When I looked up the definition for “too close for comfort” it said “close enough to make a person feel nervous, worried or upset.” That is exactly how this show made me feel.
I realize that I was hard to please in the 1980s. Coming out of the 1970s with M*A*S*H,The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show, I did not enjoy All in the Family, The Jeffersons, Alice, Maude, or Diff’rentStrokes. I did watch Cheers, Family Ties, The Cosby Show, Who’s the Boss, and Moonlighting during that decade. Too Close for Comfort, along with Three’s Company, just didn’t strike me as funny.
When you invest in a show, you feel like these characters are part of your life. Ted Knight’s role of Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a flawed human being for sure, but I felt like we had spent a lot of time together, and I was able to see beyond the brash, obnoxious exterior to the vulnerable and kind being inside. It was if we had spent lots of hours over the kitchen table having coffee. Characters like Baxter teach us about the world and about ourselves. Ted Knight as Henry Rush was more like the neighbor whom I caught glimpses of out the kitchen window but there was no way to learn more about the character other than the surface appearances. The show was based more on plots than characters.
Too Close for Comfort was based on the British sitcom Keep It in the Family. It debuted in 1980. Henry Rush is a cartoonist who writes about the Cosmic Cow (a space crime fighter) and lives in San Francisco with his wife Muriel, a photographer (Nancy Dussault) and his two adult daughters Jackie (Deborah Van Valkenburgh) who works at a bank and Sara (Lydia Cornell) who is a college student.
The house was a two-family residence and the girls decide to rent from their parents. Henry is not sure it’s a good idea, but it’s the only apartment they can afford because he charges $300 rent for the bottom of the Victorian house. Monroe (Jim Bullock) is a friend of Sara’s who was cast only in one episode but ended up joining not only the cast but living with Henry and Muriel.
The show was on Tuesday nights. The show followed Three’s Company and its main competition was BJ and the Bear.
In season two, Muriel becomes pregnant and Henry’s niece April also comes to live with the Rushes.
One of the signatures of Henry Rush was the variety of college sweatshirts he wore. Fans from around the country would send them to the network hoping to see them on the series. The first sweatshirt to make an appearance was the University of Michigan.
The third season found the show on Thursday nights and ratings declined significantly. The show was up against Cheers on NBC and Simon and Simon on CBS. April moves out and Muriel’s mother Iris (Audrey Meadows) moves in to help with the baby. The show was cancelled by the network. The fourth season went into syndication with new episodes.
A fifth season began, but the show changed so much it really was a new series. The title was changed to The Ted Knight Show, the family now lived in Marin County where Henry bought a newspaper, a new theme song was created, a new opening was shot, and both daughters left the show. However, Monroe moved with Henry and Muriel. The new episodes began airing in April of 1986; 22 episodes were taped and after the first 12 aired, Knight passed away from colon cancer. The final ten episodes were run, and then the series ended.
During the various seasons, the girls changed careers a lot. Jackie moved from the bank to a department store to a fashion designer. Sara held a bunch of part-time jobs while she was in college. She then became a bank teller, a weather woman at the local station KTSF, and an entrepreneur who sells Cosmic Cow Cookies.
In a Fox News interview, Cornell discusses how she received the role of Sara. She said she had to take a bus for the audition and showed up an hour late after being in the rain. The secretary told her auditions had closed but Arne Sultan said to let her audition as long as she came in. They gave her a script to read and a line said “She gives her dad a raspberry.” Sara picks up an imaginary raspberry and hands it to her dad. Sultan asked her what she was doing, and then explained a raspberry was a Bronx cheer. She felt very stupid and they were all laughing. The casting director and executives decided at that time she was perfect for the part and asked her to report to work the next day.
I know that there have been far worse shows than Too Close for Comfort, but I’m not content having the bar set there because there have also been far better shows. Rather than my usual recommendation of buying the DVDs for a weekend of binge watching, I’m going to tell you to buy a good book instead.
As we wind up our “I Salute You!” blog series, we end with a show that may not be remembered as well as many other military shows: Major Dad. Created by Richard Okie, Earl Pomerantz, and John Stephens, the show debuted in September of 1989 and ran until spring of 1993, producing 96 episodes. Stephens was a producer on Gunsmoke and Simon and Simon (which McRaney also starred in), among other shows. Okie also produced Simon and Simon, along with Quantum Leap and more recently, Elementary. Pomerantz had been involved with both The Cosby Show and The Larry Sanders Show. Although the show is not seen often now, it won best sitcom in 1990.
In September of 1989, Bonnie Churchill wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor, “McRaney is Major Dad.” They discussed how the show was developed. As McRaney recounted: “‘The eighth and last season of Simon and Simon we began to get the skeleton of an idea . . . It centers around a rather conservative peacetime officer who falls in love with a newspaper reporter, who is rather liberal. She’s a single parent raising three daughters. They get married, and then the real fun begins. When we were discussing which branch of the service he’d be in, I voted for the Marines.’ McRaney also had a vote as co-executive producer, so he won.”
The show was on Monday nights for most of its entire run. The first season it went up against MacGyver and for half the season it was on against Alf and My 2 Dads for the second half. Season two with the move to Camp Hollister found the show going against MacGyver on ABC and both Ferris Bueller and Blossom on NBC, landing in the top 30. The show was again competing against MacGyver and Blossom for season three where it was in the top 10. In season four, MacGyver was gone with American Detective taking its place and Blossom still on NBC. But at some time during the last season, the network moved the show to Friday nights which resulted in the ratings plummeting and the show was no longer in the top 30 and was cancelled.
Major Dad starred Gerald McRaney and Shanna Reed as a newly married couple, John and Polly MacGillis. After left-leaning journalist Polly interviews conservative John, they fall in love. After a whirl-wind three-week romance, they decided to marry and the perennial bachelor’s life is turned upside down. Even though they are newly married, Polly has three daughters (Nicole Dubuc, Chelsea Hertford, and Marisa Ryan) from a previous marriage, so “Mac” must learn to live with a house of females. The girls are 6, 11, and 13. Mac has a hard-enough time learning to be a husband, let alone a father.
The show takes place in Camp Singleton which is similar to the real Camp Pendleton where Mac is the commander of the infantry training school’s acquisition division. Rounding out the cast were Lt Holowachuk (Matt Mulhern), Sgt James (Marlon Archey), and secretary Merilee (Whitney Kershaw). Many of the scripts for the first season had to be rewritten due to the US’s involvement in the Persian Gulf War.
For the second season, the family moves to Camp Hollister, which is similar to Quantico. Mac has been promoted to staff secretary under Brigadier General Marcus Craig (Jon Cypher). Lt Holowachuk comes along as aide-de-camp. Beverly Archer plays Gunnery Sergeant Alva Bricker, known as Gunny, the general’s secretary.
She adds a lot of humorous elements to the show as a no-nonsense, set-in-her-ways woman who seems to have many romantic interests.
Polly becomes the managing editor for the Bulldog, the camp newspaper. She also writes two columns, “At Ease” and “The Suggestion Box.” Originally for the second season, several of the characters were being sent to Saudia Arabia, but because the Persian Gulf War ended, it was decided to send everyone to Camp Hollister instead.
Some famous faces that popped up on this show included Ruth Buzzy, Peggy Cass, Brian Keith, Vicki Lawrence, and Jameson Parker.
Most reviews I read thought the show came into its own after the move to Camp Hollister. It got very positive ratings. Many people appreciated the fact that Marines were shown in a positive light. Before filming the show, McRaney was sent to Camp Pendleton to learn about life as a Marine. He was able to talk with people about their life stories, be outfitted with a uniform, and even got an authentic haircut.
The show provided a realistic insight into the issues that military families face. In addition, the show moved back and forth between home life and career life, so the characters are more balanced and not one-dimensional. Current issues like base closures were often written into the scripts, and in 1990, an episode commemorated the 215th anniversary of the Marines and Dan Quayle, who was the Vice President, made an appearance on the show.
As far as I could find, the show is not available on DVD. I also could not find any networks currently carrying the show, although there are online sights where you can watch it. Perhaps with all the networks now carrying syndicated shows, this series will have a second chance to find new generations of fans.
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.
We wrap up
our series Just a Couple of Characters this week with Mary Wickes and Susan
Oliver. Mary and Susan are very different character actors, but you will
immediately recognize them. Let’s learn a bit more.
It’s not surprising that Mary shortened her last name to “Wickes” after being born Mary Wickenhauser in 1910 in St. Louis. Her father was a banker, and the family had plenty of money. After high school, Mary attended Washington University in St. Louis, majoring in political science, planning a career in law. One of her professors suggested she try theater, and she dipped her toe into it doing summer theater in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
After deciding a career in acting was for her, she moved to New York. She quickly found a role in “The Farmer Takes a Wife” on Broadway in 1934. In this show, which starred Henry Fonda, Mary was Margaret Hamilton’s understudy. Mary had a chance to perform during the run and received excellent reviews.
Mary understood that comedy was the field she needed to pursue. She was lucky enough to continue getting roles on Broadway, appearing in several shows throughout the 1930s, including “Stage Door” in 1936 and “Hitch Your Wagon” in 1937. She also was cast in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” as Nurse Preen with Monty Woolley. She continued to receive encouraging reviews. When Warner Brothers decide to turn the play into a movie, both Mary and Woolley were part of the cast. Mary became known for being a bit sarcastic and witty. She was given roles in the film, Now Voyager with Bette Davis, again playing a nurse.
Mary flip flopped from Broadway to Hollywood, taking roles that interested her. She would appear in both Moonlight Bay (1951) and By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953) with Doris Day; White Christmas (1954), and The Music Man (1962).
Mary had cornered the market in roles of smart-alecky teachers, nurses, and housekeepers in film. When she transitioned to television, she often continued in these roles. Her first two recurring roles were housekeepers named Alice on Halls of Ivy from 1954-55 and Katie on Annette in 1958. From 1956-1958, she played Liz O’Neill, Danny Thomas’s press agent on Make Room for Daddy. Throughout the 1950s she also appeared on numerous shows including Zorro.
One of my favorite episodes with Mary was the 1952 episode “The Ballet” on I Love Lucy where Wickes played Madame Lamond, a formidable ballet teacher who taught Lucy. Wickes and Lucy would remain life-long friends. After Mary’s death, Lucie Arnez talked about her relationship with their family: “For my brother and me, Mary was just like one of the family. If any of us were sick or even in bed with a cold, Mary would show up at the backdoor with a kettle of chicken soup. She could be loud and boisterous and as demanding as any of the characters she played, but she was also very loving and giving. What a lady.” Mary would appear on numerous episodes of Lucille Ball’s other shows in the 1960s and 1970s.
In the 1960s, Mary continued to show up on a variety of shows. We see her on My Three Sons, Bonanza, F-Troop, The Doris Day Show, The Donna ReedShow, and I Spy. She also had recurring roles on three shows during the decade: TheGertrude Berg Show, Dennis the Menace, and Temple Houston. In the Gertrude Berg Show, Mary was landlady, Winona Maxfield. She was hilarious on Dennis the Menace, playing Miss Cathcart, an older neighbor looking for a man. On Temple Houston, she played Ida Goff. Temple was Sam Houston’s real son who was a circuit-riding lawyer.
As Mary aged, she progressed to the cranky relative or nosy neighbor type of character. In the 1970s she was a regular on Julia, Doc, and The Jimmy Stewart Show. On Julia, she was Dr. Chegley’s wife, Melba. She went back to her role as a nurse on Doc. On the Jimmy Stewart Show, she is Mrs. Bullard. Two of my favorite episodes of her from the 1970s were her roles on Columbo and M*A*S*H. On Columbo, Mary plays a landlady of a victim who’s been murdered. She and Columbo have a priceless conversation during the show, “Suitable for Framing” in 1971. On M*A*S*H, Mary played Colonel Reese who is observing Margaret and the nurses.
In the 1980s, Mary’s schedule slowed down a bit. She did revive her role as a maid on The Love Boat in 1981. From 1989-1991, she took another regular role as housekeeper Marie Murkin on Father Dowling Mysteries.
In the 1990s, Mary was doing more voice overs. She taped five episodes of Life with Louie which aired from 1995-1997 and was Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1996. Unfortunately, she would not live to see them on the big screen. In 1995, she passed away after having respiratory problems. While a patient in the hospital, she fell and broke her hip. She died of complications caused by the surgery.
Mary never married or had children and as part of her legacy, she left a $2 million donation in memory of her parents to the Television, Film and Theater Arts at Washington University.
More than twenty years younger than Wickes, Susan Oliver was born in 1932 in New York City. Her real name as Charlotte Gercke. Her father was a political reporter for the New York World. Her parents divorced when she was quite young, and she grew up in boarding schools. She traveled with her father to Japan when he took a post there. She studied at the Tokyo International College, studying American pop culture. While Wickes was the wise-cracking comedic foil, Oliver was often the leading lady character with blue eyes, blonde hair and heart-shaped face.
In 1949, she
traveled to LA to see her mother who had found her niche as “astrologer to the
stars.” Susan then enrolled at Swarthmore College. After graduation, she
continued acting courses at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse.
Her first Broadway part came in 1957 as the daughter or a Revolutionary veteran, “Small War on Murray Hill.”
Returning to LA, she started a film career. Though she would appear in 15 big-screen movies, television is where she spent most of her time. She put in her due diligence in the 1950s and 1960s. Her first job was on The Goodyear Playhouse in 1955. She continued with a lot of drama and theater for the first few years of her career. She took roles in a variety of shows including: Father Knows Best, Suspicion, The David Niven Show, Bonanza, The Twilight Zone, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Wagon Train, Route 66, The Fugitive, The Andy Griffith Show, Ben Casey, Mannix, Dr. Kildare, The Man from UNCLE, I Spy, Gomer Pyle, My Three Sons, and the Wild, Wild West.
I read several times that she turned down lead roles in series to retain her independence, but I never read any specific roles she turned down. In 1966 she accepted a recurring role of Ann Howard in Peyton Place. She had signed a contract for a year, but after five months, her character was killed on the show. She made a pilot for a show titled, “Apartment in Rome” that did not sell.
Oliver never did get another show of her own, but she continued to guest on shows throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including Love American Style, Gunsmoke, The FBI, Streets of San Francisco, The Love Boat, Magnum PI, Murder She Wrote, and Simon and Simon.
One of the reasons, she didn’t want to be tied down was her interest in flying. In 1959, a Boeing 707 she was a passenger on plummeted 30,000 feet for the Atlantic Ocean before leveling out. After that scare, she decided to learn to become a pilot. In 1964, she started flying single-engine planes. Bill Lear brought her on board to become the first woman to train on his new Lear Jet. She would star in a movie about Amelia Earhart. She also later wrote about her flying experiences in an autobiography, Odyssey: A Daring Transatlantic Journey in 1983.
In the mid-1970s, she stopped accepting most acting roles and quit flying. She enrolled at the 1974 AFI Directing Workshop for Women with peers Lily Tomlin, Margot Kidder, Kathleen Nolan, and Maya Angelou. During the final season of M*A*S*H she directed an episode of the show. She would later direct an episode of Trapper John, MD.
At age 58, Oliver was diagnosed with colorectal, and eventually lung, cancer. She died in 1990.
Oliver was an
interesting actress. Apparently, she loved acting, but never wanted to be tied
down. She not only was a aviator and director but a writer. She was a practicing
Buddhist and a baseball expert as well.
Wickes and Oliver were very different women with very different interests and acting roles. They both remained single and devoted themselves to their careers. But they were both women who were always in demand for their acting ability.
We continue our month-long exploration of the actors who appeared on Gilligan’s Island. Today we look at the two biggest stars: Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver.
Alan Hale Jr.
Alan Hale Jr. (Alan Hale Mackahan, Jr.) was born in 1921 in Los Angeles, California. He looked exactly like his father, Alan Hale Sr. who was a well-known movie actor acting with legends like Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn. His mother, Gretchen Hartman, was also a silent film star.
Hale’s first screen role was when he was 12 in Wild Boys of the Road.
He appeared in more movies and television series than any of the other Gilligan’sIsland cast. In all he would appear in 92 movies and 123 different tv shows.
In 1943 he married Bettina Reed Doerr. They would be married for twenty years and have four children. During World War II, Hale served in the US Coast Guard.
In the 1950s, he could be seen in many westerns as well as The Loretta YoungShow and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He had regular roles on two sitcoms in that decade: Biff Baker USA and Casey Jones. Biff Baker is a businessman who becomes involved in espionage. He and his wife travel around the world, working behind the scenes to solve problems. Although it was a serious show, there was some humor in the episodes also. As Casey Jones, Hale drove his train, The Cannonball Express, around the country.
The early 1960s was a prolific time for Alan Hale. The majority of his television credits came during this decade. You can see him in reruns of Jack Benny, The LucyShow, Perry Mason, My Favorite Martian, and The Andy Griffith Show.
The year 1964 was a momentous one for Alan. He married Naomi and remained with her till his death. He also tackled the role he would become famous for.
Sherwood Schwartz said he was having trouble finding the right person to play Jonas Grumby. He auditioned a lot of people, including Carroll O’Connor. One night while having dinner at a local restaurant he saw Hale dressed in a Civil War costume and decided he might be the one. Although the Skipper often became frustrated with Gilligan, they had a father and son relationship. Hale and Denver managed to pull that off. They were close friends in their personal lives as well.
Unlike some of the cast who felt typecast after they left the show, Hale embraced the role he had played. He would later own and manage a popular restaurant in Los Angeles called “Alan Hale’s Lobster Barrel” and could be seen greeting guests as the Skipper. Both he and Jim Backus appeared on Bob Denver’s sitcom Good Guys in 1968.
After Gilligan, Hale’s career did not slow down. Until his death he would continue to appear in a variety of series including Batman, Green Acres, The Flying Nun, TheWild, Wild West, Here’s Lucy, Marcus Welby, The Doris Day Show, Gunsmoke, McMillan and Wife, Simon and Simon, Growing Pains, The Love Boat, and MagnumPI.
In addition to acting and his restaurant business, Alan enjoyed fishing, golfing, cooking, traveling, storytelling, spending time with his family, and philanthropy. In 1990, Hale died after suffering from thymus cancer at the young age of 68.
Alan Hale had a long and prosperous career. From all accounts, he liked acting and enjoyed life. Perhaps we should leave the last word to his costars who knew him best.
Bob Denver said, “He was a big, lovable man who made everyone feel good. He had a great time with his life.”
Dawn Wells described him: “What a dear man . . . what a dear, dear man . . I never saw him disgruntled, having a temper tantrum or depressed. He was so jovial and so sweet and so strong. . . He was a nice man.”
Bob Denver was born in New York in 1935. He went to college at Loyola University in Los Angeles, majoring in political science. He worked as a mailman and a teacher before deciding to go into acting full time. His first appearance was on SilentService in 1957.
While Alan Hale was in more shows and movies than any of the other crew members, Bob Denver was easily in the fewest. While he appeared in seven movies, he was only in 21 television shows, and on six of them he had regular roles.
His sister suggested him for the part of Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves ofDobie Gillis. His role as Dobie Gillis’s best friend propelled him into stardom. DobieGillis was on the air for four years, producing 144 shows.
In the 1960s he would appear on Dr. Kildare, The Farmer’s Daughter, The AndyGriffith Show, Make Room for Daddy, and I Dream of Jeannie. In the mid-1960s, Bob was offered the role of Gilligan on a new show, Gilligan’s Island. In 1966 he married Maggie Ryan. They would have two children during the six years before they divorced.
Schwartz wanted to cast Jerry Van Dyke in the role who turned it down to play Dave Crabtree in My Mother the Car. Denver was perfect in the role of the inept Gilligan who caused many mishaps on the island but was the center of affection of the rest of the castaways, especially the Skipper.
The same year Gilligan was cancelled, Denver remarried. Like many sitcoms, the relationship with Jean Webber lasted three years before the couple cancelled it.
Although Denver was given a lead role in three more sitcoms, most of his work after 1967 cashed in on his character of Gilligan. In 1968, he starred in Good Guys. He played the role of Rufus Butterworth who opens a diner with his best friend from childhood. The show only lasted for 42 episodes. Like Gilligan’s Island, Sherwood Schwartz produced this show. In an interview in 1994 with Peter Anthony Holder on Montreal radio station CJAD 800 AM, Denver discussed Schwartz. “Oh yeah, sure. Sherwood, as a producer, he was one of the best writer producers. It’s amazing. That man was just amazing. We never knew there were any problems when we were shooting. He kept all the network craziness away from us. He was writing scripts literally four months in advance, so that special effects and props always got them in plenty of time. . . you just memorized your words and went down there and had a great time. It wasn’t until afterwards when I left that I realized that not everybody was in the same situation. So every time I had a chance to work with him I did.”
At this time, Bob was also involved with Broadway and dinner theater plays after 1970.
In 1972 Denver tried marriage a third time. He and Carole Abrahams made it three years and produced one child before divorcing. In 1973, he took the lead on Dusty’sTrail. As Dusty, he manages to get a wagon and stage separated from the rest of the wagon train heading west, and the lost group of travelers try to catch up with the rest of their party. This one only lasted 26 shows.
In 1975, Denver appeared in his weirdest sitcom yet, Far Out Space Nuts. Lasting only 12 episodes, Denver played a maintenance man in a space company who is accidentally launched into space with a co-worker. Apparently, television producers decided Denver looked like someone who was always lost.
In 1979, Bob tried the marriage ride one more time. This time he would stay married to Dreama Perry until his death. The couple would have a child, making a total of four children for him.
Like many of the other castaways, Denver published a book of memoirs. It was called Gilligan, Maynard, & Me.
In 2005, Denver passed away from complications following throat cancer surgery, leaving Dawn Wells and Tina Louise as the only surviving actors from the show.
While Denver is obviously the most-recognized character from Gilligan’s Island, he also had the most difficult situation to work with in being typecast. He was never able to shake the traits that were part of Gilligan to explore other roles. He mentioned he would have liked to be in Northern Exposure. I wonder if he would have been happier being a teacher or if he enjoyed his career.
Next week we will discover more about our last regular member of the show, Russell Johnson.
Today we continue our month-long series about the characters on Gilligan’s Island and the stars who portrayed them. We begin with the millionaire, Thurston Howell III, and his wife, Lovey. On the island, their money is worthless, but it doesn’t stop Mr. Howell from bribing other captives when it’s in his best interest. He must have been a boy scout who learned the motto, “Be prepared,” because he and his wife took clothes on a three-hour tour to last a few years. In real life, Natalie Schafer was the millionaire. Both Backus and Schafer had very interesting careers.
Jim Backus was born in Cleveland in February of 1913. He was one of those stars who seemed to excel in everything: radio, Broadway, animation, big-screen movies, and television series. In an interesting aside, Margaret Hamilton who would go on to have a full career including the Wicked Witch of the West at the Wizard ofOz, was one of his grade school teachers. Jim grew up in a wealthy area, attending Shaw High School in East Cleveland. His father was a mechanical engineer. I could not find exact proof of this but several articles mention he was expelled from the Kentucky Military Institute for riding a horse in the mess hall. He later attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art.
In 1939 he married Betty Kean; they divorced in 1942. One of his famous quotes was “Many a man owes his success to his first wife and his second wife to his success.”
In the 1940s, Backus began appearing on radio as the “rich man,” which he often portrayed afterward on radio and television. He played the role of aviator Dexter Hayes on Society Girl on CBS Radio Network. He also appeared on the Mel BlancShow as Hartley Benson, an arrogant character, and as Hubert Updike on The AlanYoung Show. He also showed up regularly on The Jack Benny Program.
During his radio years, he married Henny Backus whom he was married to the rest of his life.
He began his big-screen cinema career in 1949 and would go on to appear in almost 100 movies, including Here Come the Nelsons, Pat and Mike, and RebelWithout a Cause (seen above). His most famous movie role was probably Tyler Fitzgerald in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. My favorite movie of his is Hello Down There with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh from 1969.
During the 1950s, he began auditioning for roles on television. He would go on to appear on 18 different series during that decade, including I Married Joan, on which he starred with Joan Davis. On the show, Backus played a respected judge and Davis was his scatterbrained wife. The show was very popular and lasted three seasons.
As if he wasn’t busy enough with acting in the 1950s, he also made a song recording with Phyllis Diller that hit the top 40 in 1958. It was called “Delicious,” and the two of them would take a sip of champagne throughout the song, saying “Delicious.” As the song continues, they get more drunk and a bit giddy, slurring their words and laughing hysterically.
His television career continued to be demanding in the 1960s. He appeared on 25 series, and four of them had regular starring sitcom roles. In 1960, The Jim BackusShow debuted. The program focuses on Backus in the role of Mike O’Toole, the editor/proprietor of a low rent wire service struggling to stay in business.
He had made movie shorts about Mr. Magoo in the 1950s and in 1960, he starred in 130 episodes of Mr. Magoo and would make 26 more episodes under the title The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo in 1964-1965. Mr. Magoo was an older nearsighted man who was very popular, appearing in ads and merchandise for years. The humor of the show was based on the difference between what Mr. Magoo thinks he sees and the reality of what was really there. Jim Backus liked to repeat a story about his famous character. He was in the movie, Don’t Bother to Knock, with Marilyn Monroe. She asked Jim to meet her in her dressing room later and his curiosity got the best of him, so he went, only to learn she wanted him to portray Mr. Magoo which he did.
This was also the decade he was offered the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’sIsland in 1964. That same year he was asked to play the role of Abner Kravitz on a new show, Bewitched but turned it down because he was committed to Gilligan’sIsland. Gilligan’s Island would run from 1964-1967 and he would go on to appear in several Gilligan revivals including the far-fetched The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island.
During 1968-1969, Backus took the role of Mr. Dithers in a revival of Blondie.
During the 1960s, he also appeared on 77 Sunset Strip, The Beverly Hillbillies, Daniel Boone, The Wild, Wild West, and I Spy, among others.
Backus continued his television work into the 1970s where he appeared on 31 shows. He appeared in a variety of genres including I Dream of Jeannie, Young Dr. Kildare, Medical Center, The Brady Bunch, Gunsmoke, Ellery Queen, Charlie’sAngels, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.
Backus also continued his commercial work in the 1970s and 1980s. He was the spokesperson for La-Z-Boy furniture and General Electric. He and Natalie Schafer appeared in an ad for Redenbacher’s popcorn. They played their characters from Gilligan’s Island but apparently had been rescued and were in a luxurious home. In a sweet ending, it was the last television appearance for either of them.
When Jim Backus had a little bit of free time between acting jobs, he loved to golf. He also tried his hand at writing a few books and film scripts, including his autobiography which he wrote with his wife, Only When I Laugh in 1965.
In July of 1989, Backus died from pneumonia, after suffering from Parkinson’s disease for many years.
He had a long and varied career and seemed to have many friends in the business.
A millionaire in real life, Natalie Schafer seemed like a very fun woman, a bit of a character. She was born in November of 1900 in New Jersey and raised in Manhattan. She was quite secretive about her age, often claiming she was born in 1912.
She began her career in Broadway, appearing in 17 plays. She married actor Louis Calhern in 1934 and they divorced in 1942. She moved to Los Angeles in 1941 to become a film actress and received parts in 34 movies. Incidentally, she and her ex remained friends and appeared together in the movie Forever Darling in 1956.
Like Backus, Schafer typically played wealthy and sophisticated roles. She did not have the versatility her tv husband had but continued to stay busy acting on television. While Gilligan’s Island was her only long-term role, she appeared on 21 shows in the 1950s (including I Love Lucy, Loretta Young, Phil Silvers, and Topper); 8 in the 1960s (including The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and Route 66); 15 in the 1970s (including Mayberry RFD, The Brady Bunch, and McMillan and Wife); and an additional 8 shows in the 1980s before she passed away (including Three’s Company, The Love Boat, Trapper John, and Simon and Simon).
Schafer made most of her money from investments, particularly in real estate.
Several sources revealed that much of her fortune was bequeathed to either her Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells or to care for her dogs; however, at least $1.5 million was donated to the Lillian Booth Actors’ Home to renovate their outpatient wing. I never saw any answers from Wells about inheriting money, but on Vicki Lawrence’s talk show, she did say that Schafer spent her last years living with her. Like many wealthy people, she was quite thrifty. She often admitted that she accepted the role of Mrs. Howell because she got a free trip to Hawaii to film the pilot and didn’t expect it to get picked up.
Everyone seemed to like her on the set. Dawn Wells said she especially adored Schafer and Backus. Schafer was a hard worker and liked to keep fit. In a ChicagoTribune article from October 25, 1965, she relayed her secrets for staying in shape. For one thing, she did her own stunts on the show. She also said she swam nude every morning and evening, doing 100 strong kicks at the side of the pool. She also invented an ice cream diet for herself. She claimed to eat a quart a day, saying she had a bowl of vanilla ice cream with her coffee, two bowls of varying flavors for both lunch and dinner, and another single bowl for an afternoon snack. She claimed that she would lose three pounds in five days.
In 1990, Schafer passed away from liver cancer. After her death, she wanted people to realize her true age, and many of her closest friends were quite surprised to learn she was 12 years older than she claimed.
While Thurston Howell III and his wife Lovey were two interesting characters, I don’t think they can compete with the characters who were Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer. I had a lot of fun learning about them.
Monday is Presidents Day, and as I mention that fact, I can hear the collective groans. Whether you’re in the Hate Trump or Love Trump camp, you are probably thoroughly sick of politics. Believe me, I hear you. However, today we are going to look at presidential moments in television. And before you exit out, be assured I am not talking about the Nixon-Kennedy debates. We’re going to look at my top television episodes that featured a president.
Several series have included presidents with people dressed in costumes at Halloween parties. George Washington showed up on Growing Pains in 1990 and on the first episode of The Munsters in 1964, while Thomas Jefferson appeared on Mike and Molly in 2011. I mention the roles, but we’re not going to concentrate on them.
Several candidates also made whistle stops campaigning on television. Thomas Jefferson was on Simonand Simon in 1986 when they were trying to recover a family journal, Teddy Roosevelt was on TheVirginian in 1962 fighting with the Rough Riders, and Franklin Roosevelt was a minor character on Wonder Woman in 1975, when she used her super powers to return a wounded WWII pilot to Washington. In 2002, Teddy Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson all made an appearance on Sabrina the Teenage Witch to convince her aunt not to run for city council. Because these were minor appearances and the shows were not about the presidents, I did not include them in my top five.
Here are my top five television episodes featuring a president as a character.
No. 5 – Bewitched: “George Washington Zapped Here” – 1972. When I saw a Bewitched episode that starred George Washington, I was sure I had my number 1 show for this blog. Then I watched the show. I tend to look at Bewitched almost as two different shows. I love the first five years and include them in some of my all-time favorite tv episodes. It was one of the best fantasy shows ever created, but by the last season the fantasy had died. The last season, including this episode, is like trying to watch a wrinkled, saggy grandmother trying to pull off wearing a mini skirt and go-go boots. It’s a bit frustrating, a bit humorous, fairly sad, and extremely uncomfortable. If George Washington had a premonition about appearing in this episode, I’m sure he would have found a way to ban television in the Constitution.
Trying to help Tabitha with her homework, Esmeralda zaps George Washington to the present time. George is played by Will Geer. I feel like this theme of zapping historical figures happened more often than it should have during this show’s run. Also, Esmeralda is not as likeable a character as Aunt Clara or Uncle Arthur. Of course, Washington wanders off and is arrested for speaking without a permit. The only thing more painful than watching this show was the realization that it was a two-parter; the second episode has George going before a local judge and finally being exonerated by the truth. Talking about truth reminds me when George said, “I cannot tell a lie”, and I have to admit this episode is dreadful. Apparently, politics was just as painful 45 years ago as it is today.
No. 4 – Dharma and Greg: “Dutch Treat” – 2001. Numbers 3 and 4 are really a toss-up. Abraham Lincoln stars in both shows, and he appears in dreams in both episodes. This sitcom was on the air from 1997 to 2002 starring Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson as a young couple who eloped on their first date. She was raised by hippy parents and he comes from a wealthy family. The show earned eight Golden Globe and six Emmy nominations, and Elfman won the Best Actress Golden Globe in 1999. This episode was a bit too formulaic for me, so Drew Carey beat it out for number 3 in my list.
In this show, Dharma and Greg argue about being a role model for their young college friend. During the argument they both claim to be independent, so they decide to go dutch for a week to find out which one is truly independent. Of course, they end up realizing they are dependent on each other during the experiment. Peter, Greg’s coworker, has some weird dreams during the show. At the end of the episode, Peter leaves for lunch with a bunch of Victoria’s Secret models who think he’s hot (he’s not), and Abraham Lincoln arrives at the office for a consultation with Peter. Dharma and Greg inform him Peter is out and invite him to lunch with them. He takes off his hat to reveal it is full of waffles. At this point, Dharma informs Greg that they are now in Peter’s dream and the show ends. Abe is played by Ryan Stiles and, by chance, our no. 3 show features Stiles as a cast member.
No. 3 – The Drew Carey Show: “Drew’s in a Coma” – 2001. From 1995-2004, Drew portrays the average guy. He works at a department store and has a group of friends he hangs out with, primarily at the Warsaw Tavern. Ryan Stiles is one of these friends, who played Abe Lincoln in the Dharma and Greg episode. He also appeared on Drew’s improv show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?.
In this episode, Drew is in an auto accident and goes into a coma. His friends and family try to bring him out of it, but he is enjoying his unconscious dreams. We see him in an apartment with a bunch of sexy women. Mimi is his sister-in-law who wears flamboyant make-up. They have a love/hate relationship, but in his dreams, she is very conservative looking and tells him she is his slave, being very respectful. He has a pizza tree, a beer fountain, and a door that opens to the greatest moments in sports featuring himself. After several attempts to bring him out of the coma, his family gets ready to pull the plug to see if it shocks his body into waking up. When they unplug the respirator, Drew is in the middle of a Trivial Pursuit game with William Shakespeare and Abe Lincoln. (Abe is played by Charles Brame, and he also was Abe Lincoln on the Growing Pains episode mentioned in the second paragraph of the blog.) Abe is excelling at all the history questions, until Drew reads him a shocking question. The card asks “Who shot Abraham Lincoln?” The shock Abe feels equals the one Drew feels when he is unplugged and it forces him to realize he has to choose between going on to heaven or back to his life on earth. In the words of his fellow gamer, he had to decide “to be or not to be” and he chooses to return to earth for a while.
No. 2 – Spin City: “A Tree Falls in Manhattan” – 2001. Spin City is about a group of city hall employees who work to help the mayor. Mike, played by Michael J. Fox, is great at his job but he is leaving to get married and travel around the world. The staff covers up for the mayor who is not very competent, but they struggle with their personal lives. I did not watch Spin City a lot when it was on the air from 1996 to 2002. This was a funny episode, so it came in at number 2, even though Washington is only an on-air character for a minute or two.
Trying to impress his new girlfriend so they can watch the sun rise over the East River, the mayor orders a tree outside the mansion to be cut down, not realizing that it was a tree planted by George Washington and is protected. Charlie tells a girl he picks up that night about the tree story, not knowing she was the campaign manager for the opposition. She tells her boss, and they go on the air to make an announcement. When Charlie sees her, he realizes what has happened. Four George Washingtons appear in this episode played by David Hayman, Jack Wright, Gelbert Coloma, and Anthony Provenzano Jr. They are part of the Revolutionary War Society picketing city hall. After all this mayhem, Mike realizes he needs to be back in city hall and returns to his job. He arranges for the mayor to go on television saying “I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down George Washington’s tree, but I used the wood to build a shelter for the homeless.” At this time, Fox was dealing with Parkinson’s Disease and announced he would be leaving at the end of this season. When he did eventually leave the show, the explanation was that he accepted a job as an environmental lobbyist who moved to Washington, DC. He met a senator there named Alex P. Keaton, the name of Fox’s character on Family Ties.
No. 1 – My Friend Flicka: ”Rough and Ready” – 1956. I had heard of the book and movie My FriendFlicka, but I did not know that it was ever a television show. It was only on the air one year, and only 39 episodes were made, airing between February 1956- February 1957. It was a mid-season replacement for The Adventures of Champion, a show starring Gene Autry. Unfortunately, neither show could compete with The Adventures of Rin TinTin which was on another channel during this time slot. The show was later aired Monday nights on the Disney Channel in the mid-1980s. Ken McLaughlin, played by Johnny Washbrook, is devoted to his horse Flicka. He and his parents live at the Goose Bar Ranch in Coulee Springs. After this show was cancelled, Washbrook appeared on several shows, including three different characters on My Three Sons, but then went into the banking profession and moved to Martha’s Vineyard.
This episode was a delightful and charming show featuring Theodore Roosevelt played by Frank Albertson. Young Ken McLaughlin decides to write a letter to the president because there is too much overgrazing going on due to the government failing to put restrictions on the lands. A couple of weeks later, the newspaper has an article about Vice President Roosevelt coming to Coulee Springs for a vacation. In the meantime, several families are forced to put their ranches up for sale and move because there is no place for their cattle to graze. Ken meets a man fishing and shows him lures he makes himself. The man is quite impressed, and they make plans to meet again in the morning to fish. The next day, Ken explains what is happening with the land, saying he wrote the president but never heard back, and then tells the man that his family had now put their ranch up for sale also. The man tells Ken to have his father come to town, and he will arrange for him to talk to the vice president. He also has Ken take his picture with a large fish they caught. When he and his father go to town for the meeting, he realizes that the man he has been fishing with is Vice President Theodore Roosevelt who takes care of the situation, putting regulations in place. A few weeks later, Ken gets a letter. Theodore Roosevelt is now President Roosevelt and he wanted to make sure Ken did get a letter back from the President. He also included the photo that Ken took of him and the fish. Albertson did a bully good job playing Teddy.
Hopefully watching some of these episodes will convince you that it is possible to have a Happy Presidents Day. Watching the influence these men still have in our modern-day history reminds us that our Constitution and government were created and modified by great men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt, creating a strong foundation that is hard to destroy. All you have to do to enjoy politics today is to choose one of these five episodes to watch. And wearing red, white, and blue while you do so wouldn’t hurt.