This Man Was Busy, Busy, Busy

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Most television viewers today would not recognize the name Billy De Wolfe, but if you played his voice for them, they would immediately know it as Professor Hinkle from Frosty the Snowman.  I remember Billy primarily from That Girl as Ann Marie’s drama coach, Jules Benedict.  I was amazed to see he only appeared in three episodes because he was such a strong character, I would have thought he was in at least 20 shows. He became known as the prim, pompous, and sarcastic stock character.

Billy was born William Andrew Jones in Massachusetts in 1907. His father was a bookbinder, and they moved back to his parents’ home country of Wales shortly after his birth, returning to the United States when he was nine years old. His parents hoped he would become a Baptist minister, but his dreams were grounded in acting. He started his entertainment career as an usher.  He then became a dancer with the Jimmy O’Connor band.  This led to his appearing on the vaudeville circuit where a theater manger offered him the use of his name, Billy De Wolfe. He traveled to London to perform for five years and returned to America in 1939.

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In 1942 he joined the US Navy where he became a Seaman 1st Class as a musician. Before he enlisted, he was offered a contract with Paramount, and he continued with them in 1944 when he left the Navy. His first movie Dixie was with Dorothy Lamour and Bing Crosby. He appeared in nine movies during the 1940s.

 

He loved old-fashioned musical comedies and had a chance to act with Doris Day and Gene Nelson in both Tea for Two and Lullaby of Broadway.  He and Doris would be friends for the rest of his life.  He gave her the nickname Clara Bixby because he said she looked more like a Clara than a Doris, and many of their friends referred to her as Clara.

 

He transitioned to theater and performed on the live stage in both Broadway and London.

 

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He then decided to try television where he became very successful. Above he appears on the Dick Van Dyke Show. He appeared on six shows before obtaining his first role as a regular on a sitcom.  During the late 1960s and early 1970s he would be cast in five different sitcoms.

 

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In 1966, he was part of the amazing cast of The Pruitts of South Hampton.  I have mentioned this show before in my blogs, and it is hard to believe that this incredible cast could not pull off a more successful show:  Phyllis Diller, Louis Nye, John Astin, Reginald Gardner, Paul Lynde, Gypsy Rose Lee, John McGiver, Richard Deacon, Marty Ingels, and De Wolfe. The series was based on a novel, House Party, by Patrick Dennis.  A wealthy family realizes it owes the IRS $10,000,000 in back taxes.  They want to keep the appearance that they still have plenty of money while living in a smaller home with one car and a butler.  One of the first shows to debut in color, it was cancelled after 30 episodes.

 

In 1966, De Wolfe also began the role of Jules Benedict on That Girl.  He played a sarcastic acting teacher who made it clear it was painful to work with these young actors who simply had no idea of how to act. But we also realized that he had a big heart that he did not want anyone to see. His last episode was in 1969.

 

In 1967, he took a role as radio station manager Roland Hutton Jr. on Good Morning, World.  Dave Lewis (Joby Baker) and Larry Clarke (Ronnie Schell) are small-time radio hosts Lewis and Clarke on the air from 6-10 am. Lewis is married and an introvert while Clarke is a swinging single. Also appearing on this show was a new comer, Goldie Hawn, who played the Lewises’ neighbor. The show only lasted a year. Several critics pointed out that De Wolfe was the funniest person on the show.

 

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In 1969, De Wolfe was able to stay employed for another 13 episodes on the series The Queen and I. He starred with Larry Storch.  They worked on an aging ocean liner, The Amsterdam Queen, which the owners were planning on selling for scrap. Duffy (Storch) wants to save the ship through any means possible, but Nelson (De Wolfe) doesn’t like or trust him, although he fails to ever catch him doing anything wrong.

 

Doris Day began her sitcom in 1968. For the 1970 season, she and her kids moved to San Francisco to live over an Italian restaurant, owned by the Palluccis (Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell). She hired her friend Billy to play Willard Jarvis, the bad-tempered neighbor who really was a peach when you got to know him.

During his years on the Doris Day Show, he also appeared on the Debbie Reynolds Show and Love American Style. He was also a regular on the talk show circuits, appearing many times on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and the Mike Douglas Show.

 

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Phoebe Murgatroyd was a famous commercial character. De Wolfe donned a hat and shawl (but kept his iconic mustache) to portray the romance expert who gave love life advice for this series of Ban Roll-On deodorant ads.

 

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Who realized in 1969 that an animation special, based on the song, “Frosty the Snowman,” would go on to become a beloved classic and would play a role in generations of kids celebrating Christmas. For almost 50 years, viewers have cried at Professor Hinkle’s nasty act of locking Frosty in a greenhouse to melt. While I look forward to Charlie Brown and Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer every holiday, Frosty is my must-see every December.

In the early 1970s, Billy was diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away in 1974, his friend Doris helping him through this tough time.

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Billy De Wolfe is another example of one of these great performers who could do it all.  He was a dancer. He appeared in many lucrative movies. He was successful on Broadway. When he decided to give television a try, he stayed employed with the medium until his death. And he left the legacy of Frosty the Snowman that has been a Christmas staple for almost 50 years. If you are searching for things to do this winter, add watching several episodes of Billy De Wolfe shows to your list and get to know this multi-talented man a bit better.

 

Stars Who Jump From the Big Screen to the Small Screen Don’t Always Land on Their Feet

While it is not uncommon for stars to transition from television to movies–think about Robin Williams, Sally Field, Melissa McCarthy, and Tom Hanks–it is less likely to see stars move from the big screen to the small screen.  Jane Fonda has transitioned to television in Frankie and Grace and Fred MacMurray did it with My Three Sons.  For most stars, the move has not worked out very well. Let’s look at a few stars who tried to make the conversion.

That Wonderful Guy – Jack Lemmon (1949)

Neil Hamilton (best known as Commissioner Gordon on Batman) plays Franklin Westbrook, a conceited drama critic who dislikes almost everything. Jack Lemmon plays Harold, a Midwesterner who thinks working for Westbrook will help him become worldly and give a boost to his acting career. His girlfriend is played by his real wife Cynthia Stone. The episodes revolved around his romantic and business adventures in New York City.  Perhaps Westbrook panned the show because it was cancelled after three episodes.

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Heaven for Betsy – Jack Lemmon (1952)

Three years later, Lemmon gave it another try. In this show, Lemmon plays Peter Bell, a toy store buyer. His wife Cynthia again played his wife Betsy. The series was based on a sketch “The Couple Next Door” that Lemmon and his wife played regularly on the Frances Langford/Don Ameche Show. Each episode lasted 15 minutes, and it told about the newlyweds’ struggles in New York City. Instead of three episodes, this series lasted three months.

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Honestly Celeste – Celeste Holm (1954)

After playing Ado Annie in Oklahoma, Holm tried her hand at television. She plays Celeste Anders, a Minnesota college professor living in Manhattan, who is getting journalism experience working for the NY Express. Celeste wrote stories ranging from modern art to underprivileged families. She also dated the publisher’s son Bob Wallace, played by Scott McKay. After three months, she was sent back to school in Minnesota. What was most surprising about this failure was that Norman Lear (who would go on to create dozens of shows) and Larry Gelbart (who later created M*A*S*H) were both part of the writing staff.

 

Going My Way – Gene Kelly (1962)

Bridging television and movies, Gene Kelly redid Bing Crosby’s movie from 1944 for the small screen. Kelly is Father Chuck O’Malley, a progressive priest assigned to the slums of New York. Father Fitzgibbon played by Leo G. Carroll is a cantankerous, old priest. Dick York was his boyhood pal Tom Colwell who ran the community center. Mrs. Featherstone (Nydia Westman) played the rectory housekeeper. The list of guest stars on the show was very impressive, but after a year, the network told Kelly to keep going and cancelled the show.

 

The Bing Crosby Show – Bing Crosby (1964)

I guess Bing decided if Gene Kelly could enter television with his old movie, he might also give it a try. He plays Bing Collins a former singer. He is now an electrical engineer married to Ellie (Beverly Garland) with two daughters Janice (Carol Faylen), 15, and boy crazy and Joyce (Diane Sherry), 10, who had a high IQ. It lasted one season. Not surprisingly, this series also attracted a lot of big-name guest stars including Frankie Avalon, Jack Benny, Dennis Day, Joan Fontaine, and George Gobel. Apparently, Garland had a thing for engineers because she would marry aeronautical engineer Steve Douglas on My Three Sons.

 

Mickey – Mickey Rooney (1964)

Mickey plays Mickey Grady who leaves the Coast Guard to manage a posh hotel, Newport Arms in California, with his wife Nora (Emmaline Henry) and two young boys. His real son plays one of his sons on the show. Sammee Tong plays the hotel’s manager. The former supervisor has left a lot of problems for Mickey. The show was cancelled in January airing only 17 episodes.

 

One of the Boys – Mickey Rooney (1982)

After vowing never to work on television again, Rooney tried it again 18 years later. Now he plays 66-year-old Oliver Nugent, rescued from a nursing home by his grandson Adam Shields (Dana Carvey). Adam is a college student who takes him in. Adam’s roommate, Jonathan Burns (Nathan Lane) is not so happy about the situation. Oliver looks for a job and lands one singing in a restaurant. Also appearing in the cast was Scatman Crothers who sang with Oliver and had also left the nursing home.  A young Meg Ryan played Adam’s girlfriend Jane. The show debuted at 18th place in the ratings but by within a month it had dropped to 68th. Even with this cast, the show was cancelled after an unlucky 13 episodes.

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Jimmy Stewart Show – Jimmy Stewart (1971)

Jimmy Stewart jumped to the small screen with great anticipation and excitement by viewers. He  played anthropology professor Jim Howard. Howard teaches at Josiah Kessel College, started by his grandfather.  His house is full with his wife, his son Peter, Peter’s wife Wendy, and his grandson Jake. He also has a young son Teddy, who happens to be the same age as his grandson. His friend Luther Quince often stops by to eat and give advice. Jim talks to the audience during the show and wishes them love, peace, and laughter at the end of each episode. Even beloved Jimmy Stewart was unable to save this show which was cancelled after one season.

 

The Doris Day Show – Doris Day (1968)

Doris Day was the most successful actor moving from film to television. However, I think the reason she managed to keep her show on the air for five seasons was because she changed the format so often that CBS did not realize it was the same show.  In 1968, Day is Doris Martin, a widow with two kids. She moves from the city to Mill Valley, CA to live on her father’s ranch.

The second season she commutes to San Francisco after accepting a job as an executive secretary to Michael Nicholson (MacLean Stevenson), the editor of Today’s Magazine. Rose Marie was Myrna Gibbons and Denver Pyle again played her father Buck Webb.

In 1970, Doris and the kids move to an apartment over an Italian restaurant run by Kaye Ballard and Bernie Kopell. Billy De Wolfe was her neighbor. Now Doris is writing feature stories for the magazine.

When the show returned the next fall, Doris was single and a reporter for a magazine. Her new boss was Cy Bennett (John Dehner) and she had a boyfriend Peter Lawford but later her boyfriend turned into Patrick O’Neal. There was no restaurant.

By 1973, the network caught up with all the changes and cancelled the show.

 

It was interesting that so many actors failed in television when they were such celebrated movie stars. The radio stars seemed to have better luck making the transition. Jack Benny and Burns and Allen had long-lasting and popular shows. It’s hard to imagine actors like Ryan Gosling, Amy Adams, Julia Roberts, or Ben Affleck bombing on a television series today.

I think for now I will continue to choose to watch Pillow Talk, Move Over Darling, Harvey, The Philadelphia Story, Some Like It Hot, Singing in the Rain, and Hope and Crosby’s Road movies and set aside the television DVDs these stars appeared in.

The Amazing, But Much Too Short, Career of Richard Deacon

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Richard Deacon was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1921, but most of his adolescence was spent in Binghamton, New York. When he was only 11, he contracted polio. He took up dancing to build up his leg muscles.

Deacon’s first career choice was to become a doctor.  He was working as an orderly at the Binghamton Hospital when World War II began. He tried to join the Navy; they suggested he try the Army.  He did and joined the medical corps.

After the war, he studied medicine at Ithaca College but soon switched to acting. He studied drama for a couple of years and was the actor in residence at Bennington College.  After spending some time in New York, he headed to California to look for work.  After paying his dues as a bartender, he finally got a break and was offered a role in a film.

When he first began his career, Helen Hayes advised him to become a character actor as opposed to a leading man.  It was great advice, and he was one of the most beloved and prolific actors during the golden age of television. During his career, he appeared in 66 movies on the big screen, guest starred on 92 different television shows, and starred in six series.

In the 1950s, he appeared in 48 television shows including Burns and Allen, The Life of Riley, Bachelor Father, and the Gale Storm Show.  He had regular roles in two sitcoms.

The Charles Farrell Show debuted in 1956. Farrell played himself as the manager of the Palm Springs Racquet Club, a resort he actually owned and operated. It was a summer replacement for I Love Lucy and only lasted 12 episodes. Richard played Sherman Hall.

 

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In 1957, he got another chance at being a regular in a sitcom, Date with the Angels starring Betty White. Deacon played Roger Finley.  This show lasted one year.

 

Richard continued his productive acting career, appearing in 43 shows in the 1960s.  He could be seen in a wide range of shows including Bonanza, The Rifleman, My Three Sons, Make Room for Daddy, Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, The Twilight Zone, Mr. Ed, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, The Munsters, and The Addams Family. He was also appearing in a number of films during this decade. He appeared in four sitcoms on a regular basis during the ’60s.

 

Leave It to Beaver aired from 1957-1963. Deacon played Fred Rutherford, father of Clarence, or Lumpy, Rutherford, Wally’s friend. During the 6 seasons it was on the air, Fred was in 63 episodes.

 

Part way through the series, he was offered another regular role, that of Mel Cooley on The Dick Van Dyke Show.  From 1961-1966, he brightened the screen in 82 shows, putting up with his brother-in-law’s bullying and Buddy Sorrel’s belittling. Deacon had high praise for everyone connected with The Dick Van Dyke Show.

One day Morey Amsterdam was goofing around with Richard and said he didn’t think his hair had fallen out, he thought it had imploded and fallen into his brain, clouding his thinking.  Carl Reiner came running on the set and said to add that dialogue to the show.  From then on, there was an insult fest between Buddy Sorrell and Mel Cooley. When the writers were trying to come up with a comeback from Mel to Buddy, Reiner asked Deacon how he would respond to someone who continued to torment him.  Deacon replied, “Yeecchh!” and his trademark phrase was invented.

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Bud Molin, Dick Van Dyke Show film editor described Deacon as “the funniest human being on the face of the earth.” Carl Reiner said it was a joy to have him around and everyone on the show loved him.

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The Dick Van Dyke Show was one of the best shows ever written. It won the Outstanding Comedy Emmy in 1963, 1964, and 1966. After the cast of the Dick Van Dyke Show decided to end the show on its own terms, leaving the air with its quality reputation intact, Deacon was offered another sixties role.

 

Phyllis Diller had a fantastic cast on her show, The Pruitts of South Hampton, or The Phyllis Diller Show as it became known in syndication. This was about a formerly wealthy family who found out they owed $10,000,000 in back taxes.  They try to appear that they still have their wealth, while living in very reduced circumstances.  The cast included Louis Nye, John Astin, Reginald Gardiner, Paul Lynde, Gypsy Rose Lee, Billy De Wolfe, John McGiver, and Marty Ingels in addition to Diller and Deacon.  I don’t know how this show did not succeed, but it was taken off the air after only one year. Diller and Deacon continued to work together both on an episode of Love, American Style and in the production of Hello Dolly in the 1969-1970 season.

 

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Once the Diller show was canceled, Deacon was offered a role on The Mothers-In-Law starring Kaye Ballard and Eve Arden. Deacon took over the role of Roger Buell mid-way through the series. The concept was two families who didn’t necessarily get along were neighbors whose children  married so they had to find ways to get along and keep the peace.

 

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After the show was cancelled, he continued to stay busy with his acting career.  He also appeared in 17 episodes of Match Game and several Family Feud episodes.

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Deacon was a life-long bachelor.  He was a closeted gay man who had to keep his sexual orientation secret to keep his options open to work for companies like Disney. He was also a gourmet chef.  In the 1980s, he hosted a Canadian cooking show about microwave cooking, writing a book that sold almost two million copies. He spent a lot of his spare time working with SYNANON, an agency that helped teenage drug addicts.

On the night of August 8, 1984, he was suffered a heart attack in his Beverly Hills home. He was rushed to Cedars Sinai Hospital, where he died later that night. He was 63 years old.

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Everything I read about Richard Deacon painted him as a gracious, friendly, very funny man who was caring and kind.  He had an amazing career, with 180 acting credits within a 30-year period.  The legacy he left was a rich and full acting life. Pretty good for a guy who chose to be a character actor and turned down two offers to do a show that he would star in.