The Tony Randall Show: It May Have Been Judged Too Quickly

As we wind up our “Don’t Judge Me” blog series, today we’ve been sent to the bench to sit along side Judge Walter Franklin (Tony Randall) on The Tony Randall Show. Judge Franklin is a middle-aged, single-parent, widower living in Philadelphia. His extremely bright kids–teenage daughter Roberta (Devon Scott) and preteen son Oliver (Brad Savage) live with the judge, along with daffy housekeeper Bonnie (Rachel Roberts). At work we get to know his severe secretary “Miss” Janet Reubner (Allyn Ann McLerie), court reporter Jack Terwilliger (Barney Martin), and Mario Lanza (Zane Lasky), no not THAT Mario Lanza, but an overbearing assistant the judge does not care for. Judge Eleanor Cooper (Diana Muldaur) plays his co-worker and “lady friend.”

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In the second season, Penny Peyser took over the role of Roberta, and Hans Conried joined the cast as Walter’s father. A lot of famous guest stars found themselves in front of the judge during the two years it was on the air. A handful of stars who appeared around Judge Franklin included Victor Buono, Beverly Garland, Michael Keaton, Hal Smith, David Ogden Stiers, and Dick Van Patten.

If this sounds a little bit like the concept of The Mary Tyler Moore Show where we see a professional at work and at home, that’s because The Tony Randall Show was produced by MTM Enterprises and created by Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses. This was the duo that produced The Bob Newhart Show a few years earlier.

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The Tony Randall Show debuted on ABC in 1976. When ABC cancelled the show, it was picked up by CBS for a second season. Surprisingly, the show was not cancelled by ABC for low ratings. The show was holding its own going up against Hawaii Five-0 and Best Sellers on Thursday nights. Apparently, Patchett and Tarses did not get along with Tony Randall.  Unfortunately, they did not get along with each other either, and on top of that, they refused to take calls from ABC president Fred Silverman. Tiring of the drama, Silverman ended the show. On CBS, the show moved to Saturday nights and was on at the same time as Operation Petticoat and The Bionic Woman. When CBS cancelled the show, it was done for good.

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Reflecting on the show, Grant Tinker remembered “Tony was born to work in front of a live audience, and the writing was largely first rate. Ultimately, however, three strong egos could not live together. Since Tony was obviously essential, Tom and Jay retreated to their office and oversaw from a distance, giving two of MTM’s younger writers, Hugh Wilson and Gary David Goldberg their first chance to produce.” (Wilson would go on to create WKRP in Cincinnati and Goldberg would create Family Ties and Brooklyn Bridge.)

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At least this turmoil produced some good results. Goldberg said from his time on The Tony Randall Show, he learned you need to hire good people and let them do their job, and that if you have to remind people you are the producer, you’re probably not a very good one.

Ken Levine discussed working with Randall in his blog from June of 2007 (kenlevine.blogspot.com/2007/06/working-with-tony-randall.html). According to Levine, Randall “was the consummate professional. Not only did he know all of his lines, he knew everyone else’s too. . . . I loved working with Tony Randall. Of course, it helped that he thought I was funny and that I didn’t smoke.”

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Everyone seemed to enjoy working with Randall. In a Television Academy interview, Asaad Kelada, one of the directors for the show, described Randall as a “fascinating, erudite, funny man.” He talked about the way he warmed up an audience before the show with his stories. It must have been a fun set sometimes because Kelada said he used to wear a sweater over his shoulders, and it became his trademark. One day he said there was a bit of extra energy on the set, and he suddenly realized absolutely everyone on set from the cameramen to gophers to stars were wearing sweaters, blankets, or towels around their shoulders. The Television Academy also did interviews with Abby Singer, production manager for the show, and Hugh Wilson about his writing and producing. Singer said Randall was “a good guy.” When asked if the rumors that Randall was particular were true, he said “Yes, he was so particular it was unbelievable. You couldn’t even whisper when he was on the set, but he was a sweet guy.” Wilson backed their comments up, saying “It was super to work with Tony Randall. He was a vast library of show business information and very nice.”

Despite all the problems on the set, Randall was nominated for a Golden Globe for his role of Judge Franklin. He lost to Henry Winkler for Happy Days.

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I could not find any official DVDs for The Tony Randall Show, but some of the episodes can be found online. It sounds like the show had all the right ingredients but either did not have enough time to find its true voice or appeared a bit too late in the 1970s at a time when things were changing in television programming. Anytime you can watch Tony Randall on the small screen (or the big screen for that matter) is a special opportunity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Comedy legend Mel Brooks

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

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

MacMillan and Wife: The Show That Bridged the Generation Gap

Before launching into this week’s topic, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has been following and reading my blog. This week begins my fourth year writing this blog. I was worried I would find enough topics to fill the first year but next year is already outlined, so another year of classic television is on the way. It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a lot.

This month we are looking at crime-solving duos.  We start our series learning a bit more about McMillan and Wife. McMillan and Wife began as part of The Sunday NBC Mystery Movie which included Columbo and McCloud. The shows rotated each week, so fewer episodes were produced of each than a typical weekly show.

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McMillan and Wife debuted in 1971 and was on the air until 1977, yet only forty episodes were produced. Leonard Stern was the creator, writer, and executive producer of the show; he previously produced Get Smart.

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Stewart “Mac” McMillan (Rock Hudson) was an attorney and US Navy veteran who apparently had been involved in some CIA activities. He is now Commissioner of Police in San Francisco. He gets involved in high-profile cases. His wife is Sally (Susan St. James), and her father was a detective for the San Francisco Police Department; she learned a lot from him and helps her husband solve crimes. Sargent Charlie Enright (John Schuck) helps Mac with his cases. Sally and Mac have no children (it’s confusing because Sally was pregnant twice on the show, but the children are never mentioned in the show later). Their housekeeper Mildred (Nancy Walker) also lives with the couple. Mildred’s character resembles the role Thelma Ritter played in Pillow Talk, where Hudson starred with Doris Day. She is a sarcastic, hard-drinking woman and is always ready to offer her opinion, but she is devoted to Mac and Sally.

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Once Hudson was cast as Mac, the show got priority in development. Several actresses were considered for the role of Sally, including Diane Keaton and Jill Clayburgh, but Hudson was most comfortable with St. James.

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Hudson was 21 years older than St. James, but their relationship worked. Mac is supposed to be in his 40s and Sally in her 20s (he was 46 at the time and she was 25). Sally is self-confident and is not afraid to speak her mind. However, she is also a wife who loves her husband, and one of the running gags on the show is that Mac had dated a lot of women in his past, and when Mac and Sally are out and about, they typically run into some gorgeous woman who says, “Hi Mac.” Sally usually responds with a jealous comment or a withering look. The difference in their ages actually worked well for demographics. Hudson appealed to older viewers while St. James attracted younger viewers.

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Often the cases Mac solves happen during events the couple attends. One episode featured a burglary at a charity event they were attending; once they found a skeleton in their house after an earthquake. Another show had Mac abducted by mobsters and replaced with a surgically-made twin replacing him.

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An interesting fact is that the interior of their house in the pilot episode was in fact Hudson’s home. In the first regular episode, the MacMillans bought a new house. In the final season, the setting changed to an apartment.

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Sally and Mac led a glamorous life. The scripts were well written, and the dialogue was witty and clever. The couple was often compared to Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies. Mac and Sally have a lot of their best conversations after they go to bed at night.

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Sally was known for wearing a football jersey for her nightgown. The jersey was an authentic 49ers Jersey, number 18, George Washington, a wide receiver. Washington was a four-time Pro Bowler. He made a guest appearance on the show in season four, “Guilt by Association.”

Considering that there were only forty episodes produced, this show had an incredible number of guest stars. I apologize for the long list, but it’s the only way to capture how impressive it is. The stars included sport celebrities Dick Butkus, Rosie Grier, Alex Karras, and Bobbie Riggs.

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It also featured a Who’s Who of television sitcom royalty: John Astin, Meredith Baxter, Tom Bosley, Michael Constantine, Bert Convy, Wally Cox, Richard Deacon, William Demarest, Donna Douglas, Barbara Feldon, Norman Fell, Buddy Hackett, Larry Hagman, Alan Hale, Shirley Jones, Stacy Keach, Bernie Kopell, Julie Newmar, Charlotte Rae, Charles Nelson Reilly, Dick Sargent, Natalie Schafer, Susan Sullivan, Karen Valentine, and Dick Van Patten.

The show, like McCloud and Columbo, was quite popular with viewers. The ratings were impressive until the sixth season.

Unfortunately, the last season had too many changes to overcome. St. James decided to leave to concentrate on her movie career. Schuck left to star in the sitcom, Holmes and Yo-Yo, and Walker left for her own sitcom, The Nancy Walker Show. Sadly, Walker and Schuck would have been better off staying because both their shows lasted only 13 episodes. St. James starred in a couple of movies, but they weren’t anything memorable. She would go on to star in Kate and Allie in 1984.

Photo: cult-tv-lounge.blogspot.com

On the show, Sally was killed in an airplane crash. Mildred was said to leave to open a diner, so her sister Agatha (Martha Raye) took over her job. Schuck made a few appearances but was said to have been given a promotion to lieutenant which kept him too busy to assist Mac much. The show may have been able to overcome one of these changes but not all of them. Much of the strength of the show was the relationship between Mac and Sally. Walker’s funny bantering and actions provided a comedic relief for the show. When Raye took over, she was just scatterbrained and loud; the appeal of Walker was not part of her character.

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It’s wonderful the show lasted five good seasons, but it might have lasted many more if the original cast had been retained. At the other end of the spectrum, Columbo aired off and on until 2003 and is remembered by more viewers.

DVDs were released for all six seasons between 2005 and 2014. With only forty shows in the series, this would be a fun binge-watching week-end show to tackle.

The Show That Captured America’s Heart: Eight is Enough

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Beginning in 1977, Eight is Enough was a hard show to categorize; not really a drama but not a comedy either, even though it featured a laugh track. The show was based on the 1975 autobiography of newspaper editor and columnist Thomas Braden. Tom Bradford (Dick Van Patten) was a columnist for a Sacramento, California newspaper. He and his wife Joan (Diana Hyland) have eight children:  Mary (Lanie O’Grady), David (Mark Hamil), Joanie (Laurie Walters), Nancy (Kimberly Beck), Elizabeth (Connie Needham), Susan (Susan Richardson), Tommy (Chris English), and Nicholas (Adam Rich).

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A few changes were made from the pilot episode. ABC questioned the performances of the actors who played Nancy and Tommy and replaced them with Dianne Kay and Willie Aames.  Another change from the pilot occurred in the role of David. Originally, Mark Hamil was signed but after he received the offer to appear in an upcoming movie Star Wars, he received permission to break his contract and the role was taken over by Grant Goodeve.

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When the show began, David lives on his own.  Mary is going to school to be a doctor while Joanie, Susan, and Nancy are late studying acting, fashion, and modeling. Elizabeth and Tommy are in high school, and Nicholas is still in elementary school. Tommy would later be part of a rock ‘n roll band.

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Four episodes into the series, Diana Hyland who played Joan, the mother, was diagnosed with breast cancer and died soon after. For the rest of Season 1, she was said to be away. In Season 2, Tom was portrayed as a widower and later in the year he meets and marries Abby, played by Betty Buckley. Abby is a school teacher. The series deals with the trials and tribulations every family tackles, including school concerns, sibling rivalry, and relationship issues. The kids were quite different in personality, and it seems like everyone could relate to at least one of them. While The Brady Bunch sometimes seemed a bit syrupy, everyone wanted to be part of a family like the Bradfords.

The show captured the hearts of many viewers, being number one for a while. In the first season the show finished 23rd overall, but seasons 3-4 had the show 11th or 12th each year.

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In Season 3, Susan marries Merle “The Pearl” Stockwell (Brian Patrick Clarke) who was a baseball star, and David marries Janet (Joan Prather) in a double ceremony. In the last season, Goodeve suggested he and Janet divorce because he didn’t think David was being featured in enough storylines. With so many of the kids flying the coop, Ralph Macchio was brought in as Abby’s orphaned nephew who lived with the Bradfords.  You always know when an orphaned relative is hired, the show is not going to last long.

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The show was developed by writer William Blinn. The first three seasons were filmed at The Burbank Studios (now the Warner Brothers Ranch) and the last two years were filmed at MGM Studios in Culver City. Writers were often shared with The Waltons, which was another Lorimar-produced show.

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During the first couple of seasons, an instrumental version of the theme was played during the opening. However, in later seasons, lyrics were added, and the theme was sung by Grant Goodeve. Those lyrics are:

There’s a magic in the early morning, we’ve found,

When the sunrise smiles on everything around.

It’s a portrait of the happiness that we feel and always will,

For eight is enough to fill our lives with love.

 

Oh, we’re lucky we can share this beautiful stage.

So many find the world an empty place.

Anyone who asks to stand alone is always standing still,

And eight is enough to fill our lives with love.

 

Oh, love makes all the difference now,

And one that really shows.

Just look at every one of us —

See how it overflows!

 

Though we spend our days like bright and shiny new dimes,

If we’re ever puzzled by the changing times,

There’s a plate of homemade wishes on the kitchen window sill,

And eight is enough to fill our lives with love.

Yes, more than enough to fill our lives with lo-o-o-ove.

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After five seasons, with production costs rising and ratings falling, the show was cancelled.  Their “sister” show The Waltons was also done. Later in a 2000 interview, Van Patten said that he learned about the cancellation in a newspaper story.

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Two television movies aired in the 1980s. “An Eight Is Enough Reunion” was seen in 1987 when everyone came home to celebrate Tom’s 50th birthday, and “An Eight is Enough Wedding” aired in 1989. Mary Frann and Sandy Faison, respectively, played Abby in these movies.

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Unfortunately, the show is rarely seen in syndication. DVDs were released between 2012 and 2014.

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Most of the articles I read portrayed the set as a fun place to work, due to the positive influence of Van Patten.  He stayed close to many of the actors and actresses and truly viewed them as family. It was a critically acclaimed show, nominated for several Emmys. While clothing styles may have changed, family issues haven’t. The Bradford family handled their problems together in a realistic manner. It would be a fun show to binge watch this winter.

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