When Things Were Rotten: No “Happily Ever After” for this Tale

This month’s series is “Living in the Past: Timeless Comedies.” For our first blog, we travel back to the 12th century to Sherwood Forest to a time When Things Were Rotten. After viewing one episode of this show, you knew it could only have been created by the comic legend Mel Brooks. In this case, he had the help of John Boni and Norman Stiles.

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Debuting in 1975 on ABC, Brooks considered what life would have been truly like if the legend was just hype, and Robin and his Merry Men were just a bunch of buffoons. The series has many of the traits found in Brooks’ Blazing Saddles or Monty Python episodes.

Reading the list of brilliant cast members, this show seems like one that should have been a huge hit, but in reality, it only lasted for thirteen episodes. Based on its brief airing, perhaps Robert Klein was wise to turn down the role of Robin. Dick Gautier, who worked with Brooks on Get Smart, agreed to take on the role of the heroic leader. Henry Polic II played the Sheriff of Nottingham who always got taken in by the gang. Ron Rifkin is Prince John. Misty Rowe, known best for her Hee-Haw performances, is Maid Marian. The Merry Men were indeed merry, being made up of Bernie Kopell, Dick Van Patten, Richard Dimitri (who had a dual role as identical twin brothers), and David Sabin.

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Of course, in this parody, slapstick is involved in every episode. The sight gags were always described as hilarious, and every script was full of great one-liners. It was definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. For example, at times the sheriff was said to be barking mad and he would literally bark. In one episode, the “barking” sheriff asks Bertram to hang up some banners and a cutaway scene shows a husband, wife and two children on a wall saying, “Hi, we’re the Banners.” Another example is Richard the-Lion-Hearted coming ashore after the Crusades to be met by an umpire, yelling “Safe,” at which point the sheriff shouts, “Kill the umpire.” The humor came fast and furious at a rapid-fire pace. Brooks described the construction of the show by saying: “We took great liberties, and the writing was very crazy and funny.”

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Unlike some parodies, the production of the show was high quality with lavish costumes and sets. Every episode featured a well-known guest star. Dudley Moore appeared as a piano-playing sheik named Achmed Muhammad Ben Gazzara. Other stars included Carl Ballantine, John Byner, Sid Caesar, Paul Williams, and Mel Brooks himself. Brooks said his favorite episode was “The French Disconnection” starring Caesar as a French ambassador.

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The theme song was written by Lee Adams and Charles Strouse who had done the well-known theme for All in the Family as well as many composing for many popular musicals. The lyrics were:

“Once upon a time when things were rotten,
Not just food, but also kings were rotten.
Everybody kicked the peasants,
Things were bad and that ain’t good,
Then came Robin Hood (Ba-bahh!)

“Soon a band of merry men he’d gotten,
They wore outfits made of plain green cotton,
Helping victims was their business.
Boy oh boy was business good —
Good for Robin Hood!

“They laughed, they loved, they fought, they drank,
They jumped a lot of fences.
They robbed the rich, gave to the poor —
Except what they kept for expenses!

“So when other legends are forgotten
We’ll remember back when things were rotten.
Yay for Robin Hood!”

When Things Were Rotten was definitely a product of its time. Like Laugh-In or even Sesame Street, viewers had no time to reflect on a comment. Things moved at a frenetic pace. One of the New York Times critics, John O’Connor, timed the gags and noted there was a new one every fifteen seconds.

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The critics gave the series great reviews and mentioned its inventiveness and quick humor. The ratings never backed up the praise however. Brooks had a different perspective. In an interview with Frank DeCaro in the New York Times (7-19-2013), Brooks discussed the show’s ending. “The show was canceled, Mr. Brooks said, not because it failed to find an audience — ‘The ratings weren’t bad,’ he insisted — but because, as a one-camera show, shot like a film, it just cost too much to produce. ‘I was very happy with When Things Were Rotten,’ he said. “We were on our way to doing 36 episodes, and then someone at Paramount called and said, ‘Mel, could you do it as a three-camera show?’ I said, ‘You mean like “I Love Lucy”? Are you crazy?’” When the network pulled the plug, Mr. Brooks remembers, friends offered their condolences. ‘Everybody said, ‘I’m sorry it didn’t work.’ I said: ‘It did work. It was just too expensive.’”

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The same reason many viewers might still appreciate the show today is also one of the factors of its demise. The show depended on fans knowing a lot of pop culture knowledge. People who love cultural history would have a blast watching the show, but the younger generations whom don’t have that database in the brain might feel disconnected.

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Of course, the television schedule always has a lot of sway about whether a show is a hit or a flop. This show was on Wednesday nights. Its competition was Tony Orlando and Dawn and Little House on the Prairie. While Tony Orlando and Dawn was on its last legs and would not return in 1976, Little House on the Prairie was very popular. This was the second season for the show which had a huge audience; the show would continue until 1983.

Photo: nytimes.com
Comedy legend Mel Brooks

The show might have ended, but Brooks could not let the concept go. In 1993, his film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights would continue the concept. In this version, Cary Elwes as Robin leads his men, but if you look closely, you might think The Abbot (Dick Van Patten) resembles Friar Tuck in When Things Were Rotten.

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One interesting technological advancement is that a show like this typically would never have been released on DVD because of its short run. Now, however, manufactured-on-demand makes the show available on Amazon. It’s the perfect length for a week-end marathon. You might realize that When Things Were Rotten, they were also pretty good and funny.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Fifty Years After Getting the Pink Slip

The late 1960s and early 1970s might have contained the most diverse television shows than any other era. In 1968, there were the rural comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; there were the standard sitcoms, My Three Sons, Get Smart, That Girl, Bewitched; there were the remains of a few westerns including The High Chaparral, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke; there were crime and thrillers such as Hawaii Five-0 and Mission Impossible; there was the crime/western in The Wild, Wild West, there were gameshows on at night including Let’s Make a Deal, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game; there were sci-fi shows like Star Trek and The Land of the Giants; family shows like Lassie; and even Lawrence Welk.

In addition, there were a couple of shows that were a bit edgier and introduced more  provocative concepts and themes. The Mod Squad featured three teens who were helping solve crimes in lieu of jail time, and then there was the almost-impossible-to-describe Laugh In.

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Similar to Laugh In was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which also debuted in 1967 featuring Tom and Dick Smothers. It had more of a variety format to it but it had the same topical and satirical humor.

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The Who

In addition to poking fun at politics, the war, religion, and current issues, you could tune in to the Smothers Brothers for some of the best and sometimes controversial music in the industry. Performers such as Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Cream, Pete Seeger, and The Doors appeared on the show.

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Jefferson Airplane

The show aired Sunday nights against Bonanza on NBC; ABC aired The Sunday Night Movie in its first season and Hee Haw in its second season.

The series had some of the best writers on television: Alan Blye, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mason Williams. Reiner and Martin both commented on the show in an interview by Marc Freeman in the Hollywood Reporter 11-25-2017 (“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at 50: The Rise and Fall of a Ground-Breaking Variety Show”).  

Reiner relayed that “you had two cute boy-next-doors wearing red suits, one with the stand-up bass and the other with his guitar. They looked like the sweetest, most innocent kids. You got drawn to them, and then they hit you with the uppercut you didn’t see coming.”

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Martin elaborated “When you have the power wrapped up in innocence, it’s more palatable. They were like little boys, but you also had Dickie there to reprimand Tommy when he would make an outrageous statement. It’s like the naughty ventriloquist dummy who can get away with murder as long as the ventriloquist is there to say ‘You can’t say that.’ It’s the perfect setup for getting a message across.”

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Jack Benny

In addition to the musical acts, hundreds of celebrities appeared on the show between 1967 and 1969, including Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Barbara Eden, Nanette Fabray, Eva Gabor, Shirley Jones, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, Tony Randall, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas and Jonathan Winters, along with so many others.

Part of the show was the brothers’ ongoing sibling rivalry about whom their parents liked best. They also began to add political satire and ribald humor. Pat Paulsen delivered mock editorials about current topics such as the draft and gun control, and in 1968 he had a mock presidential campaign.

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Pat Paulsen for president

Church sermon sketches poked fun at religion. The show lampooned many of the values older Americans valued, often delivering anti-establishment and pro-drug humor. No one was given an exception, and the show lambasted the military, the police, the religious right, and the government.

Battles over content were ongoing with the network. The network pulled Pete Seeger’s performance of his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” They nixed Harry Belafonte’s song, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” because it had a video collage behind him of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.

Younger viewers were tuning in, and despite the conflicts, the show was picked up for a second season. The network insisted they receive a copy of the show at least ten days in advance for editing. In April of 1969, William Paley canceled the show without notice. Some sources contend it was canceled by CBS president Robert Wood. Some sources cite the issue with unacceptable deadlines and others mention Tom Smothers lobbying the FCC and members of Congress over corporate censorship that brought about the firing. The brothers filed a breach of contract suit against the network and after four years of litigation, a federal court ruled in their favor, awarding them $776,300.

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Here’s a typical joke from the show that was not as controversial.

Tom: You can tell who’s running the country by how much clothes people wear, see?

Dick: Do you mean that some people can afford more clothes on, and some people have . . . less on? Is that what you mean?

Tom: That’s right.

Dick: I don’t understand.

Tom: See, the ordinary people, you’d say that the ordinary people are the less-ons.

Dick: So, who’s running the country?

Tom: The morons.

The Smothers Brothers elicited humor that was as topical, influential, and critical as anyone had ever heard before on television. Fifty years later, both the network and the brothers realized everyone over-reacted. If the Smothers Brothers had tried to play by the rules a bit, they would not have lost their platform to continue to help change what they saw as a messed-up culture.

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The CBS executives felt the program created too much controversy. In their defense, politicians, especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, exerted a lot of pressure on the network. Remember this was a time of three networks and ads are what produced the profits to fund shows. The network received a boatload of hate mail daily about the program and, when viewers begin talking boycotting advertisers, executives sit up a bit straighter and listen.

The Smothers Brothers Show, a less controversial series, debuted in 1975. They had two specials on NBC later and another CBS series in 1988 but never regained the influence they had in the sixties. However, the show did help pave the way for a future that permitted, and later embraced, shows with controversy beginning with All in the Family, continuing with Saturday Night Live, and recently seen on shows such hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Although the comedy spouted on the show would seem quite tame by today’s standards, the show had an important part in the history of television and the rights of free speech.

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I have seen some DVDs out there from this show, but they are pricey. Recently I saw season two going for $190. I do see Laugh In on Decades quite often, so perhaps The Smothers Brothers might show up somewhere too, although I’m not sure this show would hold up as well as Laugh In, but the musical performances would be fun to see.

Charles Lane: What a Character!

My blog theme for this month is “What a Character!” I am looking at the careers of four successful and hard-working actors. With 372 acting credits, perhaps there was no more prolific character actor than the beloved Charles Lane. He perfected the grumpy sourpuss always ready and gleeful to make life more complicated for others. His bio on imdb.com captures his type perfectly as the “scrawny, scowling, beady-eyed, beak-nosed killjoy who usually could be found peering disdainfully over a pair of specs, brought out many a comic moment simply by dampening the spirit of his nemesis.”

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However, despite that, we always knew there was more to him, and that his real persona was being covered up by his crotchety outward characteristics. His character Herman Bedloe on Petticoat Junction portrayed this dual-personality perfectly. Bedloe was always trying to shut down the train, but we knew he actually liked the Bradley family, and occasionally you would get a glimpse of the lonely and soft-hearted side of him.

He was born Charles Gerstle Levison in San Francisco in 1905. His family survived the 1906 earthquake. His father was an insurance executive, and Charles would follow in his footsteps for his first career.

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The Music Man

A friend, actor Irving Pichel, convinced Lane to try his hand at acting, and Lane joined the Pasadena Playhouse in the late 1920s. His first movie was City Girl in 1930, and his last was Acting on Impulse in 1993. During those six decades he had a successful career in both television and Hollywood. In 1933, Lane became one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In that year alone he made 23 films. There was an anecdote told about Lane that it was not uncommon for him to go to a movie, see himself on screen, and be surprised because he completely forgot he had been in the film. Starting out at $35 a day, by 1947 he was earning $750 a week.

His longest-running role was husband. In 1931 he married Ruth Covell; the couple had two children and were married until her death in 2002.

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It’s a Wonderful Life

Perhaps most people recognize Lane from his role of rent collector for Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra signed Lane to roles in ten of his movies. Lane was a corrupt attorney in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), an IRS agent in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), a newsman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a reporter in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Blink Moran in State of the Union (1948). Among his most-cherished possessions was a letter from Capra where he wrote “Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.” Other popular films he was in include The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; and The Music Man.

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You Can’t Take It with You

During World War II, Lane joined the Coast Guard. When he returned to civilian life, his television career took off. His first role was on Burns and Allen in 1951. During the 1950s, he appeared in more than 30 shows including Topper, The Thin Man, Perry Mason, and The Ann Sothern Show. He was often seen on Lucille Ball shows. He and Lucy had become friends when they both worked for RKO, and he had a great respect for Desi Arnaz’s acting ability.

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I Love Lucy

During this decade he was cast on the show Dear Phoebe in 1954. Peter Lawford starred in the show as a former college professor who writes an advice column under the name Miss Phoebe Goodheart. Meanwhile, his romantic interest is Mickey Riley portrayed by Marcia Henderson, the paper’s sports writer. Lane took on the role of Mr. Fosdick, their boss.

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The Andy Griffith Show

The 1960s found him on almost every popular show of that decade. Tuning in to your favorite series, you would spy Lane on Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, Mister Ed, The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Get Smart, The Bing Crosby Show, The Man from UNCLE, The Donna Reed Show, Green Acres, Bewitched, and The Wild, Wild West, among many others.

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Gomer Pyle USMC

Lane had recurring roles on five shows during the 1960s. On Dennis the Menace, he was the pharmacist Mr. Finch. He also could be seen on his friend’s series, The Lucy Show as Mr. Barnsdahl, a local banker. The Phyllis Diller Show had a cast that should have made it a hit and from 1966-67, Lane played Maxwell. Although many characters appeared on both The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, Lane had two different roles on the two series. He appeared in 24 episodes of Petticoat Junction between 1963-1968 as Homer Bedloe, a railroad executive who is always trying to find a reason to shut down the Cannonball. On the Beverly Hillbillies, he portrayed Foster Phinney.

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Petticoat Junction

Lane continued with both his movie and television appearances throughout the 1970s, taking roles on The Doris Day Show, The Odd Couple, Family, Rhoda, Chico and the Man, and he continued his television appearances into the 1980s and 1990s with shows that included Mork and Mindy, St. Elsewhere, LA Law, and Dark Shadows.

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Bewitched

The decade of the seventies would find him cast in two additional series, Karen and Soap. Karen debuted in 1975, starring Karen Valentine as Karen Angelo. Karen works for an advocate group for the common American citizen, Open America, founded by Dale Busch, who was played by Lane. On Soap, Charles took on the role of Judge Petrillo who presided over Jessica Tate’s murder trial; however, because of Jessica’s husband, the judge lost $40,000 in a bad investment.

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Soap

Charles Lane was honored in 2005 when he turned 100. SAG proclaimed January 30 “Charles Lane Day,” and TV Land honored him in March for his long career. After receiving his award, he let it be known “in case anyone’s interested, I’m still available!”

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TV Lands Award March 2005

Despite his being typecast in cranky roles, friends and family described him as funny, kind, and warm-hearted. Lane’s one vice was smoking. In 1990 he was rushed to the hospital when he was having problems breathing. When the doctor asked if he smoked, Lane informed him he had kicked the habit . . . 45 minutes earlier. He never smoked again and he lived another 12 years, dying peacefully in 2007.

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Homer Bedloe

Although it’s tough on actors to be typecast so early in their career, it’s a double-edged sword, because it also provides a lot of opportunities for roles. Lane was an enigma; while he always convinced us that he was just as mean as could be, we also knew if someone would give him a chance, he could be reformed like Scrooge; he just needed the opportunity. It always makes me smile to come across Charles Lane in a move or television episode. It’s like seeing an old friend, or perhaps the neighbor who yelled at you to get off his yard. However, if you looked closely, you would see him watching and wanting to be part of the action. As you watch your favorite older classic shows, keep an eye open for him.

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Man From UNCLE: What Happens When James Bond Comes Out of the Cold and Into TV

We are in the midst of our Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem series this month. In the mid-1960s, westerns were still the most popular show on television with rural sitcoms coming on the scene. Crime shows still had their fair share of air time, but spy shows were non-existent. With the end of the Cold War, Bond movies, and books like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, these types of thrillers were bound to hit the small screen. From 1964-1968, The Man from UNCLE took us behind the scenes to observe the dangerous life of special agents.

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Beginning on Tuesday nights on NBC, the show was produced by Metro Goldwyn Mayer. The creator, Norman Felton, asked Ian Fleming to act as a consultant. (Some sources list Felton as the sole creator; some credit Sam Rolfe as a co-creator.) The book The James Bond Films mentions that Fleming suggested two characters: Napoleon Solo and April Dancer. Napoleon Solo became one of the main characters on The Man from UNCLE, and we will learn more about April Dancer later. Solo was also a villain in the movie Goldfinger. Originally titled “Solo,image of ” the popularity of the film led to a title change in the television show to The Man from Uncle.

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Solo (Robert Vaughn), being an American, was set up in a partnership with a Russian, Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum). The duo would take on multinational secret intelligence work under UNCLE, The United Network Command for Law and Enforcement. They sometimes worked with Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) who headed up an English organization. They frequently went up against THRUSH. We never learned who was part of THRUSH or what their goals were, apart from taking over the world of, course.

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David McCallum

Solo was supposed to be the typical ladies’ man, with Kuryakin being the intelligent, funny, and loyal partner, but McCallum turned into an instant celebrity. Hysterical fans attended promotional appearances and magazines gave he and his wife Jill Ireland little peace and quiet. One article I read discussed an incident in Baton Rouge, LA when McCallum was locked in a bathroom so the police could clear out the screaming women. When he was supposed to do a spot in a Macy’s store in New York, police had to disperse 15,000 screaming women who made it too dangerous for him to appear and did “a colossal amount of damage” to the store.

Solo and Kuryakin accessed their secret headquarters through a tailor’s shop, Del Floria’s.

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In an interesting twist, the creators decided to feature an “innocent character,”–a Joe Doe or Jane Smith who the viewers could identify with—in every episode.

The theme music was created by Jerry Goldsmith, changing slightly each season as new composers came on board, eight in all.

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With the exception of one show, the episodes were titled “The ______ Affair.” Every year at least one two-part show was aired. The pair of shows became theatrical films released in Europe. Additional footage was added to the movies. Some of these films were later seen on American television and include To Trap a Spy (1964), The Spy with My Face (1965), One Spy Too Many (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1967), and How to Steal the World (1968), among others.

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Although stuntmen were hired for the two leads, they also did their own stunts. Typically, the actor and stuntman did each stunt, and the final version combined the best of them. However, McCallum tried to avoid heights, and Vaughn disliked water scenes.

Like Get Smart, the recurring characters were a small group, and guest stars were necessary for each episode. Both high-profile and up-and-coming actors were eager to appear on the show. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy can be seen together in “The Project Strigas Affair” two years before they starred on Star Trek. Other actors who appeared include Judy Carne, Joan Collins, Yvonne Craig, Broderick Crawford, Robert Culp, Chad Everett, Barbara Feldon, Anne Francis, Werner Klemperer, Janet Leigh, June Lockhart, Jack Lord, Ricardo Montalban, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Vincent Price, Cesar Romero, Kurt Russell, Sonny and Cher, and Telly Savalas.

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Of course, spies need technological gadgets to get a leg up on the competition. Some of their communication devices included a security badge and a business card. They could also communicate with a portable satellite disguised as a cigarette case or fountain pen.

Like all good crime fighters, the duo needed a car, and theirs was a Piranha Coupe, based on the Chevrolet Corvair.

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Weapons were also a necessity in their line of work. The UNCLE Special was a semi-automatic weapon which was useful except at night when THRUSH had access to a “sniperscope” which allowed the villains to shoot in total darkness.

The gadgets, props, and clothing for the show were so popular that they are exhibited in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. The CIA also exhibits some of the show’s items.

Season 1 was a great success even though partway through the season, the show moved from Tuesdays to Mondays. With season 2 came more “tongue-in-cheek” dialogue, and the series switched from black and white to full color. Athough the show was moved to Friday nights, its popularity continued.

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Season 3 added a campy element, a la the Batman and The Monkees craze, against the stars’ wishes. The ratings decreased and the show never attained the same quality and ratings again. It was renewed for a fourth season but cancelled partway through when there was no increase in viewership.

Although the show was only extremely popular for two years, it garnered eight Emmy nominations and five Golden Globe nominations, including a win for David McCallum as best star in 1966.

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Of course, like all popular shows from the 1960s, a tv movie was made a few years later and a big-screen remake came decades later.

The Return of the Man from UNCLE: The Fifteen Years Later Affair was seen on CBS, not NBC, in 1983 with both Vaughn and McCallum reprising their roles. At the beginning of the movie, we learn that although THRUSH was obliterated with the arrest of its leader, he has now escaped from prison. Rather than stick with the chemistry of the two leads, the tv movie pairs each lead with a younger agent.

In 2015, Guy Ritchie’s big-screen The Man from UNCLE was set in the 1960s featuring Solo (Henry Cavill), Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), and Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander). The trio must work together in a joint mission to stop an evil organization from using Gaby’s father’s expertise in science to build a nuclear bomb. All the while, they don’t totally trust each other, and secretly put their own country’s agendas first. As far as reboots go, the film was actually a good rendition of the original show.

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Of course, there was no limit to the merchandising in connection with the show. Several comic books based on the series were published, as well as two dozen novels. In addition to membership cards, viewers could show their love

for the show with board games, action figures, model kits, lunch boxes, and toy guns.

I did promise to get back to April Dancer. Halfway through The Man from UNCLE series, the network released a spin-off, The Girl from UNCLE starring Stefanie Powers as April Dancer. Not as popular as the original, it was cancelled after one season.

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Dancer works with British agent Mark Slate (Noel Harrison). Leo G. Carroll appeared as Mr. Waverly in this series also. Luckily Powers was fluent in several languages, because Dancer often went undercover with a foreign accent.

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Unfortunately, Dancer reeled in the bad guys, but Slate was the one who got to kill them. However, April did get some cool gadgets such as a perfume atomizer that sprayed gas and exploding jewelry.

This show also used Goldsmith’s theme music in an arrangement by Dave Grusin.

Both The Girl from UNCLE and The Man from UNCLE are available on DVD.

Although The Man from UNCLE was only hugely popular for two years and The Girl from UNCLE never attained a fan base, the shows ’ concept spawned a huge pop culture obsession. At one point, more than 10,000 letters a week were delivered to the network. The show sparked an interest in spy shows that would pave the way for future shows such as Mission Impossible; The Wild, Wild West; I Spy; and Get Smart. Like The Man from UNCLE, each of these shows would result in reboot big-screen movies in later decades, as well as a large output of memorabilia.

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It’s interesting that this show feels dated now with the current technology, yet Get Smart continues to be a hit. I think the humor and campiness of Get Smart keeps it relevant which is ironic, because that is what basically brought about the end of The Man from UNCLE. Despite its current non-relevancy, it was an important part of pop culture and deserves to be celebrated for its cult status in the mid-sixties and the realistic portrayal of spies to generations of viewers.

I Spy: With My Little Eye A Very Sophisticated Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MacMillan and Wife: The Show That Bridged the Generation Gap

Before launching into this week’s topic, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has been following and reading my blog. This week begins my fourth year writing this blog. I was worried I would find enough topics to fill the first year but next year is already outlined, so another year of classic television is on the way. It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a lot.

This month we are looking at crime-solving duos.  We start our series learning a bit more about McMillan and Wife. McMillan and Wife began as part of The Sunday NBC Mystery Movie which included Columbo and McCloud. The shows rotated each week, so fewer episodes were produced of each than a typical weekly show.

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McMillan and Wife debuted in 1971 and was on the air until 1977, yet only forty episodes were produced. Leonard Stern was the creator, writer, and executive producer of the show; he previously produced Get Smart.

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Stewart “Mac” McMillan (Rock Hudson) was an attorney and US Navy veteran who apparently had been involved in some CIA activities. He is now Commissioner of Police in San Francisco. He gets involved in high-profile cases. His wife is Sally (Susan St. James), and her father was a detective for the San Francisco Police Department; she learned a lot from him and helps her husband solve crimes. Sargent Charlie Enright (John Schuck) helps Mac with his cases. Sally and Mac have no children (it’s confusing because Sally was pregnant twice on the show, but the children are never mentioned in the show later). Their housekeeper Mildred (Nancy Walker) also lives with the couple. Mildred’s character resembles the role Thelma Ritter played in Pillow Talk, where Hudson starred with Doris Day. She is a sarcastic, hard-drinking woman and is always ready to offer her opinion, but she is devoted to Mac and Sally.

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Once Hudson was cast as Mac, the show got priority in development. Several actresses were considered for the role of Sally, including Diane Keaton and Jill Clayburgh, but Hudson was most comfortable with St. James.

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Hudson was 21 years older than St. James, but their relationship worked. Mac is supposed to be in his 40s and Sally in her 20s (he was 46 at the time and she was 25). Sally is self-confident and is not afraid to speak her mind. However, she is also a wife who loves her husband, and one of the running gags on the show is that Mac had dated a lot of women in his past, and when Mac and Sally are out and about, they typically run into some gorgeous woman who says, “Hi Mac.” Sally usually responds with a jealous comment or a withering look. The difference in their ages actually worked well for demographics. Hudson appealed to older viewers while St. James attracted younger viewers.

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Often the cases Mac solves happen during events the couple attends. One episode featured a burglary at a charity event they were attending; once they found a skeleton in their house after an earthquake. Another show had Mac abducted by mobsters and replaced with a surgically-made twin replacing him.

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An interesting fact is that the interior of their house in the pilot episode was in fact Hudson’s home. In the first regular episode, the MacMillans bought a new house. In the final season, the setting changed to an apartment.

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Sally and Mac led a glamorous life. The scripts were well written, and the dialogue was witty and clever. The couple was often compared to Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies. Mac and Sally have a lot of their best conversations after they go to bed at night.

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Sally was known for wearing a football jersey for her nightgown. The jersey was an authentic 49ers Jersey, number 18, George Washington, a wide receiver. Washington was a four-time Pro Bowler. He made a guest appearance on the show in season four, “Guilt by Association.”

Considering that there were only forty episodes produced, this show had an incredible number of guest stars. I apologize for the long list, but it’s the only way to capture how impressive it is. The stars included sport celebrities Dick Butkus, Rosie Grier, Alex Karras, and Bobbie Riggs.

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It also featured a Who’s Who of television sitcom royalty: John Astin, Meredith Baxter, Tom Bosley, Michael Constantine, Bert Convy, Wally Cox, Richard Deacon, William Demarest, Donna Douglas, Barbara Feldon, Norman Fell, Buddy Hackett, Larry Hagman, Alan Hale, Shirley Jones, Stacy Keach, Bernie Kopell, Julie Newmar, Charlotte Rae, Charles Nelson Reilly, Dick Sargent, Natalie Schafer, Susan Sullivan, Karen Valentine, and Dick Van Patten.

The show, like McCloud and Columbo, was quite popular with viewers. The ratings were impressive until the sixth season.

Unfortunately, the last season had too many changes to overcome. St. James decided to leave to concentrate on her movie career. Schuck left to star in the sitcom, Holmes and Yo-Yo, and Walker left for her own sitcom, The Nancy Walker Show. Sadly, Walker and Schuck would have been better off staying because both their shows lasted only 13 episodes. St. James starred in a couple of movies, but they weren’t anything memorable. She would go on to star in Kate and Allie in 1984.

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On the show, Sally was killed in an airplane crash. Mildred was said to leave to open a diner, so her sister Agatha (Martha Raye) took over her job. Schuck made a few appearances but was said to have been given a promotion to lieutenant which kept him too busy to assist Mac much. The show may have been able to overcome one of these changes but not all of them. Much of the strength of the show was the relationship between Mac and Sally. Walker’s funny bantering and actions provided a comedic relief for the show. When Raye took over, she was just scatterbrained and loud; the appeal of Walker was not part of her character.

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It’s wonderful the show lasted five good seasons, but it might have lasted many more if the original cast had been retained. At the other end of the spectrum, Columbo aired off and on until 2003 and is remembered by more viewers.

DVDs were released for all six seasons between 2005 and 2014. With only forty shows in the series, this would be a fun binge-watching week-end show to tackle.

While John Forsythe Chose “To Rome with Love,” The Network Let the Show Roam Without Much Love

We continue our series with a salute to fathers looking at one of my favorite actors, John Forsythe in a little-remembered show, To Rome with Love.

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The show debuted on CBS in September of 1969 and aired until spring of 1971. In 1967 Forsythe had starred in The John Forsythe Show and in the successful sitcom, Bachelor Father, seven years before that.

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The John Forsythe Show

After the acclaim of Bachelor Father, The John Forsythe Show was a big disappointment. The premise of the show was that Forsythe as retired US Air Force Major John Foster inherits a private girls’ school in San Francisco. A buddy of his and former sergeant helps him run the school and they have conflicts with the principal Miss Culver. Forsythe once commented on it, saying “I choose to froget about that one. It was a disaster from the start. I hope the world forgets it too, especially the name.”

To Rome with Love also had a school setting. Forsythe played Michael Endicott, a widow with three daughters. He accepts a teaching position at an American school in Rome and relocates his family there from Iowa. His sister Harriet (Kay Medford) comes with the family for season one to help out. Endicott’s father-in-law, Andy Pruitt (Walter Brennan), comes to Rome to visit and ends up moving there during the second season.

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The oldest daughter is Alison (Joyce Menges), the middle is tomboy Penny (Susan Neher) and the youngest is Mary Jane, nicknamed Pokey (Melanie Fullterton). None of the girls continued in television past 1974. Menges had been a former tv and magazine model.  She appeared in two films, one before (1967) and one after (1972) the show. Fullerton made an appearance on High Chaparral before this show and appeared in two movies (1972 and 1974). Neher had the most productive acting career. She was cast on Accidental Family before appearing on To Rome with Love. After the show, she would guest star on Young Lawyers, Getting Together, Love American Style, The Partridge Family, with her last appearance was on Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers in 1974.

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Rounding out the cast was Vito Scotti who played Mr. Mancini and Peggy Mondo who was Mama Vitale in Rome.

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The show was on Sunday nights at 7:30 for the first year. It was up against Land of the Giants and The Wonderful World of Disney. The second year it switched to Tuesdays at 9:30 for the first half of the year on against movies of the week and then was moved to Wednesdays at 8:30 for the rest of the season. On Wednesdays it was up against The Smith Family and the Men from Shiloh. They were one-hour shows and To Rome with Love was on during the second half of both shows. The show never received the ratings the network had hoped for.

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Jack Gould reviewed the show before its debut. His comment was “the personable John Forsythe is the main asset of the series, but it is doubtful if he alone can overcome the handicap of imposing Hollywood nonsense on a city rich in drama and laughter and yet to be explored with understanding by TV. For the viewer, one solution is to turn off the sound and settle for incidental scenic background.” Donald Freeman from the San Diego Union called the show “all stereotyped and unfailingly pleasant.” Terrence O’Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle described it as a “giant pizza which appears to be filled with every situation comedy cliché in TV history and every Italian character actor south of San Luis Obispo. Dwight Newton of the San Francisco Examiner said it was “another little innocuous comedy drama series.” Apparently, viewers agreed with their opinions.

The combination of bad reviews and going up against Disney before moving to two different nights almost guaranteed its failure.

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Don Fedderson and Edmond Hartman produced the show. They were also the creative forces behind My Three Sons and Family Affair. An interesting concept was the cross-over episode. In season two, Anissa Jones and Johnnie Whitaker from Family Affair appear on the show on episode 4, “Roman Affair.” Episode 6 featured William Demarest, Don Grady, and Tina Cole from My Three Sons in “Rome is Where You Find It.”

After the show ended, Forsythe commented that his “fate is to be surrounded by ladies at home and at work which is not at all painful. I have a wife and two daughters at home. But on the television, I’ve always been unmarried. We might have started the single-parent trend with ‘Bachelor Father.’ Now the air is filed with widows and widowers raising children alone. There’s a reason for it. One unqualified parent dealing with children is more amusing because of the difficulty it presents.”

This sounded a bit exaggerated to me, so I went back to take a closer look at the shows that were on during the 1960s, and he was right. I always think of the typical sitcom as a nuclear family like the Donna Reed Show or Leave It To Beaver, but during this decade many shows were about adults. Think of Get Smart, The Joey Bishop Show, That Girl, The Odd Couple, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or The Flying Nun. When shows were about families, the norm was almost to have a single parent. In addition to Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, and Family Affair, we had The Farmer’s Daughter, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Doris Day Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction, Gidget, and Julia. It wasn’t confined to sitcoms either; consider The Rifleman, Bonanza, and The Big Valley. The genre would continue into future decades as well. Some of the most popular shows featured single parents: The Partridge Family, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Nanny and the Professor, Diff’rent Strokes, One Day at a Time, Eight is Enough, and Alice.

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Fortunately for viewers, Forsythe did not throw in the towel and retire into obscurity. Forsythe would go on to star as Blake Carrington on Dynasty.

DNX6N3 Jan. 1, 1976 – F3353.”Charlie’s Angels”.FARRAH FAWCETT, KATE JACKSON, & JACLYN SMITH. 1976(Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

The show he is best remembered for is Charlie’s Angels, continuing his tradition of being surrounded by beautiful women on television.

Hey, Hey They’re The Monkees: Then Who Are Those Guys Writing Songs and Playing Instruments?

We are continuing our Oddly Wonderful series and today’s show captures the theme perfectly.

There were quite a few shows from the 1960s that just can’t be viewed outside that decade because they were such an anchor to the psychedelic flower power times of that era—Laugh-In, Batman, Lost in Space, and The Banana Splits were some of those series. The Monkees was another one of those shows.

Recently I watched a couple of episodes, both about Davey’s love life. The shows always had a plot, but sometimes you had to search long and hard for it. It was even more bizarre than I remembered. It was like a creepy bug. You weren’t sure it was safe, but you couldn’t turn away from it either.

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The show was put on the fall schedule of 1966 on Mondays. It is quite memorable to most viewers from that time, yet it was only on the air a year and a half, producing 58 episodes.

Riding on the coat-tails of the Beatles, the show featured a four-member band. The only thing in common about each episode was that it featured one of their songs. Many of the shows were surreal and featured bizarre encounters.

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Filmmakers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider who created Raybert Productions were inspired by the film A Hard Day’s Night starring the Beatles. They decided to develop a television show with a similar vibe. Screen Gems agreed to it, and they asked Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker to write a script for the pilot.

Sponsors were secured. Yardley of London and Kellogg’s Cereals alternated weeks. Yardley sold a variety of beauty products.

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Originally, Screen Gems thought about using a real band including The Dave Clarke Five or The Lovin’ Spoonful, which both turned them down, so they decided to go with four unknowns. The production company ran ads seeking musicians for an audition. Apparently about 400 people showed up, including Paul Williams and Stephen Stills. (Stills suggested his roommate Peter Tork because he did not want to give up his song publishing rights which the company demanded.) Fourteen actors were asked back for screen tests.

Micky Dolenz, whose father was actor George Dolenz, was in Circus Boy at age ten (under the name Mickey Braddock). Micky’s daughter Ami has also become a well-known actress. His agent sent him to the audition. Micky became the drummer and also played guitar at times.

Davy Jones had appeared on stage in “Oliver!” and on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was cast in some Columbia Pictures productions and he was identified before the ad went out as an actor who would be on the show. Davy played the tambourine and maracas but was the primary singer.

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Notice the spelling on Dolenz’s chair, who went by “Micky”

Michael Nesmith had been in the US Air Force. He had done some recording for Colpix, as had Jones. When he showed up at the audition, he had on a wool hat that kept his hair out of his eyes when he rode his motorcycle. It looked so well on him that he wore it for every show. Nesmith’s mom Betty was the inventor of Liquid Paper. Nesmith played guitar.

Peter Tork was Stephen Stills’ roommate. He had been performing regularly in Greenwich Village clubs but had recently moved to California and was working as a busboy. Peter was the busiest of the band members; he played guitar, keyboards, and sometimes banjo.

The main characters were only paid $450 per episode for the first year. The second season, they received a raise of $750. As a comparison, Dick Van Dyke made about $1500 per episode for his show. A decade later Valerie Bertinelli would earn about $20,000 an episode on One Day at a Time. Although they have made the show a hit, the top stars on The Big Bang Theory are making about $900,000 an episode. But that’s another blog! While they did receive standard royalties for their recordings, they received nothing from all the merchandising.

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Rafelson and Schneider hired director James Frawley to work with the quartet on improvisational comedy. The characters were stereotyped with Dolenz the funny guy, Jones the heart throb, Nesmith the smart one, and Tork the gullible one. Most people described the personalities as fitting for each of them except Tork. He was always painted as quiet and intellectual. The improv training helped because a lot of new film techniques were employed for the show including quick cuts, jump cuts, breaking the fourth wall, and rambling scenes that didn’t really fit into the theme of the show. When the show was short on time, bizarre additions included interviews with the boys about life or their views on current events. In one of the episodes I recently watched, they added Nesmith’s audition tape to the end of the show.

The pilot was filmed in San Diego and LA. Like earlier shows from the 1950s, the cast members often wore their own clothing. The final version received such high ratings that the show was given a two-year contract.

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Of course, the music was central to the show. The theme song was “(Theme From) The Monkees” written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart. Part of the lyrics included, “We’re the young generation, and we’ve got something to say.” This captured the entire theme of the show. Some of the hit songs were “I’m A Believer”, “Daydream Believer”, “Last Train to Clarksville”, and “Pleasant Valley Sunday”.

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Playing in the band . . . or are they

Everyone one the show was a musician and could play a variety of instruments, but The Monkees did not actually play instruments for their songs. The public did not realize that the band did not really write or perform most of their music. Like the Partridge Family which debuted a few years later, they only provided the vocals. When this came out, viewers were unhappy. For the second season, the quartet began to write their own music and wore more hippy attire. Unfortunately, the damage was done, and the show never recovered its higher ratings.

While traveling around, the Monkees often ran into rival bands. The three who showed up most often were the Jolly Green Giants, The Four Martians, and The Foreign Agents.

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Here we see members of the Jolly Green Giants, The Four Martians and the Secret Agents.

Rose Marie, best known as Sally on The Dick Van Dyke Show, made two guest appearances on the show during the first season.

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Here is Rose Marie in their beach house. The mannequin behind her is Mr. Schneider.

The band lived in a two-story house on the beach. The first floor contained the living room, dining room, and kitchen. A bathroom was off one part of the kitchen and Davy and Peter’s bedroom was off the other end of the kitchen. The Monkees kept their instruments in the back alcove. A spiral staircase headed to the second floor where Mike and Micky had a bedroom. There were a lot of kitschy signs on the walls. There was also a mannequin named Mr. Schneider (he’s in the above photo behind Rose Marie) that would spout advice when his cord was pulled. Their landlord was Mr. Babbit who chastised them for breaking rules and not paying rent. Sometimes the Monkees pulled Babbit into their plots.

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The living room of the beach house

Another character on the show was the Monkeemobile. The car was a modified 1966 GTO. A third seat was added where the trunk had been. A fiberglass grille was added to the front of the car and exhaust pipes were on the back wheels. In all, three cars would be used for the tapings.

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When the first season ended, Davy Jones was no where to be found. While many rumors were flying, the real story was that he had received a draft notice. He fasted for a few weeks in order to fail his physical, which he did.

For the second season, the stars wanted to switch from half hour to an hour variety show with new artists appearing. NBC gave them an ultimatum to stick to the original idea or be cancelled. The group continued to push the new concept and in March of 1968, the show was cancelled.

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The series won two Emmys during its short time on the air—Directorial Achievement in Comedy and Outstanding Comedy Series. This win surprised me. The other nominees that year were The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, Get Smart, and Hogan’s Heroes.

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Bob Rafelson is wearing glasses and Bert Schneider is beside him.

It was seen on Saturday mornings in syndication from 1972-1973 which is when I remember watching it.

In 1986, MTV began airing the old shows, and many other networks put it on their schedules. Columbia Pictures decided to create a reboot of the show in 1987 called the New Monkees, but it flopped and lasted half a season. No surprise; of course it did. How could you recapture the same look and feel of the original 1960s show?

The DVDs came out in 2001, and in 2016 Blu-rays were introduced for their fiftieth anniversary.

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I was never able to take this show as seriously as the industry did. To me, it seemed a bit too wacky and exaggeratedly fast-paced. The plots were off the wall and hard to follow. I think part of it was my age. I was only five when the show was originally on. I do remember watching Batman live, but I think I was too young to follow the action in The Monkees and not quite the age where the music spoke to me. Perhaps I should give it another try; then again, perhaps it’s a show best kept in the memory of that time period. After watching several episodes, I must admit that I think it’s amazing that so many of us from the 1960s turned out as good as we did!

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A few day after I wrote this blog, Peter Tork passed away. RIP Peter. Thank you for the memories and music.

Danger Will Robinson: Lost in Space Revisited

Airing in 1965, Lost in Space follows the travels of a family whose ship is off course, traveling through outer space. The show was on the air for three seasons, producing 84 episodes.

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The premise of the show was that in 1997, earth becomes overpopulated. Professor John Robinson (Guy Williams); his wife Maureen (June Lockheart); and their kids, Judy (Marta Kristen), Penny (Angela Cartwright), and Will (Billy Mumy) are selected to go to the third planet in the Alpha Centauri star system to establish a new colony. Major Don West (Mark Goddard) is also accompanying them. Doctor Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) an enemy government agent is sent to sabotage the mission. He becomes trapped on the ship after he reprograms the robot (voiced by Dick Tufeld), altering the course for the spaceship, the Jupiter 2. The group is now lost and trying to find their way back home. During the course of the show, Smith becomes less sinister. It was no secret that the show was a science fiction version of Swiss Family Robinson.

The pilot, created by Irwin Allen, was titled “No Place to Hide.” A ship called the Gemini 12 was supposed to take a family on a 98-year journey to a new planet. When an asteroid knocks the shop off course, the family must try to find their way back. CBS bought the series, choosing Lost in Space over another new show, Star Trek. Dr. Smith and the Robinsons’ robot were added to the cast and the ship was renamed Jupiter 2.

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Dr. Robinson was an astrophysicist who specialized in planetary geology. Williams who played the part was a well-known actor who had starred in the show Zorro. He thought his lead role would be a dramatic part, but the show became increasingly campy like Batman, and Williams’ role was more of a supporting character than a star. He was bitter about the turn of events and when the show was cancelled, he moved to Argentina where Zorro was popular and never acted again.

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Maureen Robinson was also a doctor; she was a biochemist who also performed housewife duties such as preparing meals and tending the garden. Her chores were not too taxing though because the “auto-matic laundry” took seconds to clean, iron, fold, and package clothing in plastic bags. The dishwasher also did a load in seconds. In addition to the hydroponic garden maintained by Maureen, the crew had protein pills available that would substitute for food during emergencies. One fun fact I learned about Lockhart was that she had the largest parking spot on the 20th Century Fox lot because she often drove a 1923 Seagrave fire truck.

West was the pilot of the Jupiter 2 and the only crew member who could land the ship.

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Judy is the oldest child. Being the oldest, she was allowed a more glamorous wardrobe and hairstyle. There was always the undercurrent that she and West would get together. Penny is eleven and loves animals and classical music. She finds a pet similar to a chimpanzee which she named “Bloop.” Will is nine and the youngest member of the family, but he is a genius when it comes to electronics and computer technology.

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Dr. Smith is an expert in cybernetics. Carroll O’Connor, Jack Elam, and Victor Buono were all considered for the part of Dr. Smith. Smith was only supposed to be a guest star but became the best-loved character in the show. Harris rewrote many of his lines that he considered boring. He redefined his character as an attention-getting egoist with a flamboyant style and arrogant dialogue.

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The Robot is an M-3, Model B9, General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Robot which had no name. It did have superhuman strength and weaponry that was futuristic in nature. It can display human characteristics such as laughter, sadness, and mockery.

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The robot was designed by Robert Kinoshita. It cost $75,000 to produce and weighed more than 200 pounds. Kinoshita also designed Robby the Robot for the Forbidden Planet in 1956. The Lost in Space robot was a Burroughs B-205. It had a flashing light and large reel-to-reel tape drives. It could be seen in a variety of movies and television shows, including Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964), Batman (1966), The Land of the Giants (1968), and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999).

A number of stars chose to appear on the show including Werner Klemperer, Kurt Russell, Wally Cox, Lyle Waggoner, Arte Johnson, Hans Conried, and Daniel J. Travanti.

The pilot and many shows from season one used Bernard Herrmann’s score from The Day the Earth Stood Still, a 1951 film. John Williams wrote the opening and closing themes for the show. Season three used a faster tempo version and the opening featured live action shots of the cast. The theme music is unforgettable, and although I haven’t seen the show since its original airing until recently, I immediately remembered the entire score.

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In season one, the ship crashes on an alien world, later identified as Priplanus. The crew spends most of the season on the planet, surviving many adventures. Most of the episodes emphasize the daily life of the Robinsons adjusting to their new conditions. The show was on Wednesday nights against The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and The Patty Duke Show on ABC and The Virginian on NBC.

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In season two, the ship is repaired and launched into space. Priplanus is destroyed after a series of earthquakes. Eventually, the spaceship lands on another planet and is delayed there. The show became campier during this time because it was scheduled against Batman for a second year. Costumes were brighter and the show was filmed in color. Most of the plots featured outlandish villains. More emphasis was placed on Will, Dr. Smith, and the robot and serious science fiction was sacrificed. Like season one, each episode ended with a cliff hanger.

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Season three shows the Jupiter 2 travelling through space visiting a new setting on each episode. A space pod allows transportation between the ship and the planets they explore. Humor was still a mainstay of the show and the crew encountered space hippies, pirates, intergalactic zoos, and ice princesses. The cliff hanger disappeared, and the robot would show highlights from the upcoming episode before the closing credits. The show continued its slot on Wednesdays and was still on opposite The Virginian on NBC but also The Avengers on ABC

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The show was probably best known for its technology and futuristic props. The Jupiter 2 was a two-deck spacecraft, nuclear powered. It used “deutronium” for fuel. The crew slept in Murphy beds. A laboratory was also designed as part of the spaceship. The characters could travel between two levels by an electronic glide tube elevator or a ladder. The ship could be entered or exited through an airlock on the upper deck or landing struts on the lower deck.

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The crew traveled on the Chariot. It had six bucket seats for passengers, a radio transceiver, a public address system, a rack holding laser rifles, and interior spotlights.

The crew members could use a jet pack, the Bell Rocket Belt. The robot ran air and soil tests. He could detect threats with his scanner and produce a smoke screen for protection. He could understand speech and speak to the crew. He claimed he could read minds by translating thought waves back into words.

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One of the things Lost In Space is best remembered for is the catchphrase, “Danger Will Robinson.” What is funny is that it was only used one time in the series. Smith also had several lines he is remembered for: “Oh, the pain, the pain” and “Never fear, Smith is here” are two of them. He also was famous for his alliterative phrases such as “Bubble-headed booby,” “Cackling Cacophony,” “Tin-Plated Traitor,” “Blithering Blatherskyte,” and “Traitorous Transistorized Toad” which he used to insult the robot.

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Lost in Space ranked in the top 35 shows all three seasons it was on the air (32nd, 35th, and 33rd respectively). It was ranked number three in the top five favorite new shows of 1965-66, along with The Big Valley, Get Smart, I Dream of Jeannie, and F-Troop. The show was nominated for an Emmy for Cinematography Special Photographic Effects in 1966 and for Achievement in Visual Arts & Make-up in 1968 but did not win either award.

Despite its good ratings, CBS Chairman William Paley hated the show and didn’t understand why it was popular. He instructed his executives to cancel it the minute its ratings dipped. Unfortunately, it was never able to air a finale.

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In the 1970s, Mumy wrote a script for a reunion movie. He arranged for the casting and had approval from 20th Century Fox and CBS. However, Allen who was worried that Mumy might be entitled to a copyright claim on the original, refused to even review the script. Without his okay, the reunion was never able to be filmed.

Lost in Space was successful in reruns and syndication. All three seasons are available on DVD. Like many science-fiction shows and movies from the 1960s, it was eerily predictive of technology and glaringly wrong at the same time. The show is campy, but I don’t mind that. Along with The Monkees and Batman, it seems to fit the times it was produced in.

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Perhaps it’s not that bad that Mumy was not able to film the reunion. The show was made into a movie in 1998 which received poor reviews. Legendary Television has brought a reboot of the show to Netflix in 2018.  It is currently getting ready for its second season. It has not received the greatest reviews either. Lost in Space can be seen on Antenna TV on Saturday nights, so you might want to catch an episode or two this winter. Sometimes the real thing just can’t be duplicated.

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