I Spy: With My Little Eye A Very Sophisticated Show

As we continue our crime-solving duos series, today we learn about I Spy featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. They were a pair of spies who traveled the world posing as tennis pro, Kelly Robinson, and his coach, Alexander “Scotty” Scott. They work for the Special Services Agency which was part of the Pentagon. The show aired on NBC from 1965-1968.

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David Friedkin and Morton Fine, writers, and Fouad Said, cinematographer, formed Triple F Productions. The show was filmed at Desilu Productions. Fine and Friedkin took on co-producing the show. Friedkin also appeared as a guest actor in two of the episodes. Continuing the job-sharing duties was was Sheldon Leonard. Leonard was the executive producer. He also directed one of the episodes and guest starred on the show.

The theme music was written by Earle Hagen. (For more on Hagen and his composition of music from the series, see my blog dated)He also wrote specific music for each of the countries the team visited. He received Emmy nominations all three years, winning in 1968.

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Cosby’s character was written as an older mentor to Robinson, but Sheldon Leonard changed the role once he saw Cosby perform. Culp said Cosby was not very interested in the series and insulted the producers during his audition. Culp acted as a mediator and Cosby was hired.

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Like future shows such as Miami Vice, The X-Files, or Castle, the partners had great chemistry. They had witty and clever dialogue and often improvised much of their banter. Friendship was the main theme of the show, not the crimes. The actors developed a close friendship that lasted long after the show did. The characters were also very different. Culp was the athlete who lived by his wits. Cosby was the intellectual who didn’t drink or smoke.

This was the first TV drama to feature a black actor in a lead role. Some of the NBC affiliates in the south refused to air the series. Truly a color-blind series, the two spies did not encounter racial issues. It also made history– being one of the first shows to be filmed in exotic locations around the world. The pair visited Acapulco, Athens, Florence, Hong Kong, Madrid, Morocco, Paris, Tokyo, and Venice.

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Like the western genre in the 1950s, spy shows were popular in the 1960s. Unlike Get Smart or the Man From UNCLE, I Spy was more realistic. The duo didn’t rely on unbelievable gadgets or campy villains.

Some of the episodes had more comedy than others. “Chrysanthemum” was inspired by The Pink Panther. The episode, “Mainly on the Plains” starring Boris Karloff, was about an eccentric scientist who thinks he’s Don Quixote. However, many shows took on more serious and contemporary themes. “The Tiger” was set in Vietnam.

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During the three seasons the show aired, an incredible number of guest stars chose to work on the show. Some of these talented celebrities included Jim Backus, Victor Buono, Wally Cox, Delores Del Rio, Will Geer, Gene Hackman, Joey Heatherton, Ron Howard, Boris Karloff, Sally Kellerman, Eartha Kitt, Martin Landau, Peter Lawford, Julie London, Vera Miles, Carroll O’Connor, Don Rickles, George Takei, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, and Mary Wickes.

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Both Culp and Cosby were nominated all three years for Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, with Cosby winning all three years.

While the series was extremely popular, it was always over budget due to the high costs of filming. During the third season, ratings began to decline. The show was moved from Wednesdays to Mondays. It was on against The Carol Burnett Show. Unfortunately, the network refused to move the show back to its original night. They offered Sheldon the choice of renewing the show in the current time slot or the chance at creating a new series. Leonard realized that Culp and Cosby were tired of the show and ready to move on. In all, 82 episodes were filmed. 

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The show holds up well today.  The dialogue is timeless, and scripts are sophisticated and well written. The plots are realistic, but they are secondary to the relationship of Robinson and Scott. The exotic locations add a romance and intrigue to the show as well. The complete series is available on DVD and well worth watching.

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Of course, it’s hard to talk about a Cosby show without acknowledging the effect his legal issues have had on his work.  While I don’t condone his behavior and am sad that someone so talented (and preachy about character) would resort to such offensive actions, what makes me even sadder is that both I Spy and The Cosby Show were wonderful shows that featured talented casts. That so many people have to suffer because one person’s actions were unethical and selfish seems unfair.

One thing I’ve had to learn doing my research on all these classic shows is sometimes you have to separate the character from the actor. It’s possible to love a character even when the actor or actress who portrays them is a crummy human being. Of course, there are more of the other scenarios. Fred MacMurray was every bit as nice as Steve Douglas and Howard McNear was even nicer than Floyd.

Hopefully these shows get their due and their reputation for their well-written scripts overcomes the stain Cosby saddled the shows with.

Who’s the Boss? On This Show Everyone Acts Like a Boss

As I finish 1980s Rewind today, I chose a heart-warming show that followed the typical formula by standing it on its head, Who’s the Boss. The show was created by Martin Cohan and Blake Hunter. Cohan was a producer and writer for The Bob Newhart Show and wrote for many other shows including The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Hunter wrote and produced episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati.

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Instead of the successful senator who hires a housekeeper like The Farmer’s Daughter, on this show Angela Bower (Judith Light), an advertising executive, hires Tony Micelli (Tony Danza), a former baseball player (St. Louis Cardinals) to be her housekeeper. Instead of Uncle Charlie like My Three Sons, the show has Mona (Katherine Helmond), Angela’s mother giving wise advice and sarcastic comments. Tony has a daughter Samantha (Alyssa Milano) and Angela has a son Jonathan (Danny Pintauro). All together they form one typical family unit. The show was on ABC for eight years from 1984-1992, so viewers literally watched the kids grow up. Tony is laid back and flexible, while Angela is a bit more uptight and organized. Angela and Tony functioned as parents on the show, but they also had the possibility of a romance between them.

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After a shoulder injury, Tony is forced to change careers. He wants his daughter to experience a better life. The Bowers live in Connecticut in an upscale neighborhood. Originally, the show was titled “You’re the Boss,” but it was changed to plant a question of who really ran the house. However, viewers all realized that the kids were really the bosses.

WHO’S THE BOSS? – “Angela Gets Fired: Part II” – Airdate: September 30, 1986. (Photo by ABC Photo Archives/ABC via Getty Images)ALYSSA MILANO;DANNY PINTAURO;KATHERINE HELMOND

The cast jelled very well together. They had their differences of opinion, but they grew close and experienced the normal family ups and downs when five very different people spend so much time together. Mona’s wit and targeted observations kept things light and funny.

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During most of the series, Tony and Angela try to avoid the romance developing between them. They both date other people. They also become best friends, relying on each other as a husband and wife would. They often discuss issues the kids are having. They both “parent” each of the kids. They both grow and change during the course of the series. Angela becomes less tense and risks opening her own firm. Tony enrolls in college. Producers always seem to waiver “between should they get together or not.” Shows like Castle, That Girl, and Friends struggled with keeping the magic alive and keeping the show realistic. Somehow the producers and writers for Who’s the Boss kept the tension and potential romance alive for seven years. During the last season, they realize they are in love with each other.

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There were many stars who appeared on the show during the years including Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Mike Tyson, and Leslie Nielsen. One of the episodes was when Robert Mandan appeared on a few episodes as Mona’s love interest. Mandan had played her husband on the show Soap.

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The theme song lyrics were written by creators Cohan and Hunter. Titled “Brand New Life,” the music was composed by Larry Carlton and Robert Kraft. Three different versions were used over the years: Larry Weiss sang it from 1984-1986; Steve Wariner from 1986-1989; and Jonathan Wolff from 1989-1992.

WHO’S THE BOSS? – “Samantha’s Growing Up” – Season One – Airdate: January 8, 1985. (American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.) ALYSSA MILANO, JUDITH LIGHT, KATHERINE HELMOND, TONY DANZA

Early reviews were lukewarm. Critics liked it but they were a bit dismissive of it being a real hit. Viewers didn’t agree. They loved the show. During its tenure, the show was nominated for more than forty awards, including ten Primetime Emmys and five Golden Globes. From 1985-1989, it ranked in the top ten.

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The show aired on Tuesday nights for the first seven years. In the fall of 1991, the network moved the show to Saturday nights against The Golden Girls. The ratings went down after the move and the network decided to cancel the show. There was a great debate about whether Tony and Angela should marry in the finale. Sam had married earlier in the season and Tony and Angela admitted they were in love. However, Danza was opposed to the marriage and there was a concern that if a wedding took place, it might affect the syndication options. Instead of a wedding, Tony and Angela break up. But in the last scene, Tony is at Angela’s house applying for the job of housekeeper, very similar to the very first episode of the show.

The show created a spinoff but in a far-reaching definition of spinoff. In one episode, Leah Remini was a friend of Sam’s, a homeless model. Beginning and ending in 1989, the show Living Dolls starred Remini, Michael Learned, and Halle Berry.

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While Tony went back to school during the series, Danza emulated him in real life. He graduated with an education degree. He wrote a book, I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had: My Year as a Rookie Teacher at Northeast High. He taught English at a school in Philadelphia.

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The cast of Who’s the Boss was a close-knit one, and they still keep in touch almost twenty years later. Light commented that they are all still close and she said she probably kept in touch with Tony the most. “He checks in all the time just to see how the kids are doing, he’s very sweet.” Danza once discussed how emotional it was for him to give Milano away as a bride on the show. “She was like my little girl, you know. She started on this show when she was 10. Now she’s 19, we married her off. I mean, it’s easy to get emotional, it really is.”

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Milano was also very close to Light. A couple of years ago, the two stars ran into each other for an event, and Milano tweeted, “Nothing makes me happier than seeing Judith Light. Nothing.”

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They were all saddened by the death of Katherine Helmond in March of 2019. Danza also discussed Helmond in an interview. “Katherine Helmond was a remarkable human being and an extraordinary artist; generous, gracious, charming and profoundly funny.” After her death, he commented that “She was such an influence on me. No matter what problem I had, I could go to her. Very few people could match her. She was a consummate professional. She never made a mistake and she always got the laugh. She was the sexy older lady who could keep up with the young people. She just had a way about her.”

Editorial use only. No book cover usage. Mandatory Credit: Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock (1646629a) Who’s The Boss , Katherine Helmond, Tony Danza Film and Television

Light also discussed Helmond. “She taught me so much about life and inspired me indelibly by watching her work. Katherine was a gift to our business and to the world and will be deeply missed.”

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Her television grandchildren also remembered her fondly. Milano paid the following tribute to her: “My beautiful, kind, funny, gracious, compassionate rock. You were an instrumental part of my life. You taught me to hold my head above the marsh! You taught me to do anything for a laugh! What an example you were!” Pintauro said she was “the best TV grandmother a boy could ask for. Even still, I’m just as devastated as I was when I lost my real grandma. A beautiful soul has left us for the next chapter, may you make them laugh Katherine!”

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This is another one of those undervalued shows. Although there were some really great shows on television during the mid and late 1980s, some of the top-rated shows on in this decade included Knot’s Landing, Charles in Charge, Diff’rent Strokes, Silver Spoons, and Facts of Life. Who’s the Boss was a much better written and acted show than any of these. The show combined the best elements of sitcoms and created a fresh approach to a family comedy.

In Defense of Whiskey Cavalier

Hi readers. Typically, you read my blog to learn about shows long gone from the airwaves, classic television. I publish my blog every Monday, but this week I am publishing a “extra mid week” article. One show that debuted this spring, Whiskey Cavalier, was a show that I thought I would be writing about in a decade or so as a classic television show. However, it seems after thirteen episodes, ABC has pulled its life support.

Unfortunately, there have only been a handful of truly great shows the past few years. Castle in its earlier seasons and Rizzoli and Isles were two shows that fit this category.

Currently we have This is Us and A Million Little Things. They both feature memorable and likable characters, realistic dialogue, and amazing stories. I would put Whiskey Cavalier in the same group.

WHISKEY CAVALIER – ABC’s “Whiskey Cavalier” stars Vir Das as Jai Datta, Josh Hopkins as Ray Prince, Scott Foley as Will Chase, Lauren Cohan as Frankie Trowbridge, Tyler James Williams as Edgar Standish, and Ana Ortiz as Susan Sampson. (ABC/Craig Sjodin)

Will Chase (Scott Foley) (code name Whiskey Cavalier) partners with Frankie Trowbridge (Lauren Cohan) (code name Fiery Tribune) to take on assignments for the government. Their team includes Susan Sampson (Ana Ortiz), FBI profiler; Edgar Standish (Tyler James Williams), computer genius; Jai Datta (Vir Das), technology inventor and problem solver; and Ray Prince (Josh Hopkins), who provides their assignments, tracks the team, and sometimes gets in on the action. In only thirteen episodes, loyal viewers have come to like and care about these characters, flaws and all. We are learning a bit about their background and their personality quirks. They have already become friends.

The opening credits harken back to the James Bond films of the sixties. Writers David Hemingson and Jameel Saleem have nailed the witty and fast-paced dialogue and action that is unpredictable but not over the top. Settings are fun and interesting, and the background music is spot on. The entire show flows.

WHISKEY CAVALIER – “Spain, Trains, and Automobiles” – Will, Frankie and Susan are joined by Will’s new girlfriend, MI6 agent Emma Davies, as they head to Spain on a mission to retrieve a case of plutonium from the wrong hands, on “Whiskey Cavalier,” airing WEDNESDAY, APRIL 10 (10:00-11:00 p.m. EDT), on The ABC Television Network. (ABC/Larry D. Horricks) LAUREN COHAN, SCOTT FOLEY

ABC says that the show did not garner the ratings it expected; however, according to a CenturyLink article by Matt Webb Mitovich, “the DVR playback . . . enjoyed the third-largest boost of any ABC series, rising 117 percent in the demo.”

Karey Burke was quoted as saying that canceling the show was “a very tough decision.” The network is having Warner Brothers shop the show, but no takers have been found yet. The show was not produced in house, and you have to wonder if that has more to do with the cancellation than the ratings.

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ABC stands for “A Bad Call” on this one. Very few people I know sit down and watch a show at the time it’s scheduled. Even if viewers watch the same night, they typically watch a DVR version. If networks are making decisions based on this archaic viewing habit, their results are skewed.

When my kids were little, they didn’t enjoy vegetables much. They gravitated toward junk food, and I had to introduce healthy choices. Eventually they realized how important vegetables were for their health, and they began to seek them out.

TV palettes are the same. If you give people ridiculous reality shows and sitcoms where every joke is based on a sexual innuendo, that’s what they will lean toward. The success of This is Us and A Million Little Things, as well as the shows being produced by Netflix and HBO, should give networks pause to look for those quality shows and take some time to develop them. With Modern Family ending on ABC after this year and Grey’s Anatomy in its last stage of life, the network should be trying to replace these shows with new options. Viewers should expect and demand better programming.

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Whether its sports, corporate life, or entertainment, everyone expects superior results yesterday. No one takes time to develop talent and invest in quality. The networks have begun to take a back seat to some of the more innovative programming shown on alternative media, and the demise of Whiskey Cavalier is one of the examples of why that it the case. If networks won’t take time to invest in a show, viewers become gun shy. We don’t want to fall in love with a show, only to learn that it’s being cancelled after its rookie season. Shame on you ABC for not giving Whiskey Cavalier, a mid-season debut, a chance to develop its followers. It may have been a “tough” call, but it surely was not a “good” call.

Write On!

Happy Monday.  It’s National Encourage a Young Writer Day.  I love to encourage writers of all ages.  If you’re a writer, you know the two golden rules of writing.  (1) Write what you know and (2) Be original.  With those two qualifiers, one would think there would be a myriad of great shows out there about writers.  Not so.  It took a lot of exploring on my part to come up with 12 shows about writers in the past 70 years!

If writers are writing what they know, it seems writers know much more about incompetent parents, complex medical surgeries, and dating bachelors than they do about writing and writers.

Don’t get me started on being original. Unfortunately, any viewer knows that when one genre show succeeds, the next year will feature ten more just like it;  hence, the number of medical and police dramas currently on the schedule.  This doesn’t hold true anywhere else in life.  No grocer says avocados are so popular, let’s replace the oranges and apples with them.  No radio station decides to play the top five songs to the exclusion of the other songs.  That being said, I’ll jump off my soapbox before ranting about how the shows on today’s schedule are either amazingly written or not worth the time it takes to turn on the television. So, let’s look at shows about writers.

Apartment 3-C. In 1949 John and Barbara Gay played themselves.  Living in New York City, he was a writer.  The 15-minute show went off the air after one season. They moved to California where they raised their family and spent 66 years together. As far as I can tell, neither of them acted again, but John went on to be a prolific scriptwriter.

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Young and Gay/The Girls. Debuting in 1950 as Young and Gay, this series was based on an autobiographical novel written by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. CBS bought the rights. After the first two episodes, the name was changed to The Girls.  The premise of the show was that two Bryn Mawr graduates come to Greenwich Village after spending time in Europe, trying to develop careers as an actress and a writer.  After a few more episodes, their acting career ended when the show was cancelled.

Dear Phoebe. In 1954, ex-college professor Bill Hastings, played by Peter Lawford, decided he wanted to try his hand at journalism.  The option he receives is becoming Phoebe Goodman, providing advice to the lovelorn. Ironically, his girlfriend, Mickey (Marcia Henderson), is the paper’s sports writer. After one season, they both received advice to seek new work when the show was cancelled.

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My Sister Eileen. It would take half a decade before another show about a writer was produced. In 1960, My Sister Eileen aired.  The concept will sound vaguely familiar.  It’s based on a book and two movies about two sisters from Ohio who move to Greenwich Village wanting to be an actress and a writer. The sisters were played by Elaine Stritch and Shirley Boone. The only memorable thing about the show was the pairing of Rose Marie and Richard Deacon who went on to try their hand at another show a year later called The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The Dick Van Dyke Show. Hands down, this was the best comedy to debut about a writer.  It was also the longest running show, going off the air five years because the cast wanted to quit while the show was still successful. Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) is the head writer of the Alan Brady Show, creating scripts with Sally (Rose Marie) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam). Mel (Richard Deacon) is the long-suffering producer. This is one of the first shows to concentrate on work life. We get to see what goes on behind the scenes of a comedy/variety show. While Rob, Sally, and Buddy have lives outside the office, they are somewhat married to their work. Sally is always hunting for Mr. Right.  Buddy deals with more comedy at home because of his not-so-bright wife Pickles, although it’s obvious he is in love with Sally. Rob and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) are both confident and intelligent adults and insecure parents, raising their son Richie (Larry Mathews) in New Rochelle. The show won an Emmy its first year and never left the top 20, producing 157 of the best-written sitcom episodes ever created.

Window on Main Street. Mention the name Robert Young, and most viewers fondly recall Father Knows Best or Marcus Welby.  In this 1961 show, Robert Young plays Cameron Garrett Brooks, an author.  After his son and wife pass away, he returns to his small home town of Millsburg to write about the town’s citizens. It must have been a very small town with few people to write about, because the series was cancelled after one year.

The New Loretta Young Show. Loretta Young starred in several shows using her name so it gets a bit confusing, but in this 1962 version, she plays Christine Massey, a children’s author and widow with 7 children. Living in Connecticut, she decides to get a job with Manhattan Magazine.  However, after meeting the editor she falls in love and marries him. Perhaps the network had a policy banning inter-company marriages, because the show was cancelled after six months.

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Glynis. In 1963 Glynis Granville (played by Glynis Johns) moved to town. She is an amateur sleuth who solves crimes to have something to write about. Her husband Keith (Keith Andes) is an attorney.  She consults with a former policeman Chick Rogers (George Mathews). The show only lasted three months.  Jess Oppenheimer, the producer of I Love Lucy, apparently forgot this was a different show, airing episodes that were very Lucy-esque.

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. In 1968, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies came to the small screen.  Based on Jean Kerr’s book, it was also a movie starring Doris Day about the Nash family.  James (Mark Miller) is a college professor and his wife Joan (Patricia Crowley) is a free-lance writer. The show featured their four sons, two of whom were twins, their large dog, and their housekeeper Martha (Ellen Corby). Faring better than most of our shows, this one lasted two years.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. This show about a writer, a widow Carolyn Muir (Hope Lange) who moves into an old house in Schooner Bay in New England, appeared in 1968. The house turns out to be haunted by Captain Daniel Gregg (Edward Mulhaney), a captain who built the house in the 1800s. This show was also based on a movie. Captain Gregg is annoyed with the interruption and noise of the new family, but ultimately falls in love with Carolyn. Charles Nelson Reilly plays the Captain’s nephew Claymore Gregg. Dabbs Greer is Noorie Coolidge, the owner of a local lobster restaurant, and Reta Shaw is their housekeeper Martha. The show was on NBC for one year then moved to ABC for one year.  Apparently, CBS declined its turn, so the show was cancelled.

The Debbie Reynolds Show. In 1969, another show produced by Jess Oppenheimer eerily reminiscent of I Love Lucy was on the fall schedule. Jim Thompson (Don Chastain) is a sports writer. His wife Debbie (Debbie Reynolds) is a stay-at-home wife who wants to be a feature writer. Jim discourages her, wanting her to stay home.  Instead of Ethel and Fred, we have her sister Charlotte (Patricia Smith) and her brother-in-law Bob (Tom Bosley).  After one season, the network decided they did not care if  Debbie worked or stayed home and sent the crew packing.

Suddenly Susan. Jump almost thirty years to 1996 and we have another show about a writer, Suddenly Susan, starring Brooke Shields. Susan leaves her husband-to-be at the altar and is forced to ask her ex brother-in-law (Judd Nelson) to hire her back at his magazine.  Most of the show is set in the workplace.  Luis Rivera (Nestor Carbonell), Vicki Groener (Kathy Griffith), and Nana (Barbara Barrie) round out the cast and appear on all the episodes.  (The photo above also includes Andrea Bendewald [the blonde] and David Strickland [laying down] who were in about half the episodes.) The show continued until 2000.

I should mention that because I focused on comedies I did not include Murder She Wrote or Castle, both having long runs of 12 and 8 years respectively. I did not include Everybody Loves Raymond because that show concentrated on his family life, and rarely revealed his writing profession.

I wish I had more encouraging words for writers who wanted to get involved in television.  About the only thing I can tell you, is if you want to develop a successful show around a writer, make it a drama for job security.