Thursday, November 30, 2023

My 50 Favorite Classic TV Characters: Hayden Rorke as Dr. Alfred Bellows


This will be a new occasional feature here – a closer look at single characters from classic shows, and what makes them special.


The choice to inaugurate this series with Dr. Alfred Bellows from I Dream of Jeannie was not a random one, as it seemed particularly appropriate to this current age. 


We live in a time when, like the good doctor, we are regularly presented with situations and moments that are beyond belief to a rational mind. Yet when we tell others about them, we are disregarded. Worse, we know something is wrong when we see it, but often find that it is we who are maligned for speaking truth. The crazy gets a pass, and we are the troublemakers.


Such is the fate that always befalls Dr. Alfred Bellows, a respected NASA psychiatrist based in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He knows there are strange, inexplicable occurrences happening at Major Nelson’s home; he sees things that shouldn’t be possible, yet every time he tries to restore the natural order by calling attention to what he rightly views as madness, it is he who winds up looking foolish. 



It’s hard not to sympathize with him. But it’s harder not to treasure those moments, because they are, to me, the principal reason I still enjoy I Dream of Jeannie. Barbara Eden’s Jeannie was gorgeous and bubbly and mischievous, and Bill Daily’s Major Healey was a staunch second banana. But the scenes that still deliver the biggest laughs on this show are those between Larry Hagman and Hayden Rorke.


It’s always the same set-up: Jeannie will blink Tony into some bizarre costume or surroundings, and then disappear just before Dr. Bellows enters. He will be appropriately astonished and then ask what is going on: “I can’t wait to hear your explanation of what you’re doing with an elephant in your bedroom.”


Tony will then stammer out a lame elucidation that Bellows doesn’t buy for a moment, and then he sets out to find someone to corroborate his allegations – usually his superior officer (either General Peterson or General Schaeffer, depending on the season or the episode). But by the time the General arrives on the scene, Jeannie has blinked everything back to normal, and a frustrated Bellows is once again thwarted.



Something like this happens in at least half of the series’ 139 episodes. That these moments still elicit a smile to viewers’ faces is a testament to what Hagman and Rorke bring to their roles.


Though Rorke died in 1987, there is a website that pays tribute to the man and his work that describes his approach to Dr. Bellows this way: “He’s a comedic antagonist who’s never in on the joke, always a step behind, and consistently being fooled. Play him too clueless and he’s a Gladys Kravitz. Play him too stern and he’s a Mr. Wilson. Hayden could thread the needle and make a character who is essentially the spoilsport into a charming, endearing man.”


He was indeed charming, with his deep melodious voice and dignified professional bearing. One imagines his military career was one of quiet distinction and steady advancement, until Major Nelson came into his life. That is when his grip on reality would gradually begin to unravel, in early season one episodes like “Anybody Here Seen Jeannie?” That’s when Jeannie sabotages Tony’s medical tests to stop him from going into space. 


“The results are beyond my wildest expectations,” Bellows says after looking at impossible readings. Later, after a stern lecture from Tony, Jeannie begins sabotaging Dr. Bellows’ attempt to write up his report, not to mention his dinner, to the point where he begins to doubt his own sanity.


Later that season, Dr. Bellows moves in with Major Nelson (“Permanent House Guest”) and is witness to one bizarre occurrence after another – it may be the most concentrated mental torture Jeannie inflicts on him in five seasons. He flees in the middle of the night, believing the house to be haunted. 



As the series progressed Rorke wisely modulated his performance. One can only be astonished by the inexplicable for so long, before that astonishment turns to bewildered resignation. By season two’s “My Master, The Rainmaker,” he is no longer amazed at a snowfall over Tony’s house in Florida, in July.


By this point he regards Tony as Captain Ahab regarded the white whale – the bane of his existence, and one that must be conquered: ““Fine. I’ll accept that. It’s no more ridiculous than any of your other explanations,” he would say after Jeannie’s latest stunt. But he’s not going down without a fight. “Some men dedicate their lives to science, some men dedicate their lives to politics,” he tells Major Nelson.  “I’m dedicating my life to understanding you.”


In the season four episode called “Dr. Bellows Goes Sane” he is ready to make his move. Dr. Bellows presents a summary of his observations to General Peterson, entitled “A Clinical Report on Major Anthony Nelson: A Factual Dossier on Every Unexplained Incident in Which Major Nelson Has Been Involved for the Last Three Years.” It’s all in there – sudden appearances and disappearances, giraffes, bears and other wildlife in Tony’s home. But after reading through the more-than-100-page document, Peterson concludes,  “Any man who would turn in a report like that has got to be a candidate for a padded cell.”


Foiled again.


“I feel sorry for Dr. Bellows. He is a very nice man,” Jeannie once said after driving him to the brink of a nervous breakdown. I do too. But it’s his close encounters with her magic that make I Dream of Jeannie classic television.


Monday, November 20, 2023

My Journey Through 1970s TV; Tuesday Nights, 1973


Two out of three networks were confident enough to bring back their previous year’s Tuesday lineups for 1973. For CBS that made sense, with returning hit shows that continued to dominate in the ratings. For ABC, the move was more an exercise in wishful thinking – one that did not pay dividends. Eventually that network would own the decade with a seemingly never-ending string of successes – but that era would have to wait another couple of years.


Let’s take a look at the night’s selections – and see if my quest to watch at least one episode from every prime time series will be dealt yet another setback.


Tuesday, 1973




The Magician

Police Story


NBC was the only network to opt for a fresh slate of programs. Gone were Bonanza and The Bold Ones, and in their place three new offerings – one hit, one miss, and one that should have lasted longer.


I confess that I had not even heard of Chase before watching an episode online, but after doing so I understand why it was mostly forgotten. Mitchell Ryan, who I remember fondly from Dark Shadows, plays the no-nonsense head of a Los Angeles police department division that specialized in taking on the toughest cases. This was Stephen J. Cannell’s first television creation, but it was produced within the auspices of Jack Webb’s Mark VII trademark. Webb and Cannell had very different styles when it came to telling police stories, and the result here was a mix that never committed fully to either one.


The Magician had all the elements that create successful shows: a charismatic lead in Bill Bixby as magician Tony Blake; a unique premise – Blake uses his skills of sleight of hand and misdirection to solve crimes; and a talented creative team, including producers, writers and directors that previously worked on Mission: Impossible



There was also the interesting hook of Bixby actually performing all of the illusions shown on the series without camera tricks or other cheats. I’d have gladly watched more seasons, but NBC made The Magician disappear after just 21 episodes. What a rotten trick.


The network fared better with Police Story, created by former police officer Joseph Wambaugh. This 90-minute anthology series presented just what the title suggests: stories about police officers, from patrolmen to detectives, all of which delivered a realistic portrayal of the challenges of police work. Among it’s nearly 100 episodes were pilots for Police Woman with Angie Dickinson, and Joe Forrester, with Lloyd Bridges. 





Temperatures Rising

Tuesday Movie of the Week

Marcus Welby, MD


ABC is still inexplicably trying to make Temperatures Rising work. But wholesale cast changes (goodbye James Whitmore, hello, Paul Lynde) would not reverse its fortunes. Once again, an admirable portrayal of doctors personified by Marcus Welby proved more popular with audiences. Whatever happened to kindly family practitioners, anyway? Those were the days.





Hawaii Five-O

Tuesday Night CBS Movie (Hawkins, Shaft)


With Maude at #6 and Hawaii Five-O at #5 for the season, CBS managed to best its competition on Tuesdays, just as it had the previous year. They did make one change to their Tuesday Night Movie by adding films featuring recurring characters, one of which was already familiar to movie fans. That would be Shaft, with Richard Roundtree reprising his role as detective John Shaft.


The recent passing of Richard Roundtree was a reminder of how prominent the character of John Shaft was in the wave of gritty African-American cinema that peaked in the 1970s. The movies weren’t great but they were different. They had style; the characters they presented looked cooler than cool prowling mean streets to some of the decade’s best soundtracks; they took audiences into places they didn’t usually visit, and they introduced charismatic stars like Roundtree and Pam Grier that otherwise would have been saddled with stereotypical roles in mainstream films. 



Of course, Shaft had to be toned down considerably (you can’t say “he’s a bad mutha-“ in prime time). No cursing, no nudity, and none of those shoot-outs that resulted in thugs bleeding Rust-Oleum orange like they did in the movies. Maybe that’s why these seven episodes are not better known. But I enjoyed them, even more so than the other recurring feature, in which Jimmy Stewart played country attorney Billy Jim Hawkins. Reviews were good and Stewart won a Golden Globe for his work here, but after eight episodes he was ready to leave, citing concerns about script quality. 


Both Shaft and Hawkins earned DVD releases for those curious to check them out. What a shame they never thought of filming a crossover case – now that would be a memorable TV movie. Can you dig it?


Shows Missed:

The Don Knotts Show (1970)

San Francisco International Airport (1970)

Nancy (1970)

The Headmaster (1970)

The Man and the City (1971)

The Chicago Teddy Bears (1971)

Search (1972)

Assignment: Vienna (1972)

The Delphi Bureau (1972)

Jigsaw (1972)

The Little People (1972)

The Sixth Sense (1972)



Monday, November 6, 2023

Fill ‘Er Up at the Comfort TV Service Station


“Oh, we're the men of Texaco;

We work from Maine to Mexico.

There's nothing like this Texaco of ours!

Tonight we may be showmen

Tomorrow, we'll be servicing your cars!”


I was born in 1964 so I’m not old enough to remember when that song, performed by men in matching service station outfits, introduced the Texaco Star Theater, hosted by Milton Berle. But I know it holds a place in television history. Along with Howdy Doody and I Love Lucy, it was one of the early can’t miss shows that compelled millions of Americans to buy their first television set. 



Maybe Uncle Milty was before my time, but I am old enough to remember when every gas station was full service, because that was the only option provided. The attendants’ uniforms may not have been as crisp and tidy as they were on TV, but the men who wore them would pump your gas, clean your windshield, and offer to check your oil. 


I can also still vividly recall the first time my mother pulled into a station with a self-service island. Though my age was still in the single digits, I reacted like a 17th century French aristocrat who was told to poach his own truffles. “What? Soil my hands on such a menial task?”


Now, of course, I pump my own gas and bag my own groceries, put air in my own tires, and in another few years I’ll probably have to remove my own gallbladder at the self-service clinic.


So yes, I enjoy glimpses into the classic TV era, when there were still such things as service stations – like the one owned and operated by Bill Shappard (James Franciscus) on Father Knows Best. In “Bud, the Willing Worker,” the usually lethargic Bud gets a job at a station run by his sister Betty’s boyfriend. It’s a typically strong episode but I confess to being more taken with the setting than the story. 



I can’t put air in a tire without my hands getting dirty, yet there is Bill, clean as a whistle in a white shirt, white pants, black bowtie and the kind of hat you only see nowadays at In-N-Out Burger. The station building is large enough to contain the mini-mart that is now standard at many gas stations, but here it’s filled only with replacement auto parts, tires, tools, and cans of motor oil neatly stacked in pyramids.


A service station is also the main backdrop for an episode of The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet appropriately titled “The Gas Station.” Mr. Peters, the owner of said station, plans to close for the weekend for a short vacation. At the same time, Harriet’s woman’s club is looking for a way to raise money for charity. They decide to take over the gas station when the owner is away and split the profits with him.


“I can’t see anything wrong with the idea,” says kindly Mr. Peters – and here we see once again how the world of Comfort TV differs from our own. Can you imagine the red tape and union restrictions and liability waivers that

would prevent something like that from happening now?


“How can a bunch of women run a gas station?” says Ozzie’s neighbor Joe (okay, it was 1959).  But everything runs smoothly – even if Clara keeps forgetting to replace the dipstick every time she checks the oil. 



Granted, there’s not much of life in America that still resembles what the country was like in the 1950s, when much of classic television was financed by fossil fuels and cigarettes. So why should gas stations be the exception? But how about the 1970s, which still don’t seem all that long ago to me, until I’m reminded of how the child starts from that decade are now on Social Security.


“The Doom Buggy” was a 1974 episode of Shazam! in which Don drops out of high school because he plans to become a mechanic. We get some nice shots of a rural gas station – just two pumps – and Don’s blue jumpsuit is appropriately greasy, unlike those sharp-dressed Texaco guys. Billy and Mentor spent a lot of time around gas stations, which isn’t surprising since that motorhome they traveled in probably needed a full tank twice a day. They meet another gas jockey in “The Past is Not Forever,” and Captain Marvel is falsely accused of robbing a gas station in “Double Trouble.” 



Anyway, Billy tells Don that continuing his education is important, because “they’re working on electric cars,” and he might have to know how to work on them one day. He mentioned turbine cars too, but those never really took off.


For a more surreal service station setting, check out “Assignment VI,” the final episode of Sapphire and Steel. The time agents arrive at a gas station that appears to have fallen into a pocket where time has stopped – and where they meet a couple from the 1940s that were somehow transported forward in the future. It’s an intriguing mystery with an unexpectedly bleak ending. 




And maybe nothing all that strange ever happened at Big Ed's Gas Farm, but I wouldn’t trust any business located in Twin Peaks. 



But if you asked for my favorite classic TV gas station, it would be Murph’s Union 76, as seen in a series of commercials that aired over 14 years. Murph, the gruff-voiced by kindly owner, was played veteran character actor Richard X. Slattery.  

Commercials are never really welcome when you’re enjoying a show, but a 30-second visit to Murph’s was always low-key and pleasant enough that hitting the ‘mute’ button wasn’t necessary. 



I wish more commercials played like that now. And I also wish service stations still had someone to put air in my tires. Bowtie optional.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

The Ampersands of Comfort TV


The word “ampersand” seems needlessly stuffy for the simple “&” symbol it describes.


But that’s neither here nor there, and really I don’t want to get too deep on this. It’s just a fun little exercise in tracing the history of classic television from its origins to the end of the Comfort TV era through famous pairs of characters, whose names are linked by our friend the ampersand. Fans loved them both individually, but they were always more fondly recalled together.


If you love the Comfort TV era as much as I do, you are already on a first name basis with all of these iconic duos. And after another week of distressing headlines, hopefully these names and photos will bring back some happy memories. If I missed any, feel free to add to the list. And no, “Pink Lady & Jeff” and “Mr. T. & Tina” do not count.



Lucy & Ethel


Kukla, Fran & Ollie


Amos & Andy



Ozzie & Harriet



Spin & Marty



Matt & Miss Kitty



Buddy & Sally



Andy & Barney



James & Artemus


Rocky & Bullwinkle



Batman & Robin



Rowan & Martin



Huntley & Brinkley


Steed & Mrs. Peel


Pebbles & Bamm-Bamm


Friday & Gannon


Max & 99


Kirk & Spock


Gilligan & Skipper


Buffy & Jody


Bert & Ernie


Felix & Oscar


Scooby & Shaggy


Archie & Edith


Hawkeye & Trapper


Luke & Laura


Sonny & Cher


Sanford & Son


Mary & Rhoda


Bob & Emily


Laverne & Shirley


Starsky & Hutch


Donny & Marie


Ponch & Jon


J.R & Sue Ellen


Bo & Luke


Sam & Diane



Blair & Jo


Kate & Allie


Ross & Rachel