November 20, 2017
November 18, 2017
It's made doubly special in that 1965 is the first Thanksgiving I can actually be sure of remembering. By that I mean that while I may have memories from even earlier years (say, visiting the relatives for dinner), this is the first year I can specifically trace back to a year. Not surprisingly, I remember it because of the football games played that day. They both ended in ties.
I figure the best way to do this is to start with what's on the cover, with some extras thrown in as we go along.
Saturday: Back in the day, before college football was irrevocably changed by conference realignment and billion-dollar television contracts, when there were no conference championship games and only a dozen bowl games, the Saturdays on either side of Thanksgiving were the days when the sport's storied rivalries took center stage. The highlight of the Saturday after Thanksgiving was the Army-Navy game, played before 100,000 fans in Philadelphia, and this Saturday gives us some of the great conference showdowns. Since NBC's contract with the NCAA limits us to one game per Saturday, the games are parceled out on a regional basis. Fans in the middle of the country get highly-ranked Missouri taking on Kansas, out East it's the Harvard-Yale game, down South Texas Tech plays Arkansas, and in the upper Midwest (and perhaps most of the country) it's The Game: Ohio State and Michigan. Usually, this game decides the Big 10 championship, but not in 1965: top-ranked Michigan State, the eventual national champion, is heading for the Rose Bowl, so the Buckeyes and Wolverines are playing for pride. Ohio State wins a tough defensive struggle, 9-7.
Sunday: Richard Nixon's appearance on Face the Nation (11:30 a.m. CT, CBS) is notable in that, after having been defeated by John Kennedy for the Presidency in 1960 and by Pat Brown for Governor of California in 1962, his political career was thought to be dead. However, by 1964 he's started to emerge as something of an elder statesman for the GOP; as one of the few "establishment" Republicans to not spurn Barry Goldwater (he even introducted Goldwater at the convention), Nixon is able to placate the party's conservative activists even as he remains part of the party's Eastern base. He spends most of 1965 and 1966 criss-crossing the country in support of Republican candidates in the mid-term elections; by 1967, he's become a serious possibility for the presidential nomination in 1968. It's a comeback quite unlike anything we've seen in American politics.
Also of note: Robert Young hosts the Bell Telephone Hour's Thanksgiving program on NBC at 5:30 p.m., with Carol Lawrence, John Gary, Jean Fenn, William Walker, Matt Mattox, and the Choristers of teh LIttle Church Around the Corner.
Monday: I'm a little surprised that TV Guide didn't mention this, but on Monday Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall returns for a Thanksgiving special (8:00 p.m., NBC), with Gertrude Berg, Bobby Vinton, and the Lennon Sisters. It just wouldn't be a major holiday without Perry on television.
Tuesday: CBS's Salute to Stan Laurel (7:30 p.m.), who had died earlier in 1965, is hosted by Dick Van Dyke, the comedian most often compared to Laurel. The show, liberally spiced with clips from famous Laurel and Hardy movies, includes appearances by Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball, Harvey Korman, Phil Silvers, Bob Newhart, Audrey Meadows, Danny Kaye (who accepted an honorary Oscar for Laurel in 1961), Gregory Peck (as head of the Motion Picture Academy), and Audrey Meadows, Louis Nye, Tina Louise, Cesar Romero, and Leonid Kinskey. When they call this an all-star show, they aren't kidding.
Also of note: At 9:00 p.m, CBS presents "The National Citizenship Test," hosted by Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace. Viewers who are scoring at home* can keep track of their answers on a scoresheet found in their daily newspaper, and find out if they know enough about Constitutional and state rights, and how state and Federal governments work in order to be thankful for being a citizen.
*Or just watching the show.
Wednesday: Thanksgiving Eve features one of the biggest star in entertainment, Frank Sinatra, in "A Man and His Music" (8:00 p.m, NBC), featuring the Chairman's greatest hits from his 25 years in show business. Sinatra had tried and failed with two previous series, in part because he put little effort into selling them; after all, when you're Frank Sinatra, you don't feel as if you have to prove anything. These annual specials (this being the first), which start out on NBC and later move to CBS, are a perfect formula for success: highly-anticipated specials in every sense of the word, with few guest stars or comedy bits, concentrating on what Sinatra does best - singing his hits.
At 9:00 p.m., just in time for Thanksgiving Day, ABC presents "Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon," a history of professional football from 13th century England to today's modern game. The documentary, a David L. Wolper production produced and directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and narrated by Van Heflin, features clips from the game's greates, including Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, and Sammy Baugh. If that's a bit rough for you, NBC's "Congress Needs Help," hosted by David Brinkley, shows what happens when an efficiency expert looks at how the Congress is run and how it could be made to function more effectively. I was not able to find a recording of this show, more's the pity.
*Specifically, "A Stop at Willoughby."
"Music by Cole Porter" (7:30 p.m., NBC) continues the week's musicial specials, with with Robert Goulet, Maurice Chevalier, Nancy Ames, and Peter Gennaro offering a tribute to the late Cole Porter, who died just over a year ago. Of course, one of the greatest interpreters of Porter's sophisticated lyrics is none other than Frank Sinatra, who sang some of Porter's best, including "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "I Get a Kick Out of You."
But the best part of the day - parades and football! CBS carries its traditional assortment of parades (9:00 a.m.) from New York (hosted by Arthur Godfrey and Bess Myerson), Philadelphia (Bud Collyer), Detroit (Frank Gifford and Marilyn Van Derbur) and Toronto (Jack Linkletter), all hosted by Captain Kangaroo and Shari Lewis. Meanwhile, NBC's telecast of the Macy's parade (9:00) is hosted, as usual, by Lorne Greene and Betty White.
CBS follows its parade coverage with the traditional NFL game from Detroit (11:00 a.m.) as the Lions play the Baltimore Colts (final score: 24-24); NBC counters with a college-AFL doubleheader, starting at 12;30 p.m. with the then-traditional Turkey Day matchup between Oklahoma and Nebraska (the #3 ranked Cornhuskers win 21-9). The Thanksgiving games between these two resulted in some classics, including their 1971 game thought by many to be the greatest college game ever played; alas, thanks to conference realignment, this, too, is a rivalry that has fallen by the wayside. The day closes with the defending AFL champion Buffalo Bills playing the team they defeated for the title, the San Diego Chargers, from San Diego. Like the NFL game, this also ends in a tie - 20-20. Doesn't stop the Bills, though, as they wind up the season successfully defending their title, again against San Diego.
Friday: Can there possibly be room for anything else? There can, if your name is Sean Conery and you play James Bond for a living. Friday night's special "The Incredible World of James Bond" airs at 9:00 p.m. on NBC, and takes a look behind the scenes at the forthcoming Bond flick Thunderball. Fittingly, the show it preempts for the evening is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
What a week - did I already say this once?
During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..
Sullivan: Ed's scheduled guests: political satirist Mort Sahl; pianist Peter Nero; singer Johnny Mathis; Killer Joe Piro and his Discotheque Dancers; comedienne Jean Carroll; German musical-comedy star Heidi Bruhl; puppet Topo GIgio; singer-pianist Ginny Tiu and her family; and the Monterey singing boys choir.
Palace: Host Bing Crosby introduces songstress Diahann Carroll; song-and-dance man John Bubbles; comic Charlie Manna; the singing Kessler Twins (Ellen and Alice); Michael the Waiter, German juggler; Desmond and Marks, English comics; and the Black Theater of Prague, pantomomists.
Well, this isn't the best lineup we've seen, but we've got enough information to make a call. Mort Sahl and Peter Nero edge Bing Crosby's lineup, and with Johnny Mathis in tow, chances are that Ed takes the week.
Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era.
To say that you can do far worse than F Troop may sound like faint praise, but when Cleveland Amory says it, then you're doing pretty good. In fact, he says at the end of the first paragraph, "the first and third episodes were two of the funniest shows we've seen all season."
Amory is a big fan of Ken Berrty, as the inept Captain Parmenter, who "mumbles, bumbles, stumbles and even fumbles his way from reveille to retreat." He's also a fan of Melody Patterson, who plays Parmenter's inamorata Wrangler Jane, Frank de Kova as Chief Wild Eagle, and Edward Everett Horton as Roaring Chicken. He really enjoyed Bernard Fox, who in the third episode played Major Bentley-Royce, the "Phantom Maja from Inja," a master of disguise who tries to make everyone in F Troop invisible, disguising them as tree stumps, horses and even buffalo; the result, says Amory, is "hilarious." Strangely enough, though, he has very little to say about Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch, who play Sergeant O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn. Most people who've seen F Troop would likely remember them more than anyone else, but then again, it may be a case of the devil being in the details, or something like that.
Now, you'll recall in the first paragraph that Amory thought the first and third episodes were very funny, but that leaves the second episode. It's a story in which Parmenter's Philadelphia finacee arrives to try and get Parmenter away from both Fort Courage and Wrangler Jane, not necessarily in that order. It's a mix of "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Pygmalion," but even though fiancee Lucy faints twice and O'Rourke and Agarn faint once each, the show just doesn't add up. By way of explanation, Amory quotes Wild Eagle, who first offers the aphorism "Bark of tree never bitter to a hungry squirrel," and then, when asked what it means, shrugs and replies, "Well, it loses a little something in translation." So does this episode, which - as Amory concludes, "shows how quickly F Troop can go from F sharp to F flat.
There was a lot of excitement among classic TV fans when the Rod Serling-developed Western The Loner, starring Lloyd Bridges hit the DVD market last year. It was a fairly unexpected development, as the series only ran for 26 episodes, but as I say, people were stoked about it. Part of the anticipation, I think, was due to the Cult of Serling, which in general holds that "It's Serling, it has to be good." Now, before you jump all over me, I've seen a couple of episodes - it is pretty good. Not great, but certainly watchable. Serling may have had his flaws as a writer, but he had more than a few gems as well.
At this point, the show's ratings are still disappointing, but the network has put the show back into production with an assurance that it will stay on the air, at least through the winter. It's still struggling to find its place; even Bridges was bothered that his character's background wasn't more fleshed out, though he trusts Serling on this point. Finally, in March, the plug is pulled. It's easy to appreciate Serling's frustration - he was once heard to say that he wished the week would go straight from Friday to Sunday and skip Saturday so there wouldn't be any Loner. He couldn't have been surprised; after all, it was network interference that resulted in him going the sci-fi route in the first place.
What else? Well, we've got a starlet - it's Marta Kristen, born Birgit Annalisa Rusanen, who's currently starring as Judy Robinson on Lost in Space. Melvin Durslag writes about the current controversy in pro football as to whether or not new, unproven rookies should be paid big bucks. "For the Record" examines how television covered the Big Blackout in New York the previous Tuesday; most networks shifted their live operations to Washington and used the West Coast feed to get their programs to the affiliates. The most memorable moment came when NBC switched to Frank McGee, reporting live from New York - by candlelight.
I don't know how to top that, so I think it's time to blow out the candle and say good night.
November 17, 2017
Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series
by Chuck Harter
BearManor Media, 374 pp, $27.00
or a series that lasted only two seasons and was seldom seen thereafter in syndication, it’s remarkable how fondly Mr. Novak is remembered. Until recently, I’d never seen an episode myself, and yet I knew about the show, that it starred James Franciscus, that it was about a high school teacher, that Dean Jagger, whom I had enjoyed immensely in White Christmas, played the principal, and that the series dealt with the typical issues that confronted high school students in the early 1960s. That was about it, but one can say that this is about all that most people know about most television shows that
It wasn’t good enough for Chuck Harter, though. A late-comer to Novak himself, he was surprised to find that there had been so little written about a series that had won such acclaim during its brief lifetime. So he did what writers are wont to do – he wrote a book about it. Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series does the show proud, and reflects well on the talent and passion of its author for his subject matter.
Many books have been written about television series over the years; some of them have, not surprisingly, found their way to my bookshelves. Most of them follow a fairly standard template: a recounting of how the series came to be; bios of the major participants; an episode guide, including thorough credits for everyone involved, with varying degrees of information about each episode; and an epilogue that brings us up to date on what happened to everyone after the show’s run ended. It provides an effective blueprint for writing a successful book on a given series, but sometimes these books serve as little more than television junk food – fun to read, with entertaining stories from many of the show’s participants, leaving the reader full for the moment but ultimately wanting a little more substance.
Harter’s book has all these things, but it’s what he does with them that makes this book a cut above the standard. In providing us with those brief bios, for example, Harter does a particularly good job in using them to illustrate the evolutionary process that led to the airing of Novak. At the same time, he introduces us to people whose names might ring a bell, especially with classic television fans, but who perhaps ought to be more widely known than they are. His chapter on E. Jack Neuman, for example, not only pays tribute to Neuman’s role in creating Novak, but it allows us to get to know a talented man with a long and successful career in radio and television who, even had he never been involved in Novak, would still have been an interesting character.
Likewise, Harter isn’t afraid to take a deep dive in writing about the series’ development. I suppose we sometimes think a television series sprouts, fully developed, from the ground,* when the truth is far different. Here is another area in which Harter excels, taking the time to use the filming of the Novak pilot as a primer on how a television series gets made. We go behind the scenes as Neuman and his partner, Boris Sagal, flesh out their ideas for the series and choose the writers and actors to bring it all to life, and Harter gives us a fascinating look at how a network – NBC in this case – goes about building the publicity machine that can make or break a new series.
*Reminding me of the scene from 1776 in which John Adams explains how the history books will regard the forming of the United States – “Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them - Franklin, Washington, and the horse - conducted the entire revolution by themselves.”
We find out from the people involved – from Ed Asner, playing one of the new teachers, to some of the nearly 1,000 students of the real-life John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, extras essentially playing themselves – how things started to come together. As one of the co-stars, Marian Collier (who later would marry Jack Neuman) recalls, “we all had a real good feeling about the show being picked up by the network.” It was a feeling shared by Franciscus, co-star Jagger, and ultimately the network.
Ultimately, what really sells this book is that Harter illustrates how a television show can almost assume a life of its own. He writes what amounts to a biography of the two years that the show was on the air – the highs (critical acclaim, testimonials from actual teachers and the National Education Association, a bushel of awards) and the lows (Neuman’s ouster from the show in the second season and the replacement of several actors, including Jeanne Bal, amid salary conflicts and disputes with network personnel), and everything in-between. It’s really a history of the fictional (or is it?) Jefferson High, as well as the people who brought it to life. Whereas many books depend on the episode guide to provide the story, Harter’s use of a narrative format is one of the book’s most notable facets, as well as one of its biggest pluses
Harter does include an episode guide, but it’s likely to be more comprehensive that what you might be used to, including contemporary reviews that help give us a sense not only of the episode itself, but how it went over with viewers and critics. It’s valuable color, particularly when you’re talking about a series that many people haven’t seen (or haven’t seen for years) – in fact, one of the best pieces of news we’ve seen lately in the classic TV market was that Mr. Novak would finally be making it to DVD next year. Harter’s descriptions of these episodes won’t take the place of viewing them yourself, but they will act as far more of a companion to the viewing than is often the case with these books. There’s more to the book – a list of the many awards won by the show, including the Peabody, a writers guide written by Neuman, and a provocative episode on venereal disease (starting on Novak and concluding on Dr. Kildare) that was ultimately vetoed by the network. And that's not to mention dozens of very good interviews, and delightful contributions by Richard Donner, Walter Koenig, and the late Martin Landau.
Can a book make you care about a television show you’ve never seen, perhaps never even heard of? Can it make you want to watch the show? If you were to ask me that, I’d respond by saying that it depended on how well the book made its case, how it convinced me that I should care, how curious it made me to actually watch an episode or two. In the case of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series, Chuck Harter has succeeded on all fronts: he’s educated me on a series of which I’d only had a rudimentary knowledge, he’s made me become interested in it, and he’s made me want to watch it. Other than writing a best-seller, it’s about all an author can hope for, I suppose. A book like this is all a classic TV fan can hope for, as well.
In case you missed it, my interview with Chuck Harter appears here. Be sure to check it out for more information on Chuck's book, the seris, and some great photos!
November 15, 2017
Unless, of course, the series has a champion. Mr Novak is such a series, and Chuck Harter is such a champion.
In case you want additional reasons to read this book, take the words of some of those involved with Mr. Novak: Director Richard Donner (Superman the Movie, Lethal Weapon), who directed seven episodes of the series, says, “I’m so glad that Chuck Harter is bringing the Mr. Novak experience to a wider audience…read his detailed behind-the-scenes account.” The late Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible, Ed Wood, and a personal favorite of mine), who appeared in two of the best episodes of Mr. Novak, writes in the Forward that “Chuck Harter has produced a superlative book that is both fascinating and informative.” In an Afterward, Walter Koenig (Star Trek), who appeared in three episodes of Mr. Novak and whose role of a Russian exchange student in “The Boy without a Country” led, in part, to his game changing role of Ensign Chekov on Star Trek, writes that, “You don’t have to be an actor…just a student to appreciate the skillful way in which Chuck Harter unfolds the stories behind the cameras.” I'll tell you, it's hard to pass up recommendations like that.
Chuck was kind enough to spare a few minutes for the latest It's About TV Interview, when we had a chance to discuss his relationship to the show, how the book came about, and more about the denizens of Jefferson High School.
|Chuck Harter in front of John Marshall H.S.|
(The real Jefferson High)
Chuck Harter: I was just a kid when it originally aired from ’63 to ’65. It was on opposite the very popular Combat! TV series and as my Dad was in the Air Force, and we had one set, the family watched Combat! So I never saw it in the original run. However, star James Franciscus, with his handsome visage, was featured in many of the teen magazines of the day such as 16 and Teen Screen. The girls in my classes would bring them in and drool over Mr. Novak so I was at least aware of the show from their fan’s devotion. As the years went by, I saw a few references to the show in some books on the history of television that were complimentary, yet brief. I never saw any of the reruns on the TNT Network in the late eighties. So I vaguely knew that it was an excellent dramatic TV series about High School life.
So how did you finally catch up with the series and become a fan?
About three years ago, a friend in New York, who sells underground music dvds, sent me a package. Along with a few music discs where 12 dvds marked “Mr. Novak.” I didn’t make the connection and called him to inquire about this unexpected gift. He said that as I liked 60’s music, here was a teacher show from that time period. I thanked him and hesitated to watch any segments as it was probably a dated and uninteresting relic from the past. For several weeks I paid no attention to them but just before I was going to file the discs away, I decided to watch one since my friend had sent them as a gift. I put on “First Year, First Day” which was the pilot. As the show unfolded, I was pleasantly surprised to find it an excellent program that had superior acting, scripting and directing. When the hour ended, I was really impressed by the series and watched a second episode on the disc called “The Risk.” This was a story of an ex-alcoholic teacher who has reformed and wishes to return to an educator position at the fictitious Jefferson High School. It was even better than the earlier segment. The same level of quality in every department and no part of either episode was dated in the least.
That's one of the great things about being a fan of classic television - finding one of these hidden treasures that you didn't know anything about, so you have no real expectations, and then when you do see it, you're blown away. And, and least in your case, at some point, you decide to write a book about it.
As a result of my favorable impression of the show, I wanted to buy a book on the series to learn more about this amazing program and discovered there wasn’t such a book. I searched for a biography on star James Franciscus and found that one didn’t exist. Frustrated by this lack of documentation, I discovered a website run by a teacher who apparently was a first year High School teacher when the show first aired in 1963. He wrote that the show helped him become a better teacher and his website was basically a love letter to the series. I called him and he told me that he knew of many young people who became teachers because of the show. I then decided that I would write the book about this unique television production of such superior quality.
Considering the lack of information on the series, you must have felt like you were something of a trailblazer, plowing new ground, that kind of thing. I don't know what your expectations were, but any surprises as you went through the process?
There were many delightful surprises in the course of putting the book together. I ended up interviewing over 50 people and every single one of them, when approached to talk about Mr. Novak, immediately agreed and had much good to say about the show. I interviewed over 40 actors and as many hadn’t seen their episode(s) in fifty years, or had never seen them, they asked me to send DVD copies for their reference. I did so, and everyone was absolutely amazed at what a great program it was and how the story elements, production, acting and direction had not dated at all. The many progressive themes of the show were still valid in the modern world of education.
I was astonished to learn that the show won 47 awards during its two year run with the majority of them coming from educational institutions including the National Education Association. Mr. Novak even won a prestigious Peabody Award for excellence. In a medium of much mediocrity both then and now, this series was a rare example of true excellence that encapsulated the finest qualities of television programming.
How long did it take you to research and write the book?
It was close to a three-year journey between research and writing. There were some gaps in that timeline, of course, but the work was pretty steady throughout.
I would say that Marian Collier, who was a regular on the series as Miss Marilyn Scott, the Home Ec teacher, was one person who really went the extra mile. It turned out that five years after the show ended, she married the late E. Jack Neuman, who was the series Creator/Producer. She gave me complete access to Jack’s archives which yielded much interesting and useful material. Several collectors opened their own archives to me based on their love and respect for the show which also helped considerably. I ended up hearing from several former students of John Marshall High School. This Los Angeles based institution was used for the filming of the pilot and exteriors were used throughout the series’ run. They all were very positive and recalled the days of Mr. Novak with much affection. One student in particular, Laure Georges (Gonzalez), was beautifully enthusiastic in her memories of those happy days and as a result, I ended up partially dedicating the book to her. Nearly everyone who participated was helpful in one way or another.
We're in the early '60s when Mr. Novak begins, and we're also in the thick of the space race with the Soviet Union, when there's a renewed emphasis on the importance of education. Did this play any role in the thinking of Jack Neuman and Boris Sagal, the co-creators, when they came up with the idea?
I don’t think the times’ emphasis on education played much of a part in their creation. At some point Sagal suggested to Neuman that a series based on high school life might be a possible project. Neuman initially rejected the idea as he didn’t feel there could be many valid storylines. Sometime later, he visited a high school and spoke to some of the Administrators. After hearing from them, Neuman realized that the real life triumphs and tragedies of both students and teachers had not been explored in previous television programs about schools. They had been sitcoms and while entertaining, didn’t reflect the realities of school life. He developed the central character of a young teacher who is committed to making a difference in the education of his students. Neuman and Sagal proceeded with their concept and the series became a reality.
You have to admit that in a television world populated by policemen, private detectives, and cowboys (with the occasional social worker thrown in), a show about teachers might be thought of as a hard sell. Did NBC have any qualms about the concept, maybe concerns about the kind of subject matter that might be brought up, or that it might be kind of a downer, a la East Side/West Side?
E. Jack Neuman’s reputation as a writer and Producer of integrity and creativity was well known at NBC. He had written many scripts for various productions and was instrumental in the creation of the extremely popular Dr. Kildare series. The MGM studio, which ultimately filmed the Mr. Novak program, was also the home of the Kildare show. In initial meetings with the executives at MGM, there were some suggestions that Neuman’s new series would continue in the comic vein similar to the previous sitcoms. Neuman didn’t commit to a format and visited some additional schools to gain additional story concepts. When he was ready to proceed, the MGM studio green lighted his project with complete faith in his abilities based on his sterling reputation. In fact, during the first season, a rough agreement was established with the executives who ultimately didn’t interfere with the production. This was rare in an era when studio brass exerted a strong guiding hand in the production of their properties. After the pilot was finished and exhibited, it was only a matter of weeks until NBC bought the new series.
Before Mr. Novak, there was a movie from 1955 called Blackboard Jungle that showed a really rough side of inner-city schools, maybe for the first time to a lot of people. I don't see that kind of tension in Mr. Novak, at least in the episodes I've seen . I know that there is an episode later in the series that tackles the issue of integration, but was this a conscious effort to present a different kind of school from Blackboard Jungle?
Blackboard Jungle was an intense film set in an inner city school. The fictitious Jefferson High School of Mr. Novak was set in a middle class community so there really wasn’t a comparison. That being said, the Novak series provided cutting edge and provocative storylines that concerned cheating, racial prejudice, anti Semitism, unwed teenage mothers, alcoholism, dropouts, drugs, teacher’s inadequate salaries and extremism. The show, while presenting these vibrant themes, was always entertaining as well as informative.
|The stars of Mr. Novak: Dean Jaggger (L)|
and James Franciscus
James Franciscus had a youthful following from his role on Naked City as well as the many guest shots he had done. The actor had been the first choice to play Dr. Kildare when that series was in development, but was contractually bound to a pilot. His option would have cleared in a matter of days but the producers had to proceed with the Kildare series and cast Richard Chamberlain in the lead. Neuman would have known of Franciscus’ reputation as a dedicated actor of professionalism and integrity. Franciscus liked the approach of the program and agreed to be cast as the lead.
Dean Jagger was coming off of a very successful movie career, winning an Oscar for Twelve O'clock High and stealing the show (in my opinion) in White Christmas. What brought him to Jefferson High?
Dean Jagger was Neuman’s first choice to portray Principal Vane. The actor had not performed in many television shows but was intrigued by the concept of both the series and his character. He agreed to participate in the new series and became a major asset to the production.
One of the other major leads in the beginning was Jeanne Bal as the Assistant Principal. As I recall, there was an article in TV Guide about how her role was eliminated because of, let's say, the way she filled out her sweater and the effect that might have in a high school. Any truth to that?
Jeanne Bal, who played Assistant Principal Jean Pagano, became a major factor in the series’ success during its first season. She was a very attractive lady and there were a few comments from critics about her being too pretty. The majority of the critics however, lauded her performances and she became a big part of the success of the show. Early, in the first season, Dean Jagger suffered an attack of ulcers and had to leave the production for some weeks. Bal was given his lines and situations to great effect. Upon Jagger’s return, she was given more to do and even had a few episodes built around her character. She was to receive third star billing behind Franciscus and Jagger in the upcoming second season. During the summer of 1964 between the first and second seasons, a new Producer named Leonard Freeman was hired. He had his own ideas of the concept of the show and wanted to reduce the number of episodes that Bal would appear in. Bal disputed the change and ultimately left the series. This was a major blow to the program as she had been a real favorite with both the production and the viewing audience.
How was Mr. Novak regarded by real-life teachers and the education community?
The series was almost universally praised by the educational community. The National Education Association assigned script advisors to keep the stories as accurate as possible. Many educational associations awarded the show and the series was hailed as a landmark in the positive depiction of educators. Many young people, who had watched the show, decided to become teachers such was its positive influence. The series laid the ground work for such future programs about schools such as Room 222 and The Paper Chase.
Mr. Novak runs only two seasons - 60 episodes - and yet, despite the fact that it doesn't seem to have had an extensive run in syndication, and that even many classic TV fans aren't aware of it, there is still a core group of people who do remember it and think about it warmly. Why is that, do you think?
The people who saw the show during its initial run and were impressed by its superior qualities do retain the memories. The series really impacted its viewing audience in the middle sixties and it was such a new and realistic depiction of high school life that it was not forgotten. The reasons for this have been stated in this interview. It is interesting to note that during the work on the book, many people watched the show for the first time and were all impressed by its qualities. When the DVD set is released next year, and people either reacquaint themselves with a remembered part of their youth or discover it for the first time, I feel strongly that the result will be a very favorable opinion of this program.
If Mr. Novak were to be revived today, John Novak might well find that things had changed quite a bit from the Jefferson High of the early '60s. How do you think the issues he dealt with would be different, if in fact they would be different?
There would be, of course, changes since it has been fifty years since the program aired. One interesting example occurred in an episode from 1965 called “Enter a Strange Animal” in which Martin Landau guest starred as an aggressive salesman of a new device called a teaching machine. It was a primitive computer. He states that the computer can do the work faster and more accurately than the human educator. Another teacher argues the point that human interaction between the educators and students is paramount to success in learning. In today’s high schools, how much of the teaching is done by computers? There would, of course, be changes due to the shift in society and attitudes in the ensuing decades, but the real themes of the majority of the Novak episodes remain relevant to the modern day. This is why this series is indeed a genuine classic in the history of dramatic television programming. As said before, virtually everyone I contacted while doing the book remarked at how well the episodes held up and that they were not dated at all.
Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter is published by BearManor Media. It is available in hardcover, paperback and Ebook editions from Amazon.com and at the Bear Manor Media website. The book’s website is here, and I'd encourage you to check that out for more information.
Thanks again to Chuck for his generosity, and stay tuned - we'll have a review of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series in this space on Friday!
November 13, 2017
November 11, 2017
On Monday night, NBC reviews the story in a three-hour made-for-TV movie, Guilty or Innocent: the Sam Sheppard Murder Case (7:00 p.m.), starring George Peppard as the enigmatic Sheppard, who insisted from the very beginning that he was innocent, that the murder had actually been committed by a "bushy-haired intruder" who had then attacked Sheppard before escaping. The case is probably at least as well known for supposedly being the inspiration for The Fugitive as it is on its own merits.
I wrote about the Sheppard Case over at the other site back in 2007, on the eve of the anniversary of the murder, so no need to rehash the details here. What is interesting is Michael Fessier Jr.'s article on the challenges of casting such a challenging movie. The Sheppard story requires a huge cast; not just the principles, but the smaller roles as well, and don't let anyone tell you that it's the biggest roles that cause the biggest headaches. One actor was up for a minor role; casting director Milt Hammerman knew the actor's agent had grossly inflated his rate, based on a part he'd had in Chinatown, and the cost would hardly be worth it. But director Harold Gast took one look at him, said "That's my doctor," and Hammerman knew the budget would be taking another hit.
And so it goes. Barnard Hughes is scheduled to play Sheppard's first defense attorney, William Corrigan (called Philip Madden in the movie), but Hughes has just started a new series, Doc, on CBS and his contract prevents him from appearing in other programs this early in the new season. "I suppose it's too late to get Melvyn Douglas," director Bobby Lewis moans. (As it turns out, the difficulties are cleared up, and Hughes winds up playing Madden - brilliantly.) The tension is always there, as Hammerman experiences; there's always a delicate balance between the right actor and the right price.
The biggest challenge, not surprisingly, is casting the lead role, Dr. Sam. Since the actor playing Sheppard will be required to age 12 years, the length of time between the two trials, they have a choice either to sign a young actor and age him, or choose an older man and de-age him. He'll have to be physically fit, a trait which Sheppard maintained through most of his life. Most important, Fessier points out, "the actor selected would have to be able to handle the ambiguity of the role, the unknown guilt or innocence." Bruce Dern, a fine actor, was rejected for this very reason: "He's too guilty. The audience looks at him and knows he did it." On the flip side, James Garner, who was "a strong contenter" early on, was thought to be "too permanently winsomely 'innocent'." On it went - Hal Holbrook was "too cerebral," Beau Bridges "too soft," Jon Voight, Gene Hackman and James Caan were too big, i.e. too expensive, to be considered unless "somebody here knows them personally?" They finally settle on George Peppard, veteran of Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Carpetbaggers, and the series Banacek, who calls this "the best part I have ever been offered in my career."
|Peppard (left) as Sam Sheppard, with Barnard Hughes|
as his defense attorney.
To this day the Sheppard case remains haunting, disturbing. I'd probably heard of the Sheppard case befored (the retrial had only happened nine years before the movie was made), but I was captivated by the story; I bought and read as many books about the Sheppard case as I could, and I'm looking at four of them on my bookshelf as I write this; it's the reason I saved this particular issue of TV Guide. I was fascinated by F. Lee Bailey, who is of diminished stature today but was an enfant terrible as Sheppard's defender; the case made him world-famous overnight. In Cleveland, where the drama played out, it still arouses strong feelings on both sides, and old-timers remain convinced of the doctor's guilt.* It is a story of a flawed marriage, one that either was on the road to recovery (Mrs. Sheppard was pregnant at the time of her murder) or doomed to tragedy; a story of a man, whether guilty or innocent, who was hounded by the press and public in a trial that at times resembled a circus more than a legal proceeding.
*During the retrial Vegas had odds of 20:1 on Sheppard's acquittal; in Cleveland it was only 6:5.
Most important, the conclusion tells us one of two things: either Sam Sheppard was guilty of murdering his wife and unborn child, and ultimately got away with it (albeit after spending a decade in jail), or he was a man unjustly deprived of that decade, an innocent man destroyed by the experience in prison. And if the truth points to the latter rather than the former, it also means that a murderer escaped detection, escaped punishment, and continued to wander in the darkness - even though the killer carried with him or her a pair of hands that, like Lady Macbeth, could not be cleansed of innocent blood. Jack Harrison Pollack, author of the book on which the movie was based, called the Sheppard case "An American Tragedy." Tragic it was, and will always remain.
Kirshner: Steppenwolf, Graham Central Station and Emmylou Harris are guests. Music: "Mr. Penny Pincher" and "Caroline" (Steppenwolf); "Bluebird Wine," "Jambalaya" and "Amarillo" (Emmylou Harris).
Special: Hostess Helen Reddy, with Jimmie Walker, David Essex, Brenda Lee and instrumental jazz-rock group Tom Scott and the L.A. Express. This week's hit is Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Also: a tribute to Jan and Dean.
Fun fact: during the days of the late, unlamented United States Football League*, the team in Los Angeles was called the L.A. Express. Now, does this outweigh a rock group named after a novel written by the famous German novelist Hermann Hesse? You might as well ask if a musician who shares his last name with the regal Essex House hotel in New York City measures up to a band who adapted their name from that same city's storied Grand Central Station. In the end, it all comes down to one question: do you like Emmylou Harris better than Brenda Lee? I do, and on that (admittedly esoteric) basis I award the week to Kirshner.
*The league whose New Jersey franchise was owned by none other than a future President of the United States.
Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era.
You'll recall that when it first debuted, Saturday Night Live was known simply as NBC's Saturday Night. That's because the "Live" moniker had already been taken by ABC's entry in the Saturday night variety sweepstakes, Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell. The problem with this, explains Cleveland Amory, is that "the producers here now seem to spend their time thinking of ways to keep Cosell off camera. This is sad, because incisive interviewing and abrasive sportscasting were the making of Cosell's reputation. Being a host who is seldom seen on his own show could be the unmaking of it."
It's not that ABC hasn't been able to attract names to the show. But, in the "nothing exceeds like excess" category, that doesn't mean you have to hype the daylights out of them. Shirley Bassey, for example, "was overplugged as 'the greatest singing star on the internation scene.' Charo, a sort of singer-cum-professional-talk-show-guest, was overplugged as 'that electrifying vivacious bombshell.' You perhaps hadn't been electrified by her on any other show for at least a couple of hours." And another thing, writes Amory: "At other times, we were frquently introduced to 'the No. 1 rock group - but it was a different group every time. Aren't there any No. 2s?"* Of course, any show featuring Cosell is, I'm afraid, going to be subject to hype of one kind or another.
*Nice no-apostrophe usage there.
Further examples of what viewers can expect are, frankly, a little embarrassing. While being interviewed, John Wayne comments about would-be assassins (there'd been a plague of them recently, as we'll see shortly) by saying that we should "bloody them up a bit," maybe tear out their hair, then put 'em on TV and say, "They missed. Think what we would have done to them if they hadn't." The very next week, who should show up but none other than F. Lee Bailey, who talked about his current client, Patty Hearst, and said "Despite everything you've read and seen, I find her to be a very nice young lady." A clearly-exasperated Cleve remarks that "One of the credits for this show reads 'Executive in Charge of Talent.' It's too bad they can't afford one in charge of taste."
It's not all bad - an interview with Joe Frazier's son was good; so was an appearance by Cosell's friend Muhammad Ali, and a stand-up by the always-funny Alan King. Surprisingly, a duet sung by Cosell and Barbara Walters, of all people, also seemed to work. And the Rockettes were "suburb," which leads Amory to conclude that "in television, where's there's live, there's hope." In two months, though, the plug will be pulled on the live-support machine, but even though Saturday nights lost a Cosell, Saturday Night gained a Live.
*Said Ford later, "I saw a hand come through the crowd in the first row, and that was the first active gesture that I saw, but in the hand there was a gun"
Then, on September 22, it was Sara Jane Moore's turn. This one happened in San Francisco, and unlike Fromme, Moore did succeed in getting a shot off. However, like Fromme, her inexperience did her in; she was unaware that the sights were six inches off the point-of-impact at that distance. A former Marine, Oliver Sipple, grabbed her arm and her second shot went awry, wounding a bystander. Had her gun not been faulty, a judge later observed, her attempt likely would have succeeded.
This all leads up to "Assassination: An American Nightmare," an ABC Wide World Special on Monday night at 11:30 p.m., hosted by Peter Lawford (who, as a Kennedy in-law, knew a thing or two about assassinations), with Gov. George Wallace, confined to a wheelchair since surviving an assassination attempt in 1972; former Rep. Allard Lowenstein, who will himself be assasinated by a "mentally ill gunman" in 1980; and Paul Schrade, who was wounded in the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. That, my friends, is a remarkable lineup. The show covers, in film, the history of American assassinations beginning with McKinley in 1901 and culminating in the two attempts against Ford.
The following Saturday, November 22, will be the 12th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and another Wide World Special (Friday, 10:30 p.m.) called "JFK - A Time to Remember" looks back at the private side of the late President (although it probably doesn't cover the most private moments), with reminiscences by Sen. Ted Kennedy, Pierre Salinger, Dave Powers, and other Kennedy cronies.
And a final note on this point: on Sunday at 11:00 a.m., KSTP's Henry Wolf interviews the man who would have been president had either Miss Fromme or Miss Moore succeeded in their efforts: Vice President Nelson Rockefeller. He would have hated to get it that way, but Rocky would never be that close to the presidency again.
In the mood for an all-star disaster flick? It's one of those things that TV picked up from the movies and does so well, or at least so often - example being Murder on Flight 502, an ABC telemovie Friday night at 8:00. The hook: "A plane ride that turns into an ordeal of suspense when a letter is found stating that someone will be murdered before the jet lands." The cast is a mixture of former A-listers, TV has-beens, and those trying to stay relevant: Ralph Bellamy, Hugh O'Brian, Theodore Bikel, Polly Bergen, Sonny Bono, Walter Pidgeon, Fernando Lamas, George Maharis, Dane Clark, Danny Bonaduce, Robert Stack and Laraine Day. Oh, and Stack's daughter Elizabeth.
There's plenty more star power the rest of the week (or "star" power, if you prefer), beginning Sunday with The Donnie and Marie Osmond Show (6:00 p.m., ABC), with - as the ad puts it - Bob Hope! Paul Lynde! The Osmond Brothers! The Shipstads and Johnson Ice Follies! and Kate Smith! (singing "God Bless America!") Later on, ABC follows up with The Great Gatsby, the lavish Robert Redford-Mia Farrow adaptation of the Fitzgerald novel, which Crist labels "a bomb" in which "the actors seem to have come from Central Miscasting and gone before the cameras without meeting their colleagues." No wonder she says it will leave viewers thinking more about the $6,500,000 budget than with the novel's human tragedies.
*In two months, Donnie and Marie return in this time slot with their weekly series, which runs for three seasons.
Meanwhile, the very funny Don Rickles has a "wild new comedy special" on CBS Wednesday (9:00 p.m.), with Don Adams, Jack Klugman and Michele Lee, and special appearances by James Caan, Michael Caine, Jose Ferrer, Arthur Godfrey, Elliot Gould, Larry Linville, Otto Preminger and Loretta Swit. Well, it is Las Vegas, after all. And Thursday it's McLean Stevenson's turn on NBC (7:00 p.m.), with Raquel Welch as his guest. OK, he only gets one guest star, but with Raquel there wouldn't be room for much more, right? Besides, Tommy Newsom is conducting the orchestra. What more do you want? Personally, I'd answer that question by pointing to what follows McLean on NBC - it's the Bell System Family Theatre with "Ann-Margret Smith," her husband Roger Smith, Sid Caesar, Michel Legrand, and the Bay City Rollers.
Now, if you want real stars, check out CBS's broadcast of That's Entertainment! on Tuesday night, MGM's magnificent tribute to its 50 year history of musicals. It's hosted by Fred Astaire, Judy Garland and Gene Helly, and it features ten times that number of stars in 72 of the studio's greatest films. It is, as Crist says, what movies are all about.
When I criticize the dumbing down of the modern TV Guide, which I do from time to time, this is the kind of issue I point to as an example of how the magazine used to be. The News Watch section features a column by former presidential advisor John Roche, who askes the pointed question, "Does the TV generation lack a sense of history?" The answer back in 1975 is yes; God Himself only knows what Roche would think of today's students, who not only lack a sense of history, but sense itself.
And then there's one of the "Background" articles that the old magazine does so well. Michael Meyer, biographer of Swedish playwright Henrik Ibsen, puts into context the writing of Ibsen's great play "Hedda Gabler," which PBS televises on Thursday night with Janet Suzman, Ian McKellen, and (for all you Paul McCartney fans) Jane Asher. Meyer gives us a brief look at Ibsen's life, his personal and professional relationships, and the genesis of some of his most famous works. His article not only familarizes the reader with Ibsen, it adds to the viewing experience for those planning to watch "Gabler," or those who might be encouraged to check in after having read Meyer's piece. TV Guide published articles like this with some degree of frequency back in the day, part of the mission to educate readers and give legitimacy to television's endeavors. Given what many people call the new Golden Age that television has radiated in the last few years, these kinds of Background articles might have provided insight into series from The Young Pope to Mad Men. If, that is, it could for even a few minutes stop acting like a fan magazine.
November 10, 2017
The Week reports that the boom in scripted TV shows - there are more than 500 now, including nearly 100 on streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix - has resulted in an unexpected byproduct: increased opportunities for bad actors. "Thanks to our unflagging thirst for new shows, more shows, better shows, any shows, the so-called golden age of TV is dissolving into a new golden age of bad acting."
"The Dummy," from season three of The Twilight Zone, has a shock ending that even after all these years packs a punch. Jordan takes a closer inspection at The Twilight Zone Vortex, along with a fascinating look at the history of ventriloquismas as a plot device. Very interesting.
With temperatures in the 20s here in lovely Minneapolis, I can't help but get into the Christmas spirit, and at Christmas TV History Joanna lets you know where you can find her detailed discussions on Christmas entertainment. She's unquestionably one of the very best sources of information on how television covers this magical season.
When it comes to continuing the classic television tradition, one of the challenges us classic TV fans face as we age is how to introduce this most pleasing hobby to others. As David points out at Comfort TV, there's definately a right way and wrong way to do this, so take his advice and find out how to spread the joy around.
I'm always delighted when Jack pops up with another of his Hitchcock Project pieces at bare-bones e-zine, and this week he continues his look at the scripts of Francis and Marian Cockrell with the season one story "You Got to Have Luck." I've seen most of the first four seasons of Hitchcock, and it's always fun to read about an episode you saw a long time ago, and wait for the bell to ring.
The Land of Whatever reviews the 1979 Nero Wolfe telefilm, made by Burke's Law honcho Frank Gilroy, with Thayer David as Wolfe. I confess no familiarity with this movie, but as much of an admirer as I am of the rotund detective, this told me everything I needed to know about the movie: "David effected a serviceable mimic of Sydney Greenstreet, who starred as Wolfe on radio, but Gilroy's preference to make Wolfe more like [Amos] Burke, or any other romantic sleuth, wasn't the brightest of ideas." No kidding!
Television Obscurities introduces us to another of TV's nearly-forgotten shows, Eye Witness, which aired on New York's WNBT between 1947 and 1948. You can even see an episode of the program - and isn't it remarkable to think of a television show being 70 years old? Or does that just show how old I am?
And at Those Were the Days, don't miss a terrific photo featuring some of television's most famous cowboys, circa 1957: Clint Walker as Cheyenne Bodie, James Arness as Matt Dillon, Richard Boone as Palladin, Robert Horton as Flint McCullough, James Garner as Bret Maverick and John Payne as Vint Bonner. Wow!
That should whet your appetite until tomorrow, and you won't want to miss the TV Guide I've got in store for you.