The Flying Nun: Soaring to Success Followed By a Crash Landing

This month we are in the midst of the series, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Today we take a look at another sitcom whose cast was primarily female.

From 1965-1966, Gidget starring Sally Field was on the air. When it was cancelled after only 32 episodes, producers were scrambling to find another vehicle for Field.  Harry Ackerman, with co-producers Bernard Slade (who would create The Partridge Family and just passed away last week) and Max Wylie came up with The Flying Nun. They based it on a book published in 1965, The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios. Beginning on ABC in September of 1967, the show continued through the fall of 1970, resulting in 82 episodes.

I did read that Patty Duke was the first choice for the show, so I’m assuming when she turned it down, they asked Sally Field. Apparently, they were trying to find a show for Field, but this show was not created for her. Field also turned it down, thinking it was a silly concept, so the producers went to their third choice, Ronne Troup, who would play Polly on My Three Sons. Troup began filming the pilot. Sally’s stepdad, Jock Mahoney, told her she should reconsider because she might not get another chance in show business if she didn’t accept the role. When Sally informed the producers that she had changed her mind, Troup was let go.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

In the hour-long pilot, we meet Elsie Ethrington. Elsie, who grew up in Chicago, is arrested in New York during a protest. We learn that the rest of her family has chosen medicine for their vocation. (In a later episode, we meet one of her birth sisters who is a physican played by Elinor Donohue.) Elsie goes to Puerto Rico. She is impressed with the missionary work her aunt has been doing, so she ends her relationship with her boyfriend, a toy salesman, and becomes a nun at the Convento San Tanco, taking on the name Sister Bertrille. In one episode, Sister Bertrille watches home movies of her life and what we are actually seeing is footage from Gidget.

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One day Sister Bertrille, who is only 90 pounds, realized that the heavily starched cornette on her head, allowed her to be able to “fly” as the high winds picked her up. As she tried to explain to several people, “when lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag, anything can fly.” Of course, a nun flying around town caused quite a stir. Field said she was humiliated by her directors as she was hung from a crane and moved around the set like a prop.

Photo: pinterest.com

The Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood) runs the convent. She is kind, but strict. Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond), who sees the humor in most situations, becomes good friends with Sister Bertrille. Sister Ana (Linda Dangcil) and Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison) are also friends of hers. The other major characters are Captain Gaspar Fomento (Vito Scotti) who is a police officer that the nuns keep from learning about Sister Bertrille’s flying ability and Carlos Ramirez (Alejandro Rey) who owns a casino and is a ladies’ man. Ramirez was raised by the nuns, and they constantly try to reform him. He will not be reformed, but out of appreciation, he always tries to help them, and Sister Bertrille is constantly involving him in zany schemes or asking him to finance some plan of hers.

Photo: flickr.com

This was the first (and perhaps only) sitcom to be set in Puerto Rico. Although the pilot and opening and closing credits were shot in Puerto Rico, the show was shot at Warner Brothers Ranch in Burbank, California.

The producers were worried about how Catholics would react to the show. They asked the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television to serve as an advisor. The show actually was popular with Catholic religious leaders who felt the show “humanized” the image of nuns.

The show was also popular with viewers of every other religion. The first two years, it aired Thursday nights, competing with Daniel Boone. The sitcom was sandwiched between Batman and Bewitched. Although it was declared a hit immediately, the ratings eroded during the two years.

Photo: epguides.com

The producers had a hard time deciding on a focus for the show. During the second season it contained more slapstick comedy. The third season it went back to the warm and fuzzy feelings it used in the first season. For the third season, the network moved the show to Wednesdays and put it up against The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour which insured its cancellation. It didn’t help in the third year that Field was pregnant. She mentioned in an interview that “you can only imagine what a pregnant flying nun looked like,” and the crew had to hide her behind props and scenery.

Photo: thenewyorktimes.com

Critics never took to the show, but the public kept it on the air three times longer than Gidget. Many fans remember the series fondly. The plots were often heart-warming. In “With Love from Irving,” a pelican falls in love with Sister Bertrille. When Sister Bertrille is forced to go to the dentist for a toothache, Dr. Paredes puts her under hypnosis. The doctor gives them a suggestion that whenever they hear “red,” she and the Reverend Mother will switch personalities. In another show, Sister Bertrille wants Carlos to finance an expedition to find a bell that sunk long ago that was supposed to go to the convent because their old one is rusted and they can’t afford a new one. Carlos uses the opportunity to woo a young woman, but Sister Bertrille tags along. The girlfriend gets thrown overboard, but the bell is found in the end.

Relying on uplifting morals (pun intended) and Field’s delightful and talented performances, the show continued on the air. Marge Redmond was nominated for an Emmy as supporting actress. Unfortunately, she was up against Marion Lorne, who won it for her role of Aunt Clara on Bewitched.

TV Guide ranked the show number 42 on its worst tv shows of all times list in 2002. However, it continues to do well in syndication and has an international fan club.

Photo: ebay.com

While the show was on the air, it sold a variety of merchandise, including paper dolls, lunch boxes, trading cards, view master reels, a board game, and a doll.

Photo: ebay.com

Sally Field released a soundtrack LP with songs from the series in 1967. Dell Comics came out with four comic books based on the series in 1968.

Photo: ebay.com
Photo: ebay.com

I must admit I was not a big fan of the show. However, I have gone back and watched quite a few episodes for this blog, and it is better than I remembered it. Although the concept does sound as silly as Field thought, the show is charming and can be quite funny at times. Although it might not be in your top 25, it probably deserves a second look if you have not seen it for a while.

Photo: listal.com

Double Trouble: The Patty Duke Show

The Patty Duke Show was one I always enjoyed, but it was never a “must watch” for me. I think I viewed it as a show that was “good” because it wasn’t “bad.” I decided it was time to give it a more in-depth exploration.

Photo: imdb.com

Patty Duke began her television and movie career in the mid-1950s. She appeared on a handful of shows in that decade. In 1962 she took on her Oscar-winning role of Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker. The following year she received her own television series at age 16. The show would continue until 1966, producing 105 episodes.

Patty not only starred in the show as Patty Lane, but she was also Cathy Lane, Patty’s identical twin. The girls’ fathers are not only brothers but identical twins, hence the look-alike cousins. Although they look the same, they have very different personalities. You can tell them apart because Patty’s hair is usually flipped up while Cathy has a more sophisticated hairdo, usually curled down. Patty was chatty and a typical New York teenager who loves rock and roll. Cathy is more cultured and loves the ballet and classical music. Patty gets herself into some big misadventures and Cathy usually bales her out.

Photo: youtube.com

The plots were situations that were likely to happen to a teenager in the sixties. For example, Patty wants to buy a new dress, so she starts a babysitting service that goes awry; Patty falls in love with her French teacher; or after school the kids eat a cake, only to find out it was for a contest. The three of them bake a replacement without their parents realizing what happened.  There were also episodes that could only involve twins. In one show, Cathy accidentally is given a shot for Patty. Cathy has a bad reaction to it and must miss the school dance. Patty decides to go to the dance with Cathy’s boyfriend as “Cathy” so her relationship with the boy continues.

Patty’s double is Rita McLaughlin Walter. She usually was seen only as “the back of a head” and at times you can see her as a background character. Rita continued her acting career and was seen in As The World Turns from 1970-1981.

Having a star with a dual role was challenging at the time. Special effects were not very high-tech in the mid-1960s. When Duke played both characters in the same frame, a split screen was used.

With Cathy’s family in Europe, she is sent to New York to live with her aunt and uncle, Patty’s parents are Natalie (Jean Byron) and Martin (William Schallert). Martin manages a newspaper. Patty has a younger brother Ross (Paul O’Keefe) and a boyfriend Richard (Eddie Applegate).

THE PATTY DUKE SHOW, (l-r): Jean Byron, Paul O”Keefe, William Schallert, Patty Duke, Eddie Applegate, 1963-66

ABC wanted to feature Duke in her own show but didn’t have a concept. The show’s creators were Sidney Sheldon and William Asher. (Sheldon would go on to create I Dream of Jeannie and Asher would was the producer for Gidget and Bewitched with his wife Elizabeth Montgomery.) Patty spent a week with the Sheldon family so Sidney could observe her. Sidney said he felt she almost had a dual personality and that gave him the idea to have the identical cousins. Asher and Sheldon wrote most of the episodes.

Because Patty was a minor, the show was filmed in New York City where child labor laws were more liberal than in California. The taping took place at Chelsea Studios in Manhattan. When Duke turned 18 in the last season, the entire production was moved to California, even though Duke preferred to stay in New York.

Photo: dvdtalk.com

The theme song, “Cousins,” was sung by the Skip Jacks, the same group that sang the theme for The Flintstones. At the time, Stella Stevens, a future actress, was part of the group. The lyrics captured the opposite personalities the cousins had. The song was composed by Sid Raimin and Robert Wells. The lyrics are:

Meet Cathy, who’s lived most everywhere,

From Zanzibar to Barclay Square

But Patty’s only seen the sight

A girl can see from Brooklyn Heights

What a crazy pair!

But they’re cousins,

Identical cousins all the way

One pair of matching bookends,

Different as night and day

Where Cathy adores a minuet,

The Ballet Russes, and crepe suzette,

Our Patty loves to rock and roll,

A hot dog makes her lose control

What a wild duet!

Still, they’re cousins,

Identical cousins and you’ll find,

They laugh alike, they walk alike,

At times they even talk alike

You can lose your mind,

When cousins are two of a kind

When asked what she did to give each cousin her own personality, Duke said, “it was to eliminate certain behaviors for each character. For instance, Cathy never talks with her hands. Patty always talks with her hands. Cathy would never wear ruffles, because they weren’t dignified. Patty would wear anything that was hot for a minute. But it was hard to get a whole person for each of them.”

Photo: boringoldwhiteguy.blogspot.com

Patty said although she played a typical Brooklyn teen, she was not one. She lived a very isolated life. Her managers were very strict and may have been abusive. She lived with them and worked most of her childhood. When she had to do a teenage dance, they needed to bring in regular kids to show her.

The show did well in the ratings every year it aired. However, ABC decided to get rid of all their black and white shows and replace them with color production. United Artists asked for a lot of money to make the change and the network decided it would be cheaper to acquire a new show rather than spend a lot of money moving from black and white to color on this show, although there may have been more factors to the decision. Patty was trying to terminate her relationship with her managers once she became a legal adult. Patty also suffered from mental health issues but at this time didn’t realize what was going on. Later she would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The series went into syndication almost immediately and continued into the 1970s. In 1988, the show debuted on Nick at Nite where it stayed until 1993. Currently it is on and off ME Tv’s schedule. DVDs were released in 2009 and 2010.

Photo: pinterest.com

Although the show ended in 1966, in 1999 a tv movie was filmed, The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin’ in Brooklyn Heights. All the original characters returned. We learn that Patty and Richard had gotten married and had a son who is also married with a daughter. Patty and Richard are divorced when the movie begins but reconcile at the end. Cathy lives in Scotland with her teenage son; she is a widow. The plot is a standard one. Patty is a drama teacher at Brooklyn Heights High School and her old nemesis Sue Ellen wants to raze it and put up a mall.

Photo: youtube.com

The 1999 movie was not Patty Lane’s last appearance, however. In 2009, Duke starred in a Social Security public service announcement (psa) as both Patty and Cathy. Though Jean who played her mother passed away in 2006, Schallert and reprised his role for a second Social Security psa.

Photo: littlethings.com

Duke always remained close to her “father” and “brother.” She said Schallert was the “dad I never got to spend time with.”  “He has always been able to make me laugh until I had to spit up. He was also a solid figure to me.” She also revealed that “the family we created in the show was very much a family. That was my safety zone.”

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The Patty Duke Show was a solid show. Like The Donna Reed Show, it captured a slice of life in the 1960s. Patty received an Emmy nomination in 1964 and a Golden Globe nomination in 1966.

Photo: pinterest.com

Sadly, Patty told a story later in life that she was not able to watch the show when she was acting on it. One day when she was visiting her husband at a military base, she was in the waiting room, clicking through tv channels for something to watch and there she was on the screen. It must have been a very strange feeling to see yourself looking happy and normal at a time that was sad and confusing.

Photo: express.co.uk

Since the cast was so close, they provided Patty some normalcy and security in a life that was anything but most of the time. The show is about a typical teenager played by a teenager.  It should have been Duke’s easiest role, yet it was one of her toughest, because she had never experienced a normal life. While that is sad, I’m happy she was able to find a safe haven for a time with the Lane family.