Car 54, Where Are You: Muldoon and Toody: The Bert and Ernie of the NYPD

Car 54, Where Are You? aired on NBC beginning September of 1961. I was surprised to learn that there are only 60 episodes in this series. The show revolves around officers Gunther Toody, Badge 1432 (Joe E. Ross) and Francis Muldoon, Badge 723 (Fred Gwynne). Their patrol car is Car 54, and they are with the 53rd precinct in New York. Toody and Muldoon are complete opposites which is why they get along so well. Toody is short, extremely talkative and not overly bright.  He’s married to Lucille (Beatrice Pons), a bit of a loud, overbearing woman. Muldoon is tall, quiet and very smart. He’s a bachelor who lives with his mother (Ruth Masters) and two younger sisters.

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Rounding out the large cast are officers Dave Anderson (Nipsey Russell), Omar Anderson (Ossie Davis), Kissel (Bruce Kirby), Nelson (Jim Gormley), Nicholson (Hank Garrett, O’Hara (Albert Henderson), Schnauser (Al Lewis), Steinmetz (Joe Warren), and Wallace (Frederick O’Neal), as well as Captain Block (Paul Reed), Sergeant Abrams ( Nathaniel Frey), Sylvia Schnauser (Charlotte Rae), and Claire Block (Patricia Bright).

A young Nipsey Russell Photo: yahoo.com

Nat Hiken (the creative force behind The Phil Silvers Show) created the series. He wrote many of the scripts and also directed several episodes, one of which he won an Emmy for. The show was nominated for three other Emmys. It was up for Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Humor in 1961 which went to The Bob Newhart Show (not that Bob Newhart show, this was a variety show hosted by Newhart) and for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy in both 1961 and 1962 but got beat out both years by Carl Reiner for The Dick Van Dyke Show.

As recounted in Martin Grams, Jr.’s book Car 54, Where Are You?, after visiting a New York police precinct house and noticing what a communal feel it had, unlike any of the depictions of police on television, Hiken came up with the idea for a police-themed situation comedy. He continued to do research by spending weeks in a precinct squad room during late 1960, getting a feel for how the officers talked and interacted amongst each other, members of the community, and even repeat offenders, who were often treated more like family than threats. Hiken enlisted the support of Eupolis Productions and then pitched the idea to Proctor & Gamble, who agreed to finance a pilot.

Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis were coworkers before they were relatives Photo: shoutfactorytv.com

According to Kliph Nesteroff in the definitive account of Joe E. Ross’ tawdry life off-screen, “King of Slobs: The Life of Joe E. Ross,” Hiken originally wanted to cast Jack Weston in the role of Gunther Toody (televisionheaven.co.uk says it was Jack Warden) and Mickey Shaughnessy as Francis Muldoon, but contract negotiations broke down with both, so he turned to Ross and Fred Gwynne as suitable replacements, though in Ross’ case he later regretted it.

John Strauss who had collaborated with Hiken on the theme song for The Phil Silvers Show, teamed up with Hiken once again for this theme. Strauss was married to Charlotte Rae, who appeared on the show. Strass was the composer, and Hiken wrote the lyrics. The familiar theme song is:

There’s a hold-up in the Bronx,

Brooklyn’s broken out in fights;

There’s a traffic jam in Harlem

That’s backed up to Jackson Heights.

There’s a scout troop short a child,

Khrushchev’s due at Idlewild,

Car 54, where are you?

The show was originally titled “The Snow Whites.” (Maybe because the sponsor made Chlorox bleach.) The show was given a great time slot on Sunday nights between Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and Bonanza. The producers thought the working title would confuse viewers since the show followed Disney. Since the theme song was already written, the last line of the song became the show’s title.

Critics were split on the show. While many people praised the series, some reviewers considered it disrespectful. The Chicago Sun Times deemed it “a preposterous (and sometimes cruel) depiction of the policeman.” The Dallas Times Herald stated, “The humor might be there, all right, but not much of it was showing.” The Alabama Journal complained, “It is insulting to the law enforcement and to the general public.” However, many policemen liked the show and found it funny.

The show was filmed at Biograph Studios in the Bronx and on location. The cars were painted bright red and white which photographed perfectly. There is some controversy about the patrol cars. Some articles listed them as Savoys, some as Dodges. According to Martin Grams blog from May 4, 2012,  “On June 29, 1961, Arthur Hershkowitz signed the contract and during the first week of July, the following four automobiles were delivered to Eupolis Productions”: two 1961 Plymouth Belvederes, one Dodge Dart, and one Plymouth, all four-door sedans. Grams said “the cars were returned to the dealership and when the show was renewed for season two, the following cars were delivered”: two 1962 Plymouth Belvederes, three 1962 Plymouth Furys, one 1962 Dart 330, and a 1962 Chrysler New Yorker.  One article I read said that the large circular object on the dashboard between the officers was an auxiliary fan used before air conditioning was available.

Despite the success of Car 54, which placed 20th in the ratings for 1961-62, Hiken soon began to feel overwhelmed with his responsibilities.  Apparently, NBC wanted part ownership in the show in exchange for renewing it for season three, and Hiken would not agree to the deal. The show’s sponsor Proctor and Gamble tried to talk CBS into taking the show over, but there was no room on their schedule. Hiken was a bit burnt out with writing, directing, and overseeing the show and was exasperated with Ross who caused a lot of issues not remembering his lines, so Hiken ended the show and never worked on another series again.

Considering the short time that the show was on the air, there was a full slate of guest stars including Carl Ballantine, Tom Bosley, Wally Cox, Hugh Downs, Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Helmond, Hal Linden, Mitch Miller, Charles Nelson Reilly, Sugar Ray Robinson and Jean Stapleton.

The episodes are well written and similar to other sitcoms at the time.

Photo: shoutfactory.com

In one, Toody is feeling henpecked by Lucille, but musters the courage to become king of his castle after seeing a stirring performance of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”

In another, Muldoon shares a childhood experience when the kids at school called him “Horse Face.” Toody, trying to console him, says “Don’t worry Francis, kids just repeat what other people say” and later added “After all, Francis, everybody liked Black Beauty.”

One script has Toody working an undercover detail in Brooklyn with a female cop posing as his wife and a small boy as his child. When his wife’s sister spots him, the rumors begin.

Even though there were only 60 episodes, the show went into syndication in 1964. It was one of the staples on Nick at Nite in the 1980s, aired on Comedy Central in the 1990s, and a few years ago it could be seen on both MeTV and Decades. The show came out on DVD in 2011 and 2012.

Like any show that was even somewhat successful, the show had a film made based on the series in 1994. The big screen version starred John C. McGinley as Muldoon, David Johansen as Toody, Rosie O’Donnell as Toody’s wife Lucille and Fran Drescher as Velma Velor. Not surprisingly, it was a dud. One reviewer said it “was one of the worst movies to ever come out of Hollywood.”

One fun fact I learned doing research for this blog was that this show was William Faulkner’s favorite tv show. He hated television but visited a friend’s house weekly to watch the show.

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This show debuted during the decade when merchandising was a big part of every show. There were at least six comic books based on the show. There was a board game, puppets of Toody and Muldoon, and a car model.

The show was funny in its prime, but I’m not sure it holds up as well today as other shows from the sixties. However, two seasons of DVDs is not a large investment, so check out an episode on youtube and see what you think.

Bob Newhart: Laughing Through Life

This month I wanted to honor one of our most beloved television comedians: Bob Newhart. Next week we’ll spend some time learning more about The Bob Newhart Show.

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Newhart was born George Robert Newhart in 1929 in Oak Park, IL. He grew up in a typical midwestern family where his father was part owner of a plumbing and heating supply company, and his mom was a housewife. As a young boy, he always wanted to be called Bob. He had a Catholic education and went on to Loyola University of Chicago in 1947. Graduating in 1952 with a business degree, he was soon drafted into the US Army in the Korean war where he stayed until 1954. He considered getting a law degree and went back to Loyola. He decided not to pursue that; some sources site that he was asked to behave unethically during an internship which led him down a different career path.

He worked as an accountant and as an unemployment office clerk. In 1958 he was hired as a copywriter for Fred Niles who was a television producer in Chicago. It was while working here that Newhart and a colleague began entertaining each other by making telephone calls about absurd scenarios. They sent these to radio stations as audition tapes. A radio station disc jockey Dan Sorkin introduced Newhart to a Warner Brothers Records executive who signed him in 1959 based on those recordings. Bob then began creating stand-up routines which he performed at nightclubs.

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He released an album in 1960 which changed his life. Titled, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart, the comedy album made number one on the Billboard charts, and he won a Grammy for best new artist. A follow-up album, The Button-Down Mind Strikes Back was released soon thereafter. He would continue releasing comedy albums in 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1967, 1971, and 1973.

During a 2005 interview for American Masters on public television, Bob stated that his favorite routine was Abe Lincoln vs Madison Avenue which was on his first album. A promoter for Abraham Lincoln has to deal with his reluctance to boost his image. A tv director named Bill Daily suggested the routine to him. Daily would be known later as Howard Borden on The Bob Newhart Show (as well as Roger Healey on I Dream of Jeannie).

The success of that first album led to a variety show titled The Bob Newhart Show. It only lasted a year, but it did receive both an Emmy nomination and a Peabody award. Apparently, he didn’t enjoy his time during the show so much. Halfway through the season he wanted to quit, but his agent explained that being under contract meant that was not possible. At a later date, he referred to his first show, saying “It won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and a pink slip from NBC. All in the same year.”

He began making the rounds on television shows, appearing on The Dean Martin Show 24 times and The Ed Sullivan Show 8 times. He guest hosted The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson 87 times. When discussing his appearances on Johnny’s show, he stated “I remember once when I emceed The Tonight Show in New York, I arrived with my manager’s son. After a while, they asked, ‘When are the rest of your people coming?’ I had to say, ‘This is it.’”

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In 1962 Newhart accepted his first movie role, Hell is for Heroes, starring Steve McQueen. He would continue to do movie roles throughout his career including the Christmas classic Elf, but the small screen would make him famous.

In 1963 Buddy Hackett introduced Bob to Virginia Quinn, whose father was character actor Bill Quinn. They wed in January of 1963 and 57 years later are still happily married.

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For the next decade, he continued to accept movie and television roles. In 1972, television history was made when The Bob Newhart Show debuted. Until 1978, Newhart played Bob Hartley, psychologist, and we got to know his unusual patients, quirky co-workers, and eccentric friends, including neighbor Howard Borden. Bob chose a psychologist based partly on his old telephone routines. As he said, “Much of my humor comes out of reaction to what other people are saying. A psychologist is a man who listens, who is sympathetic.”

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In 1982, Bob gave television another go for another eight years. Simply titled Newhart, the show featured Bob as Dick Loudon, an innkeeper and author from Vermont. He still had quirky co-workers and eccentric friends.

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On cue a decade later in 1992, Bob showed up in a new show even more simply titled, Bob as Bob McKay a comic book writer and artist who had retired long ago and was trying to get back into the workplace. Unfortunately, after 33 episodes the show was canceled due to low ratings.

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In 1997, Newhart starred in his last sitcom, George and Leo. As George Stoody, a bookstore owner, Newhart offers a temporary home to a full-time magician and part-time criminal who recently robbed a Mafia-owned casino. The series failed to catch on with viewers, and it was canceled after a season as well.

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Though he never took on another sitcom, Newhart has made appearances with recurring characters in several shows. In 2003, he showed up on ER as Ben Hollander. In 2005, he was Morty on Desperate Housewives. As Judson, he guest starred on The Librarians.

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Perhaps, younger audiences know him best as Arthur Jeffries or Professor Proton on The Big Bang Theory. He had been Sheldon’s boyhood hero who played the professor on television. Sheldon idolized the professor while the professor tolerated Sheldon.

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It’s hard to believe with all of his years being a successful television comedian, but Newhart won his first Emmy in 2013 for his role of Professor Proton. I can’t argue with the nominees for most of the 1970s during the airing of The Bob Newhart Show–names like Tony Randall, Jack Klugman, Alan Alda, and Hal Linden. Even with my bias of Norman Lear shows, I get nominating Carroll O’Connor every single one of those years. I understand the tough competition. What I don’t understand is the fact that he was never nominated during that eight-year period. When Jack Albertson wins, and Bob Newhart is not even nominated that is wrong. During the Newhart years, he was at least nominated three times. But I don’t understand it when John Ritter wins for Three’s Company or Richard Mulligan for Soap and no nomination for Bob Newhart. What especially appalls me is the fact that The Bob Newhart Show was only nominated one year; I can accept the fact that it got beat out by The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I cannot accept is that during this same time, Three’s Company, Mork and Mindy, and Welcome Back Kotter received nominations, and The Bob Newhart Show did not. Anyway, this blog is not about the television academy and its procedures, so let’s move on.

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Even though he was never awarded with an Emmy for his time as Bob Hartley, TV Land placed a life-sized statue of Newhart in front of Navy Pier, complete with an empty couch. He was best friends with Suzanne Pleshette, his wife from the show, and spoke at her funeral. He remembered their time together, “Her laugh. Her laugh. We just laughed. We just had a great time. We all loved each other and respected each other and we got paid for it.” Bob also remains close friends with Marcia Wallace who played his receptionist Carol on the show.

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While Bob has appeared as different characters throughout his career, he has also remained the same character. With his deadpan delivery and slight stammer, he perfected the straight-man role, surrounding himself with wacky castmates. He has often cited George Gobel and Bob and Ray as influences in his comedy career. When discussing his career choice, he explained “I like the humor to come out of character. When you’re going for a joke, you’re stuck out there if it doesn’t work. There’s nowhere to go. You’ve done the drum role and the cymbal clash and you’re out on the end of the plank.”

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In 2006, he released a book I Shouldn’t Even Be Doing This. It’s a memoir with some of his classic comedy routines. Actor David Hyde Pierce reported that “the only difference between Bob Newhart on stage and Bob Newhart offstage is that there is no stage.”

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I am so appreciative of those stars who agree to entertain us for our entire life, such as Betty White, Carol Burnett, and Bob Newhart. They are classic comedians who can make us laugh no matter what. Bob’s view on comedy was that “laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on.” What an amazing career and what an amazing man. With all its negatives and sometimes destructive tendencies, television can be a harmful place, but a comedian like Bob Newhart demonstrates what a positive and uplifting experience television can be when done right. Thanks for doing it right for sixty years.