When I decided to do research for a blog series about some of my favorite sitcom actors, I knew Tom Poston had to be on the list. Poston seems to be someone who’s always a bit under the radar, and I’m not sure he ever received the accolades he deserved.
Poston was born in 1921 in Columbus, Ohio. His father was a liquor salesman and dairy chemist, an interesting combination. Poston started at Bethany College in West Virginia but joined the Air Force in 1941. He went to flight school and served as a pilot in the European Theater for WWII and was part of the Normandy invasion.
After returning home, he decided to move to New York City to study acting and graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
He was cast in his first television show, Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, in 1950. In 1955 Poston married actress Jean Sullivan. They would divorce in 1968, having one daughter.
He continued receiving dramatic roles throughout the early fifties. In 1956 he joined the Steve Allen Show, along with his cast mates Don Knotts and Louie Nye. In 1959 he won the Best Supporting Actor Emmy for his work on the show. In 1960 The Steve Allen Show moved to Los Angeles and Poston decided to remain in New York, but Tom and Don Knotts stayed life-long friends. He appeared on Broadway often and began making the game show circuit and continued accepting drama roles on the small screen.
When Mel Brooks was putting together the pilot for Get Smart, ABC was planning on airing the show and they wanted Tom for the star. However, when ABC declined the show and when NBC picked it up, Don Adams got the lead; Poston did appear on the show as a KAOS bad guy.
Poston married for the second time in 1968 to Kay Hudson with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1975 but remarried in 1980 and remained husband and wife until her death from ALS in 1998.
In 1975, he began recurring roles on two different sitcoms: On the Rocks and The Bob Newhart Show. On the Rocks was a show about the friendly rivalry between prisoners and their guards. On the Bob Newhart Show, Poston played “The Peeper,” Bob’s college buddy and big .prankster.
In 1977, Tom took on the role of Damon Jerome, photographer on We’ve Got Each Other. Beverly Archer played his assistant while her husband Stuart Hibbard (Oliver Clark) did the cooking and house cleaning. The show was cancelled after 13 episodes.
He appeared on a variety of shows during the late seventies and from 1979-1981, he portrayed grouchy neighbor Franklin Delano Bickley on Mork and Mindy. Poston said the role he played on the show was written for him. He said Robin was hysterically funny all the time. He said Pam Dawber was a comic genius because she was able to keep the focus on both Mork and Mindy, because anyone else would have been lost in Robin’s antics.
He moved from Colorado on that show to Vermont the next year when he became George Utley, handyman on Newhart. For eight seasons he worked at the Stratford Inn, becoming friends with Dick and Joanna. He was nominated for an Emmy in 1984, 1986, and 1987. (Pat Harrington won in 1984 for One Day at a Time and John Laroquette won for Night Court in 1986 and 1987.)
In an interview with the Television Academy, Poston discussed the last episode of Newhart. He said the cast members were kept in the dark about the ending. He said he was in the stands with the audience when that last scene with Suzanne Pleshette and Bob as Bob Hartley waking up from his “dream” was filmed. He said Bob’s wife Ginny had the idea, and Tom thought it was fabulous.
From 1990-1991, you could find him in Good Grief, playing Ringo Prowley, in a show set in a mortuary; when that show was cancelled, he was back with Bob Newhart on Bob as Jerry Fleisher.
During the 1990s, he would accept five recurring roles: Mr. Looney on Family Matters, Phineas Swenson on Murphy Brown, Dr. Art Hibke on Coach, Floyd Norton on Grace Under Fire, and Burt Sigardson on That Seventies Show. In between, he also managed to find time to guest star on more than thirty other shows including Home Improvement, Cosby, ER, The Drew Carey Show, and Will and Grace. He also accepted roles on the big screen in twelve movies during his career, the last two being The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement and Christmas with the Kranks, both in 2004, as well as 15 Broadway productions.
Tom tried married life once again in 2001 when he married actress Suzanne Pleshette. They were married until his death in 2007 from respiratory failure.
I was just amazed by Tom Poston’s career: a ton of television appearances–he probably had more recurring roles than almost any other actor during that time; a well-respected big screen career, a variety of Broadway roles and many gameshow stints. He was nominated for five Emmys, winning one. He always made the rest of the cast look better. I truly enjoyed getting to know a bit more about Tom Poston, one of our greatest sitcom stars.
Those of you who have been with me for a while know I have a bit of a different definition for “classic tv.” My view of “classic” is a show that was a great show and is no longer on the air. Typically, I am writing and researching shows from 40-70 years ago, but every once in a while, I sneak in a more recent series.
That’s the case today. In 2017 a very different type of show aired called Trial & Error. For those of you who didn’t watch it, it was a spoof of documentaries and reality legal shows. Its humor is hard to describe. Created by Jeff Astrof (he was producer for a variety of shows including The New Adventures of Old Christine and Veronica’s Closet) and Matt Miller (supervising producer for Las Vegas) for NBC, the show was produced by Warner Brothers Television.
Astrof discussed how he got the idea for Trial & Error. He was watching The Staircase, a show documenting the trial of Michael Peterson, accused of murdering his wife. He thought he could turn it into a comedy/mockumentary. Peterson is a novelist who lives in North Carolina and was accused of pushing both his wife and a family friend down staircases.
I know that doesn’t sound like an idea for a funny show, but that’s what happened. I’m not one for the Dumb and Dumber type movies, so this is not that. It was based on character and the little town where the action takes place.
Trial & Error followed New York attorney Josh Segal (Nicholas D’Agosto) when his firm sends him to the small town of East Peck in South Carolina to represent Larry Henderson (John Lithgow) who is accused of murdering his wife. Henderson is a poet who lives in South Carolina and was accused of pushing both his wives through windows.
The first season introduced us to Josh’s “legal” team of Anne Flatch (Sherri Shepherd) and Dwayne Reed (Steven Boyer).
Reed is a fumbling former police officer and the lead investigator. Flatch is the researcher and assistant. She is very smart and often solves many mysteries, but she is plagued with dozens of syndromes which affect her health, sometimes at the worst times for trials. Some of her disorders include prosoapamnesia, dyslexia, involuntary emotional expression disorder, Stendhal syndrome (this causes her to faint when witnessing great beauty), foreign accent syndrome, nocturnal lagophthalmos, backwards cheerleader syndrome, and a strange condition where her left hand operates independently of her wishes. She also suffers from face blindness and she can’t see who the person is talking to her and when she is upset, she laughs hysterically.
The eccentric poetry professor Henderson is portrayed by the amazing John Lithgow and his daughter Summer by Krysta Rodriguez. Josh and Assistant District Attorney Carol Ann Keane (Jayma Mays) butt heads and eventually succumb to the attraction that surrounds them when they get together.
No matter had hard Josh works, Larry always does or says something to make himself look guilty. Every time Josh figures out one mystery, it leads to another problem for his client. There is also a lot of subtle humor such as when Larry walks out of a room, we realize he is wearing an OJ Simpson jersey.
Not only does Josh have a pair of eccentric coworkers, but his office is part of the local taxidermy shop.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t watched the show and plan to, ignore this paragraph. Both the original Peterson case and the fictional Henderson case involved birds as a defense to murder. In Peterson’s case, his legal team was not willing to put their client’s life on the line with that defense. In Henderson’s case, Josh tells Dwayne and Anne to say the first thing that pops into their heads, and Dwayne says, “Bird. Birds fly into windows all the time.” The finale reveals that Margaret was killed by an owl.
Season two finds Josh let go by his firm and living in East Peck. He is hired by Lavinia Peck-Foster (Kristin Chenoweth) when she is also accused of murder. Lavinia, one of the town’s most beloved citizens, finds her husband’s body stuffed into a suitcase in her car. If you haven’t seen the series, the following description might give you a better indication of Lavinia; Chenoweth says she based the character on Lisa Vanderpump, Carol Burnett, Madeline Kahn, Julie Andrews, Dolly Parton, and Hannibal Lecter.
In season two, we see Carol Ann obviously pregnant. We assume Josh is the father, but you can’t assume anything in East Peck, because just when you think you have things figured out, a new twist appears. We also are introduced to Nina Rudolph (Amanda Payton) in season 2. She is a podcast host who also relocates from New York to East Peck to follow Lavinia’s trial. She ends up in a romantic triangle with Josh and Carol, with Josh is uncertain where his heart is being pulled.
A variety of other characters show up in seasons one and two who live in East Peck and have definite opinions on the guilt or innocence of the accused. In Larry’s case, it’s revealed the newspaper thinks Henderson is the fourth leading cause of death in East Peck; the third is cannonballs which are fired off at 5 am and 5 pm daily. The town itself has a lot of funny traditions and laws. For example, waterskiing with a cat is only a misdemeanor. Sometimes the coroner lists the cause of death as “just because.” Astrof described East Peck as a town of 600 residents where 400 of them are not quite right. One of the things that hit me as funny and should not be is that the town has a law that any woman driver must be preceded by a man on foot waving flags, yelling “Woman driver!”
Spoiler Alert 2: Unlike Larry, Josh realizes that Lavinia is actually the killer. However, we have an understanding of her and realize she is a victim too. She was molded into the golden debutante of East Peck and brought up to do whatever she wanted, and it was always fixed and okay. She is a sympathetic murderer. Her last speech is “At the end of the day, life is just a journey. If you’re lucky, you don’t have to take that journey alone. If you’re one of the blessed few, you take that journey with someone you love and you hold them forever. And we can take comfort in knowing all our journeys end in the same place: a hold in the ground.” It’s not the speech or series ending you anticipate, and much of the show is not what you anticipate. We also learn in the last episode that Josh is not the father of Carol’s baby but he still is with her when she is giving birth because he’s Josh.
Although the show received a lot of praise from critics, NBC declined to renew it for a third season, and there were no other networks willing to take it on. Rotten Tomatoes gave the first season an 86% rating based on 35 reviews. The second season jumped to 91% with 11 reviews.
I was on the fence when I heard that this show was on the fall schedule, but it was truly funny. It was created with great attention to detail and consistency. Like I mentioned last week about Night Court, you have to have the perfect cast for a show like this. It could so easily be over the top and stereotypical. Even Anne with all her syndromes is believable and likable. That’s one of the great things about the show. Josh is able to put aside his New York judgments of the people and the town. Their craziness becomes normal for him, and you can tell he truly likes his coworkers and his clients.
Astrof was interviewed for undertheradarmag.com by Steve King on January 29, 2019. In that article, Astrof discussed the actors in the cast. Astrof said “Nick was the glue that holds the show together.” He said Nick was able to project a goofiness without putting his legal ability in jeopardy. He continued saying, “Without him, everything would fall apart, because you need someone who can not only do the slow burn, but generate comedy and likeability and sexiness but in a goofy way. I have nothing but positive things to say about Nick.”
Astrof revealed his appreciation of the entire cast: “I’m so blessed to work with this group. You’ve never seen anything like it. You’ve never seen a nicer cast.” Of Lithgow, he said, “Nobody could have played Larry with the same pathos that John has, and the comedy.” He said of Boyer, “Well Steven is just a genius and when he auditioned, we had never even heard of him.” About Shepherd, “We just fell in love with her. Anne was written to be a bit of a hangdog, and when Sherri came in, we were like, ‘You can give this character any affliction and she’s going to be upbeat.’”
There are so many rapid-fire puns and great lines that it’s hard to catch them all. While most viewers found season two their favorite, there is something charming about Lithgow’s performance as Larry that makes season one my favorite, but not by a huge margin. This show was so unlike anything else on television. Its writing was so great, and its characters so likable and quirky. It made my brain think differently while watching.
Just so you don’t have to take my word on the show, I’ll end with a review from labman-40649 that was written on imdb March 26, 2017: The title was “Hilarious” and the review states: “This is the funniest television show I have seen in the last 25 years. My family and I laugh the entire length of the show until we are crying!!! Keep up the awesome work. You are the true Kings and Queens of Comedy!!!! The entire cast is beyond brilliant!!!! I truly hope this show will be on as long as Gunsmoke was.”
Unfortunately, in an era of so many shows that are underwhelming and unbearable with bad writing, this creative, unbelievably funny and well-written show couldn’t get the green light for a third season. Thankfully, the first two seasons are available on DVD, so you can check it out for yourself. They are definitely on my “must-buy to watch and re-watch” list.
In July we learned about Sirota’s Court which Night Court seemed to be a clone of. Debuting on NBC in January of 1984, Night Court ran for nine seasons until May of 1992. The series was supposed to begin in fall of 1983, but the executives at NBC were concerned about Harry Anderson’s lack of experience as an actor. They delayed the show; every show that debuted in fall of 1983 was cancelled, so Night Court was put on the schedule mid-season.
Thursday nights on NBC were part of “Must See Thursday.” The schedule featured The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Cheers followed by Night Court.
An unconventional judge, Harry Stone (Harry Anderson) presided over a Manhattan night court overseeing petty crime and dealing with a lot of wacky clients, odd coworkers, and bizarre situations. The role of Judge Stone was originally offered to Robert Klein, but he could not come to an agreement on the salary with NBC.
The main characters include Judge Stone, a public defender, a prosecutor, a couple bailiffs, and a clerk of court.
Harry Stone is a humorous judge (and magician). Although he was young, he was appointed because when the outgoing mayor called prospective judges, Harry was the only one who answered the phone. Stone likes old movies, Jean Harlow and adores Mel Tormè. The show’s creator Reinhold Weege discusses Stone’s admiration for Tormè on the DVD commentary. He said Tormè said he began to notice a younger audience at his concerts which he attributed to the Night Court references and happily appeared on an episode of the show.
The public defender role went through several changes during the course of the show. Gail Strickland was Sheila Gardner in the pilot. Paula Kelly was Liz Williams during the first season. Ellen Foley was brought on board for season 2 as a possible romantic interest for Judge Stone. Markie Post showed up for season 3 as Christine Sullivan and stuck around for the next seven seasons. Post was the first choice for the role in 1984 but was committed to The Fall Guy. When that show was cancelled, she was hired. Christine was a bit naïve and committed to helping others. She was a fan of the royal family and collected Princess Diana memorabilia as well as porcelain thimbles.
The prosecutor was Dan Fielding (John Larroquette). He was a sex-obsessed, somewhat witty, egotistical and greedy man. However, at times he could display compassion for others but not for long. He was always trying to get Christine to go out with him, but there was always a romantic tension between her and Stone.
Nostradamus “Bull” Shannon (Richard Moll) was on the show for its entire run. He came off as a bit dim-witted but was patient, kind, and devoted to Judge Stone.
For the first two seasons, he worked with Selma Hacker (Selma Diamond), a chain-smoking older bailiff who had been married six times. Diamond was diagnosed with cancer after season 2 and passed away shortly after. Florence Kleiner (Florence Halop) came on for season 3. Older like Selma, they had similar personalities. “Flo” loved motorcycles and heavy metal music. Halop also was diagnosed with and died from cancer after season 3. Rosalind Russell (Marsha Warfield) began in season four and stayed for the duration of the show. She was a practical, no-nonsense woman.
Clerk Lana Wagner (Karen Austin), was asked to leave the show after only ten episodes. I could not substantiate it, but she claims it was her diagnosis of Bell’s palsy that ended in her being asked to resign. Macintosh “Mac” Robinson (Charles Robinson) would take over in season two for the rest of the series. A Vietnam veteran, he was easy going and funny and always wore a cardigan, plaid shirt and knit tie.
Weege also mentioned in a DVD commentary that he named a lot of the pimps and hookers on the show after friends of his.
Although there were a lot of great crooks on the show, one of the most interesting episodes featured Seinfeld’s Kramer, Michael Richards. He appeared as a burglar who thought he was invisible and showed up naked in court. He was one of the funniest criminals on the show.
Like many of the 1980s shows, Night Court had a jazz instrumental theme song. This one was written by Jack Elliott and featured Ernie Watts on saxophone.
Critics loved the show. It was nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series in the Emmy awards in 1985, 1987, and 1989. In 1985, the show was up against Kate and Allie and the rest of the shows that was part of the Must-See Thursday with The Cosby Show winning. In 1987 it was up against the same slate except Kate and Allie was replaced with The Golden Girls which won. In 1989 it lost to The Wonder Years. Larroquette, who was the most popular character in the show, won the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor four years in a row and then asked that his name be taken out of consideration. Overall, the show was nominated for 31 Emmys and won 7 of those. In an aside, Larroquette was offered his own spin-off show, but he turned down the offer.
Anderson received credit for writing five of the episodes and Anderson, as well as Larroquette and Robinson directed several episodes of the series.
After season seven, the show began losing its audience. The cast members were getting tired of their characters, and the writers had a hard time coming up with new plots. Season eight was supposed to be the last one. Among other character wrap-ups, Harry and Christine would get married and Dan would become a priest. However, at the last minute, NBC renewed the show for another season, so the marriage did not take place and Dan ended up with Christine in the finale. The cast was offered more money to return for a tenth season, but they declined.
In doing a bit of research, I learned that New York’s real night court operates from 5 pm to 1 am. Because of the crazy goings on that happen there, it has become a tourist attraction. It’s the only place where courts operate during these hours. One reporter wrote that “At 12:30 am on a freezing Wednesday morning, it’s not just New York City’s famously 24/7 bar and club scene that’s a hive of activity. Deep in the heart of Manhattan, a man in handcuffs is standing in front of a judge, listening to a string of firearm and assault charges as a crowd of lawyers hum around him and solemn family members watch from the benches. This is night court, an operation that has become a strange kind of tourist attraction for visitors in New York looking for something a little out of the ordinary.”
This show was based on characters rather than plots, and the wrong actors would have made the show a disaster. This cast was able to pull it off. They were quirky but still allowed the audience to get to know them and like them. The fact that the show was set in the same setting for most of the nine seasons and did not seem to be repeating plots over and over again is pretty impressive. I don’t think they should have done a season 9 but hindsight is always 20/20 as they say. The show holds up well after almost four decades. It’s worth watching just to see how the main characters interact and grow during the run of the show.
In a recent blog (August 10, 2020), we learned a bit about Kate Jackson and some of the successful series she was a part of. One of those shows was The Scarecrow and Mrs. King. No, it’s not a dream sequence where Mrs. King travels around Oz with her best friend. In this case, Scarecrow (Bruce Boxleitner) was a spy. Amanda King (Kate Jackson) was an ordinary divorced housewife and the mother of two young boys. They worked together in covert operations.
Created by Brad Buckner and Eugenie Ross-Leming, The Scarecrow and Mrs. King ran for four seasons, producing 89 episodes. Rounding out the cast was Dorothy West (Beverly Garland), Amanda’s mother whom she lives with; Francine Desmond (Martha Smith), another secret agent; Billy Melrose (Mel Stewart), Scarecrow’s boss; and Amanda’s boys Jamie (Greg Morton) and Philip (Paul Stout).
The way they begin working together was a bit unlikely, but that is the way most spy shows go. The show is set in the Cold War era and is full of James Bond components and witty repartee. Scarecrow a/k/a Lee Stetson in real life, hands Amanda a package at the train station and tells her to give it to the man in the red hat. Unfortunately, at the time, there are a bunch of men wearing red fezzes there so she is unable to deliver it. Scarecrow later tracks her down to recover the package. When he is taken by bad guys, she solves the secret about the package and rescues Stetson before they can kill him.
At the time they met, Amanda was unemployed and looking for a job. She majored in photojournalism. She had a boyfriend named Dean, and she volunteered at the local hospital as a Bedside Bluebell. She liked to read romance novels and was allergic to horses.
Amanda becomes more involved with the agency and eventually becomes a trained agent, considered a seasonal employee. The team travels around the world, often posing as other people. Of course, Scarecrow and Amanda fall in love. Her ex-husband Joe is still around and they are good friends. Sam Melville played Joe; he had some experience because he played her husband Mike in The Rookies.
Amanda already has to keep her spy career a secret from her mother and boys. When Scarecrow and Amanda get married, they must keep the marriage a secret from their friends, families, and coworkers as well.
The show aired on CBS. For season one, it was up against That’s Incredible on ABC and Boone early in the year with TV Bloopers later in the year on NBC. Season two found it competing with Hardcastle and McCormick on ABC and TV Bloopers again on NBC. It finished in the top twenty for its first two seasons. Season three it dropped to 28th. Hardcastle and McCormick was still its competition on ABC. On NBC it started against TV Bloopers which was replaced by You Again? and Valerie. Both You Again? and Valerie were in the top 30 as well.
Season four the show was moved to Friday nights. Even coming on the heels of Dallas which was the only top 30 show airing Fridays, the ratings were not great. It had some tough competition with Webster and Mr. Belvedere on ABC and The A-Team on NBC.
In addition to the move to Fridays, during season four, Kate was diagnosed with breast cancer and her treatments required her to have limited shooting time. The show was cancelled without the series’ ability to film a finale that would have wrapped up the storylines. In hindsight, the network should have let it finish out because they replaced the show with two mundane sitcoms: Nothing is Easy, a Dee Wallace show in which she and her husband adopt a daughter and then are asked to adopt an Asian boy and an African American girl; later her husband is killed in a car accident and she is a single mother. The Popcorn Kid was about a wannabe movie star who works in a theater.
In addition to viewers enjoying the show, critics also liked it. The show won and Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for a Series in 1986. It was also nominated for three other Emmys: Outstanding Cinematography for a Series in 1985 and Outstanding Costuming for a Series for both 1985 and 1986. Jim Lapidus and Molly Harris Campbell were nominated in 1985, and Andrea Weaver and Lapidus were nominated in 1986. Weaver would go on to do costuming for movies. Lapidus did costuming for movies after the show including Witches of Eastwick and Jerry Maguire and became a costume designer for shows such as 24, Dexter, and Hawaii Five-O. Harris continued her career as a wardrobe designer for RemingtonSteele, Night Court, and LA Law before becoming a designer on Beverly Hills 90210, Charmed, The X-Files, and She Spies.
In the era of couples working as a team to solve crimes, a la Hart to Hart and Moonlighting, this was a decent show. It featured humor, romance, drama, clever dialogue, intrigue, and a great chemistry between its co-stars. The characters go through a bit of growth during the four seasons. Scarecrow morphs from a risk-taking, arrogant, lady’s man to a more thoughtful person and a smarter agent. Amanda becomes more confident and capable as an agent and a working woman.
The entire series was out on DVD by March of 2010. If you’ve never watched it, give it a try. You won’t be bored solving crimes with The Scarecrow and Mrs. King.
We are in the middle of my “Don’t Judge Me” blogs. Today I am picking up my gavel to make a ruling on Sirota’s Court.
This sitcom made its debut December of 1976. By April of 1977, it had disappeared from the airwaves. It was produced by Peter Engel Productions and Universal Television.
The show followed Judge Matthew Sirota (Michael Constantine) who sits on the bench for the night court. He works with, and has an off-again, on-again romantic relationship with, court clerk Maureen O’Conner (Cynthia Harris). The liberal public defender is Gail Goodman (Kathleen Miller) who battles with private attorney Sawyer Dabney (Ted Ross) and assistant district attorney Bud Nugent (Fred Willard). Bailiff John Belson (Owen Bush) has the judge’s back. Like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the series devotes time to Judge Sirota’s professional and private lives.
If that concept sounds eerily familiar, it should. Seven years after Sirota’s Court left the air, Night Court appeared. Maybe Sirota’s Court was ahead of its time or could not survive the scheduled competition, but it’s hard not to see Night Court as an almost identical clone of this show. The newer judicial comedy featuring Harry Anderson would last nine seasons and produce 193 episodes.
In the original version, the Honorable Sirota incorporates a sense of humor and a boatload of common sense into his courtroom. Being in a large metropolitan city, Sirota is a surprisingly compassionate judge, considering the bizarre cases, the odd clients, and the eccentric court comrades he has to deal with. He often had to take on the role of referee between public defender Goodman who was trying to make the world a better place however she could, attorney Dabney who only cared about making a buck, and totally inept assistant district attorney Nugent.
The show employed a lot of different writers for only thirteen episodes. Twelve different writers were credited on the series. Some of the plots included Judge Sirota trying to prevent being named one of the ten worst judges in America, dealing with dentists who were using laughing gas on election night, or the night a full moon brings in an even more ridiculous roster of bizarre situations to rule on.
The show was on Wednesday nights. There was no way this series was going to obtain satisfactory ratings going up against All in the Family and Baretta. All in the Family was in the seventh year of its nine-year reign and still was in the top twenty. Baretta, which was in its third year, had a solid following and was in the top ten. In addition, the show took a lot of heat for one of its episodes, “Court Fear,” when the judge performed a same-sex wedding. It’s creator, Peter Engel, mentioned several times that the show “never got cancelled, it just sort of faded away.” Another factor may have been too many writers. Considering Jack Winter wrote 4 of the 13 episodes, that left 11 writers covering the other 9 shows. Perhaps there was not enough time to fully develop the characters with so many different perspectives.
Considering there were only 13 episodes, it’s impressive that Sirota’s Court was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Art Direction or Scenic Design for a Comedy Series and for a Golden Globe for Constantine for Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series, Musical or Comedy. Constantine was up against Tony Randall for The Tony Randall Show, Freddie Prinze for Chico and the Man, Alan Alda for MASH, and winner Henry Winkler for Happy Days.
Unfortunately, I could not find DVDs for this show anywhere, even the rare and hard-to-find DVD sites. It would be interesting to compare it with NightCourt and see how similar the two shows actually were. My ruling is that the show was competent to stand trial, but the powers that be were too quick to negotiate a settlement.
It’s the Case of the Missing Character. While it sounds like a Perry Mason episode, it’s not unusual for television shows to suddenly have a cast member simply disappear without a trace, and no one seems to notice. Let’s look at some of our favorite shows where a character simply vanished.
The Brady Bunch
When it comes to disappearing characters, Oliver is often mentioned on The Brady Bunch. Oliver is a cousin who came to live with the Bradys during the final season while his parents were in South America. While it was weird that Oliver was around for a few episodes and then he was gone, someone could easily assume he went back home. However, I thought a bigger vanishing act was their dog Tiger. Tiger was involved in many plots during the first two seasons. When the show returned for the third season, no Tiger. In real life, the dog who portrayed Tiger was hit by a car; it seems as though we could have gotten an explanation about why the family suddenly lost their beloved pet.
The Doris Day Show
I have talked about the plot variations in The Doris Day Show several times in my blogs. The original concept in 1968 was that widow Doris Martin and her two sons left the city to move back to her dad’s ranch. In the second season, Doris drives back and forth from San Francisco to the ranch after getting a job as a secretary at Today’s World magazine. Rose Marie plays Myrna Gibbons her friend at work. In season three, the family moves into an apartment in San Francisco that is rented from the Palluccis who own a restaurant on the ground floor. Billy de Wolfe played their neighbor, a cranky bachelor who doesn’t like noise, especially made by children. However, he has a soft spot and becomes close to the family. In the fourth and fifth seasons, there is no mention of the father, the kids, Myrna, or the Palluccis! Doris is now a single person and is a staff writer for Today’s World.
Family Matters featured the Winslows, a working-class family who lived next door to an annoying kid named Steve Urkel, and it aired for nine years. For the first four seasons, the Winslows have three children: two daughters and a son. During season five, Judy disappears. One source said that Judy asked for more money, and the network called her bluff and wrote her off the show. The Winslows talked about their two children; perhaps they had amnesia and just forgot they ever had a third child.
Ben was Ross’ son from his first marriage on Friends. He was very precocious and cute. During the first season, Ross talks about him all the time, and Ben spends time with both Ross and his ex-wife Carol, living close to Ross. By season two Ross rarely saw him, and did not really seem to spend much time worrying about that. Ben was so neglected on the show that when Ross and Rachel had a daughter, Ben never even met his own stepsister. His last appearance was in season 8. Apparently, Ross’s dad forgot about him too. He mentions Emma being his first grandchild. The character of Ben appears in only 18 of the 236 episodes.
I remember watching “Love and the Happy Days” (a/k/a Love and the Television Set) when it aired on Love American Style in 1972. That episode became the pilot for the television series which began airing in 1974. Several characters were played by different actors in the pilot. Harold Gould played Howard Cunningham and Susan Neher played Joanie. Tom Bosley would take over the role of Howard and Erin Moran would play Joanie in 1974. Marion Ross as Marion, Ron Howard as Richie, and Anson Williams as Richie’s friend Potsie carried over to the new show.
What people might not remember is that in the pilot, Joanie and Richie had an older brother Chuck played by Ric Carrott. When the show began airing in 1974, Chuck was still around until he wasn’t. Gavan O’Herlihy played Chuck originally and was replaced by Randolph Roberts. After 11 episodes he just never showed up again, and none of the Cunninghams ever talked about him. At least on My Three Sons when Mike got married and moved away, the other characters mentioned him from time to time. Like the Winslows, whenever Mr. and Mrs. C mentioned their kids, they only had two.
King of Queens
Although this show was about a married couple, Doug and Carrie Heffernan, Carrie’s sister Sara (Lisa Rieffel) lives with them when the show begins. She is an aspiring actress, but by the sixth episode, she was just not around. Did she get a role in an off-Broadway play? Decide to go to Hollywood? We don’t know, but her father later talked about Carrie being an only child. Apparently, the writers couldn’t decide how to develop her character, so they just didn’t.
We fondly recall many spats in the Swamp between Pierce and Winchester. We also remember both Hunnicutt and Trapper, but do you remember Oliver Harmon Jones? Timothy Brown played Spearchucker Jones, a neurosurgeon who lived with Trapper, Hawkeye and Frank Burns during the first season. But then he just disappears with no explanation after six episodes.
In discussing the sudden disappearance of Jones on an online posting, Larry Gelbart replied “There were no black surgeons attached to MASH units in Korea.” However, research has indicated that there were at least two black surgeons in MASH units during the Korean war. Other reasons given for his removal was that budgetary cuts mandated getting rid of characters, and one source mentioned that the network did not want to deal with his nickname which could be taken as a racial slur. Spearchucker Jones was in both the original novel MASH and the movie which the television series was based on.
Again, this is a show about war; surely, the writers could have found a creative solution for his being gone. Other characters who left the show were involved in crashes or just simply went home.
During the 1960s Mission Impossible was quite popular with its “your mission should you decide to accept it” plots. Dan Briggs played by Steven Hill led the team. Hill didn’t come back for the second season. He was an orthodox Jew and unable to work during the Jewish Sabbath which was making life difficult for the rest of the crew. Suddenly in season two, Jim Phelps is leading the team, but no one talks about what happened to Dan. Come on – this was a spy show; could we not have learned about a mission gone wrong which explained his disappearance. Actually, Briggs resurfaced on Law and Order thirty years later, so perhaps he was just hiding out for a few decades to protect his cover.
Night Court had a tough time finding a public defender who could hold their own against Dan Fielding, played by John Larroquette. Ellen Foley played Billie Young for season one and most of season two. When the third season aired, the public defender was suddenly played by Markie Post. Post had been the first choice for the role originally, but she had a conflict with her contract in The Fall Guy. When that show was cancelled and she became available, Foley was simply replaced with no explanation as to why.
If you watched the earliest Star Trek episodes, you’ll see Janice Rand, Captain Kirk’s secretary. Grace Lee Whitney was hired to play Janice. She was supposed to be a romantic interest for Kirk. She was a popular character during the first season, but in season two she just didn’t exist anymore.
There were a couple of reasons for her disappearance. First of all, the network didn’t want Kirk tied down; they wanted him to be free to get involved with a variety of characters the crew met from week to week. Also, the show was too expensive and was forced to make some budget cuts, so she was let go. I understand the reasons why they let her go, but of all shows, couldn’t Star Trek come up with some interesting plot twist to explain her disappearance. Maybe she asked Scotty to beam her up but he waited too long and she’s just floating around somewhere in outer space.
In its first incarnation (April to June 1982), the setting of this show was Millard Fillmore High School in Los Angeles. Diana Swanson played by Lynn Redgrave is an English teacher. Ben Cooper is the school principal, Michael Dreyfuss and Gwen Edwards are fellow teachers, Mr. Brody is the assistant principal, and Mr. Pafko is the janitor. Most of the scenes occurred in the faculty lunchroom and lounge from which students were excluded. When the show returned in February, the school was now Woodrow Wilson High School in Los Angeles with a new cast. Samantha Keating and Michael Horne are teachers, Spud Le Boone is the gym teacher and Shari is the principal’s secretary. What was even weirder is that Diana is now a guidance counselor, but the principal is still Mr. Cooper played by Norman Fell. I would give the writers a big, red “D” because they forgot to include a transition paragraph in their work.
For whatever reasons, sometimes producers think they are perfectly justified in simply eliminating characters without any type of explanation. In never seems like it was a great idea and, in the age of syndication, it makes even less sense. Let me know if you can think of other characters who just disappeared from the airwaves.
Continuing our series about “Valerie,” today we look at a slice of American life from the 1970s. It’s hard to emphasize how much the movie Saturday Night Fever changed American culture. In the movie, a high school graduate played by John Travolta, escapes his hard life by dancing at the local disco. The hippie culture of the late 1960s and early ‘70s was shoved aside by the bold and brash disco era. It was hard to go anywhere without the background soundtrack of the movie being heard. Extravagant clothing and three-piece suits were back in style, along with platform shoes and blingy jewelry.
A year after the movie debuted, a new show called Joe and Valerie appeared in April of 1978. Joe (Paul Regina) works at his father’s plumbing store. He meets Valerie (Char Fontane) at the disco and they get romantically involved. However, Joe’s roommates, Paulie (David Elliott), a hearse driver, and Frankie (Bill Beyers/Lloyd Alan), a spa worker and chauvinist, have their opinions on the romance as does Valerie’s divorced mother Stella (Arlene Golonka). Rounding out the cast were Robert Costanzo as Joe’s father Vincent and Rita/Thelma (Donna Ponterotto), Valerie’s best friend.
The series was produced by Bob Hope’s production company, Hope Enterprises, and his daughter Linda served as executive producer. Bill Persky, who had been one of the forces behind That Girl, directed the first episode.
The writers for the show included Howard Albrecht, Hal Dresner, Bernie Kahn, and Sol Weinstein. Kahn and Dresner also served as producer for an episode each. Art direction was credited to Bruce Ryan and shop coordinator to Edwin McCormick.
The series was divided into two parts; in 1978 the episodes show Joe and Valerie meeting, falling in love and planning their future. Jumping to January 1979, the episodes center around the couple beginning their married life. Four half-hour episodes aired in April and May of 1978. Four half-hour episodes were set to air in January, but only three did; the final episode never was played on the air.
Episode 1, “The Meeting” aired April 24, 1978. Joe and Valerie meet at the disco and fall in love when Joe bets his roommates that he can take Valerie away from her dancing partner.
Episode 2, “The Perfect Night” aired May 1, 1978. Valerie arranges dates for Frank and Paulie. She sets up Frank with her best friend Thelma and the date is a disaster. The woman she set Paulie up with ended up getting married the night before, so Valerie is frantically looking for a substitute. Albrecht and Weinstein were credited as writers.
Episode 3, “Valerie’s Wild Oat” aired May 3, 1978. Joe and Valerie’s romance hits a potential roadblock when Valerie finds out that her new boss at the store is her ex-boyfriend Ernie (Marcus Smythe).
Episode 4, “The Commitment” aired May 10, 1978. When Valerie’s mother is unexpectedly called away for the weekend, Joe and Valerie face the prospect of spending their first night together. Joe loves Valerie too much to stay but worries how his roommates will react if he doesn’t.
Episode 5, “The Engagement” aired January 5, 1979. Joe and Valerie break the news to their parents that they are going to live together and looking for a place to live through a rental service which adds to the confusion.
Episode 6, “The Wedding Guest” aired January 12, 1979. Joe and Valerie learn that a gangster’s funeral has been scheduled at the same time as their wedding at the church.
Episode 7, “The Wedding” aired January 19, 1979. The newly married couple look back at the events that occurred around their wedding. Some of the problems included Vince wanting Valerie to wear his wife’s old-fashioned wedding dress, Frank and Paulie fighting over who is best man, and Valerie’s mother threatening to stay away from the wedding if her ex-husband comes.
The final episode, “Paulie’s First Love,” was never aired.
This was a bad year for series’ debuts. A number of shows flopped during this year including Hizzoner, Sweepstakes, and Supertrain, none of them making it to more than nine episodes.
Char Fontane (also listed as Fontaine occasionally) was born in California in 1952. She passed away from breast cancer in 2007. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, she appeared on a variety of tv series in the 1970s and a couple after: LoveAmerican Style (1972), The FBI (1973), Barnaby Jones (1979), Supertrain (1979), Sweepstakes (1979), The Love Boat (1979), and Nero Wolfe (1981). In the mid-1980s she took a role in a made-for-tv movie, The Night the Bridge Fell Down and two movie roles: Too Much (1987) and The Punisher (1989). She was not credited with any roles after the 1989 movie.
Paul Regina was born in Brooklyn in 1956 and passed away from liver cancer in 2006.
Before his role on Joe and Valerie, he had parts in The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Hour and Police Woman both in 1978. After the show ended, his career stayed fairly busy. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he could be seen on many popular television shows including Benson, Gimme a Break, TJ Hooker, Hunter, and EmptyNest. He would be cast in three series: Zorro and Son in 1983, Brothers from 1984-89, and The Untouchables in 1993-94. He also had a recurring role as a lawyer on LA Law between 1988-1992.
Post 2000 before his death he was in Law and Order several times as well as two movies, The Blue Lizard and Eddie Monroe.
David Elliott had a successful career going when he received the role of Paulie. He began with several roles on tv including a mini-series, Pearl, that Char Fontane was also in. From 1972-1977, he had a role in The Doctors in 272 episodes. Before beginning Joe and Valerie, he had a role on Angie in 1979.
After the show ended, he continued showing up in television series including TJHooker, St. Elsewhere, Simon and Simon, and Murder She Wrote. He ended his credited acting career with seven movies in the 1990s.
He is an interesting guy. After dropping out of high school, he drove a cab in New York. He was a professional boxer, ran a PI business in Hollywood, received his pilot’s license, sat on the board of a major labor union, and traveled extensively through every continent except Africa and Antarctica. Recently he earned a certificate in both long and short fiction from the UCLA Writer’s program and has written a novel, The Star Shield, about a body guard trying to rescue a kidnapped movie star. Currently he is working on a collection of short stories.
The role of Frankie was played by two different actors, Bill Beyers in 1978 and Lloyd Alan in 1979.
Bill Beyers was born in New York in 1955 and died in 1992 in Los Angeles. His first role was that of Frankie on Joe and Valerie. Following the end of that show he was cast in several series including Barnaby Jones, Quincy ME, The Incredible Hulk, CHiPs, Too Close for Comfort, and Murder She Wrote. He had a recurring role on Capitol, appearing in 24 episodes from 1982-1987.
Lloyd Alan was in 1952. He might have had the shortest career of the cast. Before being cast in Joe and Valerie, he was in an episode of Eight is Enough. After he appeared in The Love Boat, Knight Rider, and Baywatch. His last credited acting job was 1998. I was unable to locate a photo of Lloyd Alan.
The actors with the longest careers were Robert Costanzo who played Joe’s father Vince; Arlene Golonka who was Stella, Valerie’s mother; and Donna Ponterotto who played Rita/Thelma, Valerie’s best friend.
Donna Ponterotto had a successful career following the cancellation of Joe and Valerie. She came to the show having appeared on The Police Story, Happy Days, and Rhoda.
Following the show, she appeared on Trapper John MD, Laverne and Shirley, TheLove Boat, Who’s the Boss, Murder She Wrote, Night Court, Murphy Brown, ER, Mad About You, Third Rock from the Sun, and NYPD Blue among others. Her last film was Sharkskin in 2015.
Arlene Golonka grew up in Chicago where she was born in 1936. She began taking acting classes when she was quite young. At age 19, she headed for New York and began a career on Broadway. In the 1960s she relocated to Los Angeles. She continued to appear in movies and appeared in dozens of television programs during the next three decades. While she is probably best known as Millie on Mayberry R.F.D., she has appeared in many respected series.
Golonka came into Joe and Valerie with a strong resume. She had made appearances in shows such as The Naked City, Car 54 Where Are You, The Flying Nun, Big Valley, Get Smart, I Spy, That Girl, M*A*S*H, All in the Family, Barnaby Jones, Alice, The Rockford Files, and Love American Style. She made five appearances on The Doctors with David Elliott.
After Joe and Valerie, she continued to receive many roles including on FantasyIsland, The Love Boat, Simon and Simon, Benson, and Murder She Wrote. Her last appearance was on The King of Queens in 2005, and she is now retired.
Robert Costanzo was born in New York in 1942. He also came into the show with a very strong string of shows, having been in Rhoda, The Bob Newhart Show, and Lou Grant. He also was in several profitable movies including Dog Day Afternoon, The Goodbye Girl, and Saturday Night Fever.
Following the end of Joe and Valerie, he would continue his successful career. Costanzo has been cast in recurring roles in ten shows: Last Resort, Checking In, The White Shadow, Hill Street Blues, LA Law, 1st Ten, Glory Days, NYPD Blue, Charlie and Grace, and Champions. He has continued to take roles on other series including Barney Miller, Alice, Who’s the Boss, Family Ties, St. Elsewhere, The Golden Girls, Friends, and Murder She Wrote.
His movie career has also been very successful, and he is remembered for his roles in Used Cars, Total Recall, Die Hard 2, and Air Bud.
Currently Costanzo is still acting and has several movies debuting in the next couple of years.
I have to admit I do not remember Joe and Valerie, and obviously I did not watch it, but I don’t think I missed much. It’s fun to learn about some of the more obscure shows that had a brief flicker in television history. There are many more shows that lasted for less than 20 episodes than there are the classics we remember today. If nothing else, the show captures a unique time in American history.
As we continue honoring revered television actors who passed away in 2019, Arte Johnson certainly is at the top of the list. Although he accepted roles in movies, most of his work was on the small screen.
Arte was born in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 1929. Acting was not Arte’s first profession. He graduated with a radio journalism major from Illinois and decided to pursue a career in the advertising world. He left Chicago when he could find no ad agency jobs and moved to New York where he began at Viking Press. He loved books and collected them throughout his life.
Unlike the stories of people who hone their craft in hundreds of auditions in the Big Apple, Arte impulsively stepped into an audition line for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and got the part. His real name was Arthur and he decided on Art E. Johnson for his stage name, but “Arte” was mistakenly printed on the playbill, and he decided he liked that better.
Although acting began easily for him, after he moved to LA, his career hit a rough spot and he did take a job as a men’s clothing salesman for a while at Carroll & Co. in Beverly Hills.
Arte began on television in the 1950s. In the mid-50s, he had a recurring role on It’s Always Jan starring Janis Paige and Merry Anders. A widowed nightclub singer, Janis Stewart, shares a small apartment with an aspiring actress, a secretary, and her daughter. Arte plays a deli employee, showing up in 4 of the 26 episodes.
He was cast as in his first ongoing role later that year. He played Bascomb Bleacher, Jr. on Sally. His father, a department store owner, was played by Gale Gordon. This show about a girl who worked in a department store who became a wealthy matron’s companion also lasted 26 episodes.
During the 1960s, Arte would appear in 32 different series, including The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, McHale’s Navy, Bewitched, Lost in Space, The Donna ReedShow, and I Dream of Jeannie. Once again, he was cast as a regular on a show, Don’t Call Me Charlie. If you’re not familiar with the show, you are not alone. The show starred Josh Peine as a rural veterinarian who is drafted into the Army. He leaves Iowa and heads for Paris. Like Gomer Pyle he retains his simple view of life and his “Sargent Carter” is Colonel Barker. Johnson played the part of Col. Lefkowitz.
In 1968, Arte was offered a job that would change his life. Along with a handful of other cast members, he appeared on the new edgy Laugh-In. This is a hard show to describe if you never watched it. (It does appear on the Decades channel quite often.) The show was comprised of fast-moving comedy bits featuring guest stars, skits, regulars performing specific characters, gags, and punchlines in rapid format. It was quite different from anything else that had ever appeared in television. Arte was on the show from 1967-1971.
He was a master of accents and is best known for the characters he created on this show. “Wolfgang” was a cigarette-smoking German soldier hiding out who refused to believe WWII had ended. One of Arte’s taglines was “Verrrrry Interrrrresting.” He would also be seen in a yellow raincoat riding a tricycle that he would fall off from.
Another favorite was “Tyrone” who was an old man wearing a trench coat, always trying to seduce Ruth Buzzy’s “Gladys” on a park bench. She would hit him with her purse, and he often fell off the bench. Oddly, in a far-reaching concept, years later these two characters formed the nexus of a Saturday morning cartoon show, Baggy Pants and the Nitwits.
During the 1970s, Johnson continued his television appearances with 17 different series, including two roles on The Partridge Family and several on Love American Style. He also could be seen on Match Game and Hollywood Squares.
His prolific career continued through the 1980s where he was seen on 25 different shows, including Murder She Wrote and The Love Boat. At the end of the ’80s, he began voicing characters for animation shows, but in the 1990s he accepted roles on 14 shows, including Night Court.
At the end of his career, his love of books provided him an opportunity to begin recording the narration for more than 80 audiobooks, including Dave Barry Is Not Making This Up in 2005.
Married to his wife Gisela since 1968, he survived a battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1997. In 2006 he retired from acting. He passed away mid-year in 2019 after suffering from bladder and prostate cancer. Ruth Buzzy, his comrade on Laugh-In, shared this message upon his death: “Thank you for a wonderful half-century of friendship. I could not have shared the spotlight with a nicer guy. Rest in peace. And yes, Arte Johnson, I believe in the hereafter.”
I like to think Arte is working on some skits, waiting for Ruth Buzzy, and some day when we get to heaven, we’ll be able to watch Gladys and Tyrone team up for us again.
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, Manfrom 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.
Earl Bellamy. Earl Bellamy directed episodes for 101 different television shows. He is best known for TheLone 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, ThePartridge Family, and My Three Sons while the 1970s saw him transition to dramas including MarcusWelby 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 SpongeBobSquarePants. 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 Pruittsof 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 WrongNumber 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 TheJeffersons. 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 Laverneand 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.