The Flying Nun: Soaring to Success Followed By a Crash Landing

This month we are in the midst of the series, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Today we take a look at another sitcom whose cast was primarily female.

From 1965-1966, Gidget starring Sally Field was on the air. When it was cancelled after only 32 episodes, producers were scrambling to find another vehicle for Field.  Harry Ackerman, with co-producers Bernard Slade (who would create The Partridge Family and just passed away last week) and Max Wylie came up with The Flying Nun. They based it on a book published in 1965, The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios. Beginning on ABC in September of 1967, the show continued through the fall of 1970, resulting in 82 episodes.

I did read that Patty Duke was the first choice for the show, so I’m assuming when she turned it down, they asked Sally Field. Apparently, they were trying to find a show for Field, but this show was not created for her. Field also turned it down, thinking it was a silly concept, so the producers went to their third choice, Ronne Troup, who would play Polly on My Three Sons. Troup began filming the pilot. Sally’s stepdad, Jock Mahoney, told her she should reconsider because she might not get another chance in show business if she didn’t accept the role. When Sally informed the producers that she had changed her mind, Troup was let go.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

In the hour-long pilot, we meet Elsie Ethrington. Elsie, who grew up in Chicago, is arrested in New York during a protest. We learn that the rest of her family has chosen medicine for their vocation. (In a later episode, we meet one of her birth sisters who is a physican played by Elinor Donohue.) Elsie goes to Puerto Rico. She is impressed with the missionary work her aunt has been doing, so she ends her relationship with her boyfriend, a toy salesman, and becomes a nun at the Convento San Tanco, taking on the name Sister Bertrille. In one episode, Sister Bertrille watches home movies of her life and what we are actually seeing is footage from Gidget.

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One day Sister Bertrille, who is only 90 pounds, realized that the heavily starched cornette on her head, allowed her to be able to “fly” as the high winds picked her up. As she tried to explain to several people, “when lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag, anything can fly.” Of course, a nun flying around town caused quite a stir. Field said she was humiliated by her directors as she was hung from a crane and moved around the set like a prop.

Photo: pinterest.com

The Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood) runs the convent. She is kind, but strict. Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond), who sees the humor in most situations, becomes good friends with Sister Bertrille. Sister Ana (Linda Dangcil) and Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison) are also friends of hers. The other major characters are Captain Gaspar Fomento (Vito Scotti) who is a police officer that the nuns keep from learning about Sister Bertrille’s flying ability and Carlos Ramirez (Alejandro Rey) who owns a casino and is a ladies’ man. Ramirez was raised by the nuns, and they constantly try to reform him. He will not be reformed, but out of appreciation, he always tries to help them, and Sister Bertrille is constantly involving him in zany schemes or asking him to finance some plan of hers.

Photo: flickr.com

This was the first (and perhaps only) sitcom to be set in Puerto Rico. Although the pilot and opening and closing credits were shot in Puerto Rico, the show was shot at Warner Brothers Ranch in Burbank, California.

The producers were worried about how Catholics would react to the show. They asked the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television to serve as an advisor. The show actually was popular with Catholic religious leaders who felt the show “humanized” the image of nuns.

The show was also popular with viewers of every other religion. The first two years, it aired Thursday nights, competing with Daniel Boone. The sitcom was sandwiched between Batman and Bewitched. Although it was declared a hit immediately, the ratings eroded during the two years.

Photo: epguides.com

The producers had a hard time deciding on a focus for the show. During the second season it contained more slapstick comedy. The third season it went back to the warm and fuzzy feelings it used in the first season. For the third season, the network moved the show to Wednesdays and put it up against The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour which insured its cancellation. It didn’t help in the third year that Field was pregnant. She mentioned in an interview that “you can only imagine what a pregnant flying nun looked like,” and the crew had to hide her behind props and scenery.

Photo: thenewyorktimes.com

Critics never took to the show, but the public kept it on the air three times longer than Gidget. Many fans remember the series fondly. The plots were often heart-warming. In “With Love from Irving,” a pelican falls in love with Sister Bertrille. When Sister Bertrille is forced to go to the dentist for a toothache, Dr. Paredes puts her under hypnosis. The doctor gives them a suggestion that whenever they hear “red,” she and the Reverend Mother will switch personalities. In another show, Sister Bertrille wants Carlos to finance an expedition to find a bell that sunk long ago that was supposed to go to the convent because their old one is rusted and they can’t afford a new one. Carlos uses the opportunity to woo a young woman, but Sister Bertrille tags along. The girlfriend gets thrown overboard, but the bell is found in the end.

Relying on uplifting morals (pun intended) and Field’s delightful and talented performances, the show continued on the air. Marge Redmond was nominated for an Emmy as supporting actress. Unfortunately, she was up against Marion Lorne, who won it for her role of Aunt Clara on Bewitched.

TV Guide ranked the show number 42 on its worst tv shows of all times list in 2002. However, it continues to do well in syndication and has an international fan club.

Photo: ebay.com

While the show was on the air, it sold a variety of merchandise, including paper dolls, lunch boxes, trading cards, view master reels, a board game, and a doll.

Photo: ebay.com

Sally Field released a soundtrack LP with songs from the series in 1967. Dell Comics came out with four comic books based on the series in 1968.

Photo: ebay.com
Photo: ebay.com

I must admit I was not a big fan of the show. However, I have gone back and watched quite a few episodes for this blog, and it is better than I remembered it. Although the concept does sound as silly as Field thought, the show is charming and can be quite funny at times. Although it might not be in your top 25, it probably deserves a second look if you have not seen it for a while.

Photo: listal.com

Elinor Donahue Through the Decades

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Elinor Donahue always displays a warmth and comes across as a genuinely nice person. Her first sitcom became her most famous role.  She played Betty in the iconic Father Knows Best. Although none of her later sitcoms reached the same popularity, she has had a long and full career.

She was born in April of 1937 in Tacoma, Washington. She began tap dancing at 16 months old. As a toddler, she did some acting and received a contract with Universal at the ripe old age of 5. From 1955-1961 she was married to Robert Smith. She was married her second husband, Harry Ackerman, from 1962-1991. Ackerman was a producer for shows including Leave It to Beaver, Gidget, and Bewitched.  She married her third husband Louis Genevrino in 1992.

Donahue appeared in 18 movies between 1942 and 1952 including Tea for Two with Doris Day and My Blue Heaven. She made the transition to television in 1952 appearing in 8 shows in the 1950s. One of the shows I remember her in although I only saw it in reruns was one of my favorite shows, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. She was typically cast as the girl-next-door type. Her most famous role came in 1954 when she was cast in a new sitcom, Father Knows Best.

Father Knows Best – 1954-1960

This was one of the typical family shows of the 1950s. The Andersons lived in Springfield with three children: Betty, called Princess (Elinor Donahue), James Jr., or Bud (Billy Gray) and Kathy, usually called  Kitten (Lauren Chapin). The show debuted in the fall of 1954 on CBS. The show was cancelled in 1955 and the public was furious. Letters came pouring in, so it was reinstated. NBC took over the next year until 1958 when it went back to CBS.  In 1960, Robert Young decided he was done. These were warm and inviting parents, providing guidance and object lessons galore. Critics panned it later because it was not reality.  We have reality shows today, and please, give me fiction. We did learn life lessons on the show – following through on promises, working for what you want, being yourself, and taking responsibility for your mistakes.

Shortly after Father Knows Best left the airwaves, Donahue accepted the role of Elly Walker in The Andy Griffith Show.

The Andy Griffith Show – 1960-1961

Most of us are very familiar with The Andy Griffith Show and many of the characters who inhabit Mayberry:  Widower Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) and his son Opie (Ron Howard) live with Andy’s Aunt Bee (Frances Bavier) who takes care of them;  Barney (Don Knotts) is the inept deputy but also Andy’s best friend;  Helen Crump (Anita Corsaut), the school teacher and Andy’s girlfriend later in the series; Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), Barney’s girl; Otis Campbell (Hal Smith), town drunk but nice guy; Gomer Pyle (Jim Nabors), who runs the gas station; and his cousin Goober Pyle (George Lindsey). Andy had several romances early in the show.  He dated the county nurse Mary Simpson (played by several actresses), spent a limited amount of time with Daphne (Jean Carson) who had a crush on him; and in the first two seasons, he was sweet on Ellie Walker (Donahue), who ran the local drug store. Ellie cared about Andy, but she always stood up for herself and women’s rights.  Andy and Ellie never had the chemistry they were hoping for but they respected each other and like each other. Elinor raved about the cast and her opportunity to be on the show. She said Andy was in charge and expected quality but was fair and a nice man. She described Ron Howard as the best child actor she ever worked with.  She liked Frances Bavier and got along well with her.  She had a huge respect for Don Knott’s comedic ability. She is still friends with Betty Lynn.

She appeared on a variety of shows in the mid-1960s including 77 Sunset Strip, Dr. Kildare, The Virginian, Dennis the MenaceStar Trek, and The Flying Nun. She tried her luck with one other sitcom in the 1960s.

Many Happy Returns – 1964-1965

This sitcom was also about a widower.  Walter Burnley (John McGiver) ran the Complaint Department at a LA department store. The show also featured his daughter (Donahue) and a coworker Lynn Hall (Elena Verdugo). His boss (Jerome Cowan) did not want him to take in any returns, so he had to resolve complaints without making his boss mad. Apparently Burnley couldn’t solve the complaints that came in from viewers because the show was cancelled after 24 episodes.

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Father Knows Best came out with two television movies in 1977: The Father Knows Best Reunion and Father Knows Best – Home for Christmas, and Elinor was in both. While still showing up in random shows during the 1970s such as The Rookies, Police Woman, and Diff’rent Strokes, Donahue found time to appear in two 70s shows on a regular basis.

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The Odd Couple – 1972-1975

Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple came to Friday nights in 1970. Felix Unger (Tony Randall) and Oscar Madison (Jack Klugman), two divorced men who are complete opposites but best friends, try to live together without killing each other. The show had a great supporting cast including Donohue as Miriam Welby from 1972-1974, Felix’s girlfriend.

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Mulligan’s Stew – 1977

This show from 1977 starred Elinor Donahue as Jane Mulligan.   She and her husband Michael (Lawrence Pressman) are trying to raise three kids on his teacher’s salary when they suddenly add four orphaned nieces and nephews to their family. One of the kids was played by Suzanne Crough, Tracy from The Partridge Family, one of the few shows she was in. The series only lasted for seven episodes.

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The 1980s found Donahue still working regularly.  She was in Barnaby Jones, Mork & Mindy, One Day at a Time, Fantasy Island, The Love Boat, Newhart, and Golden Girls. One sitcom in the 1980s captured her attention about Beans Baxter.

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The New Adventures of Beans Baxter – 1987

Here is the plot for this one: Beans Baxter’s (Jonathan Ward) father who he thought was a mailman disappears one day.  Teenage Bean discovers that his dad worked for a secret government agency.  He is then drawn into becoming a spy for the government. The show features his adventures as he tries to find the enemy agents who are holding his father hostage while his mother played by Donahue is completely oblivious that anything strange is happening. Viewers also didn’t realize anything was happening because the show was cancelled after 17 episodes.

Entering her 60s, Elinor joined the cast of three sitcoms in the 1990s. She also made several movies including Pretty Woman in 1990 and The Princess Diaries 2 in 2004.

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Get a Life – 1990-1992

Shows don’t get much weirder than this one. Comedian Chris Elliot plays a 30-year-old paperboy Chris Peterson who lives with wacky parents (Donahue and Bob Elliott, Chris’s real father).  Some of the strange things that happen during the 36 episodes include eating a space alien, beheadings, and a robot paperboy. In this bizarre series, Chris actually dies in a third of the episodes. During the run of the show, he died from old age, tonsillitis, a stab wound, a gunshot wound, was strangled, got run over by a car, choked on his cereal, was crushed by a giant boulder, and actually exploded.

 

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Eek!stravaganza – 1992-1993

Donahue plays “The Mom” in this animated show about Eek, a purple cat who always finds himself in dangerous situations. The series was on the air for five seasons.

Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman – 1993-1997

During the six years the show was on the air, Donahue reprised her role as Rebecca Quinn ten times. The show followed the ups and downs experienced by a female doctor practicing in a wild western town.

Interestingly, Donahue appeared in three different soap operas toward the end of her career: Santa Barbara, Days of Our Lives, and The Young and the Restless.  Elinor also appeared on a variety of documentaries and award shows. She was in the Match Game/Hollywood Squares Hour. In 1998, she wrote her memoirs titled, In the Kitchen with Elinor Donahue. The book included about 150 of her favorite recipes. Elinor’s career has been long and she appeared in many shows and movies over the years. She hasn’t appeared in a movie or television show since 2010, although she did do some theater.  In September of 2015, she appeared in one of my favorite plays, “Harvey” in North Carolina.

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Donahue’s career reminds me of many of the actors we have gotten to know in this blog including William Christopher, Betty White, Ken Berry, and Shelly Fabares.  These actors and actresses all appear to be very nice, talented people who have careers they should be proud of.  In a day when bad decisions and selfish actions are splattered across our television screens and newspapers, perhaps one of the best compliments we can give someone is that they had a long and fulfilling career and didn’t step all over other people to achieve it.

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When a rainy day shows up this summer, take a moment to watch some of Elinor’s sitcom episodes. Thank you Elinor Donahue for the entertainment and memories you gave us.

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