The Flying Nun: Soaring to Success Followed By a Crash Landing

This month we are in the midst of the series, “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Today we take a look at another sitcom whose cast was primarily female.

From 1965-1966, Gidget starring Sally Field was on the air. When it was cancelled after only 32 episodes, producers were scrambling to find another vehicle for Field.  Harry Ackerman, with co-producers Bernard Slade (who would create The Partridge Family and just passed away last week) and Max Wylie came up with The Flying Nun. They based it on a book published in 1965, The Fifteenth Pelican by Tere Rios. Beginning on ABC in September of 1967, the show continued through the fall of 1970, resulting in 82 episodes.

I did read that Patty Duke was the first choice for the show, so I’m assuming when she turned it down, they asked Sally Field. Apparently, they were trying to find a show for Field, but this show was not created for her. Field also turned it down, thinking it was a silly concept, so the producers went to their third choice, Ronne Troup, who would play Polly on My Three Sons. Troup began filming the pilot. Sally’s stepdad, Jock Mahoney, told her she should reconsider because she might not get another chance in show business if she didn’t accept the role. When Sally informed the producers that she had changed her mind, Troup was let go.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

In the hour-long pilot, we meet Elsie Ethrington. Elsie, who grew up in Chicago, is arrested in New York during a protest. We learn that the rest of her family has chosen medicine for their vocation. (In a later episode, we meet one of her birth sisters who is a physican played by Elinor Donohue.) Elsie goes to Puerto Rico. She is impressed with the missionary work her aunt has been doing, so she ends her relationship with her boyfriend, a toy salesman, and becomes a nun at the Convento San Tanco, taking on the name Sister Bertrille. In one episode, Sister Bertrille watches home movies of her life and what we are actually seeing is footage from Gidget.

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One day Sister Bertrille, who is only 90 pounds, realized that the heavily starched cornette on her head, allowed her to be able to “fly” as the high winds picked her up. As she tried to explain to several people, “when lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag, anything can fly.” Of course, a nun flying around town caused quite a stir. Field said she was humiliated by her directors as she was hung from a crane and moved around the set like a prop.

Photo: pinterest.com

The Reverend Mother Placido (Madeleine Sherwood) runs the convent. She is kind, but strict. Sister Jacqueline (Marge Redmond), who sees the humor in most situations, becomes good friends with Sister Bertrille. Sister Ana (Linda Dangcil) and Sister Sixto (Shelley Morrison) are also friends of hers. The other major characters are Captain Gaspar Fomento (Vito Scotti) who is a police officer that the nuns keep from learning about Sister Bertrille’s flying ability and Carlos Ramirez (Alejandro Rey) who owns a casino and is a ladies’ man. Ramirez was raised by the nuns, and they constantly try to reform him. He will not be reformed, but out of appreciation, he always tries to help them, and Sister Bertrille is constantly involving him in zany schemes or asking him to finance some plan of hers.

Photo: flickr.com

This was the first (and perhaps only) sitcom to be set in Puerto Rico. Although the pilot and opening and closing credits were shot in Puerto Rico, the show was shot at Warner Brothers Ranch in Burbank, California.

The producers were worried about how Catholics would react to the show. They asked the National Catholic Office for Radio and Television to serve as an advisor. The show actually was popular with Catholic religious leaders who felt the show “humanized” the image of nuns.

The show was also popular with viewers of every other religion. The first two years, it aired Thursday nights, competing with Daniel Boone. The sitcom was sandwiched between Batman and Bewitched. Although it was declared a hit immediately, the ratings eroded during the two years.

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The producers had a hard time deciding on a focus for the show. During the second season it contained more slapstick comedy. The third season it went back to the warm and fuzzy feelings it used in the first season. For the third season, the network moved the show to Wednesdays and put it up against The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour which insured its cancellation. It didn’t help in the third year that Field was pregnant. She mentioned in an interview that “you can only imagine what a pregnant flying nun looked like,” and the crew had to hide her behind props and scenery.

Photo: thenewyorktimes.com

Critics never took to the show, but the public kept it on the air three times longer than Gidget. Many fans remember the series fondly. The plots were often heart-warming. In “With Love from Irving,” a pelican falls in love with Sister Bertrille. When Sister Bertrille is forced to go to the dentist for a toothache, Dr. Paredes puts her under hypnosis. The doctor gives them a suggestion that whenever they hear “red,” she and the Reverend Mother will switch personalities. In another show, Sister Bertrille wants Carlos to finance an expedition to find a bell that sunk long ago that was supposed to go to the convent because their old one is rusted and they can’t afford a new one. Carlos uses the opportunity to woo a young woman, but Sister Bertrille tags along. The girlfriend gets thrown overboard, but the bell is found in the end.

Relying on uplifting morals (pun intended) and Field’s delightful and talented performances, the show continued on the air. Marge Redmond was nominated for an Emmy as supporting actress. Unfortunately, she was up against Marion Lorne, who won it for her role of Aunt Clara on Bewitched.

TV Guide ranked the show number 42 on its worst tv shows of all times list in 2002. However, it continues to do well in syndication and has an international fan club.

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While the show was on the air, it sold a variety of merchandise, including paper dolls, lunch boxes, trading cards, view master reels, a board game, and a doll.

Photo: ebay.com

Sally Field released a soundtrack LP with songs from the series in 1967. Dell Comics came out with four comic books based on the series in 1968.

Photo: ebay.com
Photo: ebay.com

I must admit I was not a big fan of the show. However, I have gone back and watched quite a few episodes for this blog, and it is better than I remembered it. Although the concept does sound as silly as Field thought, the show is charming and can be quite funny at times. Although it might not be in your top 25, it probably deserves a second look if you have not seen it for a while.

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While John Forsythe Chose “To Rome with Love,” The Network Let the Show Roam Without Much Love

We continue our series with a salute to fathers looking at one of my favorite actors, John Forsythe in a little-remembered show, To Rome with Love.

Photo: en.wikipedia.org

The show debuted on CBS in September of 1969 and aired until spring of 1971. In 1967 Forsythe had starred in The John Forsythe Show and in the successful sitcom, Bachelor Father, seven years before that.

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The John Forsythe Show

After the acclaim of Bachelor Father, The John Forsythe Show was a big disappointment. The premise of the show was that Forsythe as retired US Air Force Major John Foster inherits a private girls’ school in San Francisco. A buddy of his and former sergeant helps him run the school and they have conflicts with the principal Miss Culver. Forsythe once commented on it, saying “I choose to froget about that one. It was a disaster from the start. I hope the world forgets it too, especially the name.”

To Rome with Love also had a school setting. Forsythe played Michael Endicott, a widow with three daughters. He accepts a teaching position at an American school in Rome and relocates his family there from Iowa. His sister Harriet (Kay Medford) comes with the family for season one to help out. Endicott’s father-in-law, Andy Pruitt (Walter Brennan), comes to Rome to visit and ends up moving there during the second season.

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The oldest daughter is Alison (Joyce Menges), the middle is tomboy Penny (Susan Neher) and the youngest is Mary Jane, nicknamed Pokey (Melanie Fullterton). None of the girls continued in television past 1974. Menges had been a former tv and magazine model.  She appeared in two films, one before (1967) and one after (1972) the show. Fullerton made an appearance on High Chaparral before this show and appeared in two movies (1972 and 1974). Neher had the most productive acting career. She was cast on Accidental Family before appearing on To Rome with Love. After the show, she would guest star on Young Lawyers, Getting Together, Love American Style, The Partridge Family, with her last appearance was on Paul Sand in Friends and Lovers in 1974.

Photo: allstarpic.famousfix.com
Photo: famousfix.com


Photo: famousfix.com
Photo: pinterest.com

Rounding out the cast was Vito Scotti who played Mr. Mancini and Peggy Mondo who was Mama Vitale in Rome.

Photo: tvmaze.com

Photo: tvmaze.com

The show was on Sunday nights at 7:30 for the first year. It was up against Land of the Giants and The Wonderful World of Disney. The second year it switched to Tuesdays at 9:30 for the first half of the year on against movies of the week and then was moved to Wednesdays at 8:30 for the rest of the season. On Wednesdays it was up against The Smith Family and the Men from Shiloh. They were one-hour shows and To Rome with Love was on during the second half of both shows. The show never received the ratings the network had hoped for.

Photo: metv.com

Jack Gould reviewed the show before its debut. His comment was “the personable John Forsythe is the main asset of the series, but it is doubtful if he alone can overcome the handicap of imposing Hollywood nonsense on a city rich in drama and laughter and yet to be explored with understanding by TV. For the viewer, one solution is to turn off the sound and settle for incidental scenic background.” Donald Freeman from the San Diego Union called the show “all stereotyped and unfailingly pleasant.” Terrence O’Flaherty of the San Francisco Chronicle described it as a “giant pizza which appears to be filled with every situation comedy cliché in TV history and every Italian character actor south of San Luis Obispo. Dwight Newton of the San Francisco Examiner said it was “another little innocuous comedy drama series.” Apparently, viewers agreed with their opinions.

The combination of bad reviews and going up against Disney before moving to two different nights almost guaranteed its failure.

Photo: incredibleinman.com

Don Fedderson and Edmond Hartman produced the show. They were also the creative forces behind My Three Sons and Family Affair. An interesting concept was the cross-over episode. In season two, Anissa Jones and Johnnie Whitaker from Family Affair appear on the show on episode 4, “Roman Affair.” Episode 6 featured William Demarest, Don Grady, and Tina Cole from My Three Sons in “Rome is Where You Find It.”

After the show ended, Forsythe commented that his “fate is to be surrounded by ladies at home and at work which is not at all painful. I have a wife and two daughters at home. But on the television, I’ve always been unmarried. We might have started the single-parent trend with ‘Bachelor Father.’ Now the air is filed with widows and widowers raising children alone. There’s a reason for it. One unqualified parent dealing with children is more amusing because of the difficulty it presents.”

This sounded a bit exaggerated to me, so I went back to take a closer look at the shows that were on during the 1960s, and he was right. I always think of the typical sitcom as a nuclear family like the Donna Reed Show or Leave It To Beaver, but during this decade many shows were about adults. Think of Get Smart, The Joey Bishop Show, That Girl, The Odd Couple, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or The Flying Nun. When shows were about families, the norm was almost to have a single parent. In addition to Bachelor Father, My Three Sons, and Family Affair, we had The Farmer’s Daughter, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Doris Day Show, The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction, Gidget, and Julia. It wasn’t confined to sitcoms either; consider The Rifleman, Bonanza, and The Big Valley. The genre would continue into future decades as well. Some of the most popular shows featured single parents: The Partridge Family, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, Nanny and the Professor, Diff’rent Strokes, One Day at a Time, Eight is Enough, and Alice.

Photo: dailymail.co.uk

Fortunately for viewers, Forsythe did not throw in the towel and retire into obscurity. Forsythe would go on to star as Blake Carrington on Dynasty.

DNX6N3 Jan. 1, 1976 – F3353.”Charlie’s Angels”.FARRAH FAWCETT, KATE JACKSON, & JACLYN SMITH. 1976(Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)

The show he is best remembered for is Charlie’s Angels, continuing his tradition of being surrounded by beautiful women on television.

Is It A Western? A Spy Show? A Thriller? No, It’s The Wild Wild West

There was no specific category for the Wild Wild West when it first debuted in 1965.  Part western, part spy, part thriller.  Now, it would 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.

Photo: decades.com

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”. The casting office was not allowed to hire 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.

Photo: artworkproduction.ca

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.

Photo: writeups.org

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.

Photo: metv.com

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.

Photo: tripadvisor.co.uk

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.

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Many of the above-mentioned 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.

Photo: thegoldencloset.com

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.

Photo: antiquatednotions.typepad.com

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.

Photo: stupendouslyamazinglycoololdtv.blogspot.com

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. 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‘.”

Photo: filmscoremonthly.com

Artemus Gordon: “I didn’t know you liked toys.”

James West: “Toys, no. Dolls, yes.”

It’s The Professor and a Whole Lot of Other People: Russell Johnson and Guest Stars

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Russell Johnson was born in Pennsylvania in 1924. He had six siblings. His father died from pneumonia when Russ was only 8, and his youngest brother died the following year. He was sent to Girard College, a boarding school for fatherless boys located in Philadelphia. He struggled early in his education, being held back for a year. In high school he made the National Honor Society.

In 1943, he married Edith Cahoon. They would divorce in 1948.

During World War II, Johnson joined the Army Air Corps and received the Purple Heart after his plane was shot down in the Philippines in 1945. Johnson flew 44 combat missions in the Pacific Theater. Once the war was over, Russ used his GI Bill to enroll in the Actors’ Lab in Hollywood to study acting. While there he met Kay Cousins, and they married in 1949 and were married until her death in 1980.

 

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Johnson’s big-screen career began in 1952. He was a friend of Audie Murphy and would appear in three of his films in the early 1950s. He was in a variety of movies throughout the 1950s, mainly westerns and sci fi classics such as It Came from Outer Space.

 

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Russell began receiving roles on television in 1950. In the 1950s he would be seen on 28 different shows. In 1959 he was offered a role in a western, Black Saddle. Johnson was Marshal Gib Scott. The show was on for one season.

 

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During the 1960s, Russell’s television work increased, and he appeared on 39 series including The Twilight Zone, Route 66, Ben Casey, Laramie, 77 Sunset Strip, Outer Limits, and Big Valley. In 1964 he was offered the role of The Professor on Gilligan’s Island, replacing John Gabriel who was a teacher in the pilot. Roy Hinkley was a genius who made complex inventions from the simple materials he found on the island. As we have learned, most of the cast of Gilligan’s Island was typecast after the show was cancelled, and they had a hard time getting other roles. Johnson discussed this circumstance in a later interview: “It used to make me upset to be typecast as the Professor . . . but as the years have gone by, I’ve given in. I am the Professor, and that’s the way it is. . . Besides, the show went into syndication and parents are happy to have their children watch the reruns. No one gets hurt. There are no murders, no car crashes. Just good, plain, silly fun. It’s brought a lot of joy to people, and that’s not a bad legacy.”

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Although he had trouble at first, he did go on to appear in 45 different shows from 1970-1997, including That Girl, Marcus Welby, Cannon, McMillan and Wife, Lou Grant, Bosom Buddies, Dallas, Fame, Newhart, ALF, and Roseanne. He had a recurring role on Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law from 1971-1973.

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In 1982, Russell married for a third time. He married Connie Dane, and they were married until his death from kidney failure in 2014.

In 1993, he published his memoirs, Here on Gilligan’s Isle.

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Like so many of the tv icons in the 1960s—Barbara Eden, Adam West, Butch Patrick, David Cassidy, Maureen McCormick—Russell struggled with his alter ego, eventually accepting his role as the Professor. While being tied to one character for 50 years makes it tough to get the roles you want, it’s hard to be critical of a personality that gives such pleasure to decades of viewers and makes you a household name for half a century. Being given the chance to portray a character that America loves is a hazard of the business but is certainly better than never receiving a starring role.

You Never Know Who Might Show Up

With a show like Gilligan’s Island, you would assume it would be almost impossible to have guest stars. After all, they are on a deserted island. Except for the native people who might be living there, where would stars come from? Amazingly, Gilligan’s Island featured many guest stars over the years. Let’s look at a few of them.

Vito Scotti appeared on four different episodes playing Dr. Boris Balinkoff, mad scientist, twice, a Japanese sailor, and a Japanese soldier who does not believe World War II is over.

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Mel Blanc could be heard portraying a parrot several times and a frog.

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Hans Conried visited the island twice as Wrongway Feldman, an incompetent pilot who had crashed on the island years before.

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Kurt Russell was a modern-day Tarzan.

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Richard Kiel, a Russian agent, pretended to be a ghost to scare the castaways off the island so he could have the oil rights. When the cast turns the tables and acts like ghosts, he didn’t stick around long.

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Zsa Zsa Gabor was a rich socialite who falls in love with the Professor.

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Larry Storch is a robber hiding out on the island and pretending to be a doctor.

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John McGiver was Lord Beasley Waterford, famous butterfly collector.

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Don Rickles is con man Norbert Wiley who is hiding out on the island.  He kidnaps Mrs. Howell and later Ginger, planning on getting ransom for each castaway.  After the Professor puts him in jail, Ginger convinces them to let him out for a party.  Norbert steals jewelry and other items from the castaways and leaves the island.

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Phil Silvers crashes onto the island as Herbert Hecuba, arrogant movie producer. He orders everyone around like they’re his servants.  He is not impressed with Ginger’s acting ability, so the castaways write and perform a play to show off her talents. In the middle of the night, Hecuba takes off with their play, claiming it as his own back in the US.

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Sterling Holloway is an escapee from a prison and the owner of a pigeon. The Professor thinks he can get a message back to the States through the pigeon, but when Birdy finds out he is paroled, he sends the bird off first.

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A variety of actors played natives on the show. In all, there were 54 guest stars given credit on the show.

In addition, Bob Denver, Tina Louise, and Jim Backus all had guest starring roles playing people who were look-alikes for Gilligan, Ginger, and Mr. Howell.

I guess it’s a good lesson to always keep up appearances because you never know who might show up when you’re stranded on an island.