Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Mr. Novak: Purchase or Pass?

At a time when DVD sales are plummeting and the audience for shows more than 50 years old dwindles every day, it seems almost miraculous that Warner Archives would dig Mr. Novak out of its vault. The series aired for just two seasons from 1963-1965, and has not been syndicated often enough to build a following in the decades since. 

Yet here we are. And how fortunate we are at that.

I’ve always been a sucker for shows about teachers, and Mr. Novak ranks alongside Room 222 as the most admirable portrayal of that profession at the high school level. Taken together the two shows effectually bookend the 1960s, as turbulent a decade in education as it was everywhere else. 

Here is another example of a television series from an era when the medium was perceived as not just a source of entertainment, but one capable of contributing to the betterment of society. As I wrote about The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet a few years back, this was a time when shows about professions like that of teacher, or doctor, or police officer, would depict its subject in a way that would engender respect from the viewing public. It wasn’t done overtly to send that message; it was, rather, a natural consequence of the way a self-assured and principled nation would portray itself.

Mr. Novak stars James Franciscus as first-year teacher John Novak. The story goes that he was a finalist for the role of Dr. Kildare, but when that went to Richard Chamberlain he was given this series as a consolation prize. Franciscus was an actor with leading man looks, but not leading man charisma. This is the best credit on his resume, and thankfully he was able to raise his game enough to match the quality of the material. 

One could see why he was considered for Kildare, as Novak is essentially the same character in a different profession. He’s a young crusader not yet beaten down by the pressures of the job, whose older colleagues sometimes become frustrated with his self-righteous rants. More than one teacher tells Novak he’s still “wet behind the ears.” There’s an expression you don’t hear much anymore.

Perhaps the best example of this is also one of the standout episodes of the first season. In “Pay the Two Dollars” Novak breaks up a fight between students and in the fracas one of the students is injured. The kid’s father sues the school district, and the district’s lawyer (Martin Landau, wonderful as always) suggests offering a settlement and quickly disposing of the case. Novak refuses, much to the consternation of the attorney and the entire district.

The 30 episodes that comprise season one take us through Novak’s first year at Jefferson High, from day one through the senior prom. Many feature stories that are staples of high school shows, from drug addiction to teacher crushes to teen pregnancy. There was also an apparent bigotry issue at Jefferson, as we get episodes about an African-American girl who is victimized by racial taunts, a Jewish student who faces anti-Semitism, and a Mexican student who believes his poor grades are a result of racism.

Thus far the Asian kids seem to be ok. But I haven’t watched season two yet.

My facetious tone aside, all of these stories are handled extremely well. The story about the attack on the African-American girl (“A Single Isolated Incident”) is particularly remarkable, especially in its closing assembly scene presided over by Principal Albert Vane, masterfully played by Dean Jagger. 

It is Jagger who elevates Mr. Novak from a good series to a classic. There’s not a false note or moment in any of his scenes, which he dominates through the sheer power of his commanding personality. Plus he just looks like everybody’s high school principal. Jagger, who had already won an Academy Award, was nominated for an Emmy in both of the show’s two seasons. But back then the Emmys had temporarily abolished separate categories for comedy and drama, so he lost to the equally deserving Dick Van Dyke in The Dick Van Dyke Show.

High school shows are challenging because to do them realistically (and that was certainly the goal here) you need a lot of extras to fill out the classrooms and the hallways and the cafeteria. You also need a faculty of other teachers, which requires a supporting cast that remains available to pop up for one scene here and there over the course of several months.

The series succeeds on both these criteria, with fine recurring appearances from Jeanne Bal (especially good as Assistant Principal Jean Pagano), Vince Howard, Stephen Franken and Marion Ross. Without a lot of screen time, all of them are interesting and believable as colleagues trying to keep chaos at bay every day in their respective offices and classrooms.

Special mention should also be made of Marian Collier as Miss Scott, the comely home economics teacher with whom Novak has an on-again, off-again romance. He could do a lot worse.

You’ll also spot several familiar faces among the student population, including Shelley Fabares, Tony Dow, Frankie Avalon, Kim Darby, Bonnie Franklin, Walter Koenig, Brooke Bundy, Beau Bridges, Eddie Applegate and Marta Kristen.

The answer to the “purchase or pass” question is an enthusiastic “purchase.” This is a superbly written, honest series that may feature an idealized English teacher, but doesn’t avoid the harsh reality that some problems can’t be solved by a teacher, and some kids can’t be saved.

And for me, it is also a glimpse into a path not taken. Had I stayed with teaching 20 years ago I see in Mr. Novak what my day-to-day life might have been. I think I made the right choice. The only teachers that are truly great are those that can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. That wasn’t me – but it does describe John Novak. 


  1. Mr. Hofstede, if the 1985-86 cop series "Lady Blue" gets a home video release of any kind, can you do a "Purchase or Pass" piece on it even if it only ends up being available on pay-as-you-go streaming services such as VUDU?

  2. I'm a Novak fan, too. It was a great role for the likable James Franciscus and here were some nice touches. I like the episode that shows Mr. Novak moonlighting as a driver for valet parking. Teacher salaries were an issue back in the 1960s, too!