For the month of July we are taking a look at some of the innovative talk shows of the past. With only three channels to choose from in the sixties, almost everyone tuned into The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. However, talk shows were also popular during the day.
The Mike Douglas Show began in Cleveland, Ohio in 1961. It had light banter with guests and featured musical performers daily, although more serious interviews were also conducted from time to time. In 1963, the show was expanded to Pittsburgh, Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco.
In 1965, the show moved to Philadelphia and went into national syndication that same year. One final move was made in 1978 when it relocated to Hollywood. For 1980, Douglas handed the show over to John Davidson to host. It went through some changes and replaced about one-third of the staff, but the ratings continued to plummet and it was officially cancelled in November of 1981 with more than 6000 shows and 30,000 guests.
Douglas was born in Chicago in 1925 and became a teenage singer, entertaining on the radio and in supper clubs. He sang a lot of big band numbers and became the staff singer at WKY in Oklahoma City before joining the Navy in WWII. He had two hits in the fifties, “Old Lamplighter” and “Ole Buttermilk Sky,” but his career was not going anywhere, so he decided to turn to television.
Douglas had a different celebrity co-host every week, and they interviewed a variety of entertainers. The show was very popular and had high ratings. Douglas had a fun personality . In 1976, Match Game received higher ratings, so Douglas made an unscheduled appearance on the game show to congratulate Gene Rayburn on having the number 1 daytime show on the air.
I could literally fill pages with the guest stars and musical performers who appeared on the show. Some of the more interesting ones included two-year-old Tiger Woods who showed off his golf swing for Bob Hope and James Stewart.
A Who’s Who listing of guests also included Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, George Burns, Sid Caesar, Angela Davis, Bette Davis, Judy Garland, Alfred Hitchcock, Malcom X, Mother Teresa, the Muppets, Ralph Nader, Richard Nixon, Vincent Price, and John Wayne.
A variety of musical genres were represented with performers including ABBA, The Beach Boys, The Bee Gees, James Brown, Ray Charles, Cher, Sam Cooke, Electric Light Orchestra, Marvin Gaye, Genesis, The Jacksons, Jefferson Airplane, Elton John, John Lennon with Yoko Ono, The Mills Brothers, The Rolling Stones, Sly and the Family Stone, The Supremes, and Frank Zappa.
Critics also liked the show. It received its first Emmy in 1967 and would go on to win four more.
Tom Kelly, who co-authored with Douglas on his memoir, revealed why he thought Mike was so successful: “One big key to his great success was he had his ego in check. He always let the guest have the limelight. He was a fine performer. He could sing, he could do comedy, he did it all, but he always gave the guest the spotlight.”
I can remember my mother watching Mike Douglas most days while I played with my toys. Here we are sixty years later and afternoon talk shows like Ellen DeGeneres and Kelly Clarkson are still going strong thanks to pioneers like Mike Douglas who showed us the classy way to be a host.
After learning a bit about the career of Ann Sothern last week, today we take a look at two of her shows: Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show. Although they were two different shows, the second almost seemed like a continuation of the first. To make things even more complicated, when the shows went into syndication, Private Secretary was renamed Susie and all the episodes of Susie would air, followed by The Ann Sothern Show and then back to Susie.
As we learned last week, Ann suffered from hepatitis for three years. With her medical bills mounting and less film work coming in, she needed to make a living, so she turned to television to revive her career.
After appearing in series of ten Maisie films earlier in her career, Ann had a solid fan base. Ann was a smart business woman and she had a 42% ownership in her new show, Private Secretary. The show debuted in 1953.
Ann portrays Susie MacNamara, a former actress and WAC WWII veteran; she is the secretary to Peter Sands (Don Porter), a talent agent. Susie often complicates life for her boss, although she means well.
One of her best friends was Violet (Ann Tyrell), their receptionist. Cagey Calhoun (Jesse White) is always trying to cause trouble for Peter as a rival talent agent.
While the scripts weren’t ground-breaking, they were well written and witty. Some shows reference one of Mr. Sands’ clients, actress Harriet Lake, which was Ann’s real name.
The show was noted for its state-of-the-art set decoration featuring IBM typewriters and Western Electric phone systems, as well as stylish furnishings.
The show was on Sunday nights on CBS and alternated weeks with highly rated Jack Benny Show. I have never seen this with any other show but Lucky Strikes, the show’s sponsor also financed The Jack Benny Show on CBS and Your Hit Parade on NBC. So, when Your Hit Parade was on hiatus for summer, Private Secretary’s reruns were shown on that network and then new shows would begin in the fall back on CBS.
The show continued to have great ratings but in 1957, even though the show was renewed for the next year, Ann got into an argument with producer Jack Chertok and she left the series which ended. I could never find definitively why they argued, but it had to do with the show’s profits.
Sothern was nominated for Best Actress Emmy for 1955, 1956 and 1957, losing to Loretta Young, Lucille Ball, and Nanette Fabray.
Instead of a sixth year of Private Secretary on CBS, The Ann Sothern Show debuted in 1958 as a weekly show. Chertok kept the rights to the title, hoping to get another actress to fill the MacNamara role. This show was created by Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf. Desi Arnaz would produce the show which worked out as Ann and Lucille Ball were very close friends. They appeared on each other’s shows.
In The Ann Sothern Show, Ann now plays Katy O’Connor, the assistant manager of an upscale New York hotel, The Bartley House. Her secretary is Olive Smith (Ann Tyrrell), the front desk clerk is Paul Martine (Jacques Scott), and the bell boy is Johnny Wallace (Jack Mullaney). Later Ken Berry replaced Mullaney as Woody Hamilton.
Many of the cast members from the former show appear on the new series. Although Katy has a boss she answers to, she has a lot of authority running the hotel. Katy’s first boss is Jason Macauley (Ernest Truex), a man who is dominated by his nagging wife Florence (Reta Shaw). When ratings were not great, Truex was replaced by Don Porter as James Devery. As in Private Secretary, there are some romantic currents between Katy and James. Olive’s boyfriend, a dentist, Dr. Gray, is played by Louis Nye. In season two, Jesse White showed up as Oscar Pudney an unethical newsstand owner near the hotel.
The storylines often revolved around the personal life of the staff and stories about guests staying at the hotel. The concept provided the opportunity to attract a variety of guest stars during its run. In addition to Lucille Ball, actors who appeared on the show included Jack Albertson, Frances Bavier, Constance Bennett, Eva Gabor, Joel Grey, Van Johnson, Jayne Meadows, Howard McNear, Janis Page, Cesar Romero, and Connie Stevens.
Once again Ann was nominated for an Emmy is 1959 but lost to Jane Wyatt for Father Knows Best.
Post Cereals and General Foods were sponsors for this show, and the cast would often appear in commercials at the end of the show. Ann would then sign off with “Well, goodnight everybody. Stay happy!”
For the second year, the show’s ratings were decent but not great. The show was moved to Thursday nights up against The Untouchables, a top ten show. The ratings declined, so it was cancelled.
The final episode ended in a cliffhanger. Mr. Devery finally realizes that he is in love with Katy and proposes to her. They kiss but the show ends before Katy can answer yes or no.
I remember watching the shows in syndication and I thought they were good. Ann Sothern appeared to be a likable person and a hard-working actress. Both shows were often in the top 25% of the ratings. With all the reboots that have been done, I have never heard of either of these shows as possibilities and they seem to be good options for a contemporary show.
If you want to check out the shows, Private Secretary has several DVD options. The only place I could find The Ann Sothern Show was on etsy, and the site specifically mentions that it is “not a retail set nor is this a commercial studio release.” Maybe with all the classic television networks debuting, we will see Private Secretary back on the air again soon.
Ann Sothern was born Harriette Arlene Lake, a natural redhead, in 1909 in North Dakota. An interesting note, her paternal grandfather, Simon Lake, invented the modern submarine and her sister Marion was secretary to Abigail Van Buren of Dear Abby fame. She and her two sisters were raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the age of five, she began taking piano lessons and studied at the McPhail School of Music where her mother was a piano teacher. By 11, she was an accomplished pianist, and she was singing solos in her church choir. At 14 she began taking voice lessons. During her time at the Minneapolis Central High School, she appeared in a variety of productions as actor or director.
After her graduation, her mother moved to Los Angeles to become a vocal coach for Warner Brothers. Ann moved to Seattle with her father (her parents had divorced earlier) to attend the University of Washington, but she dropped out after her first year. Ann turned back to her singing talent and sang with Artie Shaw and His Orchestra.
While visiting with her mother, she did a screen test for MGM and was signed to a six-month contract. She had a variety of small bit parts but never received that break-out role. After meeting Florenz Ziegfeld at a party, he offered her a role in New York. When MGM chose not to pick up her option, she moved East to work for Ziegfeld. In 1930, she received her Broadway stage debut.
In 1934, Columbia signed her to a contract. At this time, she changed her name to Ann Sothern and her hair color to blonde; “Ann” was for her mother and “Sothern” for Shakespearean actor E.H. Sothern. She was cast in a bunch of B movies, but, unfortunately, in 1936 her contract was not renewed.
A contract that was made that year was her marriage with Roger Pryor. They divorced in 1942. A week later, she married Robert Sterling with whom she had a daughter; they divorced in 1949.
At that time, she signed with RKO and again could just not find that perfect role, so she made the full circle, returning to MGM. MGM cast her in her first big-screen feature in 1939 as Maisie Ravier, which led to a series of Maisie films. The film was based on the book Dark Dame by Wilson Collison published in 1935.The property had been bought for Jean Harlow, but she passed away in 1937. In all, there were ten Maisie films. The popularity of the series led to a radio program, “The Adventures of Maisie,” which starred Sothern from 1945-47.
In 1949, Sothern was diagnosed with hepatitis. She contracted it after getting in serum injection during an English stage production. When she became ill, MGM let her go. Sothern suffered with the disease for three years. She was receiving a few supporting roles such as in The Blue Gardenia, but her medical bills were mounting, so she turned to television.
Sothern was offered her own sitcom in 1953. Titled Private Secretary, the show would last five years on CBS before transitioning to The Ann Sothern Show in 1958.
In Private Secretary, she appeared as Susie MacNamara, a secretary working for Peter Sands (Don Porter), a New York City talent agent. The series alternated weeks with The Jack Benny Show. Private Secretary had great ratings, placing in the top ten consistently. Sothern was nominated for an Emmy four years. Sothern had a 42% interest in the show and after the fourth year, she and Jack Chertok, producer, had a major disagreement and she left the show.
The next year she showed up in The Ann Sothern Show, a very similar sitcom. Now Ann was Katy O’Connor an assistant manager at the Bartley House Hotel. Originally her boss was played by Ernest Truex but after dismal ratings, Don Porter was brought back as James Devery, hotel owner. The show’s ratings picked up significantly and were good until CBS moved the show to Thursday nights against The Untouchables. The show was cancelled in 1961.
Sothern returned to film features and made several appearances on Lucille Ball’s the Lucy Show as Countess Framboise. Ball was one of her best friends and called Sothern “the best comedian in the business, bar none.”
Ann was a good business woman. She opened the Ann Sothern Sewing Center in Sun Valley, Idaho, selling fabrics, patterns, and sewing machines in the 1950s. She also bought a cattle ranch in Idaho, A Bar S Cattle Co. In addition, she owned the production companies that produced Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show.
Ann also continued with her early musical abilities. In the mid-fifties, she starred in a nightclub act in Las Vegas and Chicago. In 1958, she released an album, “Sothern Exposure.”
In 1965, Sothern made a bad career move by signing on to star in the sitcom My Mother the Car with Jerry Van Dyke. Van Dyke played a lawyer who restored a 1928 antique car only to learn that it spoke to him through the radio as his mother. The show somehow lasted one season and has been named one of the worst sitcoms ever.
For the next two decades, Ann worked in both film and television but never had an iconic role. One of the issues she had to deal with during this time was a back injury. During a stock production in Florida, a fake tree fell on her back. She was put in traction and had to wear a back brace. She also developed a case of depression. For the rest of her life, she would suffer from numbness in her feet and need a cane to walk.
In 1987, Sothern had her final role in the film The Whales of August starring Bette Davis and Lillian Gish. She earned an Oscar nomination for her role.
Retiring to Ketchum, Idaho, Ann enjoyed the rest of her life in retirement and passed away from heart failure in 2001.
Her long career spanned six decades and like so many early stars, she found work on stage, on radio, in film, and on television. Ann definitely paid her dues, spending more than a decade in Hollywood. If her health had not thrown her a curve, she might have become one of the top stars. What impressed me most was that after more than sixty years in the entertainment industry, she was able to retire to a place she loved and enjoy almost twenty years as part of a community with her favorite activities such as embroidery and outdoor fun.
As we continue to celebrate National State Days, this week we are visiting Kansas. Our Sunflower star is Vivian Vance. Vivian was born in Cherryvale, Kansas in 1909. Her family moved to Independence when she was six. She knew she wanted to be an actress, but her mother’s strict religious beliefs prohibited her. She began sneaking out of her room at night to perform and eventually moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico where she changed her last name from Jones to Vance.Vivian married Joseph Shearer Danneck Jr. in 1928 at age 19 but they divorced in 1931.
In 1930 she was hired for her first job at the Albuquerque Little Theatre. After appearing in many other plays for the group, the local theater community paid her way to New York so she could study with Eva Le Gallienne.
In 1932, Vance began working on Broadway and was often a chorus member. In 1937 she replaced Kay Thompson in “Hooray for What!” and then began receiving supporting roles. In 1941, she joined Danny Kaye and Eve Arden in Cole Porter’s musical “Let’s Face It” for 500 performances. She would appear in 25 plays with her last being “Harvey” in 1977.
In 1933 Vance tried marriage again, wedding George Koch, but that relationship also ended in divorce in 1940. Her third marriage to Philip Ober in 1941 would also last only 8 years.
Until 1950 she was offered some small roles in big screen in several films. In 1949, she appeared in her first television series, Philco TV Playhouse.
In 1951, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz decided to launch their sitcom I Love Lucy. Ball was hoping to cast Barbara Pepper or Bea Benarderet in the role of Ethel Mertz. Bea had already taken the role of Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. CBS declined to hire Pepper because they said she had an addiction to alcohol. After many roles as “The Dame” in the movies, Pepper later played Doris Ziffel on Green Acres. It’s interesting that CBS allowed William Frawley to be hired for the show because he had a well-known alcohol problem at that time, but Desi gave him strict rules.
Director Marc Daniels had seen Vance perform in the “Voice of the Turtle” and suggested her for the role. She would play Ethel for 179 episodes. She was nominated for her work in 1954, 1956, and 1957, winning in 1954.
Apparently, she was a very good actress because although she and William Frawley who played her husband Fred had great comedic timing, they could not stand each other. Vivian wasn’t happy that she had to wear frumpy clothing and that Frawley was supposed to be her husband because he was 22 years older than her. He overheard a derogatory comment she made about their age difference, and they never developed any type of cordial friendship after that. However, their coworkers claimed they were professionals and treated each other with respect on the set.
When the sitcom ended, Vance continued to play Ethel on The Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz Show. She and Frawley were offered a spin-off series, but Vance passed because she didn’t want to continue working with Frawley. Vance was interested in another show however, and Desilu, Ball and Arnaz’s production company, put together a show called Guestward Ho! for her, but the network rejected the pilot. Desilu made some changes to the show and hired Joanne Dru for the lead. ABC picked it up but cancelled it after one season.
In 1961, Vance married John Dodds, an agent, editor and publisher. They moved to Stamford, Connecticut, and Vance always felt pulled between her marriage and career. In 1974 the couple moved to California. Vivian had no children from her four marriages but was godmother to Lovin’ Spoonful band member John Sebastian.
When Ball put together a new show, The Lucy Show in 1962, she invited Vance to costar on the show. The concept featured Ball as Lucy Carmichael, a widow, raising two children in Danfield New York. Vance played her best friend Vivian Bagley, a divorced mother of one son. After a few years, Vance wanted a bit more control and a bit of controversy developed between Lucy and Vivian. Vivian left the show, but they resolved their differences and she guest starred on the show and joined Lucy on reunion shows and on her third sitcom, Here’s Lucy which ran from 1968-1974.
Vance had very few television roles after leaving Ball’s sitcom, although she did make appearances on Off to See the Wizard, Love American Style, Rhoda, and Sam.
She was best known during those years as the Maxine, the Maxwell Coffee lady starring in numerous commercials for the coffee company. She was paid $250,000 for her three-year contract.
The last time Vivian and Lucy appeared together was Ball’s special Lucy Calls the President in 1977. Not long afterward, Vance suffered a stroke which left her partly paralyzed. She died in 1979 from bone cancer.
Both Ball and Arnaz commented on her death. Desi shared that “it’s bad enough to lose one of the great artists we had the honor and the pleasure to work with, but it’s even harder to reconcile the loss of one of your best friends.”
Ball commented on Vivian’s performance as Ethel: “I find that now I usually spend my time looking at Viv. Viv was sensational. And back then, there were things I had to do—I was in the projection room for some reason—and I just couldn’t concentrate on it. But now I can. And I enjoy every move that Viv made. She was something.” Both Vance and Frawley were inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame in March of 2012.
Some actors have the ability to adapt to a variety of television roles and we’re grateful for them. Other stars create one that is so memorable it becomes completely entwined with part of our life. Thank you Vivian Vance for being Lucy’s best friend. While we love Lucy’s antics, you are the one the majority of us identified with and for seventy years you have been influencing comedy and making new fans.
Finishing off our “Men of November” series is Louis Nye. If you watched television in the sixties, you will recognize Louis, but you might not know why.
Born Louis Neistat in Connecticut in 1917, he was the son of parents who emigrated to the US from the Russian Empire and became naturalized citizens in 1911. Louis wanted to get involved in acting but his grades weren’t good enough for him to participate in the drama club. He opted for work on WTIC Radio instead. He also joined the Hartford Players.
The work on local radio led to his decision to move to New York City to work on the radio, often on soap operas. Nye married songwriter Anita Leonard in 1940. Unlike many Hollywood couples, they remained married until Nye’s death.
World War II interrupted his career. He was assigned to run the recreation hall in Missouri. He would entertain troops and was able to meet Carl Reiner, who had a similar sense of humor, and who was also part of Special Services performing in shows across the Pacific.
After the war ended, he returned to New York, getting jobs on television and appearing on Broadway. His first tv role was on The Admiral Broadway Revue in 1949. He appeared on several shows during the fifties but was best known for his work on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show and the New Steve Allen Show. He became close to the entire cast which included Don Knotts, Tom Poston, Pat Harrington Jr., Dayton Allen, Gabriel Dell, and Bill Dana. Nye often portrayed wealthy citizens during the “Man on the Street” sketches. When he took on the role of Gordon Hathaway, the egotistical Country Club snob, saying “Hi-ho Steverino,” Allen often cracked up. When the show moved to Los Angeles, Nye went with it.
His first recurring role was that of dentist Delbert Gray on The Ann Sothern Show in 1960 and 1961. He was very busy during the sixties, appearing on a variety of shows including The Bob Hope Show, The Jack Benny Show, Mike Douglas, The Munsters, Jackie Gleason, and Phyllis Diller. From 1962-66, he would pop in on The Beverly Hillbillies as Sonny Drysdale, the spoiled stepson of banker Milburn Drysdale.
In the seventies, he could be seen on shows such as Laugh-In, Love American Style, Laverne and Shirley, Starsky and Hutch, and Fantasy Island. He was offered a permanent role on Needles and Pins in 1973. The show only lasted for 14 episodes. The series was about the garment industry. Women’s clothing manufacture Nathan Davidson (Norman Fell) works with a group of employees including characters played by Nye and Bernie Kopell. It didn’t receive great reviews and many of the writers said it talked about the garment industry but showed very little and was set in one small spot, inhibiting what plots were even available.
During those decades Nye would also get offers on the big screen from time to time but most of the roles were smaller cameo parts. However, he appeared with a lot of celebrities in these epics including Bob Hope, Jack Lemmon, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau, and Jack Webb.
He also recorded several comedy albums using several of his characterizations. One of his most successful LPs was “Heigh-Ho Madison Avenue.” It parodied market research, advertising agencies and post-WWII society. Some of the pieces on the album include “The Gray Flannel Blues,” “The Ten Commandments of Madison Avenue (Plus Big Bonus Commandments),” and “The Conspicuous Consumption Cantata.”
He continued to keep busy in the eighties on a variety of shows including Here’s Boomer, Aloha Paradise, The Love Boat, The Cosby Show, and St. Elsewhere.
His last role was another recurring one where he played Jeff Garlin’s father on Curb Your Enthusiasm from 2000-2005. Nye passed away from lung cancer in 2005.
I’m not sure what to think about Nye’s career. I think in the right role, he would have excelled in a television comedy or a big screen epic which he never had the opportunity to do. He was multi-talented and appeared on Broadway, in clubs, and on the radio, and he created comedy albums as well as appearing in movies and television. However, I often read quotes of his where he said he only wanted to be funny at parties and always considered himself a serious actor. He was so brilliant and funny with his 15 accents and wide range of characterizations that he seemed pigeon-holed as a comedy character actor early in his career. I wondered if he was sad that he never had the chance to appear in a classic drama, or if he accepted his successful career for what it was, just being thankful he was in the entertainment industry for his entire working life.
Since we cannot ask him directly, all we can do is tip our hats to him in appreciation for the decades of laughter and entertainment he provided for us. Thank you, Mr. Nye.
We are in the third blog of our series “The Men of November.” Born Charles Thomas Aldrich Jr. in 1906, Gale Gordon is remembered fondly for being Lucille Ball’s nemesis on several of her television sitcoms.
Both his parents were entertainers, and they traveled to England to perform when he was only one. For eight years, he lived in England. After returning to the United States for a few years, Gordon returned to London to complete his education at the Woodbridge School in Suffolk.
Gale followed in his parents’ footsteps, and his first theatrical job was as an extra in “The Dancers” in 1923. Richard Bennett (father of Constance and Joan Bennett) starred in the stage production. Gordon worked as Bennett’s dresser, and Bennett taught him all about make-up, mentored him as an actor, and helped him to develop his voice.
By 1925, Gordon traveled to Hollywood, tackling roles in stage, film, and radio. Gordon talked about his first radio performance: “They asked me to come to a Hollywood studio in 1926 and try this new thing called ‘radio.’ They didn’t pay me, of course. They just wanted to fill up some time. So, I sang, ‘It Ain’t Gonna Rain No More, No More’ and accompanied myself on the ukulele. You might say I almost killed radio before it was born. I haven’t played an instrument on the air since.”
In seven short years, Gordon became the highest-paid actor in radio in Hollywood. He was the male lead for Mary Pickford in her serial. He was on almost every popular show on the air. It wasn’t unusual for him to appear on three or more programs in a week. Gordon was the first actor to play Flash Gordon in 1935.
His radio work also provided some other benefits. While appearing on an episode of Death Valley Days in New York, he met Virginia Curley. They married in 1937.
In 1941, after playing primarily dramatic roles, Gordon became a regular on Fibber McGee and Molly. Playing Mayor LaTrivia, Gale was on the show for a dozen years. There was a brief interruption in 1942 when he left the show and enlisted in the US Coast Guard for three years. He rose to the rank of Petty Officer First Class, and his service took him around the world to many dangerous places.
One of the roles he is best known for was Principal Osgood Conklin on Our Miss Brooks. Gordon described Conklin in a TV Guide interview: “There was nothing subtle about Osgood. No nuances. Just a lot of very satisfying acid, bluster, and bellowing, with an occasional weak moment of cordiality thrown in for leavening. It was practically impossible to overplay him. Even when he was being cordial, he was like an elephant trying to waltz.”
In 1950, he could be heard as John Granby on Granby’s Green Acres which later became the sitcom Green Acres.
While trying to reign in the chaos at Madison High School as Osgood Conklin, Gale was also the refined banker, Rudolph Atterbury, on My Favorite Husband, Lucille Ball’s radio comedy. Atterbury’s wife was played by Bea Benederet.
As television gained popularity, it was inevitable that some of radio’s favorite shows would make the transition to the small screen. While it was entirely possible to play several different characters on the radio, television production didn’t offer the same flexibility. When My Favorite Husband was retooled for television as I Love Lucy, Ball planned on bringing Gordon and Benederet along with her. However, Gale was committed to Our Miss Brooks, and Bea was playing a major role on Burns and Allen on television.
Asked about those days, Gale described himself as “a quiet, reserved, pipe-smoking homebody.” He said he always had a good balance of professional and personal interests. In addition to acting, he wrote books (Nursery Rhymes for Hollywood Babies and Leaves from the Story Trees), painted, and maintained a ranch. He and Virginia bought a 150-acre property about three hours away from Hollywood. They grew carob trees. Gordon was not a rancher in name only; he raised the trees, built the house, installed the plumbing, completed carpentry and handiwork, put in a swimming pool, and built a two-story building that served as garage and studio.
In 1952, Eve Arden decided to take Our Miss Brooks to television. While Gale continued his role as Conklin on the show, he also guest starred on a couple of I Love Lucy episodes. Our Miss Brooks had a successful run for four years.
When the show ended in 1956, CBS was quick to sign Gordon on for another show. They paired him with Bob Sweeney in The Box Brothers (sometimes called The Brothers). Unfortunately, the series only lasted for 26 weeks.
In 1958, Gordon was a regular on Sally where he played department store owner Bascomb Bleacher. He also appeared with Walter Brennan on The Real McCoys.
In 1959, December Bride which aired from 1954-1959, went off the air, spinning off a new show Pete and Gladys starring Harry Morgan and Cara Williams. Morgan appeared as Pete Porter on December Bride. On the new show, Gale played Pete’s Uncle Paul.
In 1962 he was cast as Mr. Wilson on Dennis the Menace. At the same time, Lucille Ball was creating a new show, The Lucy Show. She wanted Gordon to appear as Mr. Barnsdahl, a banker. When he was not available, Lucille turned to Charles Lane. She said she loved working with Lane, but always wanted to work with Gale again, so when Dennis the Menace was cancelled, she quickly signed Gordon; Lane moved over to Bea Benederet’s new sitcom, Petticoat Junction, as the despicable Homer Bedloe. And thus Theodore J. Mooney was born.
For the next eleven years, through several different series titles, Lucy and Gale worked together. They would both retire in 1974. When describing his time on Lucy’s shows, Gale related in a Good Morning America interview in 1982 that “I always had a wonderful feeling of anticipation going to work every week, which is very, very rare. I don’t care what business you are in. But to really look forward to getting into the nitty gritty and working hard for four days—which is all the time we had to do the show—is really unique. To look forward to it for eleven years, that’s doubly unique.” He went on to praise Lucy for her work ethic: “Her attitude has never changed. Every show she ever did was always the most important show of her life. And I think that is the secret of her success.”
One surprising thing I learned was that Gordon was known for his ability to do cartwheels. He can be seen doing them on several episodes of Here’s Lucy. At the time, he was earning $25,000 an episode. Compare that to today when the stars of The Big Bang Theory received a million dollars an episode.
Gale and Virginia enjoyed twenty years of retirement. Virginia would pass away in 1995 at Red Terrace Health Center in Escondido, California. One month later, Gordon died from lung cancer at the same facility.
In 1999, Gale was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame. Known for playing a variety of gruff, formal professionals, everyone knew that the bellow and bluster his characters spewed was great acting. In real life, Gale was one of the sweetest, kindest men around. He once said, “I am never nasty—unless I get paid for it.”
It’s hard to describe the influence Gale Gordon has had on generations of actors and the number of hours of entertainment he has provided to generations of television and radio fans. It’s always fun to listen or watch Connie Brooks trying to pull a fast one over on Osgood Conklin or Lucy Carmichael trying Mr. Mooney’s patience with her latest scatter-brained plan. Thank you Gale Gordon!
We are right in the middle of “The Men of November” series where we learn about some of our favorite actors from the classic age of television. Today we focus on a comedian who is best known for his role of a family band manager—Dave Madden.
Madden was an American born in Ontario, Canada in 1931. He spent his early childhood in Port Huron, Michigan and then was sent to live with his aunt and uncle in Terre Haute. His father had died and his mother had a job where she had to travel. When he was 13, he had a very bad bike accident which left him immobilized. He had a head-on collision with a car going about 45 mph. He broke his leg and fractured his skull. They pumped him with penicillin which saved his life. He was in the hospital for about three months because they had to keep breaking his leg. During the months he spent recuperating, he learned about magic from a book his aunt brought him called 101 Tricks You Can Do, and he later developed a comedy act that featured magic.
Appropriately enough, he served as the joke editor for his high school paper, writing his own material. He attended Indiana State Teachers College for a semester and then dropped out to enlist in the Air Force. He was assigned to Special Forces and sent to Libya where he entertained the troops. He even performed a magic show for the King of Libya.
When his time in the Air Force was over, he attended the University of Miami, majoring in communications and graduating in 1959.
Madden took his comedy act on the road. His manager booked him in Palm Springs during the Palm Springs Golf Classic, and the Rat Pack came in one night. After the show, Frank Sinatra went backstage and asked if Madden would be his opening act in Lake Tahoe in July.
He and Sinatra hung out and one night in his bungalow he said Madden should be on The Ed Sullivan Show and picked up the phone and called Ed in New York. That call resulted in Sullivan booking him for three episodes.
His manager had a club in Beverly Hills, The Ye Little Club, and he called Madden who was in town because his regular singer was sick. Madden helped him out, and a Screen Gems writer, Jerry Davis, was in the audience with Nat King Cole’s manager. Nat was Madden’s favorite singer and his manager asked if he would do an eight-week tour with him. Unfortunately, Cole died soon after and Madden never even got to meet him.
Jerry Davis called Madden and asked him if he was interested in filming a pilot which led to an offer for a regular role on Camp Runamuck which debuted in 1965. The show lasted a season with 26 episodes. Madden had never acted before, and he said it was a great experience. The show was primarily about the camp counselors. Madden met Dave Ketchum on the show and they became friends. Later, the role of Reuben Kincaid was narrowed down to Dave Ketchum and Madden.
A year later, Madden was offered a spot on Laugh-In. Rowan and Martin had seen his act in Reno and invited him on the show. Madden said that filming the show was not much fun. He said apart from the opening and closing jokes and cocktail party, most of the segments were individual ones. He described a day where he might go in at 10 am, and there would be 2 cameramen, a director and a light man. He would film a dozen skits which would be shown over the course of the season. None of the rest of the cast would be there. So, it was long and boring work.
After two years with the wacky cast, he accepted the role that would make him a household name. As Reuben Kincaid, he managed the Partridge family on a new series based on the life of The Cowsills. The show aired Friday nights following The Brady Bunch and was on the air from 1970 till 1974.
Some of the scenes I loved the most on the show was when Reuben would lay on the couch to watch tv with the family or hold Shirley’s yarn while she knitted—just everyday family activities. Unfortunately, he and Shirley were not as close as they could have been because Madden and Shirley’s husband Marty Ingels did not hit it off.
Filming The Partridge Family was not always fun either. He said it could be very boring. The cast might have three to four pages of scripts that take place in the dining room. The whole family would sit around the table and they would have to change the lighting every time someone else spoke. He said you could arrive at 7 am and leave at 3 pm and never leave the dining room.
While one of the running gags on the show was that Reuben and Danny had a battle of wits ongoing, in their personal lives, Reuben took Bonaduce into his home when his house was not a safe place. He said Danny’s mother was worried about Danny being home on the weekends when his father was home, so she asked Madden if Danny could stay with him at his bachelor pad on weekends. Madden said he didn’t drink and had small groups of people over, so it was not a problem to have Danny staying there.
Madden said that he learned that The Partridge Family was cancelled because someone in his apartment building read it in the newspaper—a crummy way to learn you no longer had a job.
During this time period, Madden was on two episodes of Love American Style which was also part of the Friday night schedule and two episodes of Bewitched. When Madden recalled his time on Bewitched, he said he was with the same secondary actor for both episodes, Herb Ellis. He said that Elizabeth Montgomery was very gracious.
After the end of The Partridge Family, Madden appeared on an episode of Happy Days. In 1976, he would have a part in Eat My Dust!, a movie developed by Ron Howard who played Richie Cunningham on Happy Days. It was one of only two big screen features Madden was in. The other movie Madden had a role in was the family favorite, Charlotte’s Web in 1973. Madden was the voice of the ram.
In the late seventies, Madden could be seen on a variety of shows including Starsky and Hutch, Barney Miller, The Love Boat, and Fantasy Island.
In 1975, Madden took a break from his acting schedule to marry Nena Arnold. They had two children and divorced ten years later.
In the late seventies, he would be offered another recurring role. He began eating at Mel’s Diner on Alice from 1978-1985, as Earl Hicks. He was also Alice’s son’s basketball coach. The Hicks character was meant to be a guest shot, but the producers liked his interaction so much that he ended up doing 35 episodes. He really enjoyed working on the show because it was done before a live audience. He said it was like doing a one-act play every week. The cast rehearsed for a few days and then shot the show at one time.
In the late eighties, Madden also joined the cast of Focus on the Family’s Adventures in Odyssey. In 1990 he created his own character, curmudgeonly window washer Bernard Walton, which he would voice until 2008.
From 1970 or so on, Madden did a lot of voice-over work. When he had more time for it, it was very profitable. He said he made more money between 1985-1990 doing that then all four television series combined; he was making more than $250,000 a year just in voice work.
He stayed busy throughout the 1990s, showing up on The New Leave it to Beaver, Life with Lucy, Ben Stiller, Married . . . with Children, and Boy Meets World. His last credited role was on Sabrina the Teen-age Witch in 1998, where he appeared with other Laugh-In cast members.
He had another memorable event in 1998 when he married his former college girlfriend Sandy Martin.
If you watched The Partridge Family, you might remember the episode where Danny and Reuben have a bet to see if Danny can lose weight and if Reuben can quit smoking. Madden was a long-time smoker in real life and that episode inspired him to quit, although he had been thinking about quitting for a while.
Madden had always been interested in cameras, buying his first one in the service. He began to experiment with photography on the set of The Partridge Family. He said it was illegal to bring a camera to the set, so he began taking photos of the crew when they were filming away from the regular set. He then made gifts for the crew and then began filming the director. By that time, people were so used to him having a camera around, no one called him out on photographing the cast. He would bring his camera to work with him, taking photos of the cast and crew. It turned into a life-long hobby.
One of the benefits of working in the industry was meeting so many beloved actors like Lucille Ball. On The Partridge Family, Madden enjoyed working with Ray Bolger who played Shirley’s dad and Margaret Hamilton who played Reuben’s mother. He said he would chat with Ray between takes and hear stories from Hamilton about The Wizard of Oz. He said Hamilton was a real pro and they were both very nice people.
During retirement in 2007, he wrote his memoirs, Reuben on Wry: The Memoirs of Dave Madden.
In January of 2014, he passed away in hospice care, suffering from complications of myelodysplastic syndrome, a disorder that results from poorly formed or dysfunctional blood cells.
For someone who began his first magic performance because of a serious injury and was hired for a sitcom without ever having acted, Dave Madden had a very fun and successful career. I must admit, I have many great memories of him as Reuben Kincaid. He seemed to be a very nice and easy-going individual who worked hard and enjoyed his life. You can’t ask for more than that. Thanks for the memories Dave Madden.
I love September. The beginning of fall conjures images of fall leaves, trips to the apple orchard, the sound of football games, and returning to a welcomed routine. One of my favorite autumn memories as a child and teenager was studying the Fall Preview of the TV Guide, so I could decide which shows were “do-not-miss” series.
TV Guide is still available, but there was something special in being able to peruse the upcoming episodes, read the articles, and do the crossword puzzle. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating going back to only three channels plus Public TV, but there was something comforting in knowing what would be on every day on every channel and knowing that all your friends were watching the same thing, and you could discuss it at school. That nostalgic feeling disappears when you are trying to look at 200 channels, not to mention Apple TV, Netflix, Amazon, and the many other options out there.
As much as I enjoyed TV Guide, I knew little about it, so I thought it would be fun to learn some of the history behind this almost-seventy-year-old publication.
In 1948, Lee Wagner printed the New York City area television listings in The TeleVision Guide which was sold on newsstands. Gloria Swanson who starred in The Gloria Swanson Hour appeared on the first cover. With the success of that magazine, Wagner went on to publish issues for both the New England and Baltimore-Washington, DC areas. In 1953, Walter Annenberg bought the series of publications and incorporated them into his Triangle Publications. Wagner would remain a consultant for that business until 1963.
The first magazine titled TV Guide was issued April 3, 1953. It was sold in ten cities and boasted a circulation of 1,560,000. The cover featured a photo of Lucille Ball’s newborn son Desi Arnaz Jr. with the headline, “Lucy’s $50,000,000 Baby.” It cost 15 cents. For the first 52 years of its existence, it was digest size. Triangle Publications, headquartered in Radnor, PA, continued to buy local magazine listings, creating a national publication. Their contemporary building featured a large logo at the entrance, a vast computer system to save data on every television show and movie, and housed editors, production personnel and subscription processors.
In September of 1953, the magazine released its first Fall Preview edition and circulation increased steadily from then on. The guide was available by subscription or at grocery stores. Eventually a color section was added featuring television-related stories, articles about stars, and weekly columns. One of the columns was “Close-Up” which looked at different types of programs. “Cheers and Jeers” was a critique page for specific programs, “Hits and Misses” rated shows from 0 to 10. In addition, certain years included horoscopes, recaps of soap operas, lists of sporting events and crossword puzzles. Next to each television show was a number corresponding to the local channel. A brief description of the program was given. Networks often ran ads for various shows.
Beginning in the late fifties, “color” was set in a rectangular box for those shows that were broadcast in color. By 1972, the majority of programs were full-color, so the abbreviation “BW” was used for shows not in color. Until cable television entered the entertainment business, listings began about 5 am and went until midnight. By August of 1982, the magazine began expanding its coverage of cable programming with “CablePay Section” and “Cable and Pay-TV Movie Guide.”
In August of 1988, Triangle Publications was sold to the News American Corporation for $3 billion. It was one of the largest and the most expensive acquisitions at the time.
In March of 1996, TV Guide launched iGuide, a web portal. In June of 1998, News Corporation sold TV Guide to United Video Satellite Group for $800 million and 60 million shares of stock worth $1.2 billion. “The Robins Report” a review column was added, “Family Page” showcased family-oriented programs, and “Don’t Miss” which was select programs to watch during the week.
In 1999, TV Guide hosted a new award show, TV Guide Awards, telecast on Fox. Winners were chosen by TV Guide subscribers.
In 2002, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the magazine, six special issues were created: “TV We’ll Always Remember: Our Favorite Stars Share Fifty Years of Memories, Moments, and Magic”; “50 Greatest Shows of All Time”; “Our 50 Greatest Covers of All Time”; “50 Worst Shows of All Time”; “50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time”; and “50 Sexiest Stars of All Time.”
As more cable channels were added, space became a premium and the magazine had to decide which ones to include. In September of 2006, TV Guide launched an updated website with expanded editorial and user-generated content not included in the print edition.
With more channels, less detail was available about shows, and by 2007, circulation had decreased from its peak of twenty million in 1970 to less than three million. The weekly publication went through several other sales. In 2014, it underwent a major redesign. Fourteen pages of listings were eliminated, and programming information was only provided for top-rated broadcast and cable networks and included several new sections including the “Roush Review” where Matt Roush selected the top ten picks from the upcoming week. The size was then reduced to 7” x 10”.
In 2015, it was sold once again to NTVB Media.
Two spinoff magazines were produced by TV Guide: TV Guide Crosswords and TV Guide’s Parents’ Guide to Children’s Entertainment.
With over 3000 covers, almost every star and television show you can think of has been featured on the publication. The original 1953 cover of Desi remains the most expensive, valued at $3000. Another early cover of George Reeves as Superman runs a close second.
Lucille Ball has appeared on the most covers, with 39 total. Johnny Carson comes in second with 28 covers and Mary Tyler Moore and Michael Landon are tied for third place with 27 each.
In addition to photographers’ covers, TV Guide has featured a variety of artists over the years including 37 Al Hirschfield pieces, two Charles Addams, one each by Norman Rockwell, Peter Max, Andy Warhol, and Dali.
I guess I’ll have to pick up a TV Guide next time I’m at the grocery store just to see how it compares to my fond memories. I’m guessing I will have to shell out more than $.15. Considering all the changes that have taken place in the television industry since the late 1940s, the magazine has been impressive keeping up with all the transformations and still providing a guide for our viewing.
This month, we begin a new series, “We Salute You” and we will look at shows about the military. Our first series is The Phil Silvers Show a/k/a You’ll Never Get Rich.
The sitcom debuted on CBS in 1955. The pilot was never aired, but the show was part of the television schedule until 1959, producing 143 episodes.
Nat Hiken created the series which ended up being nominated for Best Comedy Series every year it was on and winning that category in 1956, 1957, and 1958. In addition, Silvers won an Emmy for his performance, and Hiken won an Emmy for Best Director.
In 1955, television was transitioning from New York to California. However, Hiken insisted on filming the series in New York. The earlier seasons were filmed at Dumont and later seasons moved to CBS studios in Chelsea, Manhattan.
The show was filmed like a play in front of a live audience. The cast members had to memorize the entire script. When Mike Todd guest starred in season two, he insisted that the show be filmed more like a movie. Takes were filmed out of sequence and multiple takes were allowed because there was no audience. The crew realized that this process was faster, cheaper, and easier for the actors, so the change was put in place permanently. The show was screened for the military though, and servicemen made responses that were used to make the show more realistic.
Sergeant Ernie Bilko (Phil Silvers) is a con man. He runs a motor pool at a small US Army Camp, Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas. Colonel Hall (Paul Ford), who doesn’t trust Bilko, tries to stay on top of his schemes. Bilko tries to make money any way he can and is not above using the landing craft for midnight cruises, “borrowing” tanks, setting up poker games, and conniving with a local service station for spare parts for Jeep tires for his get-rich quick scams. Bilko has pulled the wool over Col Hall’s wife’s (Hope Sansberry) eyes and flatters her every chance he gets. Silvers said Bilko was so successful because “inside everyone is a con man wiggling to sneak out.”
Although his men knew he could not be truly trusted, they were usually loyal to him and while he occasionally used them in a scheme, he typically made sure they were taken care of. Some of the situations Bilko found himself in included starting a mink farm, entering his platoon in a singing contest, investing in an ailing race horse, stealing a French chef’s family recipe, buying swampland, thinking there was uranium beneath Hall’s living room, and getting a hot racing tip but not being able to get his bet in on time.
For the fourth season, the camp moved from Kansas to Camp Fremont in California. The move was explained that Bilko orchestrated the new location because he learned there was a gold deposit near the abandoned army post. The primary reason for the geographical change was so stars could guest on the show because the camp was now said to be close to Hollywood. Some of these celebrities included Dean Martin, Mickey Rooney, Bing Crosby, Dorothy McGuire, and Lucille Ball.
In addition to the stars who were said to come from Hollywood, guest stars on the show included Charlotte Rae, Fred Gwynne, Dick Van Dyke, Paul Lynde, Tom Poston, Dina Merrill, Alan Alda, Bea Arthur, and Tina Louise.
I was surprised by the large cast that was featured on this show as opposed to Gomer Pyle, Hogan’s Heroes, or McHale’s Navy. Bilko’s comrades were Corporal Barbella (Harvey Lembeck) and Corporal Henshaw (Allan Melvin).
The rest of the men included Corporal Sam Fender (Herbie Faye), Sergeant Grover (Jimmy Little), Privates Doberman (Maurice Gosfield), Zimmerman (Mickey Freeman), Kadowski (Karl Lukas), Gomez (Bernard Fein), Paparelli (Billy Sands), Mullen (Jack Healy), Fleischman (Maurice Brenner), Sugarman (Terry Carter) and Dillingham (Walter Cartier), as well as quartermaster Sergeant Pendelton (Ned Glass). Bilko even had a romantic interest in Sergeant Joan Hogan (Elisabeth Fraser).
Because the series had so many secondary cast members, it became too expensive to maintain, and that was the primary reason it was canceled. I was surprised it did not affect the ratings because there were a lot of cast members to follow from week to week.
The show started out on Tuesday nights the first season. Its competition was The Legend of Wyatt Earp and Milton Berle. The ratings at first were not good and Camel Cigarettes, the sponsor, considering withdrawing. The network moved the show so it didn’t need to compete with Berle’s second-half hour. The ratings skyrocketed. The second and third seasons, it continued on Tuesday nights but was up against Cheyenne both years and against The Big Surprise on the second season and The Eddie Fisher Show the third season. The Phil Silvers Show continued to be in the top 30 for season two but fell below those rankings in season three. Season four found the show on Friday nights up against Man with a Camera and MSquad. I would have thought that season might have the weakest competition but the show never recovered its higher ratings. However, Friday nights many people were out, not home watching television.
Another downfall with such a large cast is the personality conflicts that might occur. Apparently, Phil Silvers did not get along with Maurice Gosfield. Gosfield had trouble remembering his lines which frustrated the other actors; however, he got the most fan mail which Silvers resented. In his memoir, Silvers discussed this issue and wrote that Gosfield “thought of himself as Cary Grant playing a short, plump man.”
Phil Silvers would play the same type of con man on many sitcoms later including The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan’s Island, The Lucy Show, and the movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
After its cancellation, CBS sold the show to NBC which was a great move on NBC’s part. The network made a ton of money on the show’s syndication because reruns were run for decades.
DC Comics published comic books based on the show as well. From 1957-1960 there were 16 issues of a Sergeant Bilko comic book and 11 issues of a Private Doberman comic book.
In 2009, the US Postal Service issued a set of stamps honoring early television programs. This show was commemorated with an image of Sergeant Bilko.
I remember the show being on the air a lot while I was growing up, but I rarely see it now. I am going to rely on a fellow blogger to sum up the show. In a recent blog on neatorama.com from February 14, 2019, the show was described as follows:
“It is my opinion that THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (aka YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH) remains the single most underrated sitcom in television history and that Phil Silvers remains the most underrated comedian in that medium. This is really saying something because the series has indeed received great acclaim over the years. Even so, Silvers is just not given his proper due for creating the Bilko character. But it is Phil Silvers, his facial expressions, his bugle-call barking of orders, his complete manipulation of everyone on the base, and his wild schemes to make money that never seem to get old no matter how much you watch the episodes on video. The show is a great testament to the talents of Phil Silvers. With its complex plotlines and quickfire dialogue it’s still a treat to watch Silvers’s monumental character. The most oft-said line in the series must be “but, Sarge!” as Bilko launches into another diabolical and, ultimately, flawed scheme to make money and dodge work.”
Bilko isn’t a bad guy; he’s just not trustworthy. As he himself likes to say, “All I ever wanted was an honest week’s pay for an honest day’s work.” Maybe in this politically correct world we live in, making fun of the military is a taboo. It’s too bad because all the critics loved this show. If you want to check it out for yourself, the series is on DVD, so it is available for a week-end of binge watching; you can purchase individual seasons or the complete series.
My blog theme for this month is “What a Character!” I am looking at the careers of four successful and hard-working actors. With 372 acting credits, perhaps there was no more prolific character actor than the beloved Charles Lane. He perfected the grumpy sourpuss always ready and gleeful to make life more complicated for others. His bio on imdb.com captures his type perfectly as the “scrawny, scowling, beady-eyed, beak-nosed killjoy who usually could be found peering disdainfully over a pair of specs, brought out many a comic moment simply by dampening the spirit of his nemesis.”
However, despite that, we always knew there was more to him, and that his real persona was being covered up by his crotchety outward characteristics. His character Herman Bedloe on Petticoat Junction portrayed this dual-personality perfectly. Bedloe was always trying to shut down the train, but we knew he actually liked the Bradley family, and occasionally you would get a glimpse of the lonely and soft-hearted side of him.
He was born Charles Gerstle Levison in San Francisco in 1905. His family survived the 1906 earthquake. His father was an insurance executive, and Charles would follow in his footsteps for his first career.
A friend, actor Irving Pichel, convinced Lane to try his hand at acting, and Lane joined the Pasadena Playhouse in the late 1920s. His first movie was City Girl in 1930, and his last was Acting on Impulse in 1993. During those six decades he had a successful career in both television and Hollywood. In 1933, Lane became one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). In that year alone he made 23 films. There was an anecdote told about Lane that it was not uncommon for him to go to a movie, see himself on screen, and be surprised because he completely forgot he had been in the film. Starting out at $35 a day, by 1947 he was earning $750 a week.
His longest-running role was husband. In 1931 he married Ruth Covell; the couple had two children and were married until her death in 2002.
Perhaps most people recognize Lane from his role of rent collector for Henry Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. Capra signed Lane to roles in ten of his movies. Lane was a corrupt attorney in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), an IRS agent in You Can’t Take It with You (1938), a newsman in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a reporter in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and Blink Moran in State of the Union (1948). Among his most-cherished possessions was a letter from Capra where he wrote “Well, Charlie, you’ve been my No. 1 crutch.” Other popular films he was in include The Ghost and Mr. Chicken; It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World; and The Music Man.
During World War II, Lane joined the Coast Guard. When he returned to civilian life, his television career took off. His first role was on Burns and Allen in 1951. During the 1950s, he appeared in more than 30 shows including Topper, The Thin Man, Perry Mason, and The Ann Sothern Show. He was often seen on Lucille Ball shows. He and Lucy had become friends when they both worked for RKO, and he had a great respect for Desi Arnaz’s acting ability.
During this decade he was cast on the show Dear Phoebe in 1954. Peter Lawford starred in the show as a former college professor who writes an advice column under the name Miss Phoebe Goodheart. Meanwhile, his romantic interest is Mickey Riley portrayed by Marcia Henderson, the paper’s sports writer. Lane took on the role of Mr. Fosdick, their boss.
The 1960s found him on almost every popular show of that decade. Tuning in to your favorite series, you would spy Lane on Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, Mister Ed, The Andy Griffith Show, The Joey Bishop Show, Get Smart, The Bing Crosby Show, The Man from UNCLE, The Donna Reed Show, Green Acres, Bewitched, and The Wild, Wild West, among many others.
Lane had recurring roles on five shows during the 1960s. On Dennis the Menace, he was the pharmacist Mr. Finch. He also could be seen on his friend’s series, The Lucy Show as Mr. Barnsdahl, a local banker. The Phyllis Diller Show had a cast that should have made it a hit and from 1966-67, Lane played Maxwell. Although many characters appeared on both The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction, Lane had two different roles on the two series. He appeared in 24 episodes of Petticoat Junction between 1963-1968 as Homer Bedloe, a railroad executive who is always trying to find a reason to shut down the Cannonball. On the Beverly Hillbillies, he portrayed Foster Phinney.
Lane continued with both his movie and television appearances throughout the 1970s, taking roles on The Doris Day Show, The Odd Couple, Family, Rhoda, Chicoand the Man, and he continued his television appearances into the 1980s and 1990s with shows that included Mork and Mindy, St. Elsewhere, LALaw, and Dark Shadows.
The decade of the seventies would find him cast in two additional series, Karen and Soap. Karen debuted in 1975, starring Karen Valentine as Karen Angelo. Karen works for an advocate group for the common American citizen, Open America, founded by Dale Busch, who was played by Lane. On Soap, Charles took on the role of Judge Petrillo who presided over Jessica Tate’s murder trial; however, because of Jessica’s husband, the judge lost $40,000 in a bad investment.
Charles Lane was honored in 2005 when he turned 100. SAG proclaimed January 30 “Charles Lane Day,” and TV Land honored him in March for his long career. After receiving his award, he let it be known “in case anyone’s interested, I’m still available!”
Despite his being typecast in cranky roles, friends and family described him as funny, kind, and warm-hearted. Lane’s one vice was smoking. In 1990 he was rushed to the hospital when he was having problems breathing. When the doctor asked if he smoked, Lane informed him he had kicked the habit . . . 45 minutes earlier. He never smoked again and he lived another 12 years, dying peacefully in 2007.
Although it’s tough on actors to be typecast so early in their career, it’s a double-edged sword, because it also provides a lot of opportunities for roles. Lane was an enigma; while he always convinced us that he was just as mean as could be, we also knew if someone would give him a chance, he could be reformed like Scrooge; he just needed the opportunity. It always makes me smile to come across Charles Lane in a move or television episode. It’s like seeing an old friend, or perhaps the neighbor who yelled at you to get off his yard. However, if you looked closely, you would see him watching and wanting to be part of the action. As you watch your favorite older classic shows, keep an eye open for him.