The Jimmy Stewart Show: Past Its Prime Before It Started

For this blog series, “It’s My Show,” we are looking at stars who had shows named for them.  This blog takes a look at The Jimmy Stewart Show which aired in 1971.

The Jimmy Stewart Show - Where to Watch Every Episode Streaming Online |  Reelgood
Photo: reelgood.com

At the beginning of the golden age of television, several stars decided to plunge into the small screen, but most stars kept their distance, not trusting that television would ever go anywhere. Stars like Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, and Lucille Ball created successful shows that continued for years. Once Hollywood realized that television was here to stay, they were okay with their stars dipping their feet into the series life.

In the 1970s another round of stars decided to try their luck at their own show. Jimmy Stewart was one of those screen stars, and he had a huge fan base. Viewers were greatly anticipating watching his show.

The Jimmy Stewart Show - Complete - 1971 - 7 DVDS – TV Museum DVDs
Photo: tvmuseum.com

Hal Kanter was the creator, writer, and sometimes director for the series which showed viewers the frequently chaotic home and work life of Professor Jim Howard. Kantor developed the show Julia and would later create Chico and the Man. Howard teaches anthropology at the Josiah Kessel College in Easy Valley, California which happened to be founded by his grandfather. Also living in the house are his wife Martha (Julie Adams), his son Peter (Jonathan Daly), daughter-in-law Wendy (Ellen Geer, daughter of Will Geer) and grandson Jake (Kirby Furlong). Martha and Jim also have a younger son, Teddy (Dennis Larson) who is almost the same age as Jim’s grandson. Peter’s family is living there temporarily after their house burns down. In a twist I didn’t see coming, Jim was babysitting and fell asleep with a cigar which is what caused both the house to burn down and his son to be unhappy with him for the first few episodes.

Howard’s best friend, Luther Quince (John McGiver), a local bachelor and professor, often stops by for meals and to discuss life with Jim.

When Jimmy Stewart Had His Own Sitcom – (Travalanche)
Photo: travalanche@wordpress.com

Rounding out the cast were a few recurring characters including Jo Bullard (Mary Wickes), president of the Women’s Action Group; Agatha Dwiggins (Jeff Donnell), a scatterbrained busybody, Dimitri Karpopolis (Richard Annis), college football hero; local businessman Fred Shimmel (Rickie Layne), chatty milkman Woodrow Yamada (Jack Soo), and students Janice Morton (Kate Jackson), Norman Lansworth (Lou Manor) and Ida Levin (Melissa Newman).

I read that except for Stewart, the casting for the family seemed to be off and never engendered any warmth for viewers. Jimmy wanted his real wife Gloria to play Martha, but after she was tested, the network said they wanted someone more experienced. More than fifty women were considered for the role, and twenty of them were brought in to read with Stewart.

However, John McGiver received a lot of praise for his character. Luther and Jim were quite different. Jim rode his bike to school while Luther drove a Rolls Royce.

The show really didn’t speak to viewers, and ratings, which weren’t great, got worse. The series was cancelled after 24 episodes. Stewart was not sad about the cancellation. Apparently, he was given the option to do the same type of work schedule Fred MacMurray had arranged for My Three Sons where he only filmed a small part of the year and everyone else filmed around him, but he declined. However, Stewart said he later regretted not trying that because he didn’t enjoy the long hours filming this show.

THE JIMMY STEWART SHOW Guest Star KATE JACKSON 1971 VERY RARE - YouTube
Photo: youtube.com

The show debuted in the fall of 1971 on Sunday nights. It was sandwiched between The Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza, both big hits.

Like George Burns, James Stewart talked directly to the television audience during the opening and closing when he says “And, as always, my family and I wish you peace and love—and laughter.” During some episodes he makes an aside to the camera, and the rest of the cast thinks he’s just mumbling to himself.

This was one of the few shows during this time period that didn’t use a laugh track. Maybe that’s for the best because it doesn’t sound like there was much to laugh about in this show. It definitely shows its age today with Stewart making remarks about student protests, women’s lib, and industrial development. It obviously pandered to an older, conservative audience.

The show was filmed on a few sets and backlots. The building used for the university was known as “Hank’s School” because it first was used on a show from the sixties called Hank. It was also Boatwright University on The Waltons.

The Jimmy Stewart Show (TV Series 1971–1972) - IMDb
Photo: imdb.com

Sometimes there is a downside to blog writing about the past and our favorite stars. Jimmy Stewart has always been someone I admired and respected. A couple of his movies like The Philadelphia Story and Harvey are some of my of all-time favorites. When doing research, sometimes you learn things you wish you didn’t know.

Apparently, Stewart had gotten a reputation during the filming of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence as a racist, but no one ever talked about it, and there didn’t seem to be any other controversy in his films.  However, during the production of this show, he had actor Hal Williams fired. I read several accounts that all supported that view that Stewart told Kanter that he didn’t think it would be appropriate for a black person to be ordering him around on television. His words, often quoted were, “Blacks are bossing white people all over the country, and now we’re going to have the same damn thing on prime-time television? A black is going to be lecturing me with millions of people watching? No way. I get casting approval and Williams is out.” I never read how Kantor reacted or how it affected their relationship; however, after casting Diahann Carroll as the first black actor to star in a series, it must have been disheartening to hear this from Stewart.

I understand those were different times and many people were raised as racists. We could debate the causes of people being prejudiced for hours.  However, this makes me very sad and I can’t look at Jimmy Stewart the way I did before. It doesn’t help to realize that there are still somehow a lot of Jimmy Stewarts out there sixty years later.

Comfort TV: Peace, Love, and Laughter: The Jimmy Stewart Show
Photo: comforttv.com

As far as his show goes, I think it was just not where fans were at in that time period. Some of the other series on at the time included The Partridge Family, The Doris Day Show, Love American Style, Room 222, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and All in the Family. By comparison, Jimmy’s show seems out of touch and old fashioned. Its competition was the F.B.I and Sunday Night at the Movies, both shows that started during The Wonderful World of Disney. If a show didn’t succeed following Disney and leading into Bonanza, it must have greatly disillusioned viewers. Jimmy was not alone as a star who couldn’t make the successful leap to television. Other stars who bombed with their shows include Jack Lemmon, Celeste Holm, Gene Kelly, Bing Crosby, Mickey Rooney, and Henry Fonda.

Although this show is available on DVD, my suggestion is to bypass it and read a good book instead.

At The Summit of Coolness: The Rat Pack on Television

Photo: mentalfloss.com

For some reason, the group including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Joey Bishop, Peter Lawford, and Sammy Davis Jr. have been referred to the Rat Pack since the 1960s. The original rat pack was coined by Lauren Bacall about a group who gathered at her home whom she referred to as a pack of rats. The group we know as the Rat Pack preferred to call themselves the Clan or the Summit. Whatever they chose to call themselves, they had a hip, cool aura.

When one of the members of the group was scheduled to perform at Las Vegas, another one or two of the Clan would often show up as well. Because concert goers knew this, their shows tended to sell out. The Sands marquee promoted the possibility during one of Dean Martin’s shows when they put up “DEAN MARTIN – MAYBE FRANK – MAYBE SAMMY.”

I thought it would be fun to look at the Rat Pack on television and see how much influence this group had. Let’s start with Old Blue Eyes.

FRANK SINATRA

Frank began his film career in the 1940s. In 1953 he had one of his most famous roles in From Here to Eternity. I was surprised to learn that he began appearing on television in the mid-1950s as well. He showed up in The Colgate Comedy Hour in 1954, The Producer’s Showcase in 1955, and The Thin Man in 1958.

In the 1970s we find Frank showing up on Laugh-In for several appearances.

He also sang a few lullabies on Make Room for Granddaddy, Danny Thomas’ revival of his hit show Make Room for Daddy from the 1950s. I was amazed at the talent of actors who guest starred on the reboot considering the short time it was on the air, but that is a topic for a future blog. On this episode, he bumps into Danny. His wife Kathy is not happy Danny is bringing home a guest for dinner on “hamburger night” but then she learns it’s Frank. He sings “All the Way” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” for Danny’s grandson, Michael.

Photo: imdb.com

Jumping ahead a decade, we find Frank’s last two television roles, one as himself and one as a New York cop.

Frank had met Tom Selleck in Hawaii on one of his trips. In 1987 Frank appeared as Michael Doheny, a retired police sergeant on Selleck’s show, Magnum PI. Frank and his entourage traveled to Hawaii (although he worked for scale) and took over a floor at The Colony Surf in Diamond Head. In this episode he returns to help find the men who kidnapped his granddaughter. There were plans for Sinatra to return in season eight as well but Selleck cut back on the number of episodes he was filming, and the show was never written.

Photo: kiwireport.com

In 1989 Sinatra showed up on Who’s the Boss as himself. Angela is invited to an exclusive party, but she gets waylaid by a work issue. Mona and Tony decide to take the tickets, but they can’t get in when they get there and then Angela shows up, which results in all three of them being thrown out of the gala. As Frank is showing up to sing, Tony gets to meet him and tell him he is his idol.

DEAN MARTIN

Not surprisingly Dean’s first appearance on television was on Make Room for Daddy in 1958. He portrayed himself. Danny calls on Dean to help him out with his daughter Terry who has been not very nice to a boy at school who likes her. Danny learns she is ignoring the boy because she has a crush on Dean. The plan works, and she and Donald get together.

Photo: youtube.com

During the same year, Dean shows up on The Phil Silvers Show. Bilko (Silvers) is sent to Yucca Flats to work on a nuclear test program. Ritzik is amazed by one of the scientist’s machines. They skip the base and head for Las Vegas, so Rupert can demonstrate his gambling skills. Dean Martin is an unnamed gambler they run into.

In 1964 Martin got on the western bandwagon, appearing in Rawhide. Martin is stalking Hispanic cattlemen. His wife wants him to drop the assignment and retire to her family’s plantation with her, but he refuses, and she seeks help from Gil Favor, the boss of a never-ending cattle drive.

We see Martin pop up on a Bob Hope special in 1968 and a Red Skelton show in 1970.

Photo: vegasmagazine.com

In 1978 Martin made an appearance on a show that surprised me: Charlie’s Angels. Martin plays the owner of the Tropicana Casino who hires the Angels to investigate several suspicious deaths that he thinks are part of a plot to make him think he’s going crazy. This was a two-part season opener and instead of singing, Martin got to display his magic skills. Naturally, he becomes romantically involved with one of the Angels, Sabrina played by Kate Jackson.

Fittingly, Dean’s last appearance was in the show Vega$ in 1979 as himself.

JOEY BISHOP

Bishop’s first role was not much of a stretch. He played a comedian on Richard Diamond in 1959. Bishop’s plays Joey Kirk and hires Diamond to determine who is following him and why, leading to a complicated murder plot.

He appeared in the DuPont Show of the Month in 1960 and The Dick Powell Theater in 1963.

Like most of the Rat Pack, Bishop made an appearance on Make Room for Daddy in 1961. As Joey Mason, he helps out Danny. Danny has flown from the east coast to the west coast and took two sleeping pills. However, there are four conventions in town and his assistant forgot to make him a reservation.

In 1965 he is Fred Jackson on an episode of Valentine’s Day starring Tony Franciosa and Jack Soo about a young eligible bachelor who lives with his valet, a poker-playing con artist who saved his life while they were in the Army.

Photo: tvtropes.com

From 1961-1965, Joey stars in The Joey Bishop Show as Joey Barnes. Barnes is the host of a talk show. He has to deal with his personal and professional life as a celebrity. A lot of guest stars show up playing themselves as guests on his show or friends of his. The show produced 125 episodes. I have recently been watching it on Antenna TV where it now is shown every morning.

In 1967, Joey had a cameo on Get Smart. Max and 99 are sent on an assignment to rescue Don Carlos, the dictator of San Saludos. A general has imprisoned him and wants to marry his daughter. Max and 99 try to disguise themselves as flamenco dancers. When they are also thrown in jail, a guard, played by Bishop, attempts to bribe the firing squad.

In the 1970s we find Joey on Chico and the Man in 1976. He plays an inept burglar and when Ed doesn’t press charges, every lowlife crook appears at the business.

In 1981 Bishop appears as Dr. Burton on Trapper John MD.

Photo: basementrejects.com

In 1985 Bishop again takes on the role of a comedian on Hardcastle and McCormick. That same year he also played another comedian on Murder She Wrote.

PETER LAWFORD

Drama shows were very popular in the early days of television. Lawford appeared in quite a few of these shows from 1953-1965.

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

In 1954 he took on the role of Bill Hastings on Dear Phoebe. The show was on the air for two years, resulting in 32 episodes. Hastings works for a daily newspaper in a large city. He becomes the author of a lonely hearts column and advises his readers as “Phoebe” while trying to deal with his own issues in his personal life.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

From 1957-1959, he was Nick Charles on the television version of The Thin Man. The show was very popular with 723 episodes filmed. Similar to the films, Nick marries Nora and lives in a luxurious Park Avenue apartment in New York. He was previously a private detective and many of his underworld friends get him involved in mysteries he has to solve.

Lawford appeared as himself on an episode of Jack Benny’s show in 1961.

He also played himself on The Patty Duke Show in 1965. Patty is selected to find a star to perform at the high school prom. Sammy Davis Jr. also guest stars on the episode.

Photo: imdb.com

Apparently, Sammy and Peter enjoyed working together because they guest starred on an episode of The Wild Wild West in 1966. Lawford is a wealthy ranch owner and Davis is a hired hand Jeremiah.

While Bishop showed up on Get Smart, Lawford chose the more realistic I Spy in 1967.

Like Sinatra, he also appeared on Laugh-In but must have enjoyed it more because he was on ten different episodes.

During the 1970s, Lawford shows up on a variety of television show genres. He would be on the western The Virginian in 1971, Born Free about Elsa the lion in 1974, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, the bizarre comedy High Cliffe Manor, the crime drama Hawaii Five-0, the dramady Supertrain, and The Jeffersons.

Photo: pinterest.com

In addition, he was featured on Bewitched in 1972. Lawford played Harrison Woolcott, a client of Darrin and Larry’s. Sam’s cousin Serena decides she wants to date him and try the mortal life for a while.

Photo: pinterest.com

He made several appearances during seasons four and five of The Doris Day Show. As Dr. Peter Lawrence, he begins a romance with Doris in 1972-1973.

SAMMY DAVIS JR

Sammy probably appeared in the most television shows. Like Peter, he began in drama shows and guest starred in several episodes of General Electric Theater.

He then appeared in The Lawman in 1961, Frontier Circus, Cain’s Hundred, 77 Sunset Strip, The Rifleman, and Hennessey in 1962.

In 1963 he was on Ben Casey.

Like the other Rat Pack actors, he was on Make Room for Daddy in 1963 and the revival Make Room for Granddaddy in 1970.

As mentioned before, he guest starred in The Patty Duke Show in 1965 and The Wild Wild West in 1966, both with Peter Lawford.

Photo: pinterest.com

In 1967, he showed up on I Dream of Jeannie as himself. Tony tries to get Sammy Davis Jr to sing for General Peterson’s party. When he is already booked, Jeannie tries to help by duplicating himself, so he can be in two places at one time.

Davis also took a role in The Beverly Hillbillies in 1969.

Photo: tvinsider.com

The same year he took on his first of three roles on Mod Squad. His first role was a black priest who becomes the target of a bad guy after the church suspends him. The hood is afraid he will reveal his confession now that he no longer is part of the church. The next episode he appeared on was in the role of Billy Lee Watson, a recovered drug addict. He runs a half-say house and is accused of rape of a man’s daughter who he has been trying to help. Her father accused Billy of the rape and after investigating, it turned out Billy was her actual father.  The last episode of Mod Squad he appeared on in 1970 had Davis portraying Willie Rush and actor and friend of Linc’s. He says someone is trying to kill him.

Photo: tumblr.com

The 1970s continued to be a productive time for Davis on television. He would go on to appear in The Name of the Game in 1970, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father in 1972, nine episodes of Laugh-In, and like his friend Dean Martin, an episode of Charlie’s Angels in 1977. He plays himself on Charlie’s Angels. When he hosts a charity event that includes a celebrity look alike contest, an attempt is made to kidnap him. The Angels take on the job of his bodyguards and Bosley becomes his chauffeur.

The 1980s were also busy times for him. He appeared as himself on several Norman Lear shows including Archie Bunker’s Place and The Jeffersons. He also could be seen on Fantasy Island, Pryor’s Place, Gimme a Break, The Cosby Show and Hunter in the 1980s.

Photo: atlantablackstar.com

One thing that surprised me was his roles on One Life to Live and General Hospital. I have seen a few stars like Carol Burnett who chose to appear on a soap opera. Davis had a recurring role on General Hospital; he didn’t seem to me to be the type of actor who would be interested in a soap opera, but he did receive an Emmy nomination for his role on General Hospital. Sammy was also nominated for an Emmy for his work on The Cosby Show.

While Joey Bishop hosted some of the Emmy Award shows, I did not find any nominations for the other members of the Rat Pack.

Photo: peoplequiz.com

Overall, I was surprised how extensive the television careers were for the Summit members. I think of them more in their performing or movie careers and did not expect them to see that they guest starred in so many shows and starred in some of their own television series. Check out some of these shows or make a batch of popcorn and watch the ensemble in the original Ocean’s Eleven.