Here’s Lucy . . . and Gale Gordon

We are in the third blog of our series “The Men of November.” Born Charles Thomas Aldrich Jr. in 1906, Gale Gordon is remembered fondly for being Lucille Ball’s nemesis on several of her television sitcoms.

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Photo: oldtimeradio.com

Both his parents were entertainers, and they traveled to England to perform when he was only one. For eight years, he lived in England. After returning to the United States for a few years, Gordon returned to London to complete his education at the Woodbridge School in Suffolk.

Gale at 19 Photo: lucyfan.com

Gale followed in his parents’ footsteps, and his first theatrical job was as an extra in “The Dancers” in 1923. Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan Bennett) starred in the stage production. Gordon worked as Bennett’s dresser, and Bennett taught him all about make-up, mentored him as an actor, and helped him to develop his voice.

By 1925, Gordon traveled to Hollywood, tackling roles in stage, film, and radio. Gordon talked about his first radio performance: “They asked me to come to a Hollywood studio in 1926 and try this new thing called ‘radio.’ They didn’t pay me, of course. They just wanted to fill up some time. So, I sang, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, No More’ and accompanied myself on the ukulele. You might say I almost killed radio before it was born. I haven’t played an instrument on the air since.”

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In seven short years, Gordon became the highest-paid actor in radio in Hollywood. He was the male lead for Mary Pickford in her serial. He was on almost every popular show on the air. It wasn’t unusual for him to appear on three or more programs in a week. Gordon was the first actor to play Flash Gordon in 1935.

His radio work also provided some other benefits. While appearing on an episode of Death Valley Days in New York, he met Virginia Curley. They married in 1937.

Gale and Virginia
Photo: lucyfan.com

In 1941, after playing primarily dramatic roles, Gordon became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. Playing Mayor LaTrivia, Gale was on the show for a dozen years. There was a brief interruption in 1942 when he left the show and enlisted in the US Coast Guard for three years. He rose to the rank of Petty Officer First Class, and his service took him around the world to many dangerous places.

One of the roles he is best known for was Principal Osgood Conklin on Our Miss Brooks. Gordon described Conklin in a TV Guide interview: “There was nothing subtle about Osgood. No nuances. Just a lot of very satisfying acid, bluster, and bellowing, with an occasional weak moment of cordiality thrown in for leavening.  It was practically impossible to overplay him. Even when he was being cordial, he was like an elephant trying to waltz.”

In 1950, he could be heard as John Granby on Granby’s Green Acres which later became the sitcom Green Acres.

With Bea Benederet
Photo: wikipedia.com

While trying to reign in the chaos at Madison High School as Osgood Conklin, Gale was also the refined banker, Rudolph Atterbury, on My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball’s radio comedy. Atterbury’s wife was played by Bea Benederet.

As television gained popularity, it was inevitable that some of radio’s favorite shows would make the transition to the small screen. While it was entirely possible to play several different characters on the radio, television production didn’t offer the same flexibility. When My Favorite Husband was retooled for television as I Love Lucy, Ball planned on bringing Gordon and Benederet along with her. However, Gale was committed to Our Miss Brooks, and Bea was playing a major role on Burns and Allen on television.

Asked about those days, Gale described himself as “a quiet, reserved, pipe-smoking homebody.” He said he always had a good balance of professional and personal interests. In addition to acting, he wrote books (Nursery Rhymes for Hollywood Babies and Leaves from the Story Trees), painted, and maintained a ranch. He and Virginia bought a 150-acre property about three hours away from Hollywood. They grew carob trees. Gordon was not a rancher in name only; he raised the trees, built the house, installed the plumbing, completed carpentry and handiwork, put in a swimming pool, and built a two-story building that served as garage and studio.

Our Miss Brooks Photo: amazon.com

In 1952, Eve Arden decided to take Our Miss Brooks to television. While Gale continued his role as Conklin on the show, he also guest starred on a couple of I Love Lucy episodes. Our Miss Brooks had a successful run for four years.

When the show ended in 1956, CBS was quick to sign Gordon on for another show. They paired him with Bob Sweeney in The Box Brothers (sometimes called The Brothers). Unfortunately, the series only lasted for 26 weeks.

The Box Brothers Photo: imdb.com

In 1958, Gordon was a regular on Sally where he played department store owner Bascomb Bleacher. He also appeared with Walter Brennan on The Real McCoys.

In 1959, December Bride which aired from 1954-1959, went off the air, spinning off a new show Pete and Gladys starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams. Morgan appeared as Pete Porter on December Bride. On the new show, Gale played Pete’s Uncle Paul.

Dennis the Menace Photo: pinterest.com

In 1962 he was cast as Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace. At the same time, Lucille Ball was creating a new show, The Lucy Show. She wanted Gordon to appear as Mr. Barnsdahl, a banker. When he was not available, Lucille turned to Charles Lane. She said she loved working with Lane, but always wanted to work with Gale again, so when Dennis the Menace was cancelled, she quickly signed Gordon; Lane moved over to Bea Benederet’s new sitcom, Petticoat Junction, as the despicable Homer Bedloe. And thus Theodore J. Mooney was born.

Photo: welovelucy.com

For the next eleven years, through several different series titles, Lucy and Gale worked together. They would both retire in 1974. When describing his time on Lucy’s shows, Gale related in a Good Morning America interview in 1982 that “I always had a wonderful feeling of anticipation going to work every week, which is very, very rare. I don’t care what business you are in. But to really look forward to getting into the nitty gritty and working hard for four days—which is all the time we had to do the show—is really unique. To look forward to it for eleven years, that’s doubly unique.” He went on to praise Lucy for her work ethic: “Her attitude has never changed. Every show she ever did was always the most important show of her life. And I think that is the secret of her success.”

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Photo: oldtimeradio.com

One surprising thing I learned was that Gordon was known for his ability to do cartwheels. He can be seen doing them on several episodes of Here’s Lucy. At the time, he was earning $25,000 an episode. Compare that to today when the stars of The Big Bang Theory received a million dollars an episode.

Gale and Virginia enjoyed twenty years of retirement. Virginia would pass away in 1995 at Red Terrace Health Center in Escondido, California. One month later, Gordon died from lung cancer at the same facility.

In 1999, Gale was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Known for playing a variety of gruff, formal professionals, everyone knew that the bellow and bluster his characters spewed was great acting. In real life, Gale was one of the sweetest, kindest men around. He once said, “I am never nasty—unless I get paid for it.”

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Photo: wikipedia.com

It’s hard to describe the influence Gale Gordon has had on generations of actors and the number of hours of entertainment he has provided to generations of television and radio fans. It’s always fun to listen or watch Connie Brooks trying to pull a fast one over on Osgood Conklin or Lucy Carmichael trying Mr. Mooney’s patience with her latest scatter-brained plan. Thank you Gale Gordon!

thirtysomething: love it or hate it?

Continuing our Rewind 1980s, today we delve into the show that was thirtysomething. If you want to start a heated debate, just ask a group of people what they thought about the show. Everyone has a definite opinion, and the answers vary greatly. This is Us and A Million Little Things remind me a lot of thirtysomething. They are shows I look forward to every week. Not surprisingly, Ken Olin who played Michael on thirtysomething is the executive producer of This is Us; he also has directed many of the episodes, and Timothy Busfield who played Elliot Weston on the show has also been a director on This is Us.

Photo: npr.com
Gary, Melissa, Ellyn, Michael with Janie, Hope,
Nancy with Ethan, Elliot with Brittany

I loved the show when it was first on the air. The first couple episodes I watched on DVD had a few moments that seemed a bit too introspective and overthought, but as the series progressed, I remembered why I loved the show so much. Choosing between a show where characters might overthink occasionally versus some of the mindless shows currently on television, I’ll take the first option every time.

Photo: hollywoodreporter.com
A typical thirtysomething scene

Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, who both worked on Family, created this show for United Artists Television. It was on ABC for four seasons from 1987-1991. A group of baby boomers, made up of single friends and married couples living in Philadelphia, experience life after college. Originally the show was called “Thirty Something,” but it was changed to thirtysomething before it aired. The word “thirtysomething” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary after this series became so popular.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the memorable music from the show. W.G. Snuffy Walden and Stewart Levin were the composers for the theme song and much of the music that was heard in the background. A CD was released in 1991, titled “The Soundtrack From thirtysomething”. I have that CD and still listen to it from time to time. Walden would go on to compose music for many series including The Wonder Years, The West Wing, and Nashville.

Photo: zimbio.com

The series was extremely popular with young adults. It won 13 Emmy Awards and was nominated for 41. It also won two Golden Globes.

Photo: variety.com
The Steadmans

Although this was an ensemble cast similar to Friends, the main characters were Hope (Mel Harris) and Michael (Olin) Steadman. Michael runs an advertising company with Elliot (Busfield).

Photo: amazon.com
The Westons

He and his wife Nancy (Patricia Wettig) are good friends of Hope and Michael. (In real life Wettig and Olin are married.) Michael’s best friend is professor, Gary Shepherd (Peter Horton), and Hope’s best friend is Ellyn Warren, (Polly Draper) who works for the city. Michael’s cousin Melissa (Melanie Mayron) is also part of the inner circle.

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Ellyn and Gary pretend to be dating as a prank on Hope and Michael

She dated Gary in the past and there is always a “will they or won’t they get back together” vibe between them.

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Michael and cousin and friend Melissa

Michael and Hope have a baby when the show begins, and the Westons have two young children, Ethan and Brittany. The children are all central characters in the show.

Intelligent scripts and realistic plots make the show a classic. As the show evolves, Michael and Elliot have to give up their company and go to work for someone else, Gary and his girlfriend Susannah (Patricia Kalember) get pregnant which leads to their marriage, Ellyn and Melissa have various serious relationships before they find their soulmates, Nancy pursues her dream of being a children’s author and illustrator, the Westons separate, and Hope is constantly weighing the advantages of being a stay-at-home mom versus returning to her writing career. Melissa’s career as a photographer skyrockets including work for Vanity Fair and a Carly Simon album cover. In addition, there is the unexpected storyline when Nancy battles ovarian cancer. She is told she is in remission and her friends throw a party at her hospital room, when Michael gets the call that Gary has been killed in a car accident on the way to see them.

Photo: whosdatedwho.comS
Susannah and Gary get married
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Michael and Elliot

In an article on hollywoodreporter.com in 2017, Craig Tomashoff interviewed Herskovitz about the creation of the show and the casting.

Photo:scottryanproductions.com
Nancy helping Gary with teaching children’s literature

Herskovitz explained after quickly putting the script together, based in part on the concept of the movie The Big Chill, they had to find their ensemble cast. He said each character was a totally different experience. When Busfield walked in the room, they said he was cast before he even read a line. Marshall and Olin were already friends, so they cast Ken as Michael and then hired his wife but explained she was going to be married to another character. She only had one line in the pilot so she was a bit worried about the character, but they promised her that her character would be developed more fully. Horton was also a friend of Herskovitz’s. They lived in the same neighborhood and their wives were also friends. He wanted to be a director, not an actor. But when he read the script, he thought it was the best pilot he had ever seen, so he came on board. Mayron and Draper were both brought in for auditions. Mel Harris auditioned for Zwick and Herskovitz but then heard nothing. She had only been acting for about a year or so at that time. She finally got the call that she was hired.

Photo: pinterest.com
Michael and Gary

The group worked very well together. The show focused on friendship and feelings. As Mayron once described it, rather than the big things in life, the show was “about the minutiae of life, not the disease or crime of the week.”

Photo: coreyparkeractor.com
Melissa and her soulmate

This was seen in the marital relationships as well.  Although there were a few big things that came between Hope and Michael, most of their arguments were smaller, petty things that most couples argue about from time to time. Hope wanted help with cleaning the house; Michael felt the laundry wasn’t done often enough. We didn’t see anything romanticized–the house needed repairs and trying to get a babysitter was a frustration. However, we did see things that were romantic. In the middle of a conversation about their daughter, when it was quiet, Michael and Hope would have a loving moment.

Busfield said the actors chose to focus on each other and insulate themselves a bit. Horton said “Ken, Tim and I became almost like brothers. We meshed in each other’s lives, never feeling competitive with each other. Tim was the most practical of all of us.” Because the cast was so close and they shared their lives with one another, Zwick admitted, that “we mercilessly robbed the cast of their life experiences.” Occasionally, someone in one of the actor’s past would not be happy seeing a story from their life on the screen.

Photo: variety.com

Busfield said the cast realized how important their characters were to the viewers and how much they related to them, sometimes in negative ways. Once in a grocery store, a woman came up and slapped him across the face because of the way he treated Nancy. She apologized when he reminded her that was not him but his character. Wettig said a woman asked her where she did her chemotherapy and then shared with her that she had just been diagnosed with cancer and had to find a treatment facility. Mayron started wearing her suspenders backward for Melissa just as a unique fashion. One day when she was out and about, she saw a lot of girls doing the same and they told her they were copying her. Horton’s story was that he had been a dedicated fan of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. One day at an event he had a tap on his shoulder and when he turned around, he saw David Crosby who shared that he was a huge fan of Horton and thirtysomething.

Photo: ew.com
Susannah coping with Gary’s death

The show mirrored real life for viewers. Many people were dealing with internal struggles and thought that they were the only ones who experienced such thoughts. There was a comfort in the realization that other people had the same feelings. Viewers had an intimate relationship with the cast.

Most of the characters wanted to do something big with their lives and careers. They are now at the turning point where that may come true or they might have to re-adjust their perspective of what’s important. The married friends are jealous of their single friends at times and the single friends return the favor. Nothing is black or white.

If you think of life as a mosaic masterpiece, you realize each episode of the show looked at one tile piece in-depth. It can be exhausting and feel overwhelming to do that, but once you do, you develop an appreciation and understanding of the artwork as a whole that you would not achieve just looking at it as one thing.

THIRTYSOMETHING, (L-R), Peter Horton, Rachel Nagler, Patricia Wettig, Mel Harris, Timothy Busfield, Jason Nagler, Polly Draper, Ken Olin, Melanie Mayron, Season 1, 1987. (c) MGM Television/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.

When the show came out, critics were divided.  Some loved it; some hated it. Gene Seymour from the Daily News, wrote that is would “bring you down” and “make you uncomfortable.” However, he also said the show “deserves your attention.”

When the series was cancelled four years later, things hadn’t changed that much. An ABC spokesman said the show was cancelled partly for ratings decline and partly because Zwick and Herskovitz wanted to make feature films. At that time, Francesca Chapman, also of the Daily News, wrote that the series “has told us stories we already know and made it fascinating” and that “they were all the more gripping because a good story, told realistically and in detail, a story that doesn’t necessarily have a punch line or a happy ending, is an unusual thing on TV. After tonight, it will be all the rarer.”

The cast was featured on a reunion episode in 2009 on Good Morning America. When the show turned 30 in 2017, it propelled a lot of articles about the cast and the significance of the show. The show had not been forgotten.

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GMA Reunion 2009

When thirtysomething started in 1987, it provoked a lot of disagreement about the show. When it went off the air four years later, the debate had still not been settled. Now thirty-two years later, there is still not a definitive answer. You love it or you hate it. While I admit, when I began re-watching the episodes from the first year, I was surprised that I saw too much whining which was a big criticism of the show originally. But once the season got underway, the whining was replaced with in-depth discussions about life and friendship. I loved it, and I’m grateful to the show for creating a place on television today that can feature a show like This Is Us. Just when you think you’re going to give up on television and just read, a show like that comes along and brings you hope that it’s not all a wasteland and that there is treasure to be found if you take time to look for it.

ALF: Amusing, Ludicrous, and Funny

April does begin with April Fool’s Day, so this month we take a look at a few shows I call oddly wonderful. Some of them may be odd, some wonderful and some oddly wonderful. You get to decide. These are shows that were very different but popular hits.

In 1963, My Favorite Martian came to earth to live with a news reporter, Tim O’Hara. In 1978, Mork landed on earth from Ork and lived with Mindy. In 1986, ALF, aka Gordon Shumway, crashed into the Tanners’ garage and moved in with the family. In all three series, the extraterrestrial tries to adapt to earthly ways and causes a lot of complications for the people he lives with.

Photo: slate.com

ALF aired in September of 1986 on NBC. Producer Bernie Brillstein was asked to catch Paul Fusco’s show with his puppet character. Brillstein had managed Jim Henson, so he knew something about this type of comedy. He thought ALF was hilarious and could be the center of a new sitcom. The company was Alien Productions; Fusco became a co-producer and Tom Patchett helped create the series, wrote the scripts, and directed the episodes. ALF produced 99 episodes (in syndication, it was 102 since there were three one-hour episodes during its time on the air).

ALF was one of the first sitcoms to use Dolby surround sound. The show was one of the most expensive sitcoms to produce because of the technical elements surrounding the puppet and the long tapings that developed. To try to help out with the expenses, ALF was licensed for a variety of toys, foods, and other types of merchandise. One fun fact is that every episode was the name of a song. Some of the shows were named, “Hungry Like the Wolf”, “Stayin’ Alive”, and “Gotta Be Me.”

Photo: semestertimes.com

ALF (alien life form) was a sarcastic, sometimes overbearing, character from Melmac. The Tanners take him in to protect him after he crashes into their garage. Willie Tanner (Max Wright) is married to Kate (Anne Schedeen) and they had two children, Lynn (Andrea Elson) and Brian (Benji Gregory). The plan is for ALF to repair his spaceship and then leave. Later ALF learns that his planet was destroyed by nuclear war. Eventually he becomes part of the family as he develops affection for them and vice versa.

Of course, ALF causes no end of trouble for the Tanners. In one episode, Brian is building a model of the solar system as we know it. ALF reveals to him that there are two planets past Pluto which Brian includes and then gets in trouble for.

Photo: noiselesschatter.com

Like Mork, as ALF becomes closer to the family, he is exposed to several of their friends and family. He is friends with Willie’s brother Neal (Jim Bullock), gets to know a psychologist Larry (Bill Daily), has a love-hate relationship with Kate’s mom, Dorothy (Anne Meara), and builds a relationship with a blind woman, Jody (Andrea Covell), who never realizes that ALF is not human.

ALF meant well and often was trying to help someone else when he caused many of his problems.

When Anne Schedeen became pregnant in real life, a baby was written into the show named Eric. ALF temporarily lives in the laundry room but eventually he and Willie convert the attic into a small apartment.

Photo: popdust.com

ALF often talks about eating cats. On Melmac, cats are raised for food. However, he bonds with the Tanners’ cat Lucky and, when Lucky dies, he becomes very sad. He has one heart that is located in his right ear, and he has eight stomachs. ALF claims he came from a large family, his best friend growing up was Malhar Naik, his girlfriend was Rhonda, he attended high school for 122 years, and was captain of his bouillabaisseball team. The sport was played on ice but used fish parts as bats and balls, requiring nose plugs on warm days. Melmac apparently had blue grass, a green sky, and a purple sun.

Photo: metv.com

Despite the funny scripts and fond remembrances viewers had, it was a difficult show to work on. The human actors had trouble playing second fiddle to a puppet, and there were a lot of complications trying to film with ALF. The set was on high tension alert all the time. When the final scene was filmed, Max Wright, who had the hardest time adjusting to working with ALF, walked off the set and left without saying good-bye to anyone. Schedeen said “There was no joy on that set . . . it was a technical nightmare—extremely slow, hot and tedious.” A thirty-minute show could take 20-25 hours to shoot. Schedeen said she was fond of her screen children, but some adults on the show had difficult personalities. Later in life, Wright said he found out the show brought a lot of enjoyment to people and felt better about his time portraying Willie.

One of the issues was that the set was built on a four-foot platform with trap doors all over so ALF could appear anywhere. He was operated from underneath the set and the doors and holes could be treacherous. To avoid wear and tear on the real puppet, a stand-in was used to rehearse named RALF (rehearsal alien life form).

Photo: noiselesschatter.com

Luckily, none of all the problems behind the scenes leaked out to the public. The show was popular in season one. In season two, it reached number five. It continued to hold its own in season three, with tenth place. However, season four saw a sharp decline and the show came in at 39th. In March of 1990, NBC moved the show from Monday to Saturday, but the ratings continued to decline.

The show had one of the most interesting endings in sitcom history. The production team hoped by having a cliffhanger at the end of season four, they could convince the network to bring it back for a fifth season, but it did not work that way. The Tanners take ALF to a field where an aircraft is going to reclaim him. Suddenly he’s circled by a group of military automatons. No one knew if he would be taken to Area 51 or escape. Viewers were left wondering what happened to ALF. NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff later admitted to Fusco they had cancelled the show prematurely.

Photo: horrorgeeklife.com

Six years later, ABC aired a movie, Project: ALF. None of the original cast was in the film. The movie was not well received.

Photo: hobbydb.com

However, the movie was not the end of ALF. The character has had more lives than all the cats he ever ate combined. Marvel Comics developed a series of books in 1987 which ran for four years with 50 issues. An animated cartoon that aired Saturday mornings which was a prequel to the show also ran for a couple of years.

One of the most unexpected outcomes of the show and, in my opinion, one of the funniest, was ALF’s talk show which aired on TV Land. ALF was a talk show host with none other than Ed McMahon as his sidekick. It was on for only seven episodes but featured guests like Drew Carey and Merv Griffin.

Photo: nathanrabin.com

Believe it or not, it didn’t end there. In 1987 while the show was still on the air, ALF appeared on an episode of Matlock. He was in an episode of Blossom when he denies her entrance to heaven in a dream. He was the only extra terrestrial to appear on The Love Boat: The Next Wave. He was a regular on Hollywood Squares. In addition to a bunch of other shows, he appeared on Good Morning America in 2011, on The Simpsons several times, twice on Family Guy, once in Young Sheldon, and a stuffed animal ALF was in a Big Bang Theory show. The guys buy a box at a garage sale after following someone they think could be Adam West. One of the items in the box is the ALF doll.

Photo: bigbangtheorywiki.wikinfofoundry.com

In addition to shows, ALF appeared in a variety of commercials including telephones, Delta Airlines, Super Bowl XLV, and Radio Shack.

If all that is not enough, in August of 2018, Variety reported that there was a possible ALF reboot coming from Warner Brothers. One of the rumored ideas is that ALF would emerge from Area 51 into a world that has drastically changed, somewhat like Austin Powers, I guess.

Photo: noiselesschatter.com

I’m not sure that it would be a good idea to bring ALF back. The original is a classic and extremely funny if you aren’t aware of all the background tension. I think we’ll let the show speak for itself. Here is a typical example of the conversations that Willie and ALF had around the breakfast table.

Willie: You can’t vote, ALF, you’re not a citizen.

ALF: I’ll apply for a green card.

Willie: That’s only if you want a job.

ALF: Pass. (After a pause) I know, I’ll marry Lynn, become a citizen, and then drop her like a hot potato.

Willie: ALF . . .

ALF: Sure, it will be hard on her at first. She’ll cry, drink a little too much, join up with a bongo player named Waquine.

Willie: ALF

ALF: You’d like Waquine, he doesn’t like beets.

Willie: Neither you nor Waquine may marry my daughter and you may not vote.

ALF: Fine, I won’t have a voice in government. Waquine will get deported, and they’ll make him eat beets.

Willie: How many cups of coffee have you had today?

ALF: Forty. Why?