Home Improvement: It’s Just a Name; No Improvement Needed Here

Here we are in week 2 in our blog series looking at some of our favorite families. Last week we were in Long Island with the Seavers. Today we are traveling east to Detroit to spend some time with The Tool Man and his family.

Photo: usweekly.com

Home Improvement was on ABC from 1991 through 1999; this was the era my older boys grew up in, and I think they have some fond memories of watching this show. They weren’t alone, because it was one of the most-watched shows of the decade. It stayed in the top ten the entire time.

Matt Williams, Carmen Finestra, and David McFadzean created the series. A lot of writers worked on the show. Richardson talked about the writer’s room where all the writers were men and she did the scripts at first without saying anything, because she didn’t want to rock the boat. She said eventually she would tell them a woman would not say that and defended her position more often.

It was based on the stand-up comedy of Tim Allen. Tim Taylor (Tim Allen) is married to Jill (Patricia Richardson) and they have three boys: Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas), and Mark (Taran Noah Smith). They live in Detroit where Tim has a television show for Binford Tool Co.; he was previously one of their salesman.

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The cast is rounded out with their neighbor Wilson (Earl Hindman) who doles out advice to Tim, but whom we never see more than part of his face. Al Borland (Richard Karn) is Tim’s assistant on the show. During the run of the show there were several Tool Time girls including Pamela Anderson and Debbe Dunning. The show was a parody of This Old House, a home-improvement show on PBS for years.

Originally the show was titled Hammer Time. The first pilot starred Frances Fisher playing Jill Taylor. The studio audience did not view her as a comedic actress, so she was recast. Al was a harder part to cast. John Bedford Lloyd auditioned for the roles of Tim’s assistant and neighbor Wilson. He got the part of Wilson but dropped out when he learned his face would not be seen on tv. That’s when Hindman took over. Stephen Tobolowsky was then offered the role of Al, named Glen at the time. He was occupied with a project at the time, so Karn was hired, and Al was created.

Photo: wikifandom.com

In a June 6, 2017, episode of thehomeimpodcast.com, Karn was interviewed. He was asked what one of his favorite Al moments was on the show. He talked about a scene when Tim invited him over to play poker. He had asked about a theme and then showed up in a 10-gallon hat as a cowboy. He said Tim opened the door, and Karn would raise his hat and hit the light. Every time that happened, Tim cracked up. Karn said he could not stop himself from laughing.

Jill has her hands full living with four males, and I can certainly relate. Tim is a bit stubborn, accident prone, spends lots of time with his cars, and often acts like one of the kids. Allen was from Detroit himself and one of his quirks on the show was wearing Michigan sports apparel.

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There were a lot of guest stars on the show during its nine seasons: race car drivers Johnny Rutherford, Robby Gordon, Mario and Michael Andretti, and Al Unser; golfer Payne Stewart; Denver quarterback John Elway; boxer Evander Holyfield; NASA astronaut Ken Bowersox; basketball player Grant Hill’ singers The Beach Boys and The Manhattan Transfer’ comedians Drew Carey and Rodney Dangerfield; ex-President Jimmy Carter; talk show host Oprah Winfrey; and actors Jack Nicholson, Dan Aykroyd, and Marlon Brando.

Home Improvement was still in the top ten after its eighth season. Richardson was offered $25 million for a ninth season, and Taylor was offered $50 million, but they both declined.

The theme song was “Iron John’s Rock.” It was composed by Dan Foliart. In addition to the music, it included Allen’s grunting that became a catch phrase of a sort and several power tools in the background.

When Allen got his second series, Last Man Standing, Karn, Richardson, and Taylor Thomas guest-starred on the show. Also, many of the tools he used on this show were Binford tools.

Photo: people.com

This was one of those much-loved shows. In a time before DVR, families sat down to watch television together when their favorite shows were on. The shows were relatable to all family members. It was well written, and the stories had the right amount of humor and heart-warming moments. When a series stays in the top ten for almost a decade and the stars turn down huge piles of money to end the show, you know the quality is still there. Like The Dick Van Dyke Show, this show ended on a high note, and I’m so happy we did not have to go through the “they should have ended it a year or two before” stage. Thanks to the entire cast for being a team player and bringing an amazing show for a decade.

The Dick Cavett Show: Television’s Classiest Talk Show Host

Dick Cavett made a career of being a talk show host. He began on ABC in March of 1968 and ended on TCM in 2007. In between, he showed up during the day, in prime time, late at night, on PBS, in syndication, and on CNBC. The Dick Cavett Show seems to refer to all the shows as a collected whole, so that’s how I will present it in my blog.

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Photo: chicagotribune.com

If you have ever seen Cavett in action, he has such a smooth, polite manner that sometimes you forget he may be asking an invasive question. Some of the most memorable shows were conversations with Christine Jorgenson (who walked off the show in 1968); Groucho Marx (1969); Jimi Hendrix (1969); The Woodstock Show (1969); Eric Clapton (1970); Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne and Noel Coward (1970); Orson Welles (1970); Salvador Dali (1971); John Kerry debating on Vietnam (1971); Watergate and Beyond (1974); Angela Davis (1972); Jackie Robinson (1972); Marlon Brando (1973); Katharine Hepburn (1973); Carol Burnett (1974); and  Mohammad Ali (several shows). As you can see, in addition to entertainers, Cavett interviewed influential authors, politicians, athletes, and newsmakers.

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Talking to the Great One: Ali Photo: latimes.com

Cavett often had several guests on each show, but sometimes he devoted the entire night to one person such as Laurence Olivier, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Janis Joplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, Gloria Swanson, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, and David Bowie.

Politics were often covered by Cavett, and over the years, he interviewed many including political guests including Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, Walter Cronkite, John Ehrlichman, John Dean, Gerald Ford, Barry Goldwater, Henry Kissinger, and G. Gordon Liddy.

In various interviews of his own, Cavett mentioned different shows that were memorable or brought in a lot of mail. Early in the show’s history, Cavett was interviewing Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and John Cassavetes about a movie they were in. Cassavetes was so drunk and incoherent, Cavett walked off the stage.

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Laughing with Katharine Hepburn Photo: dangerousminds.com

Georgia governor Lester Maddox appeared in a panel with Truman Capote and Jim Brown about segregation. Cavett made a reference to “bigots” who supported Maddox. When Maddox demanded an apology, Cavett apologized to Georgians who supported him without being a bigot. Maddox left the studio. However, later Maddox relented and made another appearance, and Cavett walked off the set as a joke.

One memorable episode was something no host wants to encounter. Publisher J. I. Rodale was on the show. Cavett was talking to another guest when Rodale seemed to be snoring, but everyone soon realized something was wrong. He actually died there on the set. The audience didn’t even realize it until Cavett called for a doctor. The program was taped but not aired.

Director Ingmar Bergman did few television interviews and no US interviews, but he made an exception for Dick Cavett.

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With David Bowie Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

So, what types of things might you have learned from Cavett’s show? Well, Hitchcock explained how some of his most ingenious special effects worked.  Gale Sayers talked about the movie Brian’s Song (maybe he could have given me a hint how not to cry every single time I see the movie.).  BB King revealed what his name stands for. Jack Benny demonstrated how to play the violin. Melba Moore told what it was like to open at the Apollo Theater. James Garner explained how he accidentally broke co-star Doris Day’s ribs, and Jacques Cousteau discussed the mystery of manatees.

And finally, I had to find out who was Cavett’s favorite interview, and who were the ones that got away? The two he never got to interview but always wished he had was an easier answer to find: Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.

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It was a lot harder to answer the first question.  If you read the other three blogs in this series, you know the other talk show hosts (Mike Douglas, Phil Donahue, and Tom Snyder) began careers in Ohio. I was hoping to find an Ohio link for Dick, and that’s when I found the answer to my question of his favorite interviewee.  Cavett landed in Cleveland at the end of his career, which seems fitting since he is ending this series.

He was talking about an upcoming show at The Nightclub in Cleveland and mentioned Jack Paar was his mentor. (Cavett wrote for The Tonight Show when Paar hosted it, and Paar began his career in Canton, Ohio; I know it’s one coincidence after another.) Jack told him he didn’t need humor, singing, or anything except a desire to have a conversation. Then Cavett said, “I watch clips from the shows when I’m invited to give a talk and they show them, and I’m always surprised by the number of little delightful moments I’ve forgotten. I watched a moment the other night when Groucho was on the show with [zoologist] Jim Fowler. And Fowler brought a sloth on the stage, and Groucho said, ‘That’s the lousiest-looking dog I’ve ever seen.’ I’d forgotten that. That was the same night Groucho proposed marriage to Truman Capote. . . .’I love to do Q&A with the audience, but there’s only one forbidden question, and it doesn’t have anything to do with sex or politics,’ he said. ‘The forbidden question is, Who has been your most interesting guest?’ . . . But then he went on to say that ‘If pushed to the wall, I have to admit that Groucho was the guest who meant the most to me.’ Cavett said that ‘In a letter from Miriam, Groucho’s daughter, she wrote, ‘My father thought the world of you.’ It gets me even now when I say that out loud.’”

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The unique Groucho Marx Photo: pinterest.com

In 2005 several box sets were released of some of Cavett’s shows. They are collected by theme of the interviewee such as The Rock Icons, etc. The network Decades, which recently went off the air, broadcast these shows also. Before the network was disbanded, I was able to watch about ten of these episodes, and they were as good as I had hoped for.

I have really enjoyed reviewing these talk show hosts and their guest interviews this month.  It makes me want to invite a bunch of friends over, one at a time, for coffee and conversation.  Just be forewarned, if I invite you over, I may have a list of questions I’ll want to be asking you.

Jeepers, Creepers, It’s Mister Peepers

Mister Peepers was one of the first popular sitcoms.  It aired from July of 1952 until June of 1955. The show starred Wally Cox as Robinson J. Peepers. Peepers was a junior high school science teacher. A great cast surrounded him including history teacher Harvey Weskit (Tony Randall), Harvey’s wife Marge (Georgann Johnson), county nurse Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit), English teacher Mrs. Gurney (Marion Lorne), and athletic coach Frank Whip (Jack Warden). (In the pilot, the coach was played by Walter Matthau.) Peepers developed a relationship with nurse Nancy, and her parents (Ernest Truex and Sylvia Field) also became part of the cast.

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The show featured some slapstick as well but it was not the primary form of humor. In one episode, the uncoordinated Mr. Peepers was playing basketball in the gym alone and somehow got stuck in the basket. In order to fulfill the evening obligations that he promised, he brings Mrs. Gurney’s flower club into the gym so he can lecture to them about potting soil while playing chess with a rival school’s champion as promised to Mr. Gurney.

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Mr. Peepers is kind. In one episode, after injuring his finger, absent-minded Mrs. Gurney tries to help by bandaging it.  In addition to using half a roll of tape, Robinson informs Nancy that she bandaged the wrong finger.

Mister Peepers is a likable guy. He has some eccentric characteristics which make us like him even more. For example, he has an elaborate ritual to get his locker to open; on bring your pet to school day, he has to hide a cow; and sometimes he does things we all want to. On one episode, he comes upon a hopscotch board on the sidewalk and just like we would want to do, he plays it not realizing his girlfriend is watching him. However, Robinson has a bit of rebellion and sarcasm that keeps him from being too much of a goody-two-shoes.

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Tony Randall’s character Harvey was supposed to be a small role, but the producers liked him so much he became a regular. He is best friends with Robinson but they couldn’t be more different. Harvey is a lady’s man. However, Mr. Peepers only has eyes for Nancy even though it takes her a while to realize he is interested in her. The couple ties the not in 1954, producing a huge ratings boost.

In real life, Cox was experiencing the same situation when he married Marilyn Gennaro about the same time. When Benoit became pregnant in real life, she was also pregnant on the show.

When the Peepers found out they were having a baby, American Character Dolls Co wanted to make a “Peepers Baby Doll” in 1955. Polling indicated that viewers were hoping for a girl, so it went into production. Mister Peepers was cancelled before the doll debuted, but the company sold it anyway, although they did change the name.

Photo: blogspot.com

The show was aired live with an audience of 2500 at the New Century Theatre in New York. Preserved on 16mm kinescopes, there are currently 102 of the original 127 episodes in existence.  The kinescopes are being preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive and a DVD set has been produced.

The Ford Motor Company needed a summer replacement on Thursday nights so Mister Peepers debuted then. NBC decided it was too much pressure to do a live show, so it was cancelled. Fans were irate. After 2000 people called to complain and 15000 letters were received, the network had second thoughts, but their schedule was full.

MR. PEEPERS — Aired 09/15/1953 — Pictured: (l-r) Wally Cox as Robinson Peepers, Tony Randall as Harvey Weskitt (Photo by NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images)

However, that fall, an opening occurred when Doc Corkle was cancelled after only three episodes. How bad does a show have to be to get axed after three episodes in 1952? I don’t know, but the summary of the show is that “Doc is a dentist plagued with money problems, teenage daughter problems, and a screwball stepsister Melinda.”

It says a lot about the quality of Mister Peepers that it was rated so highly and watched by so many fans because it was up against Private Secretary with Ann Sothern and The Jack Benny Show on Sunday nights. Tough competition.

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Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Critics liked the show and it was nominated for best situation comedy for the Emmys in 1953, 1954, and 1955. Wally Cox, Tony Randall, and Marion Lorne were all nominated as well. Each of the years the show was nominated it went up against Our Miss Brooks, Burns and Allen, and I Love Lucy which won in 1953 and 1954; Make Room for Daddy won in 1955. NBC made Wally Cox postcards which they handed out to tourists on the lot.

Wally Cox was an interesting guy. He was a brilliant man who studied acting with Stella Adler. His roommate was Marlon Brando whom he had been best friends with since grade school. His mother and grandmother were writers, and his dad was in advertising. Before he was able to earn a living in acting, he taught the lindy hop for $1.50 a lesson and made cuff links and tie clasps. While doing part-time jobs, he began doing standup at clubs like The Blue Angel and Village Vanguard.

Unfortunately, a lot of people will remember him only for his appearances on Hollywood Squares and as the voice of Underdog the cartoon hero. He was also famous for a Jockey Shorts commercial when he quipped, “Outside I might look like Wally Cox but inside I feel like Tyrone Power.” He passed away much too early, dying from a heart attack at 48.

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Although Wally Cox was not Mister Peepers, their humor was similar. Cox wasn’t brash but he experienced life with a quiet subtle manner and was a genuinely funny guy. In discussing his time on the show, Cox said, “Mr. Peepers put me on the map and I love him.” I’m sure like many actors who were stereotyped early in their career, it was a bit of a love/hate relationship.  I’m sure you will love him too if you are able to watch some of the episodes.  Retro TV aired them in the past, but I don’t see the show on its current schedule. I also found the DVDs on amazon.com. Happy viewing!

The Friendship and Careers of Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis

Fred Gwynne was born in New York in July of 1926 and died in Maryland in 1993.  Al Lewis was born in New York in April of 1923 and passed away in New York in February of 2006. At first glance, they don’t seem to have a lot in common, but a closer look reveals why they enjoyed a long friendship.

Fred Gwynne

Fred Gwynne grew up in New York and had a very wealthy and advantaged upbringing.  He was a radioman in the Navy during World War II.  When the war was over, Gwynne entered Harvard, studying drawing and dramatics. He became a member of their Hasty Pudding Club, being involved with many theatrical productions. Gwynne graduated in 1951 and went on to work for a Shakespeare repertory company. He was a talented man with a variety of interests and earned his living from several careers.  He was a copywriter, a musician, a book illustrator, and a commercial artist.

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In 1952, he made his Broadway debut, acting with Helen Hayes in “Mrs. McThing.” The play ran for 320 performances.  In 1953, he performed in his second Broadway play, “The Frogs of Spring” which had a much shorter run.  In 1954, he had a small role in On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando.

He also began appearing on television in the 1950s, and most of his roles were on dramas such as Kraft Theater or DuPont Show of the Week.

The one exception was The Phil Silvers Show where he appeared in 1955 and 1956. The producer of this show, Nat Hiken, went on to create a similar show called Car 54 Where Are You? about New York policemen.  He cast Gwynne as one of the leads, Francis Muldoon. The show ran for two seasons and when it was cancelled, Gwynne went back to his theatrical dramas.

In 1964, the creators of Leave It to Beaver, decided on a different concept for a show called The Munsters.  Fred was cast as the lead role.  While this show also ran two years, the part of Herman Munster was much harder to overcome than Francis Muldoon had been.  Gwynne struggled to find new roles, and when he was unsuccessful, he went back to Broadway.  He did make one pilot during these years for a show called Guess What I Did Today, but no network picked it up. His favorite Broadway performance was Big Daddy in 1974 when he starred in “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.”

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During the 1980s, his cinema career picked up and he ended up with 15 movies to his credit from 1979-1992. Included in this list are The Cotton Club, The Secret of My Success, Fatal Attraction, Ironweed, Pet Sematary, and My Cousin Vinny.

His book writing and illustrating also continued.  His first book, The Best in Show, was published in 1958.  The King Who Rained came out in 1970, and Simon and Schuster published A Chocolate Moose for Dinner in 1976 and A Little Pigeon Toad in 1988.

Throughout most of his career, Gwynne lived a quiet life far from Hollywood. He was married to his first wife Roxy from 1952-1980 and his second wife from 1981 until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1993.

Al Lewis

Al Lewis claimed he was born in 1910 and was a circus performer in the 1920s.  He also said he went to Columbia and graduated with a PhD in child psychology.  After he passed away, his son confirmed that he was born in 1923, and Columbia had no record of him attending school with his given name or his stage name.  His son thought he made himself older to get the role of Grandpa in The Munsters because in real life Yvonne DeCarlo was a year older than he was.

Some of his other jobs included a salesman,  hot dog vendor for the Brooklyn Dodgers, waiter, pool room owner, and store detective.  He was a good basketball player in high school and apparently worked as a basketball scout at some time in his early life. A friend convinced him to join an actor’s workshop in 1949 and that led to a career in vaudeville. In the 1950s and 1960s, he appeared in a variety of TV shows including US Steel Hour, Route 66, Lost in Space, and Gomer Pyle.  He too was cast in the Phil Silvers Show which later resulted in his role of Patrolman Leo Schnauzer in Car 54 Where Are You?

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In 1964, he too was offered a role in The Munsters. In 1966 when the show went off the air, he continued making television appearances and starred in cinema movies.  During the 1970s and 1980s, he appeared on Night Gallery, Green Acres, Love American Style, Here’s Lucy, Taxi, and Best of the West.  His career featured 22 films including They Shoot Horses Don’t They, Boatniks, Used Cars, Married to the Mob, and a remake of Car 54 Where Are You?

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Like Gwynne, he was married twice:  to Marge from 1956-1977 and to Karen from 1984 until his death from heart complications in 2006. Lewis also published several children’s books during his acting career.

Midway through his career he opened an Italian restaurant, Grandpa’s Bella Gente, which Gwynne designed the logo for. He also got into radio and was featured on Howard Stern’s Show often.

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It is surprising that both of these stars were in two sitcoms which both lasted only two years. Let’s take a look at the shows that made them household names.

Car 54 Where Are You?

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This sitcom, set in the 53rd precinct in Brooklyn was an early Barney Miller. Gwynne played Francis Muldoon.  His partner, Gunther Toody, was his exact opposite.  While Muldoon was a bachelor, an intellectual, calm and quiet, Toody was married, naïve, excitable, and talkative. In one show, when the precinct is debating splitting up the two men, Muldoon says “I guess most of the men are smarter than Gunther and less trouble than Gunther, but  . . . well, I’m so used to Gunther.  When he chatters away, the days just fly by.  I’d just be lost without Gunther.” Gunther concurs, “You mean ride around with someone next to me that’s not Muldoon? Francis is a quiet man. He doesn’t say a word. He just sits there all day thinking. It’s very comforting for a man like me to know there’s someone next to him doing the thinking for both of us.” Of course, they split them up only to partner them up again because no one else could take the silence or constant chatter.

Al Lewis played Officer Leo Schnauzer, appearing in every episode.

Policemen were split on their view of the show.  Some took offense and felt they were portrayed in a negative light, while others enjoyed it and identified with some of the comedic elements. It was filmed in The Bronx at Biograph Studio.  There was a large sign out front identifying it as the 53rd precinct till a woman came in pleading to save her from her abusive husband and the sign was quickly taken down.

Originally titled Snow Whites, the show aired at 8:30 eastern time Sunday nights between The Wide World of Disney and Bonanza.  The only clue I could find for the original name was that the show was sponsored by Proctor and Gamble who made several detergents for clothing. It was filmed in black and white, but the police cars were red and white so they would show up better on black and white film. The show also starred Beatrice Pons, Charlotte Rae, Nipsey Russell, Alice Ghostley, and Larry Storch.

Perhaps what the show is best remembered for was its catchy theme song.  Anyone who viewed an episode or two can probably remember the fun lyrics:

There’s a hold up in the Bronx, Brooklyn’s broken out in fights.

There’s a traffic jam in Harlem that’s backed up to Jackson Heights.

There’s a scout troop short a child; Kruschev’s due at Idlewild . . .

Car 54, where are you?

 

The Munsters

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In 1964, the creators of Leave It to Beaver decided to feature another “wholesome” family who just happens to live at 1313 Mockingbird Lane in Mockingbird Heights. The family consists of Grandpa who is always experimenting in his lab; Herman who is the funeral director at Gateman, Goodbury, and Graves; his wife Lilly, a vampire; their son Eddie who is a werewolf; and their beautiful black-sheep Marilyn.  Marilyn was beautiful but they viewed her as odd looking and she seemed to get a lot of dates but when she brings them home, they never ask her out again. The family also owns two pets – Spot, a prehistoric animal Grandpa rescued and Igor, a bat.  They lived a somewhat normal life but drank bat milk and cooked in a cauldron. On the hour, a cuckoo clock chimed and a raven, voiced by Mel Blanc, appeared and said “Nevermore.”

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All the actors had to endure a two-hour make-up session, but Gwynne had the worst time because he had to wear 40-50 pounds of padding.  One day he lost 10 pounds filming under the lights.  They gave him gallons of lemonade between takes and later rigged a way to blow cool air on him underneath the material.

The entire family could have been played by different actors.  John Carradine was offered the role of Herman. The pilot featured Joan Marshall as the wife and instead of Lilly, her name was Phoebe. Marilyn was played by Beverly Owens for 13 episodes and then Pat Priest took over for the rest of the show’s run. Eddie was first offered to Bill Mumy, Will Robinson from Lost in Space, and Grandpa to Bert Lahr from The Wizard of Oz.

After the show was cancelled, the Munster mobile often traveled to memorabilia shows.  There was also a Dragula built with purple silk upholstery and chrome pipes for the exhaust. Although the show was only on the air for two years, there were a lot of collectibles such as board games, lunch boxes, paper dolls, and coloring books.

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In 2001, the McKee family of Waxahachie, Texas was such a huge fan of the show that the family built their 5000+ square foot house to exactly resemble the Munsters’ home including the crooked weather vane and grand staircase that lifted up to feed Spot.

Both Gwynne and Lewis were born in New York.  They both appeared on the show Brenner early in their careers. Both were tapped from their roles in The Phil Silvers Show to play roles on Car 54 Where Are You? They both went on to star in The Munsters.  Neither of them ever had another series.  They both chose to live on the east coast. They both wrote children’s books.  They were each married twice and married to their second spouse for the rest of their lives. They both had a lot of success in the movies as well as television. They were both men with fascinating careers before they ever entered acting.  I learned a lot about these interesting friends.  Happy Birthday to Fred Gwynne would have been 91.