Gunsmoke Took 20 Years to Get Outta Dodge

From 1952-1961, you could tune into Gunsmoke on your local radio to hear the adventures of the folks in Dodge City, Kansas created by Norman Macdonnell and John Meston. The primary characters were Marshal Matt Dillon (William Conrad), Doc Charles Adams (Howard McNear), Miss Kitty Russell (Georgia Ellis) and Chester Wesley Proudfoot (Parley Baer). Three years after its debut, the series shifted to television as well, running on CBS from 1955-1975, producing an incredible 635 episodes. For television, Macdonnell took over the reins as producer with Meston the head writer.

Amazon.com: Gatsbe Exchange Framed Print Gunsmoke Cast Marshal Dillon Kitty  Fester and Doc: Posters & Prints

James Arness was offered the role of Dillon on television. The network wanted John Wayne who turned it down. He did, however, introduce the first episode. Both Raymond Burr and Denver Pyle were also considered for the role. Matt Dillon spent his youth in foster care, knew the Bible well, and at some point was mentored by a caring lawman. He also talks about his time in the Army in some episodes.

Gunsmoke Cast Matt Dillon 8x10 Photograph – Vintage Poster Plaza
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The role of Chester, with a new last name of Goode now, was played by Dennis Weaver. Chester was not only a loyal employee to Marshal Dillon, but he brewed a mean pot of coffee. He had a noticeable limp which apparently resulted from an injury in the Civil War. Weaver later said if he realized how hard it would be to film that long with a fake limp, he would have not used it. Other sidekicks to the Marshal included Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen, Burt Reynolds as Quint Asper (1962-65), Roger Ewing as Thad Greenwood (1966-68), and Buck Taylor as Newly O’Brien (1967-75).

Chester Good....Dennis Weaver Gunsmoke I've always loved that hat | Movie  stars, Actors, Tv westerns
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Doc was now Galen Adams and played by Milburn Stone. Doc was an interesting guy. He apparently was educated in Philadelphia and spent some time as a ship doctor on gambling boats on the Mississippi River where he met Mark Twain. His young wife died from typhus two months after their marriage. He finally settled in Dodge City after wandering a bit.

Gunsmoke photo 197 Milburn Stone
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Miss Kitty was portrayed by Amanda Blake. Perhaps the closest bond she had with Dillon was that she also grew up in foster care in New Orleans. She was in more than 500 of the television episodes. In addition to her role as “entertaining men” in Dodge City, she is half owner of the Long Branch Saloon. Kitty and Matt obviously are attracted to each other and are very close. Kitty was a successful business owner and had a cold demeanor about professional matters but had a soft heart in other matters. Blake was ready to leave the show in 1974, and her storyline was that she finally returned to New Orleans.

Amanda Blake - Wikipedia
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During its twenty-year stint, the show had some notable guest stars.  Just a few celebrities who graced the set include Jack Albertson, Ed Asner, James Backus, Beau Bridges, Charles Bronson, Bette Davis, Angie Dickinson, Richard Dreyfuss, Buddy Ebsen, Barbara Eden, Jodie Foster, Mariette Hartley, Ron Howard, June Lockhart, Jack Lord, Rose Marie, Howard McNear, Harry Morgan, Leonard Nimoy, Carroll O’Connor, Denver Pyle, Wayne Rogers, William Shatner, Cicely Tyson, and Adam West.

While the show portrayed the hard life in the West, it was also a warm and humorous celebration of a group of people making a new life together.

The opening of the show is a gunfight between Matt and a “bad guy.” It was shot on the same Main Street set used in High Noon, the Grace Kelly/Gary Cooper classic. The scene was dropped in the 1970s when a nonviolence emphasis was placed on television shows and the opening was Matt riding his horse.

Gunsmoke, The Great American Western
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The show began its life on Saturday nights at 10 pm ET. In 1961 when the radio show left the air, the television show switched from half an hour to an hour. For season 13, it moved to Monday nights at 7:30 for four years, and then at 8 pm for four years. By season two it was a top ten hit, rising to number one where it remained until 1971.

The first seven seasons were sponsored by L&M cigarettes and Remington shavers.

The well-known theme from the show and radio was “Old Trails” composed by Rex Koury. Lyrics were later recorded by Tex Ritter in 1955 but not used in either radio or tv. Although I could not confirm it, I read several mentions that Koury was so busy, he actually penned the song while using the bathroom. William Lava composed original theme music for television; other composers who contributed music during the twenty years were Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann, Jerome Moross, and Franz Waxman.

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Surprisingly, the show was only nominated for fifteen Emmys during its reign. Of those, there were only three wins: one for best dramatic show in 1957, one for Dennis Weaver as supporting actor in 1958, and one for Milburn Stone in 1967.

After surviving the rural purge Paley conducted, the cast thought they were not in jeopardy and were all stunned by the cancellation in 1975. CBS had not prepared them that they were debating ending the show. They assumed the show was continuing till it had 700 episodes and many of the stars read about the cancellation in the trade magazines.

The show has appeared in syndication in three different versions. One package is half-hour episodes from 1955-1961, one package contains hour-long black and white episodes from 1961-1966, and the final package contains one-hour color episodes from 1966-1975. Me TV currently airs the one-hour color shows.

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Arness would appear in five made-for-television movies after the show went off the air. In 1987, Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge featured Blake as Miss Kitty and Taylor as O’Brien. Stone had passed away in 1980, so his role was not part of the new film. Gunsmoke: The Last Apache premiered in 1990 without Blake who had died in 1989. In 1992-1994, Gunsmoke: To the Last Man, Gunsmoke: The Long Ride, and Gunsmoke: One Man’s Justice would appear before the series rode off into the sunset for good.

After being on television so long, it’s not surprising that there were a lot of merchandising opportunities for the show. In addition to typical items like lunch boxes, there was Gunsmoke cottage cheese. A Matt Dillon figurine was available with his Horse Buck.

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There were also board games, puzzles and a variety of books including numerous paperbacks and comic books from Dell and Gold Key.

1950s Gunsmoke lunch box with thermos. Vintage Gunsmoke Matt Dillon U.S.  Marshall metal lunchbox with thermos. Lunchbox depicts James Arness as Matt  Dillon draw…

Fans had an affinity for the show. During its time on the air more than thirty westerns came and went, but Gunsmoke continued, in the top ten for most of its two decades. Few series have their own museum, but you can visit Boot Hill Museum in Dodge City to learn all about the show. Furniture from the series is included, as well as signed photos from the cast and other memorabilia including one of Miss Kitty’s dresses.

When you hear someone say “Get outta Dodge,” you can fondly remember Gunsmoke which is where this phrase began. Perhaps being cancelled was a blessing in disguise. After two decades, maybe it was time to get outta Dodge, maintaining the high standards and high ratings that made the show such a long-running success.

The Magic School Bus: Encouraging Us To “Take Chances, Make Mistakes, Get Messy”

Knowing the theme for this blog series is Valerie, if I asked you to think of “Valeries” from television history, it might take you a while to come up with our subject for today. We are learning about Valerie Frizzle, an eccentric teacher who takes her class on educational field trips on her magical school bus on The Magic School Bus.

Based on the books that are written by Joanna Cole and illustrated by Bruce Degen, the original television show ran from 1994-1997, producing 52 episodes. It was created by Joanna Cole, Bruce Degen, and Laskas Martin. (A reboot The Magic School Bus Rides Again began recently.)

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The premise of the show is that a class taught by Valerie Frizzle at Walkerville Elementary take field trips to learn about science. Mr. Ruhle is the principal, and he is not aware that the bus is anything other than a simple school bus. However, the “Friz’s” bus can change shape and form to explore anything: far into outer space, deep in the ocean, back to the days of dinosaurs, and even into the human body. The bus can transform itself into a plane, a jeep, or other form of transport. It can become a frog or another type of animal to get into a specific ecosystem.

The Friz has a pet lizard named Liz who accompanies the class on its trips. Liz eats insects, but when the bus shrinks, she is very frightened by bugs.

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Apparently Walkerville is in a small community, because there are only eight children in her third-grade class: Arnold, Carlos, Dorothy Ann, Keesha, Phoebe, Ralphie, Tim, and Wanda.

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The Bus

The bus itself is a 1970s Ward International R-183 manufactured by Ward International Trucks, Inc. The bus is painted the typical school bus yellow. The magic part comes in with the devices that are installed in the bus. There is the shrinker scope that can shrink and re-size the bus when Ms. Frizzle asks it to. There is also a portashrinker that doesn’t work if the bus is wet and if someone tries to use it then, the Dew Dinger alerts them. There is also a mesmerglober which can change the shape of the bus. A magic battery runs on solar power.

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The bus seems pretty indestructible. In one episode it floated around in lava. The bus has eyes and a mouth and often shows emotions like fear, anger, and sadness.

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The Friz

Valerie Felicity Frizzle is a quite a character. She has fiery red hair that is usually seen in a bun. Static electricity makes her hair frizzy. So, what do we know about Ms. Frizzle? She was a Shakespearian actress at one point in her life. She also had a band called The Frizzlettes and toured with rock star Molly Cule. She then went back to school for education. She learned about “busanautics” from a mechanic she knows, R.U. Humerus.

Voiced by the funny Lily Tomlin, the Friz is always optimistic. She cares about her students and is passionate about science. She lives in a mansion that has a bridge on the property as well as a fountain with a statue of Liz. You can often spot the bus parked in her driveway. She keeps a framed photo of Mr. Seedplot, suggesting that they may be romantically involved. She loves to tell jokes. She is very protective of her students who love and respect her.

Miss Frizzle has an interesting wardrobe and most of her clothing is science themed.

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Some of her taglines are “To the bus!”; “Okay, bus, do your stuff!”; and “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”

During the four years the show was on the air, we got to know her students very well.

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Arnold

Arnold was not a fan of field trips. Like The Friz, he is a redhead. Arnold wears glasses. He was the shyest kid in the class, but he was brave. He cares about the environment and is interested in rocks. His aunt, Arizona Joan, is a famous archaeologist. He also has an uncle who is a firefighter in a national park.

Arnold’s favorite color is orange and he is Jewish. Pollen and pepper both make him sneeze. He also loves cold weather because that means he can drink hot chocolate.

His most famous sayings are “I knew I should have stayed home today”; “We’re doomed” and “Carlos!”

In one of his interviews, illustrator Bruce Degen mentions that Arnold was based on his son.

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Carlos

Carlos, a brunette, is the class clown. He tells a lot of jokes, some not so good which always gets the reactions, “Carlos!” from his classmates, especially Arnold. Carlos and Dorothy Ann often butt heads about learning because he is a hands-on learner while she is not.

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Dorothy Ann

Dorothy Ann likes to learn by reading. Her favorite science area is astronomy and she has a telescope at home. She tends to argue with many of her friends and one of her favorite sentences starts, “According to my research . . .”

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Keesha

Keesha can be a bit sarcastic. While Arnold and Dorothy Ann have different perspectives, Keesha and Ralphie are opposites. Keesha is a realist. Like Ms. Frizzle, she keeps her curly hair in a bun most of the time. Unlike most girls her age, she likes garter snakes.

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Phoebe

Phoebe keeps her brown hair in a flip with a yellow hairband and bangs. She is kind-hearted, sweet, very bright, and patient. She’s left-handed and she cares a lot about animals. She often refers to her previous class, saying “At my old school . . .” When her father visits the school one day, he also refers to her old school.

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Ralphie

Ralphie is a heavyset boy who often wears a baseball cap. He loves baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey and is athletic. He daydreams a lot, learning through imagination. He is a fun-loving kid. He has a dog named Noodles. We learn he loves comic books and superheroes but dislikes anchovies and roller coasters. He worries about creatures like vampires which probably comes from overusing his imagination. His mother is a doctor and they seem to have a lot of fun together.

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Tim

Tim is quiet and artistic; we often see him off drawing somewhere. Sometimes he tells jokes with Carlos. An interesting family fact is that his grandfather is a bee keeper and he delivers honey every winter.

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Wanda

Wanda is a tomboy. She is the smallest member but may be the toughest. She dreams of being a pilot and loves it when the bus can fly. She hates cold weather. Her mother visits class now and then; she is a science journalist. It’s often mentioned that her mother keeps reptiles around the house; one time an alligator is found in the bathtub and a gila monster in the sandbox. Wanda is a gaming expert; she also likes to play the guitar.

We often hear her say, “What are we gonna do, what are we gonna do, what are we gonna do?”

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Famous Guest Stars

For an animation show, this series featured an incredible number of famous guest stars. Tyne Daly was Ralph’s mother; Elliott Gould was Arnold’s father; Swoosie Kurtz was Dorothy Ann’s mom, and Eartha Kitt was Keesha’s mother. Ed Begley Jr. showed up as Logaway Larry; Carol Channing was Cornelia C. Contralto, Cindy Williams was Gerri Poveri; Dolly Parton was Katrina Murphy; Sherman Hemsley was Mr. Junkit; Rita Moreno was Dr. Carmina Skeledon; Dabney Coleman was Horace Scope; and Bebe Neuwirth was Flora Whiff. Tony Randall took the role of mechanic, R.U. Humerus while Wynonna Judd became rock star Molly Cule. Dom DeLuise was a baker; Ed Asner a general; Alex Trebek an announcer; and Tom Cruise played himself.

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Theme Song

The theme song is sung by Little Richard. The show begins with:

 (Bus honks, drives up, doors open)
 

Valerie Frizzle: Seatbelts, everyone!
 

Arnold: Please let this be a normal field trip.
 

Wanda: With the Frizz?
 

Kids except Arnold and Dorothy Ann: No way!
 

Arnold: Ohh!

Little Richard: Cruising on down main street. You’re relaxed and feeling good! (Yeah!)
 

Next thing that you know, you’re seeing…
 

Valerie Frizzle: (driving into ocean) Wa-ha-ha-hoo!
 

Little Richard: An octopus in the neighborhood?!

Surfing on a sound wave! Swinging through the stars!

Ralphie, Wanda and Carlos: Yee-ha!

Little Richard: Take a left at your intestine. Take your second right past Mars!

Kids: On The Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Navigate a nostril!

(Ralphie sneezing)

(class gasping)

Kids and Little Richard: Climb on The Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Spank a plankton, too!

Wanda: Take that!

Kids: On our Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Raft a river of lava!

Kids: On The Magic School Bus!

Little Richard: Such a fine thing to do!

Kids: Whoa!

Little Richard: So, strap your bones right to the seat, come on in and don’t be shy….

Come on.

Just to make your day complete,

You might get baked into a pie!

Kids and Little Richard: On The Magic School Bus!
 

(Dorothy Ann, Keesha and Ralphie run up to Bus and enter before Bus shapeshifts)
 

Little Richard: Step inside, it’s a wilder ride!
 

Come on!
 

(Bus appears under big title that reads “The Magic School Bus…”)
 

Kids and Little Richard: Ride on The Magic School Bus!
 

(Bus disappears to reveal title of episode)
 

(Bus honking)

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I did not watch The Magic School Bus a lot. It went off the air about the time my older boys would have been the age to watch it. However, we read most of the books, and my kids learned a lot from them. Along with Arthur, this is probably one of my favorite cartoons for combining fun with learning.

Valerie Harper: You Will Be Missed

This month, my blog’s theme is “Valerie.” I apologize ahead of time to any of you who have the lyrics of the Amy Winehouse song running through your head all month. It’s a great song, but every January blog I wrote kept the song in my brain for a few days.

I decided to begin the series, and the new year, looking at the career of Valerie Harper who passed away in 2019.

Valerie Harper lived to be 80, despite being diagnosed with brain cancer in 2013.

Harper recalled attending an ice-skating show as a child and deciding she wanted to be involved in show business of some type. She loved the lighting, the audience, and the entire theatrical experience. She began her career as a dancer. Joining the Radio City Hall dancers, she transitioned into acting.

She eventually made her way to the Second City troupe in Chicago. After perfecting her comedy skills, she was on to Broadway, appearing in Dear Liar, Story Theatre, Something Different, and Metamorphosis.

Valerie appeared in a few movies and television series during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

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Richard Schaal and Valerie Harper

From 1964-1978, she was married to Richard Schaal. The couple wrote a script for Love American Style in 1969 called “Love and the Visitor.” Harper also acted in the segment “Love and the Housekeeper” in 1971.

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Her big break came when she was offered the role of Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Ethel Winant spotted her in a play and asked her to audition for the role. For four years, she played Mary’s best friend who lives upstairs. Rhoda was a window decorator for a large department store. The characters of Mary Richards and Rhoda Morgenstern were total opposites, but they had a tremendous chemistry and became best friends.

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Although Mary was the nicest person on the show, we all wanted Rhoda to be our best friend. Her humor and attitude toward life made the world a more fun place to be.

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In 1974, Valerie was rewarded with her own show, Rhoda. She marries and returns to New York. Harper won four Emmys during her time as Rhoda between the two shows. After capturing Rhoda’s Jewish persona so accurately, many people were surprised to learn she was not Jewish and grew up Catholic.

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Some of the funniest moments on either of the sitcoms was Rhoda’s relationship with her mother Ida, played by Nancy Walker. Rhoda loved her mother, but was driven absolutely crazy by her.

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When Rhoda was abruptly cancelled, Harper made a cluster of made-for-tv movies.

In 1986, Harper was cast as the lead in the show Valerie’s Family. After being abruptly fired from the show in 1987, she was replaced with Sandy Duncan as the children’s aunt. The plot line was that Valerie died in a car accident and Sandy comes to help out. The show changed its name to The Hogan Family and continued until 1991. Harper sued Lorimar Productions for breach of contract and was awarded $1.4 million plus part of the show’s profits.

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In 1990, City debuted starring Harper. The show only lasted one season. I have never seen this show, but most of the reviews I read were by people who loved it. One write-up on imdb.com concluded “This was the funniest sitcom Valerie Harper has done (except of course for the Mary Tyler Moore Show). The city manager’s office that provided the setting is the perfect locale for the parade of crazies that give comedic impetus to this type of show, The funniest was James Lorinz as the security guard (in one episode, he was convinced that white-out was being stolen to aid illegal immigration; to prove his point, he painted his entire body with it). One of the Mysteries of the Universe is why this failed while “The Hogan Family,” a profoundly mediocre show, lasted several years.”

From that point on, Harper did not star in any other television series, but she did show up in a variety of series and made-for-tv movies, including a recurring role on The Office in 1995.

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Valerie contributed to many causes during her career. She was a big advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She co-founded L.I.F.E. with Dennis Weaver, a nonprofit that gave food to the hungry in Los Angeles.

Valerie re-married in 1987, wedding Tony Cacciotti whom she remained with until her death.

Harper continued in stage work throughout her career. From 2005-2006, she portrayed Golda Meir, touring throughout the US.

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She accepted the role of Claire Bremmer on Desperate Housewives in 2011. In 2013, she returned to her dancing roots, appearing on Dancing with the Stars, partnered with Tristan MacManus.

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In 2009, Valerie was diagnosed with lung cancer. She fought the illness, but in March of 2013, she was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, given only months to live. Those couple of months turned into six years. Harper discussed her disease in 2015: “I talk to the cells all the time. I say, ‘What the hell are you doing? Not only are you destructive, coming in and ruining all my plans, but you are dumb! You are killing the host. If you take a low profile, I can live with you, here on the edge of the sword. You can fall one way or the other.’ Right now, things are working fantastically. Tomorrow, I don’t know.” Her philosophy was “We’re all terminal; none of us are getting out of this alive.”

Harper was fondly remembered by her co-stars when she passed away. Mary Tyler Moore who died before Harper, said she was devastated the day Valerie called her to tell her about the cancer. Ed Asner, who played Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Show, remembered his years working with Harper: “A beautiful woman, a wonderful actress, a great friend. . . . Her brilliance burst through and shined its light upon all of us. Goodnight beautiful. I’ll see you soon.”

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Alyssa Milano who played her daughter on an episode of Melrose Place, said “Valerie Harper was always the most gracious and kindest actor on the set. She will be missed. Rest in Peace. ”

Valerie Harper had a unique gift of making us laugh, not at her characters, but with her characters. We could all relate to her. She was a role model for how to keep a positive attitude about living with a terminal illness. It’s a rare person who learns to work hard while making it look easy, fight for causes that help others, inspire others to live better while she was dying, and infuse laughter into every aspect of her life. We will truly miss you Valerie Harper, but we will remember you for all the gifts you left behind for us.

The Mod Squad: The Show That Oozed Hip, Groovy, and Cool

As we continue our Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem series, we move from Maine where senior citizen Jessica Fletcher solved mysteries to the streets of Los Angeles, where a hip trio infiltrates the counterculture to solve crimes.

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Airing from 1968 till 1973, The Mod Squad was a unique concept. Created by Buddy Ruskin, a Los Angeles police officer, the show took eight years to become a reality. Ruskin based the concept on his time as a squad leader for an undercover narcotic division in the 1950s.

Aaron Spelling was the executive producer. Spelling worked on a number of projects from 1960 onward, but his biggest hit shows were still in his future when he took the helm of The Mod Squad.

As soon as the jazzy theme song by Earl Hagen began, we knew this was a different type of show. The sixties hippie culture and counterculture drug scene had not been explored in depth on television before.

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In order to get the necessary evidence, three young team members were trained to go undercover to solve cases. Michael Cole was Pete Cochran, a wealthy kid who was arrested for stealing a car; Peggy Lipton was Julie Barnes, who had run away from a bad home situation; and Clarence Wlliams II was Linc Hayes, who was arrested during the Watts riots. Captain Adam Greer (Tige Andrews) supervised the trio. He mentored them and provided “parently” advice and wisdom. He hand-picked them for his team. (Similarly, Spelling’s Charlie’s Angel’s would also feature a father figure hand picking three non-traditional members for his crime-solving team.)

None of these kids were innocent, and their records were eliminated when they chose to work with the LA police. But they soon realized they had the ability most cops did not to inconspicuously fit in to help stop criminals from killing or hurting other young adults.

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Similar to Room 222, which aired almost the same time, The Mod Squad covered a lot of socially relevant topics: abortion, domestic violence, drug addiction, child abuse, police brutality, illegal immigration, and racism. Though the pilot was written sixty years ago, these issues are still on the front page today.

The writers, including Tony Barrett, Harve Bennett, Sammy Hess, and Buddy Ruskin, created realistic characters. These three outcasts were a bit rebellious; they lived in the gray instead of black or white. They understood good people sometimes did bad things, and racism and domestic violence were not to be tolerated. Their speech and clothing marked them as quintessentially 1960s. Linc often said “Solid” or “Keep the faith.” You would probably hear “groovy” at least once an episode.

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The team traveled in an old green 1950 Mercury wood-paneled station wagon that they affectionately referred to as “Woody.” Unfortunately, it was burned in an accident at the end of the second season.

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The show was definitely controversial. It aired at a time when westerns, rural sitcoms, and Lawrence Welk were popular. The episodes pushed the envelope a bit on topics that had been taboo on television in the past. The team was like a family and on one episode, Linc gave Julie a brotherly kiss on the cheek which had the network up in arms, but not one complaint came in. Their relationship with Captain Greer helped America see how the generation gap could be bridged.

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Stars David Cassidy and Marion Ross

Despite the controversy, the show attracted a lot of famous guest stars. Some of the actors who can be spotted during the show’s run include Ed Asner, Jim Backus, Tom Bosley, David Cassidy, Tyne Daley, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Dow, Andy Griffith, Carolyn Jones, Leslie Nielsen, Stefanie Powers, Vincent Price, Robert Reed, Marian Ross, Sugar Ray Robinson, Martin Sheen, Bobby Sherman, Danny Thomas, Daniel Travanti, and Billy Dee Williams.

Each episode ended with the squad walking away from the camera.

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The show was extremely popular given its uniqueness. It was the 28th most popular show its first year and number 11 in its third season. The show received seven Emmy and four Golden Globe nominations. In 1970, it was nominated for Outstanding Series. During its final year, it only ranked 54 and the “hipness” of the show was starting to age a bit, so it was cancelled.

It did have an afterlife. In 1979, a tv movie, The Return of the Mod Squad, aired on ABC with the original cat. In 1999, a big-screen film was released starring Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, Claire Danes, and Dennis Farina. Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember it; not many people do.

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The Mod Squad could be seen on MeTV in 2014 and 2015. Apart from that, it has not fared well in syndication. Like Room 222, the show can feel dated quickly due to its language and fashion.

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The show is still celebrated for its ground-breaking scripts, and in 1997, TV Guide included an episode, “Mother of Sorrow” as 95th of the greatest 100 episodes of all time.

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While you probably won’t find it on television, it is available on DVD. Although the show may not be known by many people today, it was one of the first shows to break the barriers of going where television had not been before. In many ways, it paved the way for the creation of shows such as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Miami Vice. What more could you ask for: relevant topics, well-rounded characters, and exciting plots. Although its language and fashions date it, it captures a unique time in our history and is worth exploring.

Paging Dr. Stone: The Career of Carl Betz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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On Perry Mason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: moviestore.com

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

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

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

Photo: commons.wikimedia.org

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