MacMillan and Wife: The Show That Bridged the Generation Gap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate and Allie: The Not-So Odd Couple

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Today we look at a show that never received its due credit post production.  Unless you watched Kate and Allie, you might never have heard of the show. Yet, it had two major female stars in Jane Curtin and Susan St. James. It ran for six seasons. It was in the top 20 until the last season. The series was one of the most popular and critically acclaimed shows of 1984. The show won at least four Emmys and had many nominations.

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Sort of a female Odd Couple, the premise of the show is that Allie Lowell (Curtin) divorces her husband, a doctor, after he was having an affair. They have a son and a daughter. She moves to New York to live with her childhood friend Kate McArdle who is also divorced raising a daughter. Her ex is a part-time actor. Allie’s son Chip is played by Lowell Frederick Koehler and her daughter Jennie by Allison Smith. Kate’s daughter Emma is played by Ari Meyers.

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A lot of stars appeared on the show including Wendie Malick, Dylan Walsh, Andrea Martin, David Groh, Holland Taylor, Patricia Richardson, Barbara Barrie, Ben Stiller Lindsay Wagner, Ricki Lake, and Debra Jo Rupp. Dick Cavett, Dick Butkus, and Joe Namath all played themselves. A fun trivia fact is that Kelsey Grammar had his series acting debut. He played a man who had a blind date with Kate but hit it off with Allie while waiting for Kate to get ready. When he and Kate don’t have a connection, he then asks Allie out, but she spends the entire evening talking about her ex-husband and her divorce.

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John Loeffler sings the theme song, “Along Comes a Friend” composed by Ralph Schuckett. During the first season, Loeffler appeared as a piano teacher in one of the shows. Bill Persky, well respected in television, was the director for the first five years. Persky directed other shows such as That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Alice and Who’s the Boss. He was the producer for the entire run of That Girl as well. The last season was directed by Linda Day.

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Sherry Coben created the show. She got the idea after attending a high school reunion.  She noticed that the divorced women seemed to relate to each other and received encouragement from each other, so she thought it would make a great show. The working title for the show was “Two Mommies.”

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Kate is free spirited while Allie is more traditional. When the show first begins, Kate is a travel agent, so Allie decides to stay home and take care of the domestic duties for the three kids. At the beginning of the fifth season when the kids are older, Kate quits her job, and Kate and Allie start their own catering company. They both date off and on; the finale for season 5 shows Allie marrying Bob Barsky (Sam Freed), a sportscaster. They get their own apartment for season 6, but the ratings declined so the writers found Bob a new job that required a lot of travel, so Kate moved in with the couple.  The concept never worked because she seemed to be intruding on the newlyweds’ privacy. By this time Kate’s daughter Emma had left the house. In real life, Meyers left the series to attend Yale, but she was in the opening credits and appeared on the show at least once.

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Kate never marries but she has several serious relationships. She dates plumber Ted Bartelo (Greg Salata) during Season 2 but they break up at the end of the year. He re-enters her life in Season 5, but things just don’t work out.

Allie’s husband Charles (Paul Hecht) marries Claire, played by Wendie Malick during the run of the show.

Each episode began with Allie and Kate having a conversation. It reveals how close they were and introduced the episode. At the end of the show, the theme song played and another discussion between the two brought closure to the issue.

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The week the show debuted, it was number four in the ratings. It was consistently in the top 20 for the first five seasons. Persky left after five seasons once Allie married because he felt that the show had accomplished what it set out to do. Allie has learned more about herself, become confident in taking care of herself and relying on her friends to help her navigate life. She now is able to enter a new relationship as a stronger and more independent person. After the drastic changes of Allie getting married and the kids beginning to leave the nest, the ratings declined during Season 6. At the end of the year it was cancelled.

Two of the funniest shows were a parody of I Love Lucy and the episode when the girls go on the Dick Cavett Show.

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St. James and Curtin were friends. St. James’ husband Bob Ebersol worked on Saturday Night Live, which Curtin left in 1980. The two starred in The High Cost of Living, a movie from 1980.

After the show was over, Curtin had several other series including Working it Out and Crumbs which both lasted an unlucky 13 episodes and Third Rock from the Sun, a huge hit and long-running show. Recently she has appeared on The Good Wife and The Librarians.

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St. James was best known for her roles in The Name of the Game, McMillan and Wife, a variety of movies, and an appearance on M*A*S*H.

In an interview with People in June of 2006, St. James said on the show “Jane ran a serious poker game with the kids and crew like Triple Card Cowboy or Blackjack Over Easy.” It sounded like a fun set to work on.

St. James was happy to take on the show because it allowed her to continue living in Connecticut with Dick and their five children. Her TV kids became friends with her own children. Ari Meyers said “I loved Susan . . . I went to her house many times and hung out with her kids.”

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The series spawned two spin-offs but neither went anywhere. Roxie starred Andrea Martin. It aired in April 1987, but after two episodes it was cancelled. Late Bloomer was a season replacement to star Lindsay Wagner, but the show was scrapped before its debut on the air.

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Kate and Allie’s first two seasons were released on DVD in May of 2006, but I don’t think any other seasons have been packaged. The lack of DVD presence and the fact that reruns never ran on a major station keep the show from being remembered. Take some time to watch an episode or two on YouTube and enjoy the camaraderie of these two stars.