and 1983. He passed away from cancer in 1999.

June Foray.  One of the greatest voice actors ever, Foray has been active in the industry since she had her own radio show.  She did off-air voices for many sitcoms including I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, Jack Benny, Rawhide, Get Smart, Lost In Space, and Bewitched.  She also appeared in more than 76 animated series.  She is perhaps best known as Rocky in Rocky and Bullwinkle and as Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Karen and other voices in Frosty the Snowman. Foray is still alive today.

Zsa Zsa Gabor.  Unlike her sister Eva who became known as Lisa Douglas on Green Acres, Zsa Zsa seemed to make a career out of playing herself.  Of the 80 appearances she made in film and television, 20 of them were as herself. She was a true celebrity.  Crowned Miss Hungary in 1936, she came to the US in 1941 and began her career.  She was known for her extravagant lifestyle and many marriages: 9 with 7 divorces (including one to Conrad Hilton) and 1 annulment.

Sid Melton.  Known to most viewers today as handyman Alf Monroe on Green Acres, Melton began as a film star and went on to appear in 71 shows including Topper, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, That Girl, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie, and Empty Nest. He died from pneumonia in 2011.

Alice Pearce. Although her career was cut short due to illness, I included Alice Pearce because her role as Gladys Kravitz in so memorable.  After spending her childhood in Europe, Pearce started on Broadway and after appearing in On the Town, she was brought to Hollywood to reprise her role in the movie version. She began specializing in comedy in the 1940s. In 1964 she turned down the role of Grandmama in The Addams Family and shortly after was offered the role of Gladys in Bewitched. She was already diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she began her role but didn’t tell anyone and was able to act for two seasons before she passed away from the disease. She received an Emmy for her work on Bewitched.

Gene Rayburn. One of the kings of game shows, Rayburn began his career as an actor, taking over for Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie when Van Dyke began his television show. While he was on numerous game shows as a panelist or host over the years, Rayburn is best known for Match Game which first ran from 1962-69. It was revived again in 1973 and took several formats in the following years.  He died from heart failure in 1999.

Isabel Sanford. Best known as Louise Jefferson, she grew up in Harlem and performed in amateur nights at the Apollo Theatre. Her Broadway debut was in 1965.  After appearing as a maid in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, she was cast by Norman Lear in All in the Family which led to the series The Jeffersons.  When the show ended in 1985, she appeared in a variety of other shows until 2002.  She passed away from natural causes in 2004.

Sidney Sheldon.  A writer and producer, Sheldon created The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart, writing many of the scripts for all three series. After he turned 50, he began a career writing romantic suspense novels.  He died from pneumonia in 2007.

Robert Sterling. A clothing salesman before getting into acting, Sterling was best known for his role as George Kerby in Topper from 1953-55.  His wife, Anne Jeffreys played his wife in the show. From 1943-49 he was married to Ann Sothern. He appeared in 36 shows between 1951 and 1986. He passed away from natural causes in 2006.

Jesse White.  While White was a hard-working character actor, he is best known for his commercials as the Maytag repairman from 1967-88. After appearing in films for many years, he transitioned to television in the 1950s.  His daughter Carole Ita White also became an actress best known for Laverne and Shirley. White appeared in 113 shows, never receiving a regular series.

Jane Wyman. Wyman began working at Warner Brothers at age 16, claiming to be 19. Although she was a successful film star and began in television in 1955 with her own show, Jane Wyman Presents Fireside Theater, she is probably best known for her role on Falcon’s Crest from 1981-90 and her marriage to Ronald Reagan. She died in her sleep from natural causes in 2007.

These are just a handful of television mavericks that influenced television as we know it today.  I was amazed at the variety of different talents each of these stars displayed.  In comparing their television appearances, it’s surprising how many of them overlap and worked on the same shows.  What I found most surprising was that Ballantine, Diller, Melton, Sanford, Sterling, White and White’s daughter all appeared on Love American Style while Bellamy, Borgnine, Burr, Diller, Gabor, Rayburn, Sanford, White, and Wyman all guest starred on The Love Boat.  During my research, I ran across many shows that will become future blog topics.

Another fun fact about celebrating stars born in 1917 is that this week we are traveling to Pennsylvania to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday who was also born in 1917.  Happy Birthday Mamie.