A Face in the Crowd

Today we are taking a peek at what goes into being a background performer. Like the composers, costumers, and cameramen, the group of people surrounding the stars is a critical element for every television show.

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If you were a fan of Friends, think back to Central Perk.  While the group of friends on the show held court on the orange sofa, there were people all through the coffee shop chatting and drinking tea or lattès that you might not have paid much attention to.  If you watched The Big Bang Theory, you’ll remember the cafeteria scenes when the guys had lunch together. The room was full of other staff members enjoying their lunch as well. 

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While you can relate to these scenes, you probably can’t give me any details about specific characters who appeared in them. That’s what a good background actor is; someone who has a nonspeaking role and is in the setting to make the scene appear more realistic. Although you don’t notice the actors in the background, you definitely notice when they’re not there.

There are many people who choose to become background actors. Perhaps they are waiting for their acting career to escalate, and this is how they are making a bit of extra money. Maybe they are a fan of television and just enjoy being behind the scenes.  Behind the scenes is definitely where you’ll spend most of your time waiting and waiting and waiting. Usually the 2nd Assistant Director or Background Production Assistant will let you know what your instructions are.

Typically background actors who aren’t part of SAG or other unions earn minimum wage. There are a few situations where you get a bit of extra money which is called a “bump.” For example, you get a bump if you are required to smoke, if your car is used in the filming, or if you have to bring some personal effects with you such as sporting equipment or a unique costume.

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Background actors on Hawaii Five-0

You can take a look at Central Casting’s website. They cast hundreds of roles daily, including stand-ins and doubles. They have offices in Los Angeles, New York, Louisiana, and Georgia.

On the day I wrote this blog, some of the positions they were trying to fill included men who owned a snake that they could be booked with; men who were okay getting a very short, military-regulated haircut; men and women in their 20s to 50s who are familiar with a variety of firearms to play law enforcement roles; and Hispanic house painters ages 28-40.

This is not the glamorous life most people envision when they think of filming television shows or blockbuster movies. Often you are waiting for an upcoming scene or you have to repeat a single shot, perhaps dozens of times. It’s not unusual that after a fifteen-hour day, your part is cut from the episode.

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It’s hard to see him, but Bruce Willis was just a
background actor in The Verdict early in his career.

When you’re on the set, it’s like a long game of “Don’t Break the Sugar Bowl.” You have to appear to be realistically having a conversation or reading, or whatever, but you cannot make any noise that could interfere with the dialogue occurring on the set.

The conditions you are working in are not always comfortable. It might be a beautiful 85-degree summer day, and you find yourself standing around in a parka and mittens, filming a snow scene for a long, long time.

While stars might have access to an amazing food banquet, extras have more limited choices. You are encouraged to bring snacks for the day.

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Before they were stars, Damon and Affleck were extras in
Field of Dreams as part of the crowd watching a baseball game.

Some people might think that a perk of working on a television show is getting to talk to your favorite star. Think again.  Most of the time, stars are considered off limits for background extras. It probably goes without saying that phones are not allowed on set and photos are a big no-no.

I talked with an actor friend of mine who lives in New York. She did background work at the beginning of her career. I asked her for an honest assessment of what the work was like. She said if you are in the union, the wages are actually not bad and you earn health and pension credits. If you’re not in the union, it can still be beneficial; you just have to understand the reality of the job. She said first of all, “be on time and bring whatever they tell you to bring.” Understand if you want to make a living this way, it is hard work. “You will always be hustling for the next job. Your days will be long ones.”

She said another downside to the job is that “a lot of your time is spent in holding; it can be exhausting because some people want to talk constantly.” That might be okay for an hour but not so much for a ten-hour day. She often took earbuds and a book along for quiet time.

Know that you are being hired to be insignificant. You will wear drab clothing, you might work in the rain, you might work overnight. My friend mentioned that sometimes you have to realize that you are “a walking hanger,” because they need you because of a specific item you have, perhaps a blue-sequined evening gown or a gorilla suit.

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Background performers on Grey’s Anatomy

My friend recalled one of her first jobs when she was a stand-in for a movie. She didn’t get breaks because she had to watch the star in rehearsals, so she knew what would be required of her. When the star went to rest or to eat or to make-up, my friend would stand in. The crew would figure out lighting and blocking and sometimes she had to be in the same position for more than half an hour. She did this for two weeks, and it was a long, arduous process; however, she said the knowledge she gained made the experience worth it. She learned so much about the filming of a movie and all the different crew members and what their specific roles were.

Mark Falvo is an attorney and sports broadcaster in Pennsylvania. He has a lot of experience in background acting both on television and in movies. You will see him on the big screen in Slap Shot, Hoosiers, Bull Durham, Happy Gilmore, Twister, and Remember the Titans among many, many other films. Tune into the small screen to see him in Veep, House of Cards, and Law and Order. His experience was that every job was positive because he learned something on each project. He said that “after a while, the crowd scenes in sport movies became tough because you had to continue to move around, but they were jobs.”

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Mark Falvo in character

Falvo said he was able to get to know other actors. “Meeting old friends and getting a chance to talk to them even while waiting was good. Hurry up and wait is part of the job, so bring a book or some work to do.”

His advice to beginners is “Don’t have high expectations!!! You are there to do a job, no matter what the director wants, keep your energy high and always be ready.”

Let’s take another look at that group of coffee drinkers at Central Perk. When you place your order, most likely Gunther (James Michael Tyler) will be your barista. Gunther is a permanent member of the show, working at Central Perk and in love with Rachel. He never really becomes part of the group, but he is invited to some of their parties and get-togethers. Tyler got the part because he was the only extra who knew how to use an espresso machine; he received his first speaking line in episode 33.

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So, every once in a while, there is a happy-ever-after ending. You just might be the person who finds it.

Hey, Hey They’re The Monkees: Then Who Are Those Guys Writing Songs and Playing Instruments?

We are continuing our Oddly Wonderful series and today’s show captures the theme perfectly.

There were quite a few shows from the 1960s that just can’t be viewed outside that decade because they were such an anchor to the psychedelic flower power times of that era—Laugh-In, Batman, Lost in Space, and The Banana Splits were some of those series. The Monkees was another one of those shows.

Recently I watched a couple of episodes, both about Davey’s love life. The shows always had a plot, but sometimes you had to search long and hard for it. It was even more bizarre than I remembered. It was like a creepy bug. You weren’t sure it was safe, but you couldn’t turn away from it either.

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The show was put on the fall schedule of 1966 on Mondays. It is quite memorable to most viewers from that time, yet it was only on the air a year and a half, producing 58 episodes.

Riding on the coat-tails of the Beatles, the show featured a four-member band. The only thing in common about each episode was that it featured one of their songs. Many of the shows were surreal and featured bizarre encounters.

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Filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider who created Raybert Productions were inspired by the film A Hard Day’s Night starring the Beatles. They decided to develop a television show with a similar vibe. Screen Gems agreed to it, and they asked Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker to write a script for the pilot.

Sponsors were secured. Yardley of London and Kellogg’s Cereals alternated weeks. Yardley sold a variety of beauty products.

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Originally, Screen Gems thought about using a real band including The Dave Clarke Five or The Lovin’ Spoonful, which both turned them down, so they decided to go with four unknowns. The production company ran ads seeking musicians for an audition. Apparently about 400 people showed up, including Paul Williams and Stephen Stills. (Stills suggested his roommate Peter Tork because he did not want to give up his song publishing rights which the company demanded.) Fourteen actors were asked back for screen tests.

Micky Dolenz, whose father was actor George Dolenz, was in Circus Boy at age ten (under the name Mickey Braddock). Micky’s daughter Ami has also become a well-known actress. His agent sent him to the audition. Micky became the drummer and also played guitar at times.

Davy Jones had appeared on stage in “Oliver!” and on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was cast in some Columbia Pictures productions and he was identified before the ad went out as an actor who would be on the show. Davy played the tambourine and maracas but was the primary singer.

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Notice the spelling on Dolenz’s chair, who went by “Micky”

Michael Nesmith had been in the US Air Force. He had done some recording for Colpix, as had Jones. When he showed up at the audition, he had on a wool hat that kept his hair out of his eyes when he rode his motorcycle. It looked so well on him that he wore it for every show. Nesmith’s mom Betty was the inventor of Liquid Paper. Nesmith played guitar.

Peter Tork was Stephen Stills’ roommate. He had been performing regularly in Greenwich Village clubs but had recently moved to California and was working as a busboy. Peter was the busiest of the band members; he played guitar, keyboards, and sometimes banjo.

The main characters were only paid $450 per episode for the first year. The second season, they received a raise of $750. As a comparison, Dick Van Dyke made about $1500 per episode for his show. A decade later Valerie Bertinelli would earn about $20,000 an episode on One Day at a Time. Although they have made the show a hit, the top stars on The Big Bang Theory are making about $900,000 an episode. But that’s another blog! While they did receive standard royalties for their recordings, they received nothing from all the merchandising.

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Rafelson and Schneider hired director James Frawley to work with the quartet on improvisational comedy. The characters were stereotyped with Dolenz the funny guy, Jones the heart throb, Nesmith the smart one, and Tork the gullible one. Most people described the personalities as fitting for each of them except Tork. He was always painted as quiet and intellectual. The improv training helped because a lot of new film techniques were employed for the show including quick cuts, jump cuts, breaking the fourth wall, and rambling scenes that didn’t really fit into the theme of the show. When the show was short on time, bizarre additions included interviews with the boys about life or their views on current events. In one of the episodes I recently watched, they added Nesmith’s audition tape to the end of the show.

The pilot was filmed in San Diego and LA. Like earlier shows from the 1950s, the cast members often wore their own clothing. The final version received such high ratings that the show was given a two-year contract.

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Of course, the music was central to the show. The theme song was “(Theme From) The Monkees” written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Part of the lyrics included, “We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say.” This captured the entire theme of the show. Some of the hit songs were “I’m A Believer”, “Daydream Believer”, “Last Train to Clarksville”, and “Pleasant Valley Sunday”.

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Playing in the band . . . or are they

Everyone one the show was a musician and could play a variety of instruments, but The Monkees did not actually play instruments for their songs. The public did not realize that the band did not really write or perform most of their music. Like the Partridge Family which debuted a few years later, they only provided the vocals. When this came out, viewers were unhappy. For the second season, the quartet began to write their own music and wore more hippy attire. Unfortunately, the damage was done, and the show never recovered its higher ratings.

While traveling around, the Monkees often ran into rival bands. The three who showed up most often were the Jolly Green Giants, The Four Martians, and The Foreign Agents.

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Here we see members of the Jolly Green Giants, The Four Martians and the Secret Agents.

Rose Marie, best known as Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show, made two guest appearances on the show during the first season.

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Here is Rose Marie in their beach house. The mannequin behind her is Mr. Schneider.

The band lived in a two-story house on the beach. The first floor contained the living room, dining room, and kitchen. A bathroom was off one part of the kitchen and Davy and Peter’s bedroom was off the other end of the kitchen. The Monkees kept their instruments in the back alcove. A spiral staircase headed to the second floor where Mike and Micky had a bedroom. There were a lot of kitschy signs on the walls. There was also a mannequin named Mr. Schneider (he’s in the above photo behind Rose Marie) that would spout advice when his cord was pulled. Their landlord was Mr. Babbit who chastised them for breaking rules and not paying rent. Sometimes the Monkees pulled Babbit into their plots.

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The living room of the beach house

Another character on the show was the Monkeemobile. The car was a modified 1966 GTO. A third seat was added where the trunk had been. A fiberglass grille was added to the front of the car and exhaust pipes were on the back wheels. In all, three cars would be used for the tapings.

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When the first season ended, Davy Jones was no where to be found. While many rumors were flying, the real story was that he had received a draft notice. He fasted for a few weeks in order to fail his physical, which he did.

For the second season, the stars wanted to switch from half hour to an hour variety show with new artists appearing. NBC gave them an ultimatum to stick to the original idea or be cancelled. The group continued to push the new concept and in March of 1968, the show was cancelled.

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The series won two Emmys during its short time on the air—Directorial Achievement in Comedy and Outstanding Comedy Series. This win surprised me. The other nominees that year were The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart, and Hogan’s Heroes.

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Bob Rafelson is wearing glasses and Bert Schneider is beside him.

It was seen on Saturday mornings in syndication from 1972-1973 which is when I remember watching it.

In 1986, MTV began airing the old shows, and many other networks put it on their schedules. Columbia Pictures decided to create a reboot of the show in 1987 called the New Monkees, but it flopped and lasted half a season. No surprise; of course it did. How could you recapture the same look and feel of the original 1960s show?

The DVDs came out in 2001, and in 2016 Blu-rays were introduced for their fiftieth anniversary.

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I was never able to take this show as seriously as the industry did. To me, it seemed a bit too wacky and exaggeratedly fast-paced. The plots were off the wall and hard to follow. I think part of it was my age. I was only five when the show was originally on. I do remember watching Batman live, but I think I was too young to follow the action in The Monkees and not quite the age where the music spoke to me. Perhaps I should give it another try; then again, perhaps it’s a show best kept in the memory of that time period. After watching several episodes, I must admit that I think it’s amazing that so many of us from the 1960s turned out as good as we did!

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A few day after I wrote this blog, Peter Tork passed away. RIP Peter. Thank you for the memories and music.

Catch This Phrase: Memorable Expressions From Our Favorite Shows

We all have those family members who seem to find fun catch phrases which get repeated by friends. Then there are those relatives who say something that drives us crazy and overuse expressions. That is what we’re talking about today: catchphrases from our favorite television shows. I prepared a list of twenty phrases that caught on with viewers. What seems strange to me are expressions that come from a series or movie that were never actually said. For example, “Play it again Sam,” from Casablanca is a well-known phrase. However, that line was never said in the actual movie. You often hear someone say, “Beam me up Scotty,” but once again, it was never said in Star Trek. The closest line was only used once, and it was, “Beam us up, Mr. Scott.”

I’ll list these memorable phrases by shows alphabetically and tell you how often they were used: none, one, fun, or overdone. I also rate them: green light means I like it, yellow if it was getting close to being overkill, and red for those expressions that never should have been used at all. Here we go.

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The A Team – Pity the fool

Mr. T often says this on commercials, public appearances,and as a guest on other shows, but he never said it on The A-Team. Mr. T explained how this phrase came about on the Conan show one night, “When you pity someone, you’re showing them mercy. I didn’t start this pity stuff, it was in the bible. You’ll find pity so many times in the Bible and fool so many times, so I put ‘em together. Pity the fool,” Mr. T said. He added, “Lotta guys in the Bible [were] asking for pity. And then a lot of them were saying, I did a foolish act. So, I put ‘em together.”

Not only has he trademarked the phrase, but he actually had a series developed around the phrase which was the title of the show. It aired in October of 2006 and was off the air by November 6, so I pity the fool who stuck money into it.

Rating: None, Green– I can’t really give it a light because it was never used but it was a good expression at the time.

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Alf – I kill me

The Tanner family members weren’t often amused by Alf’s jokes. When no one responded or someone shook their head at him, he was often heard to say, “I kill me.”

The phrase was so popular, a poster and a t-shirt were sold featuring it.

Rating: Fun, Green – I also thought Alf was pretty funny, even when the Tanners were not as impressed.

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Alice – Kiss my grits

While Flo was a warm-hearted person who would do anything to help a friend, or Mel, she didn’t take any sass from anyone. Whenever someone did something to irritate her, she responded, “Kiss my grits.”

Rating: Overdone, Yellow– Only Flo could get away with using the phrase so often, but it did become a bit too much.

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The Andy Griffith Show – Nip it in the bud

Barney liked being on top of situations and being in charge.When something happened whether it was questionable behavior by Opie or a dangerous criminal activity being plotted, he was heard to say, “Just nip it, nip it in the bud.”

Rating: Fun, Green –Barney Fife was just a great character.

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Big Bang Theory – Bazinga

Sheldon learned about sarcasm during season 2 of the show. Whenever he said something sarcastic or something that proved others wrong in a humorous way, he would utter, “Bazinga.” The first time he used it, it was not actually in the script, but he added it and it stuck.

Rating: Fun-ish, Green– I added the “ish” because it can be overdone some shows

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The Brady Bunch – Marcia, Marcia, Marcia

Jan didn’t like being the middle child. While Cindy was the cute younger one and Marcia the pretty older one, Jan often felt left out. When she was upset Marcia was getting attention or doing something she wanted to do, she would pout, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”

In the Season 3 episode, “Her Sister’s Shadow,” Jan said, “all I hear all day long at school is how great Marcia is at this or how wonderful Marcia did that. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”  Jan did not say the phrase much, but viewers sure did.

Rating: One, Green – I think every middle child understood what Jan meant. Apparently, viewers loved it, because it is an iconic quote for being only said one time. Actually, I always thought Jan was the cool one.

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Columbo – Just one more thing

When the bad guy thought he had gotten away with a crime, Columbo would often turn around and say, “Just one more thing,” and that “thing” was usually the evidence he needed to arrest someone.

Rating: Fun, Green – Even when we knew it was coming, it was fun to see how the villain of the week realizes he has been found out.

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Diff’rent Strokes – What you talkin’ bout Willis?

Arnold was the “cute” kid in the Drummond family and often made others laugh. Whenever Willis said something Arnold didn’t want to do or thought should not happen, he would look at his brother and say, “What you talkin’ ‘bout Willis?”

Rating: Overdone, Red– Ok, I know I have a bias because this was one of those Norman Lear shows my readers know I don’t care for, but I do remember at the time, it was used a bit too often on the show. There is a fine line between defining a character and stereotyping a character.

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Friends – How you doin’?

Joey was definitely the ladies’ man on Friends. He was always searching for his next social conquest. When he met a girl he wanted to get to know better, he often drawled, “How you doin?” It was a basic pick-up line, but he was so good looking, it almost always worked. While it became his catchphrase, it was not used for the first time until Season 4.

Rating: Fun, Yellow – It was a fun expression that is still used today but it was getting close to being overused.

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Full House – Have mercy

Typically, it was Uncle Jesse who said, “Have mercy,” but occasionally another character would use it. He says Garry Marshall always told him he needed a catch phrase. He took on “Have mercy,” and it was probably one of the most-used phrases ever during the run of the show.

Rating: Fun, Green– I can still hear the exact tone of his voice whenever he used the line.

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Get Smart – Missed it by that much

Maxwell Smart often messed up a spy mission, and 99 always saved the day. Often when the bad guys were put away and he was analyzing what had gone wrong, he would say, “Missed it by that much” which usually meant he was nowhere near to taking care of business.

Rating: Fun, Green– Everything on this show was fun and there were enough catch phrases that none of them took over.

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Good Times – Dy-no-mite!

The Evans were a close-knit family who lived in the projects. JJ was an artist and the class clown. His favorite expression was “Dy-no-mite!”

He revived his catch phrase in several Panasonic commercials in the mid-1970s.

Rating: Overdone, Yellow– Sorry, it’s my Norman Lear bias again, but I feel like not only did JJ Evans overuse this phrase, but you heard it from viewers everywhere you went. I agree that imitation is the sincerest from of flattery, so it worked, and people liked it, but I thought it was overdone.

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Happy Days – Sit on it

I think every cast member used the phrase “Sit on it” at one point or another. It was said when someone said something or insinuated something a character didn’t like.

Rating: Overdone, Yellow– This was a fun phrase when it started but it was overused and overused by everyone on the show.

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Hawaii Five-O – Book ‘em Danno

The original Hawaii Five-O would end each arrest with Steve saying “Book ‘em Danno.” They did not resurrect the phrase for the current Hawaii Five-0. However, if you were watching the November 30th episode in 2018, you saw the conclusion of an older cold case homicide and a comic book created the ending to the mystery and in the book, McGarrett did say, “Book 
’em Danno.”

Rating: Overdone, Green– It was over used although it did not occur on each episode, but I gave it green because it worked and fit the situation when it was used.

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Hogan’s Heroes – I know nothing

Sargent Schultz began saying “I know nothing” when he didn’t want to answer questions Hogan asked him. He realized Hogan could always get him to talk by offering him food of some type. Later, the prisoners were not afraid of telling Schultz things they were doing or planning to foil the Nazis’ plans, and whenever he heard them talking about an upcoming mission, he also emphatically said, “I know nothing.”

Rating: Fun, Green– Schultz said it a lot but that was fitting for his character.

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The Honeymooners – Bang, zoom, to the moon, Alice

This particular phrase is quoted a lot. Actually, Ralph Kramden had many similar expressions such as Bang, zoom” or “To the moon Alice,” but they all had similar wording and inferred that he was threatening her. The phrase would not go over well in a show today. However, Alice was never worried. She knew Ralph loved her and was all bark and no bite. Of course, one of the expressions he also used in a lot of shows was “Baby, you’re the greatest.”

Rating: One, Red – I only saw one episode that used the exact wording that has become a quote of the show. While I know it was innocent fun back then, I can’t say I was ever fond of the expression.

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I Love Lucy – Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do

Lucy always had some type of scheme in the works to get something she wanted. Often, it was something her husband had forbidden her to do. When he found out what she was up to, he often said, “Lucy, you got some ‘splaining to do” in his Cuban accent. Like Ralph Kramden, he rarely said this exact phrase; instead, he would tell her to “splain what happened” or “try to splain why you are here” or something along those lines. Viewers picked up on the exact wording that gets repeated still.

Rating: One, Green – Desi used similar words but not this exact phrase. However, when he used it, it was always an appropriate use because Lucy had done something that did need to be explained.

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Laugh In – Sock it to me

Because so many people on the show say, “Sock it to me” started by Judy Carne, it has become a famous line. Of course, the celebrity who got the most attention saying it was Richard Nixon.

Rating: Fun, Yellow– It was still fun because it was used in different situations and with different celebrities but if the show had continued, it might have been overdone.

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Lost in Space – Danger Will Robinson

Even kids who never heard of Lost in Space, quote “Danger Will Robinson” when they want to warn someone about an issue. The funny thing is it was only said one time on the show, but like The Brady Bunch, viewers have made it their own and it is now part of our lexicon.

Rating: One, Green– Although it was only said once, viewers have made it into a well-loved expression.

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Welcome Back Kotter – Up your nose with a rubber hose

This was probably one of the most unusual catch phrases. The Sweathogs gave the image that they would not put up with nonsense and they made the rules. One of Vinnie Barbarino’s favorite insults was “Up your nose with a rubber hose.”

Rating: Fun, Green– I was not a huge fan of Welcome Back Kotter, but the phrase fit Barbarino, and he had enough other expressions, it was not overused.

I hope you had fun looking back at some of the expressions we grew up with in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It’s interesting to think about what current shows will produce catch phrases that kids will still be using in 2050.

Sheldon Leonard: A True TV Pioneer

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The Depression changed the course of Sheldon Leonard’s life. He was born in Manhattan to Jewish parents. He went to Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. While there, he was president of the dramatics club. His degree was in finance, and he landed a job at a prestigious brokerage firm. Then the Depression hit, and he was out of a job. He had to fall back on the only other skill he could think of which was acting.

In 1931 he married Frances Bober whom he was married until his death. They would have two children.

Acting was not quick money either though. It took five years until he landed his first major Broadway role in Hotel Alimony in 1934. It did not have a long run, but his next two shows were more successful: Having a Wonderful Time in 1937 and Kiss the Boys Goodbye in 1938.

 

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He then entered film work. He had several very small roles in a couple of movies and a couple of shorts, but in 1939 he was cast in Another Thin Man, the popular movie series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. That began his career as a heavy, often being cast as a gangster. He would appear in To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall in 1944. In 1946 he was cast as the bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Because it has become a Christmas staple, it has brought Sheldon a lot of recognition. Sheldon would appear in 74 movies during his career, 69 of them by 1952.

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During this time, he also gave radio a try. He was working on both sides of the mic. He sold scripts to several shows including Broadway is My Beat. He also portrayed his stereotyped gangster role on many shows including as Grogan on The Phil Harris, Alice Faye Show. You could hear him on Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Duffy’s Tavern, the Halls of Ivy, and The Judy Canova Show, among others.

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It was only a matter of time before Sheldon took his talents to television. He appeared in four episodes of Your Jeweler’s Showcase in 1952. In addition, he was listed as producer and director for several of these episodes. He appeared in I Love Lucy in 1953 as vacuum salesman Harry Martin and several I Married Joan episodes in 1952-53. One of my favorites was his role as Johnny Velvet on Burns and Allen when he kidnaps Gracie but takes her back because she drives him crazy. In 1954 he co-starred in The Duke which lasted 13 episodes.  This show featured an artistic boxer who leaves the ring to open a nightclub. Sheldon also directed the pilot as well as some early episodes of Lassie and The Real McCoys.

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However, the show that made him a household name was his director/producer role on Make Room for Daddy, Danny Thomas’s hit sitcom. The show was in the top ten, and Sheldon even found time to appear on the show 19 times. The show continued from 1953-1964. Leonard had found his sweet spot. During his career, he would direct and produce shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, I Spy.

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Sheldon convinced Carl Reiner to step back from acting as Rob Petrie and produce The Dick Van Dyke Show. That conversation resulted in Dick Van Dyke accepting the role and 158 episodes. If you watch carefully, you will notice Sheldon appearing twice on the show in minor roles. The show was nominated for 25 Emmys and won 15.

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Sheldon also is credited with creating the spinoff. One of Danny Thomas’s episodes was set in North Carolina where he gets picked up for speeding in a rural town and has a run-in with Sheriff Andy Taylor. This episode turned into the long-running The Andy Griffith Show which was on the air from 1960-1968 netting 249 episodes. The show won 6 of the 9 Emmys it was nominated for.

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The spinoff was so successful he did it again, moving Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle from the gas station attendant on The Andy Griffith Show to his own show, Gomer Pyle USMC. That show was on the air for five years (150 episodes), and Sheldon would also make an appearance there as Norman Miles.

Thomas and Leonard (L&T Productions) were also behind the The Joey Bishop Show and The Bill Dana Show. Thomas and Leonard’s shows were notable for emphasizing the characters and relationships over slapstick or situation comedy. You cared about the characters even when they were a little kooky like Gomer Pyle or Barney Fife. They were committed to high-quality scripts. Many of the writers they employed went on to successful shows of their own including Danny Arnold for Barney Miller; Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy; and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff for That Girl and Kate and Allie. L&T Productions ended in 1965.

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Photo: dga.com

 

In the mid-1960s Sheldon produced I Spy. He cast Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as secret agents.  This was the first series to star a black actor in a lead role. In a March 7, 2016 Modern Times article, David Fantle and Tom Johnson discussed Sheldon Leonard and I Spy. Leonard said he knew what he was doing. “Race was very much an issue at that time,” he said. “I was intellectually conscious of it, but emotionally unaware of it. When I say emotionally unaware, I mean I was free to think of Cosby as the man to fill the slot I needed. Intellectually I knew the problems I’d have to face to get him on the air.” I Spy was a humorous suspense show and was known for its exotic locations, filming in countries such as Hong Kong, England, Morocco, France, and Greece among others. The critics rewarded Leonard. The show was nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy every year of its three-year run and earned Leonard an Emmy nomination for directing in 1965.

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Sheldon was also the producer behind Accidental Family and Good Morning World, both shows debuting in 1967 and ending in 1968 and My World and Welcome to It in 1969. Accidental Family was about a widower  who is a stand-up comedian. He buys a California farm which is managed by Sue Kramer who is also his son’s governess and his love interest. Good Morning World was about morning disc jockeys in LA. One is happily married, and one is a ladies’ man. Goldie Hawn was the next-door neighbor and Billy De Wolfe was their boss. On My World and Welcome To It, John Monroe is a married man with a daughter. He frequently daydreams and fantasizes about life. This show was unusual in that it included some animation along with the live action.

 

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In the Fantle and Johnson article referenced above, Leonard also talked about his favorite sitcom. He said his favorite might be the one that needed the most attention. “My favorite show was cancelled after the first year. My World and Welcome to It, based on the writings of James Thurber and starring William Windom. It won every award, and they cancelled . . . It was satire and above their (the network bosses’) heads. That show and I Spy are my favorites.”

In the early 1970s Sheldon would produce From a Bird’s Eye View and Shirley’s World. From a Bird’s Eye View was a sitcom about two stewardesses, Millie from England and Maggie from America. Millie was always getting into mischief and Maggie bailed her out. Shirley’s World starred Shirley MacLaine as a photographer who travels the world for her London-based magazine. The locales were similar to I Spy.

 

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In 1975 Sheldon starred in a new sitcom, Big Eddy which only lasted for ten episodes. He was Eddie Smith was the owner of the Big E Sports Arena in New York. He was an ex-gambler fighting the impulse to get back into it. He has a bunch of eccentric people in his life including his ex-stripper wife Honey and their granddaughter Ginger.

In the 1980s, Sheldon would continue to show up on various television shows, appearing in Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers.

Along with author Mickey Spillane, Leonard was one of the first two people to become a Miller Lite spokesman. In his New York accent, he tells the audience, “I was at first reluctant to try Miller Lite, but then I was persuaded to do so by my friend, Large Louis.”

Sheldon Leonard passed away at the age of 89 in 1997. His wife Frances passed away in 1999.

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Sheldon Leonard is undoubtedly one of the greatest television producers. Most of his shows were consistently in the top ten. They are classic shows still seen today on Me TV and Antenna TV.  Sheldon required scripts that brought characters to life. He created spinoffs when he believed in the characters. He was not afraid to take risks. Besides casting Bill Cosby, he cast Lois Nettleton as divorced Sue Kramer on Accidental Family. This was in the mid-1960s and yet when Mary Tyler Moore’s show aired in 1970, the network refused to allow her to be a divorced character.

In the Mercurie Blogspot from November 10, 2013, Carl Reiner discusses Leonard: “Sheldon has mentored more people in our business than anyone else I know. He knew how to teach what he knew, and what he knew was situation comedy with the three-camera technique. Sheldon was a producing genius who understood comedy. He had four or five shows going, but he would walk in and give his intelligence and his time to every script that was being read for the week. And we always came away with a better script because we would discuss and argue and come to a better situation.”

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Garry Marshall was also quoted in this same article: “Sheldon was a sort of man’s man, yet he had all the creative sensitivity of the artist. No matter what story you were working on, he could help you fix it. He would never put down your idea. If I had to describe Sheldon in one word, it would be gentleman. He was a Renaissance man with a New York accent—and possibly a gun!”

 

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Photo: americanprofile.com

As a salute to Leonard, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, named their main characters Sheldon and Leonard in honor of Sheldon Leonard.

 

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Sheldon himself seems to explain his success best. After working on his memoir in 1995, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Holiday Adventures, he said “I was driven by an urge to survive and being very self-indulgent. I never did anything for very long that I didn’t like or enjoy. I would survive only on my own terms. I had to enjoy what I was doing, and I would have done what I did even if nobody paid me. That’s the secret of success in any business: do it well and enjoy doing it.”

 

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He did it all well, and we all enjoyed it.