Friday, September 19, 2014

The Top 20 TV Theme Songs of the 1950s

I must still be in a musical mood after getting reacquainted with all those singing TV stars, so let’s spend the next few weeks on theme songs.

Last year I did a series of pieces on the essential shows of the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. I’ll take the same approach with theme songs by decade. I think twenty is a good number, because it’s enough to cover the essentials but will still force some dreadful choices about which tunes to omit.

Of the four pieces, this first one on the 1950s was the most challenging; my knowledge of the TV of this decade is not as deep, and many of the themes from this era are obscured by voiceover narration and lengthy sponsor plugs. A lack of diversity resulted in countless shows featuring generic orchestral melodies and brass fanfares, so as a result I’ve been force to cheat with a couple of the choices (which will be acknowledged in those respective entries).

Ready? Here we go.

The Twilight Zone
It’s the most unique and progressive composition on this list, so even though the entries are not ranked in order The Twilight Zone still deserves the top spot. Composer Marius Constant’s dissonant, avant-garde mix of guitars, bongos, saxophone and French horn doesn’t sound like any other 1950s music on TV or anywhere else. 

The Lone Ranger
Yes, this is my first cheat. The theme is Rossini’s stirring William Tell Overture, but no other classical music piece is more closely associated with a TV show than this one.

As with The Twilight Zone, most TV fans can still name this tune in four notes. Composed by Walter Schumann, the somber theme was actually titled “Badge 714” and was first heard on the Dragnet radio series.

Western shows dominated television in the latter half of the 1950s. It’s debatable whether  Rawhide was the best of them, but it certainly had the best theme, especially with those memorable whip-crack punctuations. It was recorded by Frankie Laine, and revived for a new generation by the Blues Brothers in 1980.

American Bandstand
TV’s most prominent early rock-n-roll showcase had a boogie theme that was not as rebellious as the new music genre it helped to popularize. But it endured for more than 30 years, and enjoyed a 1970s revival after Barry Manilow added a lyric.

The Jackie Gleason Show
“Melancholy Serenade” was not created for the comedian’s classic variety show, but it was composed by Jackie Gleason himself and performed by his orchestra, which recorded several best-selling instrumental albums in the 1950s and ‘60s. 

Peter Gunn
Henry Mancini’s jazzy theme, played by guitarist Duane Eddy, is another of the most instantly recognizable ‘50s themes, and set the perfect tone for this hard-boiled crime series. It’s been covered dozens of times by jazz and blues musicians and, like the theme from Rawhide, was also featured in the Blues Brothers movie.

Alfred Hitchcock Presents
It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate introduction to this macabre anthology series than “Funeral March for a Marionette,” by the French composer Charles Gounod. 

The Mickey Mouse Club
“The Mickey Mouse Club March,” composed by genial head Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd, is one of the great singalong tunes of TV’s golden age. If you were a kid at the time you probably still remember all the words.

Johnny Staccato
Here’s a case where both the series, a Greenwich Village crime drama starring John Cassavettes, and the jazzy music (by Oscar-winning composer Elmer Bernstein) should be much better known and celebrated than they are. The show lasted only one season but is available on DVD. 

The Donna Reed Show
Multiple versions of the same theme were heard throughout the series’ eight seasons, but the best one was the first, with its slower tempo and refined, string quartet arrangement, which builds to a lovely harp glissando as Donna Stone cheerfully sends her family out into the world.

The Rifleman
You don’t get to hear as much as you might like of Herschel Gilbert’s theme at the start of each episode, best remembered by Chuck Connor’s rapid rifle fire. But the longer version played over the closing credits and was better than anything in series costar Johnny Crawford’s discography.

M Squad
The brassy swing of Ernie Wilkins’ theme was popular enough to be covered by both Harry James and Count Basie. It was also the inspiration for the music heard in the Naked Gun movies and Police Squad! TV series, which I guess was meant as a compliment. 

The Lawrence Welk Show
Your grandmother’s favorite appointment TV was all about the bright, shining sounds of champagne music, exemplified in its opening theme, “Bubbles in the Wine.” What once seemed corny now sounds sweetly nostalgic and reassuring.

A lot of 1950s themes tried to tell the entire story of the show in a few measures of music. Bronco offered one of the better examples of this. In just 90 seconds you’ll hear three verses and a chorus that provide a thorough introduction to Ty Hardin’s cowboy hero, Bronco Layne. 

Here’s another cheat – the theme to this TV adaptation of the movie I Remember Mama was adapted from the Holberg Suite by Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg.

Leave it To Beaver
While I confess it’s not one of my personal favorites, the Leave it to Beaver theme is certainly one of the quintessential TV tunes of its era, and instantly conjures images of the family sitcom at its most wholesome.

The other heroic masked rider of 1950s TV didn’t have Rossini in his corner like the Lone Ranger, but he did have the expert tunesmiths at Disney, who created a stirring theme that became a top 20 hit for The Chordettes. 

I Love Lucy
For more than 60 years the I Love Lucy theme has been one of the medium’s most familiar melodies. The composer is Eliot Daniel, who wrote it as a favor for his friend, series producer Joss Oppenheimer – as long as Oppenheimer agreed to keep his name off the show. At the time Daniel didn’t think much of television and figured I Love Lucy would never last. He changed his mind by the second season (and happily collected royalties for the next 40 years). Lyrics (by Harold Adamson) were added for a memorable third season episode. 

The Deputy
Who would have guessed that an uncommon theme would be the most interesting part of a TV western starring Henry Fonda? The show was fairly typical of its time and genre despite Fonda’s gravitas, but the sound of that electric guitar was something no one would associate with westerns until Ennio Morricone began scoring the Sergio Leone films.

Next: The Top 20 Themes of the 1960s

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Peace, Love, and Laughter: The Jimmy Stewart Show

You never know what you’re going to get with a blind buy, but The Jimmy Stewart Show seemed like a safe investment. 

It is difficult to imagine any TV series starring Jimmy Stewart failing to validate one’s attention. This is The Philadelphia Story and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. Also Winchester ’73 and Rear Window and Vertigo. Maybe his situation comedy would never approach such lofty heights, but when an actor from the highest echelon of cinema royalty headlines a television show, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Jimmy Stewart Show debuted in the fall of 1971 on NBC, flanked by two established top 20 hits, The Wonderful World of Disney and Bonanza. Even now that seems like odd scheduling, to drop a 30-minute sitcom into an 8:30 time slot between Tinkerbell and Hoss Cartwright. Perhaps that contributed to its early demise, or perhaps viewers simply preferred Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. in The F.B.I. on ABC, or the CBS Sunday Night Movie.

Set in the small and bucolic northern California town of Easy Valley, the series introduced viewers to James K. Howard (Stewart), anthropology professor at Josiah Kessel College. Kessel was Howard’s grandfather, occasionally seen in flashbacks and also played by Jimmy Stewart. 


The family consists of James, his wife Martha (Julie Adams), their grown son P.J. (Jonathan Daly), their 8 year-old son, Jake (Kirby Furlong), P.J.’s wife Wendy (Ellen Geer), and their 8 year-old son Theodore (Dennis Larson). The two families live together in Howard’s Victorian-style residence, after Peter’s house is destroyed in a fire.

Stewart was 63 at the time, and he looked it. Julie Adams was a youthful 45. So while the actor’s innate dignity and decency defused any cradle-robbing overtones, it still made for a perplexing family unit, particularly with the couple having a son and grandson of the same age. Series creator Hal Kanter may have been over-reaching here, trying to fashion a quirky and unique blended family when something more traditional would have sufficed.  

It’s hardly surprising that Jimmy Stewart is the most agreeable aspect of The Jimmy Stewart Show. James K. Howard, humble, laid-back, gracious, was everything audiences thought Stewart was really like, and I’ve never read anything to contradict that assessment.

One of Kanter’s best ideas (besides the absence of a laugh track) was to take advantage of that audience affection by having the actor start and finish each episode speaking directly to the viewers. 

“I’m just on my way to begin an episode we call ‘Jim’s Decision,’ Stewart says in a typical intro, as he walks past the dressing rooms on the set. “I’m Jim…Stewart, that is, and I hope it’s your decision to stay with us and enjoy the next half hour.” And in the closing moments, he again steps out of character to tell the viewers, “My family and I wish you peace, and love, and laughter.”

It’s hard not to appreciate a show like that, despite its shortcomings.

Alas, even Jimmy Stewart needs a little help to make a show click, and here not much help was forthcoming. The family roles were poorly cast around its venerable patriarch; in a part that would benefit from the feistiness of a Suzanne Pleshette, Julie Adams comes off as merely pleasant. Reedy-voiced Jonathan Daly always seems bothered about something, and rarely registers any genuine warmth as Howard’s oldest son. Ellen Geer, daughter of Will Geer (who appears in one episode) is blandness personified. 

Even the Howard home is not especially welcoming, a reminder of the role set design can play in the success of a family sitcom. Audiences prefer a familiar, comfortable place to visit, but the floor plan here is all sharp corners and odd angles. Even after half a dozen episodes I had no idea how the different rooms connected.

Thankfully, The Jimmy Stewart Show had one other saving grace besides its top-billed star. John McGiver, who I’ve previously praised on this blog, livens things up whenever he appears as Howard’s professorial colleague, Dr. Luther Quince. It’s a stretch to imagine the two characters as friends outside a scripted world – Quince drives a Rolls Royce and fancies himself a connoisseur of life’s more sophisticated pleasures, while Howard plays the accordion and rides a bicycle to his classes. But McGiver is the only actor in the show playing at Stewart’s level, and several episodes are saved by their scenes together.

Looking at the final balance sheet, I wish this family sitcom had a more interesting family, and I wish a show about a college professor would have spent more time in the classroom, as I’ve always liked shows about teachers. But I very much enjoyed Stewart and McGiver, the guest appearances from such reliable character actors as Mary Wickes and Jack Soo, and the bit parts in two episodes played by an impossibly young Kate Jackson.

If you’re inspired to follow me in this blind buy, you’ll get 24 episodes of which many are good but none are great, plus a few that probably made Stewart grumble the way he surely did when he got roped into a turkey like Airport ’77, though he would be too much of a gentleman to do so outside the privacy of his dressing room. I’m happy to have The Jimmy Stewart Show in my DVD collection, even if I don’t revisit it as often as I once anticipated. 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

When TV Stars Sing, Part Two

Welcome back, culture lovers, to Comfort TV’s tribute to (and occasional roasting of) classic TV stars that tried to be singers. As with the previous installment we’ll dig out some long-hidden diamonds, and dig up a few other relics to mock them without mercy. If you’re late to the party, you can read Part One here.

Hogan’s Heroes
I would surmise that most of you will expect Hogan’s Heroes Sing the Best of World War II to be classified in the “what were they thinking?” file. I’d have guessed that too until I first listened to it back in 1995. But once you get past the group rendition of the series’ theme, which is not improved by a lyric (“We’re all heroes, up to our ear-oes”) this is a marvelous album, with impressive solo turns by Ivan Dixon, Robert Clary and Larry Hovis.

Dixon’s jazzy cover of “Shoo-Shoo Baby” merits stylistic comparisons to Joe Williams and Johnny Hartman. Clary puts a jubilant, Mel Torme spin on “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree,” and Hovis shows off an unexpectedly rich baritone on “Lili Marlene.” Richard Dawson opted for a dramatic reading, entitled “This is Worth Fighting For.” Only drawback – no Werner Klemperer-John Banner duet on “Der Fuehrer’s Face.” 

Star Trek
Here’s where it gets scary. Three original crewmembers of the Starship Enterprise boldly went into a recording studio, and two of them should have been beamed out immediately. No form of Romulan torture could be worse than The Transformed Man, a now-legendary trainwreck of a concept album recorded by William Shatner in 1968. Not content with a simple cash-in-on-Kirk record, Shatner unleashes an astonishingly pretentious treatise on man’s place in the universe, with stops along the way for bizarre covers of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” among others. Once heard, they are never forgotten.

At least Shatner learned his lesson after one attempt. Leonard Nimoy made the highly illogical decision to record five albums of his Vulcan vocalese, rarely with the same label twice, which should have told him something. His covers of “Proud Mary” and “Put a Little Love in Your Heart,” from The New World of Leonard Nimoy, sound like 45 rpm recordings played at 33 1/3. And yet, I must admit a perverse desire to hear his single “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins” added to Peter Jackson’s bloated Hobbit trilogy, if only to wake up the audience. 

Nichelle Nichols is the only Star Trek alumnus (until Brent Spiner from Next Generation) with any legitimate right to sing into a microphone. She shared a stage with Duke Ellington at the age of 16, and made numerous nightclub appearances before, during and after her time as Lt. Uhura.

Get Smart
The Get Smart soundtrack album, like those released for Mr. Ed, Flipper, Dennis the Menace and several other shows, consisted primarily of dialog snippets from the series and instrumental music. That would not merit inclusion here, were it not for Barbara Feldon’s performance of “99” and “Max.” Her speaking voice is deep and very sexy. But when she sings, it sounds like an off-key Mae West impersonator at a Vegas lounge show where they’ll waive the two-drink minimum if you promise not to leave early. 

The Odd Couple
The Odd Couple Sings, released in 1968, featured Tony Randall and Jack Klugman backed by, believe it or not, the London Festival Orchestra and Chorus. Randall’s turn-of-the-century music hall style has a certain goofball charm, but the same cannot be said of Klugman’s take on Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” “Ya prob’ly tink dis sawng is about ya,” growls Oscar to Felix, while the London Festival Orchestra and Chorus suppress a collective chuckle.

Medical Center
Apparently, the law compelling any hunky young star of a medical show to cut a record (see Ben Casey and Dr. Kildare) had not expired by the 1970s. Chad Everett took time out from making patients swoon on Medical Center to record two albums, one of which features his wooden take on the Bee Gees’ “Nights on Broadway.” Nurse, AutoTune, stat! 

The Brady Bunch
There were four Brady Bunch albums that achieved moderate sales before landing in the cut-out bin. But the series’ evolution into a cultural touchstone for the baby boomer generation prompted a “Best of” CD compilation that sold in the hundreds of thousands. Yes, I bought one. Performances range from competent (“Merry Go Round,” “Time to Change”) to dreadful (“American Pie”), but the songs that were featured in the show, especially “It’s a Sunshine Day,” will always make me smile. 

Starsky and Hutch
David Soul’s #1 hit “Don’t Give Up on Us” is one of my favorite ’70s songs. It was his only US hit, though Hutch was big business in England, where he landed 4 more songs in the top 20 including a second #1 with “Silver Lady.” Previously, he had been an unheralded opening act for bands like The Doors and The Byrds, and made several appearances on The Merv Griffin Show as “The Covered Man,” singing with a ski mask over his head to hide his identity. The gimmick didn’t get him a recording contract, but it got him a meeting with the casting director who launched his TV career on Here Come the Brides

Wonder Woman
“Toto I get the feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore…”
Sound familiar? It does if you were watching TV in the ‘70s. Lynda Carter did everything she could to make her first single, “Toto (Don’t it Feel Like Paradise)” a hit. She performed it on the third season Wonder Woman episode “Amazon Hot Wax,” on her 1978 television special, and on every talk show that would have her. It didn’t work. But Carter can sing – you can see her live this October at Lincoln Center. 

The Waltons
I had never listened to (or even known about) Walton Christmas – Together Again until a few years ago, when a friend bought it on eBay. His high bid was one penny. The album was released in 1999, 18 years after the end of the series, and reunited most of the cast members and Waltons creator Earl Hamner, who once again provides a gentle voiceover introduction. Jon Walmsley (Jason) was always the most musical of the cast, and is prominently featured, but you’ll also hear songs and stories from the rest of the brood and their parents (Michael Learned and Ralph Waite). Even those with a high tolerance for corny sentiment might find it all a bit much, but during the holiday season I have caught myself humming the chorus to “Snowman Land.”

The Dukes of Hazzard
Released in 1982, the Dukes of Hazzard album has Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke) narrating a song cycle that chronicles events surrounding a Hazzard road race. John Schneider, already in the midst of a successful country music career, performed “In the Driver’s Seat,” and Tom Wopat covered The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.” Both of the Duke boys were and are first-rate singers – I’ve seen them both on Broadway, Schneider in Grand Hotel and Wopat in Annie Get Your Gun. Catherine Bach’s version of “Downhome American Girl” isn’t quite as polished, though our men in uniform didn’t have any complaints when she performed the song on USO tours.

Laverne & Shirley
This was just not a good idea. Laverne & Shirley Sing (1976) was the album title, and truth in advertising would have demanded a question mark at the end of that phrase. Appropriately, series stars Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams cover 1950s and ‘60s pop hits like “Da Doo Ron Ron” and “I’m Walkin’.” The first single was “Sixteen Reasons,” which pales next to the Connie Stevens version (and that’s not exactly setting the bar high). Promos proclaimed that “this is the album that 50,00,000 fans have been waiting for.” Sales, however, were so disappointing that it’s unlikely even the Big Ragu bought one. 

Charlie’s Angels
After singing on the Josie and the Pussycats record, Cheryl Ladd parlayed her Charlie’s Angels fame into a brief recording career that was bigger in Japan than it was here. “Think it Over” from her first album barely scratched the top 40 (it peaked at #34 in 1978). But just look at that album cover. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

When TV Stars Sing, Part One

I know what you’re thinking. This is going to be a succession of cheap shots at actors who try to parlay their television stardom into a singing career, regardless of actual singing ability. If that’s the only reason you’re here…you won’t be disappointed.

But there’s more to the story than ridiculing people more popular and successful than us, even when they deserve it. The records in question were not all disastrous – it’s just that the disastrous ones are more fun to talk about. Some are quite good. Some, in fact, are excellent.

Let’s bypass the two most obvious selections – The Monkees and The Partridge Family, as both shows revolved around professional musical groups, and a certain level of proficiency was required to sell that premise. In both cases that level was not just met but greatly exceeded. The Brady Bunch, however, is still fair game.

Even with a two-part entry I won’t be able to cover them all, so I tried to single out the ones that were the most interesting, or the most infamous. 

Let’s start at the very beginning, which as we learned in The Sound of Music, is a very good place to start.

Ricky Nelson
Not only was Ricky Nelson the first TV star to embark upon a successful music career, he remains the standard by which all similar crossover attempts are measured. He was also television’s first teen idol, establishing the template for everyone from Johnny Crawford to Davy Jones to Zac Efron. 

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet debuted in 1952, with the Nelson family – Ozzie, Harriet and sons David and Ricky – all playing themselves. Rick formed a band in a 1956 episode, and in 1957 he performed a cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” on the show. The original was still in the top 40, but that didn’t stop Ricky’s version from reaching #4 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Viewers watched Nelson’s performances on TV and then bought his albums, and those who heard him sing on the radio would then tune into the series. That’s the kind of cross-promotional win-win that makes studios, networks, agents and managers salivate.

Ricky Nelson had 35 top-40 hits between 1957 and 1972, including such pop classics as “Hello Mary Lou,” “Travelin’ Man,” “It’s Late” and “Poor Little Fool.” He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. 

If you find it hard to believe that the cast of Bonanza recorded an album, you would be right – they actually recorded two albums. Both Ponderosa Party Time and Christmas on the Ponderosa featured Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Pernell Roberts and Michael Landon attempting four-part harmony and missing by a mile. But there’s a good-natured spirit to their attempts that comes through, so at least you know they had fun trying. 

The Donna Reed Show
Sometimes ego propels actors into the music business, but sometimes they are just following orders.

Tony Owen, the producer of The Donna Reed Show (and Donna’s husband) attempted to replicate Ricky Nelson’s crossover success by having series stars Shelley Fabares and Paul Petersen record songs that would be incorporated into upcoming episodes. Both rejected the idea, professing their lack of musical ability with refreshing candor.

But Owen was adamant, so in 1962 Fabares recorded the teenage love anthem “Johnny Angel.” Darlene Love sang backup and Glen Campbell played guitar. The song was #1 for two weeks and stayed in the top 5 for two months. She put out new music for the next three years, but nothing else clicked. 

Petersen also made the charts, first with “She Can’t Find Her Keys” and then with the top 10 hit “My Dad,” which no classic TV fan can remember without getting a little misty.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
On “Songs by Dwayne Hickman” (1960), the Dobie Gillis star “presents his outlook on life for the first time in song,” according to the liner notes. The trouble is that Hickman sounded eerily like Perry Como, which is probably not the cutting edge sound that Capitol Records wanted from TV’s quintessential teenager. Compare his rendition of “Don’t Send a Rabbit” to Como’s “Round and Round” and you’ll be amazed at the similarities. 

Dr. Kildare/ Ben Casey
The stars of the top two medical shows of the 1960s both attempted music careers, but only Richard Chamberlain (Kildare) has any measurable success. He hit the top 10 with a cover of his show’s theme song in 1962, and returned to the top 40 with his interpretations of Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” and The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream.”

Hey, this is easy, thought Ben Casey star Vince Edwards. But his first album debuted in 1962 and died on the table. 

Car 54, Where Are You?
Joe E. Ross, who played Officer Gunther Toody opposite Fred Gwynne’s Officer Francis Muldoon, recorded Love Songs From a Cop in 1963. “His singing is not about to give Frank Sinatra concern,” read the liner notes in the understatement of the millennium. But series fans will smile when he incorporates Toody’s trademark “Woo! Woo!” exclamation in his cover of “Ma, She’s Makin’ Eyes at Me.”

The Rifleman
Johnny Crawford, who played the son of homesteader Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) in The Rifleman, parlayed his teen idol fame into a  brief moment of pop stardom.  As is usually the case with these crossovers, his first release was the most successful – the single “Cindy’s Birthday” reached #8 in 1962. The hits and misses all sound more or less the same – syrupy arrangements meant to hide Crawford’s quivery, high-pitched warblings. His rending of Richie Valens’ “Donna” is particularly painful. Despite the fact that he only had four top-40 hits, he somehow managed to put out two Greatest Hits albums. 

The Beverly Hillbillies
The 1965 Beverly Hillbillies album is an odd mix of music and comedy that features all of the series’ stars, including Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale) and Nancy Kulp (Miss Hathaway) who duet on a little ditty called “Love of Money.” Donna Douglas (Elly Mae) sings about her “critters,” and Irene Ryan (Granny) croons the tender “Vittles.” Saving grace – the show’s theme, performed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The Patty Duke Show
Patty Duke’s self-titled 1965 album, the first of six (!), produced two chart singles, “Say Something Funny” and the top-10 “Don’t Just Stand There.” What I like about her performances is that, unlike other neophyte singers who adopt a “just follow the melody and try to stay on pitch” approach, Patty barrels into the lyrics like it’s karaoke night at a Brooklyn Heights bar, and she’s on her third Long Island Iced Tea. 

The Flying Nun
“Sally Field is many things, including a typical American girl and a marvelous young actress, but she never, in her wildest dreams, thought that she would become a singer.” So begin the liner notes of Sally Field – Star of The Flying Nun. And Sally was right – she never did become a singer. Music supervisor Lester Sill ( a one-time Monkees producer) does his best to make the tracks palatable, usually by boosting Field’s vocals with a Grand Canyon’s worth of echo, and then burying her in a blanket of backup singers. 

The Andy Griffith Show
Remember Golden Throats from Rhino Records? They were collections of hilariously bad recordings by celebrity singers, and one of them included Andy Griffith’s frightening take on “House of the Rising Sun.” That performance suggests it would be wise to steer clear of Themes and Laughs from The Andy Griffith Show (1961). 

Surprisingly, though, the record makes for very pleasant, nostalgic listening, particularly Griffith’s finger-snapping cover of the show’s theme song, “The Fishin’ Hole.” Still sadly unreleased – Francis Bavier’s pioneering gangsta rap masterpiece, “Fight the Power Aunt Bea.” 

Next Week: The Brady Bunch, Hogan’s Heroes, Star Trek, The Odd Couple, Laverne & Shirley and more!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Comfort TV Career of Meredith Baxter

The Internet Movie Database lists more than 100 credits for Meredith Baxter; 90 of them are for television. Her career began in an era when TV stars rarely crossed into film, but even after such transitions became commonplace she apparently had no such aspirations.  Next month, she joins the cast of The Young and the Restless.

I decided to write about her because I don’t think enough people do. 

Some TV actors are taken for granted, perhaps because consistent proficiency in a wide range of projects is not as esteemed as a single transcendent character or performance. Meredith Baxter starred in one of television’s best dramas and one of its best-loved situation comedies, appeared as a regular or recurring character in three other shows, earned four Emmy nominations and headlined enough TV movies for a Lifetime network marathon that would last a week.

Whatever she was in, she made it better, and that’s something you can’t say about a lot of performers with higher-profile careers. That’s why I’ve channeled my inner Ralph Edwards to celebrate her television achievements – This is Your Comfort TV Life, Meredith Baxter.

Her first year with professional credits – 1971 – includes a memorable appearance on The Partridge Family, in the season 2 episode “Where Do Mermaids Go?” In one of her rare screen performances as a brunette, Baxter plays a bohemian heiress, whom the Partridges first meet when she is skinny-dipping in a rural pond (talk about making an entrance!). In return for the family’s kindness, she deposits one million dollars in their bank account. 

Hippie characters in this era of television were usually played somewhat broadly, with a lot of now-archaic slang. Baxter brings a grounded, melancholy, mature-beyond-her-years quality to an often-clich├ęd role. And in her close-ups, you may be entranced as I was by the most stunning blue eyes of anyone on TV, with the possible exception of Lara Parker from Dark Shadows.

Just one year later she was headlining her own series, one created by Partridge Family creator Bernard Slade. Baxter played Bridget Teresa Mary Colleen Fitzgerald, an Irish Catholic school teacher who falls in love at first sight with cab driver Bernie Steinberg. “I think we have a problem,” they realize, and that was the introduction to Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-1973).

The couple’s inter-religious marriage and the culture clash of their respective in-laws was the launching point for many of the episodes, but the topics were not explored with the frankness and harder edge of All in the Family, which debuted the previous year. Instead, Bridget Loves Bernie was a sweet and gentle sitcom that worked because of the chemistry between Baxter and costar David Birney, whom she married (and later divorced).    

Despite being ranked fifth in the ratings among all shows that season, CBS shut it down out of concern over adverse reactions from a vocal minority of intolerant viewers. More than 40 years later it’s still the highest-rated TV series to be canceled. Not one of television’s prouder moments.

Following guest appearances on Barnaby Jones, Medical Center and Police Woman, as well as leads in several TV movies (one of the best being The Night That Panicked America, a dramatization of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds), Baxter played Meg in a miniseries adaptation of Little Women, featuring Greer Garson, Dorothy McGuire and a cast rich in classic TV stars, from Susan Dey and Eve Plumb to William Shatner and Robert Young.

But it was her next series, Family (1976-1980), that for me still resonates most amidst her remarkable resume. Meredith Baxter joined the show in season 2, taking over the role of Nancy Maitland from Elayne Heilveil. 

Family is one of the best shows of the ‘70s and its not accessible anywhere now, outside of a discontinued DVD release of the first two seasons. Maybe we’ve lost the capacity to appreciate shows like this. After 20 years of sensationalized reality TV, the idea of dramatizing the normal low-key reality of life with one Pasadena family now seems like an incomplete pitch; what’s the hook? Is the father psychic or is the mother leading a double life? Does the son have super powers? Is the daughter a Muslim or a pop singer or something else that will bring in a broader demographic?

When the writing and the acting are as perfect as they are here, no other incentive should be necessary. To watch Family is to be wholly drawn into the joys and sorrows and relationships of fictional characters, and to believe that every word they say is extemporaneous, and could not possibly have been typed by someone else months earlier.

And to think we’ve come this far without even mentioning Family Ties (1982-1989), the show for which the actress is certainly best-known. Baxter was top-billed but quickly ceded the spotlight to Michael J. Fox, who Arthur Fonzarelli-ed the rest of the cast into supporting roles. Still, many of the show’s best episodes feature Elyse Keaton, whether she was dragging Alex home from an alcohol-fueled party (season 2’s “Birthday Boy”) or going on a blackjack binge in Atlantic City (season 3’s “The Gambler”).  

When you factor in all of Meredith Baxter’s post-Comfort TV credits – from a Emmy-nominated performance in A Woman Scorned: The Betty Broderick Story (1992) to more recent appearances on Brothers & Sisters and Cold Case and Glee, it all adds up to time well spent in one’s chosen profession. And by all accounts she’s a pretty nice person too.

Not sure I’ll be watching her on Young and the Restless – even Daisy Duke joining the cast could not turn me into a regular viewer – but it makes me happy to know she’s still somewhere on television.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Familiar Faces: A Salute to Classic TV Character Actors

Back when Sesame Street was fun to watch for adults as well as children (AKA the Pre-Elmo Era), it presented a series of musical segments called “The People in your Neighborhood,” in which kids were introduced to a variety of local tradespeople.

If they were still doing them today, they would feature Muppets dressed as baristas and IT guys.

“Oh, a barista is the man to see
When you want espresso or hot tea
He’ll write your name upon a plastic cup
Then call you when it’s time to pick it up”

Yes, I just wrote that. Somebody get me the Children’s Television Workshop.

But this piece has nothing to do with Sesame Street or coffee. It’s about the people who live in the neighborhood of classic TV. Not the characters in every episode, but those whose faces gradually become just as familiar from their many appearances in different roles on different shows.

Sometimes it takes awhile to learn their names, especially if you’re the type that changes the channel or stops the DVD before the closing credits. But eventually even the most casual viewer will begin to recognize the busiest and the best of them. Each has a unique quality that makes their visits to a favorite show memorable, even if they were frequently cast in the same types of roles – think of all the timid, henpecked characters played by John Fiedler, or how Reta Shaw specialized in domineering housekeepers.

Here are five actors that always make my Comfort TV viewing more enjoyable. Hope to hear about some of yours in the comments.

Jane Dulo
As soon as Jane Dulo appeared in any TV episode, you could count the seconds before she would get on somebody’s nerves. Dulo specialized in sharp-tongued nurses (McHale’s Navy, All in the Family, That Girl) and abrasive mothers/mothers-in-law (she was 99’s mom on Get Smart), but she was never as aggressively nasty as Kathleen Freeman, another familiar actress often cast in such roles. Her prodigious television career ranged from the forgotten 1951 series Two Girls Named Smith to a guest spot on The Golden Girls, 41 years later. 

John McGiver
Though he’s appeared in several westerns, John McGiver is best remembered as a persnickety, exasperated executive who may or may not be British. McGiver’s precise clipped diction carried traces of an aristocratic accent, but the actor was born and raised in New York City, where he worked as an English teacher before starting an acting career. You’ve seen him on Gilligan’s Island, The Lucy Show, The Patty Duke Show (as Martin Lane’s editor), The Beverly Hillbillies, The Fugitive and dozens of other classics. My favorite McGiver moment: as a publisher of children’s books on The Dick Van Dyke Show (“See Rob Write, Write Rob Write”), he steals a hilarious scene from both Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore. 

Hilarie Thompson
Attractive but approachable, Hilarie Thompson’s career began in the late 1960s with several flower child roles, perhaps most notably in the memorable I Dream of Jeannie episode “The Mod Party.” She also played another troubled youth in a terrific two-part episode of Harry O (“Forty Reasons to Kill”) and Oscar Madison’s niece on The Odd Couple. I thought she was superb in the Charlie’s Angels episode “Counterfeit Angels,” which introduced a trio of “fake” Angels who commit a series of crimes. Thompson perfectly nailed Kate Jackson’s all-business attitude and quirky vocal inflections. But if you are a Brady Bunch fan, you probably know her best as Marge, the King’s Island carnival booth worker in the episode “The Cincinnati Kids.”

Burt Mustin
He was classic TV’s favorite spunky old codger from the early 1950s (on Father Knows Best) through the late 1970s (with recurring roles on All in the Family and Phyllis). That’s a long time to play characters that were about 80 years of age. IMDB lists more than 10 appearances for which Mustin is billed simply as “Old Man” (or in one case, “Old Man #2”). But even in the smallest role he brought an outsized personality and a contented dignity to his characters. I particularly enjoyed his performance as a retired police detective who both impresses and frustrates Sgt. Joe Friday on Dragnet (“Homicide: DR22”). Mustin passed away in 1977, at age 92. 

Pamelyn Ferdin
She was one of the most easily recognizable child stars of her generation, as much for how she spoke as how she looked. Pamelyn Ferdin had a distinctively tremulous voice, which made her sound like she was on the verge of tears even when she was happy. You may have first heard that voice one of several Charlie Brown animated specials (she played Lucy), or in the Brady Bunch episode where Jan wore that dreadful black wig (“Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up”). Her classic TV appearances began at age 6 with Bewitched and The Andy Griffith Show, and she would later guest-star on My Three Sons, The Monkees, Green Acres, Star Trek and Family Affair, while also appearing as a regular on the Saturday morning series Space Academy. Today, she is a prominent animal rights activist. I think that’s her best role yet. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mission: Impossible: TV for Smart People

“Please slow it down – I get stomach cramps!”

That quote was taken from a letter sent to the producers of Mission: Impossible from someone who apparently couldn’t take the stress.

I’m glad they didn’t listen. The show’s frenetic pace was one of its greatest assets, comparable to nothing else on TV until Jack Bauer began his first race against the clock on 24. From the lit match that kicked off the opening credits to the final freeze-frame, Mission: Impossible just flat-out moved, and demanded that you pay attention. 

If you did, and your stomach didn’t hurt, your efforts were rewarded. M:I rarely insulted the intelligence of its viewers. Don’t expect the surplus exposition found in other hour-long dramas – you won’t watch scenes in which Jim Phelps turns to Cinnamon and says, “So that means the agent we captured yesterday is planning on contacting his government at midnight, to receive his final instructions on the assassination attempt of General Morales!” No, sorry, you keep up, with no help from the characters.

The title was well chosen because the focus is always on the mission, not the operatives who carried it out. That made casting critical, as an audience used to building familial attachments to TV characters would now have to cheer on a team of emotionless government workers.

Who were they? One-sentence descriptions will suffice: Leader Dan Briggs (later Jim Phelps), a brilliant tactician of stoic demeanor; Barney Collier, electronics genius; Willie Armitage, the team’s muscle, Rollin Hand, master of disguise, Cinnamon Carter, fashion model turned Mata Hari. The characters were not further developed, because their personalities or lives before the Impossible Missions Force mattered not at all. 

Instead, the drama emerged from the high stakes at play; while Mannix was beating up small-time hoods, and Steve McGarrett was chasing Wo Fat on Hawaii Five-O, the IM Force was toppling foreign governments and averting nuclear holocaust.

But it wasn’t just what they did that made them special, it was how they did it. Viewers used to the near misses and lapses of judgment that were written in to pad out 60-minute shows could now watch a team that didn’t make mistakes. The IM Force got its orders in the first scene and then, step by step, carried them out flawlessly. This was a team that triumphed because they were smarter than their adversaries, not stronger.

Because of this, on those rare occasions when something did go wrong, the sense of danger was far more pronounced. When enemy agents captured Cinnamon in “The Exchange,” it wasn’t like Dan Tanna having to rescue Binzer on Vegas. The threat seemed real.

Theirs was a partnership of professionals, who often went about the task at hand in blessed silence and without commenting on their own cleverness. Every episode featured long scenes with little or no dialogue, which ironically constituted some of the best writing in 1960s television.

For those who want the full story of how this series came to be, I would direct you to Patrick White’s outstanding book The Complete Mission: Impossible Dossier. He shares some great stories about the show’s mad genius creator, Bruce Geller, the role that Lucille Ball played in approving the series pilot, and why star Steven Hill left the show after its first season, to be replaced by the actor who became synonymous with M:I, Peter Graves. 

Hill’s episodes, incidentally, are consistently excellent but were rarely syndicated, which thanks to DVD is no longer an issue. Syndication was a lousy way to discover this series anyway, because there was simply no acceptable means to cut even 5 minutes out of its best episodes. 

Not everyone liked it. In its first season more viewers watched Lawrence Welk, and one critic in Saturday Review wrote a scathing piece that condemned agents who break the laws of other nations, and are never brought to justice.

He had a point. At a time when half the nation was incensed about U.S. forces in Vietnam, here was a show that proudly depicted saboteurs getting their marching orders from “the Secretary” (presumably Secretary of State), who then undermined the domestic affairs of other nations by manufacturing evidence, framing and entrapping government officials, and killing with no remorse.  

Heaven knows how many advocacy groups would demand that Mission: Impossible be taken off the air if it were introduced today. But times were different in the 1960s, and I leave it to you to decide if that’s a good thing.

Almost all of the series’ best episodes can be found in its first three seasons, before the quality was diminished by recurrent cast turnover and a shift to more domestic stories. Here are seven superb Missions worth taking again.

The Pilot
The IM Force is dispatched to Santa Costa to recover two stolen nuclear devices. Everything that made the series a classic was already in its first episode – the self-destructing message delivery system, Lalo Schifrin’s brilliant theme, Rollin’s rubber masks, Barney’s technological wizardry, a cracking pace and a plot that kept viewers on the edge of their seats for a full hour. Also joining the team – Wally Cox, in a memorable one-shot appearance as a safecracker. 

Operation Rogosh
This first-season show was the first of many episodes in which the team creates an elaborate charade to convince an enemy agent that he has been transported through time or across a great distance. Here, they have just 36 hours to break an “unbreakable” terrorist planning a series of attacks on Los Angeles.

The Carriers
The team infiltrates a replica of a typical American city, located behind the Iron Curtain, where enemy agents are trained to think and act like Americans as part of a germ warfare plot. Such places actually existed during the Cold War. In the best scene, the Russians teach Cinnamon how to go-go dance. 

The Legacy
Four men, all sons of Adolf Hitler’s most trusted officers, meet in Switzerland to recover a Nazi fortune, which will be used to start the Fourth Reich. Rollin impersonates one of the heirs, prompting many anxious moments. There’s also a great, unexpected twist at the end. 

The Astrologer
Mission: retrieve missing microfilm and a kidnapped freedom fighter; the challenge, do it while 40,000 feet in the air on a two-hour airline flight. The tight quarters, limited time frame and lack of escape route all intensify the suspense.

The Mind of Stefan Miklos
“I don’t think there has ever been a more difficult show to write in the history of American television than Mission: Impossible,” said one veteran TV writer. Episodes like this one, which may be the series’ best, are the reason. The team has to lead a brilliant intelligence officer to a false conclusion, by leaving clues that can’t look like clues. 

The Glass Cage
How do you free someone from an escape-proof glass cubicle that is constantly guarded and video-monitored, in the heart of a maximum-security prison? The Impossible Missions Force finds a way.