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.
To begin the new year, we are looking at some of my favorite female television stars. We begin the series with Doris Roberts, everybody’s favorite mother.
Doris was born in 1925 in St. Louis. When her parents split up, she went to the Bronx with her mother, and they lived with her grandparents. Her parents ran the Z.L. Rosenfield Agency which provided stenographic services to playwrights and actors. After studying journalism at New York University, she decided to try her hand acting, taking classes at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York City and working with Lee Strasberg at the Actor’s Studio. In the fifties, she could be seen in a variety of Broadway shows including The Desk Set, The Last of the Red-Hot Lovers, and Bad Habits. She worked with Shirley Booth on The Desk Set and credited Booth with being her acting mentor.
In 1951 she accepted her first role in television, appearing on the show Starlight Theatre. She accepted roles on several 1950s drama shows. In 1956, Doris married Michael Cannata. They divorced in 1962, and a year later she married William Goven, a playwright. They would stay together until his death in 1986.
Doris was offered her first film role in Something Wild in 1961. She would go on to appear in more than 30 movies.
Her television career also began to expand in the sixties when she appeared in about nine drama series. However, it was the seventies when she hit her stride. During that decade, she would make appearances in Mary Hartman, All in the Family, Family, Rhoda, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show in addition to several others.
On All in the Family, Doris played a bar patron who befriends Edith. Originally, Roberts was offered the role of Vivian on Norman Lear’s show, Maude but at the last minute, Lear asked Rue McClanahan to take the role over. Later Norman stated that he thought Roberts’ character was too similar to Bea Arthur’s Maude. On Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, she played a faith healer Dorelda Doremus.
Doris mentioned that Lily Tomlin encouraged her to move to Los Angeles in 1973. After her relocation, Roberts received her first recurring character roles. She would appear in Soap as Flo Flotsky on four episodes, five episodes of Barney Miller, and she had a regular spot as the star’s mother on Angie which ran from 1979-1980.
Her career continued to flourish throughout the eighties. She had recurring roles on as a gabby hairdresser on Maggie and on Alice as Lavin’s mother, and she was a regular on Remington Steele where Roberts played a former IRS agent who becomes the receptionist for the agency. In addition, she could be seen on Fantasy Island, St. Elsewhere, The Love Boat, Mr. Belvedere, and Cagney and Lacey, along with a variety of other shows.
Her appearance on St. Elsewhere gave her an Emmy win for a guest appearance, playing a homeless woman.
In the decade of the nineties, we saw her on Empty Nest, Murder She Wrote, and The King of Queens, among others. However, it was in 1996 when she was offered the role that would change her life. From 1996-2005 she came into our living rooms every week as Marie Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond.
More than 100 actresses were considered for the role. She was nominated for seven Emmys, winning four of them (2001, 2002, 2003, and 2005). Amazingly, Ray Romano as Ray Barone, Peter Boyle as his dad Frank, Patricia Heaton as his wife Debra, Brad Garrett as his brother Robert and Doris Roberts appeared in all 210 episodes of the series.
Ray Romano discussed the appeal Roberts had for viewers: “Here’s how good she was: She played the most intrusive, overbearing, nosy woman—always starting fights and whatnot and meddling in our business—and yet, when I asked the fans who their favorite character was, all the time it was her. She was so good at portraying the love that was underneath.” In an interview with Entertainment Tonight, Doris described the character of Marie Barone: “Nine glorious years; everything good comes to an end. She doesn’t give in, she doesn’t give up and she never takes no for an answer.”
Doris remained friends with the cast, especially her on-screen husband Frank played by Peter Boyle. After his death, Roberts remembered him: “Peter was so different from the characters he played. He was brilliant, well read, sensitive, a gentleman.” Roberts was able to visit him at home and in the hospital and to be with the family after his passing.
From 2006-2014, her work continued. In addition to a recurring role on The Middle, she appeared on Law and Order, Grey’s Anatomy, Hot in Cleveland, and Desperate Housewives, along with six other less-known shows. Her role on The Middle gave her a chance to work with her Everybody Loves Raymond costar, Patricia Heaton again.
In addition to her acting career, Roberts was a dedicated activist. She testified before Congress about age discrimination in Hollywood, worked with a variety of animal rights groups, and was chairwoman for the Children with AIDS Foundation. She also had a variety of hobbies including traveling, philanthropy, collecting wine, dancing, singing, and cooking. She claimed her favorite movie was Gone with the Wind.
In 2003, Roberts published her memoir cowritten with Danelle Morton, titled, Are You Hungry Dear? Life, Laughs, and Lasagna. She included many of her favorite recipes in the biography.
In 2016, Roberts died following a stroke. Romano said “Doris Roberts had an energy and a spirit that amazed me. She never stopped. Whether working professionally or with her many charities, or just nurturing and mentoring a green young comic trying to make it as an actor, she did everything with such a grand love for life and people, and I will miss her dearly.”
Patricia Heaton said Doris’s television husband Peter Boyle was sick so the cast was able to prepare themselves for his death, but Doris died quickly. Heaton said “Roberts was funny and tough and loved life, living it to the fullest.”
One of my favorite quotes by Doris Roberts is that “everybody is a teacher if you listen.” Thanks for teaching and entertaining us for more than six decades.
We are wrapping up our series, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” At the beginning of the month, we learned about a show that featured four women who spent much of their life together for seven years (Designing Women). Today we end our series with another show that featured a quartet of women that also ran for seven years.
In September of 1985, a new type of sitcom debuted. This show featured four retired women who lived life together, relying on humor to make things work. The show, Golden Girls, was on the air seven years, ending in 1992 and producing 177 episodes. The show was always on Saturday nights with the seventh season moving to an earlier hour.
I read two different versions about the creation of the show, so take your pick. Maybe the truth is somewhere in the middle. One version is that the idea came from Brandon Tartikoff, an NBC executive. When he was visiting his aunt one day, he noticed that she and her next-door neighbor who was her best friend, argued a lot but loved each other. He thought the concept would make a great show.
The other version
credits NBC senior vice president Warren Littlefield. He was in the audience
when Selma Diamond and Doris Roberts acted in a skit called “Miami Nice,” a parody
of the popular Miami Vice. The skit featured old people living in Miami.
Either way, Susan Harris created the show itself, and it was produced by Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions, with Tony Thomas and Harris serving as original executive producers. After the first year, Harris was not as involved with the show, but still oversaw the scripts.
The four main characters are quite different which is probably why the series was so successful. Blanche (Rue McLanahan) owns the house in Miami. Two women, widow Rose Nylund (Betty White) and divorcee Dorothy Zbornak (Bea Arthur) respond to an ad on a grocery store bulletin board to become Blanche’s roommates. In the pilot episode, the retirement home where Dorothy’s 80-year-old mother Sophia (Estelle Getty) lives burns down, so she joins the trio. All four of the characters appeared in every episode.
Blanche worked for an art museum. She grew up in a wealthy family, living on a plantation outside Atlanta. When she married her husband George, they moved to Miami. With six kids, Blanche should be a busy family matriarch, but she was man-hungry and always involved in some romantic entanglement much to the chagrin of Rose.
Dorothy was a substitute teacher. She became pregnant in high school and married the father, Stanley. Stan and Dorothy moved to Miami but after 38 years of marriage, he had an affair with an airline stewardess and left Dorothy.
Rose lived most of her life in a small farming town, St. Olaf, Minnesota. She and husband Charlie were happily married with five children. After he passes away, she moves to Florida and works at a counseling center. At one point she works for a consumer reporter at a local television station. Rose had an on-again, off-again relationship with a college professor, Miles Webber, during the run of the show.
Sophia left Italy to get out of an arranged marriage and ended up in New York where she met Salvadore Petrillo. Sophia also has a variety of jobs on the show, including a fast-food worker and a developer of a spaghetti sauce and sandwich business. Sophia is the only character to marry during the seven seasons. She married Max Weinstock, but they separated soon after the wedding.
The role of Sophia was the first one cast. Estelle Getty had received rave reviews for her performance in Torch Song Trilogy. Although Getty played Dorothy’s mother, in reality she was a year younger than Arthur. It took Getty three hours in make-up to transform into the older Sophia, donning a white wig, heavy make-up and thick glasses. Apparently, even though she was an experienced actress, she suffered from stage fright and often froze on camera. This affliction got worse as the show continued, and by the fifth season, she was reading her lines from cue cards. McClanahan tried to describe what Getty suffered with, “She’d panic. She would start getting under a dark cloud the day before tape day . . . you could see a big difference in her that day. She’d be walking around like Pig-Pen under a black cloud. By tape day, she was unreachable. She was just as uptight as a human being could get. When your brain is frozen like that, you can’t remember lines.”
was cast as Rose and White as Blanche. White had portrayed Sue Ann Nivens, a
man-crazy woman, on the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Director Paul Bogart felt
they should switch roles.
up with the idea that Blanche should have a southern accent which she exaggerated
to make the character more interesting. Apparently, one of the set jokes was
where Rue McClanahan might be sleeping on the set. She was often found napping
in different places.
Although Harris created Dorothy as a “Bea Arthur type,” the producers originally wanted Elaine Stritch for the part, but her audition did not go well. Arthur didn’t want to do the show because she didn’t want her and McClanahan to be portrayed as Maude and Vivian as they were in the show Maude. After reading the script and learning about the role switch of her coworkers, she came on board.
Costume designer Judy Evans created a different look for each of the cast members. Rose was down home and Midwestern. Sophia relied on comfortable clothing. Dorothy had a “pulled-together, no nonsense” look. Blanche was sexy with flowing outfits. Rue had a clause written into her contract that she be allowed to keep all Blanche’s clothing, which was custom made. By the end of the series, she filled thirteen closets with the designer wardrobe. Late McClanahan would create a more affordable line of clothing for QVC, “A Touch of Rue” based on Blanche’s show wardrobe.
While the characters argued from time to time, you knew they loved and cared about each other and were a family, even if they made each other crazy at times. In reality, Arthur was very difficult to get along with. Betty White, who seems to love everyone, admits she did not have a good relationship with Arthur. Apparently, White’s positive and perky manner irritated Bea. McClanahan said Bea was very eccentric and hard to be friendly with. However, White, always the professional, never revealed their difficulties until after Arthur passed away. White and McClanahan became close friends during the show’s run. White always loved game shows and she found a kindred spirit in Rue. They frequently played games between takes.
The house was
often a fifth character on the show. The exterior of the home, which was supposed
to be at 6151 Richmond Street, was part of the backstage studio tour ride at
Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the first two seasons. Designer Ed Stephenson
used a “Florida look” for the home with wooden accents, columns, cypress doors,
rattan furniture, and tropical prints. Of course, Blanche’s bedroom featured pink
carpeting and a vanity table. Dorothy’s room was filled with books and
intricate wallpaper. Rose’s walls are covered with clouds, and her room contained
a lot of ruffles and chintz. Sophia’s room was also modern with dainty floral
wallpaper and mahogany furniture covered by bedding with a satin trim.
If you watch the scenes in the kitchen, you will notice that although four people live there, there are only three chairs at the table. If all four girls were sitting there, someone had their back to the camera, so the director solved the problem by only having three of them in the scene at a time.
plots would feature one of the characters mired in a problem, typically
involving their family, their love life, or ethical dilemmas. When they gathered
around the table to talk, the stories they told would help each other, even
though Rose’s stories from her youth typically had no connection to the current
problem and Sophia’s stories were often made up. Many controversial issues were
covered during the show including same-sex marriage, elder care, homelessness,
HIV/AIDS, immigration, death, assisted suicide, and discrimination whether racial,
sexual or gender.
The critics praised the show, and the public adored it. For six of the seven seasons, the show ranked in the top ten. Both Betty White and Estelle Getty received seven Emmy nominations during the seven-year period, while Bea Arthur and Rue McClanahan each received four. Fun fact, all of them won an Emmy during the run of the show. Overall, the show received 68 Emmy nominations.
Mother loved the show so much that she asked the quartet to come to England and
perform for her personally. When the cast assembled in London, they appeared in
an episode about the visit to the Queen.
seventh season, when the show had dropped into the top 30, Bea Arthur decided
to leave the show. In the finale, Dorothy finally meets the man for her, who
happens to be Blanche’s uncle Lucas (Leslie Nielsen), and they move to Atlanta.
Sophia is uncertain whether she should move with them or stay in Miami and, in
the end, decides to stay in Florida.
series ended, White, McClanahan, and Getty reprised their Golden Girls roles
and starred in The Golden Palace about a hotel. The series ended after
the first year and never enjoyed the rankings of the original, coming in 57th
for the year.
Harris developed two spinoffs from the original series. Empty Nest starred Richard Mulligan as pediatrician Harry Weston who lives next to the women with his two grown daughters. The show was also very popular and lasted seven years as well.
Empty Nest then launched a show about some of the nurses who worked in Weston’s hospital, simply titled Nurses. While this series was never as popular as Golden Girls or Empty Nest, it did last three years.
enjoyed The Golden Girls, I actually did not watch it often. I think maybe because it was on Saturday
nights during a time that I was not likely home in the evening. I did enjoy it
when I caught an episode but was never the fanatic many of my friends were. I
think I should let the “Girls” have the last words about their series:
Dorothy: You know, sometimes I can’t believe my ears. Sophia: I know. I should’ve taped them back when you were seven.
Sophia come home after Sophia’s best friend’s funeral]
I guess Phyllis Glutman will be my new best friend.
Dorothy: I thought you hated Phyllis Glutman.
Sophia: I do, but at the rate my friends are going, I won’t have to spend too much time with her.
We’ve all experienced that moment we’re at the grocery store and see someone we know, but we can’t remember their name or how we know them. Maybe it was work or school, or their kids were friends with ours. Sometimes we even remember we spent a lot of time with them and like them, but the name and relationship is just not there.
This month we are meeting some of our television friends that we’ve gotten to know, even if we can’t remember their names or what we watched them on. We’ll learn more about eight different character actors. We start off the month learning about Edward Andrews and Herb Edelman.
Edward Andrews from Doris Day and Disney comedies. Anyone who grew up in the
1960s or 1970s will remember this military man with a grandfatherly softness to
Andrews was born in Georgia in 1914. His father was a minister and their family moved a lot; he lived in Pittsburgh; Cleveland; and Wheeling, West Virginia. He had a very small part in a James Gleason production at age 12. He attended college at the University of Virginia. In 1935, he got his first part in a Broadway production, “So Proudly We Hail.” He continued in Broadway for the next twenty years, including a touring production of “I Know My Love” with Lunt and Fontaine. During that time, he took a leave from his career to serve in WWII. He was a Captain and commanding officer of Battery C with the 751st Artillery Battalion of the Army.
In 1955 he married Emily Barnes and they would have three children, remaining together until his death. About the same time, his movie career took off. Andrews looked older than his age which helped him get parts for older roles. He could play a grandfather, then turn around and handle a sleazy businessman or legalistic bureaucrat. He portrayed George Babbitt in Elmer Gantry in 1960. He worked for Disney playing the Defense Secretary in both The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and Son of Flubber (1963). I remember him fondly in Doris Day’s movies, The Thrill of It All (1963), Send Me No Flowers (1964), and The Glass Bottom Boat (1966). One of his last roles was Grandpa Howard in Sixteen Candles in 1984. His movie credits totaled 46.
Edward also kept busy with television appearances. One of the first actors to guest star on television, in 1950, Andrews was on Mama. As early as 1952, he began acting in the variety of drama shows on television. During the 1950s he would appear in eighteen of these shows including The US Steel Hour, Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio One in Hollywood, and Omnibus.
He showed up in westerns including The Real McCoys, Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and Rawhide. We saw him on medical and legal dramas such as Ben Casey,The Defenders, The Bold Ones, Ironside, and Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law. Mysteries and crime thrillers also found a place for him. You might remember him from Naked City, The Wild Wild West, The Mod Squad, Hawaii Five-0, McMillan and Wife, and Quincy, ME.
Like his films, he seemed to excel in comedy. Andrews played George Baxter in the pilot for Hazel, but unfortunately when the show went into production, the part was recast with Don DeFore. He would guest star in some of the most popular sitcoms, including The Phil Silvers Show, The Andy Griffith Show, I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Paul Lynde Show, Love American Style, The Bob Newhart Show, and Three’s Company.
In 1964 he starred in Broadside. Commander Adrian (Edwards) is not happy when a group of Waves are posted to his station on the South Seas island Ranakai. His men no longer have focus, so he spends the series trying to get the women relocated.
In 1970 he had a recurring role on The Doris Day Show as Colonel Fairburn. He also starred as Harry Flood in the show Supertrain in 1979. Playing on the Love Boat and Hotel themes, the show was about a bullet train that had new passengers each episode.
Perhaps Andrews will be best remembered for his guest starring role on two Twilight Zone episodes, “Third From the Sun” (Andrews plays a company man who thinks a coworker William, a nuclear engineer, and his friend Jerry are going to steal a spaceship to leave Earth) and “You Drive” (Andrews hits a newspaper boy and then flees the scene, trying to hide the crime).
In all, he appeared on 118 different television series as well as made-for-television movies.
Andrews enjoyed playing a character actor. He said it ensured more work and longevity in his career. He was quoted as saying, “What you get are people who speak to you. They know you from somewhere, but they don’t think of you as an actor. They stop and say, ‘Harry, how’s everything in Miami?’ I’ve learned by experience not to argue with them.”
In March of 1985, Andrews had a heart attack and passed away at age 70. With his white hair, and horn-rimmed glasses, Andrews was an adaptable character actor. Whether he was playing a lovable doctor, a nosy coworker, a fun-loving grandfather, or a despicable murderer, he was believable. He truly was a great character.
Another fun actor
everyone will recognize is Herb Edelman. Herb was born in Brooklyn, New York in
1933 in the midst of the Depression. Tall, lanky, and prematurely bald, he
would go on to have a long career in movies and television.
Originally, Edelman wanted to be a veterinarian, and he went to school at Cornell but left after his first year. He served in the Army as an announcer for Armed Forces Radio. After he left the service, he started college again, this time studying acting at Brooklyn College. Once again, he dropped out. He made a living as a hotel manager and a cab driver.
In the mid-1960s he began both his film and television careers. Some of his best-known roles were in the movies. He played Harry Pepper, a wise-cracking telephone operator, in Barefoot in the Park and Murray the Cop in The Odd Couple, as well as Harry Michaels in California Suite.
However, it was television where he received most of his work. In the 1960s, he began his career, appearing on a variety of shows, including That Girl, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., and The Flying Nun. During these years he also dated and married Louise Sorel who he was wed to for six years.
In 1968, he accepted the role of Bert Gamus in The Good Guys. Bert and his friend Rufus (Bob Denver) open a diner, their dream. Bert’s wife Claudia (Joyce Van Patten) helped him serve customers.
In the 1970s, his career continued as he appeared in many shows every year. Some of the hit series we saw him on during this decade include Room 222, Bewitched, McMillan and Wife, The Partridge Family, Love AmericanStyle, Maude, Happy Days, Barney Miller, Kojak, and Charlie’s Angels.
In 1976, he was again cast in a show, Big John Little John. Edelman was a middle school teacher who drank out of the fountain of youth on vacation. Afterward, he would randomly turn into a thirteen-year-old and worked to keep the secret from his friends and coworkers. The show was short-lived.
Edelman’s work schedule did not slow down in the 1980s. He would have roles in the cast of five television shows and spent time in between guest starring on other shows such as Trapper John, Highway to Heaven, The LoveBoat, and thirtysomething.
From 1980-81, he was cast as Reggie on Ladies’ Man, about a woman’s magazine with one male journalist. From 1981-82, he appeared as Commissioner Herb Klein on Strike Force. This show followed a strike force team that handles cases too difficult for the mainstream officers. The following year, he was Harry Nussbaum on Nine to Five, the show based on the movie about a group of office workers. From 1984-88, he was cast as Richard Clarendon on St. Elsewhere, a teaching hospital.
Although his roles decreased in the 1990s, he had one of his most memorable roles during those years as Stanley Zbornak, Dorothy’s ex-husband, on Golden Girls; he was nominated twice for his role on the show.
In 1990, he played Sergeant Levine on Knot’s Landing. Knot’s Landing was a night-time soap about the lives of the wealthy who live in a coastal suburb of LA. His last recurring role was Lieutenant Artie Gelber on Murder She Wrote, about a mystery writer who helps solve crimes.
Edelman died much too early in 1996 from emphysema at age 62.
who was unforgettable in his movie and television roles. Whether playing a repairman,
a cop, a teacher, or a ex-husband, he always came through as an authentic
During my research for one of my blogs, I encountered a reference about Webster. I was surprised to learn that Webster was on the air for six years. It was a show I had watched a bit in the 1980s but have rarely seen since then.
Webster chronicles how life changes for three people when a young boy is adopted by his godfather, a former NFL player, and his new wife. Webster has lost his parents, and George was his father’s best friend. The show ran for 6 seasons, resulting in 150 episodes.
Set in Chicago, Webster’s (Emmanuel Lewis) parents are killed in a car accident. George Papadopolis (Alex Karras) is retired and recently married to Katherine (Susan Clark), who comes from a wealthy family and has few domestic skills. Katherine is a consumer advocate in the first season but later works as a family psychologist. George is now a sportscaster at a local television station. Karras and Clark were married in real life also. Both of them had acting roles in movie and television series before they starred in Webster. Karras was also a favorite Tonight Show guest. Everyone seemed to like him. Former teammate Greg Barton described his humor: “He is one of the funniest men I have ever been around.”
After living in a high-rise apartment that was burned down during one of Webster’s science experiments, the family moved to a large Victorian house which is on Chicago’s Gold Coast. In 2016 the Chicago home was for sale for 9.5 million dollars.
Webster called his “dad” George and his “mom” Ma’am. When she asked Webster why he was so formal with her, he explained that the name was as close as he could get to Mom without replacing his birth mother.
In addition to these three characters, the show featured Katherine’s secretary and confidante Jerry (Henry Polic II) and Webster’s uncle Phillip (Ben Vereen), who doesn’t approve of Webster’s adoption by a white couple.
We also got to know many of Webster’s classmates. During the second season, George’s father, George Sr. (Jack Kruschn) appears. He would make more regular appearances in 1985.
After Karras and Clark married, they started a production company called Georgian Bay Ltd. ABC wanted to create a romantic comedy series for them. After signing the couple, ABC’s programming chief Lew Erlicht saw a Burger King commercial featuring Emmanuel Lewis and wanted to develop a show for him as well.
With the fall schedule quickly filling up, it was decided to combine the two shows into a new one, Then Came You. In September 1983 when the show premiered, the title had become Webster. After much infighting among the creators, the show focused both on the romantic angle of George and Katherine as well as Webster’s plots.
The show was often compared to Diff’rent Strokes, where a white family adopted two black brothers. Personally, I found Diff’rent Strokes grating and predictable. I did not enjoy many of the shows or the spinoffs developed during this time, including All in The Family, The Jeffersons, Maude, Good Times, and Facts of Life. I think Webster was well written and the dialogue was more sophisticated. Webster was a little boy, but he was very intelligent, and the writers gave him credit for that.
Karras became a surrogate father to Lewis. The relationships between the major cast members were very close. When Karras passed away, Lewis said “He was a giant of a man with a big heart, a great sense of humor, and very grounded outlook on life. He might have towered over you . . . but he had a knack of being able to get down to your level without being small about it.”
The show sustained high ratings the first three years, but in season four, they dropped significantly. After landing in the top 30, it plummeted to 46. ABC made the decision to drop the show. Webster would continue two more years in syndication but never achieved the ratings of those first three years. In 1989, Emmanuel was outgrowing the show and he was beginning to get bored playing a younger child while in real life he had already graduated from high school.
One fun fact about Webster is that Jerry Seinfeld was employed as a writer for exactly one week. None of his material made it to the air.
Webster seems to be one of those forgotten shows from the 1980s. While it appeared in reruns for a short time, I don’t hear much about the show anymore. It was heart-warming and tackled both social issues occurring at the time and private family issues that adoptive parents would face. George and Katherine had a great relationship, but it was different from most parents on television. They were equals in every way. Webster assumed an equal footing with them, even though he was their child. George was a nurturing and caring father, while Katherine often provided the practicality that Webster needed to learn life lessons. You can currently watch Webster Sunday mornings on Antenna TV.
As Black History Month comes to an end, I wanted to look at the early years of television featuring African American characters. I don’t know if young people today realize how much culture has changed in the past fifty years. While there are a lot of negative changes that have occurred in the movie and television industry, there have been a lot of positive changes as well.
It’s hard for young adults to realize today how different things are. When I was growing up in the sixties, married couples on television had twin beds; you could not say “pregnant” on the air; black people and white people were not friends, and certainly did not date or marry; the “jobs wanted” ads in the newspaper were divided into jobs for men and jobs for women; and if a married woman wanted to join the armed forces, her husband or father had to sign a letter giving his approval.
Sometimes we get so caught up in how far we are from the journey’s end, we forget to appreciate how far we have traveled. Looking at the current television schedule we see a variety of shows about capable women. While certainly racism and gender discrimination exist, most people don’t think twice about whether a lead character is a man or a woman; is black, white, or Asian; or single or married.
Just a quick review of shows on the air reveal complex, intelligent characters who are African American. We see this in Black-ish, This Is Us, Empire, Scandal, House of Lies, Last Man Standing, and Gray’sAnatomy, just to name a few. This was far from the reality of early television.
We often think of that era as the golden age of television, but honestly, it was the white age of television.
In 1950, two shows debuted with main characters who were black: Amos ‘N Andy and Beulah. A radio transplant, Amos ‘N Andy dealt mostly with Kingfish’s schemes to gain wealth, often at the expense of his friends. Beulah also got its start on radio where she was a character in Fibber McGee and Molly. She worked for a well-to-do middle class white couple with one son. Both of these shows were demeaning and stereotypical. In 1953, they were both yanked from the air due to NAACP protests.
Unfortunately, it would take almost 20 years before another show would feature a black character as a star. In 1968, Julia debuted. Julia, played by Diahann Carroll, was a black woman with a young son Corey (Marc Copage). Her husband is killed in Vietnam and she moves to LA to start a new life in her nursing career. Like Tom Corbett on The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, she is raising a son; like Doris Day she is a working mother; and like Ann Marie on That Girl, she has a fabulous wardrobe. She is hired at Astrospace Industries, an industrial-health office where she works with Dr. Chegley (Lloyd Nolan). Her life is normal. She goes to work, takes care of her son, and goes on a few dates, but the concept of an African American, or a woman, starring in a show as the sole breadwinner, intelligent and fashionable, was not normal for the times. The show was on for three seasons until 1971.
Julia was a controversial show at the time, but it scored high in the ratings and became a popular series. I think it gets a lot of unfair criticism today. The show gets complaints because during the time of the Watts riots, sit-ins, and so much racial unrest, it portrayed Julia living a fairly normal life. I think people forget how groundbreaking it was to have a working woman or a black character star in a show. I think the fact that she was able to live a “normal” life gives even more credit to not bowing to stereotypes of the late sixties. It’s like criticizing someone who is just learning to walk for not running and doing handstands. They might be small steps, but they are steps going forward. I am one of those people who actually prefer not to see too much “real life” in sitcoms. Honestly, I watch them to escape real life.
I also wanted to mention a few other shows that were featuring black characters in their cast during the time Julia was on the air: Hogan’s Heroes, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Barney Miller.
Hogan’s Heroes had a diverse cast, including Ivan Dixon as Sgt. James Kinchloe, striving to stay one step ahead of the Nazis. The Mary Tyler Moore Show included a quirky news staff including weatherman Gordy Howard played by John Amos. Barney Miller centered around a police department made up of personnel who each had their own dysfunctions. One of those members was Lt. Ron Harris played by Ron Glass. Each of these shows quietly featured black characters. The races of any of the characters could easily have been switched during an episode and the character would not change. It was just real people living real lives and some of them happened to be white and some black. After these creative and well-written shows, I prefer to ignore the Norman Lear era of shows. They may have their merits, but I couldn’t stand All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Maude, or Good Times. The Jeffersons was tolerable, but I would not choose to watch it either. In the mid-1980s, television began to get more diverse.
Don’t get me wrong. Things are far from perfect in the world of television and movies, but we have made a lot of progress. We have a lot of work to do, but just think how many choices Diahann Carroll would have today if she wanted to develop a television series. She could pick any career she wanted, including the military without anyone’s else’s approval; she could marry a white man and not sleep in twin beds; she could announce on the air she was pregnant—small steps but 5280 small steps turn into a mile. So, let’s devote one day to appreciate the hundreds of miles we have come before getting too caught up despairing about the hundred we still have to go.