When Things Were Rotten: No “Happily Ever After” for this Tale

This month’s series is “Living in the Past: Timeless Comedies.” For our first blog, we travel back to the 12th century to Sherwood Forest to a time When Things Were Rotten. After viewing one episode of this show, you knew it could only have been created by the comic legend Mel Brooks. In this case, he had the help of John Boni and Norman Stiles.

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Debuting in 1975 on ABC, Brooks considered what life would have been truly like if the legend was just hype, and Robin and his Merry Men were just a bunch of buffoons. The series has many of the traits found in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles or Monty Python episodes.

Reading the list of brilliant cast members, this show seems like one that should have been a huge hit, but in reality, it only lasted for thirteen episodes. Based on its brief airing, perhaps Robert Klein was wise to turn down the role of Robin. Dick Gautier, who worked with Brooks on Get Smart, agreed to take on the role of the heroic leader. Henry Polic II played the Sheriff of Nottingham who always got taken in by the gang. Ron Rifkin is Prince John. Misty Rowe, known best for her Hee-Haw performances, is Maid Marian. The Merry Men were indeed merry, being made up of Bernie Kopell, Dick Van Patten, Richard Dimitri (who had a dual role as identical twin brothers), and David Sabin.

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Of course, in this parody, slapstick is involved in every episode. The sight gags were always described as hilarious, and every script was full of great one-liners. It was definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. For example, at times the sheriff was said to be barking mad and he would literally bark. In one episode, the “barking” sheriff asks Bertram to hang up some banners and a cutaway scene shows a husband, wife and two children on a wall saying, “Hi, we’re the Banners.” Another example is Richard the-Lion-Hearted coming ashore after the Crusades to be met by an umpire, yelling “Safe,” at which point the sheriff shouts, “Kill the umpire.” The humor came fast and furious at a rapid-fire pace. Brooks described the construction of the show by saying: “We took great liberties, and the writing was very crazy and funny.”

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Unlike some parodies, the production of the show was high quality with lavish costumes and sets. Every episode featured a well-known guest star. Dudley Moore appeared as a piano-playing sheik named Achmed Muhammad Ben Gazzara. Other stars included Carl Ballantine, John Byner, Sid Caesar, Paul Williams, and Mel Brooks himself. Brooks said his favorite episode was “The French Disconnection” starring Caesar as a French ambassador.

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The theme song was written by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse who had done the well-known theme for All in the Family as well as many composing for many popular musicals. The lyrics were:

“Once upon a time when things were rotten,
Not just food, but also kings were rotten.
Everybody kicked the peasants,
Things were bad and that ain’t good,
Then came Robin Hood (Ba-bahh!)

“Soon a band of merry men he’d gotten,
They wore outfits made of plain green cotton,
Helping victims was their business.
Boy oh boy was business good —
Good for Robin Hood!

“They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank,
They jumped a lot of fences.
They robbed the rich, gave to the poor —
Except what they kept for expenses!

“So when other legends are forgotten
We’ll remember back when things were rotten.
Yay for Robin Hood!”

When Things Were Rotten was definitely a product of its time. Like Laugh-In or even Sesame Street, viewers had no time to reflect on a comment. Things moved at a frenetic pace. One of the New York Times critics, John O’Connor, timed the gags and noted there was a new one every fifteen seconds.

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The critics gave the series great reviews and mentioned its inventiveness and quick humor. The ratings never backed up the praise however. Brooks had a different perspective. In an interview with Frank DeCaro in the New York Times (7-19-2013), Brooks discussed the show’s ending. “The show was canceled, Mr. Brooks said, not because it failed to find an audience — ‘The ratings weren’t bad,’ he insisted — but because, as a one-camera show, shot like a film, it just cost too much to produce. ‘I was very happy with When Things Were Rotten,’ he said. “We were on our way to doing 36 episodes, and then someone at Paramount called and said, ‘Mel, could you do it as a three-camera show?’ I said, ‘You mean like “I Love Lucy”? Are you crazy?’” When the network pulled the plug, Mr. Brooks remembers, friends offered their condolences. ‘Everybody said, ‘I’m sorry it didn’t work.’ I said: ‘It did work. It was just too expensive.’”

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The same reason many viewers might still appreciate the show today is also one of the factors of its demise. The show depended on fans knowing a lot of pop culture knowledge. People who love cultural history would have a blast watching the show, but the younger generations whom don’t have that database in the brain might feel disconnected.

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Of course, the television schedule always has a lot of sway about whether a show is a hit or a flop. This show was on Wednesday nights. Its competition was Tony Orlando and Dawn and Little House on the Prairie. While Tony Orlando and Dawn was on its last legs and would not return in 1976, Little House on the Prairie was very popular. This was the second season for the show which had a huge audience; the show would continue until 1983.

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Comedy legend Mel Brooks

The show might have ended, but Brooks could not let the concept go. In 1993, his film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights would continue the concept. In this version, Cary Elwes as Robin leads his men, but if you look closely, you might think The Abbot (Dick Van Patten) resembles Friar Tuck in When Things Were Rotten.

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One interesting technological advancement is that a show like this typically would never have been released on DVD because of its short run. Now, however, manufactured-on-demand makes the show available on Amazon. It’s the perfect length for a week-end marathon. You might realize that When Things Were Rotten, they were also pretty good and funny.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Fifty Years After Getting the Pink Slip

The late 1960s and early 1970s might have contained the most diverse television shows than any other era. In 1968, there were the rural comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; there were the standard sitcoms, My Three Sons, Get Smart, That Girl, Bewitched; there were the remains of a few westerns including The High Chaparral, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke; there were crime and thrillers such as Hawaii Five-0 and Mission Impossible; there was the crime/western in The Wild, Wild West, there were gameshows on at night including Let’s Make a Deal, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game; there were sci-fi shows like Star Trek and The Land of the Giants; family shows like Lassie; and even Lawrence Welk.

In addition, there were a couple of shows that were a bit edgier and introduced more  provocative concepts and themes. The Mod Squad featured three teens who were helping solve crimes in lieu of jail time, and then there was the almost-impossible-to-describe Laugh In.

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Similar to Laugh In was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which also debuted in 1967 featuring Tom and Dick Smothers. It had more of a variety format to it but it had the same topical and satirical humor.

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The Who

In addition to poking fun at politics, the war, religion, and current issues, you could tune in to the Smothers Brothers for some of the best and sometimes controversial music in the industry. Performers such as Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Cream, Pete Seeger, and The Doors appeared on the show.

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Jefferson Airplane

The show aired Sunday nights against Bonanza on NBC; ABC aired The Sunday Night Movie in its first season and Hee Haw in its second season.

The series had some of the best writers on television: Alan Blye, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mason Williams. Reiner and Martin both commented on the show in an interview by Marc Freeman in the Hollywood Reporter 11-25-2017 (“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at 50: The Rise and Fall of a Ground-Breaking Variety Show”).  

Reiner relayed that “you had two cute boy-next-doors wearing red suits, one with the stand-up bass and the other with his guitar. They looked like the sweetest, most innocent kids. You got drawn to them, and then they hit you with the uppercut you didn’t see coming.”

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Martin elaborated “When you have the power wrapped up in innocence, it’s more palatable. They were like little boys, but you also had Dickie there to reprimand Tommy when he would make an outrageous statement. It’s like the naughty ventriloquist dummy who can get away with murder as long as the ventriloquist is there to say ‘You can’t say that.’ It’s the perfect setup for getting a message across.”

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Jack Benny

In addition to the musical acts, hundreds of celebrities appeared on the show between 1967 and 1969, including Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Barbara Eden, Nanette Fabray, Eva Gabor, Shirley Jones, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, Tony Randall, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas and Jonathan Winters, along with so many others.

Part of the show was the brothers’ ongoing sibling rivalry about whom their parents liked best. They also began to add political satire and ribald humor. Pat Paulsen delivered mock editorials about current topics such as the draft and gun control, and in 1968 he had a mock presidential campaign.

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Pat Paulsen for president

Church sermon sketches poked fun at religion. The show lampooned many of the values older Americans valued, often delivering anti-establishment and pro-drug humor. No one was given an exception, and the show lambasted the military, the police, the religious right, and the government.

Battles over content were ongoing with the network. The network pulled Pete Seeger’s performance of his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” They nixed Harry Belafonte’s song, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” because it had a video collage behind him of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.

Younger viewers were tuning in, and despite the conflicts, the show was picked up for a second season. The network insisted they receive a copy of the show at least ten days in advance for editing. In April of 1969, William Paley canceled the show without notice. Some sources contend it was canceled by CBS president Robert Wood. Some sources cite the issue with unacceptable deadlines and others mention Tom Smothers lobbying the FCC and members of Congress over corporate censorship that brought about the firing. The brothers filed a breach of contract suit against the network and after four years of litigation, a federal court ruled in their favor, awarding them $776,300.

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Here’s a typical joke from the show that was not as controversial.

Tom: You can tell who’s running the country by how much clothes people wear, see?

Dick: Do you mean that some people can afford more clothes on, and some people have . . . less on? Is that what you mean?

Tom: That’s right.

Dick: I don’t understand.

Tom: See, the ordinary people, you’d say that the ordinary people are the less-ons.

Dick: So, who’s running the country?

Tom: The morons.

The Smothers Brothers elicited humor that was as topical, influential, and critical as anyone had ever heard before on television. Fifty years later, both the network and the brothers realized everyone over-reacted. If the Smothers Brothers had tried to play by the rules a bit, they would not have lost their platform to continue to help change what they saw as a messed-up culture.

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The CBS executives felt the program created too much controversy. In their defense, politicians, especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, exerted a lot of pressure on the network. Remember this was a time of three networks and ads are what produced the profits to fund shows. The network received a boatload of hate mail daily about the program and, when viewers begin talking boycotting advertisers, executives sit up a bit straighter and listen.

The Smothers Brothers Show, a less controversial series, debuted in 1975. They had two specials on NBC later and another CBS series in 1988 but never regained the influence they had in the sixties. However, the show did help pave the way for a future that permitted, and later embraced, shows with controversy beginning with All in the Family, continuing with Saturday Night Live, and recently seen on shows such hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Although the comedy spouted on the show would seem quite tame by today’s standards, the show had an important part in the history of television and the rights of free speech.

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I have seen some DVDs out there from this show, but they are pricey. Recently I saw season two going for $190. I do see Laugh In on Decades quite often, so perhaps The Smothers Brothers might show up somewhere too, although I’m not sure this show would hold up as well as Laugh In, but the musical performances would be fun to see.

Joe and Valerie: A Symptom of that Weird ‘70s Ailment, Night Fever

Continuing our series about “Valerie,” today we look at a slice of American life from the 1970s. It’s hard to emphasize how much the movie Saturday Night Fever changed American culture. In the movie, a high school graduate played by John Travolta, escapes his hard life by dancing at the local disco. The hippie culture of the late 1960s and early ‘70s was shoved aside by the bold and brash disco era. It was hard to go anywhere without the background soundtrack of the movie being heard. Extravagant clothing and three-piece suits were back in style, along with platform shoes and blingy jewelry.

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Saturday Night Fever, the movie that started it all

A year after the movie debuted, a new show called Joe and Valerie appeared in April of 1978. Joe (Paul Regina) works at his father’s plumbing store. He meets Valerie (Char Fontane) at the disco and they get romantically involved. However, Joe’s roommates, Paulie (David Elliott), a hearse driver, and Frankie (Bill Beyers/Lloyd Alan), a spa worker and chauvinist, have their opinions on the romance as does Valerie’s divorced mother Stella (Arlene Golonka). Rounding out the cast were Robert Costanzo as Joe’s father Vincent and Rita/Thelma (Donna Ponterotto), Valerie’s best friend.

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The series was produced by Bob Hope’s production company, Hope Enterprises, and his daughter Linda served as executive producer. Bill Persky, who had been one of the forces behind That Girl, directed the first episode.

The writers for the show included Howard Albrecht, Hal Dresner, Bernie Kahn, and Sol Weinstein. Kahn and Dresner also served as producer for an episode each. Art direction was credited to Bruce Ryan and shop coordinator to Edwin McCormick.

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The chic couple: Makes a person wonder doesn’t it

The series was divided into two parts; in 1978 the episodes show Joe and Valerie meeting, falling in love and planning their future. Jumping to January 1979, the episodes center around the couple beginning their married life. Four half-hour episodes aired in April and May of 1978. Four half-hour episodes were set to air in January, but only three did; the final episode never was played on the air.

Episode 1, “The Meeting” aired April 24, 1978. Joe and Valerie meet at the disco and fall in love when Joe bets his roommates that he can take Valerie away from her dancing partner.

Episode 2, “The Perfect Night” aired May 1, 1978. Valerie arranges dates for Frank and Paulie. She sets up Frank with her best friend Thelma and the date is a disaster. The woman she set Paulie up with ended up getting married the night before, so Valerie is frantically looking for a substitute. Albrecht and Weinstein were credited as writers.

Episode 3, “Valerie’s Wild Oat” aired May 3, 1978. Joe and Valerie’s romance hits a potential roadblock when Valerie finds out that her new boss at the store is her ex-boyfriend Ernie (Marcus Smythe).

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The Village People, a big part in the disco fad

Episode 4, “The Commitment” aired May 10, 1978. When Valerie’s mother is unexpectedly called away for the weekend, Joe and Valerie face the prospect of spending their first night together. Joe loves Valerie too much to stay but worries how his roommates will react if he doesn’t.

Episode 5, “The Engagement” aired January 5, 1979. Joe and Valerie break the news to their parents that they are going to live together and looking for a place to live through a rental service which adds to the confusion.

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Disco fashion

Episode 6, “The Wedding Guest” aired January 12, 1979. Joe and Valerie learn that  a gangster’s funeral has been scheduled at the same time as their wedding at the church.

Episode 7, “The Wedding” aired January 19, 1979. The newly married couple look back at the events that occurred around their wedding. Some of the problems included Vince wanting Valerie to wear his wife’s old-fashioned wedding dress, Frank and Paulie fighting over who is best man, and Valerie’s mother threatening to stay away from the wedding if her ex-husband comes.

The final episode, “Paulie’s First Love,” was never aired.

This was a bad year for series’ debuts. A number of shows flopped during this year including Hizzoner, Sweepstakes, and Supertrain, none of them making it to more than nine episodes.

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Char Fontane

Char Fontane (also listed as Fontaine occasionally) was born in California in 1952. She passed away from breast cancer in 2007. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, she appeared on a variety of tv series in the 1970s and a couple after: Love American Style (1972), The FBI (1973), Barnaby Jones (1979), Supertrain (1979), Sweepstakes (1979), The Love Boat (1979), and Nero Wolfe (1981). In the mid-1980s she took a role in a made-for-tv movie, The Night the Bridge Fell Down and two movie roles: Too Much (1987) and The Punisher (1989). She was not credited with any roles after the 1989 movie.

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Char Fontane in The Night the Bridge Fell Down

Paul Regina was born in Brooklyn in 1956 and passed away from liver cancer in 2006.

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Before his role on Joe and Valerie, he had parts in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Hour and Police Woman both in 1978. After the show ended, his career stayed fairly busy. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he could be seen on many popular television shows including Benson, Gimme a Break, TJ Hooker, Hunter, and Empty Nest. He would be cast in three series: Zorro and Son in 1983, Brothers from 1984-89, and The Untouchables in 1993-94. He also had a recurring role as a lawyer on LA Law between 1988-1992.

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Post 2000 before his death he was in Law and Order several times as well as two movies, The Blue Lizard and Eddie Monroe.

David Elliott had a successful career going when he received the role of Paulie. He began with several roles on tv including a mini-series, Pearl, that Char Fontane was also in. From 1972-1977, he had a role in The Doctors in 272 episodes. Before beginning Joe and Valerie, he had a role on Angie in 1979.

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After the show ended, he continued showing up in television series including TJ Hooker, St. Elsewhere, Simon and Simon, and Murder She Wrote. He ended his credited acting career with seven movies in the 1990s.

He is an interesting guy. After dropping out of high school, he drove a cab in New York. He was a professional boxer, ran a PI business in Hollywood, received his pilot’s license, sat on the board of a major labor union, and traveled extensively through every continent except Africa and Antarctica. Recently he earned a certificate in both long and short fiction from the UCLA Writer’s program and has written a novel, The Star Shield, about a body guard trying to rescue a kidnapped movie star. Currently he is working on a collection of short stories.

The role of Frankie was played by two different actors, Bill Beyers in 1978 and Lloyd Alan in 1979.

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Bill Beyers

Bill Beyers was born in New York in 1955 and died in 1992 in Los Angeles. His first role was that of Frankie on Joe and Valerie. Following the end of that show he was cast in several series including Barnaby Jones, Quincy ME, The Incredible Hulk, CHiPs, Too Close for Comfort, and Murder She Wrote. He had a recurring role on Capitol, appearing in 24 episodes from 1982-1987.

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Lloyd Alan was in 1952. He might have had the shortest career of the cast. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, he was in an episode of Eight is Enough. After he appeared in The Love Boat, Knight Rider, and Baywatch. His last credited acting job was 1998. I was unable to locate a photo of Lloyd Alan.

The actors with the longest careers were Robert Costanzo who played Joe’s father Vince; Arlene Golonka who was Stella, Valerie’s mother; and Donna Ponterotto who played Rita/Thelma, Valerie’s best friend.

Donna Ponterotto had a successful career following the cancellation of Joe and Valerie. She came to the show having appeared on The Police Story, Happy Days, and Rhoda.

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Following the show, she appeared on Trapper John MD, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Who’s the Boss, Murder She Wrote, Night Court, Murphy Brown, ER, Mad About You, Third Rock from the Sun, and NYPD Blue among others. Her last film was Sharkskin in 2015.

Arlene Golonka grew up in Chicago where she was born in 1936. She began taking acting classes when she was quite young. At age 19, she headed for New York and began a career on Broadway. In the 1960s she relocated to Los Angeles. She continued to appear in movies and appeared in dozens of television programs during the next three decades. While she is probably best known as Millie on Mayberry R.F.D., she has appeared in many respected series.

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Golonka came into Joe and Valerie with a strong resume. She had made appearances in shows such as The Naked City, Car 54 Where Are You, The Flying Nun, Big Valley, Get Smart, I Spy, That Girl, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Barnaby Jones, Alice, The Rockford Files, and Love American Style. She made five appearances on The Doctors with David Elliott.

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After Joe and Valerie, she continued to receive many roles including on Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Simon and Simon, Benson, and Murder She Wrote. Her last appearance was on The King of Queens in 2005, and she is now retired.

Robert Costanzo was born in New York in 1942. He also came into the show with a very strong string of shows, having been in Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show, and Lou Grant. He also was in several profitable movies including Dog Day Afternoon, The Goodbye Girl, and Saturday Night Fever.

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Following the end of Joe and Valerie, he would continue his successful career. Costanzo has been cast in recurring roles in ten shows: Last Resort, Checking In, The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, 1st Ten, Glory Days, NYPD Blue, Charlie and Grace, and Champions. He has continued to take roles on other series including Barney Miller, Alice, Who’s the Boss, Family Ties, St. Elsewhere, The Golden Girls, Friends, and Murder She Wrote.

His movie career has also been very successful, and he is remembered for his roles in Used Cars, Total Recall, Die Hard 2, and Air Bud.

Currently Costanzo is still acting and has several movies debuting in the next couple of years.

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I have to admit I do not remember Joe and Valerie, and obviously I did not watch it, but I don’t think I missed much. It’s fun to learn about some of the more obscure shows that had a brief flicker in television history. There are many more shows that lasted for less than 20 episodes than there are the classics we remember today. If nothing else, the show captures a unique time in American history.

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.

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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