Meredith Baxter: Her Long and Successful Career

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you know I am a big fan of the show Family starring James Broderick and Sada Thompson.  Along with Gary Frank and Kristy McNichol, Meredith Baxter played one of their children on the show. As Nancy, she got divorced and moved into a garage apartment with her son Timmy. She went to law school to follow in her father’s footsteps. Today we will learn a bit more about the life Meredith Baxter had off the show.

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Baxter was born in 1947 in California. Her mother was Whitney Blake who played Dorothy Baxter on Hazel. Her father was a radio announcer. Her parents divorced when she was 6. She lived with her brothers and her mother who eventually remarried; Meredith’s stepfather was sitcom writer Allan Manings. Manings wrote for a variety of shows, including McHale’s Navy, Laugh-In, Good Times, and both the original and reboot of One Day at a Time.

Baxter went to Hollywood High. She briefly transferred to Interlochen Center for the Arts as a voice major, but returned to Hollywood High to graduate. Shortly afterward she married Robert Lewis Bush and they had two children. They divorced in 1971.

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For the next few years, Meredith appeared on a variety of television shows and in several big-screen movies, including The Doris Day Show and The Partridge Family.

Image #: 2088657 David Birney (as Bernie Steinberg) and Meredith Baxter (as Bridget Fitzgerald Steinberg) in the CBS comedy series “Bridget Loves Bernie.” 1972 – – Picture by Landov / Retna Pictures – Job: 79439 Ref: LAN / CBS – UK Rights Only *Unbylined uses will incur an additional discretionary fee!*

The following year, Meredith got her first major acting role: Bridget Loves Bernie. She starred with David Birney. The premise behind this sitcom is that wealthy, Catholic Bridget Fitzgerald marries lower-class, Jewish Bernie Steinberg who drives a cab. Both sets of parents are uncomfortable with their children’s mates.

Although the show only lasted one season, she and Birney lasted a little longer. They married in 1974 and had twins. In 1989 they divorced and don’t have very good things to say about one another.

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Asea on The Love Boat

In the mid-seventies, television kept Meredith very busy with 11 appearances on shows such as Medical Center and McMillan and Wife and 10 made-for-tv movies.

She appeared on the big screen in All the President’s Men in 1976 before taking the role of Nancy Maitland on Family that same year.  Family featured the Lawrences. Kate is a stay-at-home mom and a bit distant but obviously loves her children. Warm, friendly Doug is a lawyer and judge. Nancy is in her twenties but much more mature than her brother Willie who can’t decide what to do with his life. Buddy, a tweener, is the youngest in the family.

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Critics as well as viewers were devoted to the show. Baxter was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Continuing Performance by a Supporting Actress in a Drama Series in both 1977 and 1978. She was beat by her “sister” McNichol in 1977 (McNichol was nominated every year the show was on) and by Nancy Marchand for Lou Grant in 1978.  For both years, Family was nominated as best show and Sada Thompson as lead actress which she won in 1978 (Thompson was also nominated every year). Gary Frank as Willie won in 1977. James Broderick also received a nomination during those years.

After Family ended, she went back to making made-for-tv movies with 7 during the 1980s and 21 in the 1990s.

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The following year, she would land the role that made her the most famous, Elyse Keaton on Family Ties. In this much-beloved show, Elyse and Steven, former hippies, raise their four children who have different values than they did. Alex, the oldest is a conservative interested primarily in money, Mallory cares more about shopping and boys than anything else, Jennifer has a dry sense of humor and is trying to find her spot in the family and the birth of baby Andy doesn’t help her figure that out. The show was on the air for seven seasons.

In 1995, Baxter married actor and screenwriter Michael Blodgett, but their married only lasted five years. (Blodgett wrote for a variety of television shows and several movies.) Shortly before her divorce, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She made a full recovery and has become a spokesperson for treatment and research and developed a skin cream (Signature). A portion of the proceeds is donated for breast cancer prevention.

THE FACULTY — Meredith Baxter stars in the new comedy series, THE FACULTY, which airs on the ABC Television Network.

In 1996, she again attempted a television series, The Faculty. The show wasn’t renewed for a second season. Baxter played the role of a principal who is divorced and a single mother, and features the choices she has to make to balance her busy life. While the critics praised Baxter’s performance, they didn’t find much else to like about the show, and it was cancelled after 13 episodes.

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She made several television appearances on various shows or movies but her only recurring role was as Lilly Rush on Cold Case in 2007.

In 2011, Meredith published her memoir, Untied. She talks frankly about her unhappy marriages, including the abusive one with Birney. She also discloses that she was a recovering alcoholic and that she was gay. After coming out, she met Nancy Locke whom she married in 2013.

In 2014 Baxter accepted a role as Maureen, Nicky’s friend, on The Young and the Restless which began and ended that year. Since that time, she has appeared on a variety of television shows and in several movies. She has a couple of movies coming out soon.

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With Melody Thomas Scott on The Young and the Restless

Baxter has also done a variety stage work including the two-character play, “Kissing Place” with David Ogden Stiers. Most recently she has appeared in “Women Beyond Borders,” “Angels in America” and “Love Letters.”

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Although Meredith has definitely had some trauma and sadness in her life, she has had a varied and long-lasting career. Being cast in three successful television shows is not something that happens for most actors. She seems to have come to a place in her life where she is happy and content and that is something all of us strive for. Join me next week as we look more closely at the show that made her a household name: Family Ties.

Paging Dr. Stone: The Career of Carl Betz

For the month of June, we are celebrating some of our favorite fathers. One of my favorite dads was Carl Betz in his role as Dr. Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show.

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Betz was born in Mary of 1921 in Pittsburgh, PA. He came from an upper middle-class family, and his father was a laboratory chemist.

While still in school, Betz started a rep theater company with several friends. They performed plays in his grandmother’s basement.

During WWII, he served in the army.  He was deployed to Italy and North Africa and left the military as a technical sergeant with the Corps of Engineers.

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When he returned to the States, he enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh, majoring in drama. While going to school at Carnegie, he played football and made an appearance in the Sugar Bowl against Texas Christian University.

His first job after graduation was a radio announcer. He moved to New York and worked as a doorman at Radio City Music Hall while auditioning for Broadway productions. He received his first part in “The Long Watch” in 1952. He then toured in “The Voice of the Turtle” with Veronica Lake.

In discussing his work as a young adult, he said, “Those were good times for the beginning actor. There were so many summer stock companies. We worked for room and board and the princely sum of $45 a week.  By eliminating haircuts, we managed to keep ourselves in shaving cream, clean shirts, and beer.”

Twentieth Century Fox offered him a contract, and he received a number of supporting roles in films. In 1953, he made an incredible six movies.

In 1952 he married Lois Harmon. They had one son and divorced in 1961.

His first job on television was a soap opera, Love of Life. Throughout the fifties and sixties, he performed in a variety of plays, including “The Seven-Year Itch” and “The Zoo Story.”

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On Perry Mason

In the mid-1950s, he began appearing on television shows, and shows up in reruns on Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Mike Hammer.

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In 1958, Carl was offered the role of Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show, and he was with the show until it ended in 1965. The heart-warming show centered around Donna and Alex Stone, a pediatrician, and their two children, Jeff (Pete Petersen) and Mary (Shelly Fabares). Betz continued his stage career in his off time with the show.

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Both Carl and Donna were protective of their television children. In an interview in 2011 when Petersen was 66, he discussed his second set of parents. “They made a commitment to Shelley and me as surrogate parents to be on our side and be with us for the long haul. They kept that commitment up to their deaths.”

As Alex, Betz was the voice of reason. When anyone got too worried, he gave advice and put things in perspective. He had a fun side to him and could always see the humor in situations. He was a caring doctor and had fun in life, realizing death and illness were always lurking around the corner. He often made fun of Donna and the kids but in a loving way, not cruel. His comments typically illustrated that things were not as dower as they appeared. But when there was an emergency or a serious situation, he was calm and collected and took charge.

Carl continued to take roles during breaks in taping for The Donna Reed Show. In 1964, Betz received amazing reviews for his performance as the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon in “The Night of the Iguana.”

During his time on the show, he ironically married Gloria Stone, and they would remain married until his death in 1978.

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With co-star Stephen Young

In 1967, he starred in Judd for the Defense where he played an attorney. Clifton Judd, a lawyer based in Texas, would travel across the country to defend a client. Many cases involved labor unions, draft evasions, civil rights, and murder. The series featured a number of guest stars, including Ed Asner, Mike Farrell, Norman Fell, Beverly Garland, Ron Howard, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, Ruta Lee, Gavin MacLeod, Vera Miles, Tom Selleck, and Dennis Weaver. The critics gave the show great reviews, but the ratings were always a struggle. In 1969, ABC cancelled the series and that same year, Betz won the Emmy for Outstanding Performer by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.

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Once the series was cancelled, Betz continued in plays and also picked up several television appearances on a variety of shows, such as Love American Style, Medical Center, McCloud, The Mod Squad, Ironside, The FBI, Mission Impossible, Barnaby Jones, and Quincy ME. Since he handled comedy so well on The Donna Reed Show, I was surprised to learn that most of his career was spent on drama or crime shows.

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On Love American Style with Harrison Ford

In 1977, Betz was diagnosed with lung cancer. He kept the illness a secret until November when he was hospitalized. He died in January of 1978, 56 years young. Ironically, thinking about celebrating fathers, my dad also died at age 56.

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From all accounts, Carl Betz wanted to be an actor from a very young age. Fortunately, he was able to spend most of his life in the entertainment business.  Unfortunately, his life ended much too early, and his career was cut short. Any time someone can spend their life pursuing their passion, it’s a life well spent. Happy Father’s Day to one of our favorite dads.

The Millionaire and His Wife: Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer

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Today we continue our month-long series about the characters on Gilligan’s Island and the stars who portrayed them. We begin with the millionaire, Thurston Howell III, and his wife, Lovey. On the island, their money is worthless, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Howell from bribing other captives when it’s in his best interest.  He must have been a boy scout who learned the motto, “Be prepared,” because he and his wife took clothes on a three-hour tour to last a few years. In real life, Natalie Schafer was the millionaire. Both Backus and Schafer had very interesting careers.

 

Jim Backus

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Jim Backus was born in Cleveland in February of 1913. He was one of those stars who seemed to excel in everything:  radio, Broadway, animation, big-screen movies, and television series. In an interesting aside, Margaret Hamilton who would go on to have a full career including the Wicked Witch of the West at the Wizard of Oz, was one of his grade school teachers. Jim grew up in a wealthy area, attending Shaw High School in East Cleveland. His father was a mechanical engineer. I could not find exact proof of this but several articles mention he was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse in the mess hall. He later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

In 1939 he married Betty Kean; they divorced in 1942. One of his famous quotes was “Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success.”

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In the 1940s, Backus began appearing on radio as the “rich man,” which he often portrayed afterward on radio and television. He played the role of aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS Radio Network. He also appeared on the Mel Blanc Show as Hartley Benson, an arrogant character, and as Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show. He also showed up regularly on The Jack Benny Program.

During his radio years, he married Henny Backus whom he was married to the rest of his life.

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He began his big-screen cinema career in 1949 and would go on to appear in almost 100 movies, including Here Come the Nelsons, Pat and Mike, and Rebel Without a Cause (seen above). His most famous movie role was probably Tyler Fitzgerald in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. My favorite movie of his is Hello Down There with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh from 1969.

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During the 1950s, he began auditioning for roles on television. He would go on to appear on 18 different series during that decade, including I Married Joan, on which he starred with Joan Davis. On the show, Backus played a respected judge and Davis was his scatterbrained wife. The show was very popular and lasted three seasons.

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As if he wasn’t busy enough with acting in the 1950s, he also made a song recording with Phyllis Diller that hit the top 40 in 1958. It was called “Delicious,” and the two of them would take a sip of champagne throughout the song, saying “Delicious.” As the song continues, they get more drunk and a bit giddy, slurring their words and laughing hysterically.

 

His television career continued to be demanding in the 1960s. He appeared on 25 series, and four of them had regular starring sitcom roles. In 1960, The Jim Backus Show debuted. The program focuses on Backus in the role of Mike O’Toole, the editor/proprietor of a low rent wire service struggling to stay in business.

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He had made movie shorts about Mr. Magoo in the 1950s and in 1960, he starred in 130 episodes of Mr. Magoo and would make 26 more episodes under the title The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo in 1964-1965. Mr. Magoo was an older nearsighted man who was very popular, appearing in ads and merchandise for years. The humor of the show was based on the difference between what Mr. Magoo thinks he sees and the reality of what was really there. Jim Backus liked to repeat a story about his famous character. He was in the movie, Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe. She asked Jim to meet her in her dressing room later and his curiosity got the best of him, so he went, only to learn she wanted him to portray Mr. Magoo which he did.

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This was also the decade he was offered the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island in 1964. That same year he was asked to play the role of Abner Kravitz on a new show, Bewitched but turned it down because he was committed to Gilligan’s Island. Gilligan’s Island would run from 1964-1967 and he would go on to appear in several Gilligan revivals including the far-fetched The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

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During 1968-1969, Backus took the role of Mr. Dithers in a revival of Blondie.

During the 1960s, he also appeared on 77 Sunset Strip, The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild West, and I Spy, among others.

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Backus continued his television work into the 1970s where he appeared on 31 shows. He appeared in a variety of genres including I Dream of Jeannie, Young Dr. Kildare, Medical Center, The Brady Bunch, Gunsmoke, Ellery Queen, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.

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Backus also continued his commercial work in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the spokesperson for La-Z-Boy furniture and General Electric. He and Natalie Schafer appeared in an ad for Redenbacher’s popcorn. They played their characters from Gilligan’s Island but apparently had been rescued and were in a luxurious home. In a sweet ending, it was the last television appearance for either of them.

When Jim Backus had a little bit of free time between acting jobs, he loved to golf. He also tried his hand at writing a few books and film scripts, including his autobiography which he wrote with his wife, Only When I Laugh in 1965.

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In July of 1989, Backus died from pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years.

He had a long and varied career and seemed to have many friends in the business.

 

Natalie Schafer

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A millionaire in real life, Natalie Schafer seemed like a very fun woman, a bit of a character. She was born in November of 1900 in New Jersey and raised in Manhattan. She was quite secretive about her age, often claiming she was born in 1912.

She began her career in Broadway, appearing in 17 plays. She married actor Louis Calhern in 1934 and they divorced in 1942. She moved to Los Angeles in 1941 to become a film actress and received parts in 34 movies. Incidentally, she and her ex remained friends and appeared together in the movie Forever Darling in 1956.

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Like Backus, Schafer typically played wealthy and sophisticated roles. She did not have the versatility her tv husband had but continued to stay busy acting on television.  While Gilligan’s Island was her only long-term role, she appeared on 21 shows in the 1950s (including I Love Lucy, Loretta Young, Phil Silvers, and Topper); 8 in the 1960s (including The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and Route 66); 15 in the 1970s (including Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, and McMillan and Wife); and an additional 8 shows in the 1980s before she passed away (including Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Trapper John, and Simon and Simon).

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Schafer made most of her money from investments, particularly in real estate.

Several sources revealed that much of her fortune was bequeathed to either her Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells or to care for her dogs; however, at least $1.5 million was donated to the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home to renovate their outpatient wing. I never saw any answers from Wells about inheriting money, but on Vicki Lawrence’s talk show, she did say that Schafer spent her last years living with her. Like many wealthy people, she was quite thrifty.  She often admitted that she accepted the role of Mrs. Howell because she got a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot and didn’t expect it to get picked up.

 

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Everyone seemed to like her on the set. Dawn Wells said she especially adored Schafer and Backus. Schafer was a hard worker and liked to keep fit. In a Chicago Tribune article from October 25, 1965, she relayed her secrets for staying in shape. For one thing, she did her own stunts on the show. She also said she swam nude every morning and evening, doing 100 strong kicks at the side of the pool. She also invented an ice cream diet for herself. She claimed to eat a quart a day, saying she had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with her coffee, two bowls of varying flavors for both lunch and dinner, and another single bowl for an afternoon snack. She claimed that she would lose three pounds in five days.

In 1990, Schafer passed away from liver cancer. After her death, she wanted people to realize her true age, and many of her closest friends were quite surprised to learn she was 12 years older than she claimed.

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While Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey were two interesting characters, I don’t think they can compete with the characters who were Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. I had a lot of fun learning about them.

Ruth Buzzi: Born to Be a Comedienne

As we continue our look at actors and actresses who made great character roles their own, our last meeting is with Ruth Buzzi.  While she was primarily known for her characters on Laugh-In, she has had a long and full career.

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Ruth was born in July of 1936 in Rhode Island. Her father was a famous sculptor who was born in Switzerland. He carved the marble eagles at Penn Station in New York City, the Leif Erikson Memorial in Providence, and several animals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. For his family business, he created thousands of tombstones. In one article I read that he was asked to work on the Mount Rushmore presidents, but declined because he had a fear of heights.  I was not able to confirm that story however. She was raised in Connecticut. Her brother took over the family business and sold it a couple of years ago.

Ruth was head cheerleader in high school. At 17, she enrolled at the Pasadena Playhouse for the Performing Arts where she studied voice, dance, and acting, graduating with honors. Her classmates there included Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman.

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Her first job was while she was still in school, traveling with Rudy Vallee in a musical and comedy act. After graduation, she moved to New York City and appeared in revues throughout New England. She teamed up with Dom DeLuise in a skit where he was an incompetent magician and she was his assistant. Buzzi decided to name her character, who never spoke, Shakuntala. They appeared to a national audience when they were booked on The Garry Moore Show in 1958. In the late 1960s Buzzi received a role on The Steve Allen Show.

Buzzi married Bill Keko in 1965. They would divorce a decade later.

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During this time, Ruth was hired by Bob Fosse to perform in a Broadway show, “Sweet Charity.” She also had an appearance on The Monkees. While she was in the play, she auditioned for a role on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In in 1967.

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She received the role, and it was on that show that many of her funniest characters were created. Along with Dick Martin and Dan Rowan, she was the only person to appear in every episode of the show. (Gary Owens also appeared every series episode, but he was not in the Laugh-In special.) Buzzi was a versatile performer; her quirky characters included Busy-Buzzi, a Hollywood gossip columnist; a prostitute, Kim Hither; Doris Swizzle (sometimes Sidebottom), who ends up drinking too much with her husband; and one of two inconsiderate flight attendants.

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Her most beloved character was Gladys Ormphby, a spinster dressed in a hair net and drab clothing. She always carried a purse and would use it to hit people when she was frustrated. Gladys was often paired with Arte Johnson as Tyrone, a dirty old man who was hit many times. (I have read about a lot of strange cartoons in the 1970s and one of them was The Nitwits, a cartoon about Gladys and Tyrone. Johnson and Buzzi voiced their characters.) Her performances on Laugh-In earned her a Golden Globe Award and five Emmy nominations.

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While I remember Buzzi from Laugh-In, the role I knew her best in was Pete Peterson, Ann Marie’s friend on That Girl which she appeared on during her Laugh-In tenure.

Buzzi was one of the many starts who frequently appeared on Sesame Street. She was nominated for an Emmy on that show for her role of Ruthie, a store owner. She later appeared at the dedication of Jim Henson’s star on Hollywood Boulevard after his death.

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In the early 1970s, Buzzi would continue to appear on television series, including Walt Disney, Night Gallery, Here’s Lucy, Love American Style, Lotsa Luck, and Medical Center.

In 1975, she starred with Jim Nabors in The Lost Saucer. This was a Sid and Marty Krofft production, so you know it was a bit odd. The stars were time-traveling androids Fi and Fum. The show was cancelled after 16 episodes.

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During the 1970s, Ruth also was the spokesperson on a number of products, including Clorox 2, Clairol, Ban deodorant, the Santa Anita Raceway, and Sugar Crisp Cereal. In the Sugar Crisp ads, she was Granny Goodwitch, a role she created for a 1960s animation show, Linus! The Lion Hearted.

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In 1978, another important milestone occurred for Ruth when she married her husband, Kent Perkins.

Her television work continued into the 1980s when she appeared on CHiPs, Trapper John, and The Love Boat. She was Chloe, the never seen, but often mentioned wife of Henry Beesmeyer on Alice. She also made eight appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. She was in 25 films during her career including The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again and Freaky Friday. She currently has two movies in post-production:  One Month Out with Barry Bostwick and John Schneider and Glen’s Gotta Go.

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Buzzi is also well known as a voice actress. Most of her roles since 1985 have been for animation series. She voiced characters in the series Pound Puppies, Mama Bear in The Berenstain Bears, Smurfs, Chip and Dale, Darkwing Duck, Rocket Power, and Angry Beavers.

She also had a nightclub act which toured the United States for a year. In addition, she was on most of the Dean Martin Roasts, typically playing Gladys.

Ruth currently lives with her husband in Texas on a 600-acre ranch. Her hobby is painting. The couple also collects antique automobiles, primarily post-war English cars. She also volunteers for a variety of charities.

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Like Fanny Flagg, Bill Daily, and Howard McNear, Buzzi can be described as delightful. I’m happy to celebrate such a full career for such a fun woman.

 

 

 

1917 Was A Very Good Year

This week I was inspired by the blog “Once upon a screen . . .” to take a look at television pioneers who were born in 1917. (For some great articles on pop culture, movies, and television, check out her blog at aurorasginjoint.com.) Let’s get to know 17 of the stars who helped shape the direction of television during the golden age.

Herbert Anderson. Best known for his role as Henry Mitchell on Dennis the Menace, Anderson began his career making movies.  He transitioned to television in 1953, appearing on 61 shows over the years.  He appeared in episodes on such shows as Gunsmoke, Petticoat Junction, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, Man from U.N.C.L.E., My Three Sons, Bewitched, and The Waltons.  One of my favorites is the first season of The Brady Bunch.  The kids are sick and both parents call a doctor.  The girls were used to a woman played by Marion Ross while the boys always had a man, Anderson.  After weighing factors to pick one of them, the family decides to keep both doctors. He died from a heart attack in 1994.

Carl Ballantine. Ballantine began his career as a magician and inspired many famous magicians since.  He began working in Las Vegas and on television as a magician.  Eventually he transferred to movie roles and after appearing in McHale’s Navy on the big screen, took on the same role of Lester Gruber on the television series. He went on to appear on 33 additional tv shows including That Girl, Laverne and Shirley, Trapper John MD, and Night Court. He passed away at his home in 2009.

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Earl Bellamy. Earl Bellamy directed episodes for 101 different television shows.  He is best known for The Lone Ranger and The Tales of Wells Fargo.  He directed 82 episodes for Bachelor Father, one of my all-time favorite sitcoms.  In the 1960s he specialized in sitcoms including That Girl, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and My Three Sons while the 1970s saw him transition to dramas including Marcus Welby MD, The FBI, Medical Center, and Eight is Enough. In 2003 he passed away from a heart attack.

Ernest Borgnine.  Best known of his Oscar-winning role of Marty in 1955, Ernest enlisted in the Navy in 1935 until 1941.  In 1942 he re-enlisted and served until 1945.  After doing some factory work, he decided to go to school to study acting and began his career on Broadway.  He was also in the movie McHale’s Navy and went on to tackle the role in the television series.  He loved working with Tim Conway and in later years they did the voices for Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy in SpongeBob SquarePants. He appeared in 47 different shows over the years, including the series Airwolf which he starred in. Borgnine appeared in the final episode of ER which he won an Emmy for. He was married five times, including a 32-day marriage to Ethel Merman.  His last marriage to Tova lasted 39 years. He died of kidney failure in 2012.

Raymond Burr. Best known as Perry Mason, Burr started his career on Broadway in the 1940s and then appeared in 50 films from 1946-1957. In 1956 he auditioned for the role of Hamilton Burger, the DA in Perry Mason.  He was told he could have the starring role if he lost about 60 pounds which he accomplished. He later starred in Ironside, another crime drama and appeared on a variety of other shows.  Burr had many interests including raising and cross-breeding orchids; collecting wine, art, stamps and sea shells; reading; and breeding dogs.  He was extremely generous, giving away much of his money over the years.  He passed away from cancer in 1993.

Phyllis Diller. Known for her wild hair and clothing, Diller was one of the pioneering stand-up female comedians.  She appeared in films in the 1940s, worked in radio in the 1950s, and began her stand-up career in 1955. Her first television appearance was in You Bet Your Life.  She appeared in 40 shows including Batman, CHIPs, Full House, and The Drew Carey Show.  She had her own show titled The Pruitts of Southampton, and in reruns The Phyllis Diller Show that ran from 1966-67.  She recorded comedy albums in the 1960s, wrote several books during her career, was an accomplished pianist, performing with symphony orchestras across the US and taught herself painting which she continued throughout the 1960s and 70s. Her husband Fang was not real, but she used him in her comedy routines.  She died of natural causes in 2012. My first memory of Diller was in the movie Boy Did I Dial a Wrong Number with Bob Hope which my parents took me to at the drive in.

Ross Elliott. A prolific actor on stage, film, and television, Elliott appeared in 184 different shows from sitcoms to westerns to medial dramas, all between 1951 and 1983. He passed away from cancer in 1999.

June Foray.  One of the greatest voice actors ever, Foray has been active in the industry since she had her own radio show.  She did off-air voices for many sitcoms including I Love Lucy, Father Knows Best, Jack Benny, Rawhide, Get Smart, Lost In Space, and Bewitched.  She also appeared in more than 76 animated series.  She is perhaps best known as Rocky in Rocky and Bullwinkle and as Cindy Lou Who in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Karen and other voices in Frosty the Snowman. Foray is still alive today.

Zsa Zsa Gabor.  Unlike her sister Eva who became known as Lisa Douglas on Green Acres, Zsa Zsa seemed to make a career out of playing herself.  Of the 80 appearances she made in film and television, 20 of them were as herself. She was a true celebrity.  Crowned Miss Hungary in 1936, she came to the US in 1941 and began her career.  She was known for her extravagant lifestyle and many marriages: 9 with 7 divorces (including one to Conrad Hilton) and 1 annulment.

Sid Melton.  Known to most viewers today as handyman Alf Monroe on Green Acres, Melton began as a film star and went on to appear in 71 shows including Topper, Bachelor Father, Make Room for Daddy, That Girl, Petticoat Junction, I Dream of Jeannie, and Empty Nest. He died from pneumonia in 2011.

Alice Pearce. Although her career was cut short due to illness, I included Alice Pearce because her role as Gladys Kravitz in so memorable.  After spending her childhood in Europe, Pearce started on Broadway and after appearing in On the Town, she was brought to Hollywood to reprise her role in the movie version. She began specializing in comedy in the 1940s. In 1964 she turned down the role of Grandmama in The Addams Family and shortly after was offered the role of Gladys in Bewitched. She was already diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she began her role but didn’t tell anyone and was able to act for two seasons before she passed away from the disease. She received an Emmy for her work on Bewitched.

Gene Rayburn. One of the kings of game shows, Rayburn began his career as an actor, taking over for Dick Van Dyke in Bye Bye Birdie when Van Dyke began his television show. While he was on numerous game shows as a panelist or host over the years, Rayburn is best known for Match Game which first ran from 1962-69. It was revived again in 1973 and took several formats in the following years.  He died from heart failure in 1999.

Isabel Sanford. Best known as Louise Jefferson, she grew up in Harlem and performed in amateur nights at the Apollo Theatre. Her Broadway debut was in 1965.  After appearing as a maid in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, she was cast by Norman Lear in All in the Family which led to the series The Jeffersons.  When the show ended in 1985, she appeared in a variety of other shows until 2002.  She passed away from natural causes in 2004.

Sidney Sheldon.  A writer and producer, Sheldon created The Patty Duke Show, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hart to Hart, writing many of the scripts for all three series. After he turned 50, he began a career writing romantic suspense novels.  He died from pneumonia in 2007.

Robert Sterling. A clothing salesman before getting into acting, Sterling was best known for his role as George Kerby in Topper from 1953-55.  His wife, Anne Jeffreys played his wife in the show. From 1943-49 he was married to Ann Sothern. He appeared in 36 shows between 1951 and 1986. He passed away from natural causes in 2006.

Jesse White.  While White was a hard-working character actor, he is best known for his commercials as the Maytag repairman from 1967-88. After appearing in films for many years, he transitioned to television in the 1950s.  His daughter Carole Ita White also became an actress best known for Laverne and Shirley. White appeared in 113 shows, never receiving a regular series.

Jane Wyman. Wyman began working at Warner Brothers at age 16, claiming to be 19. Although she was a successful film star and began in television in 1955 with her own show, Jane Wyman Presents Fireside Theater, she is probably best known for her role on Falcon’s Crest from 1981-90 and her marriage to Ronald Reagan. She died in her sleep from natural causes in 2007.

These are just a handful of television mavericks that influenced television as we know it today.  I was amazed at the variety of different talents each of these stars displayed.  In comparing their television appearances, it’s surprising how many of them overlap and worked on the same shows.  What I found most surprising was that Ballantine, Diller, Melton, Sanford, Sterling, White and White’s daughter all appeared on Love American Style while Bellamy, Borgnine, Burr, Diller, Gabor, Rayburn, Sanford, White, and Wyman all guest starred on The Love Boat.  During my research, I ran across many shows that will become future blog topics.

Another fun fact about celebrating stars born in 1917 is that this week we are traveling to Pennsylvania to celebrate my grandmother’s 100th birthday who was also born in 1917.  Happy Birthday Mamie.

The Passing of a Pop-Culture Parent

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In memory of Florence Henderson, who passed on away on Thanksgiving, I just wanted to spend some time reviewing her career.  It’s hard not to call someone lucky and successful who became a multimillionaire (10-15 million depending on the source), is well known all over the world, and beloved by many fans. But, after researching her career, I wonder if she had been able to do it over, would she have chosen to take on the role of Carol Brady?

Florence’s life was a far cry from The Brady Bunch; the only similarity was having a huge number of people under one roof.  Her father didn’t marry until his late forties and he married a woman 25 years younger than him. He was a tobacco sharecropper and alcoholic and life was not like a sitcom. Florence, growing up in Indiana, was the tenth child to come along, and her father was close to 70 by the time she was born. Her mother and father divorced when she was a teen and then her mother moved to Cleveland, Ohio to work, and Florence did not see her until she was there for a musical performance. Her father passed away the same time she began a Broadway show. She had to choose between keeping the job and attending her father’s funeral, and she took the job and dealt with the guilt for many years.

During her career she was in eleven Broadway shows. She had a very interesting career.  She was the first woman to fill in as host for the Tonight Show during the transition from Jack Paar to Johnny Carson. She then became a Today girl on the morning show, presenting the weather and light news in 1959. Although she appeared in various commercials, she is best known for promoting Wesson Oil which she did from 1974-1996. Her last appearance before her death was at a taping of Dancing with the Stars which she had competed in along with Maureen McCormick, her daughter Marcia, on The Brady Bunch. (Dancing with the Stars photo credited to ABC News)

 

After her iconic role as Carol Brady, she became the queen of one episodes.  She appeared in three episodes of her friend Angela Lansberry’s Murder She Wrote, three shows on Fantasy Island, four times on Dave’s World and ten episodes of The Love Boat, the most of any star. However, from 1975-2016, she worked on 31 shows where she appeared in one episode only. Some of these shows were classic sitcoms such as Alice, Roseanne, Ellen, King of Queens, and 30 Rock. Some were dramas including Medical Center, Hart to Hart, and Ally McBeal. Some were children’s or animated shows such as Scooby-Doo Mystery, Inc.; The Cleveland Show; Handy Manny; and Sofia the First.  However, the most by far were sitcoms that didn’t leave a lasting impression and many are probably quite forgettable.  During those years she appeared on Good Heavens, 3 Girls 3, Glitter, Free Spirit, Night Stand, Samantha Who, Happily Divorced, Trophy Wife, and Instant Mom.

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Towards the end of her life, she seemed to find a comfortable place pursuing interesting and wide-ranging activities.  She and best friend Shirley Jones did a series of concerts together, she hosted a couple of shows on the Retirement Living network, and did a lot of interviews.

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In 1968, she agreed to play the role of Carol Brady but had not heard anything about the show being picked up and was set to star in The Song of Norway being filmed in Norway.  She left for the musical still thinking The Brady Bunch was a no- go.  However, she later found out it was indeed debuting in 1969. They had to film the first six episodes without her and she did her taping later. Appearing as Carol Brady from 1969-1974 gave her the role of a lifetime.  The Brady Bunch has never been off the air since it debuted which says a lot about the show. Many generations of fans admired her and gave her thanks for being a mother figure to them. Some dreamed of being part of a family like the Bradys and obviously Florence could relate, with her background.

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The role made her a national symbol and a lot of money, but you have to wonder what it cost her professionally. It was surprising that both Florence and Shirley Jones became America’s mothers on Friday nights after both being given their start by Rogers and Hammerstein earlier in their careers. They also both wrote “tell-all” books about their lives in show business in 2012 and 2013. Both of these women have been busy their entire lives because they were willing to change along with the times and continue to explore alternatives.

In an interview with Tavis Smiley in 2011, Florence reflected on being Carol Brady: “I’m okay with that.  I think you have to cherish your past because if you don’t cherish your past and love this moment, you have no future. I know a lot of actors hate it when they’re identified with a role. I know what I’ve done in my career . . . I received tremendous affection from people all over the world.”

In a joint interview conducted with Shirley Jones and Florence Henderson, Shirley recalled that her agent told her not to do The Partridge Family.  He said that if she was successful, she would be locked into the role forever.  She wanted a series so she could be home to raise her children, so she took it. She did admit that her agent was right. Even though she had done 20 movies before The Partridge Family, she was forever known as Shirley Partridge. However, she took said at least it was a show she could be proud of and an entire family could watch it together without anything shocking taking place.

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After being The Fonz, Henry Winkler was so typecast that he went into directing and producing because he couldn’t get out of the Fonz’s shadow. I’m not sure why this happens to actors. I think it has something to do with the television being in our homes and we begin to relate to these characters as if they’re real people.  We don’t want anything to ruin the fantasy of the character and how genuine they have become to us. Actors in movies seem to be able to move from role to role without the same obstacles as television stars.

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I guess if you have to be typecast in a role, the role of Carol Brady is not a bad one to identify with. In a recent interview, Florence talked about that fact and if she has to be Carol Brady forever, at least the show “represents what everyone wants in life, and that is a loving family, unconditional love, a place to make mistakes, to get angry, to be forgiven, and to forgive. (photo below credited to Closerweekly)

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Florence Henderson had four children and many grandchildren and became the type of mother and grandmother she portrayed on television rather than the role model she grew up with. That is certainly a success in any field. Not only did she have close relationships with her own family, but she stayed close to her “Brady family” for the past five decades. If that was not enough, she influenced generations of viewers who hopefully took something of Carol Brady and incorporated it into their idea of what a mother should be like.

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I am in that generation who lived for Friday nights to watch The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family, wanting to be part of their families, even if it was from a living room across the country.  Along with many viewers from that generation, I was sad to learn of Florence Henderson’s death and did feel like someone special from my life had passed away. Certainly my realization of the ideal mother was based partly on Carol Brady, Shirley Partridge, Donna Stone, Kate Bradley, and even Bentley Greg and Steve Douglas.  With each of their passing, it does feel like losing a family member.

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Thank you Florence for your positive outlook, your energy, your wide range of interests, your honesty, and your willingness to take on parenting a whole generation of baby boomers. Rest in peace.