The Mod Squad: The Show That Oozed Hip, Groovy, and Cool

As we continue our Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem series, we move from Maine where senior citizen Jessica Fletcher solved mysteries to the streets of Los Angeles, where a hip trio infiltrates the counterculture to solve crimes.

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Airing from 1968 till 1973, The Mod Squad was a unique concept. Created by Buddy Ruskin, a Los Angeles police officer, the show took eight years to become a reality. Ruskin based the concept on his time as a squad leader for an undercover narcotic division in the 1950s.

Aaron Spelling was the executive producer. Spelling worked on a number of projects from 1960 onward, but his biggest hit shows were still in his future when he took the helm of The Mod Squad.

As soon as the jazzy theme song by Earl Hagen began, we knew this was a different type of show. The sixties hippie culture and counterculture drug scene had not been explored in depth on television before.

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In order to get the necessary evidence, three young team members were trained to go undercover to solve cases. Michael Cole was Pete Cochran, a wealthy kid who was arrested for stealing a car; Peggy Lipton was Julie Barnes, who had run away from a bad home situation; and Clarence Wlliams II was Linc Hayes, who was arrested during the Watts riots. Captain Adam Greer (Tige Andrews) supervised the trio. He mentored them and provided “parently” advice and wisdom. He hand-picked them for his team. (Similarly, Spelling’s Charlie’s Angel’s would also feature a father figure hand picking three non-traditional members for his crime-solving team.)

None of these kids were innocent, and their records were eliminated when they chose to work with the LA police. But they soon realized they had the ability most cops did not to inconspicuously fit in to help stop criminals from killing or hurting other young adults.

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Similar to Room 222, which aired almost the same time, The Mod Squad covered a lot of socially relevant topics: abortion, domestic violence, drug addiction, child abuse, police brutality, illegal immigration, and racism. Though the pilot was written sixty years ago, these issues are still on the front page today.

The writers, including Tony Barrett, Harve Bennett, Sammy Hess, and Buddy Ruskin, created realistic characters. These three outcasts were a bit rebellious; they lived in the gray instead of black or white. They understood good people sometimes did bad things, and racism and domestic violence were not to be tolerated. Their speech and clothing marked them as quintessentially 1960s. Linc often said “Solid” or “Keep the faith.” You would probably hear “groovy” at least once an episode.

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The team traveled in an old green 1950 Mercury wood-paneled station wagon that they affectionately referred to as “Woody.” Unfortunately, it was burned in an accident at the end of the second season.

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The show was definitely controversial. It aired at a time when westerns, rural sitcoms, and Lawrence Welk were popular. The episodes pushed the envelope a bit on topics that had been taboo on television in the past. The team was like a family and on one episode, Linc gave Julie a brotherly kiss on the cheek which had the network up in arms, but not one complaint came in. Their relationship with Captain Greer helped America see how the generation gap could be bridged.

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Stars David Cassidy and Marion Ross

Despite the controversy, the show attracted a lot of famous guest stars. Some of the actors who can be spotted during the show’s run include Ed Asner, Jim Backus, Tom Bosley, David Cassidy, Tyne Daley, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Dow, Andy Griffith, Carolyn Jones, Leslie Nielsen, Stefanie Powers, Vincent Price, Robert Reed, Marian Ross, Sugar Ray Robinson, Martin Sheen, Bobby Sherman, Danny Thomas, Daniel Travanti, and Billy Dee Williams.

Each episode ended with the squad walking away from the camera.

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The show was extremely popular given its uniqueness. It was the 28th most popular show its first year and number 11 in its third season. The show received seven Emmy and four Golden Globe nominations. In 1970, it was nominated for Outstanding Series. During its final year, it only ranked 54 and the “hipness” of the show was starting to age a bit, so it was cancelled.

It did have an afterlife. In 1979, a tv movie, The Return of the Mod Squad, aired on ABC with the original cat. In 1999, a big-screen film was released starring Giovanni Ribisi, Omar Epps, Claire Danes, and Dennis Farina. Don’t feel bad if you don’t remember it; not many people do.

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The Mod Squad could be seen on MeTV in 2014 and 2015. Apart from that, it has not fared well in syndication. Like Room 222, the show can feel dated quickly due to its language and fashion.

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The show is still celebrated for its ground-breaking scripts, and in 1997, TV Guide included an episode, “Mother of Sorrow” as 95th of the greatest 100 episodes of all time.

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While you probably won’t find it on television, it is available on DVD. Although the show may not be known by many people today, it was one of the first shows to break the barriers of going where television had not been before. In many ways, it paved the way for the creation of shows such as All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Miami Vice. What more could you ask for: relevant topics, well-rounded characters, and exciting plots. Although its language and fashions date it, it captures a unique time in our history and is worth exploring.

I Spy: With My Little Eye A Very Sophisticated Show

As we continue our crime-solving duos series, today we learn about I Spy featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. They were a pair of spies who traveled the world posing as tennis pro, Kelly Robinson, and his coach, Alexander “Scotty” Scott. They work for the Special Services Agency which was part of the Pentagon. The show aired on NBC from 1965-1968.

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David Friedkin and Morton Fine, writers, and Fouad Said, cinematographer, formed Triple F Productions. The show was filmed at Desilu Productions. Fine and Friedkin took on co-producing the show. Friedkin also appeared as a guest actor in two of the episodes. Continuing the job-sharing duties was was Sheldon Leonard. Leonard was the executive producer. He also directed one of the episodes and guest starred on the show.

The theme music was written by Earle Hagen. (For more on Hagen and his composition of music from the series, see my blog dated)He also wrote specific music for each of the countries the team visited. He received Emmy nominations all three years, winning in 1968.

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Cosby’s character was written as an older mentor to Robinson, but Sheldon Leonard changed the role once he saw Cosby perform. Culp said Cosby was not very interested in the series and insulted the producers during his audition. Culp acted as a mediator and Cosby was hired.

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Like future shows such as Miami Vice, The X-Files, or Castle, the partners had great chemistry. They had witty and clever dialogue and often improvised much of their banter. Friendship was the main theme of the show, not the crimes. The actors developed a close friendship that lasted long after the show did. The characters were also very different. Culp was the athlete who lived by his wits. Cosby was the intellectual who didn’t drink or smoke.

This was the first TV drama to feature a black actor in a lead role. Some of the NBC affiliates in the south refused to air the series. Truly a color-blind series, the two spies did not encounter racial issues. It also made history– being one of the first shows to be filmed in exotic locations around the world. The pair visited Acapulco, Athens, Florence, Hong Kong, Madrid, Morocco, Paris, Tokyo, and Venice.

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Like the western genre in the 1950s, spy shows were popular in the 1960s. Unlike Get Smart or the Man From UNCLE, I Spy was more realistic. The duo didn’t rely on unbelievable gadgets or campy villains.

Some of the episodes had more comedy than others. “Chrysanthemum” was inspired by The Pink Panther. The episode, “Mainly on the Plains” starring Boris Karloff, was about an eccentric scientist who thinks he’s Don Quixote. However, many shows took on more serious and contemporary themes. “The Tiger” was set in Vietnam.

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During the three seasons the show aired, an incredible number of guest stars chose to work on the show. Some of these talented celebrities included Jim Backus, Victor Buono, Wally Cox, Delores Del Rio, Will Geer, Gene Hackman, Joey Heatherton, Ron Howard, Boris Karloff, Sally Kellerman, Eartha Kitt, Martin Landau, Peter Lawford, Julie London, Vera Miles, Carroll O’Connor, Don Rickles, George Takei, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, and Mary Wickes.

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Both Culp and Cosby were nominated all three years for Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, with Cosby winning all three years.

While the series was extremely popular, it was always over budget due to the high costs of filming. During the third season, ratings began to decline. The show was moved from Wednesdays to Mondays. It was on against The Carol Burnett Show. Unfortunately, the network refused to move the show back to its original night. They offered Sheldon the choice of renewing the show in the current time slot or the chance at creating a new series. Leonard realized that Culp and Cosby were tired of the show and ready to move on. In all, 82 episodes were filmed. 

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The show holds up well today.  The dialogue is timeless, and scripts are sophisticated and well written. The plots are realistic, but they are secondary to the relationship of Robinson and Scott. The exotic locations add a romance and intrigue to the show as well. The complete series is available on DVD and well worth watching.

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Of course, it’s hard to talk about a Cosby show without acknowledging the effect his legal issues have had on his work.  While I don’t condone his behavior and am sad that someone so talented (and preachy about character) would resort to such offensive actions, what makes me even sadder is that both I Spy and The Cosby Show were wonderful shows that featured talented casts. That so many people have to suffer because one person’s actions were unethical and selfish seems unfair.

One thing I’ve had to learn doing my research on all these classic shows is sometimes you have to separate the character from the actor. It’s possible to love a character even when the actor or actress who portrays them is a crummy human being. Of course, there are more of the other scenarios. Fred MacMurray was every bit as nice as Steve Douglas and Howard McNear was even nicer than Floyd.

Hopefully these shows get their due and their reputation for their well-written scripts overcomes the stain Cosby saddled the shows with.

Is It A Western? A Spy Show? A Thriller? No, It’s The Wild Wild West

There was no specific category for the Wild Wild West when it first debuted in 1965.  Part western, part spy, part thriller.  Now, it would be called steampunk. Westerns had been extremely popular through the 1950s and into the 1960s, but in the mid-1960s, the spy genre was gaining ground. Creator Michael Garrison combined the two. Secret Service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), work for President Ulysses Grant and travel the country by luxury train, the Wanderer.  Oh yeah, and they have a ton of technology to make the job more exciting. Artemis is a master of disguise.  Like James Bond, they had clever gadgets on hand, beautiful women in the wings, and delusional, but brilliant, enemies to fight against.

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The series debuted in 1965 and ran for four seasons, resulting in 104 episodes. Unfortunately, Garrison died a year into the show and didn’t live to see its completion. The show was filmed at CBS Studio Center. The 70-acre lot was used for Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Gilligan’s Island as well.

The theme song was written by Richard Markowitz. The intro had an animated sequence that continued to be filled in throughout the show. This was quite unique to this program.

Conrad claimed to be the 17th actor to audition for the role of James West. Originally, Rory Calhoun was announced as the co-star. Conrad wore three-inch heels to hide that he was only 5’8”. The casting office was not allowed to hire women over 5’6” for the show. The first few episodes used stuntmen, but Conrad felt that it slowed production down too much, so he volunteered to do his own stunts. During season three, he fell from a chandelier and hit a concrete floor, leaving him with a concussion and weeks of hospitalization for dizziness.

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Ross played over 100 different characters during the run of the series. He sketched out the ideas for the characters himself and then worked with the make-up artists to get the right look. During the fourth season, Martin broke a leg when he dropped a rifle, stepped on it, and rolled his foot over it. When the shell ejected, it burned his eye. Ross also suffered from a heart attack in 1968. Several other agents “filled” in for Martin while he recuperated.

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Considering the show was only on for four years, it featured a number of guest stars including Ed Asner, John Astin, Jim Backus, Ed Begley, Victor Buono, Jackie Coogan, Yvonne Craig, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Elam, Norman Fell, Bernard Fox, Mary Frann, Beverly Garland, Alan Hale Jr., Boris Karloff, Richard Kiel, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Martin Landau, Sue Ane Langdon, Peter Lawford, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead, Phyllis Newman, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Pat Paulsen, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Pernell Roberts, Katherine Ross, William Schallert, Vito Scotti, Ray Walston, Jesse White, and Keenan Wynn.

The train was also a co-star of the show. The spies had two different trains. The first was used for season one when the shows were filmed in black and white. It was a Sierra Railroad No. 3 which was not built until 1891, a mere technicality I guess. The Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works built it in New Jersey. Footage was shot in Jamestown, California. This same train was the Cannonball in Petticoat Junction.

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The shows filmed in color featured a train decorated with green and gold and it was full of fun gadgets. This one was built in 1875 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It was used in many films over the years.

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Both these trains are on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. They were only featured in exterior shots. The interiors of the trains were designed by art director Albert Heschong with set decorator Raymond Molyneaux. It reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965. To put this in perspective, the average house in 1965 cost less than $4,000! The train was as resourceful as West and Gordon. A remote control under the table could immediately lock the door. A statue turned upside down unlocked a wall safe. A telegraph set was hidden in a book on the desk. Pistols could be fired by activating a fireplace switch. The pool table had exploding balls while cue sticks could fire bullets.

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Many of the above-mentioned stars were villains in the show. The most famous villain was Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn. He had a recurring role, appearing on ten episodes. He always managed to escape at the end of the show. West and Artemis never did catch him and a TV movie filmed later relays that he died in 1880 from ulcers brought on by the stress of his plans always being foiled by West and Gordon.

Like Batman, Jim West always seems to have the right gadget at his disposal when he needs it. Some of his more fun props included a sleeve gun as well as a gun concealed in his heel. He also occasionally carried a blowtorch in his heel. Passkeys were stored under his lapel. He kept a variety of fuses sewn into hems in his clothes. To descend into a pit or be hoisted up on a roof, he had a hand-held motor-driven winch. Glass cutters which often are useful were available. Wires placed in his hat had many uses. Battery-powered drills helped the boys escape metal cages. His kit bag held a large balloon. A miniature player made villains think shot guns were being fired. Of course, every smart secret service man wears a bulletproof vest and is always equipped with tear gas or smoke bombs. They even had a cigar that would produce smoke when thrown on the ground and a coin that exploded when exposed to heat.

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There typically were two fights in each episode choreographed by Whitey Hughes. Following the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed. Violence on television was listed as one of the problems, and The Wild Wild West was cited as a violent show. So, despite high ratings, the series was cancelled near the end of its fourth season as a concession to Congress over television violence.

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However, the show was then released into syndication and at one time was listed on 99 different local channels, so the violence on television was not curbed by its cancellation.

Several books and comic books were created based on the show. In 1979, the two stars returned to television with a movie, The Wild Wild West Revisited. In 1980, they showed up again in More Wild Wild West. Rumors existed that the duo would do a reboot of the series, but Ross died in 1981 so it never came to fruition.

A movie was made in 1999 based on the original show, but it was not received well. Will Smith later expressed regret for his role in the film. The Golden Raspberry (Razzie) is awarded to the worst films. When the 1999 film was awarded five Razzies, Conrad accepted them on behalf of the movie to show his displeasure with the remake.

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The show’s success primarily stemmed from the fact that Artemus and West trusted each other completely, and their banter and technological gadgets made the show a pleasure to watch. We’ll let the characters have the last word:

Artemus Gordon: “Naomi. ’My sweetness’. That’s what Naomi means in Hebrew, did you know that ?”

Naomi Buckley: “Really ? And what does Artemus mean ?”

James West: “It means ’He who wastes little time‘.”

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Artemus Gordon: “I didn’t know you liked toys.”

James West: “Toys, no. Dolls, yes.”

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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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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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

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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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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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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.”

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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.

The Skipper and His Little Buddy: Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver

We continue our month-long exploration of the actors who appeared on Gilligan’s Island. Today we look at the two biggest stars: Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver.

Alan Hale Jr.

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Alan Hale Jr. (Alan Hale Mackahan, Jr.) was born in 1921 in Los Angeles, California.  He looked exactly like his father, Alan Hale Sr. who was a well-known movie actor acting with legends like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. His mother, Gretchen Hartman, was also a silent film star.

Hale’s first screen role was when he was 12 in Wild Boys of the Road.

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He appeared in more movies and television series than any of the other Gilligan’s Island cast.  In all he would appear in 92 movies and 123 different tv shows.

In 1943 he married Bettina Reed Doerr. They would be married for twenty years and have four children. During World War II, Hale served in the US Coast Guard.

In the 1950s, he could be seen in many westerns as well as The Loretta Young Show and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He had regular roles on two sitcoms in that decade: Biff Baker USA and Casey Jones. Biff Baker is a businessman who becomes involved in espionage.  He and his wife travel around the world, working behind the scenes to solve problems. Although it was a serious show, there was some humor in the episodes also. As Casey Jones, Hale drove his train, The Cannonball Express, around the country.

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The early 1960s was a prolific time for Alan Hale. The majority of his television credits came during this decade. You can see him in reruns of Jack Benny, The Lucy Show, Perry Mason, My Favorite Martian, and The Andy Griffith Show.

The year 1964 was a momentous one for Alan. He married Naomi and remained with her till his death. He also tackled the role he would become famous for.

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Sherwood Schwartz said he was having trouble finding the right person to play Jonas Grumby. He auditioned a lot of people, including Carroll O’Connor. One night while having dinner at a local restaurant he saw Hale dressed in a Civil War costume and decided he might be the one. Although the Skipper often became frustrated with Gilligan, they had a father and son relationship. Hale and Denver managed to pull that off. They were close friends in their personal lives as well.

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Unlike some of the cast who felt typecast after they left the show, Hale embraced the role he had played. He would later own and manage a popular restaurant in Los Angeles called “Alan Hale’s Lobster Barrel” and could be seen greeting guests as the Skipper. Both he and Jim Backus appeared on Bob Denver’s sitcom Good Guys in 1968.

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After Gilligan, Hale’s career did not slow down. Until his death he would continue to appear in a variety of series including Batman, Green Acres, The Flying Nun, The Wild, Wild West, Here’s Lucy, Marcus Welby, The Doris Day Show, Gunsmoke, McMillan and Wife, Simon and Simon, Growing Pains, The Love Boat, and Magnum PI.

In addition to acting and his restaurant business, Alan enjoyed fishing, golfing, cooking, traveling, storytelling, spending time with his family, and philanthropy. In 1990, Hale died after suffering from thymus cancer at the young age of 68.

Alan Hale had a long and prosperous career.  From all accounts, he liked acting and enjoyed life. Perhaps we should leave the last word to his costars who knew him best.

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Bob Denver said, “He was a big, lovable man who made everyone feel good. He had a great time with his life.”

Dawn Wells described him: “What a dear man . . . what a dear, dear man . . I never saw him disgruntled, having a temper tantrum or depressed. He was so jovial and so sweet and so strong. . . He was a nice man.”

 

Bob Denver

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Bob Denver was born in New York in 1935. He went to college at Loyola University in Los Angeles, majoring in political science. He worked as a mailman and a teacher before deciding to go into acting full time.  His first appearance was on Silent Service in 1957.

While Alan Hale was in more shows and movies than any of the other crew members, Bob Denver was easily in the fewest.  While he appeared in seven movies, he was only in 21 television shows, and on six of them he had regular roles.

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His sister suggested him for the part of Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. His role as Dobie Gillis’s best friend propelled him into stardom. Dobie Gillis was on the air for four years, producing 144 shows.

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In the 1960s he would appear on Dr. Kildare, The Farmer’s Daughter, The Andy Griffith Show, Make Room for Daddy, and I Dream of Jeannie. In the mid-1960s, Bob was offered the role of Gilligan on a new show, Gilligan’s Island.  In 1966 he married Maggie Ryan. They would have two children during the six years before they divorced.

Schwartz wanted to cast Jerry Van Dyke in the role who turned it down to play Dave Crabtree in My Mother the Car. Denver was perfect in the role of the inept Gilligan who caused many mishaps on the island but was the center of affection of the rest of the castaways, especially the Skipper.

The same year Gilligan was cancelled, Denver remarried. Like many sitcoms, the relationship with Jean Webber lasted three years before the couple cancelled it.

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Although Denver was given a lead role in three more sitcoms, most of his work after 1967 cashed in on his character of Gilligan. In 1968, he starred in Good Guys. He played the role of Rufus Butterworth who opens a diner with his best friend from childhood.  The show only lasted for 42 episodes. Like Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz produced this show. In an interview in 1994 with Peter Anthony Holder on Montreal radio station CJAD 800 AM, Denver discussed Schwartz. “Oh yeah, sure. 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.”

At this time, Bob was also involved with Broadway and dinner theater plays after 1970.

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In 1972 Denver tried marriage a third time. He and Carole Abrahams made it three years and produced one child before divorcing. In 1973, he took the lead on Dusty’s Trail. As Dusty, he manages to get a wagon and stage separated from the rest of the wagon train heading west, and the lost group of travelers try to catch up with the rest of their party.  This one only lasted 26 shows.

In 1975, Denver appeared in his weirdest sitcom yet, Far Out Space Nuts. Lasting only 12 episodes, Denver played a maintenance man in a space company who is accidentally launched into space with a co-worker. Apparently, television producers decided Denver looked like someone who was always lost.

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In 1979, Bob tried the marriage ride one more time. This time he would stay married to Dreama Perry until his death.  The couple would have a child, making a total of four children for him.

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Like many of the other castaways, Denver published a book of memoirs.  It was called Gilligan, Maynard, & Me.

In 2005, Denver passed away from complications following throat cancer surgery, leaving Dawn Wells and Tina Louise as the only surviving actors from the show.

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While Denver is obviously the most-recognized character from Gilligan’s Island, he also had the most difficult situation to work with in being typecast. He was never able to shake the traits that were part of Gilligan to explore other roles.  He mentioned he would have liked to be in Northern Exposure. I wonder if he would have been happier being a teacher or if he enjoyed his career.

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Next week we will discover more about our last regular member of the show, Russell Johnson.

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.

How Much Luggage Do You Need for a Three-Hour Trip? The Story of Gilligan’s Island

Today we begin a month-long look at Gilligan’s Island.  I admit I was never a big Gilligan fan, but there are so many dedicated viewers that I decided it was time to take a closer look.  Today we look at the series, and in the following weeks, we’ll look at the actors who appeared in the cast.

Gilligan's Island (US TV Series)

Gilligan’s Island was created by one of my favorite producers, Sherwood Schwartz. It aired from September 1964 till April of 1967, producing 98 episodes and a ton of other versions of the show which aired as new series or television movies, including the hard-to-believe Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, Alan Hale, Jr., Bob Denver, Curly Neal, 1981. (c) Uni

The premise of the show was that on a three-hour tour, the SS Minnow became shipwrecked on a deserted island after a typhoon. Seven castaways now must make the island their home as they wait to be rescued. We have the captain of the ship, the Skipper (Alan Hale), his first-mate Gilligan (Bob Denver), millionaire Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus) and his wife Lovie (Natalie Schafer), movie star Ginger Grant (Tina Louise), the girl next door Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), and the Professor (Russell Johnson). All they have is a transistor radio and whatever they had on the ship.

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CBS gave the okay for Schwarz to film the pilot. Schwartz wanted Jerry Van Dyke for Gilligan, but Van Dyke said it was “the worst thing” he ever read. He turned down the script and accepted the role of Dave Crabtree on My Mother the Car.

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The pilot was titled “Marooned.” Seven characters were in the pilot, but only the Skipper, Gilligan and the Howells were going to be in the ongoing series. These were the only castaways mentioned in the pilot theme song. The final day of filming for the pilot was November 22, 1963, the day of Kennedy’s assassination. The staff was crowded around a radio between scenes trying to get the updated news. In the opening of the episodes in the first season, as the Minnow leaves the harbor, you can see an American flag flying at half staff as a tribute to Kennedy.

After seeing the pilot, several changes were requested. The first change was to the theme song. Originally it was written by the talented John Williams and sung by Schwartz and was a Calypso-sounding song. The lyrics were quite different from the song we recognize today. The background music and laugh track were the same for both the pilot and the ensuing shows. The three characters who were not part of the series at first were the same characters that later appeared . . . sort of. The Professor was a high school teacher played by John Gabriel, Ginger was an actress but also a secretary played by Kit Smythe, and Mary Ann was Bunny, a dumb blonde stereotype played by Nancy McCarthy.

Because so many changes happened between the pilot and the first episode, the pilot was not aired until 1992 when it was broadcast on TBS.

The first season was filmed in black and white but later colorized for syndication The second and third seasons were filmed in color.

While the pilot had been filmed in Hawaii,  the show was taped at a lagoon built at the CBS Radford Studios in Studio City, Los Angeles. The film was supposed to be shot in Malibu, but it was too foggy. The Ventura Freeway was nearby and when traffic was too loud, production had to halt. The lagoon would become a parking lot in 1995.

There were four boats that “played” the part of the SS Minnow. One was used in the opening credits which had been rented in Honolulu for the filming of the pilot. One was used in the opening credits for the final two years. One was shown in beach scenes and the fourth was built at the studio.

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The eventual theme song was called “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle,” and was written by Schwartz and George Wyle. There were two versions, one for the first season which referred to Mary Ann and the Professor as “the rest,” and another version for the last two seasons which specified “The Professor and Mary Ann.” Dawn Wells credits Bob Denver for going to bat for her and Johnson threatening to take his name out of the song if they were not added.

For the opening credits, the song was:

Just sit right back

And you’ll hear a tale

A tale of a fateful trip

That started from this tropic port

Aboard this tiny ship

The mate was a mighty sailing man

The skipper brave and sure

Five passengers set sail that day

For a 3-hour tour, a 3-hour tour

The weather started getting rough

The tiny ship was tossed

If not for the courage of the fearless crew

The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost

The ship set ground on the shore of this

Uncharted desert isle

With Gilligaaan

The Skipper too

A millionaire, and his wife

A movie star

The Proffessor and Mary Ann

Here on Gilligan’s Isle

 

For closing credits, the lyrics were:

So, this is the tale of our castaways

They’re here for a long long time

They’ll have to make the best of things

It’s an uphill climb

The first mate and his skipper too

Will do their very best

To make the others comfortable

In the tropic island nest

No phone, no lights, no motor cars

Not a single luxury

Like Robinson Crusoe

It’s primitive as can be

So, join us here each week my friends

You’ll sure to get a smile

From 7 stranded castaways

Here on Gilligan’s Isle!

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Most of the episodes can be categorized into five themes. (1) One of the castaways make some useful object from local material. These could be anything from their bamboo huts to hot water pipes to a stethoscope to a pedal-powered car. They just could not produce anything that could get them off the island! (2) Visitors would often appear on the island. We’ll learn about some of the guest stars on the show in our last monthly blog. None of these visitors ever help the characters get rescued. Unbelievably, Ginger, Gilligan, and Mr. Howell all had look-alikes end up on the island, causing trouble for them. (3) Dreams occur a lot. When we see them, all the characters are part of the dream.  Apparently, the hot weather made them sleepy. (4) News from the outside world, usually heard on the radio, caused trouble on the island. (5) Strange objects showed up on the island from time to time like a WWII mine or radioactive vegetable seeds.

Despite many corny scripts and imagination-stretching storylines, the show received solid ratings all three years. When it went into syndication, it grew in popularity. Many of the stars from Gilligan play their characters from the show in other series’ television episodes in the 1970s and 1980s.

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The last episode was called “Gilligan the Goddess.” Unfortunately, the castaways were not rescued. A fourth season was expected or perhaps Schwartz would have saved them. In season three, the show was on Monday nights competing with The Monkees.  Schwartz was assured it would be back because it had higher ratings than The Monkees. Gunsmoke, which aired Saturday nights, was given the potential ax. However, CBS president William Paley pressured the executives who then moved Gunsmoke to Monday night and cancelled Gilligan’s Island.

One funny fact I read about was how often the US Coast Guard received telegrams from citizens who were pleading for them to make an effort to rescue the cast from Gilligan’s Island. The Coast Guard sent these telegrams to Schwartz.

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I can’t say that after learning more about the show, it made my favorites list, but there are definitely worse shows on television than Gilligan’s Island. If it was one of your favorites, you’ll enjoy hearing about the stars who played the castaways. I certainly learned they were just as interesting a group of people in real life as they were on the isle they called home for three years.

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.

Verrry Interrresting!

Occasionally, a show is so entrenched in the time and culture it debuts in, it becomes almost impossible to describe or understand away from its original setting. Dan Rowan and Dick Martin were nightclub comics who co-hosted a special called Laugh-In in 1967.  The name was a play on words based on the love-in’s and sit-in’s happening in the 1960s.  The special was so popular it was turned into a weekly series. I think of Laugh-In as Sesame Street for adults.  Both shows debuted in the late 60s and had a rapid-fire approach, continually moving on to the next segment so the viewer would not get bored. The show captured the counterculture movement and the lime green, turquoise, fuschia, deep orange, bright yellow, and paisley flowers kept our eyes moving as quickly as the jokes did. The show lasted six seasons.

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Regular cast members who went on to other careers included Ruth Buzzi, Gary Owens, Alan Sues, Arte Johnson, Henry Gibson, Lily Tomlin, Richard Dawson, Jo Anne Worley, Goldie Hawn, Judy Carne, Dave Madden, and Flip Wilson.

Numerous celebrities flocked to the show.  Movie stars that were reeled in included John Wayne, Jack Benny, Peter Lawford, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Charles Nelson Reilly, Debbie Reynolds, Rock Hudson, Jack Lemmon, Edward G. Robinson, Sally Field, Orson Welles, and Rita Hayworth.  Noted musicians included Sammy Davis Jr., Dinah Shore, Johnny Cash, Perry Como, Liberace, Bing Crosby, Cher, Rosemary Clooney, and Liza Minelli. Sports stars tackled the chore including Joe Namath, Wilt Chamberlin, Sugar Ray Robinson, and Howard Cosell.  Comedians who laughed their way on the show included Rich Little, Don Rickles, Bob Hope, Bob Newhart, Paul Lynde, and Carol Burnett. Classic tv stars who accepted starring roles were Tim Conway, Carl Reiner, Steve Allen, Jim Backus, Ernest Borgnine, Eve Arden, Andy Griffith, Desi Arnaz, and Wally Cox.

The format rarely changed from week to week.  Rowan and Martin opened each show with a dialogue; Rowan acted as the straight man, and Martin took on the gullible role. Then the regular cast, along with celebrities, danced against a psychedelic background, firing off one-liners and short gags. Comedy bits, taped segments, and sketches filled in the rest of the hour and always ended with Rowan telling Martin to “Say goodnight, Dick” and Dick replying, “Goodnight Dick.”

Some of the regular features were:

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The Cocktail Party where the cast stood around spouting politically and sexually suggestive jokes.

Letters to Laugh-In where the cast read letters.

ROWAN AND MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN,  Teresa Graves, Pamela Rodgers, 1969-1970.

It’s a Mod, Mod World where go-go dancers danced in bikinis with puns and word play phrases painted on their bodies.

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The Farkel Family about a group of red-headed, freckled family members.

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The Flying Fickel Finger of Fate Award where dubious achievements were celebrated.

Laugh-In Looks as the News was comparable to the Saturday Night Live news sketches of today.

New Talent Time showing various weird skills.

Many of the regular cast members had their own skits that were repeated during the series’ run:

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Judy Carne was always tricked into saying “Sock it to Me” which then caused her to get doused with water, fall through a trap door, or endure some other indignity. Sometimes celebrities ended up being the ones to say “Sock it to me,” the most famous being Richard Nixon when he was campaigning for president.

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Arte Johnson played Tyrone, an inappropriate senior citizen who tries to seduce geriatric Ruth Buzzi as Gladys, forcing her to eventually hit him with her purse.

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Henry Gibson came on stage holding an oversized paper flower, reciting poetry.

Lily Tomlin performed skits as Ernestine, a telephone operator or Edith Ann, a young girl sitting in a rocking chair. (Personal note:  When I was in 4th grade, I performed an Ernestine and an Edith Ann skit for our talent show.  Why a 9-year-old was watching Laugh-In and the school approved the skits, I can’t say, but I remember getting a lot of compliments.  And Lily Tomlin didn’t sue me for stealing her material!)

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Alan Sues portrayed Uncle Al, a children’s show host, who was short tempered and often in bad shape from his late partying nights.

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Flip Wilson was Geraldine.

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Jo Anne Worley would say “Bor-ing” in the midst of jokes.

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Goldie Hawn as the ditzy blonde.

The series also became known for some of its catch phrases including “Look that up in your Funk & Wagnalls,” “You bet your sweet bippie,” “Beautiful downtown Burbank,” “Is that a chicken joke?,” “Sock it to me,” “Here come de judge,” and “Verrrry Interesting.”

The show was one of the highest rated shows in the late 1960s. It was in the top 4 of the top 40 shows for its entire run. It won Emmy and Golden Globe awards. The Nielsen polling determined it was the most-watched show in seasons 1 and 2.

The show had its own magazine for a year.  Trading cards were sold with catch phrases and images from the show. Several records were produced capturing the humor of the time.  There was even a set of View-master reels made, as well as lunch boxes and other memorabilia.

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Laugh-In debuted fifty years ago, but still feels new and edgy. Because the show has not been syndicated in re-runs, it is hard for the current generation to imagine how very different this show was from anything else that appeared on television before it.  The closest show to capturing any of its essence since then is Saturday Night Live.  This was a time when everything was changing: civil rights, Vietnam, women’s lib, the hippie lifestyle, psychoactive drugs, anti-authoritarianism, freedom of speech and assembly, and environmental concerns, especially littering and pollution.

The Generation Gap was a real concept in the 1960s but this show might have come as close as anything else to bridge that gap. Families sat down together to watch the show. Many of the phrases still have a life of their own decades later even thought decades of kids have never seen the show.  Plan your own little sit-in when you check out a couple of the you-tube videos to get a flavor of what the series was like.