This Panelist Gets My “Blank” Endorsement: Brett Somers

I had so much fun learning about Fannie Flagg, that I decided to tackle getting to know some of the other regular Match Game panelists. Today we meet Brett Somers.  For someone who has fewer than ten acting credits for any given decade, Brett Somers became a well-known star. She became a household name after appearing on Match Game. Let’s learn a bit more about her life.

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Brett was born in July of 1924, and her real name was Audrey Dawn Johnston. While she was born in Canada, she was raised in Maine and spent much of her life in New England. She left home at 18 to pursue an acting career. She chose her stage name for the character “Brett” in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and her mother’s maiden name of “Somers.” She settled in Greenwich Village, married Robert Klein, and had a daughter. She was not married long before they divorced.

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Brett joined the Actors Studio in 1952. She married Jack Klugman in 1953; they would have two sons. In the 1950s, Brett’s television appearances  were all on drama series such as Robert Montgomery Presents and The Kraft Theatre. In the 1960s she appeared primarily on westerns and legal dramas, including The New Breed, Have Gun Will Travel, and The Defenders. In the 1970s, she showed up on a lot of sitcoms. She was in Love American Style, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Odd Couple with her husband Klugman to name a few. On The Odd Couple, she played the role of Blanche, Oscar’s ex-wife.

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In addition to The Odd Couple, Brett had recurring roles on The New Perry Mason Show and Battlestar Gallactica.

Brett had her Broadway debut in Maybe Tuesday in 1957, which closed after five performances. She would appear onstage in Happy Ending, The Seven Year Itch, and The County Girl. She also appeared in three movies: Bus Riley’s Back in Town and A Rage to Live, both from 1965 and in Bone from 1972.

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Despite her many television series appearancs, she is best known for her role as a panelist on the various versions of Match Game, amassing 1591 episodes overall. Some viewers compared the show to a cocktail party with money given away. What’s surprising, given her popularity on the show, is that she was not originally part of the cast. Klugman appeared on the first week of the show in 1973, and he suggested they try Somers. They did, and she never left. Her dry sense of humor and great wit provided her a job for nine years.

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Match Game can be seen on The Game Show Network. The concept of the show was easy and fun. Two contestants were each given two questions with a blank in them, such as “The surgeon said, ‘The man I’m operating on must be a magician. When I reached in to pull out his appendix, I got a ___________ instead!’” Six celebrity panelists wrote down their answer to the question and then the contestant got a point for each person who matched their answer.

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Brett and pal Charles Nelson Reilly, who often referred to her as “Susan,” kept each other in stitches and provided entertainment for the other panelists. In a September 12,  2012, Whitney McIntosh (in the blog ”This was Television”) referred to them as “rambunctious school children left to their own devices” which captures their relationship on the show perfectly. Their banter and quick quips kept viewers tuning in. For example, on one show, someone had mentioned that one of the younger panelists had a nice body. Charles turned to Brett remarking that her body was just as beautiful as the other woman’s.  The audience clapped, and Brett had just finished saying thank-you, when Charles added, “But you should take yours back because you’re putting a lot of wrinkles in it.” No one laughed harder than Brett.

In a Playbill interview in July of 2003, Andrews Gans asked Brett why she thought Match Game was still so popular. Somers paused and then answered, “Because of the fact that there was no structure to it. It was just six people having a good time and teasing one another. There was never any meanness. And people really sensed when Charles [Nelson Reilly] would jerk his head and go, ‘She seems a little odd today’ — they knew there was no meanness in it. And, Gene was the greatest straight man who ever lived. He would ask you the questions and would set it up for you. He was wonderful. And I think the relaxation of the atmosphere.”

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After Brett died, Marcia Wallace, on of her best friends, discussed Brett’s career on Match Game. “She was my best friend. I made a lot of friends there. She and Charles were the heart and soul of the show. Their relationship just was magic. And then, of course, I think there was no better host in the world ever than Gene Rayburn. He was funny, he was sassy, he was naughty, he kept the game going, he made the contestants feel good, he set up the celebrities. He was perfect.”

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Not long after Somers started with Match Game, she and Klugman separated. Three years later, in 1977, they divorced but remained friends. Although I read in many reports they never divorced, and many sites listed them as separated but never divorced. I believe California documents exist to show they did divorce a few years after their separation.

In 2003, Somers wrote, co-produced, and acted in a critically acclaimed one-woman cabaret show, An Evening with Brett Somers. Somers wrote the show with Mark Cherry, and he accompanied her on the piano and served as the director and arranger.

Brett shared her thoughts on doing a cabaret show–“It never occurred to me in a million years that I’d be doing a cabaret show. I was standing backstage, and I thought, ‘You’re an older person. You should be lying down somewhere in a nice cool bed watching TV!’ And I went out there, and I just had a great time.”

In 2004, Somers was diagnosed with stomach and colon cancer, but she continued to perform in the show. Brett had a period of remission but passed away in 2007 at her home in Connecticut.

In 2005, Somers reunited with Jack Klugman onstage in Danger, People at Large, three short comedies presented at Fairfield University. It was the first time in three decades that the former couple had performed together.

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In my blog on Fannie Flagg a few weeks ago, I found her reflection on her friendship with Brett and Charles:

 Besides being hilarious, Brett and Charles were two of the smartest people I have ever known. On Match Game, they got such a big kick out of each other! They razzed one another and everybody else on the panel mercilessly, and they were particularly relentless on the people they really liked. It was never mean or hurtful, and they loved it when you razzed them back.

One of the happiest times in my life was in 1980 when I was doing “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” on Broadway, and Charles, Brett, and I were staying at the Wyndham Hotel at the same time. Every day at around 4 o’clock in the afternoon they would come to my room for cocktails. Many is the time I would come home from after the show and they would still be sitting there having a good time. The only thing that changed was the position of Charles’ toupee.
In the Gans interview, he asked Brett how she would like to be remembered. Her answer was “I would like them to think that I gave them pleasure and joy.”

I think we can all agree that is how we remember her!

 

Oh, Alice

By the time February arrives, I am typically tired of winter and ready for some nicer weather.  Since I am not traveling anywhere warm this month, I decided to indulge myself and learn more about some of the actors and actresses behind some of my favorite television characters this month.

 

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I begin with Ann B. Davis.  Most of us recognize her as Alice on The Brady Bunch, but Ann was quite an established actress long before the show began, receiving her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.

 

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Ann was born in 1926 in New York. Her mother was a professional actress who performed with many stock companies and smaller theaters. She had an older brother and a twin sister Harriet. In a foreshadow perhaps of her future career, Ann made $2 working with puppets at age 6. The family moved to Erie, Pennsylvania where Ann spent most of her school years, graduating from high school in Erie.

 

She went on to the University of Michigan where she majored in pre-med. Her brother toured the country as the lead dancer in a production of Oklahoma which inspired her to try acting.  She loved acting so much that she changed her major to drama and speech, graduating from college in 1948.

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She paid her dues for six years, performing in California in various theaters and stock companies, before moving to Hollywood. She received parts in several stage productions including The Women and Twelfth Night. In 1953, she was one of the musical judges on Jukebox Jury. The show aired Sunday nights and typically minor stars would judge new music.

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Her first film was Strategic Air Command in 1955 with Jimmy Stewart. Unfortunately, her scene was cut from the film before it was released. She would go on to star in six additional films including A Man Called Peter (1955), The Best Things in Life are Free (1956), Pepe (1960), All Hands On Deck (1961), Lover Come Back (1961), Naked Gun (1994), and The Brady Bunch Movie (1995).

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In 1958 Ann accepted a position on the SAG board of governors.

 

She explored her love of theater throughout her career and in 1960 she replaced Carol Burnett in Once Upon a Mattress.

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Ann found most of her fame in television. She began appearing in series in 1956 when she was on Matinee Theater and Lux Video Theater.

 

In 1955 she received a starring role in The Bob Cummings Show as Schultzy, Bob’s assistant. For four years, she loved Bob from afar while he chased after many of the models he photographed. His sister who lived with him was trying to reform him, so he would settle down, but we knew deep in his heart he loved Schultzy. Ann won two Emmys for her portrayal of Schultzy.

 

When the show ended, she went back to making appearances, taking roles on Wagon Train (1960), The New Breed (1962), McKeever and the Colonel (1963), and Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater (1964).

 

During 1965-66, she would receive another starring role appearing as Miss Wilson, the physical education teacher on The John Forsythe Show. The premise was that John had inherited a private girls’ school from his aunt. A bachelor and a retired air force major, he later becomes a spy and the school staff is eliminated from the show.

 

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After the cancellation of Forsythe’s series, Davis appeared on The Phyllis Diller Show (1966), Insight (1968), and Love American Style three times from 1970-1973. Between the years 1959 and 1969, Ann volunteered by traveling with the USO at various times.

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The year 1969 brought her the role she would become famous for as Alice Nelson on The Brady Bunch.  Ann played Alice from 1969-1995 exclusively. Ann might hold a record for playing the same character in six different series: The Brady Bunch (1969), The Brady Bunch Variety Hour (1976), The Brady Brides (1981), Day by Day (1981), The Bradys (1990), and Hi Honey I’m Home (1991). She also reprised her role as Alice in two made-for-tv movies: The Brady Girls Get Married and A Very Brady Christmas

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Along with Florence Henderson and Barry Williams, she was in every Brady Bunch episode. Alice was a friend to each of the Brady kids never playing favorites, but on one episode she gives Jan a locket because they were both middle children with an older glamorous sister Emily/Marcia and a younger cutesy sister Myrtle/Cindy. In real life, Ann said that she felt Eve Plumb was the best actor of the Brady kids.

 

Florence Henderson and Ann remained friends for life.

 

On the show, Alice never got far from her roots.  She had gone to the same high school Greg and Marcia attended. Becoming a housekeeper for the Bradys before Mike’s wife died, she stayed on when he married Carol and her three daughters moved in. Alice spent as much time mediating family disputes, doling out advice, trying to keep the kids from getting in trouble with their parents, and dispensing sarcastic words of wisdom to the entire family as she did cleaning and cooking.

Alice rarely was seen out of her sky-blue uniform. She dated Sam the butcher and kept waiting for his marriage proposal. They often bowled and won a prize for their Charleston dancing. I think Sam knew all along, he couldn’t propose till Mike and Carol became empty nesters.  Alice was never a maid, she was a valued member of the family who went on vacations with the family and was invited to their school performances and into their friends’ lives. In today’s economy, Alice would probably net $50,000 a year for her job, but we know it was never about the money for her.

 

Ann received endorsements from her Alice role as well. She was in television commercials for many products including Ikea, Ford Motor Co., Shake and Bake, and Minute Rice.

 

Her role as Alice also led to her publishing Alice’s Brady Bunch Cookbook with recipes inspired by the show or contributed from cast members.

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In 1976, she moved to Denver to live with Bishop Frey and his wife Barbara in their Episcopal community, a large historical home.  For many years, Ann had volunteered with the local and national Episcopal church conferences. When Bishop Frey accepted the position as Dean of Trinity School for Ministry in Pennsylvania, Ann moved with the couple. She again moved with them to San Antonio Texas. Ann was very committed to her church and her prayer life and performed a lot of volunteer work for her church. She also appreciated her fans.  According to Bishop Frey, she spent several days even at the end of her life answering fan mail.

Ann considered herself semi-retired from show business, but in the 1990s, she made several films and accepted a role with a theater group for Arsenic and Old Lace as well as a world tour of a show called Crazy for You. She also made appearances on TV Land for award shows in 2004, 2006, and 2007.

 

Ann was extremely healthy in her golden years, but she fell, hitting her head which caused her death in 2014.

Alice Nelson has become a pulp culture icon; however, like Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, there was so much more to Ann B. Davis’s career than her role as a maid. She had an amazing career in theatre, film, and television. While I appreciate her work as Schultzy on The Bob Cummings Show and Miss Wilson on The John Forsythe Show, Alice took care of me, along with the Brady kids, in the early seventies, and I will always have a special place in my heart for her.