Monday, July 25, 2016

Pilot Casualties: The Casting Coulda-Beens of Comfort TV

Casting was a critical component in every Comfort TV show. Today we can’t imagine other actors in many iconic roles, yet it’s fascinating to contemplate how close we were to watching Gene Hackman as Mike Brady, Lyle Waggoner as Batman, or Stephen Stills as one of The Monkees.

Once a pilot is shot there is usually no turning back. But post-pilot cuts happen for any number of reasons, as we’ll see in this look at some of the more intriguing examples from the Comfort TV era. We all know how these shows turned out – the more intriguing question is whether they would still been successful without the last-minute change. Let's take a brief glimpse into an alternate classic TV universe. 

Mark Hamill as David Bradford
Eight is Enough
Shortly before filming began on the show’s second episode, Mark Hamill had a rollover car accident on a highway off-ramp, fracturing his nose and cheek. As he was too injured to come back he had to be replaced by Grant Goodeve. And he was never heard from again. 

Would it have worked?
Probably, based on the pilot, though it would have been a different series. Grant Goodeve is a year younger than Hamill but on the show he appears older and more mature. David has several verbal altercations with his father in the first season, and with Goodeve those scenes play like quarrels between two adults. Hamill plays David more like Willie Aames would play middle son Tommy – a hotheaded teenager with an antiestablishment attitude.

And consider this: if Hamill had been a better driver, we wouldn’t have this version of the theme song.

Sharon Tate as Billie Jo Bradley
Petticoat Junction
No pilot was requested for this series, which CBS purchased sight unseen based on creator Paul Henning’s success with The Beverly Hillbillies. Sharon Tate was given the role of flirtatious Billie Jo Bradley, and appears in early publicity photos with the rest of the cast. 

But when the network discovered Tate had also posed for some much racier photos, she was dropped and the role recast with Jeannine Riley.

Would it have worked?
Without any footage it’s hard to tell. The series featured three Billie Jos in seven seasons, so it was certainly durable enough to survive no matter who was cast (Riley was replaced after two seasons by Gunilla Hutton, who one year later was replaced by Meredith MacRae). However, based on Tate’s somewhat stiff and unmemorable Beverly Hillbillies appearances as secretary Janet Trego, she wasn’t yet ready for a series lead.

Liberty Williams as Tabitha Stevens
Bewitched fans might enjoy the original Tabitha pilot more than the version with Lisa Hartman, as the story offers parallels to the first Bewitched episode. Here, it’s Tabitha “coming out” as a witch to a significant other, who retreats to a bar to ponder his new normal.  But when it didn’t work ABC scrapped the entire concept and started over – new supporting characters, new workplace, and even a spelling change – in this pilot she’s “Tabatha.” 

Would it have worked?
Considering the series didn’t last with Lisa Hartman, it was likely beyond saving. But Liberty Williams was hardly the weakest link in a show with multiple issues. You may not be familiar with her but if you’ve seen Joyce Dewitt on Three’s Company you know the type – similar look, similar plucky charm. And yes, a brunette, which is a superficial objection to her playing a grown-up Erin Murphy, but still one of those details that bothers me, like changing Bruce Banner to David Banner on The Incredible Hulk.

As for Liberty, billed for most of her credits as Louise Williams, she later tested for and almost got the role of Shirley in Laverne & Shirley, then went on to voice Wonder Twin Jayna in Superfriends.  

Tim Dunigan as Templeton Peck
The A-Team
Dwight Schultz (Murdock) has often told the story about how he was certain he was going to be fired from The A-Team. It was Tim Dunigan who kept reassuring him throughout filming the pilot that his job was safe and he was going to be fine. Ironically, it was Dunigan who was replaced by Dirk Benedict, when producers decided he looked too young for the role of a Vietnam vet. 

Would it have worked?
Not this time. In the pilot Dunigan assumes a number of roles as the team’s resident con man, from a priest to a millionaire cowboy. And it just doesn’t resonate. This was material that had to be played with a wink, but his scenes with the rest of the team lacked the camaraderie that sustained The A-Team through years of repetitive scripts. According to IMDB he quit acting and now works as a mortgage broker.

Elizabeth Ward as Carol Seaver
Growing Pains
Elizabeth Ward had appeared in a couple of lesser-known ABC Afterschool Specials prior to being cast as Carol Seaver in the original Growing Pains pilot, shot in 1985. She didn’t click with test audiences, and was replaced by Tracey Gold, who hesitated to come back after being rejected once already. She changed her mind and rejoined a series that aired for seven seasons. Elizabeth Ward guest-starred in a Simon & Simon episode the following year, and never got another job. It’s a rough business. 

Would it have worked?
I think so. In the original pilot Ward was even more bookish than Gold in the show’s early seasons, but there’s no reason to assume she couldn’t have guided Carol through adolescence much like her replacement.

Susan Lanier as Chrissy Snow
Three’s Company
Three’s Company needed three pilots before finding the right combination of roommates. John Ritter was there from the start, and was originally joined by Valerie Curtin and Susanne Zenor (playing Samantha, not Chrissy). Pilot #2 brought in Joyce Dewitt, and Susan Lanier as Chrissy Snow. Neither pilot ever aired, though both are available on various Three’s Company DVD releases. 

Would it have worked?
I may be in the minority here, but I think so. To be fair, we may not be seeing Lanier’s best effort, as she was called in as a last minute substitute for another actress invited to audition. And if you’ve seen her in other shows playing similar characters, it’s clear she has some comedy chops. But at the time Suzanne Somers had more experience and professional credits, and one can’t deny the chemistry she developed with Ritter and Dewitt.

Louie Anderson as Larry Appleton
Perfect Strangers
There was never any doubt about the casting of Bronson Pinchot, as Perfect Strangers was developed (after several false starts) around his offbeat immigrant character. Finding the right foil would be critical, and the network’s first choice was comedian Louie Anderson. 

“They hated me,” is all Anderson said in a TV interview about the filmed and then buried pilot. Mark Linn-Baker, invited to test after a guest spot on Moonlighting, proved a more popular choice.  

Would it have worked?
Having not seen the Anderson pilot it’s difficult to speculate, but I would guess that ABC made the right call. Perhaps the objective was to develop a modern-day Laurel & Hardy with this duo, but Anderson’s persona of a self-deprecating gentle giant was already in place from his standup – if he played Larry that passively it would not have worked opposite Pinchot’s more manic Balki. Certainly he could have been asked to try something different, but on a TV series it’s always the actor that shapes the character more than the character dictates an actor’s choices. Sooner or later writers would have started playing to Anderson's traits, which are different from those that Mark Linn-Baker brought to the role.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Top TV Moments: Brooke Bundy

In Gods Like Us, film critic Ty Burr examines the history of media stardom, and why some actors become stars while others, for all their talent, remain merely actors. The phenomenon dates back before 1910, a time when performers in movies were un-credited but audiences noticed some of them anyway. Burr writes: “You discovered that you wanted to see this person again, not because of the part he or she played but because of who he or she was.” 

That is how I have always felt about Brooke Bundy.

Why? I don’t know. Why are any of us drawn to certain actors or singers or comedians more than others? There is a quality in her that resonates with me, and I have no desire to subject that condition to deeper analysis. What would be the point? I just like Brooke Bundy.

I hope to see all of her television performances one day, though that’s likely impossible given her guest appearances on obscure 1960s series like Firehouse and My Friend Tony. The ones listed here I’ve seen many times. In fact I could have written this tribute from memory, but I went back and watched them all again because I can never spend enough time in her company.

The Donna Reed Show (1962)
In “To Be a Boy,” Jeff swears off girls just before Mary tries to introduce him to high-IQ introvert Joanne, played by Bundy as her first professional acting credit. The highlight is an extended scene where Joanne hides under Jeff’s bed. It’s played mostly in silence but Bundy’s expressions are captivating.

Mr. Novak (1963)
This is one of my favorite forgotten shows of the 1960s. James Franciscus plays an idealistic high school English teacher in a forerunner to Room 222, albeit without the ethnic diversity. Bundy makes the first of three series appearances in “X is the Unknown Factor” as Patrice, girlfriend to a brilliant but amoral student. With Franciscus, Dean Jagger as the principal, and guest stars like Ed Asner, Kim Darby, Kevin McCarthy and silent screen legend Lillian Gish, the acting bar was set very high throughout this series. Bundy more than holds her own in a scene where she confesses to cheating on a test to save her boyfriend from risking his scholarship. 

Gidget (1965)
If you took my suggestion in last week’s blog about a summer Gidget marathon, you already encountered Brooke Bundy as Inge, a demure Swedish student engaged to a domineering young executive (played by a pre-Star Trek Walter Koenig). In “Gidget’s Foreign Policy,” Gidget vows to liberate her repressed houseguest before her husband-to-be returns in one week. Inge learns her lesson so well that she steals Gidget’s boyfriend and calls off her wedding. 

Dragnet (1967)
It’s a tough segue from a lighthearted sitcom like Gidget to “The Little Victim,” a grim story about child abuse. Brooke Bundy plays the insecure, damaged young wife of an abusive husband. Her frightened, intense outbursts punctuate several powerful scenes, and the conclusion is almost too difficult to watch. 

Daniel Boone (1968)
I can’t say I’m a huge fan of this series, but Bundy’s appearance in “Be Thankful for the Fickleness of Women” is one of my favorites of her performances. She plays Sarah, an indentured servant that Josh (Jimmy Dean) purchases so he can protect her from an abusive lout. But once he owns Sarah, he has no idea what to do with her.  

Mission: Impossible (1969)
“The Controllers” is a two-part M:I episode, something I’ve already asserted the series does not do well. The team must put a stop to experiments with a dangerous mind control drug being conducted behind the Iron Curtain. Bundy plays Katherine, a prisoner subjected to the treatment. She doesn’t do much more than suffer through these two episodes, but like Garbo she does it memorably.

My Three Sons (1971)
Brooke Bundy made four appearances on this long-running sitcom, ranging from 1963’s “Robbie Wins His Letter” to “Debbie” in 1971. The last one is my favorite because she rarely ventures into Tuesday Weld territory – a flirty blonde using her wiles to get out of trouble. In “Debbie” she turns the heads of all the Douglas men, though Ernie is particularly smitten. 

The Partridge Family (1973)
Keith Partridge shares my Brooke Bundy infatuation. In “Heartbreak Keith” he falls hard for college classmate Dory, an “older woman” of 23. He mistakenly believes she loves him too – and then finds out she’s married. 

The episode is worth watching not just for Bundy’s performance as Dory but for the unique set design of her character’s home – it’s like the entire ‘70s exploded in one room. The episode also features one of the best fourth season Partridge tunes, “I Heard You Singing Your Song.” 

The Brady Bunch (1974)
“Kelly’s Kids” is an episode most fans skip because the Bradys are hardly in it. Ken Berry and Brooke Bundy play Brady neighbors Ken and Kathy Kelly, who adopt one son from an orphanage, then go back to adopt his two best friends – one is African-American, the other is Asian. The show was a spinoff attempt written by Sherwood Schwartz, trying to recreate his Brady success with another variation of a blended family (The Benetton Brood?). Berry and Bundy are eminently likable, but I’m not sure the series would have lasted. 

Land of the Lost (1975)
In a misty marsh, Rick and Will find the remnants of a strange spacecraft out of which appears Brooke Bundy (in a most unfortunate hairstyle) as Sharon, a woman who claims to have lost her way. Rick takes a liking to her, but Will and Holly suspect there is more to Sharon’s story. “The Zarn” is typically trippy Krofft fun, with a bizarre ending that baffles as much as it impresses. 

Charlie’s Angels (1977)
In “The Vegas Connection,” one of the better first season shows, the Angels bring down a blackmailer working out of a Vegas casino showroom. Sixteen years ago, I wrote this in The Charlie’s Angels Casebook: “As Elsbeth, a tough girl with a soft heart who helps the Angels…Brooke Bundy contributes one of the most memorable single-episode guest appearances of the series’ run. Her introduction as a potential love interest for Bosley could have been explored further, perhaps in a subsequent episode.” I still wish they had gone there. 

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987)
Twenty-five years after her TV debut, and just four years before she left the business to become an acting teacher, Brooke Bundy served on the Starship Enterprise. In “The Naked Now,” the crew falls under the influence of a virus that causes everyone to act drunk and silly. A good idea but one better saved for a later show (this was just the second episode broadcast): if viewers had been given time to get to know these characters, it would have been more fun to watch how their behavior changes. Also, Wesley saves the ship, setting an unwelcome precedent for future stories. 

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Three Tips For a Groovy Classic TV Summer

It seems like July got here awfully quick, doesn’t it?

Here we are already in the most summery of the summer months – the season change from spring is now a distant memory, and fall still seems a long way away.

For classic TV fans, summer was the time when our favorite shows went away. And that was our cue to turn off the TV and stumble outside into the sunlight. The broadcast networks still adhere to this schedule, but with cable and streaming services launching new series year-round, those old viewing patterns are as much a relic of the past as this 1974 Zenith Console.

Summer never got much recognition in the shows from the Comfort TV era. Since the broadcast season of September through June paralleled that of the school year, we rarely saw families on sitcoms enjoy their summer vacation.

Of course, back then seasonal acknowledgments of any kind were inconsistent at best. There would be occasional references to Midwestern winters on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Laverne & Shirley, but most of the time mild temperatures prevailed in TV Land. The only time you saw snow was for the Christmas episodes.

Need a break from the summer sunshine? Here are three ways to commemorate the season with Comfort TV.

1. A Gidget Marathon
No classic TV series celebrated carefree, endless summer fun more than Gidget (1965). Loosely based on the 1959 film starting Sandra Dee, this was a series about the teenagers who surfed California’s beaches, at the very moment The Beach Boys immortalized them in song. 

The only thing that could make this mythical era even more delightful is having 18 year-old Sally Field as your tour guide. She was the ideal Gidget – adorable, especially when she spoke directly to the audience during each episode – sassy, spunky and ever loyal to her understanding dad (Don Porter). Together, they created some of the best father-daughter sitcom moments ever captured. 

The series was a flop the first time around, but audiences found it when it was rerun during the summer – not surprising in retrospect. In fact, the ratings were so big that ABC regretted the cancellation, and scrambled to find another vehicle for its suddenly hot star. Result? The Flying Nun, which ran three years. No, I don’t get it either.

There were just 32 episodes, so it won’t take you all summer to finish, and the DVD set features a new interview with Sally Field, who happily reflects on her beach bunny days. 

2. Create Your Own Nick at Nite Block Party Summer
Back in the 1990s, when Nick at Nite was still dedicated to preserving our classic television heritage, the cable network launched the annual Block Party Summer celebration, replacing its regular programming lineup with prime-time five-episode marathons of its most popular shows.

Presented in “VertiVision” (a reference to absolutely nothing, but it was fun to say) a typical week would consist of “Munster Mondays,” “Lucy Tuesdays,” “Bewitched Be-Wednesdays,” “Jeannie Thursdays” and “Sgt. Joe Fridays.” Choose your own Block Party Summer lineup and get reacquainted with some old favorites. If a season-long commitment is too much, just try it for a week. 

3. Hang Out at the Peach Pit
Beverly Hills 90210 debuted in 1991 – just outside our Comfort TV window, and a time in history when it wasn’t as fashionable to hate rich people as it is now. But it’s been 25 years since Brandon and Brenda Walsh moved to America’s best-known Zip code, so one cannot avoid a rush of nostalgia in returning to West Beverly High.

It’s listed here because the series owes its success to summertime. First season ratings were iffy, so the FOX Network broke with broadcast tradition and aired a summer season of new episodes. Bereft of competition, more people checked it out and a phenomenon was born – 90210 ran for ten years and 293 episodes. 

I was not among those original viewers, and was already out of its targeted age group by the time I first saw it on DVD. It was easy to understand the show’s appeal; even with higher rates of shagging and alcohol consumption, the series shares common DNA with the more innocent high school shows of previous eras, from Dobie Gillis to Degrassi.

Plus, at a time when merchandising of prime-time series had all but ceased (would you buy a Jake and the Fatman lunch box?) 90210 brought back the glory days of 1970s tie-ins. There were posters, dolls, school supplies and everything marketers could think of to capitalize on the show’s photogenic cast.

You probably won’t want to revisit all ten seasons. I watched the first four and then bailed when Shannen Doherty left. Among the highlights: The Breakfast Club-like breaking down of cliques in “Slumber Party,” the first appearance of crazy Emily Valentine in “Wildfire,” and Cathy Dennis headlines the West Beverly senior prom in “A Night to Remember.” 

 Do you have any favorite summer shows or viewing habits you’d like to share? We still have two months before the fall season begins!


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hey You Guys! It’s the 20 Best Songs From The Electric Company

As I’ve been reading since the age of four, I don’t need to watch The Electric Company for the lessons it imparts. But I own both of the Shout! Factory “Best of” DVD sets, as well as several more episodes taped off the Noggin network, and revisit all of them often. 

The show brings me back to my childhood, but beyond that nostalgic quality it also boasts a remarkably versatile and talented cast, sketches that are still funny and wonderful original music. As with its PBS predecessor, Sesame Street, The Electric Company had access to truly gifted composers, such as Joe Raposo, Tom Lehrer, Gary William Friedman and Clark Gesner.  The songs may have been specifically written to illustrate the sound of whatever letter combination or grammar lesson was being taught, but it’s remarkable how they accomplished this with such cleverness, catchiness and humor.

Let’s make like the show’s disc jockey Mel Mounds, with a top 20 countdown of the groovy sounds from this Emmy-winning classic. Unfortunately I couldn't find clips of all of them - which I'm going to blame on J. Arthur Crank. I just wish this was a top 21 list so I could include “Pete’s Pickle.”

20. The Corner
The Short Circus was The Electric Company house band, so you’ll see them more than once in this ranking – but not as often as you might think. A lot of their songs (“Boom,” “Stop,” “Jelly Belly”) were ok as filler but not anything that would catch your ear on the radio. “The Corner” is one of the exceptions, with its lilting “la la” earworm and a lyric about the everyday fun experiences of being a kid.  

19. The Barley Farmers’ Bar
This country duet featuring Skip Hinnant and Judy Graubart appeared in a Hee Haw style skit about a farmer whose “mind is far from farmin’ when he’s arm-in-arm with Carmen.” Even in the less PC ‘70s a reference to a bar on a children’s show was iffy, so Skip adds the quick aside, “Milk bar, that is.”

18. That’s All
This was the last song in the last segment of the last episode of the series. The entire cast (except Rita Moreno) perform together, with some soft shoe dance interludes, and then take a final curtain call as one closing lesson is taught about the word “all.”

We're glad you came to call
We really had a ball
The show is done
We hate to run
We're sorry, but that's all

17. The ‘Ly’ Song
You really need the animated visuals to fully appreciate this Tom Lehrer tune about how to change adjectives into adverbs.  Why couldn’t this lesson be taught in school in a way that was this clever and entertaining? 

16. Nitty Gritty
Hattie Winston channels her inner Chaka Kahn for this R&B rhyming song. It should be penalized for support from the least interesting incarnation of the Short Circus, but Hattie’s soulful lead vocal makes it impossible to leave this one off the list. 

15. The Sign Song
Clark Gesner’s best-remembered EC contributions were several singalong songs that accompanied a montage of signs from around New York City. People who haven’t heard this in 30 years may instantly recall the words when they see it again. 

14. Whimper and Whine
In addition to teaching the “wh” sound, this song performed by June Angela and Stephen Gustafson also warns kids not to be spoiled brats, or they might wind up without any friends. 

13. Randy
Yes, it’s three adult men singing a love song to a teenage girl. Get your mind out of the gutter and just enjoy Skip Hinnant’s smooth baritone on this ‘50s inspired ballad. No clip available, sadly, but it's on the first "Best of" DVD set.

12. Shoo Shoo Sunshine
Even the Children’s Television Workshop gets the blues. Morgan Freeman sings this downbeat saga of a guy at the train station, preparing to leave town after his girl left him. “Don’t show me no more light – till I find my baby, who’s drifted out of sight.”

11. Kelly and Buddy
One of the show’s recurring bits was the throwback musical performances on a vaudeville-style stage. “Kelly and Buddy” was the best duet between Stephen Gustafson and the Annette Funicello of the Short Circus, Bayn Johnson. Their voices always blended well. 

10. I Was Young Once Too
How many shows aimed at children just learning to read would introduce a wistful song (by Joe Raposo) about an old man reflecting on his long-lost youth? That little crack in Jim Boyd’s voice on the last line can reduce a grown man to tears. 

9. “Hard, Hard, Hard”
Given the Gold records in her future, it’s surprising that Irene Cara received so few lead vocals in her Short Circus days. This song offers an early glimpse into the belter that would top the hot 100 with the title tracks from Fame and Flashdance

8. Grease
Not the Frankie Valli song from the film, of course, but one of the energetic 1960s-doo-wop rockers performed by “Phyllis and the Pharaohs,” a.k.a Rita Moreno, backed by Morgan Freeman, Skip Hinnant, Jim Boyd and Luis Avalos. This one just edges out “Phantom of Love.” 

7. Snore, Sniff and Sneeze
Even if Tom Lehrer didn’t perform this tune, about a wolf who likes to “do things that begin with ‘sn,’” you’d know he wrote it from the sardonic wordplay of the lyrics: “Whenever I have a few moments to spend, I can snoop on a neighbor, or snitch on a friend.”

6. My Name is Kathy
This is the EC song that sounds most like the time it was written. The Short Circus skip the orange and yellow costumes and fake instrument playing to sit in a circle and trade verses about who they are and what they like to do. It has a laid-back, folk hippie vibe, like the music in Free to Be…You and Me. The Barbara Eden cameo at the end adds a perfect grace note to a lovely song.

5. N Apostrophe T
Jim Boyd and Lee Chamberlin play kids as they duet on this Tom Lehrer ode to contractions. Imagine trying to write a two-minute song incorporating “isn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t, can’t, won’t, haven’t” and several others into the words. You "couldn’t" do it better than this. 

4. Punctuation
“They are the little marks that use their influence…to help a sentence make more sense.” I can’t think of a cooler way to learn about periods, commas, question marks and exclamation points than this song, performed with Latin flair by Rita Moreno and in calypso style by Lee Chamberlin.

3. Lick a Lolly
This jet-propelled song with the tongue-twister lyric sounds like a lost track from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound glory days. I’d love to know how many takes they needed to get through it. The vocalists seem out of breath at the end and I don’t blame them. 

2. The Menu Song
There’s a lot of Tom Lehrer on this list, and that’s because he’s a genius. This is my favorite of his Electric Company contributions, for the escalating insanity of the menu selections, and for the performances by Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno. Let's watch two Oscar winners at work.

1. The Sweet, Sweet Sway
The Short Circus started our top 20 and they take the top spot as well. From the way the song is presented you suspect the show knew they had something special in this Joe Raposo gem: Mel Mounds does a live intro of the group, who emerge from behind an elegant blue curtain. Other EC cast members are also there to watch the performance and try the dance. The lead vocal is by Denise Nickerson of Dark Shadows and Willy Wonka fame. If they had put “The Sweet, Sweet Sway” out as a single, it might have outsold Sesame Street’s “Rubber Duckie.” 

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Legacy of Lou Grant

Journalism – real honest-to-God journalism – is dead. I can’t pinpoint an exact time of death, but it’s been on life support since the escalation of the Internet, and about ten years ago finally gave up the ghost. There are still reputable journalists plying their trade, but they do so in opposition to a tsunami of predetermined agendas, arrogance and flat-out incompetence.

Which makes the experience of watching Lou Grant (1977-1982) the best dramatic television series about the profession, a bittersweet experience.

Lou Grant understood the significance of responsible journalism without indulging in self-aggrandizement. The whimsical opening credits sequence, in which the lifespan of a daily newspaper is followed to an ignoble end, lets you know this won’t be a genuflection to the Fourth Estate.

The show also got what made print journalism interesting. It’s not the big “scoops” that win Pulitzers and bring down governments. It’s the research and the legwork that are necessary even for a lifestyle feature that will run on page 24. It’s the running down of dead ends and interviewing people who don’t want to talk to you. It’s working on a story for days and then having something happen that renders it useless.

The show is a procedural, like Dragnet was a procedural. It takes the mundane parts of a glamorized job and makes them compelling. When you watch it you’ll understand how it was once possible for biased and imperfect people, working within a clear chain of command, to produce something that could accurately be called “news.”

We see this system at work in the first episode. Reporter Joe Rossi (everyone’s favorite character unless you had a crush on Billie) exposes a police department sex scandal. Rossi has a strong anti-establishment streak and can barely conceal his delight when he writes it up. Lou knows the story is legit, but orders Rossi to rewrite it so the facts are more prominent than the reporter’s colorfully crafted condemnation. The paper’s publisher, Margaret Pynchon, believes there are already too many negative stories about the police and would rather not run it at all. But she prints the article, because it’s the proper thing to do.

It’s a tribute to the quality of the series that the novelty of building a drama around a sitcom character almost seems like an afterthought.

This is not the grouchy teddy bear Lou Grant from WJM News, who spent his days yelling at Ted Baxter and ducking Sue Ann’s advances. There are occasional references to Lou having moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis, but when he takes the city editor post at the Tribune, he becomes a real newspaperman. And you don’t question it for a moment.

Ed Asner leads a sterling cast; Robert Walden’s Joe Rossi became an archetype for bulldog journalism. Fans so fondly recall Linda Kelsey as reporter Billie Newman that they may have forgotten (as I did) that she replaced Rebecca Balding, who appears in the show’s first three episodes. 

Mason Adams, as Tribune editor Charlie Hume, brings some of the good-natured cynicism inherent to portrayals of journalism since The Front Page in 1931. At a city desk meeting someone brings in a story about a train wreck in Romania with numerous casualties. It is relegated to an interior page, until someone mentions there were two people from Los Angeles on the train. “Now, it’s a tragedy,” says Hume, and it goes on page one.

In another episode, Charlie explains to Billie his hesitation to approve a feature article on the gang problems in East Los Angeles. “The people in West L.A. get nervous when we write about the Chicanos,” he says, “and the Chicanos don’t read the Tribune.” 

As wonderful as Adams is in this, I can’t watch any of his scenes without hearing “With a name like Smuckers, it has to be good.”

Lou may have left the sitcom world, but Lou Grant can be a very funny show when it’s appropriate. Much of the humor is provided by a photographer nicknamed Animal (Daryl Anderson) and assistant city editor Art Donovan, a dapper horndog played by Jack Bannon.  Bannon happily inherited the comic timing of his mother, TV icon Bea Benaderet.

Nancy Marchand may be better known to TV audiences from The Sopranos, but as Mrs. Pynchon she also brought humor to the series, especially when Lou and Charlie are summoned to her office the way first-graders are ordered to see the principal. 

I just love this show. So did enough viewers to keep it on for five seasons, and it would have continued if CBS had not become fed up with Asner’s politics.

Lou Grant won more than 25 Emmys, as well as Humanitas Prizes and Peabody Awards among other accolades. By any measure this was outstanding television. But I think it plays even better for anyone who worked in journalism – or ever wanted to. 

If the sounds of a typewriter make you more nostalgic than the songs played at your prom, this is the show for you. After a few episodes you’ll long for the days when news came from a newspaper, and not from a million websites and politically charged blogs of dubious intent.

We have access to so much more information now, and that’s good. But when you can’t tell the Onion headlines from those in the New York Times, it seems like we’ve lost something even more precious. In its original run, watching Lou Grant helped the masses to understand what goes into putting together that morning paper that arrived on all of our doorsteps. Today, it plays like a eulogy for a once-proud vocation. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Ten TV Moments: David Wayne

Two years ago I wrote a blog about Meredith Baxter. It was not related to a new project or any other milestone – I just felt like celebrating an impressive and diverse television career. That’s the best thing about having your own blog – no editors to tell you what you can or can’t do.

Such pieces will now be a recurring feature here. There have been so many wonderful actors who, while not icons in the medium, have built a remarkable legacy of fine work. If, like me, you have access to enough classic television to create programming nights focused around a particular star or theme, perhaps these pieces will provide some inspiration.

I’ve selected David Wayne because I’m now enjoying a second journey through the classic and sadly short-lived Ellery Queen series, in which he costarred as Ellery’s father. 

Not every actor has a screen persona but some certainly get repeatedly cast into specific types of roles. With David Wayne, it was intelligent but temperamental men who were always annoyed about something – usually the vacuousness or incompetence of others.  That was certainly the case with Police Inspector Richard Queen, as well as several of these other moments that are worth revisiting.

The Twilight Zone (1959)
“Escape Clause” is not in the first tier of TZ classics – you may guess the twist in Rod Serling’s script before it is revealed – but Wayne is ideally cast as Walter Bedeker, a surly, self-centered hypochondriac who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for an extended life span of “a few hundred, or a few thousand” years. 

Naked City (1962)
One of the best DVD investments I’ve ever made is 80 bucks for 138 episodes of this groundbreaking 1958-1962 series, shot in evocative, atmospheric black and white on the streets of New York City. “The Multiplicity of Herbert Konish” is a typically strong outing, with Wayne as the title character – a mild-mannered broker who creates several other identities for himself. It’s up to Adam Flint to discover whether any of Konish’s aliases are also criminals. The answer is not what you might expect.

Batman (1966)
Since I have memories of watching Batman when I was 8 or 9, this was probably the first David Wayne performance I ever enjoyed. As with the series’ other famous guest villains I had no idea at the time that he had a career before arriving in Gotham City. To me he was just the Mad Hatter. The first of his two appearances (“The Thirteenth Hat/Batman Stands Pat”) is more memorable, as Jervis Tetsch is joined in his criminal escapades by a statuesque hat-check girl played by the stunning Diane McBain. 

The Good Life (1971)
I’ve never watched this series but I’ve seen clips on YouTube. It’s listed here because the concept and cast are so intriguing that I can’t imagine it not being enjoyable. Larry Hagman and Donna Mills play a middle-class married couple who take jobs as a butler and cook for wealthy industrialist Charles Dutton (played by David Wayne). Just 15 episodes were made before everyone moved on to more successful projects. 

Banacek (1973)
This is one of those shows I’ve wanted to write about for years but haven’t gotten to yet. Consider this a start: “Ten Thousand Dollars a Page” finds insurance investigator Banacek trying to discover how someone managed to steal a priceless book encased amidst high-tech alarms. David Wayne plays the book’s owner, a self-proclaimed tyrant. It was Emmy-worthy work, and from an acting-with-a-capital-A standpoint his best performance of those on this list. 

Ellery Queen (1975)
Wayne possessed one of those resonant golden-age Hollywood voices, instantly recognizable, which fit perfectly into this 1940s-set series where distinctive voices abound. Jim Hutton had the easygoing cadences of Jimmy Stewart, John Hillerman the cultured tones of William Powell, and the gung-ho reporter played by Ken Swofford would have blended right into His Girl Friday

Family (1978)
Ellery Queen may have temporarily trapped David Wayne in the “dad” zone with casting directors, as he would play several more fathers over the next few years. In “The Covenant” he played the ailing father of Doug Lawrence (James Broderick). It’s a typical Family episode, which means it’s better than 98% of everything else that has ever been on television.

Dallas (1978)
Full disclosure: I actually think Keenan Wynn’s take on embittered drunk Digger Barnes seemed more authentic than that of David Wayne, who originated the role. But Wayne had better material to play in the series’ early seasons, as he had to contend with his daughter Pamela marrying into the family he blamed for all his misfortune. 

Eight is Enough (1979)
In “Fathers and Other Strangers” the Bradfords vacation in Hawaii and Tom confronts his estranged father (played by you-know-who). There’s a bit too much filler in this stretched-out two-part episode, but its best scenes are shared by David Wayne and Willie Aames. Unless you count the scene with Elizabeth in a bikini. What, you’re just finding out now that I’m shallow?

House Calls (1979)
Now in his 60s, his cranky persona gracefully aging like vintage Port, David Wayne added some much-needed cynicism into this romantic sitcom about the romance between hospital coworkers played by Wayne Rogers and Lynn Redgrave. Wayne’s Dr. Amos Weatherby was going senile but preferred to think he was the last sane person in a world that was going crazy. I can relate. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Five Firm Rules of Classic TV Reunions

I’m looking forward to the return of The Gilmore Girls later this year. It’s one of my favorite post-Comfort TV era shows, and I am very happy for this chance to get reacquainted with its wonderfully smart and appealing characters.

It also got me thinking about how many classic television shows attempted a reunion movie or special with less than satisfying results. If the shows were successful the first time, why do these projects with so many built-in feel-good moments so often miss the mark?

As someone who has sat through more of these attempts than most, I think the problem is they violate one of five rules for a successful reunion. Rules I just made up. File this blog under the heading of good advice, delivered too late to make a difference.

1. Don’t Wait Too Long
The Patty Duke Show ran from 1963-1966. The Patty Duke Show: Still Rockin’ in Brooklyn Heights aired in 1999. Audiences who met Patty Lane as a feisty teenager now were seeing her again for the first time when she is old enough to join AARP. While it was heartening to see the entire cast back after 33 years, watching Eddie Applegate (as Patty’s high school boyfriend Richard) still pining for Patty at age 64 comes off more sad than nostalgic. 

This was also an issue with The Dick Van Dyke Show Revisited (2004). Here the gap was 38 years, clearly too great a span for Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore to fall back into the urbane chemistry they shared as Rob and Laura Petrie, even with Carl Reiner providing the words as he did when he created the show.

2. Don’t Do It Too Soon, Either
The Waltons finished an impressive nine-year run in 1981. A Wedding on Walton’s Mountain aired eight months later, followed by two more 1982 revivals, Mother’s Day on Walton’s Mountain and A Day of Thanks on Walton’s Mountain. Fans didn’t even have time to miss the family before they were back together. 

3. Don’t Do It With Half Your Cast
Back in 1985 I’m sure many Comfort TV fans were excited about getting reacquainted with Jeannie and Major Nelson in I Dream of Jeannie: 15 Years Later…until they learned that this time Major Nelson would be played by Wayne Rogers. 

With a large enough cast you can still pull one of these off if just one person is missing: Eight is Enough: A Family Reunion worked with Mary Frann as Abby because the rest of the Bradfords were there. And Jennifer Runyon ably filled in for Susan Olsen in A Very Brady Christmas.   

But if the point of a reunion is to bring back the same actors in the same roles, there is certainly a tipping point on recasts and nonappearances that should not be crossed. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies (1981), despite the absences of Irene Ryan, Max Baer Jr. and Raymond Bailey, or Back to The Streets of San Francisco (1992) when the only cast member back was Karl Malden.

4. Have a Good Reason for Reuniting
No classic TV show had a more ideal revival motive than Gilligan’s Island.
Rescue from Gilligan’s Island (1978) turned out to be dreadful, but that didn’t make it any less necessary given the unfinished business addressed. 

Too often the thinking behind these projects is just to get the cast back together, which could be accomplished at an autograph show for a lot less money. A reunion movie also requires an interesting script – preferably one that remembers what made the original series successful.

Examples? Too many to mention: The Father Knows Best Reunion (1977) comes to mind, in which half the film is seemingly spent picking up or dropping off people at the airport; Halloween With the New Addams Family (1977) drags even at 75 minutes, though it was a treat to see the original cast in color. And Return to Green Acres (1990) lobotomized one of the 1960s’ most brilliantly subversive series. 

5. Don’t Make Every Joke About Being Older
This trope is especially prevalent with westerns and action shows. You can set your watch by the scene where the hero needs extra effort to subdue hired muscle that he wouldn’t break a sweat over in his prime, and then you’ll get some variation on Danny Glover’s famous Lethal Weapon line, “I’m getting too old for this…”

That’s just one of the issues with The Wild, Wild West Revisited (1979), which too often crossed into camp. It also applies to The Return of the Man From UNCLE: The 15 Years Later Affair (1983), which was apparently written by someone who was paid by the word. 

This doesn’t mean these jokes don’t work when they’re done right: I Spy Returns (1994) was loaded with them but the partnership between Kelly and Scotty has aged with remarkable grace. And when the passage of time is acknowledged in a more poignant way, as in the eternal romance of Matt Dillon and Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987), it can break your heart. 

Which reunions worked? Sounds like a great topic for a future blog. Let me hear your suggestions.