Verna Felton Saves the Day

We are winding up our blogs for May, and I have a confession to make. For some reason, I failed to notice that there were five Mondays in May, so when I published my blog last week, I realized that I was short one blog. While scrambling to find a topic that still fit in with the other shows we learned about this month, it occurred to me that this week’s actress appeared on The Ann Sothern Show and I Love Lucy. She was also part of the cast of December Bride and Pete and Gladys. So, today we will learn about the woman behind Hilda Crocker: Verna Felton.

Photo: imdb.com

Verna Felton was born in Salinas, California in 1890. Verna entered show business at the young age of nine. Her father died just before her ninth birthday. He was a doctor, but he kept no records of payments due, and there was little cash in his account. Verna had performed at a local benefit for flood victims, where she caught the attention of a road show manager. He offered Verna a job, and after the death of her father, her mother accepted the job on her behalf. Verna grew up involved in theater community.

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She was called “Little Verna Felton, the Child Wonder. By age 13 she was performing with the Allen Stock Company that toured the western United States and British Columbia in Canada. By age 20, she had a play written specifically for her by Herbert Bashford called “The Defiance of Doris.”

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She continued building her stage resume, acting in a variety of plays.

In 1923 Verna married Lee Millar who conducted the band in the acting troop. He was also a movie actor in the thirties and forties. Verna and Lee were married until his death in 1941. Their son Lee Carson Millar was born in 1924 and would also go on to become an actor who appeared on many of the most popular shows in the fifties and sixties.

From about 1930-1950, Verna could be heard on the radio. Her voice could be detected on a variety of shows including Red Skelton, Hattie Hirsch on Point Sublime, Dennis Day’s mother on his show, and a regular on both The Abbott and Costello Show and The Great Gildersleeve.

Photo: wiki.com

After transitioning from stage to radio, it was no surprise that Verna’s career in the forties and early fifties was spent on the big screen.

Television was a natural progression, and, in 1951, Verna had her first tv roles: as a nurse on Amos and Andy and as Mrs. Day on the Enzio Pinza Show. She continued her radio role as Dennis Day’s mother on his television show in 1952.

With Lucille Ball

During the early fifties, you could catch her on many of the most popular shows: The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, I Love Lucy, Burns and Allen, The Bob Hope Show, The Halls of Ivy, I Married Joan, and Where’s Raymond?

Verna would become best known as Hilda Crocker. She played that character on December Bride from 1954-1959 and again on Pete and Gladys during the 1960-61 season, a total of 182 episodes. She was nominated for an Emmy for Best Supporting Actress in 1958 and 1959. In both years, she lost to Ann B. Davis for Love That Bob.

With Spring Byington on December Bride
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Between the two series, she made appearances on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, The Real McCoys, The Ann Sothern Show, Miami Undercover, and The Jack Benny Show. She also accepted roles on a handful of shows after her life as Hilda, including My Three Sons, Wagon Train, and Dennis the Menace.

Felton had voiced several animation characters for Disney including the fairy godmother in Cinderella, the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, Aunt Sarah in Lady and the Tramp, and Winifred the Elephant in The Jungle Book.

After voicing these fun characters, it was only natural for her to find a television animation character to play, and she found the perfect one in Pearl Slaghoople, Wilma’s mother on The Flintstones. Pearl looked a lot like Wilma but not as young or slim. She originally had red hair like her daughter which later became gray. She did not care for Fred and didn’t think he was good enough for Wilma and often nagged him to do better.

In 1966 Verna passed away from a stroke. Walt Disney would die a few hours later. About 25% of the movies Verna made were for Walt. Jungle Book, the last movie she made for him would debut a year after the two stars died.

Fred has a hard time loving his mother-in-law. Hence the phrase he said  repeatedly 'I love my mother-… | Flintstones, Classic cartoon characters,  Flintstone cartoon

Although Verna’s television career only spanned fourteen years, she appeared in many of the era’s best shows.  She did Broadway, radio, cinema, and animation as well and had a very full and successful career. It was fun getting to know Verna Felton a bit better.

I Married Joan: Fans Said I Love Lucy

This month my blog theme is “Don’t Judge Me.” We’ll take a look at sitcoms featuring judges. The first show on the docket is I Married Joan. Debuting on NBC in 1952, the show starred Joan Davis and Jim Backus and was typically described as the marriage of a respected judge and his scatterbrained wife, Joan and Bradley Stevens. It ran for three seasons and produced 98 episodes.

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The early shows begin in the judge’s chambers where he recalls one of his wife’s wacky adventures followed by the episode and ending with the judge summing up his tale of his wife’s mishap and its similarity to a case he was working on. It was very similar to I Love Lucy; however, this show featured more slapstick comedy by Davis. Marc Daniels directed both shows. The shows also were both filmed in Los Angeles at General Service Studios and debuted October 15 (one year apart). Time hated the show—“It might have better been left on the shelf.” Variety, on the other hand, found it filled with “comic zest and vitality.”

I Married Joan was created and produced by Joan Davis Enterprises. She was a successful businesswoman and a workaholic. Joan earned $7500 a week; in today’s equivalent, that would be about $70,000 per episode. Joan was apparently not a very easy person to work for or with.  Sherwood Schwartz wrote about a third of the episodes. (He would later go on to create The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island.) He did not care for Davis and said that Joan made one of the writers stick close to her when they ran through the show because she often wanted a better joke substituted. Jesse Goldstein also wrote a third of the shows. He had written for Burns and Allen and Red Skelton.

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Other actors also complained about working with Joan. Apparently, Backus detested her because she was not kind to the crew and fellow actors. Sandra Gould (who would later appear as Gladys Kravitz on Bewitched), Hal Smith, and Hope Summers (who both showed up in Mayberry as Otis the drunk and Bee’s friend Clara) confirmed Backus’ stories. There are a couple of other stories floating around that Joan once slapped a child for asking for her autograph and threw a temper tantrum at a salon, knocking over a bottle of bleach. Backus had worked with her on radio before signing on for this role, so I’m surprised he had not been aware of her work abuses before. She was described as a bit quiet and shy in her non-work life and spent her spare time fishing, golfing, watching boxing, or reading her extensive gag files.

Rounding out the cast were Dan Tobin as their friend Kerwin, Geraldine Carr as Mabel, Sheila Bromley as Janet, Sandra Gould as Mildred and Hal Smith as Charlie.

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For seasons two and three, Joan’s daughter Beverly Wills played Joan’s sister on the show. I guess it was a family affair because Henny Backus, Jim’s wife, also had a role on one episode as Mrs. Bunker.

The plots were about what you would expect on a show from this time era. In one, Joan and her friend admire each other’s houses and decide to swap for a week which quickly cures them of their envy. When Joan finds a dress that her husband is hiding for a friend for his wife; she assumes it is for her and “alters” it–a lot. In one episode, Joan wonders what life would be like if she had never married. In another show, she realizes she doesn’t have enough chicken to serve when Brad brings unannounced guests home. Any of these plots could have come from Burns and Allen, The Ann Sothern Show, Our Miss Brooks, or The Life of Riley.

Photo: wikipedia.com

However, in one show, Joan crawls into an enormous commercial soup pot in order to spy on the kitchen crew to learn the recipe for a chef’s famous soup. As you would expect, all the ingredients suddenly begin to get thrown in all around her. Even reading this description, you can picture Lucille Ball in the predicament. Perhaps this is another reason the show didn’t succeed. It was just too similar to the top-rated show in the nation.

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Many people remember the theme-song lyrics.

I married Joan
What a girl, what a whirl, what a life.
Oh I married Joan
What a find, love is blind, what a wife!
Giddy and gay, all day she keeps my heart laughin’
Never know where her brain has flown.
To each his own
Can’t deny that’s why I married Joan.
I married Joan!

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For the entire three seasons it was on the air, it was up against Arthur Godfrey and His Friends on CBS and news shows on ABC for seasons one and two. The show did so-so in the ratings for the first season. The second season the ratings increased to the number 3 show. Part of it might have come about from the negative publicity Arthur Godfrey got when he fired Julius LaRosa. The third season Disneyland was on ABC, and the ratings declined again. The ratings were especially low in the New York market, so the show was cancelled. Howdy Doody had just gone off the air, so reruns of the show replaced the popular kids’ show in the mornings. Jim Backus had signed a three-year contract and declined to come back; I’m not sure if that contributed to the cancellation of the show or not.

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With guest star Bing Crosby

Joan Davis tried to get a few other sitcoms on the air in later years; one interesting idea was for a woman astronaut who was training for a flight to the moon. She officially retired in 1959 and passed away in 1961 after suffering a heart attack.

Photo: wikipedia.com

Jim Backus would go on to have a very successful career. He would cross paths with Sherwood Schwartz again when he accepted the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island. A fun aside is that when the I Married Joan sets were later re-used, Backus’ lines were found written in various places.

Photo: youtube.com

As I noted earlier, the theme for my blog this month is “Don’t Judge Me.” In that spirit, I am trying not to judge Joan Davis too harshly without learning more about her as a person. One thing I have learned in writing television blogs for so long is that several of my favorite characters were not my favorite people; I decided long ago that I could adore the character and abhor the actor. Fortunately, most of the actors in classic television were wonderful people.

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I do remember watching this show in reruns in the late seventies and early eighties. It was not really my cup of tea, but I am not a big lover of slapstick comedy. Most of the fans that bought the DVDs (91%) gave the series 5 stars and made comments like “extremely funny,” “I couldn’t stop laughing,” and “clever writing and great comic acting.” If you are an I Love Lucy fan, you should probably give I Married Joan a try. There are worse ways to spend an evening.  

Just a Couple of Characters, Part 3: Henry Jones and Olan Soule

My series, “Just a Couple of Characters” continues with Part 3 today. This month, we learn more about actors we recognize but may not know much about. This week Henry Jones and Olan Soule are on the hot seat.

Henry Jones

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Born in New Jersey in 1912 and raised in Pennsylvania, his grandfather was a first-generation Prussian immigrant who became a Representative. Henry went to St. Joseph’s College, a Jesuit school. He landed his first Broadway show in 1938, playing Reynaldo and a grave digger in “ Hamlet. ” Like many of the actors in the late 30s and early 40s, Henry joined the Army for World War II. He was a private. During his service, he was cast as a singing soldier, Mr.  Brown, in Irving Berlin’s “This is the Army.”

When he came back to the US, he married Yvonne Sarah Bernhardt-Buerger in 1942. I think that it took longer for her to sign her name on the marriage certificate than the marriage lasted because ten months later they were divorced. Jones continued his stage roles and began a movie career. He had bit parts in 35 films, including The Bad Seed, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, Vertigo, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He won a Supporting Actor Tony in 1958 for his performance of Louis Howe in “Sunrise at Campobello.”

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In 1948 he married Judith Johnson. They had two children (one is actress Jocelyn Jones) but divorced in 1961.

Bridging the gap of television and film, he starred in seventeen tv movies as well.

Although his movie career kept him somewhat busy, it was nothing compared to his television work. Jones was credited with 205 acting appearances, meaning he had roles in 153 different television series. Jones was able to tackle a wide range of roles, being believable as a judge, a janitor, a murderer, or a minister. Jones had no illusions about becoming a romantic lead. He once said that “casting directors didn’t know what to do with me. I was never tall enough or good looking enough to play juvenile leads.”

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His first television appearance was in drama series, Hands of Mystery, in 1949. His work in the 1950s was primarily in theater shows about dramas. He also appeared in the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and Father Knows Best.

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He continued his drama roles into the 1960s. He also appeared in 3 episodes of The Real McCoys and westerns including Wagon Train, The Big Valley, and Daniel Boone. He showed up on mysteries such as the Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Name of the Game. He also found work on unique shows including Lost in Space, Route 66, and the Alfred Hitchcock Show. Hitchcock liked his work and used him five times. He also appeared in several comedies, Bewitched and That Girl. He starred in Channing in 1963-64.  Jones played Fred Baker, a dean who mentors Professor Joe Howe who teaches English at Channing College while he writes his memoir about the Korean War.

During the 1970s, he continued to work on a variety of genre shows. We see him on westerns, The Virginian, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. We see him in thrillers like The Mod Squad; McMillan and Wife; Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law; and The Six Million Dollar Man, on which he had a recurring role as Dr. Jeffrey, a scientist who built robots. However, comedies continued to be his mainstay, and he appeared in many of them including Nanny and the Professor, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Paul Lynde Show, The Doris Day Show, the Partridge Family, and Barney Miller.

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In addition to all his guest spots, he was cast in three shows during this decade. In The Girl with Something Extra, he played Owen Metcalf in 1973. The role he was best remembered for was Judge Johnathan Dexter on Phyllis. He was Phyllis’s father-in-law from 1975-1977. As Josh Alden, he appeared on Mrs. Columbo for thirteen episodes.

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Recurring roles comprised most of his television appearances in the 1980s. He continued to accept guest roles on such shows as Quincy ME, Cagney and Lacey, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, The Love Boat, and Mr. Belvedere. He would make regular appearances on Gun Shy, Code Name: Foxfire, Falcon Crest, and I Married Dora.

Jones continued to appear in shows in the 1990s, including Coach and Empty Nest. In 1999, he passed away after suffering from complications from an injury from a fall.

Olan Soule

Photo: pinterest.com

Olan Soule’s timeline was similar to Jones. He was born in Illinois in 1909, growing up in Iowa, and he passed away in 1994. While Jones’ grandfather arrived in America, Soule’s ancestors included three Mayflower passengers. He began his acting career on the radio.

In 1929 he married Norma Miller. They would be married until her death in 1992 and they had two children.

For eleven years, he was part of the cast of the soap, “Bachelor’s Children.” His roles changed when he transitioned to television. On radio, he could play any role, but his 135-pound frame prohibited him from getting many roles he played on radio. He told the Los Angeles Times during an interview that “People can’t get over my skinny build when they meet me in person after hearing me play heroes and lovers on radio.”

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However, he certainly was not lacking in roles. Soule is credited with more than 7000 radio episodes and commercials, 60 films, and 200 television series.

The 1950s found him appearing in many sitcoms, including George Burns and Gracie Allen, I Married Joan, I Love Lucy, December Bride, the Ann Sothern Show, and Dennis the Menace.

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He would appear regularly in Dragnet from 1952-59 and in Captain Midnight from 1954-56.

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He got even busier in the 1960s, working nonstop. The only show he had a recurring role on was The Andy Griffith Show where he played choir director and hotel clerk John Masters. Other comedies he appeared on included The Jack Benny Show, Pete and Gladys, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, Mister Ed, My Favorite Martian, The Addams Family, The Monkees, Petticoat Junction, and That Girl. He also took on roles in suspense shows including One Step Beyond, the Alfred Hitchcock Show, and the Twilight Zone. He also specialized in westerns, including Maverick, Stage Coach West, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and The Big Valley.

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He started the 1970s continuing to show up on series such as Family Affair, My Three Sons, McMillan and Wife, Cannon, Police Woman, and a recurring role on the comedy Arnie.

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In the mid-1970s he began appearing on Battlestar Galactica and Project UFO. Most of his career in the decade was spent providing voiceovers for animated shows, primarily Batman.

The Towering Inferno Director: John Guillermin US Premiere: 10 December 1974 Copyright 1974 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Warner Bros. Inc.

In 1994, Soule died from lung cancer at age 84.

Both Soule and Jones were prolific actors who had long and successful careers. Neither one of them were the leading men type of actors, but they could tackle a wide range of roles. Soule once said, “Because of my build and glasses, I’ve mostly played lab technicians, newscasters, and railroad clerks.” Not a bad life for someone who loves acting. If you watch Antenna or Me Tv, chances are you will see these two characters pop up quite often.

Sherwood Schwartz: A Brand New Look

Sherwood Schwartz was born in November of 1916 in New Passic, New Jersey. The Pawnshop starring Charlie Chaplin was showing in theaters. These silent films would lead to radio and television developments that would change the course of Schwartz’s life.

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Photo: charliechaplin.com

After getting his undergrad degree in New York, Sherwood moved to California to attend school and get his Masters in Biology. His goal was to have a career in endocrinology doing research. Unfortunately, he was put on a waiting list because the medical schools he applied to had a quota for the number of Jewish students they would accept. It was suggested that he change his name and religion. He refused and never did get into medical school.

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While waiting, he submitted jokes to Bob Hope for his radio show. He picked Hope’s show specifically because his brother Al worked for the show. (Al wanted to be a comedy writer, but his parents made him get a degree first. After passing the bar, he informed them he was off to California.) Bob Hope asked Sherwood to join his brother on staff and he accepted. He honed his comedy skills writing for four years with Bob Hope.

In 1941 he married Mildred Seidman and they had a family of four children. Sherwood also wrote for the Alan Young Show on radio.

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During World War II, he wrote for the Armed Forces Radio and when the war was over, he joined the staff of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Ozzie Nelson has a reputation for being a perfectionist. When Schwartz was asked about this, he gave the following example: “Oh absolutely. Absolutely true. That is the only man I know who, after his show was in reruns would take the reruns and re-edit them because he wasn’t happy with something. When it was too late to do anything with them, he still did it.”

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Photo: wikipedia.org

In the 1950s, Schwartz made the move to television. He took a position with the writers on I Married Joan starring Joan Davis and Jim Backus. He described the difficulty in writing for her show. “She refused to do the show unless a writer was on the set. She wanted to be able to say I need a better line and have that provided to her right then and there. Since there were only three writers for the show, one had to be on the set while the other two continued working on upcoming scripts.” As he put it, “The stage would be quiet for a moment, 75 production people were scattered around the stage and you had to get a better line or a better blackout. That’s enormous pressure for a writer. It was a rough week (when it was his turn to be on set).”

He became the head writer on The Red Skelton Show where he also worked with his brother. He did not enjoy working with Skelton. Skelton had a reputation for treating writers badly. Schwartz received an Emmy for his work on the show. The final straw was when Sherwood was listening to an interview with Skelton. He was asked why his show was so successful, and he replied, “Every week, when I get those lousy scripts from the writers I yawn. And the voice of God tells me how to fix things.” Sherwood decided the pay was not worth the grief of working for Skelton, so he left the series.

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He was then hired to retool My Favorite Martian in 1963 co-starring Bill Bixby and Ray Walston. CBS asked him to do some “reconstruction” work for the series, and he worked on seven episodes. He said the pilot was a great blueprint, but the writers were not following it as well as they should have. They were concentrating on Tim and his problems when the show needed to feature the challenges the Martian was having adapting to life on earth.

During this time, he was thinking about his own series. When he and his brother worked in the radio industry, they came up with an idea for a show called Help, about seven servants who work for a rich family. He now began to take that idea and expand it. What if he took seven people from all different walks of life–but how to get them in one place was the stumbling block.

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It began to come together when he placed them on a deserted island. Later that year the pilot was shot with a movie star, a professor, a millionaire and his wife, a farm girl, a skipper, and his first mate inhabiting an island while waiting to be rescued. It was not an elite or snobby show to be sure. FCC chairman Newton Minnow is the person who called television a “vast wasteland,” and in his honor, the Skipper’s boat was christened The SS Minnow.

Viewers always loved the show, but critics not so much. Schwartz said the critics never understood “the big picture” of what the characters represented. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Terrence O’Flaherty wrote that “It is difficult for me to believe that Gilligan’s Island was written, directed and filmed by adults.” UPI’s Rick DuBrow wrote “It is impossible that a more inept, moronic or humorless show has ever appeared on the home tube.” Ouch!

Schwartz said he was not “disheartened by the reviews . . . only a bit angry with the lack of understanding of what was being attempted.” As he continued, “these are the same men who are forever saying ‘For heaven’s sake, won’t somebody give us something other than the wife and the husband and the two children?’”

He once admitted “I honestly think I could sit down and write a show tonight that the critics would love, and I know it would be canceled within four weeks. I know what the critics love. We write and produce for people, not for critics.”

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The show also gave him a new skill as a lyric writer. Along with George Wyle, he wrote the theme song for Gilligan’s Island.

Although the show was popular with viewers, executive William Paley never liked it. The show was being moved around the schedule, and in order to move Bonanza to a different time spot, he cancelled Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island was on the air for three years, but it established Schwartz’s reputation as a producer and writer.

Apparently, many people felt the show was realistic. A coast guard colonel called Sherwood and later showed him letters from people who were concerned about the castaways being stranded on the island and asking the coast guard to rescue them.

Although the show was cancelled, it never really went away. Two animated series and three TV movies would spin off the show. It has also been on air in reruns since 1967. In 1988, Sherwood wrote a book, Inside Gilligan’s Island.

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With the cancellation of Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood began work on another new show. He had read an article that reported nearly one-third of American households included at least one child from a previous marriage. He decided to feature this sociological change and wrote a script about a woman with three daughters who marries a man with three sons. The networks all liked the idea but were asking for some major changes which he refused to make.

In 1968 the movie, Yours, Mine and Ours came out about a blended family and the networks now wanted the show. The series, starring Robert Reed and Florence Henderson as Mike and Carol Brady, aired on ABC from 1969 to 1974. The Brady kids were played by Maureen McCormick, Barry Williams, Eve Plumb, Susan Olsen, Christopher Knight, and Mike Lookinland. Ann B. Davis played Alice, the housekeeper.

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Again, the critics dismissed the show. What surprised me was that The Brady Bunch never did as well as Gilligan’s Island in the ratings. When it debuted, I was eight, and we all looked forward to Friday night when we would plant ourselves to watch The Brady Bunch and beginning in 1970, The Partridge Family, The Odd Couple, and Love American Style.

While the critics wrote the show off as unrealistic, many of the scripts were taken from the Schwartz family’s life. His daughter said she was not thrilled to watch the show and see a story about her life as part of the plot.

Similarly to Gilligan, once again, Schwartz wrote The Brady Bunch theme song, this time with Frank DeVol.

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There are a lot of rumors that Robert Reed and Sherwood did not get along. After a lot of research, I’ve determined that Reed was never happy about what he saw as an inferior role. I think he wanted to do Shakespeare-quality shows in a time when there was not a need for that type of show. He seemed to nitpick the scripts too much and was too literal. Although I’ve read some memos where I totally agree with his interpretation, you can only spend so much time dissecting everything. On one show, he walks into the kitchen where the women are cooking strawberries and his line is, “This smells like strawberry heaven.” He wasted time writing a memo about the fact that he researched what strawberries smell like cooking and determined that they had no smell. He needed to learn to pick his battles, I guess.

In another similarity to Gilligan’s Island, not only did The Brady Bunch never leave the air after it was cancelled, but it too resulted in many other versions. An animated series, The Brady Kids, appeared on Saturday morning. Several TV movies, including The Brady Girls Get Married and A Very Brady Christmas were produced in the 1980s. That movie spawned a reboot of the original tv series which didn’t last long on the air. Finally, Sherwood also produced a movie for Paramount, A Very Brady Sequel, a satire of the original television show, in 1994.

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Sherwood’s son Lloyd helped produce and write the tv movies and the Paramount film. In addition, they wrote a book together, Brady, Brady, Brady: The Complete Story of The Brady Bunch as Told by the Father/Son Team Who Really Knew. The reviews of Sherwood’s book about Gilligan’s Island are mostly positive. This book had very mixed reviews. Most fans seemed to enjoy the first part of the book told by Sherwood, but the majority of readers dismissed the second part, primarily written by Lloyd, as insensitive and egotistical. Few people had any positive comments about Lloyd’s involvement.

Although Schwartz would never repeat the success he had with The Brady Bunch or Gilligan’s Island, he did create several other series.

IT'S ABOUT TIME, Joe E. Ross, Imogene Coca, Mary Grace,  Jack Mullaney, Frank Aletter, 1966-67

Photo: metv.com

In 1966 after Gilligan ended, he produced It’s About Time where two astronauts end up in a prehistoric era and must learn to live with the natives. This show lasted one year, and 26 episodes were written.

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Photo: metv.com

In 1973, Bob Denver again worked with Leonard in Dusty’s Trail. Seven travelers similar to the castaways get separated from their wagon team heading west and must work together to try to catch up to their group. Sounds rather familiar. Season one ended up with 27 episodes.

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Big John, Little John aired in 1976 and was a situation comedy on Saturday mornings featuring a man who turns into a 12-year-old after drinking from the fountain of youth. Only 13 episodes were produced.

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Finally, in 1981, Schwartz took the song “Harper Valley PTA” and turned it into a series with Barbara Eden and Fanny Flagg. Once again, Sherwood wrote the theme song. The show was on the air for two years and produced 30 episodes.

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Photo: wikipedia.org

In 2008 he was awarded both a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and inducted into the Television Hall of Fame.

In 2011, Sherwood died peacefully in his sleep from natural causes. Although he and Reed may not have been close, the rest of his cast seem to have nothing but good things to say about him.

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Florence Henderson quoted, “Sherwood was a wonderful writer and producer, but more importantly he was a wonderful husband, father, grandfather and friend. I don’t ever remember him losing his temper. Ultimately, he was a wonderful teacher in life and again, in death, he taught us how to leave with dignity and courage.”

Barry Williams who played Greg, the oldest Brady, said, “As much as Robert Reed was like a dad to me, Sherwood was like a grandpa.”

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Oldest daughter Marcia played by Maureen McCormick, noted that “My mom, father and I would all go to Sherwood for advice because he always had a great answer.”

Tina Louise, Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, said he “brought laughter and comfort to millions of people. Gilligan’s Island was a family, He will be in our hearts forever.”

2nd Annual TV Land Awards - Show

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Bob Denver who always had wonderful things to say about him, summed up working with him on a radio interview he did with Peter Anthony from Montreal radio station CJAD 800 AM on January 6, 1994. “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.”

Schwartz had two unbelievably successful television series. But more than that, he knew how to use their brand and marketing to keep them going. Here we are 50 years later, and kids today still understand references to both shows. They have both been on the air continuously since they were first cancelled. Generations have watched the shows. The two theme songs, co-written by him, are two of the best-known songs from television history.

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I thought Paul Lieberstein (producer of The Office) summed up Schwartz’s influence best. In an email to Vulture, he wrote, “There was no one who shaped my childhood more. I could easily draw you a map of Gilligan’s Island and a floor plan of the Brady Bunch house—and I’m not even sure if my own childhood home had two stories.” And speaking of that blueprint, in 2019, exactly 50 years since The Brady Bunch debuted, HGTV has bought the house used for exterior shots for The Brady Bunch and will be renovating it. Once again generations will be watching The Brady Bunch cast with HGTV and learning about the show as the brand continues.

Sheldon Leonard: A True TV Pioneer

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The Depression changed the course of Sheldon Leonard’s life. He was born in Manhattan to Jewish parents. He went to Syracuse University on an athletic scholarship. While there, he was president of the dramatics club. His degree was in finance, and he landed a job at a prestigious brokerage firm. Then the Depression hit, and he was out of a job. He had to fall back on the only other skill he could think of which was acting.

In 1931 he married Frances Bober whom he was married until his death. They would have two children.

Acting was not quick money either though. It took five years until he landed his first major Broadway role in Hotel Alimony in 1934. It did not have a long run, but his next two shows were more successful: Having a Wonderful Time in 1937 and Kiss the Boys Goodbye in 1938.

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He then entered film work. He had several very small roles in a couple of movies and a couple of shorts, but in 1939 he was cast in Another Thin Man, the popular movie series with William Powell and Myrna Loy. That began his career as a heavy, often being cast as a gangster. He would appear in To Have and Have Not with Bogie and Bacall in 1944. In 1946 he was cast as the bartender in It’s a Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Because it has become a Christmas staple, it has brought Sheldon a lot of recognition. Sheldon would appear in 74 movies during his career, 69 of them by 1952.

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During this time, he also gave radio a try. He was working on both sides of the mic. He sold scripts to several shows including Broadway is My Beat. He also portrayed his stereotyped gangster role on many shows including as Grogan on The Phil Harris, Alice Faye Show. You could hear him on Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Duffy’s Tavern, the Halls of Ivy, and The Judy Canova Show, among others.

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Photo: radiospirits.com

It was only a matter of time before Sheldon took his talents to television. He appeared in four episodes of Your Jeweler’s Showcase in 1952. In addition, he was listed as producer and director for several of these episodes. He appeared in I Love Lucy in 1953 as vacuum salesman Harry Martin and several I Married Joan episodes in 1952-53. One of my favorites was his role as Johnny Velvet on Burns and Allen when he kidnaps Gracie but takes her back because she drives him crazy. In 1954 he co-starred in The Duke which lasted 13 episodes.  This show featured an artistic boxer who leaves the ring to open a nightclub. Sheldon also directed the pilot as well as some early episodes of Lassie and The Real McCoys.

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However, the show that made him a household name was his director/producer role on Make Room for Daddy, Danny Thomas’s hit sitcom. The show was in the top ten, and Sheldon even found time to appear on the show 19 times. The show continued from 1953-1964. Leonard had found his sweet spot. During his career, he would direct and produce shows such as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, and I Spy.

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Sheldon convinced Carl Reiner to step back from acting as Rob Petrie and produce The Dick Van Dyke Show. That conversation resulted in Dick Van Dyke accepting the role, leading to 158 episodes. If you watch carefully, you will notice Sheldon appearing twice on the show in minor roles. The show was nominated for 25 Emmys and won 15.

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Sheldon also is credited with creating the spinoff. One of Danny Thomas’s episodes was set in North Carolina where he gets picked up for speeding in a rural town and has a run-in with Sheriff Andy Taylor. This episode turned into the long-running The Andy Griffith Show which was on the air from 1960-1968 netting 249 episodes. The show won 6 of the 9 Emmys it was nominated for.

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The spinoff was so successful he did it again, moving Jim Nabors as Gomer Pyle from the gas station attendant on The Andy Griffith Show to his own show, Gomer Pyle USMC. That show was on the air for five years (150 episodes), and Sheldon would also make an appearance there as Norman Miles.

Thomas and Leonard as L&T Productions were also behind the The Joey Bishop Show and The Bill Dana Show. Thomas and Leonard’s shows were notable for emphasizing characters and relationships over slapstick or situation comedy. You cared about the characters even when they were a little kooky like Gomer Pyle or Barney Fife. They were committed to high-quality scripts. Many of the writers they employed went on to successful shows of their own including Danny Arnold for Barney Miller; Garry Marshall and Jerry Belson for The Odd Couple, Happy Days, and Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy; and Bill Persky and Sam Denoff for That Girl and Kate and Allie. L&T Productions ended in 1965.

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Photo: dga.com

In the mid-1960s Sheldon produced I Spy. He cast Bill Cosby and Robert Culp as secret agents.  This was the first series to star a black actor in a lead role. In a March 7, 2016 Modern Times article, David Fantle and Tom Johnson discussed Sheldon Leonard and I Spy. Leonard said he knew what he was doing. “Race was very much an issue at that time,” he said. “I was intellectually conscious of it, but emotionally unaware of it. When I say emotionally unaware, I mean I was free to think of Cosby as the man to fill the slot I needed. Intellectually I knew the problems I’d have to face to get him on the air.” I Spy was a humorous suspense show and was known for its exotic locations, filming in countries such as Hong Kong, England, Morocco, France, and Greece among others. The critics rewarded Leonard. The show was nominated for Outstanding Dramatic Series Emmy every year of its three-year run and earned Leonard an Emmy nomination for directing in 1965.

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Sheldon was also the producer behind Accidental Family and Good Morning World, both shows debuting in 1967 and ending in 1968 and My World and Welcome to It in 1969. Accidental Family was about a widower who is a stand-up comedian. He buys a California farm which is managed by Sue Kramer who is also his son’s governess and his love interest. Good Morning World was about morning disc jockeys in LA. One is happily married, and one is a ladies’ man. Goldie Hawn was the next-door neighbor and Billy De Wolfe was their boss. On My World and Welcome To It, John Monroe is a married man with a daughter. He frequently daydreams and fantasizes about life. This show was unusual in that it included some animation along with the live action.

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In the Fantle and Johnson article referenced above, Leonard also talked about his favorite sitcom. He said his favorite might be the one that needed the most attention. “My favorite show was cancelled after the first year. My World and Welcome to It, based on the writings of James Thurber and starring William Windom. It won every award, and they cancelled . . . It was satire and above their (the network bosses’) heads. That show and I Spy are my favorites.”

In the early 1970s Sheldon would produce From a Bird’s Eye View and Shirley’s World. From a Bird’s Eye View was a sitcom about two stewardesses, Millie from England and Maggie from America. Millie was always getting into mischief and Maggie bailed her out. Shirley’s World starred Shirley MacLaine as a photographer who travels the world for her London-based magazine. The locales were similar to I Spy.

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In 1975 Sheldon starred in a new sitcom, Big Eddy which only lasted for ten episodes. He was Eddie Smith was the owner of the Big E Sports Arena in New York. He was an ex-gambler fighting the impulse to get back into it. He has a bunch of eccentric people in his life including his ex-stripper wife Honey and their granddaughter Ginger.

In the 1980s, Sheldon would continue to show up on various television shows, appearing in Sanford and Son, The Cosby Show, Matlock, Murder She Wrote, and Cheers.

Along with author Mickey Spillane, Leonard was one of the first two people to become a Miller Lite spokesman. In his New York accent, he tells the audience, “I was at first reluctant to try Miller Lite, but then I was persuaded to do so by my friend, Large Louis.”

Sheldon Leonard passed away at the age of 89 in 1997. His wife Frances passed away in 1999.

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Sheldon Leonard is undoubtedly one of the greatest television producers. Most of his shows were consistently in the top ten. They are classic shows still on the air today.  Sheldon required scripts that brought characters to life. He created spinoffs when he believed in the characters. He was not afraid to take risks. Besides casting Bill Cosby, he cast Lois Nettleton as divorced Sue Kramer on Accidental Family. This was in the mid-1960s and yet when Mary Tyler Moore’s show aired in 1970, the network refused to allow her to be a divorced character.

In the Mercurie Blogspot from November 10, 2013, Carl Reiner discussed Leonard: “Sheldon has mentored more people in our business than anyone else I know. He knew how to teach what he knew, and what he knew was situation comedy with the three-camera technique. Sheldon was a producing genius who understood comedy. He had four or five shows going, but he would walk in and give his intelligence and his time to every script that was being read for the week. And we always came away with a better script because we would discuss and argue and come to a better situation.”

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Garry Marshall was also quoted in this same article: “Sheldon was a sort of man’s man, yet he had all the creative sensitivity of the artist. No matter what story you were working on, he could help you fix it. He would never put down your idea. If I had to describe Sheldon in one word, it would be gentleman. He was a Renaissance man with a New York accent—and possibly a gun!”

The Herb Garden Germination

Photo: americanprofile.com

As a salute to Leonard, the writers of The Big Bang Theory, named their main characters Sheldon and Leonard in honor of Sheldon Leonard.

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Sheldon himself seems to explain his success best. After working on his memoir in 1995, And the Show Goes On: Broadway and Holiday Adventures, he said “I was driven by an urge to survive and being very self-indulgent. I never did anything for very long that I didn’t like or enjoy. I would survive only on my own terms. I had to enjoy what I was doing, and I would have done what I did even if nobody paid me. That’s the secret of success in any business: do it well and enjoy doing it.”

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He did it all well, and we all enjoyed it.

The Millionaire and His Wife: Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer

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Today we continue our month-long series about the characters on Gilligan’s Island and the stars who portrayed them. We begin with the millionaire, Thurston Howell III, and his wife, Lovey. On the island, their money is worthless, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Howell from bribing other captives when it’s in his best interest.  He must have been a boy scout who learned the motto, “Be prepared,” because he and his wife took clothes on a three-hour tour to last a few years. In real life, Natalie Schafer was the millionaire. Both Backus and Schafer had very interesting careers.

 

Jim Backus

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Jim Backus was born in Cleveland in February of 1913. He was one of those stars who seemed to excel in everything:  radio, Broadway, animation, big-screen movies, and television series. In an interesting aside, Margaret Hamilton who would go on to have a full career including the Wicked Witch of the West at the Wizard of Oz, was one of his grade school teachers. Jim grew up in a wealthy area, attending Shaw High School in East Cleveland. His father was a mechanical engineer. I could not find exact proof of this but several articles mention he was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse in the mess hall. He later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

In 1939 he married Betty Kean; they divorced in 1942. One of his famous quotes was “Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success.”

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In the 1940s, Backus began appearing on radio as the “rich man,” which he often portrayed afterward on radio and television. He played the role of aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS Radio Network. He also appeared on the Mel Blanc Show as Hartley Benson, an arrogant character, and as Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show. He also showed up regularly on The Jack Benny Program.

During his radio years, he married Henny Backus whom he was married to the rest of his life.

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He began his big-screen cinema career in 1949 and would go on to appear in almost 100 movies, including Here Come the Nelsons, Pat and Mike, and Rebel Without a Cause (seen above). His most famous movie role was probably Tyler Fitzgerald in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. My favorite movie of his is Hello Down There with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh from 1969.

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During the 1950s, he began auditioning for roles on television. He would go on to appear on 18 different series during that decade, including I Married Joan, on which he starred with Joan Davis. On the show, Backus played a respected judge and Davis was his scatterbrained wife. The show was very popular and lasted three seasons.

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As if he wasn’t busy enough with acting in the 1950s, he also made a song recording with Phyllis Diller that hit the top 40 in 1958. It was called “Delicious,” and the two of them would take a sip of champagne throughout the song, saying “Delicious.” As the song continues, they get more drunk and a bit giddy, slurring their words and laughing hysterically.

 

His television career continued to be demanding in the 1960s. He appeared on 25 series, and four of them had regular starring sitcom roles. In 1960, The Jim Backus Show debuted. The program focuses on Backus in the role of Mike O’Toole, the editor/proprietor of a low rent wire service struggling to stay in business.

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He had made movie shorts about Mr. Magoo in the 1950s and in 1960, he starred in 130 episodes of Mr. Magoo and would make 26 more episodes under the title The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo in 1964-1965. Mr. Magoo was an older nearsighted man who was very popular, appearing in ads and merchandise for years. The humor of the show was based on the difference between what Mr. Magoo thinks he sees and the reality of what was really there. Jim Backus liked to repeat a story about his famous character. He was in the movie, Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe. She asked Jim to meet her in her dressing room later and his curiosity got the best of him, so he went, only to learn she wanted him to portray Mr. Magoo which he did.

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This was also the decade he was offered the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island in 1964. That same year he was asked to play the role of Abner Kravitz on a new show, Bewitched but turned it down because he was committed to Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island would run from 1964-1967 and he would go on to appear in several Gilligan revivals including the far-fetched The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

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During 1968-1969, Backus took the role of Mr. Dithers in a revival of Blondie.

During the 1960s, he also appeared on 77 Sunset Strip, The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild West, and I Spy, among others.

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Backus continued his television work into the 1970s where he appeared on 31 shows. He appeared in a variety of genres including I Dream of Jeannie, Young Dr. Kildare, Medical Center, The Brady Bunch, Gunsmoke, Ellery Queen, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.

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Backus also continued his commercial work in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the spokesperson for La-Z-Boy furniture and General Electric. He and Natalie Schafer appeared in an ad for Redenbacher’s popcorn. They played their characters from Gilligan’s Island but apparently had been rescued and were in a luxurious home. In a sweet ending, it was the last television appearance for either of them.

When Jim Backus had a little bit of free time between acting jobs, he loved to golf. He also tried his hand at writing a few books and film scripts, including his autobiography which he wrote with his wife, Only When I Laugh in 1965.

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In July of 1989, Backus died from pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years.

He had a long and varied career and seemed to have many friends in the business.

 

Natalie Schafer

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A millionaire in real life, Natalie Schafer seemed like a very fun woman, a bit of a character. She was born in November of 1900 in New Jersey and raised in Manhattan. She was quite secretive about her age, often claiming she was born in 1912.

She began her career in Broadway, appearing in 17 plays. She married actor Louis Calhern in 1934 and they divorced in 1942. She moved to Los Angeles in 1941 to become a film actress and received parts in 34 movies. Incidentally, she and her ex remained friends and appeared together in the movie Forever Darling in 1956.

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Like Backus, Schafer typically played wealthy and sophisticated roles. She did not have the versatility her tv husband had but continued to stay busy acting on television.  While Gilligan’s Island was her only long-term role, she appeared on 21 shows in the 1950s (including I Love Lucy, Loretta Young, Phil Silvers, and Topper); 8 in the 1960s (including The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and Route 66); 15 in the 1970s (including Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, and McMillan and Wife); and an additional 8 shows in the 1980s before she passed away (including Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Trapper John, and Simon and Simon).

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Schafer made most of her money from investments, particularly in real estate.

Several sources revealed that much of her fortune was bequeathed to either her Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells or to care for her dogs; however, at least $1.5 million was donated to the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home to renovate their outpatient wing. I never saw any answers from Wells about inheriting money, but on Vicki Lawrence’s talk show, she did say that Schafer spent her last years living with her. Like many wealthy people, she was quite thrifty.  She often admitted that she accepted the role of Mrs. Howell because she got a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot and didn’t expect it to get picked up.

 

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Everyone seemed to like her on the set. Dawn Wells said she especially adored Schafer and Backus. Schafer was a hard worker and liked to keep fit. In a Chicago Tribune article from October 25, 1965, she relayed her secrets for staying in shape. For one thing, she did her own stunts on the show. She also said she swam nude every morning and evening, doing 100 strong kicks at the side of the pool. She also invented an ice cream diet for herself. She claimed to eat a quart a day, saying she had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with her coffee, two bowls of varying flavors for both lunch and dinner, and another single bowl for an afternoon snack. She claimed that she would lose three pounds in five days.

In 1990, Schafer passed away from liver cancer. After her death, she wanted people to realize her true age, and many of her closest friends were quite surprised to learn she was 12 years older than she claimed.

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While Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey were two interesting characters, I don’t think they can compete with the characters who were Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. I had a lot of fun learning about them.