Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Top TV Moments: William Windom

William Windom’s name in a TV show’s guest cast instantly raises my attention level. Now, I think, this episode stands every chance of being worth watching. 

Windom had several prominent film credits, including the attorney opposing Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. But television offered the steadiest work, and a glance at the diversity of his credits suggests that he was happy to take whatever was offered and make the most of it. Often that was more than it deserved. But when he got a good part, he made it better.

He was often described as an everyman, though that seems like dubious praise. He could indeed elevate a “regular guy” role with his natural gravitas, but as you’ll see from the ten TV credits I selected, he played a wide range of whimsical and extreme characters as well.

The Twilight Zone (1961)
“Clown, hobo, ballet dancer, bagpiper, and an army major. Five improbable entities stuck together into a pit of darkness.” Thus begins “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” one of the series’ most brilliant and surreal episodes. Windom plays the soldier, whose “We’re in hell” speech offers one possible explanation for their plight – but not the correct one. 

The Lucy Show (1962)
“Lucy Digs Up a Date,” the series’ second episode, is not a standout moment for Windom or anyone involved, but it’s interesting in how it reveals Lucille Ball’s newfound command of her set. Content to let husband Desi call the shots on I Love Lucy, Ball was clearly in charge from here on out, and part of that was reflected in her guidance of guest stars. She believed broader comedy had to be played at an exaggerated volume, so here you have William Windom playing a math teacher, and projecting conversational lines in a way that borders on the unnatural. It's a chance to see a good actor being directed into a less than polished performance.

The Donna Reed Show (1962)
In “Wide Open Spaces” the Stones take a trip to the country to visit friends David and Millie Adams (William Windom and Patricia Breslin), who left the city (against Millie’s wishes) to fulfill David’s dream of living on a farm. This Green Acres prototype was a back door pilot for a series that would have replaced The Donna Reed Show, had Reed followed through on her plans to retire from TV after this season. She didn’t, so we’re left with what-might-have-been questions on a promising concept. Fortunately, Windom didn’t have to wait much longer for series stardom.  

The Farmer’s Daughter (1963)
William Windom plays widowed Congressman Glenn Morley. Inger Stevens plays Swedish-American farm girl Katy Holstrum, who comes to Washington hoping to secure a Peace Corps post, but instead becomes governess to Glenn’s two young sons. 

It’s a mystery to me why some 1960s shows have been rerun for 50 years while others vanished, rarely to be seen again. The Farmer’s Daughter lasted three seasons and just over 100 episodes, more than enough for syndication. What’s more, it was a warm and uplifting situation comedy with a sweet romantic chemistry between Windom and Stevens. It deserved a better fate. 

The Invaders (1967)
The two-part “Summit Meeting” finds David Vincent working with defense contractor Michael Tressider (Windom) to save the world from an alien plot to destroy humanity with elevated radiation. This was always an intense series, and Windom works well with star Roy Thinnes in escalating the tension as their characters join forces to prevent disaster. Great guest cast here – Ford Rainey, Diana Hyland and Michael Rennie.

Star Trek (1967)
In “The Doomsday Machine” The Enterprise finds the U.S.S. Constellation adrift, with Commodore Matthew Decker (Windom) as the only surviving crew member. Windom is masterful as the Captain Ahab-like Decker, clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress before that condition was even widely known. It is arguably the single best performance by a guest actor in the original series. 

My World and Welcome to It (1969)
It was billed as a series “based on stories, inspirational pieces, cartoons, and things that go bump in the night by James Thurber.” 

And it was all that and more…and still got the axe after one season. Maybe audiences just weren’t ready for a fanciful family sitcom about a cartoonist who has conversations with his drawings, talks to the viewers, and drifts in and out of fantasy sequences. As said cartoonist, William Windom won the Emmy for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. His affinity for Thurber endured after the show was canceled – he toured the country with a solo show based on the author’s works. 

Night Gallery (1971)
The first time I watched the Rod Serling-penned “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” I didn’t get it. Night Gallery was supposed to be a scary show. What was frightening about the plight of Randy Lane (Windom), a widowed businessman pushing 50, who falls into a deep depression when he learns his favorite watering hole is about to meet the wrecking ball? It took a second viewing to get over my misplaced expectations and appreciate Serling’s sentimental story, and yet another amazing performance by William Windom.   

The Partridge Family (1973)
In “Bedknobs and Drumsticks” the family agrees to film a commercial for Uncle Erwin’s Country Fried Chicken. Erwin (Windom) rejects the classy first attempt and insists on a second version – with the family wearing chicken suits. 

The cast hated this episode because of those suits but it’s one of the funnier third-season shows. From a one-note role, Windom manages to create a complete character that you can easily imagine having a real life beyond his few minutes of screen time. 

Murder She Wrote (1985)
For a generation of ‘80s kids forced to watch Murder, She Wrote with their parents (or because they wanted to – come on, Angela Lansbury was cool!) William Windom is best known as Jessica Fletcher’s portly, white-haired friend and chess partner, Dr. Seth Hazlitt. He was a resident of Cabot Cove for 11 years and appeared in more than 50 episodes. 


  1. As a child TV viewer during the 60’s & 70’s Windom was one of those actors I noticed, even at a young age, that if he was on the screen I’d enjoy, if not the show or episode, his performance.

    I was 8 years old when “My World and Welcome to it” aired and I’m sure it was the animation that caught my attention, but it soon became a favorite of mine for the show itself. It’s a shame it couldn’t find an audience.

    The original “Twilight Zone” is easily my all time favorite show, though I never saw it when it originally aired. Catching it in reruns as an older teenager I got to really appreciate it and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” (thanks in part to Windom’s performance) along with “Eye of the Beholder” are my two all time favorite TZ episodes.

    Glad you also brought up “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar”. I agree with you, I didn’t get it when I first saw it. At 10 years old I’d only heard about Rod Serling so I was expecting horror, or frightening or monsters and there was none of that here. BUT years later seeing it, I really got it. Windom also appeared in another Night Gallery, “Little Girl Lost” (ironically stealing a title from a classic TZ episode) where he plays a tormented Professor. It’s not quite as good, it’s poorly edited, feels real choppy, but still good for a view.

    I’d like to close this lengthy post by bringing up a really great guest starring William Windom performance that I’m surprised you didn’t include. In the first season episode of “All In The Family”, called “Success Story”, William Windom played Eddie Frazier an old buddy of Archie’s who’s become very wealthy and stops to visit the Bunker’s. Eddie though has put his business and quest for fortune over his family relationships and is estranged, especially to his son. He has a desperate telephone conversation scene that really showcases Windom at his best. It’s a great and heartbreaking episode.

  2. Truth be told I do not recall that "All in the Family" episode but I'll look for it. If I was going to add some bonus Windom I'd also include a memorable "Wild, Wild West" appearance.

  3. I remember seeing THE FARMER'S DAUGHTER on CBN back in the 80s, but that's been almost 30 years ago now.
    One of the weirdest Windom appearances I remember was as a disgraced former acrobat turned circus geek turned drunken cleanup man in a 1981 tv movie (held over from a 1979 filming) called SIDESHOW. It was one of the first time I saw him in a new program after finding out about his past work. I'm glad he moved on to MURDER SHE WROTE after that.
    He appeared at least once at a TWILIGHT ZONE fan gathering before his passing in 2011.

  4. Yes, he was always a reliable performer and improved whatever show he appeared in. His episode of THE INVADERS was one of that series' best.

  5. The Farmer's Daughter aired on CBN as Jon H mentions, and also locally (Dallas) Channel 39, which had the same owners in the mid-80's. (incidentally, loved the late night lineup: You Bet Their Life with Groucho, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Love That Bob, and Farmer's Daughter starting at midnight..stayed up late a lot. :)

    Reportedly, Sony owns the rights to the series (it was a Screen Gems production) but still hasn't digitized the prints, so we may never see a DVD release, sadly. Windom and Inger Stevens were very good in the series.

    1. There are a couple of episodes on YouTube as well, but that just whets one's appetite - it's definitely a show I'd like to get to know better.

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  7. Mr. Windom was in the 1978 telefilm "Hunters of the Reef," which was a prospective series pilot. He also appeared in no less than three episodes of "The Streets of San Francisco." I wish an uncut version of "Hunters of the Reef" could be legitimately released on home video someday. If the movie can't be released via manufacture-on-demand DVD, it should at least be made available via something like Vudu or Amazon Video.

    BTW, Mr. Hofstede, check out the following URL:

  8. It is interesting, but I never realized that my two favorite episodes of my favorite series both feathered William Windom. I totally agree with you about his performance in "The Doomsday Machine" and “They’re Tearing Down Tim Riley’s Bar,” is one of those stories I liked the first time I saw it, though I did not know why, and it has become more meaningful the older I get.

    In both cases I can thank Windom for that.

  9. Great article. I'm the owner of The William Windom Tribute Site and you picked out some great performances. He did a great one in "Lancer" with Lis Gerritsen playing his daughter just before they began filming "My World." I agree with your synopisis as Bill being a everyman/journey man. To me, he wasn't a character actor. I find that title very broad. Bill had an incredible knack for tapping into the human condition and could use his observances and put them into the characters he played. He loved watching people and that's what made him a great actor. He never took lessons, he just learned by doing it...that was his advice to other young actors.