Mr. Johnson Teaches Us About the “Art” of Television Acting

As we continue honoring revered television actors who passed away in 2019, Arte Johnson certainly is at the top of the list. Although he accepted roles in movies, most of his work was on the small screen.

Photo: blogspot.com

Arte was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 1929. Acting was not Arte’s first profession. He graduated with a radio journalism major from Illinois and decided to pursue a career in the advertising world. He left Chicago when he could find no ad agency jobs and moved to New York where he began at Viking Press. He loved books and collected them throughout his life.

Unlike the stories of people who hone their craft in hundreds of auditions in the Big Apple, Arte impulsively stepped into an audition line for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and got the part. His real name was Arthur and he decided on Art E. Johnson for his stage name, but “Arte” was mistakenly printed on the playbill, and he decided he liked that better.

Although acting began easily for him, after he moved to LA, his career hit a rough spot and he did take a job as a men’s clothing salesman for a while at Carroll & Co. in Beverly Hills.

Photo: cvta.biz
It’s Always Jan

Arte began on television in the 1950s. In the mid-50s, he had a recurring role on It’s Always Jan starring Janis Paige and Merry Anders. A widowed nightclub singer, Janis Stewart, shares a small apartment with an aspiring actress, a secretary, and her daughter. Arte plays a deli employee, showing up in 4 of the 26 episodes.

He was cast as in his first ongoing role later that year. He played Bascomb Bleacher, Jr. on Sally. His father, a department store owner, was played by Gale Gordon. This show about a girl who worked in a department store who became a wealthy matron’s companion also lasted 26 episodes.

Photo: sharetv.com
Cousin Edgar on Bewitched

During the 1960s, Arte would appear in 32 different series, including The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, McHale’s Navy, Bewitched, Lost in Space, The Donna Reed Show, and I Dream of Jeannie. Once again, he was cast as a regular on a show, Don’t Call Me Charlie. If you’re not familiar with the show, you are not alone. The show starred Josh Peine as a rural veterinarian who is drafted into the Army. He leaves Iowa and heads for Paris. Like Gomer Pyle he retains his simple view of life and his “Sargent Carter” is Colonel Barker. Johnson played the part of Col. Lefkowitz.

Photo: inquisitor.com
The Cast of Laugh In

In 1968, Arte was offered a job that would change his life. Along with a handful of other cast members, he appeared on the new edgy Laugh-In. This is a hard show to describe if you never watched it. (It does appear on the Decades channel quite often.) The show was comprised of fast-moving comedy bits featuring guest stars, skits, regulars performing specific characters, gags, and punchlines in rapid format. It was quite different from anything else that had ever appeared in television. Arte was on the show from 1967-1971.

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“Wolfgang”

He was a master of accents and is best known for the characters he created on this show. “Wolfgang” was a cigarette-smoking German soldier hiding out who refused to believe WWII had ended. One of Arte’s taglines was “Verrrrry Interrrrresting.” He would also be seen in a yellow raincoat riding a tricycle that he would fall off from.

Photo: blogspot.com
Tyrone and Gladys

Another favorite was “Tyrone” who was an old man wearing a trench coat, always trying to seduce Ruth Buzzy’s “Gladys” on a park bench. She would hit him with her purse, and he often fell off the bench. Oddly, in a far-reaching concept, years later these two characters formed the nexus of a Saturday morning cartoon show, Baggy Pants and the Nitwits.

Photo: fox8.com
On The Partridge Family

During the 1970s, Johnson continued his television appearances with 17 different series, including two roles on The Partridge Family and several on Love American Style. He also could be seen on Match Game and Hollywood Squares.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

His prolific career continued through the 1980s where he was seen on 25 different shows, including Murder She Wrote and The Love Boat. At the end of the ’80s, he began voicing characters for animation shows, but in the 1990s he accepted roles on 14 shows, including Night Court.

At the end of his career, his love of books provided him an opportunity to begin recording the narration for more than 80 audiobooks, including Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up in 2005.

Photo: vulture.com

Married to his wife Gisela since 1968, he survived a battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1997. In 2006 he retired from acting. He passed away mid-year in 2019 after suffering from bladder and prostate cancer. Ruth Buzzy, his comrade on Laugh-In, shared this message upon his death: “Thank you for a wonderful half-century of friendship. I could not have shared the spotlight with a nicer guy. Rest in peace. And yes, Arte Johnson, I believe in the hereafter.”

I like to think Arte is working on some skits, waiting for Ruth Buzzy, and some day when we get to heaven, we’ll be able to watch Gladys and Tyrone team up for us again.

Earle Hagen Whistles a Happy Tune

We don’t often notice music in the background of our favorite shows, but it has a significant impact on our appreciation for a series. One of my favorite CDs in the 1980s was the music from thirtysomething. I admit I didn’t often pay attention to the music while watching the show, but I loved listening to the soundtrack.

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Photo: findagrave.com

Today we get to spend some time learning about one of the most prolific songwriters in the television industry: Earle Hagen. Earle was born in the Midwest in 1919, in Chicago, but moved with his family to Los Angeles. He began playing the trombone in junior high school.

At age 16 he left home to play with some of the best big bands in the country: Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Ray Noble.

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Photo: earlehagen.net

During his time with Noble, when he was only 20, Hagen composed the song “Harlem Nocturne” as a tribute to Duke Ellington and Johnny Hodges. It would be recorded by numerous musicians over the years and later was adopted as the theme for both Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer and The New Mike Hammer.

In 1940 Earle was hired by CBS as a staff musician. Like many of the composers we have been learning about, Hagen enlisted in the military for World War II. When he came home, he became an orchestrator and arrangement writer for 20th Century Fox. He worked on a variety of films including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Carousel.

In 1943 he married Lou Sidwell, a big band singer. They would remain married until she passed away in 2002 and produce two sons.

When Earle accepted the Irwin Kostal Tribute Award in 2000, he explained that “In 1953, the studios committed to large screen production and we went from 38 pictures a year to one. There were other pictures on the planning board but not immediate enough to support the huge studio staffs. So, along with 1199 other people, I migrated to television.”

The first show he worked on was a short-lived series, It’s Always Jan which was on the air from 1955-56.

Then Hagen met Sheldon Leonard. As he says, “There again my good fortune held. I teamed up with Danny Thomas and Sheldon Leonard at a time when they were starting a string of hits that lasted 17 years.” Earle wrote the theme for Make Room for Daddy.

Those 17 years were busy. Leonard initiated the practice of using original music for sitcoms, so a lot of background music was required. Hagen said that during that era, the composer was part of the creative team. His opinion was asked for and respected in pre-production, production, and post-production.

He loved working in television. He said that there was “something about the immediacy of TV that I enjoyed. It was hard work, with long hours and endless deadlines, but being able to write something one day and hear it a few days later appealed to me. I think a statistic of which I am most proud is that in the 33 years I spent in television I was associated with some three thousand shows. Every one of them was recorded in Los Angeles with a live orchestra.”

His work continued with Leonard, and he wrote the theme song for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

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Photo: brioux.tv

Then Sheldon asked him to come up with a theme for a show about some gentle town folks and their sheriff. Earle said he struggled a while trying to come up with the perfect theme. As he described the process: It’s like “peeling an onion. Half of coming up with something good is throwing away what’s not.” Finally, he had a brainstorm and “he simply whistled the catchy tune which entered his head.” It’s the whistling of Hagen we hear on The Andy Griffith Show when we hear “The Fishin’ Hole.” Despite the difficulty of coming up with the theme song, Hagen enjoyed his time with The Andy Griffith Show. He said, “I guess my favorite show . . . was The Andy Griffith Show. It covered the spectrum from warmth to complete zaniness. It also was easy to write. Worthwhile, when you are doing four or five different series a week.”

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Photo: mtairynews.com

He went on to work on several shows in the 1960s, including The Bill Dana Show, That Girl, Accidental Family, Gomer Pyle USMC, Mayberry RFD, and The Mod Squad. Hagen based the Mod Squad theme on Schoenberg’s 12-tone scale which added some tension to the scenes, along with a jazzy theme song.

Hagen’s songs are some of the most recognizable ones in television. However, his most innovative and beautiful scores were done for a show that is not remembered much today, I Spy. Leonard wanted original soundtracks for each episode. This humorous spy show was filmed in locations all around the world, so the music had to vary as well.

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This was the first show to star an African American. Bill Cosby and Robert Culp were spies who took on assignments around the globe. I would like to say that the reason for the lack of the show being rerun is due to Bill Cosby and the poor personal choices he made which has resulted him being sentenced to jail and the shows he was involved with disappearing from television schedules. However, I rarely remember this show being available even before Cosby’s criminal trials, and I’m not sure why that is. In 2008, all three seasons of DVDs were released.

On the website earlehagen.net, we read that “During the run of the series he amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of ethnic music in existence at that time–some of it on commercial records bought in the countries he visited with the production team, but much of it taped live in situ with local musicians. These recordings containing priceless material of musical genres never before recorded, and in some cases, now extinct, were then mixed into the background music produced by the studio orchestra in Los Angeles.  The result was what has been deemed ‘the richest musical palette ever composed for any American television series.’ ”

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Photo: desertnews.com

Sheldon relied on Hagen to literally scout the world for filming locations. The couple visited Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok, India, Israel, Greece, Italy, France, and New York. Hagen discussed this trip. “Before the show started, at Sheldon Leonard’s invitation, Lou (my wife of 58 years so far), and I were invited to go on a `round the world trip with the Leonard’s scouting locations for the upcoming series, I Spy. On that 52-day trip we traveled first class, stayed in first class accommodations and at every airport were met by a car, driver, and interpreter, who stayed with us as long as we were in the country.”

Earle wanted viewers to remember that these were US spies so he named his music “semi jazz,” which fused local world cultures with American jazz music.

Deborah Young-Groves discusses the variety of music Hagen used in her article, Creating the Perfect Vibes for “I Spy.”

“And who could forget the frantic–almost joyous–chase across the University of Mexico in ‘Bet Me A Dollar’–Spanish brass–almost Copeland-esque (remember ‘El Salon Mexico’?), too loud to ignore but erratic and happy. And yet, like Copeland, Hagen only scored where he deemed appropriate. In that very same episode the child, who urgently seeks help for Kelly, runs in utter silence.  We hear only his pounding feet and his sobbing gasps.

But the two best episodes for music are ‘Home to Judgment’ and ‘The Warlord,’ for equally fascinating reasons. ‘The Warlord’ borrows heavy oriental imagery for the action sequences (always punctuated by that American jazz – but it works) using snare drums and brass.  How Hagen can get a trumpet to sound Asian simply by a jagged sequence of notes is still a mystery to me!

Then he changes completely and takes a plangent delicate note for the love theme between Chuang Tzu and Katherine, caught between their separate worlds.  It is somber, powerful and almost painful – one of the saddest pieces of music I have ever heard.”

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Photo: thestar.com

I Spy was on the schedule for three seasons. Hagen was nominated for an Emmy all three years for his work on the show, and he won it the last year the show aired. When asked about his favorite episodes, Hagen said, “Some of the shows of course stand out in memory: ‘Tatia,’ ‘Laya,’ ‘Home to Judgment’ ‘Warlord,’ and one of my favorites, ‘Mainly on The Plains.’ ”

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Photo: planetoftheapes.com

The music was so memorable on this show, that Hagen was able to record two albums from the series. The first album was recorded by Warner Brothers and the second was Capitol. He said he enjoyed the Capitol album more only because he was able to work on in the off season, so he had more time to devote to it.

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Earle would continue with his work on television throughout the 1970s, working on a variety of shows, including The New Perry Mason, Eight is Enough, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. In the 1980s, he worked on Dukes of Hazard.

During the last decades of his life he taught and wrote books on scoring and music arrangements. He wrote the textbook, Scoring for Films: A Complete Text. In 2000, he published his autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of.

In 2005, he married his second wife, Laura Roberts. Hagen died from natural causes in 2008.

In 2011, he was inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

Perhaps his website sums up his career best: “When one considers the vast range Earle Hagen’s career has covered, and just where he was at each stage in his life—playing trombone in the big bands during the 30s, writing arrangements for Frank Sinatra, working at 20th Century Fox during the reign of Alfred Newman, creating TV themes and scores for Sheldon Leonard shows, not to mention teaching brilliant young composers the art of scoring, and publishing the top texts in his field—it can truly be said that he lived through the best times in each of these worlds.”

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Photo: themusicsover.com

Earle Hagen was another one of the great pioneers in the golden age of television and he should be celebrated for his amazing career.