Milton Frome: What a Character!

As we continue looking at some of our well-known character actors, today we consider the career of Milton Frome. Frome was born in Philadelphia in 1909. He began acting in his mid-20s.

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His first major movie role was in Ride ‘em Cowgirl in 1939. Frome would go on to appear in 55 movies (including The Nutty Professor, Bye Bye Birdie, and With Six You Get Eggroll), as well as five made-for-TV movies. He also had a thriving television career beginning with Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1950.

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Appearing in 34 different shows during the fifties, he performed in a variety of genres including dramas, comedies and westerns.

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The Adventures of Superman

During that decade you would have seen him on I Love Lucy, Lassie, The Adventures of Superman, Playhouse Theater, The Thin Man, and The Gale Storm Show. He also worked with many comic legends on television, including Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

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I Love Lucy

His career escalated in the sixties when he would accept roles in 48 programs. He showed up in dramas, including The Twilight Zone, 77 Sunset Strip, and Dr. Kildare. He also found his way into many westerns such as Bat Masterson, Death Valley Days, Gunslinger, Big Valley, Rawhide, and Wagon Train. However, he seemed to excel at comedies and during the 1950s you could have spied him in many sitcoms. He accepted parts in Bachelor Father, Pete and Gladys, The Jim Backus Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mister Ed, The Joey Bishop Show, I Dream of Jeannie, My Favorite Martian, The Donna Reed Show, Gomer Pyle USMC, Bewitched, The Monkees, The Patty Duke Show, Petticoat Junction, and The Andy Griffith Show.

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The Monkees

Frome was never offered a permanent role in a series, but he did have a recurring role in The Beverly Hillbillies, appearing eight times as Lawrence Chapman, who managed Jed Clampets Mammoth Studios.

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St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

His television career slowed down a bit in the 1970s and became nonexistent by 1983, but he did make appearances in shows like Ironside, Columbo, Here’s Lucy, The Streets of San Francisco, Sanford and Son, and Trapper John MD. He also appeared in two Love American Style episodes in 1971 and 1973. In the 1973 episode, “Love and the Anniversary,” he played “The Man” and his son Michael played a bellhop.

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The Jerry Lewis Show

At some point, Frome married Marjorie Ann Widman, but I could not verify when they married. I also could not verify if Michael was their son, or his son from another relationship.

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Batman

Frome passed away in 1989 from congestive heart failure.

While it is now easy to analyze and detail an actors professional career, it was very tough to find any information about Fromes personal life or his working relationships with other actors. It makes me sad that these hard-working actors who provided so much to our classic television-watching experiences are just not well known. Hopefully blogs like mine keep them in television viewers memories, and some day maybe I will have time to write a book about these unsung heroes of our pop culture history. Thanks for all you contributed to the golden age of television Milton Frome!

The Millionaire and His Wife: Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer

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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

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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 of Oz, 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.”

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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 Blanc Show as Hartley Benson, an arrogant character, and as Hubert Updike on The Alan Young 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.

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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 Rebel Without 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.

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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.

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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 Backus Show 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.

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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.

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This was also the decade he was offered the role of Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island 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’s Island. 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.

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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.

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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’s Angels, Fantasy Island, and The Love Boat.

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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.

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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.

 

Natalie Schafer

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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.

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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).

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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.

 

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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 Chicago Tribune 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.

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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.

July is the Perfect Time for Berry Picking

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Ken Berry was born in Moline, IL in 1933. After watching a group perform when he was 13, he decided he wanted to be a dancer. He loved Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies, especially Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, and On the Town. At 16, he traveled with the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, performing in small towns for 15 months.

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He went into the army at Fort Bragg and was in the artillery. He was then moved to an entertainment division under Leonard Nimoy. During his second year, he won the All-Army Talent competition which allowed him to appear on Ed Sullivan in 1948. Nimoy encouraged him to move to Los Angeles where he made some connections for Berry. Both 20th Century Fox and Universal offered him jobs and he accepted the Universal contract.  In 1956, he opened for Abbott and Costello for their stage act. In 1957, Berry enrolled in Falcon Studios to study acting. He worked at the Cabaret Theater, making $11 per week. The same year he won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Show.

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In 1958, he received an opportunity to join the Billy Barnes Revue. While in the Billy Barnes Revue, Berry met Jackie Joseph, and they married in 1960. His work in the BBR led to several lucrative connections. Lucille Ball saw him and offered him a job with Desilu Studios for $50 per week. Carol Burnett also watched a performance and had him on her variety show. (In 1972, she would offer him the co-starring role with her in Once Upon a Mattress, a television movie.)

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The first Desilu show he had a regular role on was the Ann Sothern Show. On the air from 1958-1961, Ann played Katy O’Connor who worked at a New York hotel. Originally, Mr. Macauley (Ernest Truex) was her boss, but he was berated by his controlling wife (Reta Shaw). Katy’s best friend from her previous show Private Secretary, which aired from 1953-1957, was Ann Tyrrell as Vi.  In this show, her name is Olive. The format wasn’t working, so Mr. Macauley the hotel owner, was transferred to Calcutta and James Devrey (Don Porter also from Private Secretary) took over.  Ratings improved, and the show was renewed for another season. During this season, Louis Nye was introduced as a funny dentist in the hotel who dates and marries Olive, and Berry played bellboy Woody Hamilton, replacing Jack Mullaney.  Most of the episodes revolve around the staff and guests of the hotel. As in Private Secretary, there is a lingering romance between Mr. Devrey and Katy throughout the run of the show. The ratings fell drastically in 1961 after the show was moved to Thursdays, and the network cancelled it.

In 1961, Berry obtained a job with Dr. Kildare, appearing in 25 episodes as Dr. John Kapish. Richard Chamberlin starred in the series about a doctor working in an urban hospital under his mentor Dr. Leonard Gillespie (Raymond Massey). In the third season, Dr. Kildare was promoted to resident and the series centered on his patients. The show aired until 1966, but Berry left the show in 1964. This was one of the shows that paved the way for Marcus Welby, MD and the medical dramas today including ER and Gray’s Anatomy.

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He also appeared on several shows in the early 1960s: The Jim Backus Show, Hennesey, Ensign O’Toole, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and No Time for Sergeants, among others.

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In 1965, he was offered the lead in F-Troop. The show was set during the Civil War.  Berry played Will Parmenter.  At a critical moment during the Battle of Appomattox, Will gets credit for the defeat.  He is a private and was sent to get his commanding officer’s laundry. He was sneezing continuously, but the men thought he was saying “Charge,” so they did.  They won a decisive battle, and Will was promoted for his quick decision-making skills and bravery. He was then promoted to Fort Courage.

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The cast had a crazy bunch of characters. The NCOs at the fort, Sergeant O’Rourke (Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Agarn (Larry Storch) are always scheming to raise money. The Hekawis tribe, with Chief Wild Eagle (Frank de Kova) worked on shady business deals with them. Although the officers manipulate Will, they are also protective of him. Melody Patterson plays Jane Thrift, Will’s girlfriend, who is always pressuring him to propose. The show relied on a lot of puns, slapstick, and running gags.

When F-Troop was cancelled two years later, Berry headlined the cast of Mayberry RFD as widower Sam Jones because Andy Griffith was leaving the show. Since Andy and Helen had married and moved away, Aunt Bee became Sam’s housekeeper. Sam and his son were introduced in Griffith’s final season when Sam is elected to the town council. Arlene Golonka plays Millie, Sam’s love interest. The show was rated as high as 4th and only as low as 15th, so it continued to pull in good ratings, but in 1971, the show was cancelled in the general “rural house cleaning” that the network performed getting rid of any shows such as Green Acres, Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, etc.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, he was on 14 shows including The Danny Thomas Show, The Lucy Show, Love American Style, The Brady Bunch, and The Love Boat.

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The network developed a show Ken Berry WOW, a variety show that lasted five episodes that Berry was not wowed with. In 1973, Sherwood Schwartz wrote a pilot for a Brady Bunch spinoff called Kelly’s Kids. The concept of the show was that Berry adopts three boys, one white, one African American, and one Asian. No network showed an interest in the show.

One of the most unusual jobs he had occurred in 1976.  An album called “Ken Berry RFD,” where he sang, backed by a full orchestra, was released. He and Joseph divorced that same year. Joseph later remarried and continued to have a long and full career.  She appeared on a variety of sitcoms including Designing Women, Full House, Newhart, Love American Style, Petticoat Junction, That Girl, Hogan’s Heroes, McHale’s Navy, F-Troop, and the Andy Griffith Show. She also had a productive movie career, including Gremlins, The Cheyenne Social Club, With Six You Get Eggroll, Who’s Minding the Mint, and Little Shop of Horrors.

Taking a break from television, Ken went on the road, performing in stock shows around the country.  He also played Caesar’s Palace between Andy Griffith and Jerry Van Dyke.

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He returned to television to join the cast of Mama’s Family with Vickie Lawrence. The show derived from a skit on the Carol Burnett Show which led to a TV movie called Eunice. It featured the Harper family and their neighbors and friends. The matriarch is Thelma Harper (Lawrence) who speaks her mind freely. She is hot tempered and sarcastic, but she loves her family as she berates them. And they typically deserve a berating. They move back in with her and are happy to have her clean and cook for them as well.

For the first season and part of the second, the show was on NBC. Thelma lives with her spinster sister Fran (Rue McClanahan) who is a journalist. After Thelma’s daughter-in-law leaves her family, they move in with Thelma. Her son Vint began a relationship with Thelma’s next-door neighbor Naomi Oates (Dorothy Lyman). Her children from the Burnett sketch, Ellen (Betty White) and Eunice (Burnett), along with hubby Ed (Harvey Korman) are seen during this time.

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The show was cancelled after two years and went into syndication.  The reruns were so popular, 100 new episodes were ordered. A new set had to be constructed and some cast adjustments were made as well. Lawrence, Berry and Lyman were the only original characters on this new version. Since White and McClanahan were now starring on The Golden Girls, and Burnette and Korman chose not to return, a new character was created. Mitchel (Allan Kayser) was Eunice’s son who was always getting into trouble. Another addition was Beverly Archer who played Iola Boylen, Thelma’s neighbor and best friend.

Once Mama’s Family was cancelled the second time, Berry traveled around the country, appearing in “The Music Man”, “Gene Kelly’s Salute to Broadway”, and “I Do I Do” with Loretta Swit. He also went back to television for brief appearances on several shows including CHiPs, Fantasy Island, Gimme a Break, Small Wonder, Golden Girls, The New Batman, and Maggie Winters.

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Berry also appeared in six movies including Two for Seesaw (1962), The Lively Set (1964), Hello Down There (1969), Herbie Rides Again (1974), Guardian of the Wilderness (1976), and The Cat from Outer Space (1978).

Guardian of the Wilderness was based on the life of Galen Clark who convinced Abraham Lincoln to make Yosemite Park the first public land grant. It covers a series of unusual adventures Clark had as he battled lumber companies to save wilderness land.  One of my favorite quintessential 1960s movies was Hello Down There.  Tony Randall and Janet Leigh star.  Randall is an architect who creates an underwater home.  To prove a family could live there, he cajoles his family to moving there for the summer.  His kids are in a band so they force him to take the entire band or no one.  Charlotte Rae is their housekeeper. Berry plays a rare role for him as the bad guy.

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Early in his career, Ken appeared in a variety of commercials. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, he was the spokesman for Kinney Shoes.

He appeared in two game shows, Hollywood Squares and Tattletales.  He also starred as himself on a variety of shows including Art Linkletter, Joey Bishop, Leslie Uggams, Jim Nabors, Julie Andrews, Sonny and Cher, Dean Martin, Laugh In, and Mike Douglas.

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Berry retired in 1999. Berry loves cars and was an avid motorcyclist and camper.

Although Berry was never in a hugely successful series, he had a long and full career that any actor would be proud of.  Hopefully his well-deserved retirement has been fun and full of memories.

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