Lassie: This Series Had Five Lives

We are finishing our series Life with Pets. Although the shows we have looked at so far this month have featured some unusual pets, I knew that we had to include man’s best friend at some point, and really, how could you have a blog series about pets without Lassie who was a very unusual dog?

Except for The Hathaways, the other shows we learned about this month were based on a movie, which was often based on a book. Lassie is no exception. English author Eric Knight wrote a book in 1940 called Lassie Come Home. Several films were produced between 1943 and 1951 about Lassie. Once the seventh and final film was completed, Lassie’s (or Pal as he is known in his real life), owner Rudd Weatherwax was given all rights to the Lassie trademark and name. Weatherwax began taking Pal to local fairs and rodeos.

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Clayton, Rettig, Cleveland Photo: wikimedia.com

Robert Maxwell convinced him to feature Pal in a weekly television show. The men developed the story of Lassie who lived with a young boy named Jeff Miller (Tommy Rettig), age 11; his widowed mother Ellen (Jan Clayton); and her father-in-law (George Cleveland) who all lived on a farm. The show was approved, Campbell’s Soup agreed to sponsor the first year of shows, and the series debuted in 1954 on Sunday nights at 7 pm EST.

Campbell’s would continue its role as sponsor for 19 more years, which totaled 591 episodes. The company asked to have their products featured on the set, so you will see them in background shots. The soup company held a contest in 1956 to name Lassie’s puppies. Grand prizes included $2,000 and ownership of the pups which were hand-delivered by executives. In 1958, viewers could send in 25 cents and a label from a Swanson’s TV dinner to get a friendship ring; the company mailed 77,715 of them to fans. In 1959, fans could send in five labels from Campbell’s products and receive a wallet with a photo of Lassie. More than 1.3 million were mailed and Campbell’s profits rose 70% after its sponsorship began.

In 1957, Jack Wrather who owned The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon purchased the show for $3.25 million. In 1958 Lassie received new owners. Both Clayton and Rettig expressed an interest in wanting to leave the show. Cleveland had passed away the year before. Adoptee Timmy Martin (Jon Provost) becomes his master and they live with his parents, Ruth Martin (Cloris Leachman) and Paul Martin (Jon Shepodd).

Lassie (TV Series 1954–1974) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
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In 1958 Wrather dropped Leachman and Shepodd, replacing them with June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly. A neighbor Cully Wilson (Andy Clyde) was also added.

Lassie received good ratings from 1954-1958. In 1959 it fell out of the top 30. By 1960 with the change in characters, the show shot back and made it to #13 in 1964.

However, just as things were looking up, Provost declined to renew his contract. So, ten years after its debut, the show changed its focus to conservation and environmentalism, teaming Lassie with a group of US Forest Service members. In 1965 the show transitioned to color, but the ratings decline had already begun.

Season 17 transitioned again and this time it was an anthology season with Lassie traveling on her own, finding adventures along the way. CBS cancelled the show after season 17, but it became a syndicated show for networks to pick up.

The final two seasons were spent with Garth Holden (Ron Hayes) on the Holden Ranch, a home for orphaned boys. After season 19, the show went off the air for good.

Five of Pal’s descendants also played the role of Lassie. They included Lassie Jr. (1954-59), Spook (1960), Baby (1960-1966), Mire (1966-1971), and Hey Hey (1971-73). Like the show, Pal lived to be 19.

The show was filmed at Stage One of KTTV in Los Angeles from 1954-57 and then moved to Desilu for a year. The Timmy seasons were filmed at the Grand Canyon and High Sierra and the Forest Service seasons were filmed in Alaska and Puerto Rico, among other sites.

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Most of the plots involved the boys or other characters needing help and Lassie coming to the rescue. However, ironically the biggest spoof of the show is Timmy falling down a well and Lassie saving him, but no one ever fell down a well on the show except Lassie in season 17. It is such an iconic plot, that Provost wrote his autobiography in 2007 and called it Timmy’s in the Well: The Jon Provost Story. On his website, Provost says he kept in touch with Rettig. He says that he always ended their conversations with “Thanks for the dog, Jeff” which was his line in the series when he took over the show.

During the nineteen years that the show was on the air, several theme songs were used. For the first season, the theme was “Secret of the Silent Hills” composed by William Lava. The song was originally created for a 1940 radio show, “The Courageous Dr. Christian.” The song was tweaked a bit for the second and third seasons. An orchestral version of an aria from Faust, “Dio Possente” came in for the next year. Beginning with year five, the most famous version was aired: “Lassie Main & End Title” was created by Les Baxter and whistled by Muzzy Marcellino. After the Martin years, an orchestral version of “The Whistler” was used for a few years, and then Nathan Scott’s arrangement of “Greensleeves’ finished the run.

The series received two Emmy Awards for Best Children’s Program in 1955 and 1956 and a nomination in 1960. In addition, June Lockhart was nominated for Leading Actress in a Dramatic Series in 1959, Jan Clayton was nominated for the same award in 1957 and 1958, and the show was nominated for Best Dramatic Series in 1957.

The series was released on DVD during the years 2001-2007.

I do remember watching Lassie during the Provost years, but I actually was not aware of the other seasons. Like Flipper and Gentle Ben, it was a family show where everyone could sit around the television and watch together on a Sunday evening. With the show being on the air for 19 years, it is fondly remembered by several generations and made a ton of money marketing merchandise.

One of the things I love most about the show is that people are sure they remember Timmy falling into the well. It would be fun to do a blog about things that people are positive they remember but never happened. It’s similar to the Robot on Lost in Space saying “Danger Will Robinson” which he never actually did. It just proves that some shows live on in our imaginations for a long time.

Big Valley: Home of the Barkleys

We are in the midst of our western series, and today we turn our attention to a show that was on ABC for four years, from 1965-1969: The Big Valley. Created by A. I. Bezzerides and Louis F. Edelman and produced by Levy-Gardner-Laven (a trio of Jules V. Levy, Arthur Gardner, and Arnold Laven).

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The series is set on the Barkley Ranch in the 1870s, home of the Barkleys, one of the wealthiest families in the area. The ranch is based on the 30-acre Hill Ranch which existed from 1855-1931. Lawson Hill was murdered in 1861 ad then his wife Euphemia ran it. They also had three sons and one daughter. Today the ranch is covered by Camanche Reservoir waters. The exterior shot of the house used in the show was also Tara in Gone with the Wind.

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On Big Valley, Victoria Barkley (Barbara Stanwyck) runs the ranch with the help of her sons Jarrod (Richard Long), Heath (Lee Majors), and Nick (Peter Breck) and daughter Audra (Linda Evans).

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Heath was her husband’s illegitimate son, but she considered him her own child. He never met his father who had never been told of his existence; Heath learned it from his mother on her deathbed.

Three Great Stories in the Barkley Library - The Big Valley Writing Desk
The boys of Big Valley Photo: tapatalk.com

Jarrod was an attorney and was refined and well educated. He was briefly married but his wife was killed shortly after by a bullet meant for him. Nick was the younger, hot-tempered son who helped his mother run the ranch. He was a soldier in the Union Army during the Civil War. He had a great sense of humor and was very loyal to his family.

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Audra was rather bold for the times. She was a tomboy but had a soft heart and tended to children at the local orphanage.

There was another younger Barkley, Eugene (Charles Briles), who was a medical student at Berkeley. He was seen off and on through season one, then drafted into the army and never really mentioned again.

Considering that the show was only on the air four years, a lot of stars appeared. A small sample includes Jack Albertson, Lew Ayres, Anne Baxter, Milton Berle, Charles Bronson, John Carradine, Yvonne Craig, Yvonne DeCarlo, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Goulet, Julie Harris, Ron Howard, Cloris Leachman, Gavin MacLeod, Leslie Nielsen, Regis Philbin, Lou Rawls, Pernell Roberts, Wayne Rogers, Katharine Ross, William Shatner, and Adam West.

The Big Valley" Joshua Watson (TV Episode 1969) - IMDb
Lou Rawls guest star Photo: imdb.com

The Big Valley was a western but with a few twists and never predictable. It was the first time a woman would have the lead in a western.  The Barkleys may have been wealthy, but they were raised right. They were hardworking and fought for the underdog, making sure justice prevailed. However, it was not a cliché; no one could be trusted and nothing was exactly as it looked. Characters who appeared angelic ended up being truly evil.

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Unfortunately for the show, it was coming in at the end of the western’s popularity and was never in the top 30 during its time on the air. The other new shows that began when it did included Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, Hogan’s Heroes, Lost in Space, F Troop, and The Wild Wild West.

However, it received good reviews, and in 1966, Stanwyck was nominated and won the Emmy for drama series. She would also be nominated in 1967 and 1968, losing to Barbara Bain from Mission Impossible both years.

The theme was composed by George Duning. In 1966, a soundtrack from the show was released in mono and stereo versions. During his career Duning would work on more than 300 movie and television scores.

Like many television shows in the fifties and sixties, Dell Comics published six comic books based on the show. For some reason, I did not see much in the way of merchandising for this show compared to other westerns or shows from the sixties.

A warmhearted retrospective with 'Big Valley' cowgirl Linda Evans | Medium
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The cast got along well. Evans and Stanwyck were exceptionally close and rehearsed at Barbara’s house every Saturday. When Arthur Gardner was interviewed on the Television Academy, he said that Stanwyck mentored the younger cast members. He said “he could not praise her enough” for the work she did.

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It’s too bad the show didn’t begin earlier in the decade; it might have been able to stay on the air a bit longer. It was a unique concept with a powerful woman as the star. You can currently see it on Me TV on Saturdays as well as a few other networks.       

Laughing and Crying with Charlotte Rae

This week we are winding up our series of favorite female actors with Charlotte Rae. If you remember last week we learned about June Lockhart. Charlotte was born a year after June and died a year before her, and their careers were very similar. Both were actresses for more than six decades, appeared in Broadway, movies, and television.

Rae was born in Milwaukee, WI in 1926. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants. Her mother Esther had been friends with Golda Meir since childhood. For her first ten years, the family lived above her father’s tire business. In 1936 they moved to a home in Shorewood. At age 16, she became an apprentice with the Port Players, a professional theater company that came to Milwaukee for the summer. After graduation, Charlotte did some radio work and did some performing with the Wauwatosa Children’s Theatre.

Charlotte Rae Obituary - Death Notice and Service Information
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Although she never completed her degree, Rae attended Northwestern University. She and Cloris Leachman became friends there. She also met Agnes Nixon, Charlton Heston, Paul Lynde, and Claude Akins. In later years she would always recommend wanna-be actors get a degree first.

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In 1948, she moved to New York City where she performed in theater and nightclubs. She worked at a variety of clubs including the Village Vanguard and the Blue Angel. During her early days, a radio star told her that her last name of “Lubotsky” would not work well, and she replaced it with her middle name of Rae.

In 1951 she received her first television job on Once Upon a Tune. She would appear on ten other drama theater shows during the fifties. In an interview with Milwaukee Talks in 2016 she said, “When I started out, I wanted to be a serious actor, I never thought I’d get into comedy.”

The same year, Rae married composer John Strauss. They had two sons, but in the mid seventies he came out as a bisexual. Rae was not interested in an open marriage, so the couple decided to divorce in 1976.

Songs I Taught My Mother

Charlotte also loved singing, and she released an album in 1955, Songs I Taught My Mother. Rae also loved being on the stage. In the seventies, Vanguard Records went out of business, and Rae was able to buy back the album for $5000.

She would have stage roles in “Three Wishes for Jamie” in 1952, “The Threepenny Opera” in 1954, “Li’l Abner” in 1956, and “Pickwick” in 1965 among others. Later in her career she would also appear in several off-Broadway shows.

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In 1958, she got a break with a guest spot on The Phil Silvers Show which led to her getting the part of Sylvia Schnauzer, the wife of Leo Schnauzer (Al Lewis) on Car 54 Where Are You when it debuted in 1961. Her husband John did the music for the show. Apart from that role, most of the other television work she did in the sixties was in drama series.

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Rae also appeared in 14 big-screen movies. Can I take a shameless plug and say that one of my favorite Charlotte Rae roles is in Hello Down There? This movie from 1969 screams IT’S THE SIXTIES from the moment it starts until it ends, but it’s a great sit-back-and-just watch movie. If nothing else, it has an amazing cast including Tony Randall, Janet Leigh, Ken Berry, Jim Backus, Merv Griffin, and Richard Dreyfuss among others.

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The seventies were her busiest decade of work. She started with a recurring role on Sesame Street as Molly the Mail Lady. During the early seventies you could see her on The Partridge Family, McMillan and Wife, Love American Style, and The Paul Lynde Show. I always appreciated her character on The Partridge Family. When Danny is thinking about quitting school to get on with life, she plays his very smart and creative guidance counselor.

In 1974 Rae moved to Los Angeles. She did guest spots on All in the Family and Good Times, both Norman Lear shows. In 1975, she became a regular on Lear’s show, Hot l Baltimore. She played Mrs. Bellotti, whose son lived at the hotel. The show was a bit controversial and was cancelled after the first season.

During the remainder of the seventies, Rae kept busy working for a variety of genres. You could have seen her on The Flying Nun, Barney Miller, The Rich Little Show, All’s Fair, CPO Sharkey, Family, The Eddie Capra Mysteries, and on her friend Cloris Leachman’s show Phyllis.

In 1978 Norman Lear was working on Diff’rent Strokes about a single father who adopts two brothers whom he raises along with his daughter with help from his housekeeper. Lear signed Rae on as the housekeeper. Charlotte wanted to do the series, but as she related in a Television Academy interview, she was under contract at CBS when NBC made the offer. She had a few weeks left on her CBS option. The network offered her the role of a lady sheriff on a new western but it didn’t ring true to her, and she didn’t want to do it. While she was filming an Eddie Capra Mystery episode, she drove over to explain her predicament to Lear. He said that Bud Grant owed him a favor and he did indeed get her out of the contract.

One episode on the first season was “The Girls’ School” when Edna Garrett is asked to help out at Kim’s private school called East Lake. She does but at the end of the episode decides she’d rather be working in the Drummond home.

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In an interview with the Television Academy, Rae said she thought she was going to be fired from Diff’rent Strokes. She noticed her lines getting fewer and fewer and when she was called into talk with the producer, she thought that was it. However, they proposed a spinoff show for her based on “The Girls’ School” episode called The Facts of Life. They wanted Edna to become housemother for the boarding students at the school. It was a prestigious private school now called Eastland. The writers were focusing on issues affecting high school age girls including weight gain, dieting, depression, drug and alcohol use, dating, mental illness, and other subjects that kids that age deal with. Rae said the show was about growing up, family, love, and working out problems. “I had a lot of input with issues like suicide, divorce, death. I’m really very proud.”

Charlotte was a single mother and afraid to lose her Diff’rent Strokes income on a possibility that might not pan out. The producers wrote into her contract that if the show was cancelled, she could return to Diff’rent Strokes, so she agreed.

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The first season gained some fans, but ratings were so-so. For the second season, some cast changes were made and the show was moved from Fridays to Wednesdays. The show finished in the top thirty that year, and Rae became a household name. In 1982, Rae received an Emmy nomination. (She lost to Carol Kane from Taxi.) During the 1984 and 1985 seasons, Rae asked to be used less. She felt that the girls were older and would rely more on each other than a housemother for discussions about life issues.

When discussing the character of Edna, Rae explained “I want to bring in as much humanity as possible, as well as humor. I’ve tried to make her a human being with dimensions. The way they write her now is with a great deal of sensitivity and understanding. But I don’t want her to be Polly Perfect, because she must have human failings and make mistakes. She’s also a surrogate mother to the girls. I told them I wanted to be firm with the girls because I know it’s important. Parents must lay down ground rules for their children to help them grow up and to learn responsibility for their actions. They must learn to stand on their own two feet.”

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No doubt that this show took place in the 1980s
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Rae wanted to do more theater and she wanted to travel. When she decided to leave the series, Cloris Leachman replaced her in the role. The two-part finale of the eighth season had Edna Garrett marrying and moving to Africa with her husband to work for the Peace Corps. Her sister Beverly (Rae’s real sister’s name) comes for the wedding and then decides to stay with the girls at school. Cloris Leachman was signed on for two seasons. At the end of her time, she was willing to continue for another season, but cast members Nancy McKeon and Mindy Cohn were ready to end the show and take on new projects. It was not the end of the show, however. In 2001 a television reunion movie aired with much of the original cast. In 2007 the entire cast was invited to the TV Land Awards where they sang their old theme song.

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Murder She Wrote
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Charlotte took on several other roles after leaving the show. During the eighties and nineties, she appeared on The Love Boat, St. Elsewhere, Murder She Wrote, Sisters, and Alex Mack among others.

She was busy until she passed away, and continued to act throughout the 2000s, including an appearance on King of Queens, and a recurring role on ER. Her last acting credit on television was in 2014’s Girl Meets World.

FACTS OF MY LIFE (HARDBACK) By Charlotte Rae & Larry Strauss - Hardcover **NEW**

In 2015, Rae wrote her memoirs with her son Larry. At many of her book signings, adults came to purchase the book and told her over and over that they had been latch-key kids and saw Edna as a second mother to them. A description from Amazon sums up the book:  “Charlotte Rae’s career spans more than seventy years, from the golden age of television to Shakespeare in the Park, the New York Cabaret scene of the late 1940s and 50s to her hit series, The Facts of Life and well beyond. Off stage and screen, Charlotte’s life has been one of joy and challenge, raising an autistic son, coming to terms with alcoholism, the heartache of a broken marriage, the revelation of a gay husband and the sudden challenge of facing middle-age with financial and emotional uncertainties–a crisis she ultimately turned into the determination that brought her stardom. The Facts of My Life is the first opportunity for Charlotte’s fans to explore the fascinating story of her extraordinary life: poignant and hilarious, a story of courage and triumph, one that speaks for a generation of women breaking barriers, taking on challenges, overcoming personal tragedy, and paving the way for others.”

Rae suffered from several health issues. In the early seventies, she joined Alcoholics Anonymous which was a critical part of the rest of her life. In 1982, she had a pacemaker implanted. It worked well for thirty years, but then stopped, requiring surgery for another smaller device. She also had open heart surgery to replace her mitral valve. Pancreatic cancer ran in her family, so she was screened often and when she was diagnosed with cancer, it was early so she had six months of chemotherapy and was then declared cancer free. In 2017, she was diagnosed with bone cancer. She died at her home in 2018. Todd Bridges from Diff’rent Strokes, tweeted, “You were loved by everyone on our show.”

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Charlotte said she never minded fans coming up to her because she realized that in being a television actor you were in people’s homes. “It was an intimate relationship.”

She said she wanted to be remembered as someone who took people out of themselves into a different world and allowed them to laugh or cry, and that would make her happy because we need as many laughs as we can get.

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Thank you, Charlotte for making us cry a little and laugh a lot.

The Many Roles of Brian Keith

We are right in the middle of our “Men of November” blog series, and today we spend some time getting to know a prolific television and film star, Brian Keith.

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Brian Keith (Robert Alba Keith) was born in 1921 in New Jersey. His parents were both actors. They divorced shortly after his birth and at age 2, he moved to Hollywood and made his acting debut in a silent film, Pied Piper Malone, at the age of three.

While his mother was relocating for stage and radio work, his grandmother raised him on Long Island, New York.

His father remarried in 1927, but his second wife, Peg Entwistle, was involved in a tragic incident which is one of the Hollywood legends. She committed suicide by jumping of the H of the iconic Hollywood sign.

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After high school graduation, Keith joined the US Marine Corps from 1942-5. He served as a machine gunner and received an Air Medal.

In an interview with the Press and Sun-Bulletin in 1966, Keith related that he had no intention of becoming an actor. He had a passion for a career at sea and wanted to go to school at the Merchant Marine Academy. He said unfortunately, “You can’t be a ship’s officer without passing a few math courses and I came up with a big fat zero in algebra. In fact, no matter how many times I repeated the course, it still came up zero. So, it was goodbye Navy career.”

After the war, Brian decided to follow in his parents’ footsteps and made his Broadway debut in 1948 in Mister Roberts. His father played Doc in the same production.

While working on television, Keith also began appearing on the big screen. During his career, he would he would make 65 movies. In the fifties he was in Storm Center with Bette Davis and The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman.

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While continuing to appear on the stage, television was starting to pull him in that direction. He was given his first television role in 1951 in Hands of Mystery. He did a variety of television work in the 1950s, starting off in more dramas and ending the decade in westerns. Last week we learned a bit about Gale Gordon. If you remember, Gale starred in a short-lived series called The Box Brothers, and Brian happened to be in one of those episodes in 1957. From 1955-56, he received a regular role on Crusader, making 52 episodes. He starred as Matt Anders, a journalist who, in the aftermath of his mother’s death in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, travels the world to battle injustice.

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Moving into the sixties, Keith continued his western appearances and was given the lead in Sam Peckinpah’s television series, The Westerner. Unfortunately, it only lasted for 13 episodes. Keith said that “only four or five of those were any good, but those four or five were as good as anything anybody has ever done.” He played Dave Blassingame, a cowboy drifter who sometimes does questionable things trying to earn enough money to buy a ranch, but in the end, always does the right thing.

The Parent Trap Photo: pinterest.com

It was also in the sixties that he began his connection with Disney, starring in The Parent Trap in 1961.

During this decade, he was offered a show of his own that he is probably best known for—Family Affair. From 1966-1971, he appeared as Bill Davis, an engineer, who takes in his two nieces and nephew when their parents are killed. Kathy Garver, Anissa Jones, and Johnny Whitaker played the kids and Sebastian Cabot was Mr. French, who helped raise the children. Keith received three Emmy nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy Series, but lost to Don Adams for Get Smart from all three years, 1967-1969, (In 1968 Sebastian Cabot was also nominated for Best Actor and the show was nominated for Best Comedy in 1968 and 1969, losing to Get Smart.)

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Brian received the same type of contract as Fred MacMurray did in My Three Sons. It allowed him to tape his work in two-three months, leaving three-quarters of the year for traveling, relaxation, and film work.

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During the series’ run, he continued to make films including With Six You Get Eggroll with Doris Day.

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When Family Affair ended, it set off a rapid production of shows starring Keith, most of them with short runs. The Brian Keith Show was on air from 1972-74; Keith was pediatrician Dr. Sean Jamison and worked with his daughter played by Shelly Fabares. Keith said he accepted the role because the show was produced by Garry Marshall and it was shot in Hawaii.

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In 1974 he accepted the lead in a six-part miniseries, The Zoo Gang about a group of underground French resistance fighters. In 1975 we saw him in Archer, a television series about a detective which also ran only six episodes. Keith described Archer as “an underdog. He gets beaten. He’s no superhuman. He drives a broken-down Mustang. He’s not particularly fond of the finer things in life. Music is noise to him, painting is decoration, sculpture is ‘that stuff’ and he doesn’t read books.”

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In 1983, Keith co-starred with Daniel Hugh Kelly in Hardcastle and McCormick. Keith portrayed a retired judge Milton Hardcastle while Kelly was ex-con Mark McCormick. The duo team up because the ex-judge was tired of people getting off on technicalities. The show was on the air for three years.

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The following year, he began a stint on The Pursuit of Happiness which only lasted for ten episodes. In a different role for him, he played Professor Roland Duncan who taught at a small college in Philadelphia.

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1989 found him on Heartland which was also cancelled after ten episodes. On this show, Keith played BL McCutcheon, an older farmer who loses his farm and moves in with this daughter and her family, a bit of a rural Archie Bunker.

During the 1990s, Keith showed up on a variety of shows including Young Riders, Evening Shade, Major Dad, Cybill, Pacific Blue, and Walker Texas Ranger. He tried his hand at one more sitcom, starring in Walter and Emily. After 13 episodes, the show was finished. Keith is Walter Collins. He and his wife Emily (Cloris Leachman) help raise their grandson while their son Matt travels for his sports writing career.

Keith lived on a 200-acre ranch in Redlands, California. Brian had a lot of hobbies including golfing, swimming, cooking, sailing, horseback riding, spending time with his family, painting, and reading. When asked about whether he wanted to live a long life, he said, “If I live to be a hundred—and I hope I do—I won’t have time to read all the books I want to read or talk to the people I want to know. Not party talk. That’s a waste of time. Real talk.”

While Keith had a successful career, his personal life was not as sunny. He was married three times to Frances Helm from 1948 to 1954, to Judy Landon, an actress who made an appearance on Family Affair from 1954 till 1969, and to Victoria Young, another actress who showed up on The Brian Keith Show as a nurse, from 1970 till his death.

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He also suffered from several physical problems. He had been a long-time smoker, and suffered from both emphysema and lung cancer. He had been a spokesperson for Camel Cigarettes in the 1950s but quit smoking in the late 80s.

Brian’s son, Michael died from pneumonia when he was eight. In 1997, his daughter Daisy committed suicide when she was 27. Daisy had also entered the acting profession and worked with her dad on Heartland. Daisy’s death and financial problems pulled Keith into a depression and he committed suicide in June of 1997.

Early in his career, Keith established a stereotype as the handsome, burly guy with the gruff voice, but he transitioned into that character who also had moments of warmth and humor.

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I love his performance in The Parent Trap, and I like to picture Keith as being Mitch in real life, a guy who loves his kids and his ranch and takes pleasure in a variety of outdoor activities but also savors reading on the porch.

Keith remained close to Maureen O’Hara, his costar in the Parent Trap as well as with Kathy Garver and Johnny Whitaker. (Anissa Jones died from a fatal overdose in 1976 at age 18.)

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With more than 166 acting credits, Keith had a full and successful career and brought a lot of enjoyment to generations of fans during his six decades as an actor. He had to endure a lot of heartache off the camera. Both Family Affair and Hardcastle and McCormick are worth watching if you have a free weekend. You can also see a lot of amazing performances of his on the large screen.

Paging Dr. Stone: The Career of Carl Betz

For the month of June, we are celebrating some of our favorite fathers. One of my favorite dads was Carl Betz in his role as Dr. Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show.

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Betz was born in Mary of 1921 in Pittsburgh, PA. He came from an upper middle-class family, and his father was a laboratory chemist.

While still in school, Betz started a rep theater company with several friends. They performed plays in his grandmother’s basement.

During WWII, he served in the army.  He was deployed to Italy and North Africa and left the military as a technical sergeant with the Corps of Engineers.

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When he returned to the States, he enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh, majoring in drama. While going to school at Carnegie, he played football and made an appearance in the Sugar Bowl against Texas Christian University.

His first job after graduation was a radio announcer. He moved to New York and worked as a doorman at Radio City Music Hall while auditioning for Broadway productions. He received his first part in “The Long Watch” in 1952. He then toured in “The Voice of the Turtle” with Veronica Lake.

In discussing his work as a young adult, he said, “Those were good times for the beginning actor. There were so many summer stock companies. We worked for room and board and the princely sum of $45 a week.  By eliminating haircuts, we managed to keep ourselves in shaving cream, clean shirts, and beer.”

Twentieth Century Fox offered him a contract, and he received a number of supporting roles in films. In 1953, he made an incredible six movies.

In 1952 he married Lois Harmon. They had one son and divorced in 1961.

His first job on television was a soap opera, Love of Life. Throughout the fifties and sixties, he performed in a variety of plays, including “The Seven-Year Itch” and “The Zoo Story.”

Photo: ebay.com
On Perry Mason

In the mid-1950s, he began appearing on television shows, and shows up in reruns on Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Mike Hammer.

Photo: famousdude.com

In 1958, Carl was offered the role of Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show, and he was with the show until it ended in 1965. The heart-warming show centered around Donna and Alex Stone, a pediatrician, and their two children, Jeff (Pete Petersen) and Mary (Shelly Fabares). Betz continued his stage career in his off time with the show.

Photo: betrendsetter.com

Both Carl and Donna were protective of their television children. In an interview in 2011 when Petersen was 66, he discussed his second set of parents. “They made a commitment to Shelley and me as surrogate parents to be on our side and be with us for the long haul. They kept that commitment up to their deaths.”

As Alex, Betz was the voice of reason. When anyone got too worried, he gave advice and put things in perspective. He had a fun side to him and could always see the humor in situations. He was a caring doctor and had fun in life, realizing death and illness were always lurking around the corner. He often made fun of Donna and the kids but in a loving way, not cruel. His comments typically illustrated that things were not as dower as they appeared. But when there was an emergency or a serious situation, he was calm and collected and took charge.

Carl continued to take roles during breaks in taping for The Donna Reed Show. In 1964, Betz received amazing reviews for his performance as the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon in “The Night of the Iguana.”

During his time on the show, he ironically married Gloria Stone, and they would remain married until his death in 1978.

Photo: commons.wikimedia.org
With co-star Stephen Young

In 1967, he starred in Judd for the Defense where he played an attorney. Clifton Judd, a lawyer based in Texas, would travel across the country to defend a client. Many cases involved labor unions, draft evasions, civil rights, and murder. The series featured a number of guest stars, including Ed Asner, Mike Farrell, Norman Fell, Beverly Garland, Ron Howard, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, Ruta Lee, Gavin MacLeod, Vera Miles, Tom Selleck, and Dennis Weaver. The critics gave the show great reviews, but the ratings were always a struggle. In 1969, ABC cancelled the series and that same year, Betz won the Emmy for Outstanding Performer by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.

Photo: moviestore.com

Once the series was cancelled, Betz continued in plays and also picked up several television appearances on a variety of shows, such as Love American Style, Medical Center, McCloud, The Mod Squad, Ironside, The FBI, Mission Impossible, Barnaby Jones, and Quincy ME. Since he handled comedy so well on The Donna Reed Show, I was surprised to learn that most of his career was spent on drama or crime shows.

Photo: mashable.com
On Love American Style with Harrison Ford

In 1977, Betz was diagnosed with lung cancer. He kept the illness a secret until November when he was hospitalized. He died in January of 1978, 56 years young. Ironically, thinking about celebrating fathers, my dad also died at age 56.

Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

From all accounts, Carl Betz wanted to be an actor from a very young age. Fortunately, he was able to spend most of his life in the entertainment business.  Unfortunately, his life ended much too early, and his career was cut short. Any time someone can spend their life pursuing their passion, it’s a life well spent. Happy Father’s Day to one of our favorite dads.

The Donna Reed Show: It’s All About the Mom

Merry Christmas Eve.  In honor of It’s a Wonderful Life which will be playing quite often today, this week’s blog is about Donna Reed, who played Mary in the Jimmy Stewart holiday favorite.

In 1958, most of the television shows were game shows, variety shows, or westerns. Almost all the sitcoms on the air were based on a star; we had The Danny Thomas Show, The Ann Sothern Show, The Bob Cummings Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was also the year The Donna Reed Show began. The show would last eight seasons, resulting in 275 episodes.

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Photo: dallas.wikia.com

The series was created by William Roberts. Donna and her husband Tony Owen developed and produced the show, under the name “Todon.” We had shows about single adults in The Bob Cummings Show and The Ann Sothern Show. We had families, including The Danny Thomas Show, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Roberts wanted to concentrate on the demanding roles a stay-at-home mom had to juggle. Reed agreed with him. As she noted, “We started breaking rules right and left. We had a female lead, for one thing, a strong, healthy woman. We had a story line told from a woman’s point of view that wasn’t soap opera.”

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Photo: imdb.com

The Donna Reed Show is often evoked by critics who say television scripts are not realistic but center around unreal family expectations, but that is not the goal Reed and her husband had. Donna described the show as “realistic pictures of small-town life—with an often-humorous twist. Our plots revolve around the most important thing in America—a loving family.” The shows featured typical family problems families faced in the late 1950s: having to fire a clumsy housekeeper, quality time with your spouse, dealing with disciplinary issues, or Donna being swamped with requests to volunteer for charity drives or community theater shows. However, there were times the show delved into more controversial issues such as women’s rights or freedom of the press.

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Photo: metv.com

The Stone family includes Donna, Alex, Mary and Jeff. Donna (Donna Reed) is the iconic mother. She grew up on a farm (which Reed did). She became a nurse and occasionally helps Alex (Carl Betz), a pediatrician who has his office at the house. Mary (Shelly Fabares) is in her first year of high school. She studies ballet and plays the piano. During the series, she has several boyfriends. Mary left for college before the show ended, but Fabares made guest appearances. Jeff (Paul Petersen) is in grade school. He loves sports, likes to eat, and often teases his sister. In 1963 when Fabares leaves, Paul Petersen’s real sister, Patty was cast as a runaway orphan taken in by the Stone family. The Stones live in Hilldale, an All-American town.

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Photo: pinterest.com

Several other characters appear often. Dave and Midge Kelsey (Bob Crane and Ann McCrea) are good friends of Donna and Alex’s.  Dave is also a doctor. Another of Alex’s colleagues who is a good friend is Dr. Boland (Jack Kelk), whom the kids call “Uncle Bo.” Smitty Smith (Darryl Richard) is Jeff’s best friend and Scotty (Jimmy Hawkins) is Mary’s boyfriend.

Photos: pinterest.com and metv.com

With Donna’s movie relationships, many guest stars appeared on the show during its run. Baseball players Don Drysdale, Leo Durocher, and Willie Mays played themselves. Musicians Harry James, Tony Martin, and Lesley Gore appeared. Buster Keaton was featured in two different shows. Esther Williams played a fashion designer. Other stars who showed up included Jack Albertson, John Astin, Dabney Coleman, Ellen Corby, Richard Deacon, Jamie Farr, Gale Gordon, Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Marion Ross, William Schallert, Hal Smith, Marlo Thomas, and William Windom.

In the opening credits, Reed comes down the stairs and answers the telephone which she gives to Alex. She then hands the kids their lunches and books and sends them off to school. When Alex leaves on a call, she closes the door and smiles. In 1964 when The Munsters debuted, their opening credits were a parody of Donna’s show as Lily performs the same actions.

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Photo: metv.com

The Donna Reed Show faced the Milton Berle show, Texaco Star Theater Wednesday nights and ratings were not great. It was renewed and moved to Thursdays the next year. I was surprised to learn that during the eight years the show was on the air it was only in the top 20 in season six and only in the top 30 in season four.

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Photo: cinemacats.com (Look closely and you’ll notice this was                                                                 the living room for I Dream of Jeannie as well).

Although the show never received very high ratings, Donna Reed was nominated for an Emmy every year from 1959 to 1962. (Jane Wyatt won in 1959 and 1960, Barbara Stanwyck won in 1961, and Shirley Booth won in 1962.) Donna Reed won the Golden Globe in 1963.

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Photo: metv.com

In 1962 Donna felt that the writers had run out of creative ideas and were recycling plots. Both Mary and Jeff were allowed to perform in this season. Fabares debuted a single, “Johnny Angel” in February which went to number one on the charts, selling more than a million copies. In October, Petersen sang “My Dad” which made it to number six. Donna decided that would be the last season, but when ABC made her a very lucrative offer for three more seasons, she and her husband agreed.

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Photo: nytimes.com

When this contract ended in 1966, Donna was ready to retire. Reed was considering a television movie reunion but when Betz passed away in 1978, she decided it was no longer an option.

Campbell Soup was the first sponsor, and later sponsors included Johnson & Johnson and The Singer Company. Whenever a scene takes place in a supermarket, Campbell’s Soup, V-8 Juice, Franco-American Spaghetti and Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder are likely to be in the shot.

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Photo: metv.com

Reruns of the show were seen on Nick at Nite from 1985-1994 and on TV Land from 2002 until 2004. MeTV began airing the show in September of 2011.

The cast was a close-knit one and continued their relationships after the show ended. Paul Petersen credited Donna as being the nurturing adult he needed in his life to get him through the years of being a child star. She helped him understand how the industry worked and helped him during some tough times during his life. Shelly Fabares also said Donna and Carl were amazing. Realizing how tough the industry can be for young kids, they protected Paul and herself and loved them as second parents. Donna never forgot to send Shelly a birthday gift.  In 1986, before she passed away from pancreatic cancer, her final words were to make sure Shelly’s birthday gift was wrapped and delivered.

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Photo: lapostexaminer.com

Despite the bad raps the show often received from the women’s lib organizations, Donna Reed did help advance the way women were perceived in the media. She endowed her character with strong emotions, definite opinions on issues, and independence. In her personal life, Reed expressed her views on the medical industry and the political arenas.

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Photo: geocaching.com

Paul Petersen summed up the value of the show in an interview he did in 2008. In his words, The Donna Reed Show, “depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life. Jeff and Mary and their friends had all the same problems that real kids in high school did. That’s what the show was really about, the importance of family. That’s where life’s lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There’s a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection.”

I couldn’t say it better.