I Spy: With My Little Eye A Very Sophisticated Show

As we continue our crime-solving duos series, today we learn about I Spy featuring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. They were a pair of spies who traveled the world posing as tennis pro, Kelly Robinson, and his coach, Alexander “Scotty” Scott. They work for the Special Services Agency which was part of the Pentagon. The show aired on NBC from 1965-1968.

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David Friedkin and Morton Fine, writers, and Fouad Said, cinematographer, formed Triple F Productions. The show was filmed at Desilu Productions. Fine and Friedkin took on co-producing the show. Friedkin also appeared as a guest actor in two of the episodes. Continuing the job-sharing duties was was Sheldon Leonard. Leonard was the executive producer. He also directed one of the episodes and guest starred on the show.

The theme music was written by Earle Hagen. (For more on Hagen and his composition of music from the series, see my blog dated)He also wrote specific music for each of the countries the team visited. He received Emmy nominations all three years, winning in 1968.

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Cosby’s character was written as an older mentor to Robinson, but Sheldon Leonard changed the role once he saw Cosby perform. Culp said Cosby was not very interested in the series and insulted the producers during his audition. Culp acted as a mediator and Cosby was hired.

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Like future shows such as Miami Vice, The X-Files, or Castle, the partners had great chemistry. They had witty and clever dialogue and often improvised much of their banter. Friendship was the main theme of the show, not the crimes. The actors developed a close friendship that lasted long after the show did. The characters were also very different. Culp was the athlete who lived by his wits. Cosby was the intellectual who didn’t drink or smoke.

This was the first TV drama to feature a black actor in a lead role. Some of the NBC affiliates in the south refused to air the series. Truly a color-blind series, the two spies did not encounter racial issues. It also made history– being one of the first shows to be filmed in exotic locations around the world. The pair visited Acapulco, Athens, Florence, Hong Kong, Madrid, Morocco, Paris, Tokyo, and Venice.

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Like the western genre in the 1950s, spy shows were popular in the 1960s. Unlike Get Smart or the Man From UNCLE, I Spy was more realistic. The duo didn’t rely on unbelievable gadgets or campy villains.

Some of the episodes had more comedy than others. “Chrysanthemum” was inspired by The Pink Panther. The episode, “Mainly on the Plains” starring Boris Karloff, was about an eccentric scientist who thinks he’s Don Quixote. However, many shows took on more serious and contemporary themes. “The Tiger” was set in Vietnam.

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During the three seasons the show aired, an incredible number of guest stars chose to work on the show. Some of these talented celebrities included Jim Backus, Victor Buono, Wally Cox, Delores Del Rio, Will Geer, Gene Hackman, Joey Heatherton, Ron Howard, Boris Karloff, Sally Kellerman, Eartha Kitt, Martin Landau, Peter Lawford, Julie London, Vera Miles, Carroll O’Connor, Don Rickles, George Takei, Cicely Tyson, Leslie Uggams, and Mary Wickes.

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Both Culp and Cosby were nominated all three years for Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, with Cosby winning all three years.

While the series was extremely popular, it was always over budget due to the high costs of filming. During the third season, ratings began to decline. The show was moved from Wednesdays to Mondays. It was on against The Carol Burnett Show. Unfortunately, the network refused to move the show back to its original night. They offered Sheldon the choice of renewing the show in the current time slot or the chance at creating a new series. Leonard realized that Culp and Cosby were tired of the show and ready to move on. In all, 82 episodes were filmed. 

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The show holds up well today.  The dialogue is timeless, and scripts are sophisticated and well written. The plots are realistic, but they are secondary to the relationship of Robinson and Scott. The exotic locations add a romance and intrigue to the show as well. The complete series is available on DVD and well worth watching.

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Of course, it’s hard to talk about a Cosby show without acknowledging the effect his legal issues have had on his work.  While I don’t condone his behavior and am sad that someone so talented (and preachy about character) would resort to such offensive actions, what makes me even sadder is that both I Spy and The Cosby Show were wonderful shows that featured talented casts. That so many people have to suffer because one person’s actions were unethical and selfish seems unfair.

One thing I’ve had to learn doing my research on all these classic shows is sometimes you have to separate the character from the actor. It’s possible to love a character even when the actor or actress who portrays them is a crummy human being. Of course, there are more of the other scenarios. Fred MacMurray was every bit as nice as Steve Douglas and Howard McNear was even nicer than Floyd.

Hopefully these shows get their due and their reputation for their well-written scripts overcomes the stain Cosby saddled the shows with.

Make Room for Daddy: The Show That Persevered

As we wind up our salute to fathers during Father’s Day month, we finish with Make Room for Daddy. This iconic show doesn’t get the respect that I Love Lucy did, but it is one of the first iconic family sitcoms. This sitcom had to survive cast changes, network moves, and ratings fluctuations.

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The show debuted on ABC in 1953. In 1957, it moved to CBS until 1964 when it went off the air. Danny Williams (Danny Thomas), a nightclub singer and comedian, tries to balance his work life with his family life. Danny obviously loves his children but is not an overly affectionate dad and is just as likely to tell his son Rusty, “I love you, you little jerk.”

In March of 1953, Thomas singed a contract for the show and picked Desilu Studios for filming because of their three-camera method. Several of the working titles for the show were “The Children’s Hour” and “Here Comes Daddy.”

The title of the show was from a Thomas family joke. Whenever Danny was away for work, his children had the run of the house. They slept in the master bedroom with their mother, even putting clothes in the dresser there, so when he came home from a tour or a filming, he told them it was time to spread out and “make room for daddy.”

Danny has three children (two in seasons 1-4 and three in seasons 5 and after): Terry (Sherry Jackson and later Penney Parker), Linda (Lelani Sorenson, then Angela Cartwright), and Rusty (Rusty Hamer). The first three seasons his wife Margaret was played by Jean Hagen. They had Terry and Rusty. Louise (Louise Beavers) was their maid. When Beavers passed away, Amanda Randolph took over the role. Terry was later played by Penney Parker. Mary Tyler Moore auditioned for the role, but Danny felt Mary’s nose did not match his as well as Parker’s.

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The show was filmed live before 300 people, so there was a lot of pressure on the younger kids to know their lines. All three children continued in successful acting careers after the show. (Unfortunately, Hamer had a harder time finding good roles as an adult and committed suicide at 42. Cartwright left acting to focus on a career as a photographer.  Jackson continued acting.)

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With Danny Thomas’s connections, you can imagine the quality of guest stars this show was able to feature. Some of the bigger names include Lucille Ball, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Durante, Shirley Jones, and Dinah Shore. If you looked at a Who’s Who in Comedy Sitcoms, you would find a huge percentage of them on this show.

Like many shows from this era, the original sponsor was The American Tobacco Company, advertising its brands like Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, and Tareyton.

While the theme song went through variations during the run of the show, it was always a version of “Danny Boy.”

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The show was popular and did well in the ratings but had not made the top 30 after three years. Jean Hagen decided to leave the show.

At the beginning of the fourth season, the title changed to The Danny Thomas Show. Thomas and producer Sheldon Leonard were trying to decide how to explain Hagen’s absence. Divorce was not acceptable and filling the same role with another actress didn’t seem like a good option either. They decided to have her die between seasons.

The emphasis of the show now switched to Danny being a widower. The family moved from their home to an apartment. Danny dated occasionally and almost got engaged to singer before learning she didn’t like children. The ratings were declining with the new format, so it was decided to have Danny marry again.

Mary Wickes played the role of Liz O’Neal, Danny’s press agent from 1955-1957.

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Mary Wickes in the background

At the end of the 1957 season, Rusty becomes ill, and Danny hires Kathy O’Hara (Marjorie Lord) as his nurse. Kathy was a widow with a young girl (Lelani Sorenson). Danny and the kids both fall in love with her and they become engaged in the season finale. ABC cancelled the show, but NBC was looking for a show to take over the spot of I Love Lucy which was ending its production, so they took it over and put it on the schedule for the fall of 1957.

The first episode of the fifth season “Lose Me in Las Vegas” centered on Danny and Kathy who had married an were on their honeymoon. Angela Cartwright took over the role of Kathy’s daughter from Sorenson. Danny adopted Linda. The family moved into a larger apartment. The ratings skyrocketed, and it was the number 2 show by the end of the season.

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Sherry Jackson decided to leave the show during season six, and her absence was explained by her going to a school in Paris. Jackson had a five-year contract which she honored. She and Hagen had been very close, and Jackson wanted to leave when Hagen did, but Hagen only had a three-year contract.

In season seven, Terry comes back, now played by Penney Parker. During the season she gets engaged and eventually marries Pat (Pat Harrington Jr.), a friend of Danny’s. Terry and Pat move to California and are rarely mentioned afterward.

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Make Room for Daddy might have had the first spinoff of a character not in the cast. In one of the episodes from 1960, “Danny Meets Andy Griffith,” Danny is pulled over in Mayberry and is detained in the jail. Sheriff Andy Taylor is featured in the show, and The Andy Griffith Show was created.

“The Danny Thomas Show” (aka “Make Room for Daddy”) Pat Carroll, Sid Melton circa 1950s Photo by Gabi Rona

For the final two seasons, Danny and Kathy traveled for much of the series. They toured Europe while Rusty and Linda stayed home with Danny’s manager Charlie (Sid Melton) and his wife Bunny (Pat Carroll). Thomas decided to retire from the show in 1964. The show ended on a high note, still ranking number nine.

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Although the show ended in 1964, NBC brought back the main cast of Thomas, Lord, Cartwright, Hamer, Jackson, Randolph, and Hans Conried, Uncle Tonoose, to star in a two-hour reunion special, The Danny Thomas TV Family Reunion.  Having a reunion show was another first accomplished by this sitcom.

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In 1969, CBS created their own reunion special, titled Make Room for Grandaddy. It had such high ratings that CBS put it on the schedule, but Thomas didn’t like the time slot and pulled the show.

In 1970, ABC tried again. Sherry Jackson again was Terry, but her husband now was Bill; what happened to Pat? Terry had a six-year-old son Michael (Michael Hughes) whom Terry left with Danny and Kathy (still played by Thomas and Lord) to join Bill, a soldier stationed overseas. The show only lasted one year. One of the reasons given was that Sheldon Leonard was no longer controlling the scripts and actors, and the show was moved from Wednesdays to Thursdays during the season.

The show was so popular with kids that a comic book series was developed.

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As I mentioned, this show does not get the credit it deserves. While Danny tended to be short-tempered and Kathy was the voice of reason, the scripts for the entire series were well written and realistic. It had an extremely talented cast. Unlike some series, the children really carried the show. The children acted like children, not mature adults, in most ways, but they created great characters and were very funny. Rusty always had a viewpoint on any given situation. Their moments are the ones that make this show so memorable. Many of the episodes center around the kids. A typical example is “Casanova Junior ” : Rusty hasn’t asked a girl to the school dance because he has no confidence. Danny gives him some pointers and now the girls are falling all over themselves to go out with Rusty. The only problem is Rusty, he’s gone from no confidence to treating the girls badly and Danny is not happy about it.

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The show ended in the top ten. It created the first sitcom spinoff of a non-cast member and the first reunion movie. I specify “non-cast” member because December Bride included Pete Porter in its cast, and he talked about his wife Gladys. Later the show Pete and Gladys was created.

Despite the challenges it faced with cast members coming and going, the change from ABC to NBC, and the characters growing up on the show with changed the dynamics of the series, the show continued to garner great ratings and was given a second life in a new series in Make Room for Grandaddy. Along with The Donna Reed Show, it was one of the trend-setting family sitcoms from the 1950s and ’60s.

Just a Couple of Characters, Part 4: Mary Wickes and Susan Oliver

We wrap up our series Just a Couple of Characters this week with Mary Wickes and Susan Oliver. Mary and Susan are very different character actors, but you will immediately recognize them. Let’s learn a bit more.

Mary Wickes

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It’s not surprising that Mary shortened her last name to “Wickes” after being born Mary Wickenhauser in 1910 in St. Louis. Her father was a banker, and the family had plenty of money. After high school, Mary attended Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in political science, planning a career in law. One of her professors suggested she try theater, and she dipped her toe into it doing summer theater in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

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After deciding a career in acting was for her, she moved to New York. She quickly found a role in “The Farmer Takes a Wife” on Broadway in 1934. In this show, which starred Henry Fonda, Mary was Margaret Hamilton’s understudy. Mary had a chance to perform during the run and received excellent reviews.

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The Man Who Came to Dinner

Mary understood that comedy was the field she needed to pursue. She was lucky enough to continue getting roles on Broadway, appearing in several shows throughout the 1930s, including “Stage Door” in 1936 and “Hitch Your Wagon” in 1937. She also was cast in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” as Nurse Preen with Monty Woolley. She continued to receive encouraging reviews. When Warner Brothers decide to turn the play into a movie, both Mary and Woolley were part of the cast. Mary became known for being a bit sarcastic and witty. She was given roles in the film, Now Voyager with Bette Davis, again playing a nurse.

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By the Light of the Silvery Moon

Mary flip flopped from Broadway to Hollywood, taking roles that interested her. She would appear in both Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) with Doris Day; White Christmas (1954), and The Music Man (1962).

Mary had cornered the market in roles of smart-alecky teachers, nurses, and housekeepers in film. When she transitioned to television, she often continued in these roles. Her first two recurring roles were housekeepers named Alice on Halls of Ivy from 1954-55 and Katie on Annette in 1958. From 1956-1958, she played Liz O’Neill, Danny Thomas’s press agent on Make Room for Daddy. Throughout the 1950s she also appeared on numerous shows including Zorro.

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One of my favorite episodes with Mary was the 1952 episode “The Ballet” on I Love Lucy where Wickes played Madame Lamond, a formidable ballet teacher who taught Lucy. Wickes and Lucy would remain life-long friends. After Mary’s death, Lucie Arnez talked about her relationship with their family: “For my brother and me, Mary was just like one of the family. If any of us were sick or even in bed with a cold, Mary would show up at the backdoor with a kettle of chicken soup. She could be loud and boisterous and as demanding as any of the characters she played, but she was also very loving and giving. What a lady.” Mary would appear on numerous episodes of Lucille Ball’s other shows in the 1960s and 1970s.

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In the 1960s, Mary continued to show up on a variety of shows. We see her on My Three Sons, Bonanza, F-Troop, The Doris Day Show, The Donna Reed Show, and I Spy. She also had recurring roles on three shows during the decade: The Gertrude Berg Show, Dennis the Menace, and Temple Houston. In the Gertrude Berg Show, Mary was landlady, Winona Maxfield. She was hilarious on Dennis the Menace, playing Miss Cathcart, an older neighbor looking for a man. On Temple Houston, she played Ida Goff. Temple was Sam Houston’s real son who was a circuit-riding lawyer.  

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The cast of Doc

As Mary aged, she progressed to the cranky relative or nosy neighbor type of character. In the 1970s she was a regular on Julia, Doc, and The Jimmy Stewart Show. On Julia, she was Dr. Chegley’s wife, Melba. She went back to her role as a nurse on Doc. On the Jimmy Stewart Show, she is Mrs. Bullard. Two of my favorite episodes of her from the 1970s were her roles on Columbo and M*A*S*H. On Columbo, Mary plays a landlady of a victim who’s been murdered. She and Columbo have a priceless conversation during the show, “Suitable for Framing” in 1971. On M*A*S*H, Mary played Colonel Reese who is observing Margaret and the nurses.

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In the 1980s, Mary’s schedule slowed down a bit. She did revive her role as a maid on The Love Boat in 1981. From 1989-1991, she took another regular role as housekeeper Marie Murkin on Father Dowling Mysteries.

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In the 1990s, Mary was doing more voice overs. She taped five episodes of Life with Louie which aired from 1995-1997 and was Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996. Unfortunately, she would not live to see them on the big screen. In 1995, she passed away after having respiratory problems. While a patient in the hospital, she fell and broke her hip. She died of complications caused by the surgery.

Mary never married or had children and as part of her legacy, she left a $2 million donation in memory of her parents to the Television, Film and Theater Arts at Washington University.

Susan Oliver

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More than twenty years younger than Wickes, Susan Oliver was born in 1932 in New York City. Her real name as Charlotte Gercke. Her father was a political reporter for the New York World. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, and she grew up in boarding schools. She traveled with her father to Japan when he took a post there. She studied at the Tokyo International College, studying American pop culture. While Wickes was the wise-cracking comedic foil, Oliver was often the leading lady character with blue eyes, blonde hair and heart-shaped face.

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on The Wild Wild West

In 1949, she traveled to LA to see her mother who had found her niche as “astrologer to the stars.” Susan then enrolled at Swarthmore College. After graduation, she continued acting courses at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse.

Her first Broadway part came in 1957 as the daughter or a Revolutionary veteran, “Small War on Murray Hill.”

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Returning to LA, she started a film career. Though she would appear in 15 big-screen movies, television is where she spent most of her time. She put in her due diligence in the 1950s and 1960s. Her first job was on The Goodyear Playhouse in 1955. She continued with a lot of drama and theater for the first few years of her career. She took roles in a variety of shows including: Father Knows Best, Suspicion, The David Niven Show, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, Route 66, The Fugitive, The Andy Griffith Show, Ben Casey, Mannix, Dr. Kildare, The Man from UNCLE, I Spy, Gomer Pyle, My Three Sons, and the Wild, Wild West.

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I read several times that she turned down lead roles in series to retain her independence, but I never read any specific roles she turned down. In 1966 she accepted a recurring role of Ann Howard in Peyton Place. She had signed a contract for a year, but after five months, her character was killed on the show. She made a pilot for a show titled, “Apartment in Rome” that did not sell.

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on Peyton Place

Oliver never did get another show of her own, but she continued to guest on shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including Love American Style, Gunsmoke, The FBI, Streets of San Francisco, The Love Boat, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, and Simon and Simon.

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on Murder She Wrote

One of the reasons, she didn’t want to be tied down was her interest in flying. In 1959, a Boeing 707 she was a passenger on plummeted 30,000 feet for the Atlantic Ocean before leveling out. After that scare, she decided to learn to become a pilot. In 1964, she started flying single-engine planes. Bill Lear brought her on board to become the first woman to train on his new Lear Jet. She would star in a movie about Amelia Earhart. She also later wrote about her flying experiences in an autobiography, Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey in 1983.

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In the mid-1970s, she stopped accepting most acting roles and quit flying. She enrolled at the 1974 AFI Directing Workshop for Women with peers Lily Tomlin, Margot Kidder, Kathleen Nolan, and Maya Angelou. During the final season of M*A*S*H she directed an episode of the show. She would later direct an episode of Trapper John, MD.

At age 58, Oliver was diagnosed with colorectal, and eventually lung, cancer. She died in 1990.

Oliver was an interesting actress. Apparently, she loved acting, but never wanted to be tied down. She not only was a aviator and director but a writer. She was a practicing Buddhist and a baseball expert as well.

Wickes and Oliver were very different women with very different interests and acting roles. They both remained single and devoted themselves to their careers. But they were both women who were always in demand for their acting ability.