In the 1950s, one of the most popular sitcoms was December Bride starring Spring Byington. For five seasons, Henry Morgan, insurance salesman, played her next-door neighbor Pete Porter.
The show was cancelled in 1959, and in 1960 Pete showed up on the air again in a spin-off show titled “Pete and Gladys. He had often referred to his wife on December Bride, but we never got to meet her in person. Cara Williams took on the role of scatterbrained, but beautiful, Gladys. Like December Bride, this show was created by Parke Levy. Harry Morgan said Parke Levy was a very kind and knowledgeable man; he was one of the pioneers of sitcoms.
Verna Felton as Hilda Crocker also moved to the new show. Frances Rafferty who had played Ruth on December Bride also shows up on Pete and Gladys, but she is Nancy on the new show. For some reason, producers think we won’t notice missing characters but on December Bride, Pete had a baby daughter named Linda. However, she does not exist in the spinoff. We also get to know Pete’s uncle played by Gale Gordon and Gladys’s best friend Alice (Barbara Stuart). Morgan said not only was Gordon a great actor, but he was a very funny man.
Pete who worked for Springer, Slocum, and Klever which sounded more like a shoddy law firm than an insurance company. He and Gladys Hooper had eloped nine years earlier. Pete told Gladys he had single-handedly capture a Japanese patrol, although it later came to light that he spent his military career as a clerk in the PX. Gladys was a housewife and kept busy as entertainment chair of the Junior Matron’s League of the Children’s Hospital and a member of the Westwood Bowling League.
While December Bride was in the top ten for four of its five years, Pete and Gladys never reached those numbers. Williams was nominated for an Emmy for Leading Actress in a Comedy although she lost to Shirley Booth from Hazel. The show only lasted two years. Whether a blessing or a curse, the show took over I Love Lucy’s spot on Monday nights and viewers probably could not help comparing the two shows. Director James V. Kern moved from Lucy to this show along with writers Bob Schiller and Bob Weiskopf.
However, for a two-year show, the number of guest stars was pretty impressive. Watching the show you can catch Jack Albertson, Morey Amsterdam, Bea Benaderet, Whitney Blake, Frank Cady, Richard Deacon, Donna Douglas, Sterling Holloway, Ron Howard, Ted Night, Nancy Kulp, Charles Lane, Howard McNear, Cesar Romero, and Reta Shaw. Morgan said that the guest stars got an exorbitant amount of money compared to the regular cast.
Morgan said Cara Williams was very talented, but she was not easy to work with. Often, they had different ideas about how a scene should go. She had a strong personality and was sometimes described as self-centered. Morgan said he admired her even though filming wasn’t always done smoothly. He recalled one time that she was demanding something and director Jack Arnold was tired of arguing, so he laid on the floor on his back, yelled, “Roll ‘em”, and when the scene sounded done, yelled “Cut.” Then he got up and left which was his way of answering her.
Not surprisingly, Morgan said he enjoyed his time on December Bride more than on Pete and Gladys, and he thought the former was the better show. However, if you take some time to watch December Bride, you might want to check out a few episodes of Pete and Gladys just to meet the woman Pete was always complaining about. Unfortunately, both were listed on Amazon, but neither one was currently available. I did see a December Bride DVD on etsy for a whopping $170. I do remember Pete and Gladys in syndication when I was younger, but I have never seen December Bride on a network schedule. YouTube does have a number of episodes for both series, but be warned, some of the December Bride episodes have been colorized.
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.
Continuing my “We Salute You!” blog series, today we look at one of the most-loved television characters, Gomer Pyle.
In the late 1950s Make Room for Daddy was one of the most popular sitcoms. On one episode in February of 1960, Danny found himself in Mayberry, picked up for going through a stop sign. Although Sheriff Taylor came off a bit of a country bumpkin, viewers enjoyed the episode and the following fall, The Andy Griffith Show (TAGS) aired on CBS. When the series debuted, Andy was portrayed more of a wise sage and the folks of Mayberry were a quirky but lovable bunch. The show was in the top ten every year it was on the air. In fact, it seemed to get better as it went, making #3 in 1966-1967 and #1 in 1967-68. Andy left the show the following year, and it turned into Mayberry RFD which continued for three more seasons. The first two it was also in the top 10 and the third year it slipped a bit into the top 15. Although it was one of the most successful shows on CBS’s schedule, it was eliminated with a lot of other popular shows in the famous rural purging in the early seventies.
One night, Andy Griffith saw Jim Nabors performing at The Horn in Santa Monica and decided he would be a perfect fit for Mayberry. He offered him a job, and Gomer Pyle began working at Wally’s gas station.
Two writers, Everett Greenbaum and Jim Fritzell were said to have created the character. Greenbaum had dealt with an incompetent gas station attendant. He stopped by a station with motor trouble. The man could not think of any way to fix it except to keep adding gas to the tank, so Greenbaum thought a character based on him should be part of an episode on TAGS. He derived the name from Gomer Cool, a writer and Denver Pyle, the actor. Everett and Greenbaum (along with many TAGS writers) would continue to write for TAGS as well as Pyle episodes.
Gomer was one of the most popular characters on the show. Surprisingly he was only in 23 episodes in the two years he was with the show. Traveling around the country, you would be able to hear people repeating his “gawwwleee,” “surprise, surprise, surprise,” or “shazzam” which all became part of our language at the time.
Because Gomer Pyle was so popular, Andy, Aaron Ruben, and Sheldon Leonard decided to give him his own show and Gomer Pyle USMC was created. In this show, Gomer who is naïve, kind-hearted and morally upright has to deal with life in the marine corps and his gruff Sergeant Carter (Frank Sutton). Although Carter gets driven to distraction by Pyle and his “do-gooding,” we all realize he has a soft spot for Pyle and his main concern is protecting him.
The show was on the air from 1964-69 and had a solid supporting cast. Like TAGS, Gomer Pyle USMC was in the top ten for its entire run.
The show was on Friday nights, except for season three when it moved to Wednesdays. I was a bit surprised it stayed in the top ten, because it had some competition at times. Season one it was opposite Jack Benny and Twelve O’Clock High. Season two it went up against Honey West on one network and a variety of music shows on the other. Season three it was at the same time as Peyton Place and season four it was on opposite Star Trek.
Although the show depicted military life on base, war was never discussed. The series began at Camp Wilson in North Carolina and was moved to the fictional Camp Henderson in California. The actual show was filmed at Camp Pendleton and, along with TAGS, at Desilu’s Cahuenga studio and the RKO Forty Acres backlot. Unlike TAGS, Pyle used a single-camera setup because much of the shooting was outside.
The US Marine Corps worked with Leonard, giving the show unlimited access to their equipment because they felt the series was good for their image. The opening scene of the show was that of marching recruits from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Nabors commented that it was very difficult for him to see that footage because so many of those service men were killed in Vietnam. In real life, Frank Sutton could not pass the Marine Corps physical for WWII but was able to serve in the US Army, taking part in 14 assault landings including Luzon and Bataan.
I had heard of universities bestowing honorary degrees to actors even if they did not attend the school, but I did not realize the military could do something similar. During the show, Gomer’s highest rank was Private First Class. In 2001, the US Marine Corps gave Nabors an honorary promotion to Lance Corporal, and in 2007 he was raised to Corporal.
Obviously, there were a lot of military vehicles used in the filming of the show. Chrysler Corporation provided them. Jeeps were also prominent in the show, but Jeep did not become part of Chrysler until 1987. As an aside, the vehicles for TAGS were provided by Ford.
Pyle’s loyalty and good-natured attitude made him a favorite of both his platoon members and many of the women whom he came in contact with. One of Pyle’s friends was Duke Slater played by Ronnie Schell. Schell was written off after the third season when he left to star in Good Morning World. When that sitcom did not get renewed, he returned to Pyle. Some of the other platoon members included Roy Stuart as Corporal Boyle, Forrest Compton as Colonel Edward Gray, Ted Bessell as Frankie, and William Christopher as Lester.
Gomer gets to meet a lot of people when he goes to town. He especially loves movies and one of his favorite all-time pictures was Godzilla.
As mentioned, Sergeant Carter eventually becomes a father figure to Gomer. Carter’s girlfriend Bunny (Barbara Stuart) also tried to help Gomer (I could not find anything to indicate that Roy and Barbara Stuart are related). Gomer often causes trouble between Carter and Bunny by trying to “help” Carter. In season three, Gomer also got a girlfriend in Lou-Ann Poovie (Elizabeth MacRae). She is a singer in a local nightclub, but eventually Gomer talks her into returning to Turtle Creek, NC to marry her old beau Monroe. She leaves but returns, informing Gomer she wants him for her boyfriend, and she gets a new job as a clerk at a record store.
Several TAGS alumni made appearances on the show. Allan Melvin was part of the cast as Staff Sergeant Hacker for four years, Carter’s rival on the show. Denver Pyle who was Briscoe Darling on TAGS showed up on Gomer Pyle as a farmer. Andy, Aunt Bee, Goober and Opie all were seen at the base at one time or another, including when Opie ran away from home.
With a show on the air so long, many well-known guest stars showed up at Camp Henderson as well, including Carol Burnett, Ted Knight, Rob Reiner, Don Rickles, and Jerry Van Dyke.
After the fifth season, Nabors expressed an interest to do a variety show, so Gomer Pyle was not renewed. He brought Ronnie Schell and Frank Sutton along for his new show which was on the air for two seasons. Carol Burnett called Nabors her good luck charm. He was one of her best friends and he was always on her season opener each year.
In an interview with Jim for American Profile, writer Paulette Cohn (Jim Nabors Lives Happily in Hawaii, January 13, 2008) quoted Carol Burnett’s perspective of Nabors vs Pyle: “ ‘The one thing Jim has in common with Gomer is his kindness,’ says actress and comedienne Carol Burnett, Nabors’ long-time friend, who named him godfather to her daughter Jody. ‘He loves people and is very gregarious. But he is also very smart. Not that Gomer wasn’t, but Jim isn’t naïve. He keeps his eye on things.’ ”
Considering how popular Gomer Pyle USMC has been in reruns, I was surprised to learn it wasn’t until 2006 that CBS Home Entertainment released the show on DVD. By 2008, all the seasons were available.
Let’s end with a few quotes that captures the essence of the show’s characters.
Carter: I don’t get it Pyle, how come you can knock that Phillips flat, yet you can’t handle that little Lombardi guy?
Gomer: Well sir, you see the big feller needed a lesson, the little feller didn’t.
Although Gomer Pyle USMC might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it was a well-done and popular show. I think its success, like TAGS and many of the other shows considered classics, comes from the fact that it’s a character-driven show. We start to consider the characters our friends and enjoy spending time with them. The show can currently be seen on MeTV nightly at 9 pm EST.
Ahoy matey. We are currently in the middle of the “We Salute You!” blog series. Today we go behind the scenes of one of the most popular military sitcoms: McHale’s Navy.
The series is centered around the adventures of a US Navy crew aboard the PT boat PT-73 during WWII. One of the best crews in the Navy, they often try to outwit Captain Binghamton (Joe Flynn) and his aide Lt. Carpenter (Bob Hastings). Stationed in the South Pacific, the crew often is involved in antics to make life more enjoyable during wartime. Quinton McHale (Ernest Borgnine) is fun-loving but sometimes has to reign his crew in when they go too far.
Debuting on ABC in 1962, the show sailed on for four seasons, producing 138 episodes. In April of 1962, a drama on Alcoa Premiere a/k/a Fred Astaire’s Premier Theatre aired that was titled Seven Against the Sea with Borgnine as the lead. It became the pilot for what would become McHale’s Navy.
Edward Montagne who was the producer of the new show had worked on The Phil Silvers Show. Montagne decided to turn the dramatic Seven Against the Sea into a “Bilko in the Navy” type of show. He recruited some of the actors and writers who had appeared on the prior series.
The basic plot of the show is that while these are respected, hard-working men when necessary, they have a lot of wacky schemes involving women, making money, and having fun. Captain Binghamton’s goal is to get rid of the entire bunch. The crew is said to live on an island across the bay from Taratupa, the fictional base. The geographic distance gives them extra time and more freedom to get into and out of their complicated situations.
Similar to The Phil Silvers Show, this sitcom also had a very large cast compared to most other shows.
McHale is a strong, competent leader and goes to great pains to protect his crew. He likes to wear Hawaiian type clothing when off duty. Sometimes the crew uses the PT boat to go deep-sea fishing or water skiing. When the crew has laundry, they put the clothes into a barrel with holes, add soap and drag it behind the boat. McHale speaks Japanese, Italian, and some of the local island dialects.
Ensign Charles Parker (Tim Conway) is McHale’s goofy second-in command. McHale calls him “Chuck.” Conway captured the lovable, naïve, bungler perfectly. He often refers to his home town Chagrin Falls, Ohio which was Conway’s hometown. Parker says he worked for the Chagrin Falls Gazette. Parker is too dizzy to get much respect, and his resume is full of errors and ineptitude. For example, it’s mentioned that he crashed a destroyer escort into a dock, and he called a naval airstrike on a gasoline dump. He has all the naval regulations memorized but can’t remember his serial number. From time to time, Parker is asked by the crew to impersonate President Roosevelt when calling Binghamton.
In the first episode, Parker is assigned to the crew. We learn that they have gone through several men already who could not put up with their insubordinate behavior and one of them even had a nervous breakdown. The men like Parker and treat him better than their previous ensigns.
Conway later stated that he and Ernest Borgnine had a wonderful working relationship both on and off the set. In the late 1990s, they would voice Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy on SpongeBob SquarePants.
Captain Wallace Binghamton, who the crew calls “Old Leadbottom” because he once took a bullet in the butt, previously managed a yacht club, although at times it’s mentioned he was the editor of a yachting magazine. He is gruff and grumpy and dreams about being promoted. He spends much of his time trying to catch McHale and the boys in one of their schemes. He is blind without his glasses, so sometimes the crew knocks them off to prevent him from seeing something incriminating. One of his most-uttered lines is “Why me? Why is it always me?”
A typical interaction between Binghamton and McHale follows:
Binghamton: Commander, how would you and your men like two weeks with nothing to do but play gin rummy, go surfing, have luaus with steel drum bands, dancing girls, hmm?
McHale: Two whole weeks? Woo hoo, oh that’d be a wonderful change sir. Yes sir.
Binghamton: Knock it off McHale. That’s what you do every week.
Binghamton’s aide is Lt. Elroy Carpenter who is also inept. He talks too much and is clumsy. He often gets the brunt of Binghamton’s tirades.
McHale’s crew is composed of Quartermaster George Christopher (Gary Vinson), Radioman Willy Moss (John Wright), Torpedoman’s Mate Lester Gruber (Carl Ballantine), Motor Machinist Mate Harrison Bell (Billy Sands), Gunner’s Mate Virgil Edwards (Edson Stroll), and Seaman Joseph Haines (Gavin MacLeod). Houseboy Fuji (Yoshido Yoda) was often found cavorting with the crew. He is boyish, fun loving, and loyal to McHale. Fuji was a deserter from the Japanese Navy, but the captain knows nothing about his existence. In exchange for not living in a POW section, he acts as houseboy for the crew.
Although the crew is always chasing women and trying to throw parties that they can invite them to, McHale has several romantic relationships during the show. Nurse Molly Turner (Jane Dulo) from New Jersey is always trying to trap him in a serious relationship. Two other love interests are Kate O’Hara (Joyce Jameson) and Maggie Monohan (Jean Willes).
A lot of guest stars dropped anchor on the show including Jerry Colonna, Bernard Fox, Pat Harrington Jr., Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, George Kennedy, Don Knotts, Bernie Kopell, Sue Ane Langdon, Marlo Thomas, and Raquel Welch.
The PT-73 is almost like a character on the show. It was a 72-foot type II Vosper motor torpedo boat. The war ended before the boat (PT-694) could be sent to Russia, and it was then purchased by Howard Hughes. He loaned or sold it to Universal Pictures.
The set of the Pacific Ocean naval base was built on the back lot of Universal Studios. After the show went off the air, it became an attraction on the studio tour.
In one episode, McHale replaces Binghamton temporarily during an inspection and learns what a hard job he actually has. While that gives him some respect for the captain, they still don’t see eye to eye. Sometimes Binghamton tries to get them legitimately transferred for a scheme and other times he is not above inventing a story such as the time he tried to get them sent away by telling a psychiatrist that they are suffering from combat fatigue.
For the final season, the crew, including Fuji, is transferred to Italy to the coastal town of Voltafiore. Many plot twists come about from the crooked Mayor Lugatto and the quirky residents. The move probably came about to be able to add some additional plot lines but it was perhaps too far-fetched for viewers, and the show was cancelled.
The show had a consistent schedule for most of its run. The first season it was on Thursday night up against The Twilight Zone and Hazel. The second and remaining seasons it was on Tuesday nights against Red Skelton on CBS and a variety of shows on NBC, including the forgettable Redigo and You Don’t Say, as well as The Man from UNCLE, Hullabaloo, and Dr. Kildare.
During the run of the show, two big-screen movies were made based on the series: McHale’s Navy in 1964 and McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force in 1965. Borgnine was unavailable for the second film due to a schedule conflict. The first film brought in a respectable $2,250,000 and the second netted $1,500,000.
McHale’s Navy was a popular show both in the 1960s and in syndication. It may have been one of the first shows to produce related merchandise. Trading cards, comic books, a board game, 3-ring binders, and a model of the PT-73 were some of the items available to its fans. The show was well-written and the characters were fun and quirky. Unfortunately, a show like this can only sustain so many similar plots before it begins to feel like you’re watching repeats.
The show is currently on Antenna TV Saturdays from 7-8 pm eastern time. It is also available on DVD. Take some time and enjoy getting to know McHale and his PT-73 crew.
For the month of June, we are celebrating some of our favorite fathers. One of my favorite dads was Carl Betz in his role as Dr. Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show.
Betz was born in Mary of 1921 in Pittsburgh, PA. He came from an upper middle-class family, and his father was a laboratory chemist.
in school, Betz started a rep theater company with several friends. They
performed plays in his grandmother’s basement.
During WWII, he served in the army. He was deployed to Italy and North Africa and left the military as a technical sergeant with the Corps of Engineers.
When he returned to the States, he enrolled at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pittsburgh, majoring in drama. While going to school at Carnegie, he played football and made an appearance in the Sugar Bowl against Texas Christian University.
His first job after graduation was a radio announcer. He moved to New York and worked as a doorman at Radio City Music Hall while auditioning for Broadway productions. He received his first part in “The Long Watch” in 1952. He then toured in “The Voice of the Turtle” with Veronica Lake.
his work as a young adult, he said, “Those were good times for the beginning
actor. There were so many summer stock companies. We worked for room and board
and the princely sum of $45 a week. By
eliminating haircuts, we managed to keep ourselves in shaving cream, clean
shirts, and beer.”
Twentieth Century Fox offered him a contract, and he received a number of supporting roles in films. In 1953, he made an incredible six movies.
In 1952 he
married Lois Harmon. They had one son and divorced in 1961.
His first job on television was a soap opera, Love of Life. Throughout the fifties and sixties, he performed in a variety of plays, including “The Seven-Year Itch” and “The Zoo Story.”
In the mid-1950s, he began appearing on television shows, and shows up in reruns on Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Mike Hammer.
In 1958, Carl was offered the role of Alex Stone on The Donna Reed Show, and he was with the show until it ended in 1965. The heart-warming show centered around Donna and Alex Stone, a pediatrician, and their two children, Jeff (Pete Petersen) and Mary (Shelly Fabares). Betz continued his stage career in his off time with the show.
Both Carl and Donna were protective of their television children. In an interview in 2011 when Petersen was 66, he discussed his second set of parents. “They made a commitment to Shelley and me as surrogate parents to be on our side and be with us for the long haul. They kept that commitment up to their deaths.”
As Alex, Betz was the voice of reason. When anyone got too worried, he gave advice and put things in perspective. He had a fun side to him and could always see the humor in situations. He was a caring doctor and had fun in life, realizing death and illness were always lurking around the corner. He often made fun of Donna and the kids but in a loving way, not cruel. His comments typically illustrated that things were not as dower as they appeared. But when there was an emergency or a serious situation, he was calm and collected and took charge.
Carl continued to take roles during breaks in taping for The Donna Reed Show. In 1964, Betz received amazing reviews for his performance as the Rev. T. Lawrence Shannon in “The Night of the Iguana.”
During his time on the show, he ironically married Gloria Stone, and they would remain married until his death in 1978.
In 1967, he starred in Judd for the Defense where he played an attorney. Clifton Judd, a lawyer based in Texas, would travel across the country to defend a client. Many cases involved labor unions, draft evasions, civil rights, and murder. The series featured a number of guest stars, including Ed Asner, Mike Farrell, Norman Fell, Beverly Garland, Ron Howard, Ted Knight, Cloris Leachman, Ruta Lee, Gavin MacLeod, Vera Miles, Tom Selleck, and Dennis Weaver. The critics gave the show great reviews, but the ratings were always a struggle. In 1969, ABC cancelled the series and that same year, Betz won the Emmy for Outstanding Performer by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.
Once the series was cancelled, Betz continued in plays and also picked up several television appearances on a variety of shows, such as Love American Style, Medical Center, McCloud, The Mod Squad, Ironside, The FBI, Mission Impossible, BarnabyJones, and Quincy ME. Since he handled comedy so well on The Donna Reed Show, I was surprised to learn that most of his career was spent on drama or crime shows.
In 1977, Betz was diagnosed with lung cancer. He kept the illness a secret until November when he was hospitalized. He died in January of 1978, 56 years young. Ironically, thinking about celebrating fathers, my dad also died at age 56.
From all accounts, Carl Betz wanted to be an actor from a very young age. Fortunately, he was able to spend most of his life in the entertainment business. Unfortunately, his life ended much too early, and his career was cut short. Any time someone can spend their life pursuing their passion, it’s a life well spent. Happy Father’s Day to one of our favorite dads.
There was no specific category for the Wild Wild West when it first debuted in 1965. Part western, part spy show, part thriller. Now, it might be called steampunk. Westerns had been extremely popular through the 1950s and into the 1960s, but in the mid-1960s, the spy genre was gaining ground. Creator Michael Garrison combined the two. Secret Service agents Jim West (Robert Conrad) and Artemis Gordon (Ross Martin), work for President Ulysses Grant and travel the country by luxury train, the Wanderer. Oh yeah, and they have a ton of technology to make the job more exciting. Artemis is a master of disguise. Like James Bond, they had clever gadgets on hand, beautiful women in the wings, and delusional, but brilliant, enemies to fight against.
The series debuted in 1965 and ran for four seasons, resulting in 104 episodes. Unfortunately, Garrison died a year into the show and didn’t live to see its completion. The show was filmed at CBS Studio Center. The 70-acre lot was used for Gunsmoke, Rawhide, and Gilligan’s Island as well.
The theme song was written by Richard Markowitz. The intro had an animated sequence that continued to be filled in throughout the show. This was quite unique to this program.
Conrad claimed to be the 17th actor to audition for the role of James West. Originally, Rory Calhoun was announced as the co-star. Conrad wore three-inch heels to hide that he was only 5’8”. Due to his height, the casting office was barred from hiring women over 5’6” for the show. The first few episodes used stuntmen, but Conrad felt that it slowed production down too much, so he volunteered to do his own stunts. During season three, he fell from a chandelier and hit a concrete floor, leaving him with a concussion and weeks of hospitalization for dizziness.
Ross played over 100 different characters during the run of the series. He sketched out the ideas for the characters himself and then worked with the make-up artists to get the right look. During the fourth season, Martin broke a leg when he dropped a rifle, stepped on it, and rolled his foot over it. When the shell ejected, it burned his eye. Ross also suffered from a heart attack in 1968. Several other agents “filled” in for Martin while he recuperated.
Considering the show was only on for four years, it featured a number of guest stars including Ed Asner, John Astin, Jim Backus, Ed Begley, Victor Buono, Jackie Coogan, Yvonne Craig, Sammy Davis Jr., Jack Elam, Norman Fell, Bernard Fox, Mary Frann, Beverly Garland, Alan Hale Jr., Boris Karloff, Richard Kiel, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Martin Landau, Sue Ane Langdon, Peter Lawford, Ida Lupino, Burgess Meredith, Agnes Moorehead, Phyllis Newman, Leslie Nielsen, Carroll O’Connor, Pat Paulsen, Suzanne Pleshette, Richard Pryor, Don Rickles, Pernell Roberts, Katherine Ross, William Schallert, Vito Scotti, Ray Walston, Jesse White, and Keenan Wynn.
The train was also a co-star of the show. The spies had two different trains. The first was used for season one when the shows were filmed in black and white. It was a Sierra Railroad No. 3 which was not built until 1891, a mere technicality I guess. The Rogers Locomotive and Machine Works built it in New Jersey. Footage was shot in Jamestown, California. This same train was the Cannonball in Petticoat Junction.
The shows filmed in color featured a train decorated with green and gold and it was full of fun gadgets. This one was built in 1875 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. It was used in many films over the years.
Both these trains are on display at the Nevada State Railroad Museum. They were only featured in exterior shots. The interiors of the trains were designed by art director Albert Heschong with set decorator Raymond Molyneaux. It reportedly cost $35,000 in 1965. To put this in perspective, the average house in 1965 cost less than $4,000! The train was as resourceful as West and Gordon. A remote control under the table could immediately lock the door. A statue turned upside down unlocked a wall safe. A telegraph set was hidden in a book on the desk. Pistols could be fired by activating a fireplace switch. The pool table had exploding balls while cue sticks could fire bullets.
Many of the guest stars were villains in the show. The most famous villain was Dr. Miguelito Loveless played by Michael Dunn. He had a recurring role, appearing on ten episodes. He always managed to escape at the end of the show. West and Artemis never did catch him, and a TV movie filmed later relays that he died in 1880 from ulcers brought on by the stress of his plans always being foiled by West and Gordon.
Like Batman, Jim West always seems to have the right gadget at his disposal when he needs it. Some of his more fun props included a sleeve gun as well as a gun concealed in his heel. He also occasionally carried a blowtorch in his heel. Passkeys were stored under his lapel. He kept a variety of fuses sewn into hems in his clothes. To descend into a pit or be hoisted up on a roof, he had a hand-held motor-driven winch. Glass cutters which often are useful were available. Wires placed in his hat had many uses. Battery-powered drills helped the boys escape metal cages. His kit bag held a large balloon. A miniature player made villains think shot guns were being fired. Of course, every smart secret service man wears a bulletproof vest and is always equipped with tear gas or smoke bombs. They even had a cigar that would produce smoke when thrown on the ground and a coin that exploded when exposed to heat.
There typically were two fights in each episode choreographed by Whitey Hughes. Following the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence was formed. Violence on television was listed as one of the problems, and The Wild Wild West was cited as a violent show. So, despite high ratings, the series was cancelled near the end of its fourth season as a concession to Congress over television violence.
However, the show was then released into syndication and at one time was listed on 99 different local channels, so the violence on television was not curbed by its cancellation.
Several books and comic books were created based on the show. In 1979, the two stars returned to television with a movie, The Wild Wild West Revisited. In 1980, they showed up again in More Wild Wild West. Rumors existed that the duo would do a reboot of the series, but Ross died in 1981 so it never came to fruition.
A movie was made in 1999 based on the original show, but it was not received well. Will Smith later expressed regret for his role in the film. The Golden Raspberry (Razzie) is awarded to the worst films. When the 1999 film was awarded five Razzies, Conrad accepted them on behalf of the movie to show his displeasure with the remake.
The show’s success primarily stemmed from the fact that Artemus and West trusted each other completely, and their banter and technological gadgets made the show a pleasure to watch. And did I mention, the boys loved women on and found a romance on every show. We’ll let the characters have the last word:
Artemus Gordon: “Naomi. ’My sweetness’. That’s what Naomi means in Hebrew, did you know that ?”
Naomi Buckley: “Really ? And what does Artemus mean ?”
James West: “It means ’He who wastes little time‘.”
Merry Christmas Eve. In honor of It’s a Wonderful Life which will be playing quite often today, this week’s blog is about Donna Reed, who played Mary in the Jimmy Stewart holiday favorite.
In 1958, most of the television shows were game shows, variety shows, or westerns. Almost all the sitcoms on the air were based on a star; we had The Danny Thomas Show, The Ann Sothern Show, The Bob Cummings Show, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It was also the year The Donna Reed Show began. The show would last eight seasons, resulting in 275 episodes.
The series was created by William Roberts. Donna and her husband Tony Owen developed and produced the show, under the name “Todon.” We had shows about single adults in The Bob Cummings Show and The Ann Sothern Show. We had families, including The Danny Thomas Show, Father Knows Best, and The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. Roberts wanted to concentrate on the demanding roles a stay-at-home mom had to juggle. Reed agreed with him. As she noted, “We started breaking rules right and left. We had a female lead, for one thing, a strong, healthy woman. We had a story line told from a woman’s point of view that wasn’t soap opera.”
The Donna Reed Show is often evoked by critics who say television scripts are not realistic but center around unreal family expectations, but that is not the goal Reed and her husband had. Donna described the show as “realistic pictures of small-town life—with an often-humorous twist. Our plots revolve around the most important thing in America—a loving family.” The shows featured typical family problems families faced in the late 1950s: having to fire a clumsy housekeeper, quality time with your spouse, dealing with disciplinary issues, or Donna being swamped with requests to volunteer for charity drives or community theater shows. However, there were times the show delved into more controversial issues such as women’s rights or freedom of the press.
The Stone family includes Donna, Alex, Mary and Jeff. Donna (Donna Reed) is the iconic mother. She grew up on a farm (which Reed did). She became a nurse and occasionally helps Alex (Carl Betz), a pediatrician who has his office at the house. Mary (Shelly Fabares) is in her first year of high school. She studies ballet and plays the piano. During the series, she has several boyfriends. Mary left for college before the show ended, but Fabares made guest appearances. Jeff (Paul Petersen) is in grade school. He loves sports, likes to eat, and often teases his sister. In 1963 when Fabares leaves, Paul Petersen’s real sister, Patty was cast as a runaway orphan taken in by the Stone family. The Stones live in Hilldale, an All-American town.
Several other characters appear often. Dave and Midge Kelsey (Bob Crane and Ann McCrea) are good friends of Donna and Alex’s. Dave is also a doctor. Another of Alex’s colleagues who is a good friend is Dr. Boland (Jack Kelk), whom the kids call “Uncle Bo.” Smitty Smith (Darryl Richard) is Jeff’s best friend and Scotty (Jimmy Hawkins) is Mary’s boyfriend.
Photos: pinterest.com and metv.com
With Donna’s movie relationships, many guest stars appeared on the show during its run. Baseball players Don Drysdale, Leo Durocher, and Willie Mays played themselves. Musicians Harry James, Tony Martin, and Lesley Gore appeared. Buster Keaton was featured in two different shows. Esther Williams played a fashion designer. Other stars who showed up included Jack Albertson, John Astin, Dabney Coleman, Ellen Corby, Richard Deacon, Jamie Farr, Gale Gordon, Arte Johnson, Ted Knight, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Marion Ross, William Schallert, Hal Smith, Marlo Thomas, and William Windom.
In the opening credits, Reed comes down the stairs and answers the telephone which she gives to Alex. She then hands the kids their lunches and books and sends them off to school. When Alex leaves on a call, she closes the door and smiles. In 1964 when The Munsters debuted, their opening credits were a parody of Donna’s show as Lily performs the same actions.
The Donna Reed Show faced the Milton Berle show, Texaco Star Theater Wednesday nights and ratings were not great. It was renewed and moved to Thursdays the next year. I was surprised to learn that during the eight years the show was on the air it was only in the top 20 in season six and only in the top 30 in season four.
Photo: cinemacats.com (Look closely and you’ll notice this was the living room for I Dream of Jeannie as well).
Although the show never received very high ratings, Donna Reed was nominated for an Emmy every year from 1959 to 1962. (Jane Wyatt won in 1959 and 1960, Barbara Stanwyck won in 1961, and Shirley Booth won in 1962.) Donna Reed won the Golden Globe in 1963.
In 1962 Donna felt that the writers had run out of creative ideas and were recycling plots. Both Mary and Jeff were allowed to perform in this season. Fabares debuted a single, “Johnny Angel” in February which went to number one on the charts, selling more than a million copies. In October, Petersen sang “My Dad” which made it to number six. Donna decided that would be the last season, but when ABC made her a very lucrative offer for three more seasons, she and her husband agreed.
When this contract ended in 1966, Donna was ready to retire. Reed was considering a television movie reunion but when Betz passed away in 1978, she decided it was no longer an option.
Campbell Soup was the first sponsor, and later sponsors included Johnson & Johnson and The Singer Company. Whenever a scene takes place in a supermarket, Campbell’s Soup, V-8 Juice, Franco-American Spaghetti and Johnson & Johnson Baby Powder are likely to be in the shot.
Reruns of the show were seen on Nick at Nite from 1985-1994 and on TV Land from 2002 until 2004. MeTV began airing the show in September of 2011.
The cast was a close-knit one and continued their relationships after the show ended. Paul Petersen credited Donna as being the nurturing adult he needed in his life to get him through the years of being a child star. She helped him understand how the industry worked and helped him during some tough times during his life. Shelly Fabares also said Donna and Carl were amazing. Realizing how tough the industry can be for young kids, they protected Paul and herself and loved them as second parents. Donna never forgot to send Shelly a birthday gift. In 1986, before she passed away from pancreatic cancer, her final words were to make sure Shelly’s birthday gift was wrapped and delivered.
Despite the bad raps the show often received from the women’s lib organizations, Donna Reed did help advance the way women were perceived in the media. She endowed her character with strong emotions, definite opinions on issues, and independence. In her personal life, Reed expressed her views on the medical industry and the political arenas.
Paul Petersen summed up the value of the show in an interview he did in 2008. In his words, The Donna Reed Show, “depicts a better time and place. It has a sort of level of intelligence and professionalism that is sadly lacking in current entertainment products. The messages it sent out were positive and uplifting. The folks you saw were likable, the family was fun, the situations were familiar to people. It provided 22-and-a-half-minutes of moral instructions and advice on how to deal with the little dilemmas of life. Jeff and Mary and their friends had all the same problems that real kids in high school did. That’s what the show was really about, the importance of family. That’s where life’s lessons are transmitted, generation to generation. There’s a certain way in which these are transmitted, with love and affection.”