Honoring National West Virginia Day with Don Knotts

As we continue with our National State Day Celebrations, this week finds us in West Virginia. Who else can we pick but Don Knotts?

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Born in 1924 in Morgantown, WV, Don Knotts was the youngest of four boys. Don had a rough youth. His parents were farmers and his mother was 40 when he was born. His father suffered from mental illness, and Don’s birth led to a nervous breakdown. His father died when he was 13 and his mother made her living running a boarding house after that. At an early age, Don began performing as a ventriloquist and comedian at church and school functions.

After graduation, Knotts began college but then enlisted in the army, serving during WWII from 1943-1946. He toured the Pacific Islands entertaining the GIs as a comedian. In 1948 he graduated from West Virginia University with a major in education, a member of the honor society.

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Before graduating, Knotts married Kathryn Metz. They would remain married until 1964 when they divorced. After college, the couple moved to New York to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.

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Believe it or not, his first role was in the soap opera Search for Tomorrow, and he would become part of the cast from 1953-1955. In 1956, he got his big break on the Steve Allen Show, playing a nervous man. He stayed with the show until 1959. The Tonight Show relocated to Hollywood with Jack Paar as host in 1959, and Don went with him. However, during his time on the show, he had a role in the play “No Time for Sergeants” and then in the film version with Andy Griffith.

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In 1960 Andy Griffith was putting together his own sitcom, The Andy Griffith Show, and he offered Knotts the role of Barney Fife, deputy. During his time as Barney, Knotts received five Emmy awards (three during his first five years).

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The Museum of Broadcast Communications sums up Barney’s character perfectly:

“Self-important, romantic, and nearly always wrong, Barney dreamed of the day he could use the one bullet Andy had issued to him, though he did fire his gun on a few occasions. He always fired his pistol accidentally while still in his holster or in the ceiling of the court house, at which point he would sadly hand his pistol to Andy. This is why Barney kept his one very shiny bullet in his shirt pocket. In episode #196, Andy gave Barney more bullets so that he would have a loaded gun to go after a bad guy that Barney unintentionally helped escape. While Barney was forever frustrated that Mayberry was too small for the delusional ideas that he had of himself, viewers got the sense that he couldn’t have survived anywhere else. Don Knotts played the comic and pathetic sides of the character with equal aplomb.”

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Mayberry Family: Knotts, Ron Howard, Griffith, Frances Bauvier–
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Originally, Don was supposed to be the straight man to Andy’s character, but Griffith quickly realized the reverse would make the show more successful. Andy always said he wanted to be done after five years. During that fifth year, Knotts began to search for his next job. He signed a five-film contract with Universal Studios. Then, Andy decided not to quit after season five, but since Knotts was already committed, he left the show in 1965.

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From everything I’ve read, it seems like the cast of TAGS got along very well. Although Frances Bavier seemed to take things more personally than others, the actors seemed to enjoy working together. Betty Lynn who played Barney’s girlfriend Thelma Lou described Knotts as “a very quiet man. Very sweet. Nothing like Barney Fife.” Mark Evanier, a television writer, called him “the most beloved person in all of show business.”

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Knotts family-viewable films were very popular including It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; The Incredible Mr. Limpet; The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; The Reluctant Astronaut; The Shakiest Gun in the West; The Love God?; and How to Frame a Figg.

One of my favorite roles of Don’s was as the shoe salesman in the Doris Day-James Garner movie, Move Over Darling.

He also returned to Mayberry for several episodes. (Two of his Emmys came from these guest spots.)

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Doris Day and Knotts–
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Knotts also kept busy on other television shows including appearances on The Bill Cosby Show, Here’s Lucy, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Newhart, and That Seventies Show.

Also, during these years, Knotts tried marriage again wedding Loralee Czuchna in 1974. The couple called it quits in 1983.

He received his second starring role in 1979 as Mr. Furley on Three’s Company. Knotts replaced Stanley and Helen Roper (Norman Fell and Audra Lindley) who left for their own spin-off show.

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Suzanne Somers and Knotts–
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He became the new landlord for the trio upstairs. He would stay with the show until it ended in 1984, racking up 115 episodes. I will admit that I did not enjoy the show, and I felt Knott’s performance was over the top and too stereotyped; I felt that way about the other characters also.

Don and Andy remained close friends throughout their lives. When Andy returned to television as Matlock, Knotts also received a role on the show as Les Calhoun, Matlock’s neighbor from 1988-1992.

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Knotts and Griffith in later years–
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Don suffered from macular degeneration, and eventually it caused him to become virtually blind. In 2002 Don married a third time when Frances Yarborough became his wife.

Knotts died in 2006 from pulmonary and respiratory complications from pneumonia related to lung cancer.

Off screen, Knotts seemed to be a very funny guy. His daughter Karen said, “Here’s the thing about my dad. He had this funniness that was just completely, insanely natural.”

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He told his daughter his high school years were some of his happiest. His home town loved him too, and a statue honoring him was unveiled in 2006 in front of the Metropolitan Theatre. The statue was designed by local artist Jamie Lester, another West Virginia native.

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Don Knotts had a spectacular career. As a young man, he got a job in a chicken factory and spent his days pulling feathers off dead chickens because he was told he had no future in the acting profession. It would have been hard for him to imagine at the time the legacy of performances he would leave—television shows and movies that generations of fans would watch. More than sixty years after Barney Fife put that bullet in his pocket for the first time, viewers continue to watch and love the Mayberry residents as they go about life in their small town. And the fact that the place where he first learned about life cared enough to fundraise and build a memorial to honor him says a lot. Thank you Don Knotts for showing us the importance of humor and following your dreams!


Doris Roberts: One of Our Favorite Mothers

To begin the new year, we are looking at some of my favorite female television stars. We begin the series with Doris Roberts, everybody’s favorite mother.

Doris Roberts (1925-2016) - Find A Grave Memorial
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Doris was born in 1925 in St. Louis. When her parents split up, she went to the Bronx with her mother, and they lived with her grandparents. Her parents ran the Z.L. Rosenfield Agency which provided stenographic services to playwrights and actors. After studying journalism at New York University, she decided to try her hand acting, taking classes at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City and working with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio. In the fifties, she could be seen in a variety of Broadway shows including The Desk Set, The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers, and Bad Habits. She worked with Shirley Booth on The Desk Set and credited Booth with being her acting mentor.

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In 1951 she accepted her first role in television, appearing on the show Starlight Theatre. She accepted roles on several 1950s drama shows. In 1956, Doris married Michael Cannata. They divorced in 1962, and a year later she married William Goven, a playwright. They would stay together until his death in 1986.

Doris was offered her first film role in Something Wild in 1961. She would go on to appear in more than 30 movies.

Her television career also began to expand in the sixties when she appeared in about nine drama series. However, it was the seventies when she hit her stride. During that decade, she would make appearances in Mary Hartman, All in the Family, Family, Rhoda, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in addition to several others.

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Helping Phyllis find a job on The Mary Tyler Moore Show
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On All in the Family, Doris played a bar patron who befriends Edith. Originally, Roberts was offered the role of Vivian on Norman Lear’s show, Maude but at the last minute, Lear asked Rue McClanahan to take the role over. Later Norman stated that he thought Roberts’ character was too similar to Bea Arthur’s Maude. On Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, she played a faith healer Dorelda Doremus.

Doris Roberts: Her Most Memorable TV Roles
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Doris mentioned that Lily Tomlin encouraged her to move to Los Angeles in 1973. After her relocation, Roberts received her first recurring character roles. She would appear in Soap as Flo Flotsky on four episodes, five episodes of Barney Miller, and she had a regular spot as the star’s mother on Angie which ran from 1979-1980.

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Her career continued to flourish throughout the eighties. She had recurring roles on as a gabby hairdresser on Maggie and on Alice as Lavin’s mother, and she was a regular on Remington Steele where Roberts played a former IRS agent who becomes the receptionist for the agency. In addition, she could be seen on Fantasy Island, St. Elsewhere, The Love Boat, Mr. Belvedere, and Cagney and Lacey, along with a variety of other shows.

Her appearance on St. Elsewhere gave her an Emmy win for a guest appearance, playing a homeless woman.

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Roberts on St. Elsewhere
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In the decade of the nineties, we saw her on Empty Nest, Murder She Wrote, and The King of Queens, among others. However, it was in 1996 when she was offered the role that would change her life. From 1996-2005 she came into our living rooms every week as Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond.

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More than 100 actresses were considered for the role. She was nominated for seven Emmys, winning four of them (2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005). Amazingly, Ray Romano as Ray Barone, Peter Boyle as his dad Frank, Patricia Heaton as his wife Debra, Brad Garrett as his brother Robert and Doris Roberts appeared in all 210 episodes of the series.

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Ray Romano discussed the appeal Roberts had for viewers: “Here’s how good she was: She played the most intrusive, overbearing, nosy woman—always starting fights and whatnot and meddling in our business—and yet, when I asked the fans who their favorite character was, all the time it was her. She was so good at portraying the love that was underneath.” In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Doris described the character of Marie Barone: “Nine glorious years; everything good comes to an end. She doesn’t give in, she doesn’t give up and she never takes no for an answer.”

Doris remained friends with the cast, especially her on-screen husband Frank played by Peter Boyle. After his death, Roberts remembered him: “Peter was so different from the characters he played. He was brilliant, well read, sensitive, a gentleman.” Roberts was able to visit him at home and in the hospital and to be with the family after his passing.

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From 2006-2014, her work continued. In addition to a recurring role on The Middle, she appeared on Law and Order, Grey’s Anatomy, Hot in Cleveland, and Desperate Housewives, along with six other less-known shows. Her role on The Middle gave her a chance to work with her Everybody Loves Raymond costar, Patricia Heaton again.

In addition to her acting career, Roberts was a dedicated activist. She testified before Congress about age discrimination in Hollywood, worked with a variety of animal rights groups, and was chairwoman for the Children with AIDS Foundation. She also had a variety of hobbies including traveling, philanthropy, collecting wine, dancing, singing, and cooking. She claimed her favorite movie was Gone with the Wind.

In 2003, Roberts published her memoir cowritten with Danelle Morton, titled, Are You Hungry Dear? Life, Laughs, and Lasagna. She included many of her favorite recipes in the biography.

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In 2016, Roberts died following a stroke. Romano said “Doris Roberts had an energy and a spirit that amazed me. She never stopped. Whether working professionally or with her many charities, or just nurturing and mentoring a green young comic trying to make it as an actor, she did everything with such a grand love for life and people, and I will miss her dearly.”

Patricia Heaton said Doris’s television husband Peter Boyle was sick so the cast was able to prepare themselves for his death, but Doris died quickly. Heaton said “Roberts was funny and tough and loved life, living it to the fullest.”

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One of my favorite quotes by Doris Roberts is that “everybody is a teacher if you listen.” Thanks for teaching and entertaining us for more than six decades.

Heigh-Ho Louis Nye!

Finishing off our “Men of November” series is Louis Nye.  If you watched television in the sixties, you will recognize Louis, but you might not know why.

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Born Louis Neistat in Connecticut in 1917, he was the son of parents who emigrated to the US from the Russian Empire and became naturalized citizens in 1911. Louis wanted to get involved in acting but his grades weren’t good enough for him to participate in the drama club.  He opted for work on WTIC Radio instead. He also joined the Hartford Players.

The work on local radio led to his decision to move to New York City to work on the radio, often on soap operas. Nye married songwriter Anita Leonard in 1940. Unlike many Hollywood couples, they remained married until Nye’s death.

**FILE** Steve Allen, third from left, and some of the original cast members of the popular 1950’s television show, “Steve Allen Show,” gathered in Beverly Hills, Calif. in this Oct. 4, 1990 file photo to honor Allen and to celebrate the re-broadcast of 100 episodes of his show on HA! TV Comedy Channel. They are, from left: Tom Poston, Don Knotts, Allen, Louis Nye, Pat Harrington Jr., and Bill Dana. Nye died Sunday at his home in Los Angeles after a long battle with lung cancer, his son, Peter Nye, told The Associated Press on Monday. He was 92. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian, FILE)

World War II interrupted his career. He was assigned to run the recreation hall in Missouri. He would entertain troops and was able to meet Carl Reiner, who had a similar sense of humor, and who was also part of Special Services performing in shows across the Pacific.

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After the war ended, he returned to New York, getting jobs on television and appearing on Broadway. His first tv role was on The Admiral Broadway Revue in 1949. He appeared on several shows during the fifties but was best known for his work on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show and the New Steve Allen Show. He became close to the entire cast which included Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Pat Harrington Jr., Dayton Allen, Gabriel Dell, and Bill Dana. Nye often portrayed wealthy citizens during the “Man on the Street” sketches. When he took on the role of Gordon Hathaway, the egotistical Country Club snob, saying “Hi-ho Steverino,” Allen often cracked up. When the show moved to Los Angeles, Nye went with it.

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His first recurring role was that of dentist Delbert Gray on The Ann Sothern Show in 1960 and 1961. He was very busy during the sixties, appearing on a variety of shows including The Bob Hope Show, The Jack Benny Show, Mike Douglas, The Munsters, Jackie Gleason, and Phyllis Diller. From 1962-66, he would pop in on The Beverly Hillbillies as Sonny Drysdale, the spoiled stepson of banker Milburn Drysdale.

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In the seventies, he could be seen on shows such as Laugh-In, Love American Style, Laverne and Shirley, Starsky and Hutch, and Fantasy Island. He was offered a permanent role on Needles and Pins in 1973. The show only lasted for 14 episodes. The series was about the garment industry. Women’s clothing manufacture Nathan Davidson (Norman Fell) works with a group of employees including characters played by Nye and Bernie Kopell.  It didn’t receive great reviews and many of the writers said it talked about the garment industry but showed very little and was set in one small spot, inhibiting what plots were even available.

During those decades Nye would also get offers on the big screen from time to time but most of the roles were smaller cameo parts. However, he appeared with a lot of celebrities in these epics including Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau, and Jack Webb.

He also recorded several comedy albums using several of his characterizations. One of his most successful LPs was “Heigh-Ho Madison Avenue.” It parodied market research, advertising agencies and post-WWII society.  Some of the pieces on the album include “The Gray Flannel Blues,” “The Ten Commandments of Madison Avenue (Plus Big Bonus Commandments),” and “The Conspicuous Consumption Cantata.”

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He continued to keep busy in the eighties on a variety of shows including Here’s Boomer, Aloha Paradise, The Love Boat, The Cosby Show, and St. Elsewhere.

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His last role was another recurring one where he played Jeff Garlin’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm from 2000-2005. Nye passed away from lung cancer in 2005.

I’m not sure what to think about Nye’s career.  I think in the right role, he would have excelled in a television comedy or a big screen epic which he never had the opportunity to do. He was multi-talented and appeared on Broadway, in clubs, and on the radio, and he created comedy albums as well as appearing in movies and television. However, I often read quotes of his where he said he only wanted to be funny at parties and always considered himself a serious actor. He was so brilliant and funny with his 15 accents and wide range of characterizations that he seemed pigeon-holed as a comedy character actor early in his career. I wondered if he was sad that he never had the chance to appear in a classic drama, or if he accepted his successful career for what it was, just being thankful he was in the entertainment industry for his entire working life.

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Since we cannot ask him directly, all we can do is tip our hats to him in appreciation for the decades of laughter and entertainment he provided for us. Thank you, Mr. Nye.

Dave Madden: A Magical Career

We are right in the middle of “The Men of November” series where we learn about some of our favorite actors from the classic age of television. Today we focus on a comedian who is best known for his role of a family band manager—Dave Madden.

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Madden was an American born in Ontario, Canada in 1931. He spent his early childhood in Port Huron, Michigan and then was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Terre Haute. His father had died and his mother had a job where she had to travel. When he was 13, he had a very bad bike accident which left him immobilized. He had a head-on collision with a car going about 45 mph. He broke his leg and fractured his skull. They pumped him with penicillin which saved his life. He was in the hospital for about three months because they had to keep breaking his leg. During the months he spent recuperating, he learned about magic from a book his aunt brought him called 101 Tricks You Can Do, and he later developed a comedy act that featured magic.

Appropriately enough, he served as the joke editor for his high school paper, writing his own material. He attended Indiana State Teachers College for a semester and then dropped out to enlist in the Air Force. He was assigned to Special Forces and sent to Libya where he entertained the troops. He even performed a magic show for the King of Libya.

When his time in the Air Force was over, he attended the University of Miami, majoring in communications and graduating in 1959.

Madden took his comedy act on the road. His manager booked him in Palm Springs during the Palm Springs Golf Classic, and the Rat Pack came in one night. After the show, Frank Sinatra went backstage and asked if Madden would be his opening act in Lake Tahoe in July.

Tralfaz: The Unhappy Man With the Confetti
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He and Sinatra hung out and one night in his bungalow he said Madden should be on The Ed Sullivan Show and picked up the phone and called Ed in New York. That call resulted in Sullivan booking him for three episodes.

His manager had a club in Beverly Hills, The Ye Little Club, and he called Madden who was in town because his regular singer was sick. Madden helped him out, and a Screen Gems writer, Jerry Davis, was in the audience with Nat King Cole’s manager. Nat was Madden’s favorite singer and his manager asked if he would do an eight-week tour with him. Unfortunately, Cole died soon after and Madden never even got to meet him.

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Jerry Davis called Madden and asked him if he was interested in filming a pilot which led to an offer for a regular role on Camp Runamuck which debuted in 1965. The show lasted a season with 26 episodes. Madden had never acted before, and he said it was a great experience. The show was primarily about the camp counselors. Madden met Dave Ketchum on the show and they became friends. Later, the role of Reuben Kincaid was narrowed down to Dave Ketchum and Madden.

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A year later, Madden was offered a spot on Laugh-In. Rowan and Martin had seen his act in Reno and invited him on the show. Madden said that filming the show was not much fun. He said apart from the opening and closing jokes and cocktail party, most of the segments were individual ones. He described a day where he might go in at 10 am, and there would be 2 cameramen, a director and a light man. He would film a dozen skits which would be shown over the course of the season. None of the rest of the cast would be there.  So, it was long and boring work.

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After two years with the wacky cast, he accepted the role that would make him a household name. As Reuben Kincaid, he managed the Partridge family on a new series based on the life of The Cowsills. The show aired Friday nights following The Brady Bunch and was on the air from 1970 till 1974.

Some of the scenes I loved the most on the show was when Reuben would lay on the couch to watch tv with the family or hold Shirley’s yarn while she knitted—just everyday family activities. Unfortunately, he and Shirley were not as close as they could have been because Madden and Shirley’s husband Marty Ingels did not hit it off.

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Filming The Partridge Family was not always fun either. He said it could be very boring.  The cast might have three to four pages of scripts that take place in the dining room.  The whole family would sit around the table and they would have to change the lighting every time someone else spoke. He said you could arrive at 7 am and leave at 3 pm and never leave the dining room.

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While one of the running gags on the show was that Reuben and Danny had a battle of wits ongoing, in their personal lives, Reuben took Bonaduce into his home when his house was not a safe place. He said Danny’s mother was worried about Danny being home on the weekends when his father was home, so she asked Madden if Danny could stay with him at his bachelor pad on weekends. Madden said he didn’t drink and had small groups of people over, so it was not a problem to have Danny staying there.

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Madden said that he learned that The Partridge Family was cancelled because someone in his apartment building read it in the newspaper—a crummy way to learn you no longer had a job.

During this time period, Madden was on two episodes of Love American Style which was also part of the Friday night schedule and two episodes of Bewitched. When Madden recalled his time on Bewitched, he said he was with the same secondary actor for both episodes, Herb Ellis. He said that Elizabeth Montgomery was very gracious.

After the end of The Partridge Family, Madden appeared on an episode of Happy Days. In 1976, he would have a part in Eat My Dust!, a movie developed by Ron Howard who played Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. It was one of only two big screen features Madden was in. The other movie Madden had a role in was the family favorite, Charlotte’s Web in 1973. Madden was the voice of the ram.

In the late seventies, Madden could be seen on a variety of shows including Starsky and Hutch, Barney Miller, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island.

In 1975, Madden took a break from his acting schedule to marry Nena Arnold. They had two children and divorced ten years later.

Playing Carrie Sharples on CBS-TV's... - Martha Raye Scrapbook ...
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In the late seventies, he would be offered another recurring role. He began eating at Mel’s Diner on Alice from 1978-1985, as Earl Hicks. He was also Alice’s son’s basketball coach. The Hicks character was meant to be a guest shot, but the producers liked his interaction so much that he ended up doing 35 episodes. He really enjoyed working on the show because it was done before a live audience. He said it was like doing a one-act play every week. The cast rehearsed for a few days and then shot the show at one time.

In the late eighties, Madden also joined the cast of Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey. In 1990 he created his own character, curmudgeonly window washer Bernard Walton, which he would voice until 2008.

From 1970 or so on, Madden did a lot of voice-over work. When he had more time for it, it was very profitable. He said he made more money between 1985-1990 doing that then all four television series combined; he was making more than $250,000 a year just in voice work.

He stayed busy throughout the 1990s, showing up on The New Leave it to Beaver, Life with Lucy, Ben Stiller, Married . . . with Children, and Boy Meets World. His last credited role was on Sabrina the Teen-age Witch in 1998, where he appeared with other Laugh-In cast members.

He had another memorable event in 1998 when he married his former college girlfriend Sandy Martin.

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If you watched The Partridge Family, you might remember the episode where Danny and Reuben have a bet to see if Danny can lose weight and if Reuben can quit smoking. Madden was a long-time smoker in real life and that episode inspired him to quit, although he had been thinking about quitting for a while.

Madden had always been interested in cameras, buying his first one in the service.  He began to experiment with photography on the set of The Partridge Family. He said it was illegal to bring a camera to the set, so he began taking photos of the crew when they were filming away from the regular set. He then made gifts for the crew and then began filming the director. By that time, people were so used to him having a camera around, no one called him out on photographing the cast. He would bring his camera to work with him, taking photos of the cast and crew. It turned into a life-long hobby.

The Partridge Family 4x05 Reuben Kincaid Lives - ShareTV
Margaret Hamilton
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One of the benefits of working in the industry was meeting so many beloved actors like Lucille Ball. On The Partridge Family, Madden enjoyed working with Ray Bolger who played Shirley’s dad and Margaret Hamilton who played Reuben’s mother. He said he would chat with Ray between takes and hear stories from Hamilton about The Wizard of Oz. He said Hamilton was a real pro and they were both very nice people.

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During retirement in 2007, he wrote his memoirs, Reuben on Wry: The Memoirs of Dave Madden.

Reuben on Wry: The Memoirs of Dave Madden: Madden, Dave ...

In January of 2014, he passed away in hospice care, suffering from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome, a disorder that results from poorly formed or dysfunctional blood cells.

For someone who began his first magic performance because of a serious injury and was hired for a sitcom without ever having acted, Dave Madden had a very fun and successful career. I must admit, I have many great memories of him as Reuben Kincaid. He seemed to be a very nice and easy-going individual who worked hard and enjoyed his life. You can’t ask for more than that. Thanks for the memories Dave Madden.

Bert Convy: A Multi-Talented Star

I’m calling this series “The Men of November.”  We are taking a look at five actors who contributed to television during the classic decades of the 1940s-1980s. I’ve decided to take them in alphabetical order so we are starting with Bert Convy.

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Born in St. Louis in 1933, Convy’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was seven.  His focus was athletics, not acting, in school. When he was 17, the Philadelphia Phillies gave him a contract to play in their minor league system which he did from 1951-1952. In 1951 he played for the Klamath Falls Gems (Oregon), and in 1952 he split his time with the Salina Blue Jays (Kansas) and the Miami Eagles (Oklahoma).

Once he realized baseball was not going to be his career, he joined The Cheers, who released a top ten hit called “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots” in 1955. Convy opted to enroll at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, earning a BA.

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Like Ken Berry, he was a performer in the Billy Barnes Revues which was popular in the fifties and sixties. In 1956, he was an usher on Art Linkletter’s popular show House Party. He appeared in several early television series throughout the late fifties, including Those Whiting Girls.

In 1959 he married Anne Anderson. They had three children and were divorced in 1991.

Perry Mason
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He showed up on the small screen a lot during the sixties, primarily in detective shows including Perry Mason in 1960. His first feature role was in the big screen drama Susan Slade starring Troy Donahue and Connie Stevens in 1961. He also spent a part of this decade on Broadway in ten different productions.

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The decade of the seventies found him balancing roles in both detective (Mission Impossible, McMillan and Wife, Police Story and Charlie’s Angels among many others) and comedy shows (including Bewitched, Love American Style, and Karen). He appeared on The Partridge Family as a politician who dates Shirley. You get the distinct impression that they ended up together once the kids were out on their own. He also portrayed one of Mary’s boyfriends on The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

As Paul Revere on Bewitched
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He received his first recurring role in 1974, playing Lt. Steve Ostrowski on The Snoop Sisters. The show starred Helen Hayes and Mildred Natwick as two sisters, one widowed and one never married, who are mystery writers that also get involved in real murders.

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Two years later he starred in a short-lived variety show with the convoluted title of The Late Summer Early Fall Bert Convy Show. The title alone probably doubled the advertising budget. When I say short-lived, I mean I could only find one episode of the show which featured Don Knots.

He was offered another permanent role in 1983 on It’s Not Easy. Originally Larry Breeding was given the role and made the pilot, but he passed away after a car accident. This show only lasted for 11 episodes. The plot is that Jack and Sharon have divorced. Sharon has remarried and she and her husband Neal (Convy) have decided to live across the street from Jack so it’s easier for the kids. Jack and Neal do not like each other.

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He appeared in a few series during the eighties including Aloha Paradise, Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote, Hotel, The Love Boat and The People Next Door.  

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While he would make ten big screen and fifteen made-for-television movies, two of them involved his buddy Burt Reynolds. Convy appeared in Semi-Tough in 1977 and Cannonball Run in 1981. The two friends developed a production company, Burt and Bert Productions.

Convy was probably best known for his game show work. He was a panelist during the sixties and seventies on a variety of shows including What’s My Line, To Tell the Truth, Match Game, and Password. He hosted Tattletales, Super Password and Win, Lose or Draw. His emceeing of Tattletales resulted in an Emmy for Best Game Show Host in 1977.

Photo: youtube.com

In April of 1990, Convy collapsed and was diagnosed with cancer. The brain tumor was inoperable, forcing his retirement. His last credit was as himself on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show in 1990. He married his second wife Catherine Hills during the winter of 1991, and he passed away in July of 1991.

Sadly, Convy was never offered that perfect role that made him an icon, but he certainly had a full career. He had a lot of talents: acting, singing, and the personality to host game shows. I think it was his smile that always made him a favorite with me.

Joe and Valerie: A Symptom of that Weird ‘70s Ailment, Night Fever

Continuing our series about “Valerie,” today we look at a slice of American life from the 1970s. It’s hard to emphasize how much the movie Saturday Night Fever changed American culture. In the movie, a high school graduate played by John Travolta, escapes his hard life by dancing at the local disco. The hippie culture of the late 1960s and early ‘70s was shoved aside by the bold and brash disco era. It was hard to go anywhere without the background soundtrack of the movie being heard. Extravagant clothing and three-piece suits were back in style, along with platform shoes and blingy jewelry.

Photo: ebay.com
Saturday Night Fever, the movie that started it all

A year after the movie debuted, a new show called Joe and Valerie appeared in April of 1978. Joe (Paul Regina) works at his father’s plumbing store. He meets Valerie (Char Fontane) at the disco and they get romantically involved. However, Joe’s roommates, Paulie (David Elliott), a hearse driver, and Frankie (Bill Beyers/Lloyd Alan), a spa worker and chauvinist, have their opinions on the romance as does Valerie’s divorced mother Stella (Arlene Golonka). Rounding out the cast were Robert Costanzo as Joe’s father Vincent and Rita/Thelma (Donna Ponterotto), Valerie’s best friend.

Photo: moviepictures.org

The series was produced by Bob Hope’s production company, Hope Enterprises, and his daughter Linda served as executive producer. Bill Persky, who had been one of the forces behind That Girl, directed the first episode.

The writers for the show included Howard Albrecht, Hal Dresner, Bernie Kahn, and Sol Weinstein. Kahn and Dresner also served as producer for an episode each. Art direction was credited to Bruce Ryan and shop coordinator to Edwin McCormick.

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The chic couple: Makes a person wonder doesn’t it

The series was divided into two parts; in 1978 the episodes show Joe and Valerie meeting, falling in love and planning their future. Jumping to January 1979, the episodes center around the couple beginning their married life. Four half-hour episodes aired in April and May of 1978. Four half-hour episodes were set to air in January, but only three did; the final episode never was played on the air.

Episode 1, “The Meeting” aired April 24, 1978. Joe and Valerie meet at the disco and fall in love when Joe bets his roommates that he can take Valerie away from her dancing partner.

Episode 2, “The Perfect Night” aired May 1, 1978. Valerie arranges dates for Frank and Paulie. She sets up Frank with her best friend Thelma and the date is a disaster. The woman she set Paulie up with ended up getting married the night before, so Valerie is frantically looking for a substitute. Albrecht and Weinstein were credited as writers.

Episode 3, “Valerie’s Wild Oat” aired May 3, 1978. Joe and Valerie’s romance hits a potential roadblock when Valerie finds out that her new boss at the store is her ex-boyfriend Ernie (Marcus Smythe).

Photo: backdrops.com.au
The Village People, a big part in the disco fad

Episode 4, “The Commitment” aired May 10, 1978. When Valerie’s mother is unexpectedly called away for the weekend, Joe and Valerie face the prospect of spending their first night together. Joe loves Valerie too much to stay but worries how his roommates will react if he doesn’t.

Episode 5, “The Engagement” aired January 5, 1979. Joe and Valerie break the news to their parents that they are going to live together and looking for a place to live through a rental service which adds to the confusion.

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Disco fashion

Episode 6, “The Wedding Guest” aired January 12, 1979. Joe and Valerie learn that  a gangster’s funeral has been scheduled at the same time as their wedding at the church.

Episode 7, “The Wedding” aired January 19, 1979. The newly married couple look back at the events that occurred around their wedding. Some of the problems included Vince wanting Valerie to wear his wife’s old-fashioned wedding dress, Frank and Paulie fighting over who is best man, and Valerie’s mother threatening to stay away from the wedding if her ex-husband comes.

The final episode, “Paulie’s First Love,” was never aired.

This was a bad year for series’ debuts. A number of shows flopped during this year including Hizzoner, Sweepstakes, and Supertrain, none of them making it to more than nine episodes.

Photo: celebritybio.com
Char Fontane

Char Fontane (also listed as Fontaine occasionally) was born in California in 1952. She passed away from breast cancer in 2007. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, she appeared on a variety of tv series in the 1970s and a couple after: Love American Style (1972), The FBI (1973), Barnaby Jones (1979), Supertrain (1979), Sweepstakes (1979), The Love Boat (1979), and Nero Wolfe (1981). In the mid-1980s she took a role in a made-for-tv movie, The Night the Bridge Fell Down and two movie roles: Too Much (1987) and The Punisher (1989). She was not credited with any roles after the 1989 movie.

Photo: weebly.com
Char Fontane in The Night the Bridge Fell Down

Paul Regina was born in Brooklyn in 1956 and passed away from liver cancer in 2006.

Photo: snipview.com

Before his role on Joe and Valerie, he had parts in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Hour and Police Woman both in 1978. After the show ended, his career stayed fairly busy. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he could be seen on many popular television shows including Benson, Gimme a Break, TJ Hooker, Hunter, and Empty Nest. He would be cast in three series: Zorro and Son in 1983, Brothers from 1984-89, and The Untouchables in 1993-94. He also had a recurring role as a lawyer on LA Law between 1988-1992.

Photo: waytoofamous.com

Post 2000 before his death he was in Law and Order several times as well as two movies, The Blue Lizard and Eddie Monroe.

David Elliott had a successful career going when he received the role of Paulie. He began with several roles on tv including a mini-series, Pearl, that Char Fontane was also in. From 1972-1977, he had a role in The Doctors in 272 episodes. Before beginning Joe and Valerie, he had a role on Angie in 1979.

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Photo: imdb.com

After the show ended, he continued showing up in television series including TJ Hooker, St. Elsewhere, Simon and Simon, and Murder She Wrote. He ended his credited acting career with seven movies in the 1990s.

He is an interesting guy. After dropping out of high school, he drove a cab in New York. He was a professional boxer, ran a PI business in Hollywood, received his pilot’s license, sat on the board of a major labor union, and traveled extensively through every continent except Africa and Antarctica. Recently he earned a certificate in both long and short fiction from the UCLA Writer’s program and has written a novel, The Star Shield, about a body guard trying to rescue a kidnapped movie star. Currently he is working on a collection of short stories.

The role of Frankie was played by two different actors, Bill Beyers in 1978 and Lloyd Alan in 1979.

Photo: headhuntersholo.com
Bill Beyers

Bill Beyers was born in New York in 1955 and died in 1992 in Los Angeles. His first role was that of Frankie on Joe and Valerie. Following the end of that show he was cast in several series including Barnaby Jones, Quincy ME, The Incredible Hulk, CHiPs, Too Close for Comfort, and Murder She Wrote. He had a recurring role on Capitol, appearing in 24 episodes from 1982-1987.

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Lloyd Alan was in 1952. He might have had the shortest career of the cast. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, he was in an episode of Eight is Enough. After he appeared in The Love Boat, Knight Rider, and Baywatch. His last credited acting job was 1998. I was unable to locate a photo of Lloyd Alan.

The actors with the longest careers were Robert Costanzo who played Joe’s father Vince; Arlene Golonka who was Stella, Valerie’s mother; and Donna Ponterotto who played Rita/Thelma, Valerie’s best friend.

Donna Ponterotto had a successful career following the cancellation of Joe and Valerie. She came to the show having appeared on The Police Story, Happy Days, and Rhoda.

Photo: imdb.com

Following the show, she appeared on Trapper John MD, Laverne and Shirley, The Love Boat, Who’s the Boss, Murder She Wrote, Night Court, Murphy Brown, ER, Mad About You, Third Rock from the Sun, and NYPD Blue among others. Her last film was Sharkskin in 2015.

Arlene Golonka grew up in Chicago where she was born in 1936. She began taking acting classes when she was quite young. At age 19, she headed for New York and began a career on Broadway. In the 1960s she relocated to Los Angeles. She continued to appear in movies and appeared in dozens of television programs during the next three decades. While she is probably best known as Millie on Mayberry R.F.D., she has appeared in many respected series.

Photo: blogspot.com

Golonka came into Joe and Valerie with a strong resume. She had made appearances in shows such as The Naked City, Car 54 Where Are You, The Flying Nun, Big Valley, Get Smart, I Spy, That Girl, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Barnaby Jones, Alice, The Rockford Files, and Love American Style. She made five appearances on The Doctors with David Elliott.

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After Joe and Valerie, she continued to receive many roles including on Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Simon and Simon, Benson, and Murder She Wrote. Her last appearance was on The King of Queens in 2005, and she is now retired.

Robert Costanzo was born in New York in 1942. He also came into the show with a very strong string of shows, having been in Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show, and Lou Grant. He also was in several profitable movies including Dog Day Afternoon, The Goodbye Girl, and Saturday Night Fever.

Photo: pinterest.com

Following the end of Joe and Valerie, he would continue his successful career. Costanzo has been cast in recurring roles in ten shows: Last Resort, Checking In, The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, 1st Ten, Glory Days, NYPD Blue, Charlie and Grace, and Champions. He has continued to take roles on other series including Barney Miller, Alice, Who’s the Boss, Family Ties, St. Elsewhere, The Golden Girls, Friends, and Murder She Wrote.

His movie career has also been very successful, and he is remembered for his roles in Used Cars, Total Recall, Die Hard 2, and Air Bud.

Currently Costanzo is still acting and has several movies debuting in the next couple of years.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

I have to admit I do not remember Joe and Valerie, and obviously I did not watch it, but I don’t think I missed much. It’s fun to learn about some of the more obscure shows that had a brief flicker in television history. There are many more shows that lasted for less than 20 episodes than there are the classics we remember today. If nothing else, the show captures a unique time in American history.

Georgia Engel: Reflecting Joy

We continue our series to honor television stars who passed away in 2019 by looking at the career of Georgia Engel.

Photo: Wikipedia.com

Georgia was born in Washington DC in 1948 as Georgia Bright Engel. Although she attended several high schools, she graduated from the Academy of the Washington Ballet. Her father was an admiral, and perhaps her family landed in Hawaii, but she went on to earn a theater degree from the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

In 1969, Engel would move to New York City. She was in an off-Broadway production, Lend an Ear and as Minnie Fay in Hello Dolly! for a year. When she was appearing in The House of Blue Leaves, Mary Tyler Moore and her husband Grant Tinker saw her performance one night.

Photo: pressfrom.info

She was cast in The Mary Tyler Moore Show soon after, appearing in 57 episodes as Georgette Baxter, Ted’s girlfriend, and later, wife. Mary described the character as a cross between Stan Laurel and Marilyn Monroe. Georgette was devoted to Ted. She received two Emmy nominations for her role on the classic show.

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Betty White played Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and when White received a show of her own, The Betty White Show, in 1977, she brought Engel in as part of the new series as Mitzi Maloney. The plot featured White as a middle-aged actress who gets the starring role in a police series, Undercover Woman. Unfortunately, she soon learns her ex-spouse, whom she calls “old pickle puss” is the director. Mitzi is her naïve girlfriend and roommate.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

In 1980 she joined the cast of Goodtime Girls as Loretta Smoot. Set in 1942, the show was about a group of women who shared a small apartment in the Coolidge Boarding House. Loretta was described as a middle-aged war bride waiting for her husband to come back home from the war.

Like so many well-known television stars, Engel did her duty, appearing on The Love Boat (4 episodes) and Fantasy Island (5 episodes).

In 1983 she took on the role of Susan Elliott on Jennifer Slept Here. Ann Jillian starred in this show as Jennifer Farrell. Farrell, a popular movie actress who was run over by an ice cream truck in 1963, had lived in the house. Twenty years later, the Elliott family moves in. Jennifer haunts the place but can only be seen by the Susan’s teenage son.

Between 1991 and 1997 she made 20 appearances on Coach as Shirley Burleigh. Shirley’s husband is the athletic director who clashes with Coach Hayden Fox.

Photo: arizonarepublic.com

From 2003-2005 she was cast as Amy’s mother, Pat MacDougall, on Everybody Loves Raymond. This role would reward her with three Emmy nominations. It’s hard to picture a better couple of wacky parents than Engel and Fred Willard!

The soap opera Passions beckoned her in 2007 where she made several portrayals of Esmeralda.

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On The Office

In 2012 she joined the cast of The Office as Irene, an older woman being aided by Erin.  

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The years 2012-2015 found her working with Betty White once again as Mamie, Elka’s (White) best friend in Hot in Cleveland. In the fourth season, the two friends run an illegal pharmacy.

Although Georgia was busy with television, she also found time to get back on the stage. In 2001, she toured with Barbara Eden in the female version of The Odd Couple. She appeared on Broadway in The Drowsy Chaperone with Sutton Foster and Edward Hibbert. She appeared in various productions at The Muny Theater in St. Louis between 2004-2010. 2005 found her playing Agnes Gooch in Mame; 2007 was Aunt Eller in Oklahoma!; 2009 was Mrs. Paroo in The Music Man.

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The Drowsy Chaperone

In 2015 she was cast in an off-Broadway play, John. Engel won a 2016 Obie for Distinguished Performance by an Actress for her role. Following that play, Engel starred in Gotta Dance, a musical playing in Chicago.

Georgia passed away in Princeton, New Jersey in April of this year. We don’t know what her cause of death was. She was a member of the Christian Scientists. A friend of hers, Joe Quilty, told the New York Times that because of her religious beliefs, she did not contact any doctors.

Photo: insideedition.com

Following Engel’s death, Betty White said she was “one of a kind and the absolute best.” During a 2012 TV Land interview, White commented on her relationship with Georgia: “You don’t get a chance very often in your life to meet a friend like Georgia, let alone an actress that you’re working with, and to suddenly find pure gold.  That’s a privilege.”

Photo: entertainmentheartbeat.com

Perhaps it’s best to end with Georgia Engel’s view of her career. Despite her being typecast as a bit of a ditzy blonde, she said, “Although I play silly parts, in order for others to share in the laughter, I think it’s important to have a heart that’s full of joy and gratitude. Joy is a very holy thing and we can never own it. We can only reflect it.”

Her lengthy and varied television career definitely reflected that joy.

Good Luck with Your MOUTH: Remembering Kaye Ballard

As we take time to remember some of our favorite television stars who passed away this year, Kaye Ballard definitely comes to mind.

Photo: pdxretro.com

Apparently, no one was surprised to learn that Catherine Gloria Ballota planned on a career in entertainment. Born in Cleveland in 1925, she was performing by age 5 and was known as the class clown. At age 16 she performed in a Cleveland USO stage production of Stage Door Canteen and began perfecting impressions of stars for her comedy act.

At the young age of 18, she received a job touring with Spike Jones and His Orchestra as the featured vocalist and flute/tuba player. When that gig ended in 1945, she made her way to New York and appeared on Broadway in Three to Make Ready in 1946. While appearing in other musicals, she earned a reputation in the nightclub circuit as a comedian/singer. She traveled around the country with her act, popping up in clubs such as The Bon Soir in New York, The Hungry i in San Francisco, and Mr. Kelly’s in Chicago. One of her catch phrases was something her mother often said to her, “Good luck with your MOUTH.”

Photo: blogspot.com

During the 1950s and 1960s, she began appearing on variety and talk shows. You would tune in and find her with Ed Sullivan, Jack Paar, Steve Allen, Perry Como, Red Skelton, Carol Burnett, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson. In fact, she appeared on The Tonight Show 150 times. She continued her Broadway career during these two decades as well. She made a name for herself playing Helen of Troy in The Golden Apple in 1954. This same year she recorded “Fly Me to the Moon,” a song Frank Sinatra would make famous. She also was part of the casts of Wonderful Town (1958), Carnival (1961), and Cole Porter Revisited (1965).

In 1957 Julie Andrews starred in a live telecast of Cinderella, the Rodgers and Hammerstein’s version of the fairy tale. Ballard, along with Alice Ghostley, played the wicked stepsisters. It was at this time that Hollywood brought Ballard to Los Angeles. She was one of the comic foils, playing the friend of Jane Powell’s character in The Girl Most Likely. Although she would appear in several movies during her career, television is where she was best known.

Photo: Fredericksburg.com
The Girl Most Likely with Jane Powell

In 1964 she played a teacher for models on The Patty Duke Show. In 1967 she was offered one of the leads, Kaye Buell, in The Mothers-in-Law. The other lead was played by Eve Arden as Eve Hubbard. When Kaye’s son married Eve’s daughter, it caused conflict between the neighboring families, especially with their kids living in the garage. The two families had very different lifestyles. Herb Hubbard was a wealthy attorney and his wife was a champion athlete and very organized. Roger Buell was a television writer and Kaye a stay-at-home mom who is a lazy housekeeper and very unorganized. Desi Arnaz produced the show which lasted two seasons.

Photo: mesquitelocalnews.com
With Eve Arden

The show followed The Wonderful World of Disney and preceded Bonanza but never received the ratings the network hoped for. Desi agreed to pay most of the stars $2000 per week with the intent of giving them a $250 raise the second year. Because the show was not as successful as everyone thought it would be, the network agreed to renew it on the condition that all expenses, including salaries, were frozen. With the exception of Roger Carmel, all the cast members agreed to freeze their salaries. He refused, so he was replaced with Richard Deacon. With the change in the cast, the ratings went down even further, and the show was not renewed for a third year.

Photo: thenewyorktimes.com

Kaye was asked if she thought the $250 raise was a joke, and Kaye said she and Eve didn’t care about the money. They wanted to keep doing the show. At the time, Arden was making $5000 a week. The show was originally written for Arden and Ann Southern but the networks felt they were too much alike, so Ballard was brought in. Kaye couldn’t get over actors receiving one or two million dollars an episode a couple decades later.

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A long-time friendship developed between Ballard and Arden during the filming of the show. Ballard fondly remembered her co-star, “Eve was a joy to work with, and we never had an unpleasant moment. . . She could read a script once and know it almost completely.”

Another long friendship was made when Kaye worked with Shelley Winters on a film in 1964. Kaye relayed that when Shelley was cast in The Poseidon Adventure, she “used my (Kaye’s) pool to practice swimming underwater because the studio wouldn’t let her rehearse until they started shooting. She was a great swimmer but ruined all my flashlights by swimming with them.”

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

The 1970s found Kaye very busy. From 1970-1972 she was a regular on The Doris Day Show, playing restaurant owner Angie Pallucci. The series took some liberties with format. The first two years had Doris moving back to her dad’s ranch to raise her kids after the death of her husband. The third season found Doris and her dad and kids living in an apartment above the Pallucci’s restaurant. In the fifth and final season, the kids, dad, and the Palluccis all disappeared and were never mentioned!

In 1971 she guest starred on her friend’s show, Here’s Lucy. In 1970 Ballard purchased Ball and Arnaz’s home after their divorce. She would live there the rest of her life. Her friend Lucy would often stop by and talked about Desi whom she never quite got over.

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Ballard won the trifecta in the seventies, appearing on Love American Style, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat. She accepted a handful of random roles on television shows after The Doris Day Show ended. You might have seen her on Police Story or Trapper John MD.

The 1990-1991 season found Kaye trying her hand at a situation comedy one more time. The show was called What a Dummy. This show did stretch reality a bit. Ed and Polly Branningan inherit his uncle’s trunk of props which includes his dummy Buzz who has been in the trunk for 50 years. Buzz can think and talk and likes to give the family his unsolicited advice. Ballard was Mrs. Tavalony, their next-door neighbor. No surprise that it was cancelled after 24 episodes.

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In 1995, Ballard was rewarded with a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars.

Kaye continued to take a few movies now and then, but most of her time was spent on the stage. In 2005, she went on the road in Nunsense. She also accepted roles in The Pirates of Penzance, High Spirits, Funny Girl, The Full Monty, and The Odd Couple.

In 2006, Kaye added author to her resume, publishing an autobiography, How I Lost 10 Pounds in 53 Years.

In 2015, Kaye announced her official retirement. She was interviewed by Nick Thomas that same year and talked about writing a second book. She explained to Thomas that she never married but did not have any regrets. “I was engaged four times, but couldn’t give my all to a marriage or wanted children unless I could give them my complete attention. But I’ve got to meet so many great people because of my career. Who could regret that?”

One of those great people was Mother Teresa whom she met in 1992. Kaye discussed that meeting: “I’m an Irish Catholic girl, so it was a thrill. I went to her private quarters where she was having breakfast –a piece of cheese, half an apple and some toast—and we drank Sanka together. She spoke in English, simply and quietly, and was just so modest and humble.”

Although she survived breast cancer, Kaye passed away at age 93 at her home from kidney cancer in January.

Kaye Ballard, ca. 1958
Photo: thehollywoodreporter.com

The girl from Cleveland with the MOUTH had a long, successful, and interesting career. In her own words, “I’m one of the lucky ones. People get Master’s Degrees and they say, ‘I don’t know what I wanted to do.’ I always knew what I wanted to do. Isn’t that nice?”

I have to agree; it was nice for her and even nicer for those of us she entertained.

At The Summit of Coolness: The Rat Pack on Television

Photo: mentalfloss.com

For some reason, the group including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr. have been referred to the Rat Pack since the 1960s. The original rat pack was coined by Lauren Bacall about a group who gathered at her home whom she referred to as a pack of rats. The group we know as the Rat Pack preferred to call themselves the Clan or the Summit. Whatever they chose to call themselves, they had a hip, cool aura.

When one of the members of the group was scheduled to perform at Las Vegas, another one or two of the Clan would often show up as well. Because concert goers knew this, their shows tended to sell out. The Sands marquee promoted the possibility during one of Dean Martin’s shows when they put up “DEAN MARTIN – MAYBE FRANK – MAYBE SAMMY.”

I thought it would be fun to look at the Rat Pack on television and see how much influence this group had. Let’s start with Old Blue Eyes.

FRANK SINATRA

Frank began his film career in the 1940s. In 1953 he had one of his most famous roles in From Here to Eternity. I was surprised to learn that he began appearing on television in the mid-1950s as well. He showed up in The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1954, The Producer’s Showcase in 1955, and The Thin Man in 1958.

In the 1970s we find Frank showing up on Laugh-In for several appearances.

He also sang a few lullabies on Make Room for Granddaddy, Danny Thomas’ revival of his hit show Make Room for Daddy from the 1950s. I was amazed at the talent of actors who guest starred on the reboot considering the short time it was on the air, but that is a topic for a future blog. On this episode, he bumps into Danny. His wife Kathy is not happy Danny is bringing home a guest for dinner on “hamburger night” but then she learns it’s Frank. He sings “All the Way” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” for Danny’s grandson, Michael.

Photo: imdb.com

Jumping ahead a decade, we find Frank’s last two television roles, one as himself and one as a New York cop.

Frank had met Tom Selleck in Hawaii on one of his trips. In 1987 Frank appeared as Michael Doheny, a retired police sergeant on Selleck’s show, Magnum PI. Frank and his entourage traveled to Hawaii (although he worked for scale) and took over a floor at The Colony Surf in Diamond Head. In this episode he returns to help find the men who kidnapped his granddaughter. There were plans for Sinatra to return in season eight as well but Selleck cut back on the number of episodes he was filming, and the show was never written.

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In 1989 Sinatra showed up on Who’s the Boss as himself. Angela is invited to an exclusive party, but she gets waylaid by a work issue. Mona and Tony decide to take the tickets, but they can’t get in when they get there and then Angela shows up, which results in all three of them being thrown out of the gala. As Frank is showing up to sing, Tony gets to meet him and tell him he is his idol.

DEAN MARTIN

Not surprisingly Dean’s first appearance on television was on Make Room for Daddy in 1958. He portrayed himself. Danny calls on Dean to help him out with his daughter Terry who has been not very nice to a boy at school who likes her. Danny learns she is ignoring the boy because she has a crush on Dean. The plan works, and she and Donald get together.

Photo: youtube.com

During the same year, Dean shows up on The Phil Silvers Show. Bilko (Silvers) is sent to Yucca Flats to work on a nuclear test program. Ritzik is amazed by one of the scientist’s machines. They skip the base and head for Las Vegas, so Rupert can demonstrate his gambling skills. Dean Martin is an unnamed gambler they run into.

In 1964 Martin got on the western bandwagon, appearing in Rawhide. Martin is stalking Hispanic cattlemen. His wife wants him to drop the assignment and retire to her family’s plantation with her, but he refuses, and she seeks help from Gil Favor, the boss of a never-ending cattle drive.

We see Martin pop up on a Bob Hope special in 1968 and a Red Skelton show in 1970.

Photo: vegasmagazine.com

In 1978 Martin made an appearance on a show that surprised me: Charlie’s Angels. Martin plays the owner of the Tropicana Casino who hires the Angels to investigate several suspicious deaths that he thinks are part of a plot to make him think he’s going crazy. This was a two-part season opener and instead of singing, Martin got to display his magic skills. Naturally, he becomes romantically involved with one of the Angels, Sabrina played by Kate Jackson.

Fittingly, Dean’s last appearance was in the show Vega$ in 1979 as himself.

JOEY BISHOP

Bishop’s first role was not much of a stretch. He played a comedian on Richard Diamond in 1959. Bishop’s plays Joey Kirk and hires Diamond to determine who is following him and why, leading to a complicated murder plot.

He appeared in the DuPont Show of the Month in 1960 and The Dick Powell Theater in 1963.

Like most of the Rat Pack, Bishop made an appearance on Make Room for Daddy in 1961. As Joey Mason, he helps out Danny. Danny has flown from the east coast to the west coast and took two sleeping pills. However, there are four conventions in town and his assistant forgot to make him a reservation.

In 1965 he is Fred Jackson on an episode of Valentine’s Day starring Tony Franciosa and Jack Soo about a young eligible bachelor who lives with his valet, a poker-playing con artist who saved his life while they were in the Army.

Photo: tvtropes.com

From 1961-1965, Joey stars in The Joey Bishop Show as Joey Barnes. Barnes is the host of a talk show. He has to deal with his personal and professional life as a celebrity. A lot of guest stars show up playing themselves as guests on his show or friends of his. The show produced 125 episodes. I have recently been watching it on Antenna TV where it now is shown every morning.

In 1967, Joey had a cameo on Get Smart. Max and 99 are sent on an assignment to rescue Don Carlos, the dictator of San Saludos. A general has imprisoned him and wants to marry his daughter. Max and 99 try to disguise themselves as flamenco dancers. When they are also thrown in jail, a guard, played by Bishop, attempts to bribe the firing squad.

In the 1970s we find Joey on Chico and the Man in 1976. He plays an inept burglar and when Ed doesn’t press charges, every lowlife crook appears at the business.

In 1981 Bishop appears as Dr. Burton on Trapper John MD.

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In 1985 Bishop again takes on the role of a comedian on Hardcastle and McCormick. That same year he also played another comedian on Murder She Wrote.

PETER LAWFORD

Drama shows were very popular in the early days of television. Lawford appeared in quite a few of these shows from 1953-1965.

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

In 1954 he took on the role of Bill Hastings on Dear Phoebe. The show was on the air for two years, resulting in 32 episodes. Hastings works for a daily newspaper in a large city. He becomes the author of a lonely hearts column and advises his readers as “Phoebe” while trying to deal with his own issues in his personal life.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

From 1957-1959, he was Nick Charles on the television version of The Thin Man. The show was very popular with 723 episodes filmed. Similar to the films, Nick marries Nora and lives in a luxurious Park Avenue apartment in New York. He was previously a private detective and many of his underworld friends get him involved in mysteries he has to solve.

Lawford appeared as himself on an episode of Jack Benny’s show in 1961.

He also played himself on The Patty Duke Show in 1965. Patty is selected to find a star to perform at the high school prom. Sammy Davis Jr. also guest stars on the episode.

Photo: imdb.com

Apparently, Sammy and Peter enjoyed working together because they guest starred on an episode of The Wild Wild West in 1966. Lawford is a wealthy ranch owner and Davis is a hired hand Jeremiah.

While Bishop showed up on Get Smart, Lawford chose the more realistic I Spy in 1967.

Like Sinatra, he also appeared on Laugh-In but must have enjoyed it more because he was on ten different episodes.

During the 1970s, Lawford shows up on a variety of television show genres. He would be on the western The Virginian in 1971, Born Free about Elsa the lion in 1974, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, the bizarre comedy High Cliffe Manor, the crime drama Hawaii Five-0, the dramady Supertrain, and The Jeffersons.

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In addition, he was featured on Bewitched in 1972. Lawford played Harrison Woolcott, a client of Darrin and Larry’s. Sam’s cousin Serena decides she wants to date him and try the mortal life for a while.

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He made several appearances during seasons four and five of The Doris Day Show. As Dr. Peter Lawrence, he begins a romance with Doris in 1972-1973.

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Sammy probably appeared in the most television shows. Like Peter, he began in drama shows and guest starred in several episodes of General Electric Theater.

He then appeared in The Lawman in 1961, Frontier Circus, Cain’s Hundred, 77 Sunset Strip, The Rifleman, and Hennessey in 1962.

In 1963 he was on Ben Casey.

Like the other Rat Pack actors, he was on Make Room for Daddy in 1963 and the revival Make Room for Granddaddy in 1970.

As mentioned before, he guest starred in The Patty Duke Show in 1965 and The Wild Wild West in 1966, both with Peter Lawford.

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In 1967, he showed up on I Dream of Jeannie as himself. Tony tries to get Sammy Davis Jr to sing for General Peterson’s party. When he is already booked, Jeannie tries to help by duplicating himself, so he can be in two places at one time.

Davis also took a role in The Beverly Hillbillies in 1969.

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The same year he took on his first of three roles on Mod Squad. His first role was a black priest who becomes the target of a bad guy after the church suspends him. The hood is afraid he will reveal his confession now that he no longer is part of the church. The next episode he appeared on was in the role of Billy Lee Watson, a recovered drug addict. He runs a half-say house and is accused of rape of a man’s daughter who he has been trying to help. Her father accused Billy of the rape and after investigating, it turned out Billy was her actual father.  The last episode of Mod Squad he appeared on in 1970 had Davis portraying Willie Rush and actor and friend of Linc’s. He says someone is trying to kill him.

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The 1970s continued to be a productive time for Davis on television. He would go on to appear in The Name of the Game in 1970, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in 1972, nine episodes of Laugh-In, and like his friend Dean Martin, an episode of Charlie’s Angels in 1977. He plays himself on Charlie’s Angels. When he hosts a charity event that includes a celebrity look alike contest, an attempt is made to kidnap him. The Angels take on the job of his bodyguards and Bosley becomes his chauffeur.

The 1980s were also busy times for him. He appeared as himself on several Norman Lear shows including Archie Bunker’s Place and The Jeffersons. He also could be seen on Fantasy Island, Pryor’s Place, Gimme a Break, The Cosby Show and Hunter in the 1980s.

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One thing that surprised me was his roles on One Life to Live and General Hospital. I have seen a few stars like Carol Burnett who chose to appear on a soap opera. Davis had a recurring role on General Hospital; he didn’t seem to me to be the type of actor who would be interested in a soap opera, but he did receive an Emmy nomination for his role on General Hospital. Sammy was also nominated for an Emmy for his work on The Cosby Show.

While Joey Bishop hosted some of the Emmy Award shows, I did not find any nominations for the other members of the Rat Pack.

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Overall, I was surprised how extensive the television careers were for the Summit members. I think of them more in their performing or movie careers and did not expect them to see that they guest starred in so many shows and starred in some of their own television series. Check out some of these shows or make a batch of popcorn and watch the ensemble in the original Ocean’s Eleven.

The Millionaire and His Wife: Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer

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Today we continue our month-long series about the characters on Gilligan’s Island and the stars who portrayed them. We begin with the millionaire, Thurston Howell III, and his wife, Lovey. On the island, their money is worthless, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Howell from bribing other captives when it’s in his best interest.  He must have been a boy scout who learned the motto, “Be prepared,” because he and his wife took clothes on a three-hour tour to last a few years. In real life, Natalie Schafer was the millionaire. Both Backus and Schafer had very interesting careers.

 

Jim Backus

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Jim Backus was born in Cleveland in February of 1913. He was one of those stars who seemed to excel in everything:  radio, Broadway, animation, big-screen movies, and television series. In an interesting aside, Margaret Hamilton who would go on to have a full career including the Wicked Witch of the West at the Wizard of Oz, was one of his grade school teachers. Jim grew up in a wealthy area, attending Shaw High School in East Cleveland. His father was a mechanical engineer. I could not find exact proof of this but several articles mention he was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse in the mess hall. He later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

In 1939 he married Betty Kean; they divorced in 1942. One of his famous quotes was “Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success.”

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In the 1940s, Backus began appearing on radio as the “rich man,” which he often portrayed afterward on radio and television. He played the role of aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS Radio Network. He also appeared on the Mel Blanc Show as Hartley Benson, an arrogant character, and as Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show. He also showed up regularly on The Jack Benny Program.

During his radio years, he married Henny Backus whom he was married to the rest of his life.

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He began his big-screen cinema career in 1949 and would go on to appear in almost 100 movies, including Here Come the Nelsons, Pat and Mike, and Rebel Without a Cause (seen above). His most famous movie role was probably Tyler Fitzgerald in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. My favorite movie of his is Hello Down There with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh from 1969.

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During the 1950s, he began auditioning for roles on television. He would go on to appear on 18 different series during that decade, including I Married Joan, on which he starred with Joan Davis. On the show, Backus played a respected judge and Davis was his scatterbrained wife. The show was very popular and lasted three seasons.

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As if he wasn’t busy enough with acting in the 1950s, he also made a song recording with Phyllis Diller that hit the top 40 in 1958. It was called “Delicious,” and the two of them would take a sip of champagne throughout the song, saying “Delicious.” As the song continues, they get more drunk and a bit giddy, slurring their words and laughing hysterically.

 

His television career continued to be demanding in the 1960s. He appeared on 25 series, and four of them had regular starring sitcom roles. In 1960, The Jim Backus Show debuted. The program focuses on Backus in the role of Mike O’Toole, the editor/proprietor of a low rent wire service struggling to stay in business.

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He had made movie shorts about Mr. Magoo in the 1950s and in 1960, he starred in 130 episodes of Mr. Magoo and would make 26 more episodes under the title The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo in 1964-1965. Mr. Magoo was an older nearsighted man who was very popular, appearing in ads and merchandise for years. The humor of the show was based on the difference between what Mr. Magoo thinks he sees and the reality of what was really there. Jim Backus liked to repeat a story about his famous character. He was in the movie, Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe. She asked Jim to meet her in her dressing room later and his curiosity got the best of him, so he went, only to learn she wanted him to portray Mr. Magoo which he did.

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This was also the decade he was offered the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island in 1964. That same year he was asked to play the role of Abner Kravitz on a new show, Bewitched but turned it down because he was committed to Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island would run from 1964-1967 and he would go on to appear in several Gilligan revivals including the far-fetched The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

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During 1968-1969, Backus took the role of Mr. Dithers in a revival of Blondie.

During the 1960s, he also appeared on 77 Sunset Strip, The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild West, and I Spy, among others.

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Backus continued his television work into the 1970s where he appeared on 31 shows. He appeared in a variety of genres including I Dream of Jeannie, Young Dr. Kildare, Medical Center, The Brady Bunch, Gunsmoke, Ellery Queen, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.

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Backus also continued his commercial work in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the spokesperson for La-Z-Boy furniture and General Electric. He and Natalie Schafer appeared in an ad for Redenbacher’s popcorn. They played their characters from Gilligan’s Island but apparently had been rescued and were in a luxurious home. In a sweet ending, it was the last television appearance for either of them.

When Jim Backus had a little bit of free time between acting jobs, he loved to golf. He also tried his hand at writing a few books and film scripts, including his autobiography which he wrote with his wife, Only When I Laugh in 1965.

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In July of 1989, Backus died from pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years.

He had a long and varied career and seemed to have many friends in the business.

 

Natalie Schafer

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A millionaire in real life, Natalie Schafer seemed like a very fun woman, a bit of a character. She was born in November of 1900 in New Jersey and raised in Manhattan. She was quite secretive about her age, often claiming she was born in 1912.

She began her career in Broadway, appearing in 17 plays. She married actor Louis Calhern in 1934 and they divorced in 1942. She moved to Los Angeles in 1941 to become a film actress and received parts in 34 movies. Incidentally, she and her ex remained friends and appeared together in the movie Forever Darling in 1956.

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Like Backus, Schafer typically played wealthy and sophisticated roles. She did not have the versatility her tv husband had but continued to stay busy acting on television.  While Gilligan’s Island was her only long-term role, she appeared on 21 shows in the 1950s (including I Love Lucy, Loretta Young, Phil Silvers, and Topper); 8 in the 1960s (including The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and Route 66); 15 in the 1970s (including Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, and McMillan and Wife); and an additional 8 shows in the 1980s before she passed away (including Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Trapper John, and Simon and Simon).

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Schafer made most of her money from investments, particularly in real estate.

Several sources revealed that much of her fortune was bequeathed to either her Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells or to care for her dogs; however, at least $1.5 million was donated to the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home to renovate their outpatient wing. I never saw any answers from Wells about inheriting money, but on Vicki Lawrence’s talk show, she did say that Schafer spent her last years living with her. Like many wealthy people, she was quite thrifty.  She often admitted that she accepted the role of Mrs. Howell because she got a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot and didn’t expect it to get picked up.

 

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Everyone seemed to like her on the set. Dawn Wells said she especially adored Schafer and Backus. Schafer was a hard worker and liked to keep fit. In a Chicago Tribune article from October 25, 1965, she relayed her secrets for staying in shape. For one thing, she did her own stunts on the show. She also said she swam nude every morning and evening, doing 100 strong kicks at the side of the pool. She also invented an ice cream diet for herself. She claimed to eat a quart a day, saying she had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with her coffee, two bowls of varying flavors for both lunch and dinner, and another single bowl for an afternoon snack. She claimed that she would lose three pounds in five days.

In 1990, Schafer passed away from liver cancer. After her death, she wanted people to realize her true age, and many of her closest friends were quite surprised to learn she was 12 years older than she claimed.

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While Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey were two interesting characters, I don’t think they can compete with the characters who were Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. I had a lot of fun learning about them.