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.

Photo: wikipedia.com

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.

Crusader Photo: sitcomsonline.com

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.

The Westerner Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

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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Photo: pinterest.com

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.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

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.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

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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Photo: amazon.com

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.

It Only Takes One Episode to Get Smart

In the mid-1960s, spy shows were all the rage.  James Bond drew large audiences to theaters:  Dr. No in 1962, From Russia with Love in 1963, Goldfinger in 1964, and Thunderball in 1965. Inspector Clouseau was big at the box office too appearing in The Pink Panther in 1963 and A Shot in the Dark in 1964. If you were checking out books at the library, you probably would have read Len Deighton’s The IPCRESS File (1962), The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), or Harriet the Spy (1964). On the small screen, The Avengers was ahead of the curve, premiering in 1961, but in the mid-1960s, we would see some of the classic television shows debut: Mission Impossible began in 1966, The Man from UNCLE showed up in 1964 and in 1965, The Wild, Wild West and I Spy got network approval.

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Another show came on the air in 1965 as well – on September 18, 1965, Get Smart was seen for the first time. Dan Melnick, a partner in Talent Associates thought a spy satire might be a good fit for their upcoming schedule. He recruited Buck Henry and Mel Brooks to write the show. The team took the show to ABC. ABC bought it but they wanted a few changes.  They wanted Tom Poston to take the role of Maxwell Smart. They wanted a dog on the show to add “heart.” Finally, they wanted Smart’s mother to be a major role and envisioned Smart coming home at the end of the episode to explain the case to his mother. Henry and Brooks said no to the mother, so ABC rejected the show and sold it back to Talent Associates.

Grant Tinker from NBC agreed to buy the show with the caveat that Don Adams star in place of Tom Poston.  And so, the creative talent of Brooks and Henry brought Maxwell Smart (Don Adams), Agent 99 (Barbara Feldon), and the Chief (Edward Platt) to life. The show would stay on the air for five seasons, producing 138 episodes.

The first four seasons were filmed at Sunset Bronson Studios.  In 1970, the show moved to CBS and the last season was filmed at CBS Studio Center.

Mel Brooks left the show after the first year, but Buck Henry stayed through 1967 as the story editor.

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Most of the administrative cast stayed with the show for its run. Leonard B. Stern was the executive producer for all the shows. Irving Szathmary was the music and theme composer, as well as conductor, for all five seasons. Gerald C. Gardner and Dee Caruso were the head writers for the series. Don Adams would get to direct 13 episodes and write 2 of them.

The show centered around the three main characters. Maxwell Smart is Agent 86.  He works for CONTROL, a US government counter-intelligence agency in Washington DC. Max is resourceful.  He is a adept marksman, has hand-to-hand combat skills and is extremely lucky. He uses several cover identities, but the one he uses most often is greeting card salesman. He insists in going by the book and this, along with his clumsy nature, cause problems for him.

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He and his partner Agent 99 take on world threats. We never learn Agent 99’s real name, although we think we have in one episode.  In “99 Loses CONTROL”, she says her name is Susan Hilton but at the end of the episode, we learn she was lying. Agent 99 is smart and competent.  Her father was apparently a spy as well.  (In real life, Barbara Feldon was also smart; she won on The $64,000 Question with the category of Shakespeare.) If you look closely, you will often see Agent 99 slouching, sitting, or leaning on something to conceal the fact that she was a bit taller than Adams.

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Their boss, Chief, whose real name is Thaddeus, is sarcastic and grouchy but also serious, sensible, and smart. He began his career as Agent Q and his cover name is often Harold Clark. Other CONTROL agents we meet during the series are Agents 8, 13, and 14, as well as Larrabee, the Chief’s highly inefficient and bumbling assistant.

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Their primary enemy is KAOS, an international organization of evil founded in Romania in 1904 (a Delaware corporation for tax purposes!). The two KAOS employees we see most often are Conrad Siegfried (Bernie Kopell), the VP for Public Relations and Terror and his assistant Shtarker (King Moody), whose personality can change from sadistic to childlike. While Siegfried and Smart are mortal enemies, they respect each other.  Sometimes they begin talking like old friends.  In one episode, they are discussing the flavor of cyanide pills each side has that month.  CONTROL is giving out raspberry, and Smart tries to give one to Siegfried.  Like CONTROL, KAOS has a bowling team to build rapport and fellowship among their employees.

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Another KAOS agent is Hymie the Robot played by Dick Gautier. Dr. Ratton of KAOS built Hymie for evil, but Smart manages to turn the robot into a CONTROL agent. Hymie is faster and stronger than any human.  He also has the ability to swallow any poison and then identify it. He has emotions and a need to maintain neatness.  Unfortunately, he takes commands literally; if Smart says “Get ahold of yourself,” he literally wraps his arms around himself.

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The opening sequence of the show is one of the most spoofed openings in television.  Smart walks through doors that continue to other doors. It was ranked as the number 2 opening out of the top ten by TV Guide viewers in 2010.

The show is still known for its catch phrases that became part of the American vocabulary including “Would you believe?”, “Sorry about that Chief,” “And loving it,” and “I asked you not to tell me that.”

The series is identified with its James Bond-like gadgets.  Telephones could be concealed in neckties, combs, and watches, but most often it is in Smart’s shoe which he had to take off to answer. Agent 99 has a compact phone and a fingernail phone which forces her to look like she is nervously biting her nails to talk on it.

The show features a bullet-proof invisible wall in Smart’s apartment which lowers from the ceiling; he often forgets to put it back up and runs into it. Cameras can be in a bowl of soup.  A laser weapon was concealed in a suit jacket button, the blazer laser. The Cone of Silence are two glass domes that cover Smart and the Chief when they talk about a case.  Smart insists on using it because it’s  regulation; however, they can hardly hear each other, but anyone on the outside can hear their conversation clearly and often reports what the other person said.

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Other weapons and aids for the spies included a parking meter telegraph, a perfume bottle radio transmitter, invisible icing, and a pencil listening device. Guns were hidden in a charm on a charm bracelet, in a pool cue, as a hairbrush, as a flashlight, and in a crutch. CONTROL even had gloves with fingerprints already on them – the fingerprints were KAOS agents so they would get the blame for a break-in.

Blowing up stuff is always good on a spy show and Get Smart had explosive rice; toothpaste that is really a fuse; an exploding wallet, ping pong ball and golf ball; and a horoscope book or lipstick case that contained knock-out gas.

Smart had several cars but his most famous was a red 1965 Sunbeam Tiger.  The two-seat roadster had a machine gun built in, a smoke screen, a radar tracker, and an ejection seat.  When the series went off the air, Don Adams received the car and continued to drive it for ten years.

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Get Smart probably had some of the most famous guest stars of any show.  Just a few of these celebrities include Steve Allen, Barbara Bain, Milton Berle, Ernest Borgnine, Carol Burnett, James Caan, Johnny Carson, Wally Cox, Robert Culp, Phyllis Diller, Jamie Farr, Jack Guilford, Bob Hope, Martin Landau, Julie Newmar, Pat Paulson, Tom Poston, Leonard Nimoy, Vincent Price, Don Rickles, and Fred Willard.

The show stayed true to its character through its entire run.  In Season 1, Hymie is introduced and the dog, Fang, disappears. In Season 2, we meet Siegfried. Smart and Agent 99 get engaged and marry in Season 4.  NBC demanded the change to boost ratings. In Season 5, they have twins.  Agent 99 continues working and is one of the first, if not the first, mother to be viewed as a working woman.  When the ratings did not increase, the show was cancelled. It went into syndication where it was very successful. Unfortunately, the DVD set was held up in legal battles and only came out weeks before Adams died.

Get Smart was one of the most clever and creative sitcoms ever airing on television.  It had `21 Emmy nominations including two for Feldon and won 7 of those awards.  Don Adams won best actor on a comedy three times and the show won best comedy twice.

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William Johnston came out with 9 paperbacks based on the series in the late 1960s and Dell Comics issued 8 comic books in 1966 and 1967. For the March 5-11, 1966 TV Guide, Andy Warhol designed a pop art piece using Barbara Feldon. Numerous collectibles were created:  board games, lunch boxes, dolls, and model cars.

The show produced many spin-off projects. The Nude Bomb was a theatre release in 1980 with Feldon and Smart reprising their roles. Get Smart Again debuted in 1989 as an ABC TV movie.  After its release, a show appeared on FOX starring Feldon and Smart again called Get Smart in 1995.  In 2008 a movie was made starring Steve Carell and Anne Hathaway. Don Adams was known to later generations as the voice of Inspector Gadget.

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Of course, everyone has their favorite episodes, but after reviewing several polls and interviews with Nick at Nite and other 50th anniversary celebrations, I have come up with these top five.  Take a rainy fall day and give them a peek. However, if we are looking just at titles, I have to give a shout out to “Spy, Spy Birdie”, “Bronzefinger”, “Impossible Mission”, and “Tequila Mockingbird”.

  1. A Spy for a Spy
  2. The Not-So-Great Escape
  3. Ship of Spies
  4. The Amazing Harry Hoo
  5. The Little Black Book

 

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Unfortunately, this is one of those shows that doesn’t get as much recognition and respect as it deserves.  Considering how much technology has developed in the last 50 years, the show is still up to date. The dialogue is witty; the characters are likable, even when they’re mortal enemies; and the show is just plain fun.

 

 

 

Do We Have Reservations? Yes We Do.

February has finally arrived.   Some of us are getting a bit tired of winter, so this is a popular month for travel to a warmer destination.  If you aren’t able to physically get away, stay home and watch the February Sweeps, the only time you’re guaranteed new episodes of your favorite show for a month straight.  This week I decided to look at sitcoms set in hotels or resorts.  I did not discuss Fantasy Island or The Love Boat because I thought we could talk about them another time.

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Based on the length of many of these shows, the hotel business is a tough one to be successful in. Let’s look at a bunch of shows that didn’t last too long.

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Stanley was a show starring Buddy Hackett and his girlfriend played by Carol Burnett that aired in 1956. Stanley ran a newsstand in the lobby of a New York City hotel. The hotel owner was played by Paul Lynde.  The show was cancelled in March of 1957, supporting the philosophy that no news is good news.

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Happy starred George and Gracie’s son, Ronnie Burns. Ronnie was married to a woman played by Yvonne Lime and they were co-owners and managers of the Desert Palm, a ritzy resort. Included in the cast was their Uncle Charlie and the co-owner played by Doris Packer.  Happy was their son who commented on what was going on, sort of like Family Guy’s Stewie.  It was a summer entry in 1960, but 9 months later it gave birth to a cancellation which made the cast not Happy.  I don’t know why, but apparently viewers could accept a talking horse or a talking car, but not a talking baby.

Another show that began as a summer replacement was Holiday Lodge in 1961. Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster, two comedians from Canada, played social directors at a New York state hotel. They tried to provide entertainment but always ran into trouble, including being taken off the air after a few episodes.

The Bill Dana Show was interestingly based on the character Jose Jiminez developed by Dana for the Steve Allen Show and later brought to the Danny Thomas Show.  In 1963 The Bill Dana Show portrayed Jiminez as a bellhop at the New York City Park Central Hotel and the show centered on him trying to get used to life outside Mexico. Often his dream sequences took him into bizarre situations.  The most interesting fact about this show might be that the house detective was played by Don Adams who went on to star in Get Smart. Jimeniz’s dream became a nightmare when the show was cancelled after 42 episodes.

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One of the most controversial shows to air on television in the 1970s was Hot L Baltimore debuting in the fall of 1975.  Many stations refused to air the show because it was lewd and racy.  Norman Lear, the producer behind All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons developed the concept based on a play. The cast was made up of a desk clerk, his girlfriend, the manager, a hooker, an unemployed waitress, a dying man, a gay couple, and an eccentric woman. After four months, the waitress was not the only one unemployed because the show was done.

The Last Resort was developed by MTM in 1979, the company that created The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, and Phyllis. The resort, set in the Catskills in upper New York, included a bunch of college students working their way through school. It featured a stereotyped crew including the brilliant premed student, a bookworm, a snob, an overweight clumsy guy, the pastry chef who left her wealthy husband to pursue her career, a Japanese chef, and a maitre’d who ran the place like a drill sergeant. It was cancelled after three episodes. Retooled, it came back in December only to be finished for good in March when the last resort of The Last Resort was no more.

Checking In must be in the running for the shortest show to appear on television. In 1980, Marla Gibbs, playing Florence the maid on The Jeffersons, got her own show, transferring to a hotel in New York City where she was the head housekeeper. She answered to a snobby manager played by Larry Linville who would later become Frank Burns on M*A*S*H. The rest of the cast included an assistant, a house detective, a maintenance supervisor, and a bellboy. After several weeks, the hotel was shut down and Florence went back to working for The Jeffersons.

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The Golden Girls was one of the most beloved shows in television, but I’m guessing few people remember The Golden Palace which debuted in 1992.  After Dorothy got married, the other three characters decide to invest in a hotel in Miami. Only two employees are left at the hotel:  a manager and a chef. After 24 shows, no one was left at the hotel.

In 1999 Payne, a remake of the British show Fawlty Towers hit the air.  Set in a California inn, Whispering Pines, the hotel was owned by Royal Payne and his wife Constance.  It went on the air in March.  At the end of April, the network ended its Payne by taking two aspirins and cancelling the show.

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Compared to some of the shows, Whoopi! might have seemed successful, lasting an entire season.  Set in the Lamont Hotel in New York City, a one-hit wonder musician played by Whoopi Goldberg decides to put her money into a hotel and run it the way she sees fit.  She has an assistant from Iran, a brother who is a conservative Republican, and his girlfriend who is white but acts more African American than the black members of the hotel. Of course, these three characters give her much controversy to deal with.  The network, acting as referee, blew the whistle and cancelled the entire thing after one year.

In 2008 Do Not Disturb debuted.  If you missed it, don’t feel bad.  It debuted on Fox and featured The Inn, a hip Manhattan hotel.  The staff is not as competent as they appear to their guests. The manger is arrogant, the head of human resources is loud and tactless, the front desk clerk is an aging model who does not want to be a desk clerk or older, the reservations clerk is a famous musician wannbe, and the head of housekeeping has problems at home. The network, not wanting to disturb the viewing public, pulled the plug after three shows. Larry, played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, would go on to star in Modern Family in 2009.

Before you begin to think shows about hotels are doomed, let’s check in with four successful shows that knew how to make a profit.

From 1996-2001 The Jamie Foxx Show on WB featured Jamie Foxx as a musician who moves to California to work at his aunt and uncle’s (played by Ellia English and Garett Morris) hotel, King’s Tower.  He has two co-workers played by Christopher B. Duncan and “Fancy” played by Garcelle Beauvais. He is interested in Fancy, but she doesn’t feel the same until the final two seasons when they become engaged. The show aired 100 episodes before the network finally got reservations.

Disney’s Suite Life of Zach and Cody set in the Tipton Hotel ran from 2005-2008. The twins lived in the hotel because their mother was the lounge singer.  Somewhat like Eloise at the Plaza, the boys got into mischief and interacted with other employees including the wealthy heiress London Tipton, the candy counter salesgirl Maddie Fitzpatrick, and the manger Marion Moseby.  In 2008 the show sailed off, literally, and became Suite Life on Deck running until 2011.

With 184 episodes, Newhart debuted in 1982. With its quirky cast of characters, it became a big hit. Set in Vermont, Dick Loudon (Bob Newhart) is a writer who buys the hotel and runs it with his wife Joanna (Mary Frann). Their handyman George Utley (Tom Poston) and their maid Stephanie Vanderkellen (Julia Duffy) make life both easier and more difficult at the inn. Later Dick becomes a local television celebrity working with Michael Harris (Peter Scolari) who marries Stephanie.  Larry, (William Sanderson) his brother Darryl (Tony Papenfuss) and his other brother Darryl (John Voldstad) are memorable characters.  Darryl and Darryl never speak until the final episode.  That finale has the best ending ever in a television series when Bob Newhart wakes up in bed, tells his wife he had a really weird dream, and we see the wife is Suzanne Pleshette, his wife Emily from The Bob Newhart Show in which he played a psychiatrist from 1972-78. This series delightfully captured the life in a small New England town until 1990.

While Newhart is hard to top, my favorite hotel sitcom is Petticoat Junction which featured the Bradley Girls from 1963-1970. Kate (Bea Benaderet) ran the hotel with her three daughters Billie Jo, (Jeannine Riley till 1965, Gunilla Hutton until 1966, and Meredith MacRae until 1970), Bobby Jo (Pat Woodell until 1965 and Lori Saunders through 1970, and Betty Jo (Linda Henning), along with her Uncle Joe (Edgar Buchanan). The Shady Rest is near Hooterville, so we get to know a variety of town folk including Sam Drucker who runs the general store; Floyd and Charley, who run the Cannonball train; and Steve Elliott, crop duster, who is Billie Jo’s boyfriend first but later marries Betty Jo; and we run into the Ziffels and the Douglases from the show Green Acres. It’s a charming and heart-warming show loaded with loveable but zany characters. It ran for 222 episodes, even surviving the death of Bea Benaderet, who was replaced by Janet Craig (June Lockhart), a woman doctor who moves into the hotel. The amazing Charles Lane shows up throughout the series as Homer Bedloe, a railroad employee whose sole mission is shutting down the Cannonball.

If you can’t physically travel this month, take some time and watch a season or two of Newhart or Petticoat Junction, and you can still get away and experience life in a small-town hotel.