Lassie: This Series Had Five Lives

We are finishing our series Life with Pets. Although the shows we have looked at so far this month have featured some unusual pets, I knew that we had to include man’s best friend at some point, and really, how could you have a blog series about pets without Lassie who was a very unusual dog?

Except for The Hathaways, the other shows we learned about this month were based on a movie, which was often based on a book. Lassie is no exception. English author Eric Knight wrote a book in 1940 called Lassie Come Home. Several films were produced between 1943 and 1951 about Lassie. Once the seventh and final film was completed, Lassie’s (or Pal as he is known in his real life), owner Rudd Weatherwax was given all rights to the Lassie trademark and name. Weatherwax began taking Pal to local fairs and rodeos.

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Clayton, Rettig, Cleveland Photo: wikimedia.com

Robert Maxwell convinced him to feature Pal in a weekly television show. The men developed the story of Lassie who lived with a young boy named Jeff Miller (Tommy Rettig), age 11; his widowed mother Ellen (Jan Clayton); and her father-in-law (George Cleveland) who all lived on a farm. The show was approved, Campbell’s Soup agreed to sponsor the first year of shows, and the series debuted in 1954 on Sunday nights at 7 pm EST.

Campbell’s would continue its role as sponsor for 19 more years, which totaled 591 episodes. The company asked to have their products featured on the set, so you will see them in background shots. The soup company held a contest in 1956 to name Lassie’s puppies. Grand prizes included $2,000 and ownership of the pups which were hand-delivered by executives. In 1958, viewers could send in 25 cents and a label from a Swanson’s TV dinner to get a friendship ring; the company mailed 77,715 of them to fans. In 1959, fans could send in five labels from Campbell’s products and receive a wallet with a photo of Lassie. More than 1.3 million were mailed and Campbell’s profits rose 70% after its sponsorship began.

In 1957, Jack Wrather who owned The Lone Ranger and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon purchased the show for $3.25 million. In 1958 Lassie received new owners. Both Clayton and Rettig expressed an interest in wanting to leave the show. Cleveland had passed away the year before. Adoptee Timmy Martin (Jon Provost) becomes his master and they live with his parents, Ruth Martin (Cloris Leachman) and Paul Martin (Jon Shepodd).

Lassie (TV Series 1954–1974) - Photo Gallery - IMDb
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In 1958 Wrather dropped Leachman and Shepodd, replacing them with June Lockhart and Hugh Reilly. A neighbor Cully Wilson (Andy Clyde) was also added.

Lassie received good ratings from 1954-1958. In 1959 it fell out of the top 30. By 1960 with the change in characters, the show shot back and made it to #13 in 1964.

However, just as things were looking up, Provost declined to renew his contract. So, ten years after its debut, the show changed its focus to conservation and environmentalism, teaming Lassie with a group of US Forest Service members. In 1965 the show transitioned to color, but the ratings decline had already begun.

Season 17 transitioned again and this time it was an anthology season with Lassie traveling on her own, finding adventures along the way. CBS cancelled the show after season 17, but it became a syndicated show for networks to pick up.

The final two seasons were spent with Garth Holden (Ron Hayes) on the Holden Ranch, a home for orphaned boys. After season 19, the show went off the air for good.

Five of Pal’s descendants also played the role of Lassie. They included Lassie Jr. (1954-59), Spook (1960), Baby (1960-1966), Mire (1966-1971), and Hey Hey (1971-73). Like the show, Pal lived to be 19.

The show was filmed at Stage One of KTTV in Los Angeles from 1954-57 and then moved to Desilu for a year. The Timmy seasons were filmed at the Grand Canyon and High Sierra and the Forest Service seasons were filmed in Alaska and Puerto Rico, among other sites.

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Most of the plots involved the boys or other characters needing help and Lassie coming to the rescue. However, ironically the biggest spoof of the show is Timmy falling down a well and Lassie saving him, but no one ever fell down a well on the show except Lassie in season 17. It is such an iconic plot, that Provost wrote his autobiography in 2007 and called it Timmy’s in the Well: The Jon Provost Story. On his website, Provost says he kept in touch with Rettig. He says that he always ended their conversations with “Thanks for the dog, Jeff” which was his line in the series when he took over the show.

During the nineteen years that the show was on the air, several theme songs were used. For the first season, the theme was “Secret of the Silent Hills” composed by William Lava. The song was originally created for a 1940 radio show, “The Courageous Dr. Christian.” The song was tweaked a bit for the second and third seasons. An orchestral version of an aria from Faust, “Dio Possente” came in for the next year. Beginning with year five, the most famous version was aired: “Lassie Main & End Title” was created by Les Baxter and whistled by Muzzy Marcellino. After the Martin years, an orchestral version of “The Whistler” was used for a few years, and then Nathan Scott’s arrangement of “Greensleeves’ finished the run.

The series received two Emmy Awards for Best Children’s Program in 1955 and 1956 and a nomination in 1960. In addition, June Lockhart was nominated for Leading Actress in a Dramatic Series in 1959, Jan Clayton was nominated for the same award in 1957 and 1958, and the show was nominated for Best Dramatic Series in 1957.

The series was released on DVD during the years 2001-2007.

I do remember watching Lassie during the Provost years, but I actually was not aware of the other seasons. Like Flipper and Gentle Ben, it was a family show where everyone could sit around the television and watch together on a Sunday evening. With the show being on the air for 19 years, it is fondly remembered by several generations and made a ton of money marketing merchandise.

One of the things I love most about the show is that people are sure they remember Timmy falling into the well. It would be fun to do a blog about things that people are positive they remember but never happened. It’s similar to the Robot on Lost in Space saying “Danger Will Robinson” which he never actually did. It just proves that some shows live on in our imaginations for a long time.

Gentle Ben: A Bear Hug for Everyone

As we continue our blog series about The Life of Pets, we feature a show about a boy and his bear: Gentle Ben. In 1965, Walt Morey published his novel, Gentle Ben. He had written adult books, but then his wife, a teacher, challenged him to write an adventure kids’ book similar to a Jack London story. Gentle Ben is the story about Mark and his bear Ben. He set the story in Alaska, where he had worked, and he said many of the characters were based on real people. He also said the story of a boy befriending a bear was also based on real stories he read and heard about. The book sold almost 3 million copies.

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The Morey family owned some land which became the Walt Morey Park in Wilsonville, Oregon, a bear-themed adventure. An eight-foot statue of Gentle Ben is one of the park sights.

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The book became a movie on the big screen, and like Flipper, it moved to the small screen a few years later. In fact, the house for the Ricks family on Flipper is the same house used by the Wedloe family on Gentle Ben.

The television show debuted on CBS in 1967 and continued for two seasons, with 58 episodes. The series was produced by Ivan Tors who also produced Flipper, Sea Hunt, and Daktari. The TV show was set in Florida instead of Alaska. Tom Wedloe (Dennis Weaver) is a wildlife officer in the Everglades and he lives with his wife Ellen (Beth Brickell) and son Mark (Clint Howard, Ron’s brother) and his pet bear, Ben. Clint and Ron’s father Rance also penned a few of the scripts for the show.

Other characters showing up weekly included Hank Minegar (Robertson White), a local squatter, and Mark’s friend Willie (Angelo Rutherford).

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Like Flipper, there were several bears who played Ben, but the bear used most was Bruno, a black bear. Bruno had a good disposition and a variety of facial expressions. Bruno and his friends traveled from Canada because they had thicker coats which photographed better. They were declawed and most of their teeth had been removed.

Ben only made animal noises but they were spoken through Candy Candido, a voice actor and musician. I’m not sure why a kookaburra was used for Flipper and a human for Ben; you would think they could have used recordings of a dolphin and a bear. Bruno later moved to Hollywood to continue acting and died about 1980.

Most of the stories featured Tom’s work with wildlife and included animal management, children getting lost in the Everglades, weather disasters, and illegal activities such as poaching.

Gentle Ben was a great success and reached #2 in the ratings its first season. The popularity of the show was translated into a lot of merchandise including a board game, books, a stuffed bear, and comic books. The show was on Sunday nights sandwiched between Lassie and The Ed Sullivan Show.

During its second season, the show failed to even get into the top twenty. Lassie also suffered and received a significant drop in the ratings. I think the fact that the shows were on opposite Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color probably had a lot to do with its ratings drop. Also, if you liked animals you had to make a choice because Lassie competed with Wild Kingdom.

While the show highlighted family values and respect for nature, it was criticized for portraying wildlife as a pet. Ben even stayed indoors with the family sometimes. In 1971, National Park Service Officer John Hast recalled that “the television series Gentle Ben was the worst thing that ever happened to us. People saw this big, lovable bear on television and when they see a bear in the park, I guess they think it’s the same one. They don’t realize how wrong they are till they are bleeding.”

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I think kids from the sixties have fond memories of Gentle Ben, and many kids remember watching it. However, I guess the novelty of the show wore off quickly. You can only have so many things a real bear can do. Compare this show to Mister Ed where featuring a talking horse might seem far-fetched; however, that show lasted on the air eight years because Ed was as much of a character as anyone else on the show.

Shows like Flipper and Gentle Ben had their place, but they just didn’t have the memorable characters, quality scripts, or lush photography that might have extended their popularity. However, they are worth remembering and discussing. They prodded kids to imagine having their own special animal that only they could tame and love.

June Lockhart Rocked the Acting Profession

As we check out some of my favorite actresses this month, this week we learn about one of the most prolific actresses on the small screen. With more than 170 credits between 1938 and 2004, June Lockhart had a very successful career.

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Perhaps destiny planned for June to become an actress. Both her parents, Canadian-born Gene and English-born Kathleen Lockhart, were actors and she traveled with them as a young child while they performed. Although she was born in New York City in 1925, she was brought up in Beverly Hills.

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June with her parents
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She was only 8 when she took the role of Mimsey in “Peter Ibbetson” at the Metropolitan Opera.

In 1938, at age 13, June made her film debut in A Christmas Carol with her parents. She appeared in more than thirty movies, including Meet Me in St. Louis, Sergeant York, All This and Heaven Too, and The Yearling.

Meet Me in St. Louis, 1944 ~ June Lockhart, Judy Garland & Lucille Bremer |  Judy garland, Hollywood, Holiday movie
Photo: pinterest.com Meet Me in St. Louis

In 1948, she won a Tony for Outstanding Performance by a Newcomer for her role in “For Love or Money.”

Although her appearances in film and on Broadway would have been a lucrative career n themselves, it was in television that she found most of her fame. In 1949 she accepted a role on The Ford Theater Hour. During the 1950s she would make 56 appearances on drama theater shows. In addition, she was in Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, and Wagon Train.

In 1951 she married John Maloney. In 1959 they divorced and that same year, she married John Lindsay whom she was married to until 1970.

But it was in the television show, Lassie from 1958-1964 that she became a household name as Ruth Martin, Timmy’s (Jon Provost) mother. The show was about the Martin family’s life on the farm and the heroics of Timmy’s dog Lassie.

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The 1960s continued to be very productive for her as an actress. She appeared in a variety of television shows, including the dramas Perry Mason, The Man from UNCLE, and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and the comedies Bewitched, Family Affair, and The Beverly Hillbillies.

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She also starred in two long-lasting sitcoms. From 1965-1968 she was Maureen Robinson on Lost in Space. On the show, a family with three children travel with Major Don West to colonize a new planet.  Dr. Zach Smith is a stowaway who tried to sabotage their mission by throwing their ship off course and ends up having to live with the people he thought were his enemies.

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With Bill Mumy
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In an interview with Bill Mumy who played her son Will on Lost in Space, he said that Lockhart always made time for the kids on the set. He said she kept them occupied between takes which she didn’t need to do. He said “she spent a lot of time nurturing Angela’s and my developing thought processes. Teaching us.”

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In 1968 she was offered a role as Dr. Janet Craig for the final two seasons of Petticoat Junction. Bea Benaderet, the star, passed away in 1968, and Janet filled in as a “mother” to the girls.

Although she would not take on any additional regular roles for sitcoms, she continued to keep busy through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. During these decades , she could be seen on Love American Style, Marcus Welby, Adam-12, Police Story, Ellery Queen, Happy Days, Magnum PI, Falcon Crest, Quincy, Murder She Wrote, Full House, Roseanne, Drew Carey, Grey’s Anatomy, and in Beverly Hills 90210 where she had a recurring role, along with 33 other series.

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On Happy Days
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Her last acting role was an animation movie, Bongee Bear and the Kingdom of Rhythm, in 2016. She passed away in 2019, apparently from old age.

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Lockhart was an interesting person as well as a successful actress. She hosted the Tournament of Roses parade for eight years and the Macy Thanksgiving parade for five years.

During my research, I learned several surprising things about her. She was an Ambassador for the California State Parks system. She won the NASA award for Exceptional Public Achievement Medal for inspiring the public about space exploration in 2013. She served as a panelist with several White House correspondents on a quiz show Who Said That in the fifties. That job provided her with an open invitation to attend White House briefings which she did and said were fun.

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Her hobbies included gold mining, antique motorcars, lighter-than-air aircraft, and learning about the Old West. She kept medical texts near her bed for nighttime reading. She was a member of a kite-flying club. She also loved old steam engines.

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Her husband bought her a 1923 Seagrave pumper fire engine named “Cordelia Delilah Lindsay” which she drove around even though it got two miles to the gallon. She actually had the largest parking space at the studio.

If all those facts aren’t interesting enough, in an interview with Bill Mumy by the Archive of American Television, he relayed that she loved rock and roll. In 1967, she hired the Allman Brothers Band (then called Hour Glass) to play at her house. She took Angela Cartwright and Bill to the Whiskey-A-Go-Go. He also said that “in the 1980s she carried a picture of only one person in her wallet and it was David Bowie.”

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I’m truly impressed that with as busy as she was as an actress, she made time for both her two daughters and her television children, and enjoyed a ton of hobbies as well. It seems she had a joy for learning about new things and continued to add interests to her life. She was a great role model for all of us.

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The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Fifty Years After Getting the Pink Slip

The late 1960s and early 1970s might have contained the most diverse television shows than any other era. In 1968, there were the rural comedies like Green Acres and The Beverly Hillbillies; there were the standard sitcoms, My Three Sons, Get Smart, That Girl, Bewitched; there were the remains of a few westerns including The High Chaparral, The Virginian, and Gunsmoke; there were crime and thrillers such as Hawaii Five-0 and Mission Impossible; there was the crime/western in The Wild, Wild West, there were gameshows on at night including Let’s Make a Deal, The Dating Game, and The Newlywed Game; there were sci-fi shows like Star Trek and The Land of the Giants; family shows like Lassie; and even Lawrence Welk.

In addition, there were a couple of shows that were a bit edgier and introduced more  provocative concepts and themes. The Mod Squad featured three teens who were helping solve crimes in lieu of jail time, and then there was the almost-impossible-to-describe Laugh In.

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Similar to Laugh In was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which also debuted in 1967 featuring Tom and Dick Smothers. It had more of a variety format to it but it had the same topical and satirical humor.

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The Who

In addition to poking fun at politics, the war, religion, and current issues, you could tune in to the Smothers Brothers for some of the best and sometimes controversial music in the industry. Performers such as Jefferson Airplane, Steppenwolf, Simon and Garfunkel, The Who, Cream, Pete Seeger, and The Doors appeared on the show.

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Jefferson Airplane

The show aired Sunday nights against Bonanza on NBC; ABC aired The Sunday Night Movie in its first season and Hee Haw in its second season.

The series had some of the best writers on television: Alan Blye, Hal Goldman, Al Gordon, Steve Martin, Lorenzo Music, Don Novello, Rob Reiner, David Steinberg, and Mason Williams. Reiner and Martin both commented on the show in an interview by Marc Freeman in the Hollywood Reporter 11-25-2017 (“The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour at 50: The Rise and Fall of a Ground-Breaking Variety Show”).  

Reiner relayed that “you had two cute boy-next-doors wearing red suits, one with the stand-up bass and the other with his guitar. They looked like the sweetest, most innocent kids. You got drawn to them, and then they hit you with the uppercut you didn’t see coming.”

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Martin elaborated “When you have the power wrapped up in innocence, it’s more palatable. They were like little boys, but you also had Dickie there to reprimand Tommy when he would make an outrageous statement. It’s like the naughty ventriloquist dummy who can get away with murder as long as the ventriloquist is there to say ‘You can’t say that.’ It’s the perfect setup for getting a message across.”

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Jack Benny

In addition to the musical acts, hundreds of celebrities appeared on the show between 1967 and 1969, including Jack Benny, Carol Burnett, George Burns, Bette Davis, Jimmy Durante, Barbara Eden, Nanette Fabray, Eva Gabor, Shirley Jones, Don Knotts, Bob Newhart, Tony Randall, Ed Sullivan, Danny Thomas and Jonathan Winters, along with so many others.

Part of the show was the brothers’ ongoing sibling rivalry about whom their parents liked best. They also began to add political satire and ribald humor. Pat Paulsen delivered mock editorials about current topics such as the draft and gun control, and in 1968 he had a mock presidential campaign.

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Pat Paulsen for president

Church sermon sketches poked fun at religion. The show lampooned many of the values older Americans valued, often delivering anti-establishment and pro-drug humor. No one was given an exception, and the show lambasted the military, the police, the religious right, and the government.

Battles over content were ongoing with the network. The network pulled Pete Seeger’s performance of his anti-Vietnam War song, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy.” They nixed Harry Belafonte’s song, “Don’t Stop the Carnival” because it had a video collage behind him of the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots.

Younger viewers were tuning in, and despite the conflicts, the show was picked up for a second season. The network insisted they receive a copy of the show at least ten days in advance for editing. In April of 1969, William Paley canceled the show without notice. Some sources contend it was canceled by CBS president Robert Wood. Some sources cite the issue with unacceptable deadlines and others mention Tom Smothers lobbying the FCC and members of Congress over corporate censorship that brought about the firing. The brothers filed a breach of contract suit against the network and after four years of litigation, a federal court ruled in their favor, awarding them $776,300.

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Here’s a typical joke from the show that was not as controversial.

Tom: You can tell who’s running the country by how much clothes people wear, see?

Dick: Do you mean that some people can afford more clothes on, and some people have . . . less on? Is that what you mean?

Tom: That’s right.

Dick: I don’t understand.

Tom: See, the ordinary people, you’d say that the ordinary people are the less-ons.

Dick: So, who’s running the country?

Tom: The morons.

The Smothers Brothers elicited humor that was as topical, influential, and critical as anyone had ever heard before on television. Fifty years later, both the network and the brothers realized everyone over-reacted. If the Smothers Brothers had tried to play by the rules a bit, they would not have lost their platform to continue to help change what they saw as a messed-up culture.

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The CBS executives felt the program created too much controversy. In their defense, politicians, especially Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, exerted a lot of pressure on the network. Remember this was a time of three networks and ads are what produced the profits to fund shows. The network received a boatload of hate mail daily about the program and, when viewers begin talking boycotting advertisers, executives sit up a bit straighter and listen.

The Smothers Brothers Show, a less controversial series, debuted in 1975. They had two specials on NBC later and another CBS series in 1988 but never regained the influence they had in the sixties. However, the show did help pave the way for a future that permitted, and later embraced, shows with controversy beginning with All in the Family, continuing with Saturday Night Live, and recently seen on shows such hosted by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Although the comedy spouted on the show would seem quite tame by today’s standards, the show had an important part in the history of television and the rights of free speech.

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I have seen some DVDs out there from this show, but they are pricey. Recently I saw season two going for $190. I do see Laugh In on Decades quite often, so perhaps The Smothers Brothers might show up somewhere too, although I’m not sure this show would hold up as well as Laugh In, but the musical performances would be fun to see.

Milton Frome: What a Character!

As we continue looking at some of our well-known character actors, today we consider the career of Milton Frome. Frome was born in Philadelphia in 1909. He began acting in his mid-20s.

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His first major movie role was in Ride ‘em Cowgirl in 1939. Frome would go on to appear in 55 movies (including The Nutty Professor, Bye Bye Birdie, and With Six You Get Eggroll), as well as five made-for-TV movies. He also had a thriving television career beginning with Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1950.

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Appearing in 34 different shows during the fifties, he performed in a variety of genres including dramas, comedies and westerns.

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The Adventures of Superman

During that decade you would have seen him on I Love Lucy, Lassie, The Adventures of Superman, Playhouse Theater, The Thin Man, and The Gale Storm Show. He also worked with many comic legends on television, including Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

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I Love Lucy

His career escalated in the sixties when he would accept roles in 48 programs. He showed up in dramas, including The Twilight Zone, 77 Sunset Strip, and Dr. Kildare. He also found his way into many westerns such as Bat Masterson, Death Valley Days, Gunslinger, Big Valley, Rawhide, and Wagon Train. However, he seemed to excel at comedies and during the 1950s you could have spied him in many sitcoms. He accepted parts in Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, The Jim Backus Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mister Ed, The Joey Bishop Show, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Donna Reed Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, Bewitched, The Monkees, The Patty Duke Show, Petticoat Junction, and The Andy Griffith Show.

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The Monkees

Frome was never offered a permanent role in a series, but he did have a recurring role in The Beverly Hillbillies, appearing eight times as Lawrence Chapman, who managed Jed Clampets Mammoth Studios.

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St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

His television career slowed down a bit in the 1970s and became nonexistent by 1983, but he did make appearances in shows like Ironside, Columbo, Here’s Lucy, The Streets of San Francisco, Sanford and Son, and Trapper John MD. He also appeared in two Love American Style episodes in 1971 and 1973. In the 1973 episode, “Love and the Anniversary,” he played “The Man” and his son Michael played a bellhop.

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The Jerry Lewis Show

At some point, Frome married Marjorie Ann Widman, but I could not verify when they married. I also could not verify if Michael was their son, or his son from another relationship.*

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Batman

Frome passed away in 1989 from congestive heart failure.

While it is now easy to analyze and detail an actors professional career, it was very tough to find any information about Fromes personal life or his working relationships with other actors. It makes me sad that these hard-working actors who provided so much to our classic television-watching experiences are just not well known. Hopefully blogs like mine keep them in television viewers memories, and some day maybe I will have time to write a book about these unsung heroes of our pop culture history. Thanks for all you contributed to the golden age of television Milton Frome!

*In June of 2021, I heard from Jane Wallace Casey who provided some additional information for us: “I am Milton Frome’s niece. His first wife was Barbara Wallace with whom he had his son Michael.”

Sheldon Leonard: A True TV Pioneer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Herb Garden Germination

Photo: americanprofile.com

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

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

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

An Actress With “Street” Smarts

Much of the entertainment news media has been focused on the death of Mary Tyler Moore this past week, and rightly so.  However, with the passing of two other television icons in Barbara Hale and Mike Connors, I decided to celebrate the life and career of Barbara Hale in this week’s blog.

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Like William Christopher, whom we looked at a couple weeks ago, Barbara Hale seems to have had a successful and fulfilling career.  She comes across the decades as a very nice person and a hard-working actress. She was married for more than 46 years to the same man and they had three children.  A lot of her career was based on acting with her husband, her son, and her close friend Raymond Burr.

Born in April of 1922 in DeKalb, Illinois, she moved to nearby Rockford shortly after her birth.  She and her sister had a nice life, growing up in a middle class family.  Always interested in the arts, she attended The Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.  She continued to have an interest in art the rest of her life, often sketching while waiting for taping to resume. She worked as a model during part of her school years for a comic strip Ramblin’ Bill.  She was also featured as a Dr. Pepper girl in the Dr. Pepper calendars in the 1940s and 1950s.

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Continuing her modeling career after graduation, it was through that avenue she was given a contract with RKO in 1943.  While at RKO she met her husband-to-be Bill Williams and they married in 1946.  Their wedding took place in the Old Stone Church in Rockton, Il and their reception was at the Wagon Wheel in Rockton, north of Rockford. During her RKO-tenure she also met Raymond Burr.

Her first movie was Gildersleeve’s Bad Day in 1943.  Her contract with RKO continued until 1949 at which point she signed a seven-year contract with Columbia.  During her career she appeared in 42 movies and 34 television movies, 31 of which were Perry Mason films. Some of her costars included Frank Sinatra, James Cagney, and Jimmy Stewart.

Between 1953 and 1956 she appeared in 14 drama/anthology series on television including Schlitz Playhouse, Studio 57, The Loretta Young Show, Damon Runyon Theater and Playhouse 90. She also appeared in many print ads during these years promoting products such as Lux Soap Flakes, Sunnybrook Margarine, and Chesterfield Cigarettes.

Debating whether or not she should retire and stay home to raise her three children (born in 1947, 1951, and 1953), she was offered the role of Della Street for the upcoming Perry Mason series.  She declined it at first, but when she realized her old friend Raymond Burr was starring in the show, she opted to take the part.  From 1957-1966, she appeared in 263 of the 271 shows. In the midst of the series’ run in 1960, she received a marker on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.  In 1959 she won the Emmy for best actress in a drama and was nominated again in 1961.

When the series ended, she appeared in only a handful of shows including Lassie, Adam-12, The Doris Day Show, Marcus Welby, and Walt Disney’s Wide World of Color. She was in her dear friend Raymond Burr’s show Ironside and acted with her son William Katt, the star of The Greatest American Hero, playing his mother on the show. She was also in the movie Big Wednesday in 1978 with her son, playing his mother. During this time, she also appeared in several commercials and was a spokesperson for Amana Radarange microwave ovens. In 1970 she was one of the celebrities appearing in the movie Airport.

In the mid-1980s, Raymond Burr was approached to make several Perry Mason television movies.  He agreed only if Barbara Hale was cast as Della Street again.  Hale’s son William Katt appeared in some of the movies as Paul Drake Jr. From 1986-1995 Hale and Burr made 31 Perry Mason movies. Sadly, her husband passed away from cancer in 1992 and Burr died in 1993. She was one of the friends to deliver a eulogy at Burr’s funeral.  He cultivated orchids and named one for Barbara Hale.

In her later years, Hale battled colon, ovarian, and bladder cancer.  With a remarkable attitude and her belief in God, she defeated the disease each time.  She died from natural causes this month at 94.

One of the most charming stories I read about Hale was one she told a few years ago when she had returned to Rockford, which she did often, to attend a theater renovation celebration.  She talked about after-football parties they had in high school.  The kids would drive to the Spring Creek Road subdivision.  Roads had been constructed for the housing development, but no homes had been built yet.   The kids would park their cars in a circle, turn their headlights on, tune their radios to the same channel, and get out and dance. It was a heart-warming story about a more innocent time.  After hearing so many sad stories about the issues actors often face in the industry, it was refreshing to hear about someone who was a nice person who appeared to have a normal and happy career with a great life balance of work and family.

A lot of her movies and the Perry Mason shows  are available on Amazon.  Take an upcoming week-end and watch a few seasons and keep track of how many cases Perry loses. Here is some dialogue to listen for while you watch.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Spurious Sister – 1959

Perry:  Della, how would you like to get a divorce?

Della: I thought you were supposed to be married first.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Surplus Suitor – 1963

Hamilton Burger: Well, Miss Street, having you here just as a witness for the prosecution is a rare experience for both of us.

Della: I’ll try not to be hostile, Mr. Burger

Hamilton Burger: Well, that’ll be a rare experience too.

Perry Mason: The Case of the Angry Mourner – 1957

Bell Adrian: Mr. Mason, were you surprised when you found I didn’t do it?

Perry:  Of course not, Mrs. Adrian. I knew all along. You just weren’t the type.

Paul Drake: And who is the type pray tell?

Della: Oh, that’s easy, Paul. Anyone who is not represented by Perry Mason.

Thank you Barbara Hale for providing us with so much drama over the years, but only on the television episodes!