March 4, 2015

Help Wanted!


I haven't seen one around lately, have you?

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March 2, 2015

What's on TV? February 28, 1960

Another week, another February 28.  This time the year is 1960, the day of the week is Sunday, and the place is the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  I'm frequently drawn to these weekend listings; perhaps, especially when I'm working with several issues from the same or similar years, it's because there's not enough variety in the daily programming.  At any rate, there's plenty to look at here, along with a few of my patented oddball observations.

February 28, 2015

This week in TV Guide: February 27, 1960

Only three cities in the United States have ever hosted the Winter Olympics – Lake Placid, New York; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Squaw Valley, California.  Yes, the 1960 Winter Olympics were held in California, a fact that puzzled me no end when I was a boy, reading about the heroic exploits of the U.S. hockey team that year.  Of course I knew there were mountain ranges in California, but it still seemed a strange choice for the Winter Games, and as this issue of TV Guide sees them come to a conclusion, it’s worth spending a moment on just how this unlikely site was chosen as an Olympics host.

It was in 1955 that Squaw Valley was selected for the 1960 Games - "a town with no mayor, and a ski resort with just one chairlift, two rope tows, and a fifty-room lodge."  In fact, there was only one resident of Squaw Valley, a man named Alexander Cushing, who also happened to head the "group" bidding for the Games.  Through an ingenious campaign, Cushing managed to convince first the United States Olympic Committee and then, in a massive upset, the International Olympic Committee, that Squaw Valley was the place for the Games.  This was despite the fact that none of the facilities he included in his bid* even existed yet.  Had he been unable to pull it off, Cushing probably would have gone down in history as one of the great land swindlers of all time, and we'd be seeing his story on an episode of The FBI.

*Seen in a massive 3,000 pound model of Squaw Valley that Cushing commissioned for the IOC, a model so big that it had to be housed in the U.S. Embassy in Paris, where the final vote was taken.

But pull it off he did.  With only four-and-a-half years to get ready, he wasted no time hiring the best people, including famed Olympic course designer Willy Schaeffler, to construct a venue from scratch - everything from freeways, hotels and motels to access roads, bridges and arenas.  The result was a huge success, a spectacular resort venue that continues to thrive today, and a Games that scored a host of notable firsts, including the first to be televised.

Which brings us to this week's coverage, seen on CBS Saturday and Sunday.  Unquestionably Saturday's highlight is the live broadcast of America's upset gold medal victory in hockey.  As would be the case 20 years later, a team comprised of college players, cheered on by a rabid home crowd, takes on and defeats the giants of international hockey: Canada, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.  You can see that historic final game, against the Soviets, beginning here, with Bud Palmer doing the play-by-play:

CBS looked at the Games as a news event as much as a sporting one; Walter Cronkite was the anchor for the network's coverage, with Chris Schenkel and event experts joining in.  Douglas Edwards filled in for Uncle Walter on the Sunday night late news, which Cronkite helmed until taking over for Edwards on the weekday evening news.


This week's starlet is another destined to make it big, or at least one who has a successful career.  It's Shirley Knight.  The 23 year-old actress is primarily known for her many guest appearances on TV: G.E. Theater, Playhouse 90, Matinee Theater, Johnny Staccato.  She's under contract to Warner Brothers for both television and movies, and says she'll "work every day they'll let me until I'm 65."

And she does work.  Later that year she'll appear in her third movie, The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, for which she'll get an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  In 1962, her fifth movie, Sweet Bird of Youth, will garner her another Supporting Actress nomination.  Her TV appearances will net her eight Emmy nominations and three victories.  A pretty good career, don't you think?  Probably even more successful than they could imagine over at TV Guide.


The irony note of the week comes from an article on ABC's smash hit, The Untouchables.  Executive Producer Quinn Martin is the brains behind the rookie show's success, the first of many hits ascribed to Martin during a long and successful career.  One of the complaints about the show surrounds what Martin calls "dramatic license," when the Untouchables are shown capturing Ma Barker and her gang.  In real life (yes, there was a Ma Barker in real life), it was not Eliot Ness and the Untouchables, but the FBI, who captured Barker and her bankrobbing sons.  Martin understands the FBI's ire at this; "After all, the FBI gets its appropriations based on the job it does, and it's understandable that they'd object to credit being given to someone else."

If Quinn Martin had any lingering feelings of guilt about cheating the FBI out of proper credit, hopefully he was able to even the score when it came to one of his longest-running hits: The FBI (1965-74).

Martin has other problems with The Untouchables - the estate of Al Capone, the first victim of Ness' squad, is suing Martin for a million bucks for using his likeness for profit without the family's permission.  The show faces pushback from Italian-American groups for its negative portrayal of Italian-Americans.  Critics claim the show's too violent.  But it's a lot easier to take when you're producing a hit.  Martin stays with The Untouchables for only a year, but his success and influence in television lasts a lot longer.


Saturday:  NBC's World Wide 60 presents the comings and goings of two of the world's more important figures: Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev.  The American and Soviet leaders are touring the world, vying for influence in various countries.  Ike's in the midst of his South American tour and, just finished a trip to Brazil, is headed for Argentina.  Khrushchev, meanwhile, is in Asia, visiting India, Burma and Indonesia.  NBC continues its coverage of Eisenhower's "Journey to Understanding" with another special on Thursday.

Sunday:  Pompous program of the week: the Archibald MacLeish drama "The Secret of Freedom," on NBC Sunday night at 7:00 ET, opposite Ed Sullivan on CBS.*  The drama, starring Tony Randall, Kim Hunter and Thomas Mitchell, tells the story of a woman who wonders whether Americans "have lost their souls" when a school tax referendum is defeated in her town.  If this sounds a lot like the tactics that school referendum proponents use to this day, it is.  I don't suppose there's anything in the script about holding the schools to accountability.

*Even then, prestige shows were stuck opposite popular programs.

Monday:  Bing Crosby returns to ABC with another special, this one co-starring Perry Como, dancer-singer Elaine Dunn, singer Sandy Stewart, and Bing's singing sons Philip, Dennis and Lindsay.  The Crosby Boys, as they were known professionally, were around in the '50s and '60s, and actually appeared on more than just their dad's shows.

Tuesday:  Another one of those daytime specials that used to crop up from time to time.  This one, Woman!, runs at 2pm CT on CBS, with Helen Hayes hosting a documentary on the problems of old age.  I like the thought that homemakers watching television are capable of appreciating more than just soap operas.

Wednesday:  Armstrong Circle Theater presents a drama dealing with two topical issues: drugs and beatniks.  "Raid in Beatnik Village" tells the story of cops on the narcotics squad going undercover to bust dope dealers.  Juvenile delinquency is a big deal in the '50s and '60s, and although this drama probably would feel dated today (particularly with reference to "narcotics"), I suspect it's a pretty accurate depiction of the societal anxiety around the coming counterculture, something that would become much, much bigger by the end of this decade.

Thursday:  Speaking of The Untouchables, tonight's episode is part two of an exciting story pitting Ness and the Untouchables* against the attempted assassination of FDR in 1933.  As in real life, Roosevelt escapes unscathed, but Chicago Mayor Anton Cermak is shot and killed.  The official story has generally been that Cermak, like Texas Governor John Connelly thirty years later, was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, but there are revisionist historians, including the writer of this episode, suggesting that the mob had a contract out on Cermak, and that he was at least as much of a target as Roosevelt.

*And please tell me why there isn't an alt-rock group out there called Eliot Ness and The Untouchables?  Or Tao Jones and The Industrial Averages, for that matter?

Friday:  Art Carney was on a lot more than just The Honeymooners, and tonight he stars on yet another live production, "The Best of Everything," on NBC at 7:30pm.  Actor Roddy McDowall and musical-comedy star Betty Garrett join Art to satirize "the American custom of handing out awards at the drop of a hat."  Considering that I'm writing these words the day after yet another bloated Academy Awards show, they seem more prescient than ever, don't they?


Finally, the big news of the week is that Jack Paar has returned!  You may remember that back on February 11, the controversial Paar had walked off the set of The Tonight Show during taping, because NBC had censored a story he'd told on the show the night before, having to do with some confusion over the initials W.C. - meaning, depending on the two main characters in the joke, either "Wayside Chapel" or "Water Closet," i.e. bathroom.  We wouldn't bat an eye at the story today, but literal bathroom humor was a no-no back then.

To compound the debacle, in place of the censored joke NBC substituted a five-minute news broadcast, right there in the middle of the show.  They could have just had the show end five minutes early, I suppose, which might have meant fewer people would have noticed anything was missing.  In any event, Paar complained that the amorphous term "censored" was leading people to speculate that Paar had told a story that was genuinely dirty.

Paar's spectacular walkout dominated the headlines for three weeks, until NBC board chairman Robert Sarnoff and president Robert Kintner flew down to Florida, where Paar had decamped to avoid the press.  According to TV Guide, the pair "were able to sweet-talk [Paar] back into the fold with an alacrity that bordered on the miraculous."  Paar's walkout "lasted just about as long as it takes to get a Florida tan," and Dwight Whitney somewhat cynically speculates that Paar's return will be "one of the most sensational 'comebacks' in entertainment history."

Was it a stunt or not?  Paar always insisted that his walkout was on the up-and-up; when he left the show, he said that "there must be a better way to make a living than this."  Returning on March 7, he added, "Well, I've looked, and there isn't."  TV Guide's letters section presents a cross-section of viewer mail; the editors noted that 78% was pro-Paar, 22% anti-Paar.  Interestingly, the listings for Tonight this week have Arlene Francis guest-hosting and Bill Wendell sitting in for Hugh Downs as announcer, while "Monday Jack returns from his vacation."  I guess that's one way to put it!

February 27, 2015

Get your classic detectives here!

Just want to take a minute to remind everyone of this week's Classic TV Detectives Blogathon sponsored by the Classic TV Blog Association.  I'd meant to write more on this today but was pressed for time due to the last-minute obituary for Leonard Nimoy, so I'll just direct everyone to this site, where you can read some delightful writing on television's classic detectives and crimefighters.  See you tomorrow for another TV Guide!

Leonard Nimoy, R.I.P.

Well, the original Star Trek is well and truly done, now.  Scotty, Bones, and now Spock.  Only Kirk is left, and even a lead character needs a sidekick, a second banana, as Grantland has shown this week.  Yet if that's all you knew of Leonard Nimoy, or all you ever saw of him, you missed a lot.

Just off the top of my head:  There's Paris, the mysterious character he plays for two season in Mission: Impossible, back when he was in his single-name days.  He was terrific as the bad guy in an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (an episode he shared with William Shatner, ironically).  He was very good as the heavy - he also did a memorable turn as an arrogant doctor-murderer in Columbo - and wasn't it satisfying to see the good Lieutenant bust him at the end?  There was In Search Of..., which almost seemed to be a subtitle for Nimoy himself at that point in his career.

Was he an actor playing Spock, or was he Spock?  Nimoy himself seemed to struggle with the question; his two memoirs were titled I Am Not Spock and I Am Spock, and he was forever being recruited for voiceovers for space and supernatural programs.  He appeared in the Star Trek movies and directed two of them.  Whenever you saw him in a role, no matter what the genre, your first thought, more often than not, went back to the bridge of the Enterprise.  You always expected to see him arch his eyebrow, or pronounce something "interesting."

In the end, he came to terms with the popularity of the role, and the place in history which it secured him, even parodying it from time to time in shows like The Simpsons and Futurama.  And to dismiss Star Trek as a cult fad, to try and find his talent in the roles he played outside of that series, is to do him a disservice.  Spock was not an easy role to play; he had skills that could get the ship and its crew out of most jams, and he was frequently more level-headed, even more ruthless, than Kirk.  He was without most human emotions, which made his rare forays into humor - and his wonderful delivery of them* - unforgettable, He lacked the weaknesses of most fictional characters, which gave him an air of uncreative invulnerability to be sure, but also made him the most dependable of authority figures.  Never mind Allstate; you were always in good hands with Commander Spock.

*My favorite remains his unforgettable comment in The Trouble With Tribbles, regarding Kirk's disdain for a Federation official.  Baris: "You heard me."  Kirk: "I heard you."  Spock: "He simply could not believe his ears."  A shrug, and the eyebrow arches.

And my comment earlier, at the top of the page?  That's not really true, either, for as long as there are DVDs and streaming video and, well, memories, Star Trek will always live in the minds of its fans.  To say that Spock was a beloved television character is to state a fact.  To say that Leonard Nimoy was a product of that adulation is misplaced.  To paraphrase, the fans came for the character, they got the man.  And that was a pretty good deal.

It may be illogical to say so, but nevertheless: you've lived long and prospered, now rest in peace.

February 25, 2015

M Squad: where the M stands for Marvin

I begin by plagiarizing my own blog, but who better to talk about the Lee Marvin experience in M Squad than Lee Marvin?

In an October 1959 interview with TV Guide, Marvin holds court on M Squad, what it's like, what it means.

Who knows? You tell me. It's a cop series, what else? The guy's a cop. Who wants the truth? It's like an artist. He's got this painting. He says, 'But don't you see, it's yah-foo-lah-lah-lah. You notice how that yellow shines?

I dunno, it's moving. Lieutenant Ballinger - who knows - he's a cop. You tell me. We took Chicago. It was all that was left. I know Chicago cops. Rough. They have to be. The whole city would explode. It's like a bomb, Chicago. I know. Look at the setup. 

What about his co-star, the city of Chicago?  Jack Webb says "This is the city" when he introduces Dragnet, but we all know that Chicago is the city, the Windy City, the City of Broad Shoulders, the City that Works.  A city that's both grand and gaudy, hard working and hard living, luxury apartments and slums.  Lots of shots from winter, the snow applying a thin cover of purity, masking the hard core underneath. Home of the Bears, the Cubs, Frank Ballinger.

We shoot locations, twice a year.  No permit, no co-operation.  They don't want any part of us.  We're going next week again.  Shoot and run.  It finally came down to: 'Okay, any public building, but nothing else, no stopping traffic.'  I stay back, out of sight.  Hat pulled down.  Director says okay, walks through what I do, says, 'Like that, Lee.'  I do it, we shoot it and blow.  Kids come along, see the crowd, it's always the same thing in Chicago.  Right away, 'Who got killed?'  That's what a crowd means to most Chicago kids.

One time we're up on a roof.  On the edge over the sidewalk.  Me and this actor, struggling over a gun.  I thought I'd hoke it up a little. We can't carry sound equipment, have to move too fast. Dub it later. I saw these two gals walking along.  Right under us. I yelled, 'Gimme that gun, I'll kill you!' They looked up, yah, hoo, whu, hmm?  Two men on a roof, killing each other. And these girls went right on.  They didn't even break stride.

Lieutenant Friday, Dragnet, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Lineup.  What's their problem? No problem. It's routine.  It's static.  But not Chicago. They stop it before it happens. They have to.

Chicago'd go like a bomb, the whole place.  I know.  I spent a year there, going to secretarial school.  After the war, out of the Marines, wacked up, shot near the spine, whoo lah, hero.  I couldn't do anything.  Nothing.  I didn't know ho.  High school, no training.  Navy ROTC school in New Jersey, 14 years old and they pulled rank on me.  This old admiral, 61, still in uniform, and a kid 14 years old.  I cut out and sold my uniform.

It's like M Squad.  The M doesn't stand for anything.  It's any dirty job.  Let's face it, we're the Storm Troops.  A lone cop, Chicago, what else?  M Squad.  I liked The Loop.  That's what somebody wanted to call it.  I wanted to do a lot of things.  I talk to myself, driving along, who doesn't?  You come out of a conference, you sit there at a stop light, say, 'Yeah, fah-loo-dee-doo, BUT, you say.

Try paraphrasing that.  It doesn't work, trust me.  Plagiarism is the only way to go.

M Squad, Marvin's only foray into scripted series television, ran on NBC from 1957 to 1960*.  It was a half-hour drama, the once-commonplace television form that's now vanished.  Marvin plays the aforementioned Frank Ballinger, detective lieutenant at M Squad, a special branch of the Chicago Police that works on major crimes such as corruption and murder.  Ballinger's boss is Captain Grey, played by Paul Newlan, who is usually already there when Marvin arrives at the crime scene.  Newlan is good, even though most of his lines consist of saying either "Look into it, Frank," or "Do you think that could be it, Frank?" or "Remember to be careful out there, Frank - she's killed before, she won't be afraid to kill again."  This is usually followed by a meaningful pause.

*There were 117 episodes made over those three season - thirty-nine per season.  They don't make them like that anymore, either.

Ballinger is a no-nonsense cop who lives and breaths his job.  Glimpses into his private life are few and far between, and usually wind up being part of the cover he's using in his investigations.  He takes crime as a personal affront; Chicago is his city, baby, and don't you forget it.  You mess with Chicago, you mess with Frank Ballinger.  An author said once that it's best, when watching M Squad, to remember that it was made before the Miranda decision.

The music for the first season was typical tough-cop style; effective enough to win a Grammy for Stanley Wilson, but nothing unique.  For the second season, the producers went to Count Basie, who gave the show a completely different feel.  It was alive, jumping, edgy.  Like Chicago.  Throw in scores by greats like Benny Carter, Sonny Burke and Stanley Wilson, along with a young composer who still went by the name of Johnny Williams.

Add a lineup of guest stars that become a who's who of '50s and '60s television, Ruta Lee, Charles Bronson, Mike Conners, Janice Rule.  Watch out particularly for the dames like Ruta; they'll get you in the back if you're not ready for them.  Add a dollop of noir; the black-and-white images, the bright lights of the mean streets and the shadows that hide the seedy corruption, the two-bit chiselers, the punks and the rest of the hoods looking to take advantage of the honest people that make the city work.  It's an authentic slice of life, closer in look to Naked City than Dragnet.  If you've not seen it, check it out on YouTube, or invest in the box set, because if you like your shows with two-fisted action, hard-nosed cops and cold-blooded killers, you're going to like M Squad.  It stands alone - almost.

Because, of course, there's Police Squad!


Police Squad!, a creation of Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker, was their follow-up to the big-budget disaster spoof Airplane.  One of the stars in Airplane was Leslie Nielsen, playing against type as a straight-faced doctor who, when someone said to him "Surely you can't be serious," could reply "I am serious... and don't call me Shirley."

In 1982, Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker cast Nielsen as the star in their upcoming ABC sitcom, which would do to the stereotypical police drama what Airplane had done for disaster flicks.  Nielsen was to play Frank Drebin, detective lieutenant* for Police Squad, a special branch of the Police Department.  Drebin's boss is Captain Hocken, played by Alan North, who is usually already there when Drebin arrives at the crime scene.  Most of North's lines consist of saying either "Look into it, Frank," or "Do you think that could be it, Frank?" or "Remember to be careful out there, Frank - she's killed before, she won't be afraid to kill again."  This is usually followed by a meaningful pause.

*Actually, he was Sergeant Frank Drebin, Detective Lieutenant.  One of the show's many charms.

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, it should.  While Police Squad! lampooned all cop shows, it was specifically modeled after M Squad and another '60s half-hour drama, Felony Squad.  If you don't believe that, check this out (and make sure to watch part two as well):

One of the comments on this video is right; the M Squad clip should have come first, because after watching Police Squad!, it's going to be impossible to take the same scene seriously.  That's not a knock on the latter, because were it not for Police Squad!'s brilliant satire, you wouldn't look at that episode of M Squad and roll your eyes.  Only the very good and the very bad get satirized; the rest of them don't matter.

M Squad is very good.  And it does matter.

Today's entry is part of the Classic TV Blog Association's "Classic TV Detectives Blogathon" - check the link for other great entries in this week's blogathon!