During the month of November we are going to learn about a few of my favorite crime dramas. As the saying goes, “Ladies first,” so we are beginning with Cagney & Lacey starring Sharon Gless and Tyne Daly.
The show debuted in March 1982 and continued to May of 1988. We solve cases with a pair of detectives that seem very different from each other. Christine Cagney (Gless) is a career woman all the way while Mary Beth Lacey (Daly) is also busy raising her family. Cagney’s mother had been a well-to-do professional career woman. She was involved with Charles Cagney, a police officer; the two separated soon after the birth of Chris and her brother Brian. She swung back and forth between the upper-class world and the blue-collar world her father traveled in. She was also an admitted alcoholic and was only committed to her job. Lacey was louder and more talkative and quick to express her opinions. She was a mother first–living in a solidly middle-class world. The duo works in the 14th precinct in Manhattan. Unlike other crime dramas of the past, these two partners were not best friends. They did, however, totally depend on each other and trusted and respected each other. They would die for each other, if necessary, but they never had a close relationship or hung out together after work.
In the pilot movie, Loretta Swit from M*A*S*H was cast as Cagney; when the show was a go, she could not get out of her M*A*S*H contract, so the role was given to Meg Foster, but when it came back the next season, Gless took over and stayed for the rest of the run of the series. According to CBS, Foster was seen as too aggressive.
Filling out the primary cast was their supervisor, Lt. Bert Samuels (Al Waxman), fellow detectives Marus Petrie (Carl Lumbly) and Victor Isbecki (Martin Koye), and veteran detective Paul La Guardia (Sidney Clute). John Karlen played Lacey’s husband Harvey and her two sons were Harvey Jr. (Tony La Torre) and Michael (Troy Slaten). Cagney was involved with Sgt Dory McKenna (Barry Primus) who struggled with drug addiction and, later, a local attorney, David Keeler (Stephen Macht).
The show was actually canceled after six episodes in 1982. Executive producer Barney Rosenzweig was on a mission to reverse the decision. (Fun fact, Rosenzweig was married to the co-creator of the show, Barbara Corday, at the time, but later married Sharon Gless.) After casting Gless, the network relented. Ratings the next year weren’t that great either. CBS again canceled the show. Fans staged a letter-writing campaign to protest; Daly won the Emmy that year, so the network once again brought the show back. However, by the time they reached that decision, the sets had been destroyed and the stars let out of the contracts. Critics had always loved the show and during the six seasons it was on, either Gless or Daly won the Emmy for Best Lead Actress in a Drama every year. (It actually earned 36 nominations total with 14 wins overall including Best Drama in 1985 and 1986.) Season three found the show in the top ten.
Airing Monday nights, it held its own against Monday Night Football. However, midway through season seven, it was moved to Tuesdays up against thirtysomething. By spring, Cagney and Lacey had slipped to 53rd place and the network canceled it for the third time.
The theme song for the first season was “Ain’t That the Way” by Michael Stull and sung by Marie Cain. Season two brought about a new beginning using an instrumental theme composed by Bill Conti.
Although the series was over, the duo of Cagney and Lacey continued to attract viewers. They appeared in four made-for-television movies: The Return in 1994, Together Again in 1995, The View Through the Glass Ceiling in 1995, and True Convictions in 1996.
No big surprise for those of you who regularly read my blog–a reboot was put together in January of 2018 featuring Sarah Drew and Michelle Hurd as Cagney and Lacey. In an echo from the past, the pilot was rejected by CBS.
Cagney and Lacey was an influential show. It was more than a show about two women leads though. It was brilliantly written and tackled tough issues: breast cancer, alcoholism, trying to balance the life of a mother with a career. The characters were two of the most interesting characters on television. They redefined what women could be; they acted and appeared like real women in their thirties. They were not Charlie’s Angels.
Cagney and Lacey were not close friends but Gless and Daly surely are. In an interview with Sarah Crompton in December of 2011, she described them as “sassy and attractive, they sit alongside each other, cracking jokes, finishing each other’s sentences.”
I love that we all can search for our dreams on television. Sharon Gless shared that “All my life, I sat in front of the little TV that we had and I watched the Oscars every year. My little heart would get so excited and where I lived in Hancock Park you could see the lights in the sky from the Hollywood Theater. Now I’ve made my career in television . . . this year I got into the Motion Picture Academy.” I love to picture another little girl sitting in her living room, watching Cagney andLacey and dreaming about becoming a police officer.
We are up close and personal this month with some of our favorite male television stars, and Pernell Roberts is definitely on that short list. Pernell Roberts was well known to television viewers in the early sixties and the early eighties. Some fans might not even realize the two characters he was best known for, Adam Cartwright on Bonanza and Dr. John McIntyre on Trapper John, MD were played by the same man.
Pernell Elven Roberts Jr. was born an only child in 1928. He was named for his father who was a Dr. Pepper salesman. During high school, Roberts played the horn, acted in several school and church plays, played basketball, and sang in the local USO shows. He enrolled at Georgia Tech but then enlisted in the US Marine Corps. He played both the tuba and horn in the Marine Corps Band while sometimes tackling the sousaphone and percussion parts. After his time in the Marines, he enrolled at the University of Maryland where he enjoyed participating in classical theater. He left college to continue his acting career.
In 1949, he had his professional stage debut in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” with Moss Hart and Kitty Carlisle. He then took on several roles in Philadelphia.
In 1951, Roberts married Vera Mowry; she was a professor of theatre history at Washington State University. They divorced in 1959. They had one son who was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1989.
In 1952, Roberts made the big move to New York City appearing in off-Broadway shows. Several of his costars were Joanne Woodward and Robert Culp. He performed several Shakespeare roles.
In 1956, Roberts made his television debut in Kraft Theatre. In 1957, he signed with Columbia Pictures. His first big-screen role was as Burl Ives’ son in Desire Under the Elms. His second role was with Glenn Ford and Shirley MacLaine in The Sheepman.
Roberts continued to accept television roles with ten appearances in 1958 and six in 1959.
From 1959-1965 he would portray Adam Cartwright, Ben’s oldest son on Bonanza. Each of the brothers had a different mother, and Adam was the only Cartwright to attend college, studying architectural engineering. After acting in classical theater for so much of his early career, the transition to a weekly series was a difficult one for Roberts. He thought it a bit ridiculous that the independent sons had to get their father’s permission for everything they did. He wanted to act in a show with greater social relevance. So, although the show would continue until 1973, he left in 1965 after appearing in 202 episodes. The storyline was that Adam was traveling in Europe or living on the east coast. Bonanza producer David Dortort said Roberts was “rebellious, outspoken . . . and aloof, but could make any scene he was in better.”
During this time on the show, Roberts married again in 1962; he wed Judith Roberts and they would divorce in 1971.
After leaving Bonanza, Roberts returned to theater, playing a variety of roles. He toured with many musicals including “The King and I”, “Kiss Me Kate”, “Camelot”, and “The Music Man.”
Pernell also became involved in the civil rights movement, joining Dick Gregory, Joan Baez, and Harry Belafonte in the sixties demonstrations including the March on Selma.
From 1972-1996, Roberts was married to Kara Knack. They also divorced.
Throughout the late sixties and seventies, Pernell continued appearing in television series and made-for-tv movies. You’ll see him in westerns such as Gunsmoke, The Big Valley, and The Virginian; spy genres including Wild Wild West, Mission Impossible, and The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.; crime shows including Hawaii Five-0, Mannix, Police Story, Ironside, Cannon, and TheRockford Files; and several medical series—Marcus Welby, West SideMedical, and Quincy. He even showed up on The Twilight Zone and The OddCouple.
Perhaps he enjoyed those medical shows because he returned to television to star in his own series in 1979, playing Trapper John, MD. The plot was featured Trapper John from M*A*S*H later in his career at San Francisco Memorial Hospital where he was Chief of Surgery. He worked with a young surgeon who had also served in a MASH unit, Alonzo “Gonzo” Gates (Gregory Harrison). The series lasted seven seasons.
In 1979, he told TV Guide that he chose to return to a weekly show because he had “seen his father age and realized it was a vulnerable time to be without financial security.” Roberts felt the role allowed him to use his dramatic range of acting skills and to address important social issues.
In the 1990s, Roberts took on very few television appearances; his last television performance was in Diagnosis: Murder in 1997.
Roberts would attempt marriage one last time in 1999 when he wed Eleanor Criswell. When Pernell passed away in 2010 from pancreatic cancer after being diagnosed in 2007, they were still together.
Pernell also enjoyed golfing, swimming, playing tennis, running, reading, cooking, and singing. He appeared on two record albums during his career. The cast of Bonanza recorded an album in 1959 and he released a folk music album in 1962, titled “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies.”
He certainly had a long and varied career: music, movies, Broadway, and television. He also used his fame to help causes he believed in. I don’t think he is remembered as well as he should be. Maybe it’s because he left Bonanza too early to be included on a lot of the memorabilia that came out of that show or because there was such a gap between his two series that he starred in. Whatever the reason, I hope this blog has helped recall some of our memories of the three decades he spent entertaining us.
We are in the middle of our “What A Character” blog series. No overview of television character actors during the golden age would be complete without Bernard Fox.
Fox was meant to be an actor. He was born to Queenie and Gerald Lawson in Glamorgan, Wales. Both his parents were actors. Fox had his first film role at the age of 18 months. By 14 he was an apprentice assistant manager of a theater.
Bernard served with the Royal Navy during WWII as a minesweeper and then in the Korean War. From 1956-2004 he made more than 30 films. Ironically, he was in two different Titanic movies. In 1958 at the beginning of his career, he was in A Night to Remember and in 1997, at the end of his career, he was in the Oscar-nominated Titanic. He liked to say that he was the only person to survive the Titanic twice.
He began his television career in 1955 when he received a recurring role on the United Kingdom show Sixpenny Corner as Tom Norton. The show was centered around Bill and Sally Norton, a young married couple who ran a garage together. Fox played Bill’s youngest brother.
Eventually, he made his way to the United States. His first US show was in Wire Service in 1957, a show filmed at the Desilu studio. His next seven shows were filmed in the United Kingdom.
Fox mentioned that being a character actor was a mental strain. Early in his career, he had to worry about when the next job would be coming. He did post office work, logging, and other interesting jobs to get by. Once he got to America, he was able to rely on his acting career and didn’t have to moonlight anymore.
In 1962, he married his wife Jacqueline. They had two daughters. The same year he was back on US television with a regular role on The Danny Thomas Show. He played Danny’s English friend, Alfie Wingate. In 1963 he appeared on Ensign O’Toole, The Great Adventure, and General Hospital. The mid-sixties showed him in a variety of shows including McHale’s Navy, Perry Mason, The Dick Van Dyke Show, F-Troop, I Spy, I Dream of Jeannie, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Farmer’s Daughter.
He had another recurring role during this era on The Andy Griffith Show as Andy’s friend/valet Malcolm Merriweather. Fox appeared on the show in season three. We see him pedaling his bike next to Andy’s squad car at Andy’s house and says, “Excuse me, Constable.” When Andy understands what he is saying, he explains that he is the sheriff. With all the quirky characters in Mayberry, Malcolm fit right in and it’s a charming scene.
He continued receiving regular work in the late sixties for The Monkees; The Wild, Wild West; Here Come the Brides; and Daniel Boone.
Bernard did not enjoy his time on The Monkees set. He called them “an amateur bunch of rabble rousers . . . a bunch of unprofessional idiots.” He said that “they’d have cans of chocolates or something in the cupboards and in between shots, they’d be cramming chocolates in their mouths.” Fox was amazed, he said he got used to it but “professionally speaking, I expected a bit more.”
It was in the late sixties that he received the role he may be best known for: Dr. Bombay on Bewitched.
In an interview on bewitched.net, Fox was asked about his popular character, Dr. Bombay. He said that the spin he put on the doctor made him more interesting, saying, “If I’d just gone for an ordinary doctor, you wouldn’t have heard any more about it. But because I made him such a colorful character, that’s why they wanted him back.” He said the character was “easy to write for” and the writers had him being summoned from all over the world. He showed up in a variety of costumes including a wet suit, a football uniform, a toga, a towel, and a matador costume among others.
Bernard discussed the stars on Bewitched. He said Marion Lorne was a “dear lady.” When asked about Agnes Moorhead, he said she was a “thoroughly professional lady” and that praise from her was a thrilling thing to get. He said that he “liked Dick very much, a fine actor. He was a darling man.” And about Elizabeth, he said, “she was always very sweet and knew her lines.” She liked to bet on horses and whenever she won, she treated the cast to a party on the set. He also said once she found out he had a vegetable garden, she got him a subscription to Gourmet Magazine which she renewed every year.
He fondly recalled one episode where he was supposed to be squeezing a lemon into clam dip. When he squeezed it, it went in Elizabeth’s eye. The director yelled, “cut” and re-filmed it, but it happened again. The director said, “Bet you can’t do it a third time,” but he did, so they left it in the show.
His career did not slow down in the seventies where you could watch him on The Partridge Family, Night Gallery, Love American Style, Columbo, Cannon, Soap, and MASH. When asked about his appearance on The Partridge Family, Fox said, “Oh, I loved Shirley, she’s a doll, she’s a really nice lady.”
Following the pattern, he also had a recurring role in this decade as Colonel Crittendon on Hogan’s Heroes. As Crittendon, he was incompetent and dense and drove Colonel Hogan crazy with his ineptness.
In his bewitched.net interview, Fox also discussed his role on Hogan’s Heroes a bit. He said that in one episode he had hidden some maps in a corn bin. When he lifted the lid, it came down on his head. He just put the lid up and carried on with the script. When the director asked about reshooting, Fox said it was fine, and they left it in the film. He did say when he was playing a role on Hogan’s Heroes and Bewitched at the same time, it could get a bit confusing. They typically worked it out. For example, he said one time the studios agreed that Fox would be on the Bewitched set Tuesday and Wednesday and on Hogan’s Heroes Thursday and Friday.
Offers did slow down a bit in the eighties and nineties, and he ventured into animation work during those two decades. However, he still accepted offers for Fantasy Island, Lou Grant, The Love Boat, Hart to Hart, The Jeffersons, Simon and Simon, and Murder She Wrote among others.
His last acting credit occurred in 2001 for Dharma and Greg.
Not only was Fox an actor but he was an expert in history of the theater. For fun, he enjoyed gardening, painting landscapes, and performing magic.
In 2016, Fox died from heart failure.
I’m so glad he was able to find a successful career on television in the United States. After learning in a previous blog what a legend Marion Lorne was in England where she lived much of her life, I like to think about Aunt Clara and Dr. Bombay sharing some time talking about the delightful English ways that they missed. Hopefully they served tea on the set once in a while.
Before we get into this month’s series, I just wanted to say a big THANK YOU to all of you who read my blog. Today is my 300th blog post. I have absolutely thoroughly enjoyed getting to know so many classic television cast and crew members, and I have learned so much the past six years. This month we are looking at “Life with Pets” blog series by learning a bit more about some of the classic shows about families and their pets. So far, we have learned about some unusual pets: monkeys, dolphins, and bears. Today is no exception; we are looking at the series Born Free which featured a lion.
Like Flipper and Gentle Ben, Born Free was also based on a movie titled Born Free. which was released in 1966. In 1974, it became a television series. The film was based on a true story. Considering how many people fondly remember the show, I was surprised to learn that it only was on the air from September to December.
The show tells the story of George (Gary Collins) and Joy Adamson (Diana Muldaur) who lived in Kenya with their lioness Elsa. George and Joy were game wardens who helped care for wildlife. They primarily protected them from weather disasters and poachers. Part of the show’s mission was to educate viewers about animal conservation. Other cast members included Hal Frederick as Makedde; Dawn Lyn, Dodie from My Three Sons, as Reagan one of their friend’s granddaughters who lives with them for a while; and Peter Lukoye as Nuru.
In the Adamsons’ true story, Elsa and her sisters who were orphaned were treated like pets by the couple. George was forced to kill their mother when she charged him, but he later said he understood she felt threatened. Joy fed the four-day-old cubs unsweetened milk mixed with cod liver oil, glucose, bone meal, and salt. After the first couple of weeks, they took their food from baby bottles. They were allowed to roam like house pets but at night they were put into a pen of rock and sand to protect them from hyenas, jackals, elephants, and other lions.
Eventually, Elsa’s two siblings were sent to a zoo in the Netherlands, but Elsa being a runt, could not make the trip. Joy then taught her how to behave like a wild lion so she could survive with the other animals.
On the show, the episodes were a bit different. In “Maneaters of Merti,” two lions have begun killing humans, so George leads a search with villagers and game wardens to find them.
In the middle of the season, “The Flying Doctor of Kenya” aired with Juliet Mills starring as Dr. Claire Hanley who is making her first village medical tour. She needs to learn the customs of the villagers as well as how to adapt to the tough living conditions. Joy helps her get acclimated to the new job.
The theme song was composed by John Barry which was the same song used in the movie. Barry won an Oscar for the film’s soundtrack. Lyrics were provided by Don Black. Most of us remember the words to the song from hearing it on the radio. They were:
Born free, as free as the wind blows As free as the grass grows Born free to follow your heart
Live free and beauty surrounds you The world still astounds you Each time you look at a star
Stay free, where no walls divide you You’re free as the roaring tide So there’s no need to hide
Born free, and life is worth living But only worth living ’cause you’re born free
(Stay free, where no walls divide you) You’re free as the roaring tide So there’s no need to hide
Born free, and life is worth living But only worth living ’cause you’re born free
I was also surprised to learn that the show was actually filmed in Kenya. NBC put the show on Monday night against The Rookies and Gunsmoke which were both in the top 20-30% of popular shows. After 13 episodes, the show was canceled due to low ratings.
Although Joy and George were divorced by the time the television series was created, she served as a consultant for the show and supervised the stories. Sadly, she was stabbed to death in 1980, and George was shot by poachers in 1989 while trying to help a tourist.
Elsa did acclimate to the wild but visited George and Joy from time to time. She brought her three cubs to show the couple. Elsa was five when she contracted a tick-borne blood disease similar to malaria. She passed away and was buried in the Meru National Park. When Joy died, she was buried next to Elsa. George was buried in the Kora National Park in northern Kenya where he was working. He was buried near his brother and Boy, another lion featured in the film version.
The legacy of the film and television show is that the Born Free Foundation has a mission to protect the lions of Meru National Park.
Although I was surprised by a few things in this show, one thing I was not surprised by was its quick cancellation. For some reason, so many shows in the sixties were adapted from movies and could not be sustained as a weekly show. M*A*S*H was one of the few shows to do this well. It seems though it would be a tough thing to sustain interesting shows when you are limited to natural disasters and poachers. Here again, you would assume the scenery would almost be a character you could develop. I’m also sure it was not cheap to film the show in Africa which would make it harder to keep if it was not producing decent ratings.
While none of the shows we have learned about in the series became long-running shows, next week we wind up our series with a look at one of the enduring pet shows.
We are celebrating National State days this month. This week we are celebrating Oregon. I’m sure a lot of stars grew up in Oregon, but my choice is David Ogden Stiers. Although Stiers was born in Illinois on Halloween in 1942, his family moved to Eugene, Oregon when he was in high school. Based on his life, I think Oregon has the better claim to him. After graduation, Stiers enrolled in the University of Oregon.
Early in his career, Stiers moved to San Francisco, performing with the California Shakespeare Theater, the San Francisco Actors Workshop, and the improv group, The Committee. I would like to learn more about The Committee whose members included Rob Reiner, Howard Hesseman, and Peter Bonerz.
In the 1960s, Stiers moved to New York to study at Juilliard for a couple of years and was able to appear in numerous Broadway productions. At Juilliard, Stiers was mentored by John Houseman.
Stiers was a prolific actor, appearing in 38 big screen movies, 39 made-for-tv movies, and more than 90 different television series.
In the 1970s, he showed up on Kojak, Charlie’s Angels, Phyllis, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda, The Tony Randall Show, and Paper Chase.
Most of us got to know him as Major Charles Emerson Winchester III on M*A*S*H. He became part of the cast in 1977 and continued with the show until it ended in 1983. As Winchester, Stiers would receive two Emmy nominations in 1981 and 1982. Both years he got beat by a Taxi alumni, Danny DeVito in 81 and Christopher Lloyd in 82.
Winchester replaced Frank Burns whom Hawkeye and Hunnicutt made fun of for his inept medical skills. Charles was a brilliant surgeon but was an aristocrat from Boston and never let anyone forget it. However, as with all M*A*S*H characters, Winchester continues to evolve, and we learn more about his past and how that affected his personality.
Stiers always described Harry Morgan as his acting mentor, but he loved the entire cast. Although Stiers could come off a bit like Winchester at first meeting, once he got to know you, his castmates said “the walls came down and you saw a sweet, tender man.” Kellye Nakahara (Nurse Kellye) shared that she used to jump into Stier’s arms every morning so he could twirl her around like a princess at a ball.” Loretta Swit said “he was very much his own person, but he loved and adored us as we did him.” Executive producer Burt Metcalfe reported that “I have always felt that one of the reasons for the show’s success was that the audience sensed that the characters loved another and they loved the characters. And that love goes down to the actors.” All his coworkers described Stiers as a prankster on the set.
His life after M*A*S*H included roles on a variety of shows, including Alf, Wings, Star Trek, Murder She Wrote, Dr. Quinn, Ally McBeal, The Outer Limits, Touched by An Angel, and Frasier.
He would also receive recurring roles in four additional series during his career. In Two Guys, A Girl and A Pizza Place, he played Mr. Bauer.
I never watched Love & Money, but Stiers played the wealthy Nicholas Conklin; the show is described as “The penthouse-residing Conklin family of scholars and the basement-dwelling McBride family of maintenance men find themselves unhappily linked when the heiress daughter and blue-collar son fall in love.”
I also never watched the Dead Zone, but Stiers played Reverend Purdy in the show where “Johnny had the perfect life until he was in a coma for six years When he awoke, he found his fiancé married to another man, his son doesn’t know him, and everything had changed including Johnny because he can now ‘see’ things.”
He also played Arthur Isles in Rizzoli & Isles, one of my favorite shows from the past few years.
You could also hear Stiers in a number of animation films including Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, and the Lilo and Stitch movies. He narrated many audiobooks as well.
One of the reasons Oregon can lay claim to Stiers is because he continued to live in Newport and spent his later years as a conductor for the Newport Symphony Orchestra. As a fan of classical music, Stiers was able to be a guest conductor in more than 70 orchestras around the world. Newport seems to be a quirky, but fun, place with a population of only about 10,000. It is definitely on my list of places to visit.
In 2018, Stiers passed away from bladder cancer. He generously bequeathed funding for a variety of cultural groups including the Newport Symphony, the Newport Public Library, and the Oregon Coast Council for the Arts.
I appreciate that Stiers loved and celebrated the arts. One of his thoughts about experiencing culture was: “The thing I love about the arts—music, theater, museums, galleries—is that everybody wins. You are touched and hopefully moved, and it is unique to each person. Even though you may have listened to the same performance, what you heard could be vastly different from what anyone else heard.” I’m happy that he was able to spend the last years of his life doing something he enjoyed so much after a life of giving to others through his acting performances—something we can all aspire to.
When I looked up the definition for “too close for comfort” it said “close enough to make a person feel nervous, worried or upset.” That is exactly how this show made me feel.
I realize that I was hard to please in the 1980s. Coming out of the 1970s with M*A*S*H,The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show, I did not enjoy All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Alice, Maude, or Diff’rentStrokes. I did watch Cheers, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Who’s the Boss, and Moonlighting during that decade. Too Close for Comfort, along with Three’s Company, just didn’t strike me as funny.
When you invest in a show, you feel like these characters are part of your life. Ted Knight’s role of Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a flawed human being for sure, but I felt like we had spent a lot of time together, and I was able to see beyond the brash, obnoxious exterior to the vulnerable and kind being inside. It was if we had spent lots of hours over the kitchen table having coffee. Characters like Baxter teach us about the world and about ourselves. Ted Knight as Henry Rush was more like the neighbor whom I caught glimpses of out the kitchen window but there was no way to learn more about the character other than the surface appearances. The show was based more on plots than characters.
Too Close for Comfort was based on the British sitcom Keep It in the Family. It debuted in 1980. Henry Rush is a cartoonist who writes about the Cosmic Cow (a space crime fighter) and lives in San Francisco with his wife Muriel, a photographer (Nancy Dussault) and his two adult daughters Jackie (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who works at a bank and Sara (Lydia Cornell) who is a college student.
The house was a two-family residence and the girls decide to rent from their parents. Henry is not sure it’s a good idea, but it’s the only apartment they can afford because he charges $300 rent for the bottom of the Victorian house. Monroe (Jim Bullock) is a friend of Sara’s who was cast only in one episode but ended up joining not only the cast but living with Henry and Muriel.
The show was on Tuesday nights. The show followed Three’s Company and its main competition was BJ and the Bear.
In season two, Muriel becomes pregnant and Henry’s niece April also comes to live with the Rushes.
One of the signatures of Henry Rush was the variety of college sweatshirts he wore. Fans from around the country would send them to the network hoping to see them on the series. The first sweatshirt to make an appearance was the University of Michigan.
The third season found the show on Thursday nights and ratings declined significantly. The show was up against Cheers on NBC and Simon and Simon on CBS. April moves out and Muriel’s mother Iris (Audrey Meadows) moves in to help with the baby. The show was cancelled by the network. The fourth season went into syndication with new episodes.
A fifth season began, but the show changed so much it really was a new series. The title was changed to The Ted Knight Show, the family now lived in Marin County where Henry bought a newspaper, a new theme song was created, a new opening was shot, and both daughters left the show. However, Monroe moved with Henry and Muriel. The new episodes began airing in April of 1986; 22 episodes were taped and after the first 12 aired, Knight passed away from colon cancer. The final ten episodes were run, and then the series ended.
During the various seasons, the girls changed careers a lot. Jackie moved from the bank to a department store to a fashion designer. Sara held a bunch of part-time jobs while she was in college. She then became a bank teller, a weather woman at the local station KTSF, and an entrepreneur who sells Cosmic Cow Cookies.
In a Fox News interview, Cornell discusses how she received the role of Sara. She said she had to take a bus for the audition and showed up an hour late after being in the rain. The secretary told her auditions had closed but Arne Sultan said to let her audition as long as she came in. They gave her a script to read and a line said “She gives her dad a raspberry.” Sara picks up an imaginary raspberry and hands it to her dad. Sultan asked her what she was doing, and then explained a raspberry was a Bronx cheer. She felt very stupid and they were all laughing. The casting director and executives decided at that time she was perfect for the part and asked her to report to work the next day.
I know that there have been far worse shows than Too Close for Comfort, but I’m not content having the bar set there because there have also been far better shows. Rather than my usual recommendation of buying the DVDs for a weekend of binge watching, I’m going to tell you to buy a good book instead.
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.
Continuing our series about “Valerie,” today we look at a slice of American life from the 1970s. It’s hard to emphasize how much the movie Saturday Night Fever changed American culture. In the movie, a high school graduate played by John Travolta, escapes his hard life by dancing at the local disco. The hippie culture of the late 1960s and early ‘70s was shoved aside by the bold and brash disco era. It was hard to go anywhere without the background soundtrack of the movie being heard. Extravagant clothing and three-piece suits were back in style, along with platform shoes and blingy jewelry.
A year after the movie debuted, a new show called Joe and Valerie appeared in April of 1978. Joe (Paul Regina) works at his father’s plumbing store. He meets Valerie (Char Fontane) at the disco and they get romantically involved. However, Joe’s roommates, Paulie (David Elliott), a hearse driver, and Frankie (Bill Beyers/Lloyd Alan), a spa worker and chauvinist, have their opinions on the romance as does Valerie’s divorced mother Stella (Arlene Golonka). Rounding out the cast were Robert Costanzo as Joe’s father Vincent and Rita/Thelma (Donna Ponterotto), Valerie’s best friend.
The series was produced by Bob Hope’s production company, Hope Enterprises, and his daughter Linda served as executive producer. Bill Persky, who had been one of the forces behind That Girl, directed the first episode.
The writers for the show included Howard Albrecht, Hal Dresner, Bernie Kahn, and Sol Weinstein. Kahn and Dresner also served as producer for an episode each. Art direction was credited to Bruce Ryan and shop coordinator to Edwin McCormick.
The series was divided into two parts; in 1978 the episodes show Joe and Valerie meeting, falling in love and planning their future. Jumping to January 1979, the episodes center around the couple beginning their married life. Four half-hour episodes aired in April and May of 1978. Four half-hour episodes were set to air in January, but only three did; the final episode never was played on the air.
Episode 1, “The Meeting” aired April 24, 1978. Joe and Valerie meet at the disco and fall in love when Joe bets his roommates that he can take Valerie away from her dancing partner.
Episode 2, “The Perfect Night” aired May 1, 1978. Valerie arranges dates for Frank and Paulie. She sets up Frank with her best friend Thelma and the date is a disaster. The woman she set Paulie up with ended up getting married the night before, so Valerie is frantically looking for a substitute. Albrecht and Weinstein were credited as writers.
Episode 3, “Valerie’s Wild Oat” aired May 3, 1978. Joe and Valerie’s romance hits a potential roadblock when Valerie finds out that her new boss at the store is her ex-boyfriend Ernie (Marcus Smythe).
Episode 4, “The Commitment” aired May 10, 1978. When Valerie’s mother is unexpectedly called away for the weekend, Joe and Valerie face the prospect of spending their first night together. Joe loves Valerie too much to stay but worries how his roommates will react if he doesn’t.
Episode 5, “The Engagement” aired January 5, 1979. Joe and Valerie break the news to their parents that they are going to live together and looking for a place to live through a rental service which adds to the confusion.
Episode 6, “The Wedding Guest” aired January 12, 1979. Joe and Valerie learn that a gangster’s funeral has been scheduled at the same time as their wedding at the church.
Episode 7, “The Wedding” aired January 19, 1979. The newly married couple look back at the events that occurred around their wedding. Some of the problems included Vince wanting Valerie to wear his wife’s old-fashioned wedding dress, Frank and Paulie fighting over who is best man, and Valerie’s mother threatening to stay away from the wedding if her ex-husband comes.
The final episode, “Paulie’s First Love,” was never aired.
This was a bad year for series’ debuts. A number of shows flopped during this year including Hizzoner, Sweepstakes, and Supertrain, none of them making it to more than nine episodes.
Char Fontane (also listed as Fontaine occasionally) was born in California in 1952. She passed away from breast cancer in 2007. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, she appeared on a variety of tv series in the 1970s and a couple after: LoveAmerican Style (1972), The FBI (1973), Barnaby Jones (1979), Supertrain (1979), Sweepstakes (1979), The Love Boat (1979), and Nero Wolfe (1981). In the mid-1980s she took a role in a made-for-tv movie, The Night the Bridge Fell Down and two movie roles: Too Much (1987) and The Punisher (1989). She was not credited with any roles after the 1989 movie.
Paul Regina was born in Brooklyn in 1956 and passed away from liver cancer in 2006.
Before his role on Joe and Valerie, he had parts in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Hour and Police Woman both in 1978. After the show ended, his career stayed fairly busy. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he could be seen on many popular television shows including Benson, Gimme a Break, TJ Hooker, Hunter, and EmptyNest. He would be cast in three series: Zorro and Son in 1983, Brothers from 1984-89, and The Untouchables in 1993-94. He also had a recurring role as a lawyer on LA Law between 1988-1992.
Post 2000 before his death he was in Law and Order several times as well as two movies, The Blue Lizard and Eddie Monroe.
David Elliott had a successful career going when he received the role of Paulie. He began with several roles on tv including a mini-series, Pearl, that Char Fontane was also in. From 1972-1977, he had a role in The Doctors in 272 episodes. Before beginning Joe and Valerie, he had a role on Angie in 1979.
After the show ended, he continued showing up in television series including TJHooker, St. Elsewhere, Simon and Simon, and Murder She Wrote. He ended his credited acting career with seven movies in the 1990s.
He is an interesting guy. After dropping out of high school, he drove a cab in New York. He was a professional boxer, ran a PI business in Hollywood, received his pilot’s license, sat on the board of a major labor union, and traveled extensively through every continent except Africa and Antarctica. Recently he earned a certificate in both long and short fiction from the UCLA Writer’s program and has written a novel, The Star Shield, about a body guard trying to rescue a kidnapped movie star. Currently he is working on a collection of short stories.
The role of Frankie was played by two different actors, Bill Beyers in 1978 and Lloyd Alan in 1979.
Bill Beyers was born in New York in 1955 and died in 1992 in Los Angeles. His first role was that of Frankie on Joe and Valerie. Following the end of that show he was cast in several series including Barnaby Jones, Quincy ME, The Incredible Hulk, CHiPs, Too Close for Comfort, and Murder She Wrote. He had a recurring role on Capitol, appearing in 24 episodes from 1982-1987.
Lloyd Alan was in 1952. He might have had the shortest career of the cast. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, he was in an episode of Eight is Enough. After he appeared in The Love Boat, Knight Rider, and Baywatch. His last credited acting job was 1998. I was unable to locate a photo of Lloyd Alan.
The actors with the longest careers were Robert Costanzo who played Joe’s father Vince; Arlene Golonka who was Stella, Valerie’s mother; and Donna Ponterotto who played Rita/Thelma, Valerie’s best friend.
Donna Ponterotto had a successful career following the cancellation of Joe and Valerie. She came to the show having appeared on The Police Story, Happy Days, and Rhoda.
Following the show, she appeared on Trapper John MD, Laverne and Shirley, TheLove Boat, Who’s the Boss, Murder She Wrote, Night Court, Murphy Brown, ER, Mad About You, Third Rock from the Sun, and NYPD Blue among others. Her last film was Sharkskin in 2015.
Arlene Golonka grew up in Chicago where she was born in 1936. She began taking acting classes when she was quite young. At age 19, she headed for New York and began a career on Broadway. In the 1960s she relocated to Los Angeles. She continued to appear in movies and appeared in dozens of television programs during the next three decades. While she is probably best known as Millie on Mayberry R.F.D., she has appeared in many respected series.
Golonka came into Joe and Valerie with a strong resume. She had made appearances in shows such as The Naked City, Car 54 Where Are You, The Flying Nun, Big Valley, Get Smart, I Spy, That Girl, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Barnaby Jones, Alice, The Rockford Files, and Love American Style. She made five appearances on The Doctors with David Elliott.
After Joe and Valerie, she continued to receive many roles including on FantasyIsland, The Love Boat, Simon and Simon, Benson, and Murder She Wrote. Her last appearance was on The King of Queens in 2005, and she is now retired.
Robert Costanzo was born in New York in 1942. He also came into the show with a very strong string of shows, having been in Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show, and Lou Grant. He also was in several profitable movies including Dog Day Afternoon, The Goodbye Girl, and Saturday Night Fever.
Following the end of Joe and Valerie, he would continue his successful career. Costanzo has been cast in recurring roles in ten shows: Last Resort, Checking In, The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, 1st Ten, Glory Days, NYPD Blue, Charlie and Grace, and Champions. He has continued to take roles on other series including Barney Miller, Alice, Who’s the Boss, Family Ties, St. Elsewhere, The Golden Girls, Friends, and Murder She Wrote.
His movie career has also been very successful, and he is remembered for his roles in Used Cars, Total Recall, Die Hard 2, and Air Bud.
Currently Costanzo is still acting and has several movies debuting in the next couple of years.
I have to admit I do not remember Joe and Valerie, and obviously I did not watch it, but I don’t think I missed much. It’s fun to learn about some of the more obscure shows that had a brief flicker in television history. There are many more shows that lasted for less than 20 episodes than there are the classics we remember today. If nothing else, the show captures a unique time in American history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ReedShow, and I Spy. She also had recurring roles on three shows during the decade: TheGertrude 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
continue our series, Just A Couple of Characters, about character actors we
recognize but might not know much about. Hope Summers and Madge Blake are two
actresses you will recognize if you watched sitcoms in the 1960s or 1970s.
Born Sarah Hope Summers in 1902 in Mattoon, Illinois, Hope Summers often played the friendly, but nosy, neighbor. She’s best recognized as Clara from The Andy Griffith Show.
became interested in theater early in her life. She attended Northwestern,
majoring in speech. After graduation she stayed at the University and taught
speech and diction. She then moved to Peoria and headed the Speech Department
at Bradley University. She joined a few community theaters, putting on
one-woman shows. She also acted in a few dramatic radio shows.
She married Claude Witherell in 1927, and they were married until his death in 1967. The couple had two children.
In 1950, she transitioned to television. She appeared in an early comedy series, Hawkins Falls: A Television Novel. Like Edward Andrews, she was often cast in roles older than her actual age. She became a popular actress quickly. She continued to appear in a variety of shows throughout the 1950s including Bachelor Father, Private Secretary, Wagon Train, Dennis the Menace, and the Loretta Young Show.
1958-1960, she would appear in The
Rifleman as Hattie Denton.
In 1961, she received the role she would become most famous for, Clara, Bee’s best friend on The Andy Griffith Show. When Andy Griffith left the show in 1968, Hope continued with Mayberry RFD in her role of Clara for five episodes. Clara was a lonely spinster who lived next door to Andy and his family. She and Bee had fun sharing bits of gossip and talking about current events. Clara had a good heart and though she and Bee could get upset with each other, they truly cared about each other.
While playing the role of Clara, she continued to guest in series throughout the 1960s. She appeared on many of the hit shows of that time such as Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke, Make Room for Daddy, Hazel, My Three Sons, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Petticoat Junction, The Phyllis Diller Show, Marcus Welby, That Girl, and Bewitched.
During the 1970s, Summers kept her career going strong, appearing in Hawaii Five-0, M*A*S*H, Little House on the Prairie, and Welcome Back Kotter.
Summers began her acting career during the second half of her life, she was
also featured in several well-known movies. In 1960, she was in Inherit the Wind, The Shakiest Gun in the West, and Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, among others.
Summers also was famous as the voice of Mrs. Butterworth in commercials.
In 1978 she was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and quit acting. She passed away from the disease in 1979.
Summers was part of the cast of The Andy
Griffith Show, Madge Blake was busy portraying Aunt Harriet on Batman.
Born Madge Cummings in 1899 in Kansas, she, like Hope Summers, became interested in acting at a young age. Her father was a Methodist minister and he refused to allow her to give it a try. Oddly enough, Madge’s maternal uncle was Milburn Stone, Doc on Gunsmoke.
Although they later divorced, Madge married James Blake and they had one child. She had a fascinating career. Both she and James worked for the government during the war. They had top secret clearance for their project working on the construction of the detonator for the atomic bomb in Utah. They also performed tests on equipment used in the Manhattan Project.
Also, like Summers, Blake turned to acting at a later age. When she was 50, she enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse to study acting. She only had twenty years in the business, yet she managed to achieve an impressive 124 acting credits.
Blake would appear in 47 films in smaller, but impressive, roles. Some of her movies included An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, Brigadoon, The TenderTrap, Bells Are Ringing, Ain’t Misbehaving, and The Solid Gold Cadillac.
Beginning her television career in 1954, she racked up an impressive amount of guest star roles and several recurring roles. She played Tillie, the president of the Jack Benny fan club on The Jack Benny Show. She played Larry Mondello’s mother on Leave It to Beaver. An interesting aside is that she was asked to play Aunt Bee on The Andy Griffith Show where she would have worked with Hope Summers. Because she was locked into the role of Mrs. Mondello, she declined. She took the role of Mrs. Barnes, Joey’s mother, on The Joey Bishop Show. On the Real McCoys, she played Flora MacMichael, Grandpa McCoy’s love interest; Nurse Phipps on Dr. Kildare; and the role she became best known for, Aunt Harriet on Batman.
The network was worried about Batman and Robin living alone together on Batman, so the role of Aunt Harriet was added. The story line was that she raised Bruce Wayne in the family mansion. Their interaction with Aunt Harriet was also a reason for the dynamic duo to appear in their non-hero roles more often.
It would seem that coming into acting later in life and then appearing in so many movies and recurring television appearances would have kept her quite busy. But in addition to these appearances, she was cast in many of the most popular shows during her twenty years on television. During that time, you can find her on dramas like Public Defender, Lassie, The Restless Gun, and the Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Of course, she was meant to play comedy and she appeared on an incredible number of sitcoms. Just to name a few, there of them: George Burns and GracieAllen Show, I Love Lucy, Private Secretary, Father Knows Best, Bachelor Father, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Make Room for Daddy, Bewitched, The Addams Family, My Favorite Martian, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Gomer Pyle, and The Doris Day Show. Pretty amazing.
I read over and over that one of her best performances was in the pilot for Dennis the Menace where she plays Dennis’s babysitter. I have not been able to watch that show, but I will definitely check that out.
In 1969, Blake passed away from a heart attack after she broke her leg. She was only 70, or we might have had a much longer list of television series for her.
Hope Summers and Madge Blake had a lot in common. They both became interested in acting at an early age, they both had major careers before acting, they both began acting in the second half of their life, they both played neighborly types–Summers, nosier, and Blake, more ditzy. They also both had respectable film careers paralleling their television ones. Their television roles may have been smaller, but they were memorable, they are definitely two characters worth watching.