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!

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, 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 and 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 (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 the 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 seen today on Me TV and Antenna TV.  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 discusses 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

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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!