Ruth McDevitt: What a Character – Delightfully Daffy

One of my favorite blog series is beginning again today: “What a Character !” Our first character actor is Ruth McDevitt. You might not recognize her name, but the minute you see a photo of her you will definitely recognize this busy television star. Her on-screen personality is perfectly captured in her imdb biography where she is described as “delightfully daffy and quite an apple dumpling of a darling, a cheerfully wizened character.”

On Love American Style with Meredith McCrae Photo: pinterest

Ruth was born in Michigan but she spent most of her early life in Ohio. Her father was the county sheriff and both of her parents were musicians. After graduation, she attended college (some sites give her college as Bowling Green and others Wooster) and after her graduation, she studied at the Toledo Dramatic Academy. She then moved to New York to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Art.

When she married Patrick McDevitt in 1928, she decided to devote her time to her husband, giving up her career. Her husband was a widowed contractor who lived in Florida, so she made the move south and participated in a variety of women’s clubs and community groups. Unfortunately, her husband passed away in 1934, and she then returned to her acting profession in her forties. She made her debut on Broadway in 1940 in several shows and later appeared in “Arsenic and Old Lace” in 1942 and “The Solid Gold Cadillac” in 1954.

In the thirties, Ruth also began her radio career, taking on the roles of Rosemary’s mother in “Keeping up with Rosemary” and Jane in “This Life is Mine.”

The Birds with Tippi Hedren Photo:

Ruth also found success on the big screen. Her first movie role was in The Guy Who Came Back in 1951. She would appear in a variety of movies during her career including The Birds, The Parent Trap, The Shakiest Gun in the West, Mame, and Angel in My Pocket.

With Frank DeVol in The Parent Trap Photo: imdb.com

It was in television that she found most of her fame. Her first appearances were in 1949 when she was cast in A Woman to Remember, The Ford Theater Hour, and Suspense. She continued to receive dramatic roles throughout the fifties. From 1953-54, she appeared in seven episodes of Mister Peepers as his mother.

Pistols and Petticoats Photo: pinterest

Ruth began the 1960s in several medical shows and then transitioned to comedies appearing in The Andy Griffith Show, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Debbie Reynolds Show, I Dream of Jeanne, and Mayberry RFD. She received a recurring role in The Doctors in 1963 as Mrs. McMurtrie. She also became a cast member of Pistols and Petticoats in 1966. She was described as pistol-toting grannie, Effie Hanks. The show was set in Colorado in 1871 where the Hanks family are beloved residents and run things better than the sheriff does. It was canceled after its first season. Ann Sheridan starred in the tv series and she passed away a couple of months before the show was canceled.

The 1970s was Ruth’s busiest decade. She showed up in various dramas including Ironside, McCloud, Mannix, and The Rookies. She popped up in Gunsmoke and Little House on the Prairie and took part in the medical shows Marcus Welby and Medical Center.

With Bert Mustin on All in the Family Photo:

However, comedies kept her employed. She accepted roles on My World and Welcome to It, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, That Girl, Here’s Lucy, Love American Style, Nanny and the Professor, Bewitched, Room 222, and Phyllis. among others.

She accepted a recurring role on All in the Family as Jo Nelson from 1973-1975. Her last starring role was in Kolchak: The Night Stalker from 1974-1975. Darren McGavin plays a newspaper reporter who specializes in solving supernatural mysteries. His only friend was a coworker who also had a column in the paper played by McDevitt. The show supposedly inspired the X Files in part.

Photo: wiki-fandom.com

Ruth’s last two roles were in 1976 in made-for-tv movies. She passed away the same year from natural causes at age 80.

Whenever I write about these character actors, it makes me happy and sad. I respect them so much and appreciate the depth they add to make our television series better, but I am always disappointed that there is so little information available about their lives and careers. I very much enjoyed getting to know Ruth McDevitt a little better—she certainly was a character and we all benefit from that.

“Oh, he was a nice, nice man.”

With all the research I have done, I have discovered a lot of nice folks in the entertainment industry (as well as a few not so nice people), but I have never read about anyone more liked than Howard McNear.  Everyone went out of their way to say what a kind and caring man he was.

mcnear5

McNear was born in Los Angeles in 1905. He studied at the Oatman School of Theater and then joined a stock company in San Diego. During World War II, he enlisted as a private in the US Army Air Corps. He went on to a career in radio, films, and television. In the mid-1960s, he had a stroke and died from complications of pneumonia in 1969. Parley Baer, a life-long friend, delivered his eulogy. He was buried in Los Angeles, completing his California life cycle.

mcnear3radio

Howard began working in the radio industry in the 1930s. He was featured in many radio shows, including The Adventures of Bill Lance – a detective drama starring John McIntire as Lance. McNear played the part of Ulysses Higgins, a friend and assistant to Lance. He also filled the role of Clint Barlow on Speed Gibson of the International Secret Police. Some of the other shows he often appeared on included Suspense, Lux Radio Theater, Escape, CBS Radio Workshop, Family Theater, Let George Do It, The Adventures of Masie, Fort Laramie, Wild Bill Hickock, and Richard Diamond, Private Eye. He and Parley Baer were part of the cast of The Count of Monte Cristo, a drama. He continued to work often Baer they both voiced characters frequently on Yours Truly Johnny Dollar. He played congressmen, hotel managers, French detectives, and occasionally the villain.

mcnear6gunsmoke radio

He was still working with Baer when they both created their most famous radio characters—Baer as Chester and McNear as Doc Charles Adams—in Gunsmoke which was on the air from 1952-1956. Baer would later show up in Mayberry as the mayor.

McNear made his film debut in the 1951 sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still. He followed that up with Escape from Fort Bravo. In 1959 he played Dr. Dompierre in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Some of his most famous films were Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and two Elvis flicks, Blue Hawaii and Follow That Dream. He was also featured in three Billy Wilder comedies: Irma La Douce, Kiss Me Stupid, and The Fortune Cookie.

mcnear7

Overall, he appeared in more than 100 films and television shows. He transitioned into television in the 1950s, appearing The Jack Benny Show and the Burns and Allen Show. He appeared in comedies such as I Love Lucy, Private Secretary, December Bride, The Donna Reed Show, Bachelor Father, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. He also showed up in dramas like The Thin Man, Playhouse 90, Richard Diamond, The Twilight ZoneThe Zane Grey Show, Maverick, and Alfred Hitchcock. Ironically, he had a role as a barber in Leave It to Beaver.

Although McNear had a long career on radio and in films, he will forever be remembered for his memorable and scene-stealing portrayal of chatty and naïve Floyd the Barber in the long-running The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS). Don Knotts once said that playing Floyd wasn’t much of a stretch for McNear, as his real personality was pretty much like Floyd to begin with.

baldwin

The first episode of TAGS to feature Floyd did not star McNear; Walter Baldwin was Floyd Lawson. After that episode, McNear took over and made the role his own. On his first appearance he was Floyd Colby, but the next time his name was mentioned it had become Floyd Lawson. Floyd’s shop was where the Mayberry men gathered to gossip and play checkers, and they occasionally got haircuts.

mcnear1

We usually see Floyd wearing his well-groomed mustache, thick glasses, and his white barber coat. We learned several things about Floyd during the course of the show. He is a widower. His wife was named Melva and they had two children, a son and a daughter. His son Norman plays the saxophone and baseball. When he retired he moved in with his daughter and her family. Floyd had a niece in town named Virginia Lee who entered the Miss Mayberry Pageant. He was also Warren Ferguson’s uncle; Ferguson would replace Barney as deputy when he moved from Mayberry to the big city.

Floyd often (incorrectly) attributed famous quotes to Calvin Coolidge. Floyd had a dog named Sam and raised pansies. He typically drank coffee but enjoyed a Nectarine Crush or a Huckleberry Smash soda now and then, and he thought Wally had the best pop in town.

mcnear8

Floyd liked to write. He wrote the song for the Miss Mayberry Pageant: “Hail to thee, Miss Mayberry; All hail to thee, all hail; Your loveliness, your majesty; Brings joy to every male; All hail, all hail, all hail; All hail, all hail, all hail.” He even tried to write a novel but had writer’s block after creating a brilliant first sentence: “The sun is dropping lazily down behind the purple hills in the western skies.”

floyd2

In the middle of the show’s run, McNear suffered a debilitating stroke, leaving half his body paralyzed. He took some time off to recover. Andy asked him to come back, and the production crew went to great lengths to make things comfortable for him. Although he could not walk or stand, he was seen sitting outside on a bench. There was a special platform built so he could cut hair looking like he was standing while sitting.  Often a he holds a prop with his left hand, using his right hand as he spoke his lines. In 1967, he left the series for good when he could not remember his lines.

floyd1

My two favorite Floyd episodes were “Floyd, the Gay Deceiver” and “Convicts At Large.”

In “Floyd, the Gay Deceiver,” Floyd has been corresponding with a wealthy pen pal, a widow. She wants to visit Mayberry which gets him frustrated. He wants to meet her, but he has painted himself as an equally wealthy man. Andy helps him maintain the ruse by using a mansion of a man who is out of town. Eventually, Floyd realizes that the widow was not the wealthy woman she made herself out to be either.

In “Convicts At Large,” the normally excitable Floyd displays a calm demeanor after he and Barney are taken hostage by three escapees from the women’s prison–Big Maude, Naomi, and Sally. When they go into town to buy food, Andy realizes that there is something fishy going on and recaptures the women.

floyd5

The cast members who worked with McNear can best describe the type of man he was. In Richard Kelly’s book, The Andy Griffith Show, Andy Griffith, Jack Dodson, and Richard Linke share their memories of Howard McNear. It seems fitting to let them have the last words of this blog.

Andy Griffith:

Howard, first of all, was a leading man in the San Diego theatre years ago. He never was in New York in his life. He developed this comic character, I believe, on The Jack Benny Show. Howard was a nervous man and he became that man, Floyd.

Then Howard had a stroke and was bad off for a long time. He was out of our show for about a year and three-quarters. We did a lot of soft shows, that is, those that were not hard on comedy — stories about the boy or the aunt. But we needed comedy scenes to break up things.

We were working on a script one day, and Aaron [Ruben] said, `Boy do I wish we had Howard.’ And one of us said, ‘Why don’t we see if we can get him.’ So right then we called up Howard’s house and we got his wife, Helen. ‘Oh,’ she said, `it would be a godsend.’

Well, we wrote him a little scene. He was paralyzed all down his left side and so we couldn’t show him walking. We had him sitting or we built a stand that supported him. He could then stand behind the barber chair and use one hand. Most of the time, however, we had him sitting. His mind was not affected at all. He was with us about two years after that before he died. Finally poor Howard died. I’m sorry because there was never anyone like him. Kind, kind man.

Jack Dodson:

Unfortunately, I didn’t know Howard before his stroke. Even after his stroke he was just a wonderful human being and a splendid actor. Sadly, it was during the playing of a scene with Howard that we realized he couldn’t go on anymore.

It was the segment where I wanted to raise the rent on the barbershop. The characters had a great falling out and then, at the end of the show, they were brought back together in the courthouse. Howard had a little difficulty with that segment. We had to change our shooting schedules a little so that his days were not quite so long as they had been. And then, finally, we had a very simple scene of reconciliation. He couldn’t remember it. He went over it and over it, frustrated with himself. Seeing his despair and anxiety was the most painful experience that I’ve ever had. And then he didn’t come back after that.

Richard Linke:

We went to the funeral, and I have to say that it was the only funeral I’ve ever been to where the laughs exceeded the tears. There were a couple of people who knew him well. They spoke in the form of a eulogy — I guess you could call it that. Oh, but it was funny. They related Howard McNear stories from the pulpit. It was something else. Really, it made a nice thing. I think Hal Smith, who played Otis, got up there. It was something else, those stories. And yet, it was all done with dignity. Oh, he was a nice man.

 

 

“The Ultimate Definition of Success is to Repeat It” says Jeffrey Benjamin

After reading about That Girl and what a tough time Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell had finding new roles that did not stereotype them as Don and Ann, I thought about actors who were able to transcend that hurdle.  I could think of numerous actors and actresses who were able to have two important television roles.  Mary Tyler Moore began as Laura Petrie but Mary Richards was also a strong character.  Ron Howard grew up from Opie Taylor to Richie Cunningham.  Kristy McNichol lived out her adolescence in Family and then moved to Florida as Barbara in Empty Nest.

I started to do some research and found the following actors who had numerous television series.

Alan Alda – Of course, his iconic role was Hawkeye Pierce in M*A*S*H.  From 1972-83 he kept us laughing or crying in Korea.  Since M*A*S*H he has taken on roles in several television series including ER (1999), West Wing (2004-06), 30 Rock (2009-10), The Big C (2011-13), and The Blacklist (2013-14).

Fun Fact:  He got his start on the Phil Silvers Show in 1957.

 

Meredith Baxter – Most people remember her as Elyse Keaton in Family Ties (1982-89), but for me it was Nancy in Family (1976-80).  Other shows include Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-73), The Faculty (1996), Cold Case (2006-07), The Young and the Restless (2014), and Finding Carter (2014-15).

Fun Fact:  Her mother was Whitney Blake, Missy on Hazel.

 

Sally Field – I think most people will always think of Sally Field as the Flying Nun (1967-70).  Her first show was Gidget (1965-66). As we discussed a couple of weeks ago, she had a role in the forgettable Hey Landlord (1967) and she was The Girl with Something Extra (1973-74).  Like Alan Alda, she also had a recurring role in ER (2000-06), and her most recent show is Brothers and Sisters (2006-11).

Fun  Fact:  She won an Emmy for her appearance on ER.

 

John Forsythe – While younger people only know him as the voice of Charlie on Charlie’s Angels (1976-81) or Blake Carrington from The Colbys (1980-86) which led to Dynasty (1981-89), one of my favorite sitcoms of all is Bachelor Father which John starred as Bentley Greg from 1957-62.  Before Bachelor Father, he starred in Lights Out (1951-2), Suspense (1951-52) and Studio One (1949-55). Before Charlie’s Angels, he was in the John Forsythe Show (1965-66) and To Rome with Love (1969-71). His last show was The Powers That Be (1992-93).

Fun Fact: Along with Harry Morgan and Meredith Baxter, he was on episodes of The Love Boat.

 

Harry Morgan – Harry Morgan is the king of shows, with 12 series to his credit.  He is probably best remembered for three of them–Pete and Gladys (1960-62), Dragnet (1967), and M*A*S*H (1974-83). His first sitcom was December Bride (1954-59) which spun off Pete and Gladys.  In the 60s before Dragnet he was in Kentucky Jones (1964-65) and Dr. Kildare (1965).  The seventies saw him in Hec Ramsey (1972-74) and Gunsmoke (1970-75).  After M*A*S*H, he literally was in After M*A*S*H (1983-85), Blacke’s Magic (1986), You Can’t Take It With You (1987-88), and Third Rock From the Sun (1996-97).

Fun Fact:  He was in an episode of the Partridge Family in the first season.

 

Bob Newhart – Bob Newhart gets the award for having the most shows with his name it in.  Fans fondly remember The Bob Newhart Show set in Chicago when he played Dr. Hartley (1972-78) or Newhart where he was the inn owner Dick Loudon (1982-90).  His first show was The Bob Newhart Show (1961).  After Newhart, he tried out Bob (1992-93) and George and Leo (1997-98).  Like Alan Alda and Sally Field, he also had a recurring role on ER (2003) and most recently has had a recurring role on The Big Bang Theory (2013-15).

Fun Fact:  The 1982-90 show had the best finale ever when the show ended with Bob in bed with his wife from the 1972-78 series thinking Newhart had been a dream.

 

Ed O’Neill – If any actor should have been stereotyped after a role, Ed O’Neill seemed doomed after Al Bundy in Married. . . With Children (1987-97), yet he now has an even bigger hit in Modern Family as Jay Pritchett (2009-16).  In between he was on the Big Apple (2001), Dragnet (2003-4), a remake of Harry Morgan’s show, and John From Cincinnati (2007).  Like Alan Alda, he took on a role on The West Wing (2004-05).

Fun Fact:  He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1969 but was cut in training camp.

 

Dick Van Dyke – Finally, we have Dick Van Dyke.  Before I researched this blog, I thought he and Bob Newhart might have the most sitcoms to their credit.  He comes in with only four starring shows overall.  Like Bob, he never wanted to stray far from his name:  We had the iconic Dick Van Dyke Show as Rob Petrie (1961-66), The New Dick Van Dyke Show (1971-74), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1988), and then Diagnosis: Murder (1993-2001). Like so many of these actors who have something in common with Alan Alda, Dick Van Dyke’s first appearance in a sitcom was also The Phil Silvers Show (1957-8).

Fun Fact:  He can trace his family line back to the Mayflower.

 

Why do some stars get locked into a role that they are never able to separate themselves from?  Think Henry Winkler as the Fonz, Lucille Ball as Lucy, or Don Knotts as Barney.  I think part of it is that we get so attached to these characters we almost want to believe they are real and the actor moving on destroys that image.

The above actors all had different situations that allowed them to move on more easily.  Alan Alda never had that hit show again.  After M*A*S*H, he took on dramatic recurring roles.  Meredith Baxter was in a  mixed genre of shows. Of her two hit shows, one was a drama, Family, and one a sitcom, Family Ties.  Dick Van Dyke had the same formula:  The first Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom, and Diagnosis: Murder, an action/mystery series.  John Forsythe and Harry Morgan came into show business during the golden days of television.  They were able to have extremely successful shows and characters and then start over.  Forsythe had 10 series to his credit, Morgan had 12. Sally Field, although starting out in television, was certainly better known as a movie actress.  Audiences were seeing her on the big screen as other characters so they perhaps don’t pigeon hole her into one role so much.  Ed O’Neill actually had success on two sitcoms about families.  Maybe Jay Pritchett is so successful because he shows what Al Bundy may have been like growing up in a more enlightened era where the fathers help parent and run the house.  And Bob Newhart, I think, was successful because he actually plays the same character in most of his shows, and we love that character so we keep looking for him, no matter what the show is actually titled.