Surprise, Surprise, Surprise! It’s Gomer Pyle USMC.

Continuing my “We Salute You!” blog series, today we look at one of the most-loved television characters, Gomer Pyle.

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Danny Thomas in Mayberry

In the late 1950s Make Room for Daddy was one of the most popular sitcoms. On one episode in February of 1960, Danny found himself in Mayberry, picked up for going through a stop sign. Although Sheriff Taylor came off a bit of a country bumpkin, viewers enjoyed the episode and the following fall, The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS) aired on CBS. When the series debuted, Andy was portrayed more of a wise sage and the folks of Mayberry were a quirky but lovable bunch. The show was in the top ten every year it was on the air. In fact, it seemed to get better as it went, making #3 in 1966-1967 and #1 in 1967-68. Andy left the show the following year, and it turned into Mayberry RFD which continued for three more seasons. The first two it was also in the top 10 and the third year it slipped a bit into the top 15. Although it was one of the most successful shows on CBS’s schedule, it was eliminated with a lot of other popular shows in the famous rural purging in the early seventies.

One night, Andy Griffith saw Jim Nabors performing at The Horn in Santa Monica and decided he would be a perfect fit for Mayberry. He offered him a job, and Gomer Pyle began working at Wally’s gas station.

Two writers, Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell were said to have created the character. Greenbaum had dealt with an incompetent gas station attendant. He stopped by a station with motor trouble. The man could not think of any way to fix it except to keep adding gas to the tank, so Greenbaum thought a character based on him should be part of an episode on TAGS. He derived the name from Gomer Cool, a writer and Denver Pyle, the actor. Everett and Greenbaum (along with many TAGS writers) would continue to write for TAGS as well as Pyle episodes.

Gomer was one of the most popular characters on the show. Surprisingly he was only in 23 episodes in the two years he was with the show. Traveling around the country, you would be able to hear people repeating his “gawwwleee,” “surprise, surprise, surprise,”  or “shazzam” which all became part of our language at the time.

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Gomer at Wally’s Gas Station

Because Gomer Pyle was so popular, Andy, Aaron Ruben, and Sheldon Leonard decided to give him his own show and Gomer Pyle USMC was created. In this show, Gomer who is naïve, kind-hearted and morally upright has to deal with life in the marine corps and his gruff Sergeant Carter (Frank Sutton). Although Carter gets driven to distraction by Pyle and his “do-gooding,” we all realize he has a soft spot for Pyle and his main concern is protecting him.

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Carter and Pyle

The show was on the air from 1964-69 and had a solid supporting cast. Like TAGS, Gomer Pyle USMC was in the top ten for its entire run.

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With Ted Bessell

The show was on Friday nights, except for season three when it moved to Wednesdays. I was a bit surprised it stayed in the top ten, because it had some competition at times. Season one it was opposite Jack Benny and Twelve O’Clock High. Season two it went up against Honey West on one network and a variety of music shows on the other. Season three it was at the same time as Peyton Place and season four it was on opposite Star Trek.

Although the show depicted military life on base, war was never discussed. The series began at Camp Wilson in North Carolina and was moved to the fictional Camp Henderson in California. The actual show was filmed at Camp Pendleton and, along with TAGS, at Desilu’s Cahuenga studio and the RKO Forty Acres backlot. Unlike TAGS, Pyle used a single-camera setup because much of the shooting was outside.

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Don Rickles, Guest Star

The US Marine Corps worked with Leonard, giving the show unlimited access to their equipment because they felt the series was good for their image. The opening scene of the show was that of marching recruits from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Nabors commented that it was very difficult for him to see that footage because so many of those service men were killed in Vietnam. In real life, Frank Sutton could not pass the Marine Corps physical for WWII but was able to serve in the US Army, taking part in 14 assault landings including Luzon and Bataan.

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I had heard of universities bestowing honorary degrees to actors even if they did not attend the school, but I did not realize the military could do something similar. During the show, Gomer’s highest rank was Private First Class. In 2001, the US Marine Corps gave Nabors an honorary promotion to Lance Corporal, and in 2007 he was raised to Corporal.

Obviously, there were a lot of military vehicles used in the filming of the show. Chrysler Corporation provided them. Jeeps were also prominent in the show, but Jeep did not become part of Chrysler until 1987. As an aside, the vehicles for TAGS were provided by Ford.

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Gomer and his friend Duke Slater

Pyle’s loyalty and good-natured attitude made him a favorite of both his platoon members and many of the women whom he came in contact with. One of Pyle’s friends was Duke Slater played by Ronnie Schell. Schell was written off after the third season when he left to star in Good Morning World. When that sitcom did not get renewed, he returned to Pyle. Some of the other platoon members included Roy Stuart as Corporal Boyle, Forrest Compton as Colonel Edward Gray, Ted Bessell as Frankie, and William Christopher as Lester.

Gomer gets to meet a lot of people when he goes to town. He especially loves movies and one of his favorite all-time pictures was Godzilla.

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Sergeant Carter and his girlfriend Bunny

As mentioned, Sergeant Carter eventually becomes a father figure to Gomer. Carter’s girlfriend Bunny (Barbara Stuart) also tried to help Gomer (I could not find anything to indicate that Roy and Barbara Stuart are related). Gomer often causes trouble between Carter and Bunny by trying to “help” Carter. In season three, Gomer also got a girlfriend in Lou-Ann Poovie (Elizabeth MacRae). She is a singer in a local nightclub, but eventually Gomer talks her into returning to Turtle Creek, NC to marry her old beau Monroe. She leaves but returns, informing Gomer she wants him for her boyfriend, and she gets a new job as a clerk at a record store.

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Gomer and Lou-Ann

Several TAGS alumni made appearances on the show. Allan Melvin was part of the cast as Staff Sergeant Hacker for four years, Carter’s rival on the show. Denver Pyle who was Briscoe Darling on TAGS showed up on Gomer Pyle as a farmer. Andy, Aunt Bee, Goober and Opie all were seen at the base at one time or another, including when Opie ran away from home.

With a show on the air so long, many well-known guest stars showed up at Camp Henderson as well, including Carol Burnett, Ted Knight, Rob Reiner, Don Rickles, and Jerry Van Dyke.

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After the fifth season, Nabors expressed an interest to do a variety show, so Gomer Pyle was not renewed. He brought Ronnie Schell and Frank Sutton along for his new show which was on the air for two seasons. Carol Burnett called Nabors her good luck charm. He was one of her best friends and he was always on her season opener each year.

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Best Friends

In an interview with Jim for American Profile, writer Paulette Cohn (Jim Nabors Lives Happily in Hawaii, January 13, 2008) quoted Carol Burnett’s perspective of Nabors vs Pyle: “ ‘The one thing Jim has in common with Gomer is his kindness,’ says actress and comedienne Carol Burnett, Nabors’ long-time friend, who named him godfather to her daughter Jody. ‘He loves people and is very gregarious. But he is also very smart. Not that Gomer wasn’t, but Jim isn’t naïve. He keeps his eye on things.’ ”

Considering how popular Gomer Pyle USMC has been in reruns, I was surprised to learn it wasn’t until 2006 that CBS Home Entertainment released the show on DVD. By 2008, all the seasons were available.

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Let’s end with a few quotes that captures the essence of the show’s characters.

Gomer: I’m gonna be a fighting fool, you’ll see.

Sergeant Carter: Well, you’re halfway there.

************************************************************************

Gomer: One of my favorite little sayings is, ‘To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.’

************************************************************************

Gomer: A word of kindness is seldom spoken in vain, while witty sayings are as easily lost as the pearls slipping from a broken string.

***********************************************************************

Carter: All I can say is, if the idea of desertion ever crossed your mind, you’ll never find a better time to look into it.

************************************************************************

Carter: I don’t get it Pyle, how come you can knock that Phillips flat, yet you can’t handle that little Lombardi guy?

Gomer: Well sir, you see the big feller needed a lesson, the little feller didn’t.

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Although Gomer Pyle USMC might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it was a well-done and popular show. I think its success, like TAGS and many of the other shows considered classics, comes from the fact that it’s a character-driven show. We start to consider the characters our friends and enjoy spending time with them. The show can currently be seen on MeTV nightly at 9 pm EST.

I Spy: With My Little Eye A Very Sophisticated Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is It A Western? A Spy Show? A Thriller? No, It’s The Wild Wild West

There was no specific category for the Wild Wild West when it first debuted in 1965.  Part western, part spy, part thriller.  Now, it would be called steampunk. Westerns had been extremely popular through the 1950s and into the 1960s, but in the mid-1960s, the spy genre was gaining ground. Creator Michael Garrison combined the two. Secret Service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), work for President Ulysses Grant and travel the country by luxury train, the Wanderer.  Oh yeah, and they have a ton of technology to make the job more exciting. Artemis is a master of disguise.  Like James Bond, they had clever gadgets on hand, beautiful women in the wings, and delusional, but brilliant, enemies to fight against.

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The series debuted in 1965 and ran for four seasons, resulting in 104 episodes. Unfortunately, Garrison died a year into the show and didn’t live to see its completion. The show was filmed at CBS Studio Center. The 70-acre lot was used for Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Gilligan’s Island as well.

The theme song was written by Richard Markowitz. The intro had an animated sequence that continued to be filled in throughout the show. This was quite unique to this program.

Conrad claimed to be the 17th actor to audition for the role of James West. Originally, Rory Calhoun was announced as the co-star. Conrad wore three-inch heels to hide that he was only 5’8”. The casting office was not allowed to hire women over 5’6” for the show. The first few episodes used stuntmen, but Conrad felt that it slowed production down too much, so he volunteered to do his own stunts. During season three, he fell from a chandelier and hit a concrete floor, leaving him with a concussion and weeks of hospitalization for dizziness.

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Ross played over 100 different characters during the run of the series. He sketched out the ideas for the characters himself and then worked with the make-up artists to get the right look. During the fourth season, Martin broke a leg when he dropped a rifle, stepped on it, and rolled his foot over it. When the shell ejected, it burned his eye. Ross also suffered from a heart attack in 1968. Several other agents “filled” in for Martin while he recuperated.

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Considering the show was only on for four years, it featured a number of guest stars including Ed Asner, John Astin, Jim Backus, Ed Begley, Victor Buono, Jackie Coogan, Yvonne Craig, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Elam, Norman Fell, Bernard Fox, Mary Frann, Beverly Garland, Alan Hale Jr., Boris Karloff, Richard Kiel, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Martin Landau, Sue Ane Langdon, Peter Lawford, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead, Phyllis Newman, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Pat Paulsen, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Pernell Roberts, Katherine Ross, William Schallert, Vito Scotti, Ray Walston, Jesse White, and Keenan Wynn.

The train was also a co-star of the show. The spies had two different trains. The first was used for season one when the shows were filmed in black and white. It was a Sierra Railroad No. 3 which was not built until 1891, a mere technicality I guess. The Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works built it in New Jersey. Footage was shot in Jamestown, California. This same train was the Cannonball in Petticoat Junction.

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The shows filmed in color featured a train decorated with green and gold and it was full of fun gadgets. This one was built in 1875 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It was used in many films over the years.

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Both these trains are on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. They were only featured in exterior shots. The interiors of the trains were designed by art director Albert Heschong with set decorator Raymond Molyneaux. It reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965. To put this in perspective, the average house in 1965 cost less than $4,000! The train was as resourceful as West and Gordon. A remote control under the table could immediately lock the door. A statue turned upside down unlocked a wall safe. A telegraph set was hidden in a book on the desk. Pistols could be fired by activating a fireplace switch. The pool table had exploding balls while cue sticks could fire bullets.

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Many of the above-mentioned stars were villains in the show. The most famous villain was Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn. He had a recurring role, appearing on ten episodes. He always managed to escape at the end of the show. West and Artemis never did catch him and a TV movie filmed later relays that he died in 1880 from ulcers brought on by the stress of his plans always being foiled by West and Gordon.

Like Batman, Jim West always seems to have the right gadget at his disposal when he needs it. Some of his more fun props included a sleeve gun as well as a gun concealed in his heel. He also occasionally carried a blowtorch in his heel. Passkeys were stored under his lapel. He kept a variety of fuses sewn into hems in his clothes. To descend into a pit or be hoisted up on a roof, he had a hand-held motor-driven winch. Glass cutters which often are useful were available. Wires placed in his hat had many uses. Battery-powered drills helped the boys escape metal cages. His kit bag held a large balloon. A miniature player made villains think shot guns were being fired. Of course, every smart secret service man wears a bulletproof vest and is always equipped with tear gas or smoke bombs. They even had a cigar that would produce smoke when thrown on the ground and a coin that exploded when exposed to heat.

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There typically were two fights in each episode choreographed by Whitey Hughes. Following the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed. Violence on television was listed as one of the problems, and The Wild Wild West was cited as a violent show. So, despite high ratings, the series was cancelled near the end of its fourth season as a concession to Congress over television violence.

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However, the show was then released into syndication and at one time was listed on 99 different local channels, so the violence on television was not curbed by its cancellation.

Several books and comic books were created based on the show. In 1979, the two stars returned to television with a movie, The Wild Wild West Revisited. In 1980, they showed up again in More Wild Wild West. Rumors existed that the duo would do a reboot of the series, but Ross died in 1981 so it never came to fruition.

A movie was made in 1999 based on the original show, but it was not received well. Will Smith later expressed regret for his role in the film. The Golden Raspberry (Razzie) is awarded to the worst films. When the 1999 film was awarded five Razzies, Conrad accepted them on behalf of the movie to show his displeasure with the remake.

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The show’s success primarily stemmed from the fact that Artemus and West trusted each other completely, and their banter and technological gadgets made the show a pleasure to watch. We’ll let the characters have the last word:

Artemus Gordon: “Naomi. ’My sweetness’. That’s what Naomi means in Hebrew, did you know that ?”

Naomi Buckley: “Really ? And what does Artemus mean ?”

James West: “It means ’He who wastes little time‘.”

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Artemus Gordon: “I didn’t know you liked toys.”

James West: “Toys, no. Dolls, yes.”

It’s The Professor and a Whole Lot of Other People: Russell Johnson and Guest Stars

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Russell Johnson was born in Pennsylvania in 1924. He had six siblings. His father died from pneumonia when Russ was only 8, and his youngest brother died the following year. He was sent to Girard College, a boarding school for fatherless boys located in Philadelphia. He struggled early in his education, being held back for a year. In high school he made the National Honor Society.

In 1943, he married Edith Cahoon. They would divorce in 1948.

During World War II, Johnson joined the Army Air Corps and received the Purple Heart after his plane was shot down in the Philippines in 1945. Johnson flew 44 combat missions in the Pacific Theater. Once the war was over, Russ used his GI Bill to enroll in the Actors’ Lab in Hollywood to study acting. While there he met Kay Cousins, and they married in 1949 and were married until her death in 1980.

 

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Johnson’s big-screen career began in 1952. He was a friend of Audie Murphy and would appear in three of his films in the early 1950s. He was in a variety of movies throughout the 1950s, mainly westerns and sci fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space.

 

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Russell began receiving roles on television in 1950. In the 1950s he would be seen on 28 different shows. In 1959 he was offered a role in a western, Black Saddle. Johnson was Marshal Gib Scott. The show was on for one season.

 

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During the 1960s, Russell’s television work increased, and he appeared on 39 series including The Twilight Zone, Route 66, Ben Casey, Laramie, 77 Sunset Strip, Outer Limits, and Big Valley. In 1964 he was offered the role of The Professor on Gilligan’s Island, replacing John Gabriel who was a teacher in the pilot. Roy Hinkley was a genius who made complex inventions from the simple materials he found on the island. As we have learned, most of the cast of Gilligan’s Island was typecast after the show was cancelled, and they had a hard time getting other roles. Johnson discussed this circumstance in a later interview: “It used to make me upset to be typecast as the Professor . . . but as the years have gone by, I’ve given in. I am the Professor, and that’s the way it is. . . Besides, the show went into syndication and parents are happy to have their children watch the reruns. No one gets hurt. There are no murders, no car crashes. Just good, plain, silly fun. It’s brought a lot of joy to people, and that’s not a bad legacy.”

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Although he had trouble at first, he did go on to appear in 45 different shows from 1970-1997, including That Girl, Marcus Welby, Cannon, McMillan and Wife, Lou Grant, Bosom Buddies, Dallas, Fame, Newhart, ALF, and Roseanne. He had a recurring role on Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law from 1971-1973.

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In 1982, Russell married for a third time. He married Connie Dane, and they were married until his death from kidney failure in 2014.

In 1993, he published his memoirs, Here on Gilligan’s Isle.

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Like so many of the tv icons in the 1960s—Barbara Eden, Adam West, Butch Patrick, David Cassidy, Maureen McCormick—Russell struggled with his alter ego, eventually accepting his role as the Professor. While being tied to one character for 50 years makes it tough to get the roles you want, it’s hard to be critical of a personality that gives such pleasure to decades of viewers and makes you a household name for half a century. Being given the chance to portray a character that America loves is a hazard of the business but is certainly better than never receiving a starring role.

You Never Know Who Might Show Up

With a show like Gilligan’s Island, you would assume it would be almost impossible to have guest stars. After all, they are on a deserted island. Except for the native people who might be living there, where would stars come from? Amazingly, Gilligan’s Island featured many guest stars over the years. Let’s look at a few of them.

Vito Scotti appeared on four different episodes playing Dr. Boris Balinkoff, mad scientist, twice, a Japanese sailor, and a Japanese soldier who does not believe World War II is over.

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Mel Blanc could be heard portraying a parrot several times and a frog.

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Hans Conried visited the island twice as Wrongway Feldman, an incompetent pilot who had crashed on the island years before.

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Kurt Russell was a modern-day Tarzan.

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Richard Kiel, a Russian agent, pretended to be a ghost to scare the castaways off the island so he could have the oil rights. When the cast turns the tables and acts like ghosts, he didn’t stick around long.

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Zsa Zsa Gabor was a rich socialite who falls in love with the Professor.

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Larry Storch is a robber hiding out on the island and pretending to be a doctor.

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John McGiver was Lord Beasley Waterford, famous butterfly collector.

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Don Rickles is con man Norbert Wiley who is hiding out on the island.  He kidnaps Mrs. Howell and later Ginger, planning on getting ransom for each castaway.  After the Professor puts him in jail, Ginger convinces them to let him out for a party.  Norbert steals jewelry and other items from the castaways and leaves the island.

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Phil Silvers crashes onto the island as Herbert Hecuba, arrogant movie producer. He orders everyone around like they’re his servants.  He is not impressed with Ginger’s acting ability, so the castaways write and perform a play to show off her talents. In the middle of the night, Hecuba takes off with their play, claiming it as his own back in the US.

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Sterling Holloway is an escapee from a prison and the owner of a pigeon. The Professor thinks he can get a message back to the States through the pigeon, but when Birdy finds out he is paroled, he sends the bird off first.

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A variety of actors played natives on the show. In all, there were 54 guest stars given credit on the show.

In addition, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, and Jim Backus all had guest starring roles playing people who were look-alikes for Gilligan, Ginger, and Mr. Howell.

I guess it’s a good lesson to always keep up appearances because you never know who might show up when you’re stranded on an island.

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.

 

 

 

Verrry Interrresting!

Occasionally, a show is so entrenched in the time and culture it debuts in, it becomes almost impossible to describe or understand away from its original setting. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were nightclub comics who co-hosted a special called Laugh-In in 1967.  The name was a play on words based on the love-in’s and sit-in’s happening in the 1960s.  The special was so popular it was turned into a weekly series. I think of Laugh-In as Sesame Street for adults.  Both shows debuted in the late 60s and had a rapid-fire approach, continually moving on to the next segment so the viewer would not get bored. The show captured the counterculture movement and the lime green, turquoise, fuschia, deep orange, bright yellow, and paisley flowers kept our eyes moving as quickly as the jokes did. The show lasted six seasons.

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Regular cast members who went on to other careers included Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Alan Sues, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Richard Dawson, Jo Anne Worley, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Dave Madden, and Flip Wilson.

Numerous celebrities flocked to the show.  Movie stars that were reeled in included John Wayne, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Debbie Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Jack Lemmon, Edward G. Robinson, Sally Field, Orson Welles, and Rita Hayworth.  Noted musicians included Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Shore, Johnny Cash, Perry Como, Liberace, Bing Crosby, Cher, Rosemary Clooney, and Liza Minelli. Sports stars tackled the chore including Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlin, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Howard Cosell.  Comedians who laughed their way on the show included Rich Little, Don Rickles, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Paul Lynde, and Carol Burnett. Classic tv stars who accepted starring roles were Tim Conway, Carl Reiner, Steve Allen, Jim Backus, Ernest Borgnine, Eve Arden, Andy Griffith, Desi Arnaz, and Wally Cox.

The format rarely changed from week to week.  Rowan and Martin opened each show with a dialogue; Rowan acted as the straight man, and Martin took on the gullible role. Then the regular cast, along with celebrities, danced against a psychedelic background, firing off one-liners and short gags. Comedy bits, taped segments, and sketches filled in the rest of the hour and always ended with Rowan telling Martin to “Say goodnight, Dick” and Dick replying, “Goodnight Dick.”

Some of the regular features were:

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The Cocktail Party where the cast stood around spouting politically and sexually suggestive jokes.

Letters to Laugh-In where the cast read letters.

ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN,  Teresa Graves, Pamela Rodgers, 1969-1970.

It’s a Mod, Mod World where go-go dancers danced in bikinis with puns and word play phrases painted on their bodies.

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The Farkel Family about a group of red-headed, freckled family members.

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The Flying Fickel Finger of Fate Award where dubious achievements were celebrated.

Laugh-In Looks as the News was comparable to the Saturday Night Live news sketches of today.

New Talent Time showing various weird skills.

Many of the regular cast members had their own skits that were repeated during the series’ run:

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Judy Carne was always tricked into saying “Sock it to Me” which then caused her to get doused with water, fall through a trap door, or endure some other indignity. Sometimes celebrities ended up being the ones to say “Sock it to me,” the most famous being Richard Nixon when he was campaigning for president.

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Arte Johnson played Tyrone, an inappropriate senior citizen who tries to seduce geriatric Ruth Buzzi as Gladys, forcing her to eventually hit him with her purse.

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Henry Gibson came on stage holding an oversized paper flower, reciting poetry.

Lily Tomlin performed skits as Ernestine, a telephone operator or Edith Ann, a young girl sitting in a rocking chair. (Personal note:  When I was in 4th grade, I performed an Ernestine and an Edith Ann skit for our talent show.  Why a 9-year-old was watching Laugh-In and the school approved the skits, I can’t say, but I remember getting a lot of compliments.  And Lily Tomlin didn’t sue me for stealing her material!)

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Alan Sues portrayed Uncle Al, a children’s show host, who was short tempered and often in bad shape from his late partying nights.

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Flip Wilson was Geraldine.

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Jo Anne Worley would say “Bor-ing” in the midst of jokes.

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Goldie Hawn as the ditzy blonde.

The series also became known for some of its catch phrases including “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls,” “You bet your sweet bippie,” “Beautiful downtown Burbank,” “Is that a chicken joke?,” “Sock it to me,” “Here come de judge,” and “Verrrry Interesting.”

The show was one of the highest rated shows in the late 1960s. It was in the top 4 of the top 40 shows for its entire run. It won Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The Nielsen polling determined it was the most-watched show in seasons 1 and 2.

The show had its own magazine for a year.  Trading cards were sold with catch phrases and images from the show. Several records were produced capturing the humor of the time.  There was even a set of View-master reels made, as well as lunch boxes and other memorabilia.

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Laugh-In debuted fifty years ago, but still feels new and edgy. Because the show has not been syndicated in re-runs, it is hard for the current generation to imagine how very different this show was from anything else that appeared on television before it.  The closest show to capturing any of its essence since then is Saturday Night Live.  This was a time when everything was changing: civil rights, Vietnam, women’s lib, the hippie lifestyle, psychoactive drugs, anti-authoritarianism, freedom of speech and assembly, and environmental concerns, especially littering and pollution.

The Generation Gap was a real concept in the 1960s but this show might have come as close as anything else to bridge that gap. Families sat down together to watch the show. Many of the phrases still have a life of their own decades later even thought decades of kids have never seen the show.  Plan your own little sit-in when you check out a couple of the you-tube videos to get a flavor of what the series was like.