Monday, May 2, 2016

The Museum of Comfort TV Salutes: The Cone of Silence

Imagine a place where all of the instantly recognizable objects associated with classic television are on display. It doesn’t exist, so we’ll create it here, and pay tribute to many of our favorite Comfort TV things.

Introduced in the first episode of Get Smart, the Cone of Silence would inspire some of the biggest laughs on what many would argue is still the funniest television series ever created. 

Was this merely an inspired visual gag by series creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, or a subtle comment on government incompetence? Imagine how many taxpayer dollars were poured into research and development on something that never did its job. Not the first time, and certainly not the last. Fill in your favorite boondoggle here.

Its presence in the series’ pilot suggests that this was a moment that would help sell the show: Maxwell Smart, dedicated and eager but also clumsy and dense, awaits assignment from the head of the secret government espionage agency CONTROL. The Chief, Max’s boss, hints at how vital this upcoming mission will be. Not willing to take any chances, Max demands his orders be given only within the security of the Cone of Silence. The Chief, exasperated as if he already knows Uncle Sam got stuck with a clunker, calls for it anyway.

That is a perfect classic TV moment.

The scene works so well that it could have been reprised with only minor variations in future episodes and still earned a laugh. But that would have been too easy for a show with this much genius in its origins. The Cone of Silence would make ten more appearances over the show’s five seasons, and the question was never whether it would function as designed, but how it would fail once again.

In “KAOS in CONTROL,” the Cone still impairs communication between Max and The Chief, but those outside can hear every word they say. 

It appears once again in “My Nephew the Spy,” after Max insists that regulations call for all security measures to be taken in such vital circumstances. The Cone is lowered, and the Chief asks Agent 86 what he discovered about KAOS headquarters. Max responds, “Nothing.”

“Too Many Chiefs,” from season one, is my favorite Cone of Silence moment. Here's why:

“Hubert’s Unfinished Symphony” features the debut of the portable Cone of Silence, which looks even more ridiculous than its predecessor. Which is unfortunate for the Chief, who spends most of the episode stuck inside. 

When Max and 99 are on assignment in England in “That Old Gang of Mine,” the London CONTROL office provides its own variation, the Umbrella of Silence. Surprisingly it’s up to the task, but other complications ensue. 

In the season four episode “A Tale of Two Tails” we learn that the Cone was invented by Professor Cohn. “The Cone of Silence was invented by a Professor Cohn?” Max asks, as he looks up at it; “That’s funny…it doesn’t look it.” One more example of a joke that worked 40 years ago and would now generate demands for apologies and sensitivity training.

With the Cone on the fritz again, Max and the Chief opt for the CONTROL secret word file. Once you see how that works you’ll wonder if it was created by the same guy who wrote the federal tax code.

And though it’s not canon I should mention that a high-tech version of the Cone appears in the 2008 Get Smart film with Steve Carrell. Here at the Museum we’re content to own the original, but if you don’t see it on your next visit don’t panic – most likely it just needs yet another tune-up. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Did You Really Watch All These Shows?

This is a question often heard by those of us with substantial TV-on-DVD collections. Especially when those collections are prominently displayed in the room with the biggest television.

The answer is yes – I’ve watched everything you see in the floor to ceiling shelves on both sides of my TV – unless you happened to get here a few days after a new box has arrived, but by your next visit I’ll have that one finished as well. In fact, I’ve watched most of the episodes multiple times. That’s the litmus test for whether a series is worth buying – will I want to watch it more than once? 

Not my Actual Collection - but You Get the Idea

The next question, almost inevitably, addresses how that could be possible. A more diplomatic guest will opt for something like, “Doesn’t that take up a lot of your time?” while those prone to snark prefer “Don’t you have a job? Or a life?”

It’s an understandable reaction. Taken in its totality, the prospect of watching about 10,000 episodes of television seems like a formidable task. 

But it’s not – really! The reason for this blog entry is not just to provide some insight into my viewing habits. Rather, it’s to offer encouragement to anyone who has read some of my pieces, and those of my fellow TV bloggers, and had an interest sparked in re-watching a favorite show from the past, or checking out one that you’ve never had a chance to experience:

“I liked the Mission: Impossible movies – wonder what the original series was like?”

The Donna Reed Show sounds like the perfect antidote to the smart ass tone of sitcoms now.”

“I remember how much I used to enjoy watching The Waltons with my parents. I wonder if I’d still enjoy it.”

But then you consider the time required – seven, eight, nine seasons, each with anywhere from 24 to 30+ episodes. This is not like just watching a movie on a friend’s recommendation.

My suggestion is don’t be intimidated by the time commitment – go for it.

Yes, I’ve watched a lot of TV, but I probably average about three episodes out of my DVD collection per day. With half-hour shows at about 25 minutes each, that’s just one hour and 15 minutes, less time than it would take to watch most movies. But over the course of a year that adds up to more than 1,000 episodes. And I’ve had most of these sets for more than a decade – that’s how you get to 10,000 shows, if you also have a job, and a life.

Choose a series, and start the first season with one or two episodes a night. I know binge-watching is popular now with stuff like House of Cards, where each episode is like a chapter in a novel and viewers can’t wait to see how it ends. It’s a different kind of television. But I don’t believe that approach serves the older shows as well.

Still, there is something appealing and satisfying about watching every episode of a classic series in order. My friends and I call it “taking the journey,” one with a starting point and an ending point, and unexpected detours along the way. 

It also deepens one’s appreciation for the talent both on display and behind the scenes. Whenever I return to Father Knows Best, with its 203 episodes over six seasons, I am astonished that more than 150 of them were written by just two men, Roswell Rogers and Paul West. Sometimes it takes me two weeks to write one of these blogs.

You’ll notice credits more watching shows this way. You’ll see guest actors return in different roles, sometimes during the same season. You’ll spot continuity errors aplenty. You’ll enjoy seeing how grocery stories and department stores and banks looked 30-50 years ago – and if you have some memory of that time you’ll miss them. In fact you may spot a number of social and cultural traits that we’ve long since abandoned. 

Best of all, you don’t have to own the shows to watch them anymore, thanks to libraries and Netflix and streaming services. But if you do buy (and prices have plummeted over the last few years), you may be surprised at how often you return to these fictional worlds. We all deserve a break from 2016 sometimes – at least until the election is over.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Do Spin and Marty Have Anything to Say to Millennials?

I have a friend who is obsessed with the Toy Story movies. He has watched them dozens of times and collects anything Toy Story related.

I’ve always preferred the hand-drawn animation of the classic Disney films to the computerized images created by Pixar. However, there was one moment in the first Toy Story film that was so unexpectedly moving to me, I nearly stood up and cheered. It is when Andy is spotted wearing a t-shirt with the logo of the Triple R Ranch, previously seen only in the “Spin & Marty” serials that aired in the 1950s on the original Mickey Mouse Club

To me this was confirmation that the Ranch, at least as of 1995, was still in business. And maybe it was still being run by Mr. Logan and Mr. Burnett, happily presiding over carefree summers of trail rides and songs around the campfire. 

But if it is there, would anyone want to go?

There is a tendency among Millennials and post-Millennials to disregard anything in the culture that came and went before they were born. I know it’s not true of the entire generation but I’ve heard too many examples to not sense a trend. So I can’t
imagine today’s kids and teenagers being captivated by The Adventures of Spin and Marty and its two sequels.

But it wasn’t an issue for me. I was born seven years after the final serial aired in 1957, and I didn’t see any of the “Spin and Marty” shows until the 1990s, when the Disney Channel began airing The Mickey Mouse Club on Vault Disney. I was hooked on them immediately. 

It’s easy to see why they were so popular in the 1950s, a time when television was dominated by westerns, and new cowboy movies opened almost every week. All the kids playing Roy Rogers or John Wayne in their neighborhood games could now watch stories set in the present day, about boys their own age learning to rope and ride and go on their own western adventures.

It was Walt Disney himself who suggested adapting Lawrence Edward Watkin’s book Marty Markham for the first “Spin and Marty” story. The 25-episode serial was filmed in Placerita Canyon, California, on land later purchased by the Disney company and used for hundreds of films and TV shows, including Little House on the Prairie and The Dukes of Hazzard.

David Stollery played Marty opposite Tim Considine as Spin. Interesting trivia note: Stollery left showbiz to pursue automotive design, and created the Celica model for Toyota.

Also in the cast was Harry Carey Jr., a member of John Ford’s western stock company, who played Triple R foreman Bill Burnett. I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Carey about ten years ago; he recalled that “the whole feeling on the set was one of joy.” 

In the first serial, pampered rich kid Marty arrives at the Triple R (with his own butler!) and dismisses the place as a “dirty old ranch.” That doesn’t go over well with his fellow campers, but eventually he begins to fit in and overcome his fear of horses, when he competes at the annual rodeo.

After 30,000 fan letters poured in, Disney considered a Spin & Marty film, but opted for a follow-up serial. The Further Adventures of Spin and Marty unfolded over 22 episodes and introduced Kevin Corcoran as Moochie, the Triple R’s youngest buckaroo.

The sequel also recruited popular Mouseketeer Annette Funicello as one of the girls from nearby Lakeview Lodge. Of course, both Spin and Marty fall for her, prompting a knock-down drag-out fight. This being Disney, they are friends again by the final episode. 

The second series was another hit, which led to The New Adventures of Spin and Marty, a 30-chapter saga that brought back Annette and fellow Mouseketeers Darlene Gillespie, Bonnie Fields and Don Agrati (better known as Don Grady, who along with Tim Considine would later star on My Three Sons).

This was my favorite of the serials, as it featured both a grand adventure (the boys go in hot pursuit of a wild stallion named Dynamite) and a ranch talent show to raise money for a new kitchen (after Marty’s jalopy crashes into the old  one).

“I was always surprised and very pleased to come back,” Carey told me. “I guess there were other roles I missed out on, but it was too good a series to walk away from.”

It wasn’t surprising that I would enjoy these stories, as I had already become a fan of so many other television classics from the 1950s. But so much has changed since then. “Spin and Marty” is set in an outdoor world. An unplugged world. Would leaving the city or the suburbs to spend a summer at a dude ranch still sound exciting to a teenager now?

I’m not sure. But they don’t know what they are missing. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

When the Real World Peeks In

Most of my fellow Comfort TV fans don’t have much use for reality TV.

The issue used to be that these shows cut into the valuable prime time real estate reserved exclusively for sitcoms, dramas and procedurals. Now that we have 8000 channels this is no longer a problem.

Maybe we just like the old shows because they provide an escape from reality. But sometimes, even within these enclosed fictional settings, the real world found a way in. It didn’t happen often, and with some shows you’d never know the difference if you did not know the backstory. Other times it was very clear that something unique, and very special, was taking place.

“Lucy’s Big Break”
Here’s Lucy
Before filming began on the fifth season of Here’s Lucy, Lucille Ball had a skiing accident and broke her leg. As she was carried off the Aspen slopes, she was distraught at the prospect of putting the cast and crew of her show out of work (according to daughter Lucie Arnaz, who was there when it happened). How could she do the physical comedy that was such an integral part of the series? CBS briefly considered canceling the show, but instead scripts were rewritten and Lucy returned to the set in a cast and a wheelchair for the first five episodes of that season. 

“Happy Birthday and Too Many More”
The Dick Van Dyke Show
In the sophisticated and attractive Rob and Laura Petrie, many TV fans saw a parallel with another appealing young couple – President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jackie. President Kennedy was assassinated during production of a show about Richie’s birthday party. Four days later the episode was shot, but not in the traditional way in front of a studio audience. “No one’s mind was really on doing a comedy show,” said series writer Bill Persky. Next time you watch it, see if you can spot any signs of a grief-stricken cast at work. 

“Maynard’s Farewell to the Troops”
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
Imagine being a struggling young actor and getting the break of a lifetime – a costarring role in a new series. Then imagine being drafted after filming the first four episodes. That’s what happened to Bob Denver, as he began his portrayal of Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. The situation was written into the series, when Maynard is drafted as well. Actor Michael J. Pollard was brought in to play Maynard’s cousin, Jerome. But then Denver was declared ineligible for military service because he had broken a vertebra in a car accident years earlier. Maynard returned and Jerome disappeared after two episodes, never to be seen or heard from again.

Dan Blocker, who played the beloved Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza, died before production began on the series 14th and final season. The script for “Forever,” the first episode of that season, had already been written by Michael Landon. The story had Hoss falling in love with a woman, who is killed by a ruthless gambler. Landon rewrote the script with his character of Little Joe suffering the loss. The episode ends with a moment where Joe and his father Ben weep over her passing, but viewers knew the tears were really for their departed friend. 

“Lucy is Enciente”
I Love Lucy
This turned out to be a more depressing entry than I anticipated, so let’s at least end on a happy note, by returning once again to Lucy, and perhaps the most famous and heartwarming “real” moment to emerge from a scripted TV show.

The decision to have Lucy Ricardo “with child” seemed logical given Lucille Ball’s pregnancy, though at the time such things were not always discussed on television.
“Lucy is Enciente” was the episode in which she tells Ricky they’re going to have a baby. After several failed attempts to do so, Lucy attends Ricky’s nightclub show and has an associate slip him a note that someone in the audience is expecting. In the original script, Ricky was to realize it was Lucy, almost faint, and then recover enough to start singing. But that didn’t happen. Writer/producer Jess Oppenheimer explained in The Lucy Book:

“Lucy and Desi got to this point in acting out the script and then this strange thing happened: Suddenly they remembered their own real emotions when they discovered that at last they were going to be parents, and both of them began crying. We had to yell at Desi to keep going and do the baby song. (Director) Bill Asher thought the scene was ruined and had it reshot. When we saw both versions, we knew we had to go with the emotional one.”

Sometimes the real world isn’t so bad after all. 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Six Kids, Six Classic Brady Bunch Episodes: The Ultimate Brady Six-Pack

In the four years that this blog has been around, I have written more about The Brady Bunch than any other series. I don’t know if I would call it my favorite show, but it is certainly the one I most closely associate with the warm, nostalgic feelings engendered by Comfort TV.

The other week I was watching “The Power of the Press,” an episode about Peter writing a column for his school paper, and I wondered how many episodes focused on each of the six Brady kids. So I added them up.

It turns out there are 12 Greg episodes, 10 for Peter, 8 for Bobby, 14 for Marcia, 9 for Jan and 6 for Cindy. The rest are either family-oriented stories, shows that feature more than one kid (Bobby and Cindy on the teeter-totter, Greg and Marcia fighting over the attic), or episodes that focus on the parents or Alice.

But which is the best show for each of the Brady kids? That’s one of those delightful TV debates that could fill an evening of dinnertime conversation – at least in my social circle. Here are my picks for the ultimate Brady six-pack, and I look forward to any opposing viewpoints.

“Bobby’s Hero” (Season 4)
When you examine the Bobby episodes, you realize he had as many inferiority complexes as Jan. Whether it was feeling like a neglected stepson (“Every Boy Does it Once”), never winning a trophy (“The Winner”) or being insecure about his height (“Big Little Man”), Mike’s youngest always seemed to struggle to find his place in the family.

Perhaps that influenced his choice of Jesse James – someone who didn’t take crap from anybody – as a hero. In “Bobby’s Hero” he idolizes a ruthless outlaw until he meets a man (played by Comfort TV’s favorite senior citizen, Burt Mustin) whose father was killed by Jesse James. I remember how that seemed far-fetched, but the episode aired in 1973 and James died in 1882, so the math does work out.

I chose this episode because of the old west dream sequence in which the Bradys are shot and killed (which probably terrified younger viewers and delighted a few TV critics), as well as Bobby’s poignant come-to-Jesus moment, as he wakes up from the aforementioned nightmare. I think Mike Lookinland’s scene in Mike and Carol’s bedroom, when Bobby somberly announces, “I’m turning in my guns,” is his best moment on the series.

The show also works as a potent cautionary tale about the pitfalls of hero worship when you choose poorly, a message even more relevant today. 

“Eenie, Meenie, Mommy, Daddy” (Season 1)
Most of Cindy’s best Brady moments are in episodes where she shares the spotlight. “The Voice of Christmas” was as much Carol’s story as it is hers, and the celebrated bullying episode “A Fistful of Reasons,” starts out Cindy-centric and then switches to Peter.

When Cindy flies solo the results are usually not that stellar. Shows like “The Tattle-Tale” and “Cindy Brady, Lady” don’t hold up well, and the less said about the Shirley Temple episode (“The Snooperstar”), the better.

“Eenie, Meenie, Mommy, Daddy,” just the third episode in the series, is the exception. Cindy’s moment of triumph – earning a lead role in a school play – turns to anguish when the school only gives each cast member one ticket. Should she ask her mother, or her father? The Brady Bunch meets Sophie’s Choice! It’s also fun that Cindy’s co-star in the play is Chris Partridge (Brian Forster). 

“The Personality Kid” (Season 3)
With the exception of “Two Petes in a Pod,” almost every Peter episode is a series highlight. These are also some of the funniest shows in the run, whether Peter is secretly recording his siblings’ conversations (“The Private Ear”) or being consumed by guilt after breaking mom’s favorite vase (“Confessions, Confessions”). 

Still, “The Personality Kid” is an episode everyone remembers, and with good reason. The story has Peter coming home from a party distraught because someone told him he has no personality. His parents expect it to blow over, but when it doesn’t we find Mike doesn’t have much tolerance for self-pity: “Stop moping around! If you don’t like your personality, improve it! Change it!” Thus we get an iconic sequence as Peter takes various personalities for a test drive, one being that of Humphrey Bogart.

It’s hard to explain why the “pork chops and applesauce” scene still makes me laugh, even though I’ve probably watched it 50 times. It isn’t just Christopher Knight’s awful Bogie impression, in which “swell” becomes “schwell”; it’s the reactions from Carol and Alice that progress from befuddled to bemused, and how it becomes contagious as both adopt the same facial tics and pronunciations. 

“Her Sister’s Shadow” (Season 3)
Another no-brainer. Jan’s insecurity and middle child issues crop up in other episodes (such as “Will the Real Jan Brady Please Stand Up?” and “Try, Try Again”) but this is one of the series’ definitive shows, and the one that forever branded Jan as the poster girl for sibling envy. Her plaintive cries of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!” will echo across the generations. 

This is also one of the series’ most quotable episodes, and not just for that one famous line. “Find out what you do best, and do your best with it” is good advice for anyone, and I love Jan’s justification for dumping her sister’s awards in the closet – “Every time Marcia turns around they hand her a blue ribbon.”

“Her Sister’s Shadow” also sees Jan hearing immoral voices in her head, which became a running gag in The Brady Bunch Movie. Will she give in to the dark side and accept the Honor Society Award she really didn’t earn?  

“The Dropout” (Season 2)
I’m sure many fans would opt for “Adios Johnny Bravo” which, as with many of the Greg shows, focuses on Greg’s choice between listening to the devil on one shoulder or the angel on the other. Here he has to decide between solo teen idol stardom and staying with the family musical group. 

He faced similar dilemmas in “The Wheeler-Dealer,” in which he is tempted to lie to a friend to unload a lemon of a car he purchased, and in “Greg’s Triangle,” where he is on the committee in charge of picking the next head cheerleader. Should he take the fringe benefits that would come with choosing his new girlfriend, or choose his sister Marcia instead?

But there’s a special moment in “The Dropout,” the show’s season 2 opener, that makes it my favorite Greg show. If the title doesn’t jog any memories, this is the episode featuring Dodger pitcher Don Drysdale, who compliments Greg’s curve ball, sending the kid on an ego trip that ends badly. There is a scene between Mike and Greg after his little league downfall that is the best father-son moment on the series. 

“Today I Am a Freshman” (Season 4)
This was by far the most difficult decision.

What an embarrassment of riches we have with the Marcia shows: “Getting Davy Jones,” “The Slumber Caper” and “The Subject was Noses” are all classics; there was also her crush on bug-lover Harvey Klinger in “Going, Going…Steady,” and her feminist-inspired enrollment in the Frontier Scouts in “The Liberation of Marcia Brady”.

And while I rarely get emotional watching The Brady Bunch, Mike’s realization scene at the end of “Father of the Year” always gets to me. Watch Maureen McCormick’s face – she is positively beaming with love and pride. 

I have three reasons for selecting “Today I Am a Freshman,” which depicts Marcia’s uneasy transition into high school. First, it sent a reassuring message to young girls that no one is immune from insecurity, even someone as beautiful and smart and poised as Marcia Brady.

To boost her social life at her new school, Marcia joins every club available, leading to a series of amusing scenes as she tries her hand at archery, scuba diving, karate and yoga. While this is happening, the episode’s B-plot has Peter building a working volcano, which he tests as Marcia is considered for membership in Westdale High’s most exclusive club, The Boosters.

For a television writer, bringing the A-plot and B-plot of an episode into a perfect simultaneous payoff is the ultimate accomplishment. “Today I Am a Freshman” achieves this goal with another unforgettable Brady moment. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

TV Sidekick Blogathon: My Enduring Devotion to Dyna Girl

A few weeks ago I received an invitation to participate in a blogathon, launched by The Classic Film and TV CafĂ©, on the topic of classic TV sidekicks. The first character that came to my mind was Dyna Girl, played by Judy Strangis. 

What does that say about me? Maybe we shouldn’t go there.

I could frame this piece within some high-falutin’ analysis of the impact of Saturday morning children’s television on the youth of the 1970s. Or discuss the evolution of live-action programming in timeslots traditionally associated with animation. Or examine Electra Woman and Dyna Girl as a pioneering effort in the superhero genre decades before its current mainstream acceptance.  

All of these would be acceptable justifications for writing about Dyna Girl. But she was probably my first choice because she was just so incredibly hot.

Is that crude? Is that sexist? Does it matter that I’m actually expressing the thoughts of my 12 year-old self? Or should that evidence be thrown out because I still think like my 12 year-old self most of the time?

I make no apologies. Women over 50 still go to Donny Osmond concerts because they remember the first time they heard “Puppy Love.” Their musical tastes have matured since then, but we never fully outgrow our early celebrity crushes. I am 51 years old and I still want to take Judy Strangis out for an ice cream soda.

One also has to admire the pop culture prominence of a Saturday morning series that consists of just eight half-hour episodes, that is still so fondly recalled 40 years later.

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl was Sid & Marty Krofft’s spin on the 1960s Batman series. You had a hero and a sidekick with dual identities. ElectraBase was their Batcave. Frank Heflin (wonderfully played by gruff but lovable Norman Alden) was a more technologically adept Alfred. They had a cool car and they fought colorful, outrageous villains with names like the Empress of Evil and The Pharaoh. Dyna Girl’s exclamations of “Electra Wow!” among others were a variation on Robin’s “Holy” this and “Holy” that. 

Dyna Girl was my favorite part of the series. While Deidre Hall as Electra Woman was also beautiful, and wore spandex in a way that could jump-start a young man’s puberty, there was a hesitation around the edges of her performance. Every so often you could tell she really didn’t want to be on such a goofy show.

Not so with Judy Strangis, who embraced the crazy with the full-throttle fervor of someone having the time of her life. To see that commitment at its apex, check out “Ali Baba,” the episode in which Dyna Girl is drugged and turns evil, which in this case manifested itself visually through a change in lipstick shade. As she explores the dark side of the peppy crimefighter, Strangis takes “over the top” to levels that even Krofft shows rarely achieve. 

 Which is not to say she wasn’t a good actress. Prior to her superhero days Strangis was memorable and if possible even more beautiful as earnest high school student Helen Loomis on Room 222. Michael Constantine played the principal on that series, and then popped up in two episodes of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl as a villain called The Sorcerer. I often wondered what the discussions were like between the reunited castmates. They must have taken one look at each other in their respective costumes and thought, “Can you believe this?”


Even if they could, I wonder if either of them thought anyone would still be celebrating that silly little show in 2016.

In 1995, when Nick at Nite launched a Krofft marathon under the title “Pufapalooza,” two episodes of Electra Woman and Dyna Girl were featured, elevating the short-lived series to the first echelon of Krofft properties alongside HR Pufnstuf and Land of the Lost.

The concept was revived in a more adult-oriented 2001 pilot starring Markie Post and Anne Stedman. It never went anywhere, but it’s pretty funny and available on YouTube. Another reboot will be out later this year.

I wish them well but I doubt this is the kind of lightning that is easily bottled a second time. There is only one Dyna Girl for me. 

The TV Sidekick Blogathon is hosted by the Classic Film & TV Cafe. Please check out the rest of the wonderful entries by clicking here.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

A Tribute to Occasional Characters

When a series introduces a character that the audience embraces, what often happens is said character is promoted to series regular. Think Sue Ann Nivens on The Mary Tyler Moore Show; Corporal Klinger on M*A*S*H; Norman Buntz on Hill Street Blues; Spike on Buffy The Vampire Slayer

But many shows create popular characters that are content to stop by every so often, turn ordinary episodes into memorable ones, and then disappear for months or even years. 

It’s a challenging assignment – how often is too often for a visit? Is the script always going to be there to make the outing worthwhile? Is the performer’s schedule always open when another return is requested? Still, examples of memorable recurring characters abound in the Comfort TV era, so whatever the hurdles they were not enough to keep some wonderful actors from adding to our viewing pleasure.

Who are your favorite occasional TV characters? Here in no particular order are some of mine, presented with apologies to runners-up Professor Pepperwinkle (The Adventures of Superman), Uncle Tonoose (Make Room for Daddy), Homer Bedloe (Petticoat Junction) the Log Lady (Twin Peaks), Sam the Butcher (The Brady Bunch) and of course, the scrootch gun-toting Moon Men Gidney and Cloyd (Rocky and Bullwinkle). 

Cliff Murdock (Tom Poston)
The Bob Newhart Show (5 episodes)
One of the perks of recurring characters is how they can reveal new facets of the characters viewers see every week. That was certainly the case with Cliff Murdock, aka “The Peeper,” whose practical jokes brought out a sillier side of the usually sedate Bob Hartley. 

Dr. Loveless (Michael Dunn)
The Wild, Wild West (10 episodes)
As the most formidable adversary of Secret Service agents James West and Artemus Gordon, the diminutive Miguelito Loveless always set our heroes on strange adventures. His debut in the series' third episode (“The Night the Wizard Shook the World”) may still be the show’s best-remembered installment, particularly in how many admirable traits it bestowed upon its mad scientist. Among Loveless’s best laid plans: poisoning the world’s water supply with LSD (which he invented) and discovering an alternate dimension, which allows him to hide crooks inside paintings displayed in banks. 

Ernest T. Bass (Howard Morris)
The Andy Griffith Show (5 episodes)
So many of us dreamed of living in a community as quiet and traditional as Mayberry. So maybe we needed those invasions from wildman hillbilly Ernest T. Bass, as a reminder that even the most idyllic of rural towns was not immune to chaos. 

Dr. Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus)
M*A*S*H (11 episodes)
This was the first series to play comedy and drama with equal virtuosity. What made the psychiatrist played by Allan Arbus such a welcome occasional cast addition is how well he complemented every script regardless of tone. His moving sessions with a wounded soldier who thought he was Jesus (“Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler”) were as memorable as his chronicling of a mystery prankster at the 4077 in a letter to Sigmund Freud, in the very funny “Dear Sigmund”. 

Uncle Arthur (Paul Lynde)
Bewitched (10 episodes)
Bewitched had an entire stable of wonderful recurring characters, from Sam’s delightfully dotty Aunt Clara to Darrin’s sick-headache-prone mother.  Any time Maurice or Serena dropped by you were probably in for a good episode, but I always looked forward most to visits from Samantha’s Uncle Arthur. He not only brought out a mischievous streak in Sam, he had one of the most infectious laughs on television. Arthur’s second season debut (“The Joker is a Card”) is my favorite of the series’ 254 episodes, and still one of the funniest half-hours of television I have ever watched. 

Marya (Nita Talbot)
Hogan’s Heroes (7 episodes)
One of the givens on Hogan’s Heroes was that Col. Hogan was always the smartest guy in the room. What made the Russian spy Marya so intriguing is that as a tactician she was the only character capable of playing at the Colonel’s level, resulting in bemusement, frustration and admiration in Hogan, all wonderfully expressed by Bob Crane. Nita Talbot, another of those familiar classic TV faces glimpsed in everything from The Untouchables to The Monkees, was the only Hogan’s Heroes guest star to receive an Emmy nomination – and she won. 

Lance White (Tom Selleck)
The Rockford Files (2 episodes)
I’ve heard it said that the appeal of a recurring guest character on The Rockford Files is measured by the extent to which said character drives Jim nuts. That would make Stuart Margolin’s Angel the obvious choice. The problem is that Angel annoyed the hell out of me as well. I had much more fun with the two standout episodes featuring a pre-Magnum Tom Selleck as a vacuous private investigator who is loved and admired by everyone, except Jim. It’s a shame they didn’t bring him back more often – both of appearances are classics.      

Cousin Geri (Geri Jewell)
The Facts of Life (12 episodes)
I’d be lying if I said that Cousin Geri’s visits to Eastland were among my favorite shows, but I think they were important in their own way, even in a series that abused its “very special episode” privileges, and that should stand for something.