MacMillan and Wife: The Show That Bridged the Generation Gap

Before launching into this week’s topic, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has been following and reading my blog. This week begins my fourth year writing this blog. I was worried I would find enough topics to fill the first year but next year is already outlined, so another year of classic television is on the way. It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a lot.

This month we are looking at crime-solving duos.  We start our series learning a bit more about McMillan and Wife. McMillan and Wife began as part of The Sunday NBC Mystery Movie which included Columbo and McCloud. The shows rotated each week, so fewer episodes were produced of each than a typical weekly show.

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McMillan and Wife debuted in 1971 and was on the air until 1977, yet only forty episodes were produced. Leonard Stern was the creator, writer, and executive producer of the show; he previously produced Get Smart.

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Stewart “Mac” McMillan (Rock Hudson) was an attorney and US Navy veteran who apparently had been involved in some CIA activities. He is now Commissioner of Police in San Francisco. He gets involved in high-profile cases. His wife is Sally (Susan St. James), and her father was a detective for the San Francisco Police Department; she learned a lot from him and helps her husband solve crimes. Sargent Charlie Enright (John Schuck) helps Mac with his cases. Sally and Mac have no children (it’s confusing because Sally was pregnant twice on the show, but the children are never mentioned in the show later). Their housekeeper Mildred (Nancy Walker) also lives with the couple. Mildred’s character resembles the role Thelma Ritter played in Pillow Talk, where Hudson starred with Doris Day. She is a sarcastic, hard-drinking woman and is always ready to offer her opinion, but she is devoted to Mac and Sally.

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Once Hudson was cast as Mac, the show got priority in development. Several actresses were considered for the role of Sally, including Diane Keaton and Jill Clayburgh, but Hudson was most comfortable with St. James.

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Hudson was 21 years older than St. James, but their relationship worked. Mac is supposed to be in his 40s and Sally in her 20s (he was 46 at the time and she was 25). Sally is self-confident and is not afraid to speak her mind. However, she is also a wife who loves her husband, and one of the running gags on the show is that Mac had dated a lot of women in his past, and when Mac and Sally are out and about, they typically run into some gorgeous woman who says, “Hi Mac.” Sally usually responds with a jealous comment or a withering look. The difference in their ages actually worked well for demographics. Hudson appealed to older viewers while St. James attracted younger viewers.

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Often the cases Mac solves happen during events the couple attends. One episode featured a burglary at a charity event they were attending; once they found a skeleton in their house after an earthquake. Another show had Mac abducted by mobsters and replaced with a surgically-made twin replacing him.

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An interesting fact is that the interior of their house in the pilot episode was in fact Hudson’s home. In the first regular episode, the MacMillans bought a new house. In the final season, the setting changed to an apartment.

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Sally and Mac led a glamorous life. The scripts were well written, and the dialogue was witty and clever. The couple was often compared to Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies. Mac and Sally have a lot of their best conversations after they go to bed at night.

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Sally was known for wearing a football jersey for her nightgown. The jersey was an authentic 49ers Jersey, number 18, George Washington, a wide receiver. Washington was a four-time Pro Bowler. He made a guest appearance on the show in season four, “Guilt by Association.”

Considering that there were only forty episodes produced, this show had an incredible number of guest stars. I apologize for the long list, but it’s the only way to capture how impressive it is. The stars included sport celebrities Dick Butkus, Rosie Grier, Alex Karras, and Bobbie Riggs.

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It also featured a Who’s Who of television sitcom royalty: John Astin, Meredith Baxter, Tom Bosley, Michael Constantine, Bert Convy, Wally Cox, Richard Deacon, William Demarest, Donna Douglas, Barbara Feldon, Norman Fell, Buddy Hackett, Larry Hagman, Alan Hale, Shirley Jones, Stacy Keach, Bernie Kopell, Julie Newmar, Charlotte Rae, Charles Nelson Reilly, Dick Sargent, Natalie Schafer, Susan Sullivan, Karen Valentine, and Dick Van Patten.

The show, like McCloud and Columbo, was quite popular with viewers. The ratings were impressive until the sixth season.

Unfortunately, the last season had too many changes to overcome. St. James decided to leave to concentrate on her movie career. Schuck left to star in the sitcom, Holmes and Yo-Yo, and Walker left for her own sitcom, The Nancy Walker Show. Sadly, Walker and Schuck would have been better off staying because both their shows lasted only 13 episodes. St. James starred in a couple of movies, but they weren’t anything memorable. She would go on to star in Kate and Allie in 1984.

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On the show, Sally was killed in an airplane crash. Mildred was said to leave to open a diner, so her sister Agatha (Martha Raye) took over her job. Schuck made a few appearances but was said to have been given a promotion to lieutenant which kept him too busy to assist Mac much. The show may have been able to overcome one of these changes but not all of them. Much of the strength of the show was the relationship between Mac and Sally. Walker’s funny bantering and actions provided a comedic relief for the show. When Raye took over, she was just scatterbrained and loud; the appeal of Walker was not part of her character.

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It’s wonderful the show lasted five good seasons, but it might have lasted many more if the original cast had been retained. At the other end of the spectrum, Columbo aired off and on until 2003 and is remembered by more viewers.

DVDs were released for all six seasons between 2005 and 2014. With only forty shows in the series, this would be a fun binge-watching week-end show to tackle.

Please Report to Room 222

Last week we continued to paid homage to the Friday night schedule of shows airing in 1970 and 1971, learning about The Odd Couple. Today we continue that theme as we meet the cast of Room 222.

Debuting in 1969, Room 222 produced 113 episodes by 1974 when it was cancelled for low ratings. The show, one of the first dramedies, was a more serious counterpart to the later-seen Welcome Back Kotter.

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The series was created by James Brooks who wrote for That Girl and The Andy Griffith Show and would go on to create Taxi, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and Lou Grant. What all these shows have in common is a group of characters who have a depth and sophisticated writing that captures the realistic language and behavior of individuals in their settings.

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The show featured Seymour Kaufman (Michael Constantine), the principal of Walt Whitman High School, a racially mixed school in Los Angeles; American history teacher Pete Dixon (Lloyd Haines); the guidance counselor (and Pete’s girlfriend) Liz McIntyre (Denise Nicholas); and student teacher Alice Johnson (Karen Valentine). The four staff members were friends, but they did not always agree.  They debated issues and solutions but always with respect. Kaufman displayed a dry humor and could make Dixon laugh. Dixon was the easy-going, wise, and insightful thinker in the bunch. Liz was compassionate while Alice was enthusiastic and idealistic, but a bit naïve. The staff members invest in the students, acting as surrogate parents teaching them important life lessons. The other staff member we get to know is Miss Hogarth (Patsy Garrett), Mr. Kaufman’s secretary.

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We also spend a lot of time with several students who interacted with staff members in the classroom and occasionally outside of school. There was Richie Lane the Brain (Howard Rice); Jason Allen, tough guy (Heshimu Cumbuka); Pamela, Miss Popular (Ta-Tanisha); Helen Loomis, shy but thoughtful (Judy Strangis); and Bernie, the sports jock and class clown (David Joliffe). Although students were a large part of the show, many episodes focused on the teachers and administrators.

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Room 222 is Dixon’s classroom where the students are given free range to discuss topics from a variety of viewpoints.  Some of the issues were topical such as the Vietnam war, women’s lib, and Watergate; however, most of the debates could be pulled from today’s headlines:  race relations, shoplifting, drug use, illiteracy, police presence in schools, dress codes, guns in schools, and teen pregnancy. Dixon lets the students lead many discussions, but he preaches tolerance and the ability to see things from others’ shoes. He is respected and liked by his students.

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Imdb.com summarized the pilot episode as: Pete Dixon teaches history in Room 222 at Walt Whitman High School. Principal Seymour Kaufman introduces Pete to Alice Johnson, a perky but painfully insecure student teacher. Pete’s most enthusiastic student is Richie Lane, who goes so far as to dress a lot like Pete and even takes roll in his absence. But Guidance Counselor Liz McIntire has discovered some disturbing news about Richie — the home address he submitted is fake, suggesting that he may not live in the school district, and therefore might be ineligible to keep attending Whitman.

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Many guest stars showed up at Walt Whitman High including Ed Begley Jr., Richard Dreyfuss, Jamie Farr, Teri Garr, Mark Hamill, Bernie Kopell, Donny Most, Chuck Norris, Rob Reiner, Kurt Russell, and Cindy Williams.

The show was originally on Wednesday nights, and the ratings weren’t great. The network was planning on cancelling the series, but then the show won the Emmy for Outstanding New Series, Michael Constantine won for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series, and Karen Valentine won for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series. The show was moved to the Friday night line up between The Partridge Family and The Odd Couple where its ratings soared.

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The first season used a laugh track which was not used for subsequent seasons, helping to add drama to the show.

The theme song was written by Jerry Goldsmith. He would go on to be nominated for seven Academy Awards for music, winning for The Omen. A series of novels was created based on the show by William Johnston in the early 1970s, and Dell Comics published four issues about Room 222 in 1970-1971.

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The show propelled Valentine to star status. Mark Voger interviewed her online for New Jersey Advance Media for NJ.com on October 25, 1970. Part of his article is quoted below:

“I had gone in to meet the casting person for ‘Room 222,'” the Santa Rosa, Calif., native told me during a telephone interview some years back.

He took down the color of my eyes and the color of my hair, and I was dismissed. Nothing happened for a number of months.

Then I was called in again to meet with (series producer) Gene Reynolds. When you talk about naivete — the character of Alice Johnson was a bit of a bumbler and very naive and just wet behind the ears.

When I read for Gene, everything imaginable went wrong. I mean, I went to put my purse down, and I had sunglasses on my head; they fell off. I went to pick those up, the pages went all over the floor. I had to pick those up.

I looked up at him and I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. I’m really rather chic, you know. This is so strange.’ And he said, ‘Don’t change a thing.'”

Valentine believes she’d hit upon the essence of the character that Reynolds sought.

She continued: “After I read, I was leaving the office. He said, ‘Don’t get hit by a car.’ And I thought, ‘Boy, this is a good sign. It’s the first time anyone cared whether I was dead or alive in this town.'” . . .

“It was a real forerunner for integrated shows,” Valentine said. “It was the first show, I think, that showed blacks and whites interacting so well together, and role models in teachers and counselors. It was so well accepted that in certain parts of the country, ‘Room 222’ was required viewing by some of the teachers and principals and administrative staffs around different schools.”

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While the hair-do’s and clothing tie the show to the early 1970s, the scripts could easily be part of current television shows. I’m not sure if that is positive because the show was so well written or if it’s negative because we are dealing with these issues almost 50 years later without much progress. Either way, taking some time to watch the show will be time well spent.

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