“Don’t give up before the miracle happens.” ― Fannie Flagg, I Still Dream About You

Fannie Flagg is one of those performers who I have seen all my life but know little about. I thought it would be fun to learn about her show business career. Like me, she started writing later in life as her second career.  I wanted to know how that whole dream fulfillment came about. Let’s get to know Fannie Flagg.

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She was born Patricia Neal in Alabama in 1944. Flagg, of Finnish ancestry, spent most of her childhood in the Birmingham area. It sounds like she had a “normal” childhood. Although she liked writing, she had problems because she was dyslexic which she did not realize until she was an adult. She was an archery champion at age 12. By age fifteen, she thought about entering a convent. Luckily for us she didn’t. In high school she was a cheerleader and a saxophone player in the band.

As a teen, she entered the Miss Alabama pageant, where she won a scholarship to the Pittsburgh Playhouse Theater Acting School. Acting might have been in her blood because both her father and her grandfather were motion picture machine operators. The summer she returned home, the woman who cohosted the Morning Show in Birmingham was leaving, so Fannie was able to replace her.

Who knows what direction Flagg’s career would have taken if the head of WBRC-TV were not so tight-fisted. Flagg asked for a raise and they denied it, so she quit her job and moved to New York City. She had to take on a new name since there was already a quite famous Patricia Neal in show business. Her grandfather suggested “Fannie” because so many comediennes used the name and a friend came up with “Flagg.”

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Her first television job was on CBS Repertoire Workshop in 1964. During this time, Fannie recorded two comedy albums with various skits that included parodies of famous women. She appeared on a variety of talk shows including The Joey Bishop Show, The Dick Cavett Show, The Merv Griffin Show, The Johnny Cash Show, Dinah!, and The Rosie O’Donnell Show.

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Flagg got her first film role in 1970 in Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson. The next year she appeared in Some of My Best Friends Are.

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It was also in 1971 that she received an offer for her first series. Fannie says she stumbled into the role.  She had been doing concerts and performing with stock companies. She was on the west coast and stopped in at her agent’s California office to meet the staff.  A man came in and looked her up and down and then left. The next day she learned she was given the part of Dick Van Dyke’s sister on The New Dick Van Dyke Show. The man in the office the day before had been looking for someone who could pass for Dick’s sister in real life.

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The New Dick Van Dyke Show was on the air from 1971 till 1973. Carl Reiner created the series for Van Dyke. Van Dyke was Dick Preston, a local talk show host. Van Dyke was signed to a three-year contract and given permission to film in Arizona where he lived. Hope Lange was his wife Jenny, Angela Powell their daughter Annie, Flagg his sister Mike, David Doyle was his boss Ted, and Marty Brill and Nancy Dussault were their best friends Bernie and Carol Davis.

The show began its life on Saturday night with All in the Family, Funny Face, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.  The series didn’t garner very high ratings, so the second season found the show on Sunday nights when ratings decreased drastically. Flagg was mentioned by several critics as being very funny in her role. Fannie credited Dick Van Dyke as her acting mentor, as well as one of her best friends.

Because Dick had a three-year contract, rather than cancel the show, CBS changed the structure. Dick gets a role on a soap opera, so he and his family move to Hollywood. They changed out most of the cast members so Flagg moved on. The show followed Here’s Lucy. The ratings improved significantly, but after the third year, Dick quit to go back to Arizona.

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Throughout the 1970s, Fannie continued to get both television and film offers. She appeared on Love American Style, The New Candid Camera, Wonder Woman, and Fernwood Tonight. She was also in several films including both Rabbit Test and Grease in 1978.

During the 1970s, Flagg was a fixture on game shows. She is best known for Match Game where she usually sat next to Richard Dawson.  With all the different versions of Match Game, she appeared in 529 episodes of the show. She is famous for wearing unusual tops on Match Game. It was while on the game show that Fannie received a note from a teacher who noticed a particular pattern in her misspellings on the show. She mentioned she might have dyslexia which is when Flagg first began to investigate and learn she did indeed suffer from the disease. When asked about two her costars on Match Game, namely Charles Nelson Reilly and Brett Somers, Flagg said, “Besides being hilarious, Brett and Charles were two of the smartest people I have ever known. On “Match Game,” they got such a big kick out of each other! They razzed one another and everybody else on the panel mercilessly, and they were particularly relentless on the people they really liked. It was never mean or hurtful, and they loved it when you razzed them back.”

She continued, One of the happiest times in my life was in 1980 when I was doing “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on Broadway, and Charles, Brett and I were staying at the Wyndham Hotel at the same time. Every day at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon they would come to my room for cocktails. Many is the time I would come home from after the show and they would still be sitting there having a good time. The only thing that changed was the position of Charles’ toupee.”

In addition to “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” Flagg toured with Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.”

Fannie continued her acting career into the 1980s. From 1981-1982 she took a role as Cassie Bowman on Harper Valley PTA starring Barbara Eden. The show was based on the hit song, “Harper Valley PTA” by Jeannie Riley. Sherwood Schwartz produced the first eleven episodes.  The show moved around a bit from Thursdays at 8 to Saturdays at 8 to Saturdays at 8:30. Barbara played Stella, a mom who ignores Southern small-town standards by wearing mini skirts and speaking her mind. She reveals the hypocrisy of the other PTA members, making her a target of their comments. The show did not last long enough to accumulate enough episodes for syndication, but it occasionally shows up on independent networks.

Flagg was on The George Burns Comedy Week series and on The Love Boat three times. Her final films were done at the beginning and end of the 1990s. Her last movie was Crazy in Alabama in 1999 written by her friend Mark Childress.

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She also had a cameo in 1991 in Fried Green Tomatoes, a movie based on her novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. She co-wrote the screenplay and received an Oscar nomination. The book is told in the past and the present by Ninnie Threadgoode and Evelyn Crouch who talk about the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama and the bonds the women forged in the 1920s and 1930s. The novel, published in 1987, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 36 weeks. This was her most famous novel, but it was not her first.

Flagg felt a pull toward writing as a child. She had written a play when she attended Catholic school. Because her father worked at the cinema, she had seen a lot of movies. She wrote a play about two career girls who lived in an apartment over the Copacabana nightclub in New York City. A man named Mr. Truman called and asked to come for tea. The girls assume it’s President Truman and go all out getting ready and inviting their friends. It turns out to be an insurance salesman. Her teacher phoned her mother to say the nuns were concerned because she used the word “martini” 16 times. Her mother had to explain that Fannie watched a lot of movies and the family was not sitting around drinking martinis every night.

She won first prize at the county fair for an essay titled, “Why I Want to Be Bald Headed.” She wrote it because she hated her mother braiding her hair so tightly every morning.

In the 1960s, Flagg wrote skits for a night club in New York—Upstairs at the Downstairs. She filled in for a sick actress one night when Allen Funt was in the audience. He invited her to become a staff writer on Candid Camera where she acted as well.

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Flagg decided to attend a conference in 1978 to see Eudora Welty. She had to write a short story for a contest based on the word “childhood.” As Flagg tells it,

“I went to the grocery store, and I bought one of those spiral notebooks. I wrote a story called Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man about something that had actually happened to me in childhood,” says Flagg. “I wrote it as an 11-year-old child, and I thought that if they saw any mistakes, they would think I did it on purpose.”

Flagg won the contest. “I couldn’t believe it. I was thrilled, but at the same time I felt like such a cheat and a liar,” says Flagg. An editor there said that he wanted to talk with her about her writing a fleshed-out novel based on her short story. Flagg burst into tears and said, “I’m so sorry, but I can’t write a book.” When he asked her why, she replied, “Because I can’t spell.” Flagg says the editor looked at her like she was crazy and said, “What do you think we have editors for?”

She’s been writing ever since.

Fannie Flagg has found her niche.  Since that first novel, she has continued to write, publishing ten books in all. Her most recent release was The Whole Town is Talking in 2016. In 2012 she won the Harper Lee Distinguished Alabama Author award and presented it to Fannie in person.

As an adult, Fannie collects lamps from the 1940s and 1950s. She loves going on cruise ships, which might explain her three appearances on The Love Boat.  If you were a Match Game fan, it will not surprise you to learn that she loves wearing stripes with polka dots.

Fannie just seems like a delightful and fun person to be around.  She is on my list of people to have dinner with. I have recently began reading her books and I love them.  She writes about quirky, not strange, characters who seem true to life. It’s been fun getting to know a bit more about her life and career.

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Trick or Treat???

Tomorrow night is Halloween, and many of you will see ghosts flitting around your neighborhood asking for candy.  If you want to watch ghosts flitting around your television screen, I have some shows for you to consider. To save you some time, I’ll let you know which ones are boo-ring and which are hauntingly good.

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Topper (1953)

This show was based on several stories by Thorne Smith and a movie starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, and Roland Young from 1937. When Cosmo Topper (Leo G. Carroll) and his wife Henrietta (Lee Patrick) move into their house, Topper becomes aware of three more residents, George and Marian Kerby (real husband and wife Robert Sterling and Anne Jeffries) and a St. Bernard named Neil who tried to save them in a skiing accident during an avalanche. One of the ongoing jokes in the show is that Neil is always drinking alcohol left around the house after getting hooked on the brandy he carried around his neck. The complication is that they are all ghosts, and only Topper can see and hear them.

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Most of the humor comes from their interaction with other people like salesmen or society snobs. Scripts were full of word play and clever dialogue. They would intervene in activities Topper was involved with like his weekly bridge game.  Once he wrote a check for $5 which they changed to $5000. Topper was a bit cheap even though he was VP of the National Security Bank. The ghosts were full of mischief, and we liked them for their fun “spirit.” Being dead, they were fearless.

One of the typical plots happened when Henrietta was in the hospital.  Marion wants to celebrate her birthday with their old friends.  She sends invitations to them from Topper. Topper has no idea people are coming.  The women all make a fuss over him being alone with his wife in the hospital and the party is a bit wild compared to the ones Topper and Henrietta usually host. Of course, Henrietta gets out of the hospital early and arrives with the party in full swing.

Wires, ectoplasm, and the stopping and starting of cameras were used to bring the ghosts to life.

One fact I found surprising was that eleven of the first year’s episodes were written by composer Stephen Sondheim and George Oppenheimer.

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The show began in 1953 with R.J. Reynolds as the sponsor for its Camel cigarettes. The cast was required to smoke in every episode.  In 1955 it was picked up by Standard Brands and moved to ABC.  The next year General Foods sponsored it on NBC where it was cancelled in 1957 after a total of 78 episodes. The show hasn’t aged well because the special effects seem unsophisticated and obvious today. Even so, I would list this as a treat. 

 

 

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1968)

Carolyn Muir (Hope Lange), a widow, decides to move to Schooner Bay where she can focus on her writing career and raising her family, which consists of Jonathan (Harlen Carraher), Candy (Kellie Flanagan), and a dog Scruffy. She rents the house from Claymore Gregg (Charles Nelson Reilly). The house, Gull Cottage, functioned as another character in the show.  Below on the left is how it appeared in the show; on the right is the show today. The house was actually in Santa Barbara, California nowhere near the water.  We also get to know Noorie Coolidge (Dabbs Greer) who owns the local lobster restaurant.

Carolyn plans to bring in a housekeeper Martha (Reta Shaw), but she doesn’t plan on another household guest, Captain Gregg (Edward Mulhare) (Claymore’s uncle), who lived in the house in the 1800s. Captain Gregg falls in love with Carolyn; he also develops a special relationship with the kids.

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The show was based on a book by R.A. Dick from 1945 and a movie starring Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison from 1947. The special effects were impressive for the 1960s. When Gregg and came and went, the actors all had to freeze.  Strings and wires were everywhere to help with the other magic parts of the film.

In an interview with Flanagan about her time on the show, she said every show took a week to produce.  She enjoyed her experiences with the series saying that the cast had great actors, “Hope Lange was extremely sweet and kind; Reta was a delight, and Charles Nelson Reilly was hilarious” and it was a happy set to work on.

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The show debuted on NBC where it played the first year. The critics liked it, and Hope Lange received two Emmys for lead actress in a comedy. However, the first year it was up against My Three Sons and Lawrence Welk. The show moved to ABC for a second season but lost its ratings battle to Family Affair. Definitely a treat.

 

The Ghost Busters (1975)

Basically, this was a slap-stick comedy reprising the roles of Corporal Agarn and Sergeant O’Rourke from F-Troop as paranormal detectives.  Larry Storch is Eddie Spencer, Forest Tucker is Kong, and Bob Burns is their assistant and chauffeur Tracy, who just happens to be a gorilla. The team battles ghosts of legendary fiends like Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Werewolf.

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An unseen boss, Zero, would give them their assignment and then the tape would explode.  Their headquarters was a run-down office and they had to use a pay phone nearby. Every week they were taken to the same castle to defeat a new foe. They always used their Dematerializer to send the specters back to the “great beyond.” Somehow, they convinced Jim Backus to guest star in one of the episodes.

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Burns was hired because the producers decided it would be cheaper to hire an actor who already had a gorilla suit. Burns is best known for Bob’s Basement, where he displays his Hollywood science fiction and horror collectibles.  Seen on Saturday mornings, the show produced by Filmation only lasted for 15 episodes.   Definitely a trick. 

 

Jennifer Slept Here (1983)

The premise of this show is that famous actress Jennifer Farrell (Ann Jillian) was chasing down an ice cream truck in 1963 when it backed up and accidentally ran her over. George Elliot (Brandon Maggart) was the lawyer who handled her affairs after she died.  He decided to buy her home for his wife (Georgia Engel).

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What the parents don’t realize is that Jennifer still lives here, and only their son Joey (John Navin Jr.) can see and communicate with her. The show was sexy because Jennifer was a Marilyn Monroe type and silly because she acted like a second mother to Joey. The series was told mainly from a 13-year-old’s point of view.

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The show had decent ratings but went up against The Dukes of Hazard and Webster, so it was cancelled after 13 episodes, one for each year of Joey’s life. I’d classify this one as a trick. 

 

Nearly Departed (1989)

When the Dooleys (Stuart Pankin and Wendy Schaal) purchase a new home, Grant and Claire Pritchard (Eric Idle and Caroline McWilliams) area already living there since they had been the previous owners. However, they are no longer alive. With a bit of a different twist, only Grandpa (Henderson Forsythe) can see and hear them. The Dooleys have a son Derek (Jay Lambert), and the ghosts would try to help him with problems like bullies to repay the Dooleys for giving them a place to live, even though they didn’t know they were doing so.

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The critics were all over the place on this one. Joan Hanauer, a UPI feature writer, wrote “Nearly Departed is a fast, pleasant sitcom, and the Pritchards make you believe one thing you can take with you is your sense of humor.” Howard Rosenberg from the LA Times, wrote “ ‘Nearly Departed’ is a zero. A mishmash of ‘Topper’ and ‘Beetlejuice,’ the NBC comedy is worse than bad in its premier at 8:30 . . . making such worthy comic actors as Monty Python’s Eric Idle and Stuart Pankin look worse than bad in the process.”

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I guess most viewers agreed with Rosenberg because the show was gone after only six episodes.  I have to give this one a trick. 

 

 

The Haunted Hathaways (2013)

This show is a 21st century Brady Brunch without the best part:  Alice. A single mom Michelle Hathaway (Ginifer King) and her two girls, gymnast Taylor (Amber Montana) and Frankie (Breanna Yde) make the move from New York to New Orleans and open a bakery, Pie Squared.

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However, when they move into their new house, they find three ghosts who had taken up residence:  Ray Preston (Chico Benymon), a saxophone player, and his sons, well-mannered Miles (Curtis Harris) and rude and sarcastic Louie (Benjamin “Lil P-Nut” Flores Jr.). The two families learn to work together using ghostly powers and human intellect to solve problems together. This show lasted two seasons on Nickelodeon.  I would not call this a trick or a treat; it’s like the house that gives out apples, not bad but don’t go out of your way to check it out. 

 

I would recommend picking up The Ghost and Mrs. Muir or Topper DVDs to watch as you give goodies to the little goblins ringing your doorbell.  Better yet, get the original movies.  It’s always a treat to watch Cary Grant and Rex Harrison. While you are sitting around a bonfire this month, you can also read the original books and decide which version you like best.  Happy Halloween.

Write On!

Happy Monday.  It’s National Encourage a Young Writer Day.  I love to encourage writers of all ages.  If you’re a writer, you know the two golden rules of writing.  (1) Write what you know and (2) Be original.  With those two qualifiers, one would think there would be a myriad of great shows out there about writers.  Not so.  It took a lot of exploring on my part to come up with 12 shows about writers in the past 70 years!

If writers are writing what they know, it seems writers know much more about incompetent parents, complex medical surgeries, and dating bachelors than they do about writing and writers.

Don’t get me started on being original. Unfortunately, any viewer knows that when one genre show succeeds, the next year will feature ten more just like it;  hence, the number of medical and police dramas currently on the schedule.  This doesn’t hold true anywhere else in life.  No grocer says avocados are so popular, let’s replace the oranges and apples with them.  No radio station decides to play the top five songs to the exclusion of the other songs.  That being said, I’ll jump off my soapbox before ranting about how the shows on today’s schedule are either amazingly written or not worth the time it takes to turn on the television. So, let’s look at shows about writers.

Apartment 3-C. In 1949 John and Barbara Gay played themselves.  Living in New York City, he was a writer.  The 15-minute show went off the air after one season. They moved to California where they raised their family and spent 66 years together. As far as I can tell, neither of them acted again, but John went on to be a prolific scriptwriter.

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Young and Gay/The Girls. Debuting in 1950 as Young and Gay, this series was based on an autobiographical novel written by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. CBS bought the rights. After the first two episodes, the name was changed to The Girls.  The premise of the show was that two Bryn Mawr graduates come to Greenwich Village after spending time in Europe, trying to develop careers as an actress and a writer.  After a few more episodes, their acting career ended when the show was cancelled.

Dear Phoebe. In 1954, ex-college professor Bill Hastings, played by Peter Lawford, decided he wanted to try his hand at journalism.  The option he receives is becoming Phoebe Goodman, providing advice to the lovelorn. Ironically, his girlfriend, Mickey (Marcia Henderson), is the paper’s sports writer. After one season, they both received advice to seek new work when the show was cancelled.

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My Sister Eileen. It would take half a decade before another show about a writer was produced. In 1960, My Sister Eileen aired.  The concept will sound vaguely familiar.  It’s based on a book and two movies about two sisters from Ohio who move to Greenwich Village wanting to be an actress and a writer. The sisters were played by Elaine Stritch and Shirley Boone. The only memorable thing about the show was the pairing of Rose Marie and Richard Deacon who went on to try their hand at another show a year later called The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The Dick Van Dyke Show. Hands down, this was the best comedy to debut about a writer.  It was also the longest running show, going off the air five years because the cast wanted to quit while the show was still successful. Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) is the head writer of the Alan Brady Show, creating scripts with Sally (Rose Marie) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam). Mel (Richard Deacon) is the long-suffering producer. This is one of the first shows to concentrate on work life. We get to see what goes on behind the scenes of a comedy/variety show. While Rob, Sally, and Buddy have lives outside the office, they are somewhat married to their work. Sally is always hunting for Mr. Right.  Buddy deals with more comedy at home because of his not-so-bright wife Pickles, although it’s obvious he is in love with Sally. Rob and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) are both confident and intelligent adults and insecure parents, raising their son Richie (Larry Mathews) in New Rochelle. The show won an Emmy its first year and never left the top 20, producing 157 of the best-written sitcom episodes ever created.

Window on Main Street. Mention the name Robert Young, and most viewers fondly recall Father Knows Best or Marcus Welby.  In this 1961 show, Robert Young plays Cameron Garrett Brooks, an author.  After his son and wife pass away, he returns to his small home town of Millsburg to write about the town’s citizens. It must have been a very small town with few people to write about, because the series was cancelled after one year.

The New Loretta Young Show. Loretta Young starred in several shows using her name so it gets a bit confusing, but in this 1962 version, she plays Christine Massey, a children’s author and widow with 7 children. Living in Connecticut, she decides to get a job with Manhattan Magazine.  However, after meeting the editor she falls in love and marries him. Perhaps the network had a policy banning inter-company marriages, because the show was cancelled after six months.

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Glynis. In 1963 Glynis Granville (played by Glynis Johns) moved to town. She is an amateur sleuth who solves crimes to have something to write about. Her husband Keith (Keith Andes) is an attorney.  She consults with a former policeman Chick Rogers (George Mathews). The show only lasted three months.  Jess Oppenheimer, the producer of I Love Lucy, apparently forgot this was a different show, airing episodes that were very Lucy-esque.

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. In 1968, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies came to the small screen.  Based on Jean Kerr’s book, it was also a movie starring Doris Day about the Nash family.  James (Mark Miller) is a college professor and his wife Joan (Patricia Crowley) is a free-lance writer. The show featured their four sons, two of whom were twins, their large dog, and their housekeeper Martha (Ellen Corby). Faring better than most of our shows, this one lasted two years.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. This show about a writer, a widow Carolyn Muir (Hope Lange) who moves into an old house in Schooner Bay in New England, appeared in 1968. The house turns out to be haunted by Captain Daniel Gregg (Edward Mulhaney), a captain who built the house in the 1800s. This show was also based on a movie. Captain Gregg is annoyed with the interruption and noise of the new family, but ultimately falls in love with Carolyn. Charles Nelson Reilly plays the Captain’s nephew Claymore Gregg. Dabbs Greer is Noorie Coolidge, the owner of a local lobster restaurant, and Reta Shaw is their housekeeper Martha. The show was on NBC for one year then moved to ABC for one year.  Apparently, CBS declined its turn, so the show was cancelled.

The Debbie Reynolds Show. In 1969, another show produced by Jess Oppenheimer eerily reminiscent of I Love Lucy was on the fall schedule. Jim Thompson (Don Chastain) is a sports writer. His wife Debbie (Debbie Reynolds) is a stay-at-home wife who wants to be a feature writer. Jim discourages her, wanting her to stay home.  Instead of Ethel and Fred, we have her sister Charlotte (Patricia Smith) and her brother-in-law Bob (Tom Bosley).  After one season, the network decided they did not care if  Debbie worked or stayed home and sent the crew packing.

Suddenly Susan. Jump almost thirty years to 1996 and we have another show about a writer, Suddenly Susan, starring Brooke Shields. Susan leaves her husband-to-be at the altar and is forced to ask her ex brother-in-law (Judd Nelson) to hire her back at his magazine.  Most of the show is set in the workplace.  Luis Rivera (Nestor Carbonell), Vicki Groener (Kathy Griffith), and Nana (Barbara Barrie) round out the cast and appear on all the episodes.  (The photo above also includes Andrea Bendewald [the blonde] and David Strickland [laying down] who were in about half the episodes.) The show continued until 2000.

I should mention that because I focused on comedies I did not include Murder She Wrote or Castle, both having long runs of 12 and 8 years respectively. I did not include Everybody Loves Raymond because that show concentrated on his family life, and rarely revealed his writing profession.

I wish I had more encouraging words for writers who wanted to get involved in television.  About the only thing I can tell you, is if you want to develop a successful show around a writer, make it a drama for job security.