MacMillan and Wife: The Show That Bridged the Generation Gap

Before launching into this week’s topic, I wanted to say thank you to everyone who has been following and reading my blog. This week begins my fourth year writing this blog. I was worried I would find enough topics to fill the first year but next year is already outlined, so another year of classic television is on the way. It has been a lot of fun, and I’ve learned a lot.

This month we are looking at crime-solving duos.  We start our series learning a bit more about McMillan and Wife. McMillan and Wife began as part of The Sunday NBC Mystery Movie which included Columbo and McCloud. The shows rotated each week, so fewer episodes were produced of each than a typical weekly show.

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McMillan and Wife debuted in 1971 and was on the air until 1977, yet only forty episodes were produced. Leonard Stern was the creator, writer, and executive producer of the show; he previously produced Get Smart.

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Stewart “Mac” McMillan (Rock Hudson) was an attorney and US Navy veteran who apparently had been involved in some CIA activities. He is now Commissioner of Police in San Francisco. He gets involved in high-profile cases. His wife is Sally (Susan St. James), and her father was a detective for the San Francisco Police Department; she learned a lot from him and helps her husband solve crimes. Sargent Charlie Enright (John Schuck) helps Mac with his cases. Sally and Mac have no children (it’s confusing because Sally was pregnant twice on the show, but the children are never mentioned in the show later). Their housekeeper Mildred (Nancy Walker) also lives with the couple. Mildred’s character resembles the role Thelma Ritter played in Pillow Talk, where Hudson starred with Doris Day. She is a sarcastic, hard-drinking woman and is always ready to offer her opinion, but she is devoted to Mac and Sally.

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Once Hudson was cast as Mac, the show got priority in development. Several actresses were considered for the role of Sally, including Diane Keaton and Jill Clayburgh, but Hudson was most comfortable with St. James.

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Hudson was 21 years older than St. James, but their relationship worked. Mac is supposed to be in his 40s and Sally in her 20s (he was 46 at the time and she was 25). Sally is self-confident and is not afraid to speak her mind. However, she is also a wife who loves her husband, and one of the running gags on the show is that Mac had dated a lot of women in his past, and when Mac and Sally are out and about, they typically run into some gorgeous woman who says, “Hi Mac.” Sally usually responds with a jealous comment or a withering look. The difference in their ages actually worked well for demographics. Hudson appealed to older viewers while St. James attracted younger viewers.

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Often the cases Mac solves happen during events the couple attends. One episode featured a burglary at a charity event they were attending; once they found a skeleton in their house after an earthquake. Another show had Mac abducted by mobsters and replaced with a surgically-made twin replacing him.

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An interesting fact is that the interior of their house in the pilot episode was in fact Hudson’s home. In the first regular episode, the MacMillans bought a new house. In the final season, the setting changed to an apartment.

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Sally and Mac led a glamorous life. The scripts were well written, and the dialogue was witty and clever. The couple was often compared to Nick and Nora Charles in the Thin Man movies. Mac and Sally have a lot of their best conversations after they go to bed at night.

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Sally was known for wearing a football jersey for her nightgown. The jersey was an authentic 49ers Jersey, number 18, George Washington, a wide receiver. Washington was a four-time Pro Bowler. He made a guest appearance on the show in season four, “Guilt by Association.”

Considering that there were only forty episodes produced, this show had an incredible number of guest stars. I apologize for the long list, but it’s the only way to capture how impressive it is. The stars included sport celebrities Dick Butkus, Rosie Grier, Alex Karras, and Bobbie Riggs.

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It also featured a Who’s Who of television sitcom royalty: John Astin, Meredith Baxter, Tom Bosley, Michael Constantine, Bert Convy, Wally Cox, Richard Deacon, William Demarest, Donna Douglas, Barbara Feldon, Norman Fell, Buddy Hackett, Larry Hagman, Alan Hale, Shirley Jones, Stacy Keach, Bernie Kopell, Julie Newmar, Charlotte Rae, Charles Nelson Reilly, Dick Sargent, Natalie Schafer, Susan Sullivan, Karen Valentine, and Dick Van Patten.

The show, like McCloud and Columbo, was quite popular with viewers. The ratings were impressive until the sixth season.

Unfortunately, the last season had too many changes to overcome. St. James decided to leave to concentrate on her movie career. Schuck left to star in the sitcom, Holmes and Yo-Yo, and Walker left for her own sitcom, The Nancy Walker Show. Sadly, Walker and Schuck would have been better off staying because both their shows lasted only 13 episodes. St. James starred in a couple of movies, but they weren’t anything memorable. She would go on to star in Kate and Allie in 1984.

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On the show, Sally was killed in an airplane crash. Mildred was said to leave to open a diner, so her sister Agatha (Martha Raye) took over her job. Schuck made a few appearances but was said to have been given a promotion to lieutenant which kept him too busy to assist Mac much. The show may have been able to overcome one of these changes but not all of them. Much of the strength of the show was the relationship between Mac and Sally. Walker’s funny bantering and actions provided a comedic relief for the show. When Raye took over, she was just scatterbrained and loud; the appeal of Walker was not part of her character.

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It’s wonderful the show lasted five good seasons, but it might have lasted many more if the original cast had been retained. At the other end of the spectrum, Columbo aired off and on until 2003 and is remembered by more viewers.

DVDs were released for all six seasons between 2005 and 2014. With only forty shows in the series, this would be a fun binge-watching week-end show to tackle.

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.

How Much Luggage Do You Need for a Three-Hour Trip? The Story of Gilligan’s Island

Today we begin a month-long look at Gilligan’s Island.  I admit I was never a big Gilligan fan, but there are so many dedicated viewers that I decided it was time to take a closer look.  Today we look at the series, and in the following weeks, we’ll look at the actors who appeared in the cast.

Gilligan's Island (US TV Series)

Gilligan’s Island was created by one of my favorite producers, Sherwood Schwartz. It aired from September 1964 till April of 1967, producing 98 episodes and a ton of other versions of the show which aired as new series or television movies, including the hard-to-believe Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.

THE HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS ON GILLIGAN'S ISLAND, Alan Hale, Jr., Bob Denver, Curly Neal, 1981. (c) Uni

The premise of the show was that on a three-hour tour, the SS Minnow became shipwrecked on a deserted island after a typhoon. Seven castaways now must make the island their home as they wait to be rescued. We have the captain of the ship, the Skipper (Alan Hale), his first-mate Gilligan (Bob Denver), millionaire Thurston Howell III (Jim Backus) and his wife Lovie (Natalie Schafer), movie star Ginger Grant (Tina Louise), the girl next door Mary Ann (Dawn Wells), and the Professor (Russell Johnson). All they have is a transistor radio and whatever they had on the ship.

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CBS gave the okay for Schwarz to film the pilot. Schwartz wanted Jerry Van Dyke for Gilligan, but Van Dyke said it was “the worst thing” he ever read. He turned down the script and accepted the role of Dave Crabtree on My Mother the Car.

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The pilot was titled “Marooned.” Seven characters were in the pilot, but only the Skipper, Gilligan and the Howells were going to be in the ongoing series. These were the only castaways mentioned in the pilot theme song. The final day of filming for the pilot was November 22, 1963, the day of Kennedy’s assassination. The staff was crowded around a radio between scenes trying to get the updated news. In the opening of the episodes in the first season, as the Minnow leaves the harbor, you can see an American flag flying at half staff as a tribute to Kennedy.

After seeing the pilot, several changes were requested. The first change was to the theme song. Originally it was written by the talented John Williams and sung by Schwartz and was a Calypso-sounding song. The lyrics were quite different from the song we recognize today. The background music and laugh track were the same for both the pilot and the ensuing shows. The three characters who were not part of the series at first were the same characters that later appeared . . . sort of. The Professor was a high school teacher played by John Gabriel, Ginger was an actress but also a secretary played by Kit Smythe, and Mary Ann was Bunny, a dumb blonde stereotype played by Nancy McCarthy.

Because so many changes happened between the pilot and the first episode, the pilot was not aired until 1992 when it was broadcast on TBS.

The first season was filmed in black and white but later colorized for syndication The second and third seasons were filmed in color.

While the pilot had been filmed in Hawaii,  the show was taped at a lagoon built at the CBS Radford Studios in Studio City, Los Angeles. The film was supposed to be shot in Malibu, but it was too foggy. The Ventura Freeway was nearby and when traffic was too loud, production had to halt. The lagoon would become a parking lot in 1995.

There were four boats that “played” the part of the SS Minnow. One was used in the opening credits which had been rented in Honolulu for the filming of the pilot. One was used in the opening credits for the final two years. One was shown in beach scenes and the fourth was built at the studio.

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The eventual theme song was called “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Isle,” and was written by Schwartz and George Wyle. There were two versions, one for the first season which referred to Mary Ann and the Professor as “the rest,” and another version for the last two seasons which specified “The Professor and Mary Ann.” Dawn Wells credits Bob Denver for going to bat for her and Johnson threatening to take his name out of the song if they were not added.

For the opening credits, the song was:

Just sit right back

And you’ll hear a tale

A tale of a fateful trip

That started from this tropic port

Aboard this tiny ship

The mate was a mighty sailing man

The skipper brave and sure

Five passengers set sail that day

For a 3-hour tour, a 3-hour tour

The weather started getting rough

The tiny ship was tossed

If not for the courage of the fearless crew

The Minnow would be lost, the Minnow would be lost

The ship set ground on the shore of this

Uncharted desert isle

With Gilligaaan

The Skipper too

A millionaire, and his wife

A movie star

The Proffessor and Mary Ann

Here on Gilligan’s Isle

 

For closing credits, the lyrics were:

So, this is the tale of our castaways

They’re here for a long long time

They’ll have to make the best of things

It’s an uphill climb

The first mate and his skipper too

Will do their very best

To make the others comfortable

In the tropic island nest

No phone, no lights, no motor cars

Not a single luxury

Like Robinson Crusoe

It’s primitive as can be

So, join us here each week my friends

You’ll sure to get a smile

From 7 stranded castaways

Here on Gilligan’s Isle!

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Most of the episodes can be categorized into five themes. (1) One of the castaways make some useful object from local material. These could be anything from their bamboo huts to hot water pipes to a stethoscope to a pedal-powered car. They just could not produce anything that could get them off the island! (2) Visitors would often appear on the island. We’ll learn about some of the guest stars on the show in our last monthly blog. None of these visitors ever help the characters get rescued. Unbelievably, Ginger, Gilligan, and Mr. Howell all had look-alikes end up on the island, causing trouble for them. (3) Dreams occur a lot. When we see them, all the characters are part of the dream.  Apparently, the hot weather made them sleepy. (4) News from the outside world, usually heard on the radio, caused trouble on the island. (5) Strange objects showed up on the island from time to time like a WWII mine or radioactive vegetable seeds.

Despite many corny scripts and imagination-stretching storylines, the show received solid ratings all three years. When it went into syndication, it grew in popularity. Many of the stars from Gilligan play their characters from the show in other series’ television episodes in the 1970s and 1980s.

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The last episode was called “Gilligan the Goddess.” Unfortunately, the castaways were not rescued. A fourth season was expected or perhaps Schwartz would have saved them. In season three, the show was on Monday nights competing with The Monkees.  Schwartz was assured it would be back because it had higher ratings than The Monkees. Gunsmoke, which aired Saturday nights, was given the potential ax. However, CBS president William Paley pressured the executives who then moved Gunsmoke to Monday night and cancelled Gilligan’s Island.

One funny fact I read about was how often the US Coast Guard received telegrams from citizens who were pleading for them to make an effort to rescue the cast from Gilligan’s Island. The Coast Guard sent these telegrams to Schwartz.

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I can’t say that after learning more about the show, it made my favorites list, but there are definitely worse shows on television than Gilligan’s Island. If it was one of your favorites, you’ll enjoy hearing about the stars who played the castaways. I certainly learned they were just as interesting a group of people in real life as they were on the isle they called home for three years.