February 10, 2016

Don't mess with the Men from U.N.C.L.E., and other Friday night fun

As some of you might recall, last summer I started what I thought would be a nice little project to fill some time - sharing with you the classic TV lineups we watch in the evening. Unlike many, we don't binge-watch shows, nor do we tend to watch the same shows every night. No, being the anal person I am, we have a set lineup for the three or four nights a week when we just relax from the pressures of daily life and settle down to an evening of retro TV.

Well, you can see how well that worked. I finished Saturday and Sunday, and even then I'd abandoned the idea of profiling each show, instead doing the Sunday night lineup in one fell swoop. And then the whole thing just kind of went away, as I found other things more pressing - or should I say interesting? - to write about. In time, I forgot the idea altogether.

But, lo and behold, I find myself today with nothing particular to write about, and - lo and behold - the idea came to me. Why not just finish what you've started for once? I couldn't really argue with that logic, so here's another look into our viewing habits - this time for Fridays.


The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
During one of my frequent times of underemployment, when I was temping while between permanent jobs, I got an email from Deep Discount announcing their Deal of the Day. It was a boxed set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., complete in the fake attaché case, for something like forty bucks. Well, even though we were really trying to avoid big expenditures while we were were living under a reduced income, that seemed too good to pass up. Other people apparently thought so as well, because when I clicked on the button, the set was already on back order. It did come eventually, and found a place leading off the Friday night lineup.

I never much watched U.N.C.L.E. when it was originally on, and I'm not sure why. I remember once being grumpy about there being nothing on TV, and my mother suggesting I watch that. I did, but I don't think I got much out of it. I was aware of it, of course, what with the books and games and comics and other tie-ins, but it didn't have a whole lot of appeal to me. Of course, by the time I picked it up, I was ready for it - it was firmly entrenched in the classic TV oeuvre, and right about in the middle of the timeframe to which I increasingly found myself attracted. I knew all about the disastrous third season, when the show ratcheted the camp level up to 11 or 12 to compete with Batman, but while there were a lot of stinkers in that season, it was still fun.

I've never been a big Robert Vaughn fan; to me, he epitomizes the word "smarmy," but he turns out to be perfect for Napoleon Solo - once the producers realized the appeal of David McCallum's Illya Kuryakin, that is. McCallum's serious nature and ruthless edge balanced Vaughn's oily charm well, so that even when they were stuck in the most ridiculous situations (think "The My Friend the Gorilla Affair"), they were a winning team. By the shortened fourth season, when the show was finally cancelled, the turn to more serious storylines was an effective one, and it's too bad it wasn't tried earlier; we might at least have gotten a complete season out of it.

In short, it's a great show to kick off a Friday night.


The Saint
Vincent Price played him on the radio, and George Sanders and (more recently) Val Kilmer (!) played him on the big screen, but for my money, there's only one Simon Templar, and that's Roger Moore.

It's tempting, and fun, to look at this as Moore's tryout for James Bond, but this is a show that should be enjoyed on its own merits. Simon Templar, professional thief turned Good Samaritan (and occasional Avenging Angel) is a fascinating character, particularly in the black-and-white episodes, when he comes across as a good deal more ruthless than most TV heroes of the time. He seldom gets ambushed from behind, he rarely ever gets taken in by a femme fatale, and whenever the plot takes a twist you didn't see coming, he already seems to have been two or three steps ahead.

A word about that ruthless streak: looking back to the original source material for the series, the novels by Leslie Charteris, we see that Templar is often cast as someone trying to right a past wrong, and that he's not above killing those he refers to as the "ungodly" in his pursuit of justice. That side of The Saint is toned down a bit in the color episodes, when the show starts to take on a more Bondian feel, but it's definitely there in the early episodes.

Personally, I can't think of anyone other than Roger Moore in this role. He's smooth and suave, dryly humorous, confident in the extreme (if I could bottle a tenth of that confidence and use it myself, I'd be home free), and always surrounded by beautiful women. He'd be a charming dinner companion, and definitely a man to have on your side, but would you want to cross him in a dark alley when you'd been up to something you shouldn't have been? Not on your life.


The Untouchables
I'm convinced the writers on this series must have loved writing for Frank Nitti, the character played so well by Bruce Gordon. Whenever Nitti makes one of his occasional appearances as Eliot Ness' nemesis, Al Capone's enforcer while Scarface is in prison, he threatens to overshadow the entire cast. He always gets the best lines (impatiently watching Telly Savalas' scheme to transport illegal booze by running it through an underground piping system, Nitti snarles, "If there ain't booze coming out of them three holes, Pete's gonna put three holes in each of you."), and often has the air about him of a put-upon executive having to deal with underlings who just don't have the smarts to get the job done. It's a magnificent job of nibbling around the edges of the scenery while preserving a sense of real menace.

Of course, you have to have a protagonist for a show like this to work, and Robert Stack's redoubtable Ness is perfect. Yes, he's wooden in the role, but that's the way Ness should be played. As is typical of the era, you seldom see Ness at home; aside from the fact that he's married and has a child (shown in the two-part pilot), you never know anything about his personal life. He's mostly humorless, but has inspired great loyalty among his team of Untouchables because of his personal dedication and honesty.

Who am I kidding, though. The main appeal of The Untouchables, at least for the first couple of seasons, is the unbridled violence. Almost every episode ends in a huge shootout with the bad guys being filled full of lead before flamboyantly pirouetting to their deaths, often with their own machine guns still blaring. Virtually every car chase ends in an explosion, preferably crashing into a vat full of booze, which in turn produces another explosion. People were horrified at the time, which is one reason why it was such a big hit. Today, the violence looks tepid compared to what we've grown accustomed to, but for the time, it was sensational. Because of pressure from Congress and public interest groups, it gets toned down, much to the show's detriment.

The Untouchables won't receive any history awards, and it may not be included in any Golden Age of Television. It's just fun.


Route 66
I've mentioned before that this is the first series that I've ever dropped from our regular rotation. I've revived it in the last month, partly because we're still in the third (of four) seasons and already have the discs, and partly because thanks to Shout! Factory, we'll be able to watch the final season without having to buy them.

Route 66 was always preachy, thanks in no small part to Sterling Silliphant (who, nonetheless, could still uncork a doozy of a script on occasion), and this story of two young men (Martin Milner and George Maharis) driving a Corvette around the country in search of adventure and the meaning of life, provides what James Lileks would call an "inadvertent documentary" on America in the late '50s and early '60s. It's a time when America was still a nation that produced things, when ethnic neighborhoods still existed in most large cities, when someone could still make a living using their hands, when college degrees weren't used as a gatekeeper for even the most minor job. It's a wonderful look at the architecture of the time, at how America was still, for the most part, a regional nation full of dialects and quirks and everything we think of when we talk about a "melting pot."

Milner and Maharis, as Tod Stiles and Buz Murdoch, make for a great team of opposites. Tod's the idealist, the college educated young man with a penchant for thinking he can save the world one person at a time; Buz's education came from the streets, the school of hard knocks. He grew up in an orphanage, has seen the other side of life, knows that there aren't always easy answers. Of the two, he's the more likable, the one it's easier to identify with. When he leaves the series midway through the third season, he's replaced by Vietnam vet Linc Case, whose quiet, often thoughtful demeanor is too much like Tod's to provide the contrast required.

In fact, Tod really got on my nerves after awhile, which is why I wound up putting the show on hiatus for a couple of years. Every episode became a crusade of sorts, trying to change someone (especially a lovely female), increasingly settling things with his fists, falling in love too quickly, sticking around and becoming involved while you're shouting at the screen, "run, run away fast, these people are crazy!" I know they're looking for adventure, but sometimes enough is enough. And that's too bad, because I think Martin Milner was by far the most likable person in the cast; Tod just rubs me the wrong way. Linc's started to grow on me a bit since resuming the series; still, I won't deny that I'll be glad to see them reach the end of the road.

Waiting in the wings: Naked City (replacing The Saint), The Eleventh Hour (replacing The Untouchables)

Recently concluded: The Avengers


Next up: Thursday, if I remember to get around to it!

February 8, 2016

What's on TV? Tuesday, February 7, 1956

We're back in Dallas-Fort Worth this week, which I find extremely helpful since it serves to educate me in the television history of my adopted home. I don't know nearly as much about DFW's TV history as I do MSP, but just give me some time. In the meantime, let's see what's on.

February 6, 2016

This week in TV Guide: February 4, 1956

This week's starlet also happens to be this week's cover girl: Judy Tyler, formerly Princess Summerfall Winterspring on Howdy Doody, will be one of Ed Sullivan's guests on this Sunday's show.

In 1956, Judy Tyler is a girl with a future. She started with the Doody show when she was still a teenager, and her youthful attractiveness and winning personality soon made her a favorite among the show's human characters. From Doody, she's gone on to become "a foil for Bob Hope, Sid Caesar and Milton Berle," and last year she was selected by Garry Moore as one of TV Guide's TOPS ("Television's Own Promising Starlets"). In the history of the young medium, young Judy Tyler is one of the first to graduate from television to success in other areas. Last year she starred with Elvis in Jailhouse Rock. Just over two months ago she was featured on the cover of Life Magazine for an article under the heading "Shining Young Broadway Stars," with none other than Jayne Mansfield, Diane Cilento, Lois Smith and Susan Strasberg, and presently she's the leading ladyin the new Rogers and Hammerstein musical "Pipe Dream," for which she'll win a Tony nomination. No wonder TV Guide proudly calls her "a TV alumna who's made good."

Sadly, that career is almost over, as is the life of Judy Tyler. In July 1957, she will be killed in an automobile accident, only 24 years old. The knowledge makes it almost painful to look at these pictures, she's so young, so full of life. It's all in the future, but knowledge of that future makes it impossible to look at the past in quite the same way. That knowledge, like youth itself, is impossible to recapture once it's lost. But for just a moment one can look in the eyes of Judy Tyler, as she looks at Ed Sullivan, and can see nothing but promise ahead.

And now, on a slightly less philosophical note - and if you're reading this article and you're under 18 or have a sensitive conscience -


WARNING: MATURE SUBJECT MATTER FOLLOWS

- you'll want to skip ahead to the next story. But for those of you continuing, the rest of Judy Tyler's story is far more colorful than anything that could be included between the covers of TV Guide or Life Magazine. Looking at this week's cover, I kept thinking there was something about that name. . . and when I read about Howdy Doody, I remembered what it was. I pulled a couple of well-read books off the shelf in our library, Say Kids! What Time Is It? by Stephen Davis, the definitive chronicle of Howdy Doody, and The Box by Jeff Kisseloff - and there it was. As Lynn Van Matre summarizes in her review of Davis' book, "Tyler, who had married at 16, was-according to cast members, who remembered her with genuine fondness - famous for her foul mouth, her propensity for getting drunk and stripping on nightclub tables, and the cheerful way she dispensed sexual favors to the cast." When you've read something like that, it isn't easy to forget.

Now, I'm not including this to denigrate Judy Tyler in any way - the information isn't exactly hard to find - but to offer, as I often put it, the rest of the story, the things that lurk behind the pages of TV Guide. As Dominick Dunne put it in The Box, she had round heels. But he loved her sincerely, as did everyone who worked with her on the show. And it should be pointed out that the rest of the Howdy Doody cast and crew weren't exactly paragons of virtue, either: one of their favorite pasttimes was at rehearsals, when they would "regularly put the puppets through pornographic paces (leading to some embarrassing moments when groups of kids happened to be touring the studio and wondered why the puppets were in such curious positions)." As Claude Rains might say, I'm shocked, shocked.

But you know what? These people were human, as are most* of the people who've worked in television since its beginning. Just like us, a community like any other.

*Excluding one or two saints (Bishop Sheen, perhaps literally), and a few that were probably sub-human.

It does make you wonder though, between that and Ed Sullivan's reputation for womanizing, if we should look at that TV Guide cover a little differently.

***

Well, after all that, anything else is bound to be an anticlimax. (No pun intended, of course.) So let's look at the people who succeed on television by playing themselves.

Take William Lundigan, for example, a "radio announcer who turned actor and went on to play roles in 65 motion pictures." Then he got in touch with the people at Chrysler, who were looking for a host for their sponsored shows Shower of Stars and Climax! Lundigan got the job, and now his movie price has tripled.

As we saw a while back with Ronald Reagan, hosting a television program can completely change your public perception. Joseph Cotten plays a similar role as host of The 20th Century Fox Hour, and describes his job as "a sort of format. No sponsor in his right mind wants to come right on and say, 'I'm the sponsor and here's what I'm selling.' It would scare the people. He needs a middle man to make the audience feel at home with him." Gig Young, who's appeared on several shows with rotating hosts, says he's found the hardest role of all is to play yourself.

We don't see this much anymore. We no longer have single sponsors of programs, of course, companies with their names in the title, We don't have live programming, which means we don't have live commercials that are part of the show. (Think Ed McMahon doing those Alpo commercials on The Tonight Show for so many years.) We don't have anthologies that require a host. Instead, what we're more likely to run across are characters created for commercials (Flo for Progressive, Lily for AT&T, etc.), as a substitute for the Bill Lundigans of the world. More annoying? Probably. Different? Definitely.

***

Sunday's episode of Omnibus (4:00pm CT, CBS) is "One Nation," which TV Guide describes as "the first in a series of three semi-dramatized Treatments of the origin's purposes and enduring features of the U.S. Constitution," an episode co-written by "Noted Boston attorney Joseph Welch." That simple introduction, I think, slightly undersells the notoriety of  Welch.

In the spring of 1954, Welch was serving as special council to the Army during the Army-McCarthy hearings on Communist infiltration of the U.S. military. The hearings were televised live on both ABC and DuMont, two networks with minimal daytime schedules and nothing to lose by carrying the combative hearings into the volatile, controversial issue. Because of that, Welch's confrontation with Senator McCarthy on June 9 was shown for all the world to see, and subsequently became a part of American history.


It is not, nor is it customarily, my purpose to inject politics into these pieces, so I'm not going to go into this any further as to who's right and who's wrong. I'll simply note that TV Guide publisher Walter Annenberg has a reputation as a staunch anti-Communist, so perhaps that's why the listing is so understated. Or maybe people have moved on from that (although the Cincinnati Reds are still known as the Redlegs), or it could be that his fame from the McCarthy hearings is still such that no further description is required, or it could just be the formal, somewhat stilted way of the mid-'50s listings. Whatever the case, as usual, the story behind those words remains much more interesting than the words themselves.

***

Here's something of a curiosity, courtesy of Wednesday's 20th Century-Fox Hour: it's the episode "Crack-up," starring Bette Davis and Gary Merrill and based on their movie Phone Call from a Stranger. Only Bette Davis isn't actually in "Crack-up." That is, not really, for as TV Guide tells us, "All Miss Davis' scenes are from 1952 feature film. . .Other scenes were added for TV." So which is this: a movie with added scenes for TV, or a TV play with added scenes from a movie? Either way, although I know of stock footage being used to pad out a movie that couldn't afford location filming, this is the first of its kind that I can think of.  Can any of you out there think of any other examples?

Elsewhere: on Saturday's George Gobel Show, a skit portrays George as "an easy mark to every door-to-door salesman in town." You might recognize Lonesome George from his famous appearance on The Tonight Show with Dean Martin and Bob Hope, but in 1954 he was the host of a very successful show, and as we read elsewhere, his gross income for the year is estimated at a cool $2,000,000 - or, in today's dollars, almost $17.5 million. Not bad, huh?

On Sunday, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez are guests on the Sullivan show. Later that same night, Desi subs for Bennett Cerf on What's My Line? And on Wednesday Lucy and Desi appear as guests on I've Got a Secret.  By the way, on Monday there's this ad for the new movie, Forever Darling, opening February 9 with - Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez. Sense a trend here?

SOURCE: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Also on Monday, Robert Montgomery Presents, one of television's longest-running anthologies, has "Good Friday, 1965," the story of the assassination of Lincoln based on the 1930 book by W. J. Ferguson, an actor who was on the stage at Ford's Theater that night and was the only living eyewitness to the assassination. There's a fascinating article about what Ferguson saw here, while this 1956 episode of I've Got a Secret (which I've shown before) has as one of its contestants the last living person to be in Ford's Theater; he didn't see the fatal shot fired as Ferguson did, but Samuel J. Seymour did see John Wilkes Booth jump from the presidential box.

On Tuesday, Bob Hope comes to us from London and Paris, where he hosts an international lineup that includes England's Diana Dors (once married to Richard Dawson), French comic actor Fernandel, English singer Yana*, and the latest in Paris fashions. He's joined by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

*Apparently while you don't have to have only one name to appear on this show, it helps.

We've already talked about Wednesday's most interesting program on The 20th Century Hour, and Thursday's highlight is this ad for NBC's Armstrong Circle Theater, hosted by NBC News anchor John Cameron Swayzee. What I really like about the ad is the reminder that WBAP, the NBC affiliate in Fort Worth, is owned by the Fort Worth Star Telegram, a reminder that newspapers used to be heavily involved in television station ownership.



To round out the week, Friday's live, color episode of Matinee Theater on NBC (a nice article about the series is featured elsewhere in the issue; imagine an hour-long, live, color drama anthology on daytime television) is called "The Heart of Mary Lincoln," and provides a nice linkage to the Lincoln program on Monday. Appropriate, those, since Sunday is Lincoln's Birthday, a quasi-holiday still observed in most of the United States in 1956.

***

Finally, some items from this week's Teletype:
  • "CBS to inaugurate a weekly series of live 90-minute dramatics shows next fall." That, I believe, would be Playhouse 90, which debuted on October 4, 1956 and ran until May 18, 1960.
  • "With Maurice Chevalier practically set to emcee the movie Academy Awards telecast in March, Bing Crosby may share honors as co-emcee." I don't know what happened to that, but the always-reliable Wikipedia tells us that there were, in fact, three emcees, and that none of them were either Chevalier or Crosby: Jerry Lewis hosted from Los Angeles, with Claudette Colbert and Joseph L. Mankiewicz doing the honors in New York, where many of the stars could be found on Broadway.
  • "Walter Winchell may return to TV as an entertainer, hosting a new variety show for NBC Sunday nights opposite The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. If the deal goes through, of course, it would replace the current refurbished [ColgateComedy Hour." NBC does indeed introduce some competition for Sullivan in June - not Winchell, but Tonight's Steve Allen.
  • "The Los Angeles Police Department is campaigning against the word, "cop"; and as a result, Dragnet's famous opening line may be changed to, "My name is Friday - I'm a police officer." The line does change (as you'll see in this 1967 clip from the revived show*), but to the much more noir-like "I carry a badge."


*I always thought it would be great for an April 1 episode if those mini-travelogues that Friday starts out with would continue for the entire episode, never leading up to anything. Too bad Saturday Night Live wasn't around then.

February 3, 2016

The fugitive kind

DAVID JANSSEN AS DR. RICHARD KIMBLE (LEFT), DR. SAM SHEPPARD: STRANGE CONNECTIONS INDEED
Roy Huggins always denied it, but the myth persists to this day: the hit show he created, The Fugitive, was based, at least in part, on the real-life murder trial of Dr. Sam Sheppard.

It’s impossible to say whether or not any aspect of the Sheppard case influenced Huggins’ creative process. It’s true that in 1960, when Huggins says he came up with the idea for The Fugitive, the Sheppard case had been dormant for six years. Nonetheless, considering that Sheppard’s 1954 trial for the murder of his wife was called the “Trial of the Century” and garnered international coverage (think Casey Anthony minus the Internet and 24-hour news), it’s certainly plausible that Huggins, like most Americans, would have heard about the trial and that it might have lodged somewhere in his subconscious.*

*Sheppard certainly thought so, as he threatened to sue ABC after he was acquitted in his 1966 retrial. 

At any rate, while there are obvious links between the two (both were doctors accused of murdering their wife, both claimed they saw someone else fleeing the scene of the crime, although David Janssen was better looking than Sam Sheppard), the greatest link of them is also the least obvious and the most incredible.*

*Although I’ve long had a strong interest in the Sheppard case and long been a fan of the TV show, I didn’t know about this until reading it in James Neff’s book The Wrong Man.

Hayes at the Sheppard trial.
You see, in the 1954 trial the prosecution claimed Sheppard’s motive for murdering his wife was an affair he’d had with a nurse named Susan Hayes. Sheppard originally denied the affair, and depending on who you ask he either did or didn’t consider divorcing his wife and marrying Hayes. Throughout the buildup to the trial, Hayes’ name and picture were plastered on newspapers throughout the country, columnists breathlessly discussing “The Other Woman.” Sheppard insisted that the affair was purely physical and had ended months before the murder. Regardless, Hayes – who’d moved to Los Angeles in the meantime – returned to Cleveland and appeared as a star witness for the prosecution.

After the trial, in which Sheppard was convicted of second-degree murder, Hayes returned to Los Angeles, where she eventually married Ken Wilhoit, who worked in Hollywood as a music editor and supervisor for various television series, including several for producer Quinn Martin: 12 O’Clock High, The FBI, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, and – you guessed it – The Fugitive. Paul Harvey couldn’t have made this up.

The relationship between The Fugitive and the Sheppard case was often commented on during the show’s run, and I have to wonder, assuming they were still married in 1963 when the series started, just what went through Susan Hayes’ mind when she found out what show her husband was working on. If, indeed, he ever shared the news with her.

February 1, 2016

What's on TV? Saturday, January 27, 1962

Saturdays almost always have interesting listings. It's the first listing you see in each week's issue, you're greeted mostly by cartoons and Westerns, and the programming is different from every other day of the week (the same can be said for Sundays, as we saw yesterday). We're back in the DFW Metroplex for this week, so let's see what makes this day stand out.