The Jimmy Stewart Show: Past Its Prime Before It Started

For this blog series, “It’s My Show,” we are looking at stars who had shows named for them.  This blog takes a look at The Jimmy Stewart Show which aired in 1971.

The Jimmy Stewart Show - Where to Watch Every Episode Streaming Online |  Reelgood
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At the beginning of the golden age of television, several stars decided to plunge into the small screen, but most stars kept their distance, not trusting that television would ever go anywhere. Stars like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and Lucille Ball created successful shows that continued for years. Once Hollywood realized that television was here to stay, they were okay with their stars dipping their feet into the series life.

In the 1970s another round of stars decided to try their luck at their own show. Jimmy Stewart was one of those screen stars, and he had a huge fan base. Viewers were greatly anticipating watching his show.

The Jimmy Stewart Show - Complete - 1971 - 7 DVDS – TV Museum DVDs
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Hal Kanter was the creator, writer, and sometimes director for the series which showed viewers the frequently chaotic home and work life of Professor Jim Howard. Kantor developed the show Julia and would later create Chico and the Man. Howard teaches anthropology at the Josiah Kessel College in Easy Valley, California which happened to be founded by his grandfather. Also living in the house are his wife Martha (Julie Adams), his son Peter (Jonathan Daly), daughter-in-law Wendy (Ellen Geer, daughter of Will Geer) and grandson Jake (Kirby Furlong). Martha and Jim also have a younger son, Teddy (Dennis Larson) who is almost the same age as Jim’s grandson. Peter’s family is living there temporarily after their house burns down. In a twist I didn’t see coming, Jim was babysitting and fell asleep with a cigar which is what caused both the house to burn down and his son to be unhappy with him for the first few episodes.

Howard’s best friend, Luther Quince (John McGiver), a local bachelor and professor, often stops by for meals and to discuss life with Jim.

When Jimmy Stewart Had His Own Sitcom – (Travalanche)
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Rounding out the cast were a few recurring characters including Jo Bullard (Mary Wickes), president of the Women’s Action Group; Agatha Dwiggins (Jeff Donnell), a scatterbrained busybody, Dimitri Karpopolis (Richard Annis), college football hero; local businessman Fred Shimmel (Rickie Layne), chatty milkman Woodrow Yamada (Jack Soo), and students Janice Morton (Kate Jackson), Norman Lansworth (Lou Manor) and Ida Levin (Melissa Newman).

I read that except for Stewart, the casting for the family seemed to be off and never engendered any warmth for viewers. Jimmy wanted his real wife Gloria to play Martha, but after she was tested, the network said they wanted someone more experienced. More than fifty women were considered for the role, and twenty of them were brought in to read with Stewart.

However, John McGiver received a lot of praise for his character. Luther and Jim were quite different. Jim rode his bike to school while Luther drove a Rolls Royce.

The show really didn’t speak to viewers, and ratings, which weren’t great, got worse. The series was cancelled after 24 episodes. Stewart was not sad about the cancellation. Apparently, he was given the option to do the same type of work schedule Fred MacMurray had arranged for My Three Sons where he only filmed a small part of the year and everyone else filmed around him, but he declined. However, Stewart said he later regretted not trying that because he didn’t enjoy the long hours filming this show.

THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW Guest Star KATE JACKSON 1971 VERY RARE - YouTube
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The show debuted in the fall of 1971 on Sunday nights. It was sandwiched between The Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza, both big hits.

Like George Burns, James Stewart talked directly to the television audience during the opening and closing when he says “And, as always, my family and I wish you peace and love—and laughter.” During some episodes he makes an aside to the camera, and the rest of the cast thinks he’s just mumbling to himself.

This was one of the few shows during this time period that didn’t use a laugh track. Maybe that’s for the best because it doesn’t sound like there was much to laugh about in this show. It definitely shows its age today with Stewart making remarks about student protests, women’s lib, and industrial development. It obviously pandered to an older, conservative audience.

The show was filmed on a few sets and backlots. The building used for the university was known as “Hank’s School” because it first was used on a show from the sixties called Hank. It was also Boatwright University on The Waltons.

The Jimmy Stewart Show (TV Series 1971–1972) - IMDb
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Sometimes there is a downside to blog writing about the past and our favorite stars. Jimmy Stewart has always been someone I admired and respected. A couple of his movies like The Philadelphia Story and Harvey are some of my of all-time favorites. When doing research, sometimes you learn things you wish you didn’t know.

Apparently, Stewart had gotten a reputation during the filming of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence as a racist, but no one ever talked about it, and there didn’t seem to be any other controversy in his films.  However, during the production of this show, he had actor Hal Williams fired. I read several accounts that all supported that view that Stewart told Kanter that he didn’t think it would be appropriate for a black person to be ordering him around on television. His words, often quoted were, “Blacks are bossing white people all over the country, and now we’re going to have the same damn thing on prime-time television? A black is going to be lecturing me with millions of people watching? No way. I get casting approval and Williams is out.” I never read how Kantor reacted or how it affected their relationship; however, after casting Diahann Carroll as the first black actor to star in a series, it must have been disheartening to hear this from Stewart.

I understand those were different times and many people were raised as racists. We could debate the causes of people being prejudiced for hours.  However, this makes me very sad and I can’t look at Jimmy Stewart the way I did before. It doesn’t help to realize that there are still somehow a lot of Jimmy Stewarts out there sixty years later.

Comfort TV: Peace, Love, and Laughter: The Jimmy Stewart Show
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As far as his show goes, I think it was just not where fans were at in that time period. Some of the other series on at the time included The Partridge Family, The Doris Day Show, Love American Style, Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and All in the Family. By comparison, Jimmy’s show seems out of touch and old fashioned. Its competition was the F.B.I and Sunday Night at the Movies, both shows that started during The Wonderful World of Disney. If a show didn’t succeed following Disney and leading into Bonanza, it must have greatly disillusioned viewers. Jimmy was not alone as a star who couldn’t make the successful leap to television. Other stars who bombed with their shows include Jack Lemmon, Celeste Holm, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, and Henry Fonda.

Although this show is available on DVD, my suggestion is to bypass it and read a good book instead.

Stars Who Jump From the Big Screen to the Small Screen Don’t Always Land on Their Feet

While it is not uncommon for stars to transition from television to movies–think about Robin Williams, Sally Field, Melissa McCarthy, and Tom Hanks–it is less likely to see stars move from the big screen to the small screen.  Jane Fonda has transitioned to television in Frankie and Grace and Fred MacMurray did it with My Three Sons.  For most stars, the move has not worked out very well. Let’s look at a few stars who tried to make the conversion.

That Wonderful Guy – Jack Lemmon (1949)

Neil Hamilton (best known as Commissioner Gordon on Batman) plays Franklin Westbrook, a conceited drama critic who dislikes almost everything. Jack Lemmon plays Harold, a Midwesterner who thinks working for Westbrook will help him become worldly and give a boost to his acting career. His girlfriend is played by his real wife Cynthia Stone. The episodes revolved around his romantic and business adventures in New York City.  Perhaps Westbrook panned the show because it was cancelled after three episodes.

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Heaven for Betsy – Jack Lemmon (1952)

Three years later, Lemmon gave it another try. In this show, Lemmon plays Peter Bell, a toy store buyer. His wife Cynthia again played his wife Betsy. The series was based on a sketch “The Couple Next Door” that Lemmon and his wife played regularly on the Frances Langford/Don Ameche Show. Each episode lasted 15 minutes, and it told about the newlyweds’ struggles in New York City. Instead of three episodes, this series lasted three months.

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Honestly Celeste – Celeste Holm (1954)

After playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma, Holm tried her hand at television. She plays Celeste Anders, a Minnesota college professor living in Manhattan, who is getting journalism experience working for the NY Express. Celeste wrote stories ranging from modern art to underprivileged families. She also dated the publisher’s son Bob Wallace, played by Scott McKay. After three months, she was sent back to school in Minnesota. What was most surprising about this failure was that Norman Lear (who would go on to create dozens of shows) and Larry Gelbart (who later created M*A*S*H) were both part of the writing staff.

 

Going My Way – Gene Kelly (1962)

Bridging television and movies, Gene Kelly redid Bing Crosby’s movie from 1944 for the small screen. Kelly is Father Chuck O’Malley, a progressive priest assigned to the slums of New York. Father Fitzgibbon played by Leo G. Carroll is a cantankerous, old priest. Dick York was his boyhood pal Tom Colwell who ran the community center. Mrs. Featherstone (Nydia Westman) played the rectory housekeeper. The list of guest stars on the show was very impressive, but after a year, the network told Kelly to keep going and cancelled the show.

 

The Bing Crosby Show – Bing Crosby (1964)

I guess Bing decided if Gene Kelly could enter television with his old movie, he might also give it a try. He plays Bing Collins a former singer. He is now an electrical engineer married to Ellie (Beverly Garland) with two daughters Janice (Carol Faylen), 15, and boy crazy and Joyce (Diane Sherry), 10, who had a high IQ. It lasted one season. Not surprisingly, this series also attracted a lot of big-name guest stars including Frankie Avalon, Jack Benny, Dennis Day, Joan Fontaine, and George Gobel. Apparently, Garland had a thing for engineers because she would marry aeronautical engineer Steve Douglas on My Three Sons.

 

Mickey – Mickey Rooney (1964)

Mickey plays Mickey Grady who leaves the Coast Guard to manage a posh hotel, Newport Arms in California, with his wife Nora (Emmaline Henry) and two young boys. His real son plays one of his sons on the show. Sammee Tong plays the hotel’s manager. The former supervisor has left a lot of problems for Mickey. The show was cancelled in January airing only 17 episodes.

 

One of the Boys – Mickey Rooney (1982)

After vowing never to work on television again, Rooney tried it again 18 years later. Now he plays 66-year-old Oliver Nugent, rescued from a nursing home by his grandson Adam Shields (Dana Carvey). Adam is a college student who takes him in. Adam’s roommate, Jonathan Burns (Nathan Lane) is not so happy about the situation. Oliver looks for a job and lands one singing in a restaurant. Also appearing in the cast was Scatman Crothers who sang with Oliver and had also left the nursing home.  A young Meg Ryan played Adam’s girlfriend Jane. The show debuted at 18th place in the ratings but by within a month it had dropped to 68th. Even with this cast, the show was cancelled after an unlucky 13 episodes.

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Jimmy Stewart Show – Jimmy Stewart (1971)

Jimmy Stewart jumped to the small screen with great anticipation and excitement by viewers. He  played anthropology professor Jim Howard. Howard teaches at Josiah Kessel College, started by his grandfather.  His house is full with his wife, his son Peter, Peter’s wife Wendy, and his grandson Jake. He also has a young son Teddy, who happens to be the same age as his grandson. His friend Luther Quince often stops by to eat and give advice. Jim talks to the audience during the show and wishes them love, peace, and laughter at the end of each episode. Even beloved Jimmy Stewart was unable to save this show which was cancelled after one season.

 

The Doris Day Show – Doris Day (1968)

Doris Day was the most successful actor moving from film to television. However, I think the reason she managed to keep her show on the air for five seasons was because she changed the format so often that CBS did not realize it was the same show.  In 1968, Day is Doris Martin, a widow with two kids. She moves from the city to Mill Valley, CA to live on her father’s ranch.

The second season she commutes to San Francisco after accepting a job as an executive secretary to Michael Nicholson (MacLean Stevenson), the editor of Today’s Magazine. Rose Marie was Myrna Gibbons and Denver Pyle again played her father Buck Webb.

In 1970, Doris and the kids move to an apartment over an Italian restaurant run by Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell. Billy De Wolfe was her neighbor. Now Doris is writing feature stories for the magazine.

When the show returned the next fall, Doris was single and a reporter for a magazine. Her new boss was Cy Bennett (John Dehner) and she had a boyfriend Peter Lawford but later her boyfriend turned into Patrick O’Neal. There was no restaurant.

By 1973, the network caught up with all the changes and cancelled the show.

 

It was interesting that so many actors failed in television when they were such celebrated movie stars. The radio stars seemed to have better luck making the transition. Jack Benny and Burns and Allen had long-lasting and popular shows. It’s hard to imagine actors like Ryan Gosling, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, or Ben Affleck bombing on a television series today.

I think for now I will continue to choose to watch Pillow Talk, Move Over Darling, Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, Some Like It Hot, Singing in the Rain, and Hope and Crosby’s Road movies and set aside the television DVDs these stars appeared in.