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. 


  1. If you want a preview of "MATLOCK" from 1973, you might want to check out Jimmy Stewart's next series, "HAWKINS" instead.

  2. Trying to get some info on the young actors that played 2 boys on the show...Dennis Larson and Kirby Furlong also a picture from 2016...thanks, irenerhein@verizon.net