The Secret Word is George Fenneman

I am cheating just a bit with this post. During this Oddly Wonderful series, I think I can push the envelope enough. You Bet Your Life was a very different type of game show. If ever there was a person who personifies oddly wonderful it was Groucho. But I really wanted an excuse to write about George Fenneman.

George Fenneman is best remembered for his role on Groucho Marx’s quiz show, You Bet Your Life which began on radio in 1947 and transitioned to television in 1950. The show went off the air in 1961, the year I was born. Obviously, I don’t remember the original show, but I saw it in reruns and always had a crush on George; I think it was his smile that always got me.

Photo: imdb.com

George was born in Beijing (then Peking), China in 1919. His father was in the importing/exporting business. When he was not quite one, his parents moved to San Francisco where he grew up. After high school, he attended San Francisco State College. He graduated in 1942 with a degree in speech and drama. He took a job with a local radio station KGO for a short time. He married his college sweetheart Peggy Clifford in 1943 and they would stay married until George died. The couple had two daughters and a son.

Photo: collectors.com

Poor eyesight and asthma prevented Fenneman from military action in World War II, but he was able to become a broadcast correspondent for the War of Information. In 1946 he was back in California, in the radio industry again. One of the shows he announced for was Gunsmoke. After the episode concluded, he would introduce Matt Dillon (William Conrad) to discuss the sponsor’s products which often was cigarettes such as L&M or Chesterfield.

Some of the other radio shows he announced for included The Orson Welles Show, The Eddie Albert Show, and the Hedda Hopper Show.

Photo: aveleyman.com

He and Peggy were neighbors of Christian Nyby. In 1951, Nyby was hired as director for the film, The Thing from Another World. George joined the cast as in the minor role of Dr. Redding who has an important scene at the end of the film. It took 27 takes for him to get the speech right, and he realized he was better suited for radio. However, he would appear in two additional films, the little-known Mystery Lake in 1953 and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying in 1967. While his voice was part of several other films, most notably in the original Ocean’s 11 as the man talking on the phone to Sheriff Wimmer.

Jack Webb had worked on broadcasts with George during the war. He hired Fenneman as announcer for his radio show, Pat Novak, For Hire. When Dragnet aired the same year, Jack took George with him. George, along with Hal Gibney took on the role of narrator for the show. They both continued with the show in 1951 when it moved to television. Dragnet was off the air for a number of years and returned to television in 1967. Fenneman was again hired as narrator with John Stephenson for that version. George was the one who was heard saying, “The story you are about to see is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.” Stephenson handled the closing narration. Fenneman was also cast as a news reporter in a variety of shows including Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Name of the Game, and on Batman in 1966 in the episode, “The Yegg Foes in Gotham.”

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On Batman

In addition to appearing on Groucho’s show on television, Fenneman was the host or announcer for several other shows. He emceed two games shows during his time with Groucho: Anybody Can Play in 1958 and Your Surprise Package in 1961. In 1963, He hosted a show on ABC titled Your Funny, Funny Films which was a cousin to the later Candid Camera and America’s Funniest Home Videos.

He was usually an unseen announcer on The Ed Sullivan Show, but in 1964, the night the Beatles were on the show for the second time, he did a spot on the air for Lipton Tea. From 1978-1982 he hosted a show on PBS, Talk About Pictures. In this show, Life magazine photographer Leigh Weiner and George interviewed respected photographers and looked at their best photos.

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With Leigh Weiner on PBS

He also was the voice for Home Savings & Loan commercials from the late 1960s until his death from emphysema in 1997. He also acted as announcer for shows such as Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Donny and Marie, The Jim Nabors Show, and The Life of Riley.

Photo: hollywoodphotographs.com
With Martin and Lewis

In 1993, The Simpsons aired an episode that spoofed Dragnet, and Fenneman can be heard on the show delivering his famous line about names being changed to protect the innocent.

Despite his large cannon of work as an announcer and emcee, Fenneman became a household celebrity when he went to work for Groucho on You Bet Your Life. One day George was standing on the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Robert Dwan, who had hired him at KGO Radio, came up and told him he was holding an audition for a new show for Groucho. Fenneman went up against thirty other announcers and won the job which paid $55 a week. He was hired just to do commercials. At some point, Groucho decided he should also be scorekeeper, as well as his straight man.

Photo: usawoopro.blogspot.com

When discussing Groucho, George said, “I have to say he was unique, and he was fearless. It was a great privilege to work with him for 15 years and to be his friend for 30.” After Fenneman’s death, Peggy did an interview for an article by Lawrence Van Gelder for the NY Times in June of 1997. She said that George was always a fan of Groucho and the Marx Brothers. She remembered them often going to the Golden Gate Theater when they were in college. They went to watch the Marx Brothers rehearse future movie scenes for comic timing. She remembered watching scenes from A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races.

Groucho, known for his quick wit and acid tongue, found an agreeable and attractive man in Fenneman. When viewers queried George whether the show was scripted or ad-libbed, he always said yes. Actually, it was about 50/50.  Groucho was fed some lines from the interviews with the contestants, but he never met them ahead of time and was given the freedom to interject whatever comments he chose.

Photo: mptvimages.com

George often took the brunt of Groucho’s humor. One time he had to inhale helium, one day he came down from the ceiling when the secret word was said in place of the usual duck, or he would be questioned about something on the show. For example, one evening each of the contestants was a very attractive woman and Groucho made it seem that Fenneman had set that up on purpose. One contestant mistakenly referred to George as Mr. Fidderman, and Groucho called him out to discuss his double life.

Photo: popflock.com

George never knew what Groucho had in store for him. Often Marx would summon George from behind the curtain, and he always looked uncomfortable which was quite genuine. But Groucho had great affection and appreciation for him, calling him the perfect straight man.

At times on the show, George could also be quite funny, but he knew his main role was straight man, and he usually toed that line carefully.

George and Groucho remained friends long after the show was cancelled. They often got together before Groucho’s death in 1977 at age 87. Groucho never lost his sense of humor. At one of their last visits, Groucho was in very frail health. Helping Groucho get across the room, George lifted him out of his wheelchair and carried him. He had his arms around his torso and began to shimmy him across the floor. Groucho’s rasping voice said, “Fenneman, you always were a lousy dancer.”

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

Although the shows have never been released in a chronological DVD collection, they are available. The programs were recorded in full and then edited to the desired length. On MP3 discs, some of the unedited tapes are available which provide a very different perspective than the aired show.

There are a few announcers still well known in the business. I think of Rod Roddy, Johnny Gilbert or Johnny Olson who have game show fame, but it is a career that is being phased out. There is something charming about watching the former announcers for shows promoting products and interacting with the stars. Harry Von Zell from the Gracie Allen and George Burns Show comes to mind or Don Wilson from the Jack Benny Show. Like rotary phones, transistor radios, and Polaroid cameras, they are fondly remembered from a slower and less technological period in history.

With this series being Oddly Wonderful, I am stretching it a bit by focusing on George. In our definition of oddly wonderful, he was definitely the wonderful.

Who Writes The Songs?: Good Question–Lots of People Including Frank De Vol, Jay Livingston, and Ray Evans.

At this time of year, we tend to watch a lot of football bowl games. Most of the attention centers on the coaches, the quarterbacks, and a handful of other star players like running backs, wide receivers, and occasionally kickers. While these positions influence the games, there is an entire team behind them which determines whether they get a win or a loss. This year I will be trying to look at some of the behind-the-scenes players in the television industry.

Today we look at three composers who often influenced shows, even though many viewers never heard of the song writers.

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Frank Denny De Vol was born in West Virginia in 1911. His family moved to Canton, Ohio where he grew up. His mother owned a sewing shop, and his father was in charge of the pit orchestra at a local movie theater. He graduated from McKinley High School in 1929 and started at Miami of Ohio University but quit after six weeks. His parents were hoping he would pursue his law degree, but he was set on a career in music.

This wasn’t surprising because he had become a member of the musicians’ union at age 14. He worked for his father at the theater and played the saxophone and violin.

Once he left college, he joined Emerson Gill’s orchestra and traveled around Ohio. Later he became a musician with Horace Heidt’s band, and Horace let him try his hand at arranging. He would then travel with Alvino Rey’s band which led to a long-life friendship with the King Family.

During his career as a traveling musician he married his wife, Grayce McGinty in 1935. The couple’s 54-year-long marriage would produce two daughters.

During the 1940s, he would write arrangements for many of the country’s top performers including Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Vic Damone, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Shore, and Sarah Vaughn. His version of “Nature Boy” for Nat King Cole went to number 1 in 1948.

In 1943 he moved to California and started his own band. He appeared on the radio on KHJ and accompanied many stars including Jack Carson.

 

In the 1950s, he moved into movie composing and worked on more than 50 film scores including What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, The Glass Bottom Boat, The Dirty Dozen, and several Herbie movies. He received Academy Award nominations for his work on Pillow Talk (1959), Hush . . . Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), Cat Ballou (1965), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

 

During the 1950s, his orchestra also was frequently seen at the Hollywood Palladium as “Music of the Century.”

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It seems natural that De Vol would ease into television work as well. He composed the jingle for Screen Gems’ “Dancing Sticks,” which appeared on all television series produced by Columbia Pictures.

 

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Frank became the musical director on Edgar Bergen’s game show Do You Trust Your Wife? His orchestra was featured on a variety of musical shows including The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney.

 

 

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Today De Vol might be best known for his work as a composer for television series. He wrote the music for My Three Sons, Family Affair, The Brady Bunch, and The Smith Family. My Three Sons theme song was a hit single in 1961 by Lawrence Welk, more musically complex than many sitcom themes of the time. He would continue his work for My Three Sons for all 380 episodes.

 

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Sherwood Schwartz, the creator of The Brady Bunch, first turned to George Wyle to create the Brady theme. Wyle and Schwartz had composed the theme for Gilligan’s Island. With Wyle already committed to The Andy Williams Show, he approached De Vol. De Vol would provide music for 117 episodes of the original show, as well as music for The Brady Girls Get Married, The Brady Brides, The Bradys, and A Very Brady Sequel.

Frank was credited as composer for 37 movies and television series and listed as part of the music department for 87 total.

 

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Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Not only was he musical composer for these shows, but you can see him acting in many of the shows he worked on as well. His first acting appearances were on Betty White’s Show, Life with Elizabeth where he played a variety of roles.

 

 

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Photo: aveleyman.com

He then appeared on several television series including State Trooper, My Favorite Martian, The Farmer’s Daughter, Gidget, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Bonanza, Petticoat Junction, Get Smart, That Girl, and I Dream of Jeannie (37 different shows in all).

While composing on My Three Sons, he would actually portray a bandleader on the show and a father on The Brady Bunch.

 

 

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Many people will remember him as the dour-faced band leader Happy Kyne on Fernwood Tonight and America 2-Night, shows starring Martin Mull in the late 1970s.

 

One of my favorite roles of his was the head of the boys’ camp on the original Parent Trap.

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His last acting role would be on Charles in Charge, the Scott Baio comedy from 1990.

When he was in his 80s, Frank was still active with the Big Band Academy of America. About this time, he married Helen O’Connell who had been a big band singer and actress. (His first wife passed away in 1989.)

Helen passed away in 1993, and Frank died from congestive heart failure in 1999.

 

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Photo: pinterest.com

Like so many of these stars of the classic television era, he was a multi-talented guy. He could sing, he could play instruments, he could compose, he could arrange, and he could act. Sadly, when he does his job right, the music is so attuned to the shows that we almost don’t realize it’s there but try listening to a show with no background noise. Thank you Frank De Vol for not becoming an attorney.

 

We also take a look at a song-writing team of the golden age, Jay Livingston and Ray Evans.

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Livingston was born in McDonald, Pennsylvania in 1915. After studying piano with Harry Archer in Pittsburgh, he attended the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in journalism but also studying composition and orchestration.

Ray Evans was born in Salamanca, New York the same year. He also ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, receiving a degree in Economics.

Livingston organized a dance band at the University that played on campus as well as at local nightclubs and even cruise ships during their summer breaks.  One of those band mates was Ray Evans. Evans and Livingston became a partnership and they wrote some of the most iconic songs from film and television.

 

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Photo: filmmusicsociety.org

After their graduation in 1937, the duo moved to New York City to work in Tin Pan Alley. They wrote for Broadway productions, including special material for Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson.

 

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Livingston joined the Army when World War II began while Evans went to work for an aircraft company. When Jay came back home in 1945, he and Evans decided to try their luck in Hollywood. They received a contract from Paramount Pictures, and the team would stay with the company for a decade. Their first film was To Each His Own, starring Olivia DeHaviland, and they were nominated for an Academy Award.

During this time at Paramount, Livingston married Lynne Gordon. It must have been a happy marriage because they were married until 1991 when she passed away.

The exact same year, Evans married Wyn Ritchie. They were married until her death in 2003.

In 1947 the team began writing for Bob Hope for his personal appearances. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, they would write many tunes that became jukebox favorites and popular songs. In Warren Craig’s book The Greatest Songwriters of Hollywood, he called them “the last of the great songwriters in Hollywood.”

 

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The year 1948 brought them their first Oscar win for “Buttons and Bows,” from Bob Hope’s western comedy, The Paleface. The jukebox version was recorded by Dinah Shore.

 

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In 1950, they scored their second Academy Award for “Mona Lisa,” written for the movie Captain Carey, USA but made famous by Nat King Cole.

 

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Evans and Livingston would appear in Sunset Boulevard this same year at the New Year’s Eve party scene.

 

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We can all smile and thing of Livingston and Evans each Christmas when we hear “Silver Bells.” The song, originally titled “Tinkle Bells” was written for The Lemon Drop Kid in 1951, also starring Bob Hope. Thankfully, they decided “tinkle” had other connotations and “Silver Bells” it became. (Some sources credits Jay’s wife Lynne with the name change.)

When their Paramount contract ended in 1955, they became free lancers and wrote both individual songs and complete scores for a variety of movies. They would receive ten additional Oscar nominations during their career.

 

Doris Day had a huge hit in 1956 with “Que Sera, Sera” from The Man Who Knew Too Much with Jimmy Stewart and that hit would win them a third Oscar. The song would also become Doris’s theme song for her television show in 1968.

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In 1957 they began writing the music for the Tammy movies that would be a staple of that era, beginning with Tammy and the Bachelor.

Jay and Ray would return to Broadway in 1958. They were nominated for a Tony for Oh, Captain! They also wrote songs for Let It Ride in 1961, a musical comedy adaptation of Three Men On a Horse, and Sugar Babies in 1979.

 

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Photo: tidal.com

Though most of their work was in the film industry, the team is probably best known for their television compositions. In 1959, they were asked by Desi Arnaz to write a song for a Western show being developed. The show, thought likely to last a year, didn’t have money for a weekly salary, but he allowed them to keep the rights to the song. Luckily for them, that show, Bonanza, made them millions, and would be on television until 1973.

In 1960 they composed the theme song for The Bugs Bunny Show, “This is it.”

 

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In 1961, Mister Ed debuted. Livingston and Evans not only wrote the well-known song, but Livingston is the one singing the line “I am Mister Ed.”

After Lynne’s passing, Jay would marry Shirley Mitchell in 1992.

Livingston and Evans were presented with a star on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame in 1995.

In 2001, at the age of 86, Jay Livingston died from pnuemonia. Ray Evans lived until 2007 when he passed away from heart failure.

 

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Photo: rayevans.com

It’s fun to see a friendship and partnership span six decades and be so successful. Although they were born in the same year in the same area of the country and married the same year and their marriages would last decades until the death of a spouse, the two men were very different. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1985, Evans said “I’m nuts about sports, play baseball and tennis every weekend. Jay couldn’t care less. He’s restrained and quiet. I’m more outward going. Jay is a marvelous musician. I have a tin ear. But our tastes are similar, and we both like good music and song.” The duo had 26 songs that sold more than a million records and their total record sales has exceeded 400 million dollars.

Michael Feinstein released an album in 2002 devoted to the team. He said, “they had a strong work ethic and they wrote a lot of plays that have wonderful and sophisticated songs that are quite different from movie songs.”

Like Frank De Vol, most viewers today have probably never heard of Jay Livingston and Ray Evans, although they recognize much of their work. It’s good to look behind the scenes of and dig deeper into the television industry to learn more about all the pioneers who made the era so great.

 

Write On!

Happy Monday.  It’s National Encourage a Young Writer Day.  I love to encourage writers of all ages.  If you’re a writer, you know the two golden rules of writing.  (1) Write what you know and (2) Be original.  With those two qualifiers, one would think there would be a myriad of great shows out there about writers.  Not so.  It took a lot of exploring on my part to come up with 12 shows about writers in the past 70 years!

If writers are writing what they know, it seems writers know much more about incompetent parents, complex medical surgeries, and dating bachelors than they do about writing and writers.

Don’t get me started on being original. Unfortunately, any viewer knows that when one genre show succeeds, the next year will feature ten more just like it;  hence, the number of medical and police dramas currently on the schedule.  This doesn’t hold true anywhere else in life.  No grocer says avocados are so popular, let’s replace the oranges and apples with them.  No radio station decides to play the top five songs to the exclusion of the other songs.  That being said, I’ll jump off my soapbox before ranting about how the shows on today’s schedule are either amazingly written or not worth the time it takes to turn on the television. So, let’s look at shows about writers.

Apartment 3-C. In 1949 John and Barbara Gay played themselves.  Living in New York City, he was a writer.  The 15-minute show went off the air after one season. They moved to California where they raised their family and spent 66 years together. As far as I can tell, neither of them acted again, but John went on to be a prolific scriptwriter.

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Young and Gay/The Girls. Debuting in 1950 as Young and Gay, this series was based on an autobiographical novel written by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. CBS bought the rights. After the first two episodes, the name was changed to The Girls.  The premise of the show was that two Bryn Mawr graduates come to Greenwich Village after spending time in Europe, trying to develop careers as an actress and a writer.  After a few more episodes, their acting career ended when the show was cancelled.

Dear Phoebe. In 1954, ex-college professor Bill Hastings, played by Peter Lawford, decided he wanted to try his hand at journalism.  The option he receives is becoming Phoebe Goodman, providing advice to the lovelorn. Ironically, his girlfriend, Mickey (Marcia Henderson), is the paper’s sports writer. After one season, they both received advice to seek new work when the show was cancelled.

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My Sister Eileen. It would take half a decade before another show about a writer was produced. In 1960, My Sister Eileen aired.  The concept will sound vaguely familiar.  It’s based on a book and two movies about two sisters from Ohio who move to Greenwich Village wanting to be an actress and a writer. The sisters were played by Elaine Stritch and Shirley Boone. The only memorable thing about the show was the pairing of Rose Marie and Richard Deacon who went on to try their hand at another show a year later called The Dick Van Dyke Show.

The Dick Van Dyke Show. Hands down, this was the best comedy to debut about a writer.  It was also the longest running show, going off the air five years because the cast wanted to quit while the show was still successful. Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) is the head writer of the Alan Brady Show, creating scripts with Sally (Rose Marie) and Buddy (Morey Amsterdam). Mel (Richard Deacon) is the long-suffering producer. This is one of the first shows to concentrate on work life. We get to see what goes on behind the scenes of a comedy/variety show. While Rob, Sally, and Buddy have lives outside the office, they are somewhat married to their work. Sally is always hunting for Mr. Right.  Buddy deals with more comedy at home because of his not-so-bright wife Pickles, although it’s obvious he is in love with Sally. Rob and Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) are both confident and intelligent adults and insecure parents, raising their son Richie (Larry Mathews) in New Rochelle. The show won an Emmy its first year and never left the top 20, producing 157 of the best-written sitcom episodes ever created.

Window on Main Street. Mention the name Robert Young, and most viewers fondly recall Father Knows Best or Marcus Welby.  In this 1961 show, Robert Young plays Cameron Garrett Brooks, an author.  After his son and wife pass away, he returns to his small home town of Millsburg to write about the town’s citizens. It must have been a very small town with few people to write about, because the series was cancelled after one year.

The New Loretta Young Show. Loretta Young starred in several shows using her name so it gets a bit confusing, but in this 1962 version, she plays Christine Massey, a children’s author and widow with 7 children. Living in Connecticut, she decides to get a job with Manhattan Magazine.  However, after meeting the editor she falls in love and marries him. Perhaps the network had a policy banning inter-company marriages, because the show was cancelled after six months.

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Glynis. In 1963 Glynis Granville (played by Glynis Johns) moved to town. She is an amateur sleuth who solves crimes to have something to write about. Her husband Keith (Keith Andes) is an attorney.  She consults with a former policeman Chick Rogers (George Mathews). The show only lasted three months.  Jess Oppenheimer, the producer of I Love Lucy, apparently forgot this was a different show, airing episodes that were very Lucy-esque.

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. In 1968, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies came to the small screen.  Based on Jean Kerr’s book, it was also a movie starring Doris Day about the Nash family.  James (Mark Miller) is a college professor and his wife Joan (Patricia Crowley) is a free-lance writer. The show featured their four sons, two of whom were twins, their large dog, and their housekeeper Martha (Ellen Corby). Faring better than most of our shows, this one lasted two years.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. This show about a writer, a widow Carolyn Muir (Hope Lange) who moves into an old house in Schooner Bay in New England, appeared in 1968. The house turns out to be haunted by Captain Daniel Gregg (Edward Mulhaney), a captain who built the house in the 1800s. This show was also based on a movie. Captain Gregg is annoyed with the interruption and noise of the new family, but ultimately falls in love with Carolyn. Charles Nelson Reilly plays the Captain’s nephew Claymore Gregg. Dabbs Greer is Noorie Coolidge, the owner of a local lobster restaurant, and Reta Shaw is their housekeeper Martha. The show was on NBC for one year then moved to ABC for one year.  Apparently, CBS declined its turn, so the show was cancelled.

The Debbie Reynolds Show. In 1969, another show produced by Jess Oppenheimer eerily reminiscent of I Love Lucy was on the fall schedule. Jim Thompson (Don Chastain) is a sports writer. His wife Debbie (Debbie Reynolds) is a stay-at-home wife who wants to be a feature writer. Jim discourages her, wanting her to stay home.  Instead of Ethel and Fred, we have her sister Charlotte (Patricia Smith) and her brother-in-law Bob (Tom Bosley).  After one season, the network decided they did not care if  Debbie worked or stayed home and sent the crew packing.

Suddenly Susan. Jump almost thirty years to 1996 and we have another show about a writer, Suddenly Susan, starring Brooke Shields. Susan leaves her husband-to-be at the altar and is forced to ask her ex brother-in-law (Judd Nelson) to hire her back at his magazine.  Most of the show is set in the workplace.  Luis Rivera (Nestor Carbonell), Vicki Groener (Kathy Griffith), and Nana (Barbara Barrie) round out the cast and appear on all the episodes.  (The photo above also includes Andrea Bendewald [the blonde] and David Strickland [laying down] who were in about half the episodes.) The show continued until 2000.

I should mention that because I focused on comedies I did not include Murder She Wrote or Castle, both having long runs of 12 and 8 years respectively. I did not include Everybody Loves Raymond because that show concentrated on his family life, and rarely revealed his writing profession.

I wish I had more encouraging words for writers who wanted to get involved in television.  About the only thing I can tell you, is if you want to develop a successful show around a writer, make it a drama for job security.