Just “Ellen”: The First Ellen DeGeneres Show

I remember watching Ellen when it first aired. I don’t recall many details, but I remember it being funny and the characters rang true to me. I recently watched the episode about bowling for another blog (see September 3, 2018), and it prompted me to take a closer look at the show.

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Ellen DeGeneres was born in Metairie, Louisiana into a middle-class family. When she was sixteen, her parents divorced and later when her mother remarried, she moved to Atlanta, Texas with her new husband and children. Ellen started college but decided it wasn’t for her and made her living in various jobs before trying stand-up comedy. Only four years after graduating from high school, she was touring the nation with her comedy. In 1986 she would appear on the Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

From 1989-1990, Ellen starred as Margo Van Meter in Open House. Open House was about a real estate company. Ellen played the man-hungry secretary. In 1992 she gave sitcoms another try, portraying Nancy MacIntyre on Laurie Hill. This time the show was about the medical profession, and Ellen was a nurse with a great sense of humor.

Ellen appeared in a handful of shows and movies and then received her own show, Ellen, not to be confused with The Ellen Show which debuted in 2001 or The Ellen DeGeneres Show which aired in 2003 and is still going strong. Ellen ran on ABC from 1994-1998. The show was created at an interesting time in her career. Now a household name, Ellen had established herself as a respected comedian but was not the typical star who carried a self-named sitcom. Think of The Doris Day Show, The Jimmy Stewart Show, or The Joey Bishop Show, all well-established stars.

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Ellen was created by Carol Black, Neal Marlens, and David S. Rosenthal. (Black and Marlens had created Growing Pains and The Wonder Years as well. Rosenthal would go on to produce many successful series.) Originally titled “These Friends of Mine”, the show is centered around Ellen Morgan, a bookstore employee and her friends and coworkers, whose lives become intertwined. Like Seinfeld, the show was primarily about Ellen’s relationship with her quirky friends and dealing with day-to-day life and issues. Ellen works at “Buy the Book” bookstore. She lives in an apartment with Adam (Arye Gross), a college friend.  Adam just can’t find the right woman and gets dumped often.

Recurring characters throughout the series were Ellen’s parents, Harold (Steven Gilborn) and Lois (Alice Hirson). Her dad is a bit naïve. Her mom spends a lot of time interfering in Ellen’s life. At one point, they plan on getting divorced but later reconcile.

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Ellen’s friend Holly (Holly Fulgar) is only seen in season one. She is very shy and introverted but would like to be an extrovert. Anita is another first-season friend who is not seen in subsequent years. Joe (David Anthony Higgins) is a sarcastic Canadian and the coffee barista at the bookstore café. He becomes closer to Ellen as the series continues. Audrey (Clea Lewis) began as Ellen’s neighbor and eventually becomes a coworker as well. Audrey has a high voice and is extremely perky and cheerful and she loves pink. She was born into a wealthy family but has put her money aside for a job at the bookstore.

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During season two, Joely Fisher joined the cast as Ellen’s friend Paige. She works for a movie studio and is a little arrogant. Paige had previously dated Spence (Jeremy Pivens), Ellen’s cousin, and she leaves her fiancé at the altar to resume the relationship.

The show always did well in the ratings but because some of the characters were more appealing than others, most of the main cast was dropped for the third season.

The theme song from season three on was an altered version of “So-Called Friend” by a Scottish band, Texas. A running gag on the show centered around the altered lyrics which changed from time to time. The lyrics resulted in different opening sequences as Ellen searched for the perfect opening.

During season three, Adam moves out when his character takes a job in England. and Ellen lives alone. Eventually her cousin Spence moves in. Spence has been going to medical school but wrestles with a career decision, going to law school for a bit before returning to the medical profession.

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During the fourth season, Ellen buys her first house. Paige is still having a hard time adjusting to Ellen’s being out of the closet but accepts it at the end of the fourth year. Another change during season four is the arrival of Ed who manages the bookstore. He often disagreed with Ellen on how to run the business.

Of course, you can’t discuss the show without talking about a 1997 episode, “The Puppy Episode” that made television history. DeGeneres revealed that she was gay in real life which the writers and producers decided to carry over into the sitcom, making Ellen Morgan the first openly gay sitcom character who was the star of a show. Other gay characters appeared on shows; e.g., Billy Crystal as Jodie was a gay character in Soap, but he wasn’t the star. Ellen’s therapist on the show was Oprah Winfrey. The revelation caused a lot of controversy and media exposure.

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While the show made it easier for gay characters on television in the future, it didn’t help Ellen. Ellen DeGeneres not only was chastised by members of society who didn’t approve of gay characters, she also was criticized by the LGBT community as well. They were unhappy when she said she never wanted to be a role model for LGBT. “I was looked at as the new leader, and I didn’t want to be a leader and I didn’t want to be political . . . I just wanted to be free from a secret and that’s all I wanted.” She was portrayed as not gay enough for some groups and too gay by others, a no-win situation.

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With so much controversy, I think the powers that be on the show could not make the announcement and then ignore it but to put too much emphasis on it detracted from the relationship all the characters were involved in. Most of the subsequent episodes focused too much on the gay issues, destroying the camaraderie of the group by focusing more on one character. Rather than shows being about the group or even Ellen, it was about being gay. Ratings declined and the show was cancelled, but it had an impact, making way for gay characters in the television community. Despite all the backlash the show received for featuring a gay character, Will and Grace debuted the same year Ellen was cancelled and became a huge hit.

Of course, Ellen DeGeneres would go on to become a superstar with an award-winning talk show and a producer extraordinaire of eclectic shows. She does games shows, she has a line of home goods and shoes on QVC, and she has hosted a design competition on HGTV. Like Oprah, she has the avenues open now to explore whatever types of shows capture her interest. I have not seen Ellen on syndication in years, but episodes exist on YouTube. The DVDs were released from 2004-2006.

It’s too bad the show could not return to its original premise. Like Friends, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show, it had a cast of interesting personalities that had a special bond. Ellen DeGeneres received Golden Globe nominations for best comedy actress for the show three of its seasons. Joely Fisher received best supporting actress in 1998. Ellen also received the Emmy nomination for best comedy actress every year from 1994-1998. The show was also nominated for Emmys for directing, writing, and guest stars. It was a hilarious show, and it would have been amazing to see how long it could have lasted if it had not been forced off the air for non-creative reasons.

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As I mentioned, I recently watched the bowling episode which brought out Ellen’s competitive streak. I remembered how funny the show was and what an amazing ensemble cast the show featured. I will definitely watch more episodes.

The Skipper and His Little Buddy: Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver

We continue our month-long exploration of the actors who appeared on Gilligan’s Island. Today we look at the two biggest stars: Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver.

Alan Hale Jr.

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Alan Hale Jr. (Alan Hale Mackahan, Jr.) was born in 1921 in Los Angeles, California.  He looked exactly like his father, Alan Hale Sr. who was a well-known movie actor acting with legends like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. His mother, Gretchen Hartman, was also a silent film star.

Hale’s first screen role was when he was 12 in Wild Boys of the Road.

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He appeared in more movies and television series than any of the other Gilligan’s Island cast.  In all he would appear in 92 movies and 123 different tv shows.

In 1943 he married Bettina Reed Doerr. They would be married for twenty years and have four children. During World War II, Hale served in the US Coast Guard.

In the 1950s, he could be seen in many westerns as well as The Loretta Young Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He had regular roles on two sitcoms in that decade: Biff Baker USA and Casey Jones. Biff Baker is a businessman who becomes involved in espionage.  He and his wife travel around the world, working behind the scenes to solve problems. Although it was a serious show, there was some humor in the episodes also. As Casey Jones, Hale drove his train, The Cannonball Express, around the country.

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The early 1960s was a prolific time for Alan Hale. The majority of his television credits came during this decade. You can see him in reruns of Jack Benny, The Lucy Show, Perry Mason, My Favorite Martian, and The Andy Griffith Show.

The year 1964 was a momentous one for Alan. He married Naomi and remained with her till his death. He also tackled the role he would become famous for.

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Sherwood Schwartz said he was having trouble finding the right person to play Jonas Grumby. He auditioned a lot of people, including Carroll O’Connor. One night while having dinner at a local restaurant he saw Hale dressed in a Civil War costume and decided he might be the one. Although the Skipper often became frustrated with Gilligan, they had a father and son relationship. Hale and Denver managed to pull that off. They were close friends in their personal lives as well.

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Unlike some of the cast who felt typecast after they left the show, Hale embraced the role he had played. He would later own and manage a popular restaurant in Los Angeles called “Alan Hale’s Lobster Barrel” and could be seen greeting guests as the Skipper. Both he and Jim Backus appeared on Bob Denver’s sitcom Good Guys in 1968.

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After Gilligan, Hale’s career did not slow down. Until his death he would continue to appear in a variety of series including Batman, Green Acres, The Flying Nun, The Wild, Wild West, Here’s Lucy, Marcus Welby, The Doris Day Show, Gunsmoke, McMillan and Wife, Simon and Simon, Growing Pains, The Love Boat, and Magnum PI.

In addition to acting and his restaurant business, Alan enjoyed fishing, golfing, cooking, traveling, storytelling, spending time with his family, and philanthropy. In 1990, Hale died after suffering from thymus cancer at the young age of 68.

Alan Hale had a long and prosperous career.  From all accounts, he liked acting and enjoyed life. Perhaps we should leave the last word to his costars who knew him best.

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Bob Denver said, “He was a big, lovable man who made everyone feel good. He had a great time with his life.”

Dawn Wells described him: “What a dear man . . . what a dear, dear man . . I never saw him disgruntled, having a temper tantrum or depressed. He was so jovial and so sweet and so strong. . . He was a nice man.”

 

Bob Denver

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Bob Denver was born in New York in 1935. He went to college at Loyola University in Los Angeles, majoring in political science. He worked as a mailman and a teacher before deciding to go into acting full time.  His first appearance was on Silent Service in 1957.

While Alan Hale was in more shows and movies than any of the other crew members, Bob Denver was easily in the fewest.  While he appeared in seven movies, he was only in 21 television shows, and on six of them he had regular roles.

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His sister suggested him for the part of Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. His role as Dobie Gillis’s best friend propelled him into stardom. Dobie Gillis was on the air for four years, producing 144 shows.

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In the 1960s he would appear on Dr. Kildare, The Farmer’s Daughter, The Andy Griffith Show, Make Room for Daddy, and I Dream of Jeannie. In the mid-1960s, Bob was offered the role of Gilligan on a new show, Gilligan’s Island.  In 1966 he married Maggie Ryan. They would have two children during the six years before they divorced.

Schwartz wanted to cast Jerry Van Dyke in the role who turned it down to play Dave Crabtree in My Mother the Car. Denver was perfect in the role of the inept Gilligan who caused many mishaps on the island but was the center of affection of the rest of the castaways, especially the Skipper.

The same year Gilligan was cancelled, Denver remarried. Like many sitcoms, the relationship with Jean Webber lasted three years before the couple cancelled it.

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Although Denver was given a lead role in three more sitcoms, most of his work after 1967 cashed in on his character of Gilligan. In 1968, he starred in Good Guys. He played the role of Rufus Butterworth who opens a diner with his best friend from childhood.  The show only lasted for 42 episodes. Like Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz produced this show. In an interview in 1994 with Peter Anthony Holder on Montreal radio station CJAD 800 AM, Denver discussed Schwartz. “Oh yeah, sure. Sherwood, as a producer, he was one of the best writer producers. It’s amazing. That man was just amazing. We never knew there were any problems when we were shooting. He kept all the network craziness away from us. He was writing scripts literally four months in advance, so that special effects and props always got them in plenty of time. . . you just memorized your words and went down there and had a great time. It wasn’t until afterwards when I left that I realized that not everybody was in the same situation. So every time I had a chance to work with him I did.”

At this time, Bob was also involved with Broadway and dinner theater plays after 1970.

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In 1972 Denver tried marriage a third time. He and Carole Abrahams made it three years and produced one child before divorcing. In 1973, he took the lead on Dusty’s Trail. As Dusty, he manages to get a wagon and stage separated from the rest of the wagon train heading west, and the lost group of travelers try to catch up with the rest of their party.  This one only lasted 26 shows.

In 1975, Denver appeared in his weirdest sitcom yet, Far Out Space Nuts. Lasting only 12 episodes, Denver played a maintenance man in a space company who is accidentally launched into space with a co-worker. Apparently, television producers decided Denver looked like someone who was always lost.

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In 1979, Bob tried the marriage ride one more time. This time he would stay married to Dreama Perry until his death.  The couple would have a child, making a total of four children for him.

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Like many of the other castaways, Denver published a book of memoirs.  It was called Gilligan, Maynard, & Me.

In 2005, Denver passed away from complications following throat cancer surgery, leaving Dawn Wells and Tina Louise as the only surviving actors from the show.

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While Denver is obviously the most-recognized character from Gilligan’s Island, he also had the most difficult situation to work with in being typecast. He was never able to shake the traits that were part of Gilligan to explore other roles.  He mentioned he would have liked to be in Northern Exposure. I wonder if he would have been happier being a teacher or if he enjoyed his career.

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Next week we will discover more about our last regular member of the show, Russell Johnson.

All Hail to the Grief

Monday is Presidents Day, and as I mention that fact, I can hear the collective groans.  Whether you’re in the Hate Trump or Love Trump camp, you are probably thoroughly sick of politics.  Believe me, I hear you. However, today we are going to look at presidential moments in television. And before you exit out, be assured I am not talking about the Nixon-Kennedy debates.  We’re going to look at my top television episodes that featured a president.

Several series have included presidents with people dressed in costumes at Halloween parties.  George Washington showed up on Growing Pains in 1990 and on the first episode of The Munsters in 1964, while Thomas Jefferson appeared on Mike and Molly in 2011. I mention the roles, but we’re not going to concentrate on them.

Several candidates also made whistle stops campaigning on television.  Thomas Jefferson was on Simon and Simon in 1986 when they were trying to recover a family journal, Teddy Roosevelt was on The Virginian in 1962 fighting with the Rough Riders, and Franklin Roosevelt was a minor character on Wonder Woman in 1975, when she used her super powers to return a wounded WWII pilot to Washington. In 2002, Teddy Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson all made an appearance on Sabrina the Teenage Witch to convince her aunt not to run for city council. Because these were minor appearances and the shows were not about the presidents, I did not include them in my top five.

Here are my top five television episodes featuring a president as a character.

No. 5 – Bewitched: “George Washington Zapped Here” – 1972. When I saw a Bewitched episode that starred George Washington, I was sure I had my number 1 show for this blog.  Then I watched the show.  I tend to look at Bewitched almost as two different shows.  I love the first five years and include them in some of my all-time favorite tv episodes.  It was one of the best fantasy shows ever created, but by the last season the fantasy had died. The last season, including this episode, is like trying to watch a wrinkled, saggy grandmother trying to pull off wearing a mini skirt and go-go boots.  It’s a bit frustrating, a bit humorous, fairly sad, and extremely uncomfortable. If George Washington had a premonition about appearing in this episode, I’m sure he would have found a way to ban television in the Constitution.

Trying to help Tabitha with her homework, Esmeralda zaps George Washington to the present time. George is played by Will Geer. I feel like this theme of zapping historical figures happened more often than it should have during this show’s run.  Also, Esmeralda is not as likeable a character as Aunt Clara or Uncle Arthur. Of course, Washington wanders off and is arrested for speaking without a permit.  The only thing more painful than watching this show was the realization that it was a two-parter; the second episode has George going before a local judge and finally being exonerated by the truth. Talking about truth reminds me when George said, “I cannot tell a lie”, and I have to admit this episode is dreadful. Apparently, politics was just as painful 45 years ago as it is today.

No. 4 – Dharma and Greg: “Dutch Treat” – 2001. Numbers 3 and 4 are really a toss-up.  Abraham Lincoln stars in both shows, and he appears in dreams in both episodes. This sitcom was on the air from 1997 to 2002 starring Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson as a young couple who eloped on their first date.  She was raised by hippy parents and he comes from a wealthy family. The show earned eight Golden Globe and six Emmy nominations, and Elfman won the Best Actress Golden Globe in 1999. This episode was a bit too formulaic for me, so Drew Carey beat it out for number 3 in my list.

In this show, Dharma and Greg argue about being a role model for their young college friend.  During the argument they both claim to be independent, so they decide to go dutch for a week to find out which one is truly independent. Of course, they end up realizing they are dependent on each other during the experiment.   Peter, Greg’s coworker, has some weird dreams during the show.  At the end of the episode, Peter leaves for lunch with a bunch of Victoria’s Secret models who think he’s hot (he’s not), and Abraham Lincoln arrives at the office for a consultation with Peter. Dharma and Greg inform him Peter is out and invite him to lunch with them.  He takes off his hat to reveal it is full of waffles. At this point, Dharma informs Greg that they are now in Peter’s dream and the show ends. Abe is played by Ryan Stiles and, by chance, our no. 3 show features Stiles as a cast member.

No. 3 – The Drew Carey Show: “Drew’s in a Coma” – 2001. From 1995-2004, Drew portrays the average guy. He works at a department store and has a group of friends he hangs out with, primarily at the Warsaw Tavern.  Ryan Stiles is one of these friends, who played Abe Lincoln in the Dharma and Greg episode. He also appeared on Drew’s improv show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

In this episode, Drew is in an auto accident and goes into a coma.  His friends and family try to bring him out of it, but he is enjoying his unconscious dreams.  We see him in an apartment with a bunch of sexy women. Mimi is his sister-in-law who wears flamboyant make-up.  They have a love/hate relationship, but in his dreams, she is very conservative looking and tells him she is his slave, being very respectful.  He has a pizza tree, a beer fountain, and a door that opens to the greatest moments in sports featuring himself.  After several attempts to bring him out of the coma, his family gets ready to pull the plug to see if it shocks his body into waking up.  When they unplug the respirator, Drew is in the middle of a Trivial Pursuit game with William Shakespeare and Abe Lincoln.  (Abe is played by Charles Brame, and he also was Abe Lincoln on the Growing Pains episode mentioned in the second paragraph of the blog.)  Abe is excelling at all the history questions, until Drew reads him a shocking question.  The card asks “Who shot Abraham Lincoln?” The shock Abe feels equals the one Drew feels when he is unplugged and it forces him to realize he has to choose between going on to heaven or back to his life on earth. In the words of his fellow gamer, he had to decide “to be or not to be” and he chooses to return to earth for a while.

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No. 2 – Spin City: “A Tree Falls in Manhattan” – 2001. Spin City is about a group of city hall employees who work to help the mayor.  Mike, played by Michael J. Fox, is great at his job but he is leaving to get married and travel around the world.  The staff covers up for the mayor who is not very competent, but they struggle with their personal lives.  I did not watch Spin City a lot when it was on the air from 1996 to 2002. This was a funny episode, so it came in at number 2, even though Washington is only an on-air character for a minute or two.

Trying to impress his new girlfriend so they can watch the sun rise over the East River, the mayor orders a tree outside the mansion to be cut down, not realizing that it was a tree planted by George Washington and is protected. Charlie tells a girl he picks up that night about the tree story, not knowing she was the campaign manager for the opposition.  She tells her boss, and they go on the air to make an announcement.  When Charlie sees her, he realizes what has happened. Four George Washingtons appear in this episode played by David Hayman, Jack Wright, Gelbert Coloma, and Anthony Provenzano Jr. They are part of the Revolutionary War Society picketing city hall. After all this mayhem, Mike realizes he needs to be back in city hall and returns to his job. He arranges for the mayor to go on television saying “I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down George Washington’s tree, but I used the wood to build a shelter for the homeless.”  At this time, Fox was dealing with Parkinson’s Disease and announced he would be leaving at the end of this season.  When he did eventually leave the show, the explanation was that he accepted a job as an environmental lobbyist who moved to Washington, DC.  He met a senator there named Alex P. Keaton, the name of Fox’s character on Family Ties.

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No. 1 – My Friend Flicka: ”Rough and Ready” – 1956. I had heard of the book and movie My Friend Flicka, but I did not know that it was ever a television show. It was only on the air one year, and only 39 episodes were made, airing between February 1956- February 1957. It was a mid-season replacement for The Adventures of Champion, a show starring Gene Autry.  Unfortunately, neither show could compete with The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin which was on another channel during this time slot. The show was later aired Monday nights on the Disney Channel in the mid-1980s. Ken McLaughlin, played by Johnny Washbrook, is devoted to his horse Flicka.  He and his parents live at the Goose Bar Ranch in Coulee Springs. After this show was cancelled, Washbrook appeared on several shows, including three different characters on My Three Sons, but then went into the banking profession and moved to Martha’s Vineyard.

This episode was a delightful and charming show featuring Theodore Roosevelt played by Frank Albertson. Young Ken McLaughlin decides to write a letter to the president because there is too much overgrazing going on due to the government failing to put restrictions on the lands. A couple of weeks later, the newspaper has an article about Vice President Roosevelt coming to Coulee Springs for a vacation.  In the meantime, several families are forced to put their ranches up for sale and move because there is no place for their cattle to graze.  Ken meets a man fishing and shows him lures he makes himself.  The man is quite impressed, and they make plans to meet again in the morning to fish.  The next day, Ken explains what is happening with the land, saying he wrote the president but never heard back, and then tells the man that his family had now put their ranch up for sale also.  The man tells Ken to have his father come to town, and he will arrange for him to talk to the vice president.  He also has Ken take his picture with a large fish they caught.  When he and his father go to town for the meeting, he realizes that the man he has been fishing with is Vice President Theodore Roosevelt who takes care of the situation, putting regulations in place.  A few weeks later, Ken gets a letter.  Theodore Roosevelt is now President Roosevelt and he wanted to make sure Ken did get a letter back from the President. He also included the photo that Ken took of him and the fish. Albertson did a bully good job playing Teddy.

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Hopefully watching some of these episodes will convince you that it is possible to have a Happy Presidents Day.  Watching the influence these men still have in our modern-day history reminds us that our Constitution and government were created and modified by great men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt, creating  a strong foundation that is hard to destroy. All you have to do to enjoy politics today is to choose one of these five episodes to watch. And wearing red, white, and blue while you do so wouldn’t hurt.