June 30, 2012

This week in TV Guide: July 4, 1964

James Lileks once said that every lawyer's secret dream was to have the theme to Perry Mason played at his funeral, and I've no reason to think this isn't the case. After all, according to the cover of this week's issue, Perry Mason was "The Indestructible Hero." But part one of Dwight Whitney's two-part profile of Mason deals not with its star, Raymond Burr, but its creator, Erle Stanley Gardner.

In 1964 Gardner was 74 and still going strong, pumping out Mason mysteries on a regular basis. (Whitney reports he dictates "several books a year.") To date, Gardner had written 73 Perry Mason books, having sold over 100 million copies. Mason served Gardner well; it got him four homes, including a ranch in northern California and a house in Palm Springs. We think we know Mason, having seen Ray Burr play him for nine seasons, but until the birth of the series in 1957, Gardner hadn't even bothered to describe what he looked like, other than that he was big and broad-shouldered.

We can't imagine anyone other than Burr as Mason, but several actors played him in a series of movies which weren't really very good. (Take my word for it.) There was a Mason radio series for several years, which made it to television (sans Perry) under the title The Edge of Night and ran for 28 years. There was even a Mason comic strip. In fact, Raymond Burr didn't even try out originally for the role of Mason, but for Mason's nenesis, the hapless D.A. Hamilton Burger. The story goes that Gardner took one look at Burr, who was allowed to audition for Mason as well, and said, "That's Perry Mason." The rest, of course, is history.

Saturday was Independence Day, and of course there was baseball: the Twins taking on the New York Yankees. The Yankees would win the American League that season, the Twins the next. Neither would win the World Series. I would have enjoyed that week's Wide World of Sports, which featured the 24 Hours of Le Mans. That is, if I watched it at all - I was only four, after all. Otherwise, there's surprisingly little holiday programming, save Lawrence Welk's tribute to American music. Not so surprising, perhaps, at that; most people were probably out at parades, picnics, or fireworks shows. Community was important, back then.

The Republican National Convention was only a week away, scheduled to start on July 13, which (considering the luck the GOP had that year) should have been a Friday but was instead a Monday. It's hard to imagine now, but conventions used to be in the summer back then, not right around Labor Day. It's also hard to imagine, but comingto this convention there was no guarantee as to who was going to win. The favorite (and eventual winner) was Barry Goldwater, but he was facing a challenge from Pennsylvania governor William Scranton, a surrogate of New York's liberal governor Nelson Rockefeller, who had jumped into the race only a couple of weeks earlier.

This was, in significant ways, a landmark convention for the GOP. It was the first time the liberal and conservative wings of the party had truly duked it out in public, and it was one of the first times w saw a real hostility toward the media by the convention delegates (Dwight Eisenhower, in his speech to the convention, made passing mention to not allowing the media to exploit the party's fissures in public; the moment electrified the delegates, who started booing and shaking their fists upward at the network broadcasting booths.) Goldwater's defeat left the Republicans in truly horrific shape; the recovery would began with Nixon's victory in 1968, and finally come to fruition with Reagan's win in 1980.

The convention promised high drama, and the networks were ready; NBC planned to televise the Platform Committee's hearings all week, and ABC offered a couple of hours of previews. But CBS had what was, for my money, the most poignant (to our modern sensibilities) show: an hour of highlights of "Great Conventions" of the past - famous speeches, platform battles, floor fights, multiple ballots decided in smoke-filled rooms. The idea that conventions used to be dramatic, tense, battles for the heart and soul of a political party, with the outcome often in doubt until the last minute - well, for political junkies like me it's kind of sad. Today a political convention is as relevant as, say, the major league baseball All-Star Game.

Which just happened to be on Tuesday of that week, July 7, from New York's spanking new Shea Stadium, a picture of which merited a full page in TV Guide. The game, which was played in daytime and started at 11:45 a.m. Central time, was actually appointment television back then; in the days when most people only saw the Saturday afternoon Game of the Week unless you lived near a major league team, which might televise 25 or 30 games a year, it was a rare treat to see baseball's biggest names, and for those who did have a local team, it was the only time, other than the World Series, when you got to see the other league's players.

I think this year's All-Star Game is next week. I think it's in Kansas City. I know there's a home-run hitting contest that will run about an hour longer than necessary, and that Chris Berman will drive people to turn off their hearing aids (that being the typical demographic of today's baseball fans), and that there's a red carpet show and all kinds of Fox TV stars sitting in the stands, and that the winning league gets home-field advantage in the World Series. It sounds as if the All-Star Game has a lot going for it. Everything but relevance, interest, and a reason to watch it.
 
I hear there are a couple of political coventions coming up in a couple of months, too.

June 26, 2012

Two for Tuesday

Over at Our Word we run an occasional feature called Opera Wednesday, which is appropriate inasmuch as it runs on Wednesdays and deals with opera.

Now, I’m not starting a TV version of Opera Wednesday, especially since this isn’t Wednesday. But I would like to point out a couple of DVDs of note that deal directly with television and, specifically in the case of one, opera.

The opera in question is Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado, broadcast on the April 29, 1960 Bell Telephone Hour, and it’s not being released because it’s the definitive recording of the opera – The Mikado has a running time of nearly three hours, and this broadcast is 60 minutes minus commercials. No, there’s only one reason to watch this production, and that’s because of the star: the one and only Groucho Marx.

Groucho was apparently quite passionate about Gilbert and Sullivan, which in retrospect isn’t particularly surprising, given the patter quality of many of the Marx Brothers’ vocal routines. And playing Ko-Ko in The Mikado was, according to the buzz, one of his life’s ambitions. The cast recording of The Mikado has been around almost since the broadcast, so we’ve known what the production (and Groucho) sounded like, but until now we haven’t had a chance to see it. It’s in black and white rather than the original color, but beggars can’t be choosers.

It’s important to know that while the idea of Groucho Marx singing G&S seems irresistible, especially given the picture on the DVR cover, the reviews at the time were decidedly mixed (the Times critic Jack Gould remarked that “Mr. Marx's lack of qualifications in this regard was merely embarrassing. To hear ‘I've Got a Little List,’ ’A How-de-do’ and ‘Tit Willow’ subjected to a layman's flat chanting was not exactly enthralling. Moreover, the score was adjusted to Mr. Marx' faltering tempo, and this showed up the entire show.”).

Nonetheless, with a superb supporting cast, and some fine extras, I think this is a prime example of the kind of entertainment one could expect on television even as late as the 60s. As one contemporary critic remarked, it “is indicative of how far we've come, that such a program would be considered high-brow entertainment were it presented today.” I’d suggest that it’s more indicative of how far we’ve fallen.

The second program, which has been out for some time, just popped up in my viewscreen recently, courtesy of Opera News – which qualifies it for an opera update as far as I’m concerned. It’s the almost mythic December 23, 1956 live broadcast (on the Alcoa Hour) of The Stingiest Man in Town, a musical version of A Christmas Carol starring the great Basil Rathbone. (It’s worth noting that Martyn Green, who adapted and directed Groucho’s Mikado broadcast, appears here as Bob Cratchit.)

The Stingiest Man in Town, long thought to have been lost, is considered the “Holy Grail” of lost Christmas Carol adaptations by no less an authority than Fred Guida, author of the appropriately-named A Christmas Carol and Its Adaptations. (Which is a wonderful book, by the way – Guida covers every adaptation you could think of, from movies to TV to the theater. It’s almost as much fun as watching one of the productions yourself.)

As was the case with The Mikado, the cast album of the show has been around for a long time, so there’s no mystery about how it sounds. But with the exception of portions available at the Library of Congress, very few people could actually have said they’d seen it. This is, again, an epic example of live television in TV’s Golden Age, a time when the “spectacular” was really must-see TV. I don’t know why I didn’t hear about this last fall when it came out, but you can bet it will be part of our Christmas retrospective this year.

June 23, 2012

This week in TV Guide: June 24, 1967

I was a month past seven years old when this TV Guide came out in June of 1967.  What would I have been watching?  And more, would it embarrass me today?

What seven-year-old didn't start off the weekend with Saturday morning cartoons?  I would have, that's for sure.  A lot of my favorites were missing by then, like Alvin, but there was still plenty to watch.  I remember Atom Ant, so that was likely one of them, and I used to watch The Flintstones, although its appeal (like that of The Honeymooners) escapes me today. Secret Squirrel?  Possibly.  Road Runner and Bugs Bunny?  Probably - I'm definitely not embarrassed by them today.  Cool McCool?  Maybe, because I remember it, including the cool theme, but it was on against Road Runner, so maybe not.  Probably Hoppity Hooper but not American Bandstand.

I watched a lot of sports back then - more than I do today, or at least it seems that way - so it was likely I watched the baseball Game of the Week that Saturday afternoon, a totally unappealing matchup between the Braves and Mets, neither of whom were good yet.  Wide World of Sports was on next and I usually watched that, although there was golf on it and I wasn't into golf yet.  I might well have watched Get Smart on Saturday night.  I thought it was funny back then, although I didn't like the love angle with Agent 99.  (Well, I was seven.)  Don Adams, whom I would have recognized from Tennessee Tuxedo, was always a favorite of mine, and he really was brilliant in that show.  It's not something I'd admit to watching today, though. 

I'll bet I watched soccer on Sunday afternoon, as the Chicago Spurs took on the Philadelphia Spartans in a match of the National Professional Soccer League.  Never heard of it?  Back in 1967 there were, if you can believe it, not one but two pro soccer leagues in this country, the other being the United Soccer League.  After this season they would merge to form the North American Soccer League (NASL), which stuck around for a long time.  Without the Spurs and Spartans, though.  The Twins played the Red Sox on Tuesday night, and those two would play again at the end of that season, in a series that decided the American League pennant.  It was a wonderful pennant chase, called The Great Race, that also featured the Tigers and White Sox.  The four teams battled down to the final week, and when the Red Sox beat the Twins on the last day of the season and the Tigers lost, the Red Sox went to the World Series for the first time since the 40s.  They lost.

It was summer and school was out, so I would have watched Lunch With Casey every afternoon - it was a wonderful kids' show, and Casey and Roundhouse were two terrific guys.  It's a tragedy that shows like Casey aren't on anymore, and a tragedy that kids aren't home during the lunch hour to see them.  I watched another kids show in the afternoon, Popeye and Pete; Pete was a talking bird, and Popeye - well, Popeye was Popeye.

Paging through the days of the week, I probably watched The Monkees and The Rat Patrol.  I wouldn't be caught dead with The Monkees today, but I own both seasons of The Rat Patrol on DVD.  I probably watched Combat! and Petticoat Junction, My Three Sons, The Time Tunnel, Bewitched and Batman; today I'd take the war drama.  What I didn't watch then, but would have today, was the educational channel's An Age of Kings, which shows up a lot in these old TV Guides.  This was a series of Shakespearian productions, the history plays, done in historically chronological order in the early 60s.  Incredibly, it's available today in DVD; I wonder if they could have imagined that back then?

I shied away from the serious stuff back then, but there was one news show I remember watching: CBS' four-part series on the Warren Report, which ran Sunday through Wednesday night.  I don't know why I was attracted to that; perhaps I had a vague memory of the assassination, which had happened less than four years prior.  My mother had already started buying books on it, for me to read when I was older and would appreciate it, and she'd saved the newspapers from that weekend, as well as the TV Guide the following January that detaailed how TV had covered it.  Little would I know, as I read through those pages in the years to come, that some day I'd be able to see almost all of it on YouTube.  Clearly, for me it was the shape of things to come.

June 11, 2012

The commercial's the thing...

Thirty years from now, will there be DVD collections of old TV commercials from the 2000s and 2010s for us to watch? Will there be a best-of collection of Super Bowl spots? Will we sit around the TV (or computer screen, or iPad, or whatever delivery device exists at that point) and laugh in fond recollection of those products that are now a distant, nostalgic memory, or the stars of today who were no more than bit players back then?

An interesting question. Better still, or at least as interesting: how did people in the 1950s and 60s feel about the commercials that appear on DVD collections? Those commercials were a lot longer than the ads of today, and without remote control to help out, most people simply sat in their chairs and watched, or went to the kitchen or bathroom. I’m not sure that they wouldn’t look at us, fifty years hence, and wonder how in the world we could think that commercials were ever entertaining?

It is the boomers, of course (and I count myself in this group, even though technically I’m just a bit too young to qualify), who’ve made these commercial collections popular. And who doesn’t enjoy looking at ads for their favorite toys, or recall when tobacco products were actually advertised on TV, or how so many television and movie stars got their start on commercials? There’s also something exceedingly clever about some of these ads, at least when compared to the spots of today – the cleverness may simply be a product of retroactive revisionism, but if you’re inclined to think that television as a lot was more clever back then, you’re probably comfortable ascribing the same qualities to commercials. In fact, it’s that word – clever – that stimulates so much of the interest in the aforementioned Super Bowl commercials. And the idea that the creative guns save their biggest hits for that day suggests that the commercials from the other 364 days each year are, at least, not quite up to that level.

At least in my mind, there’s no doubt that one gets the full impact of the culture of the 50s and 60s through its commercials. We see the roles of men, women and children, we see toys that stimulated the imagination and glorified combat and cowboys-and-Indians warfare, we know things about housework and the everyday life of a typical American and – most important of all – what that everyday, typical life was supposed to be. Unquestionably, today’s commercials emphasize various aspects of a life to be desired: we covet sex, slender bodies, material possessions, smug certainties. But is there a difference between lusting for “performance enhancement” and a floor wax that doesn’t yellow? To each his own, I suppose.

Best we ruminate on the meaning of commercials now, though, because the Dish Network’s commercial-zapping Auto Hop is bringing the question of commercials to the forefront. Are they creative works or major irritations? Dish Chairman Charlie Ergen puts the blame for this at the networks; essentially, he’s telling them “you made me do this,” through his comment that as the Wall Street Journal reports, “networks—and advertisers—need to develop more targeted commercials ‘that you're not going to want to hop over,’ and he says he has ‘half a dozen creative ideas’ about how to do that.”

Of course, Ergen isn’t talking quite about the same things we are. He thinks networks need to do more “demographic targeting” of viewers, making the commercials a better match with the viewers. When he says that commercials have to change so that we won’t want to “hop over” them, what he really means is that the commercials have to give viewers information they want, on products they want, in a manner that won’t be so annoying they won’t hear the message. He’s not saying that commercials should be more entertaining, or less obnoxious, or more clever, although to a certain extent that’s implicit in the criticism.

This whole question may be moot, anyway, as the traditional method of content delivery continues to evolve. Ergen admits that four of his five children don’t even subscribe to a pay-TV system; they “come home and bring out their tablets. . . until they find something free that they want to watch.” And that seems to be the direction we’re headed. Direct access to a program, without the hassle of going through a television set, means no or fewer commercials, at a lower or nonexistent price, on a schedule of your choosing rather than that of the programmer.

So who knows what the future holds? One reason I prefer watching my old shows on DVD rather than on the retro TV networks (don’t get me wrong; I love MeTV and Antenna) is that I don’t have to suffer through the commercials. If the ads were the ones that had been shown on these shows originally, I might feel differently. Or I might not.

But it could well be that, just as soccer fans look back in wonderment that there was a time (the 60s and 70s and 80s) when American television interrupted the games for commercials, the viewer of tomorrow may marvel that there even was such a thing as a commercial interruption, much less that some of us thought they were entertaining.

June 9, 2012

This week in TV Guide: June 8, 1963

I was walking through an antique store last weekend when I came upon a book with an unusual title: Hollywood Priest.  Well, when you see a title like that you're going to pick it up, as I suspect the author intended.  And that author, I was not surprised to find, was Fr. Ellwood Kieser.

I recognized the name immmediately. In 1960, Kieser began a modest, low-budget program called Insight which, at the time of this unsigned TV Guide profile, was entering its third year, given free of charge to some 100 channels throughout the United States.  Insight was one of those programs that always seemed to be on somewhere in the early decades of television, filling a gap between programs, usually on Sunday mornings.  It might flit from station to station, and you might see the same episodes from time to time, but if you watched enough television you were sure to run across it eventually.

What made Insight unusual was not just its religious message - after all, Bishop Fulton Sheen had been a major TV star in the 50s and early 60s - but Kieser's ability to get major Hollywood talent, Catholic and non-Catholic alike (Raymond Massey, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Jane Wyatt, Irene Dunne, John Forsythe), who appeared for scale and then donated it back, acting on low-budget, minimalist sets.  A typical story might involve an estranged family, a man contemplating suicide, or a woman tempted to shoplift - in other words, the drama of everyday life garnished with a moral messag.  "There are many conflicts in the 20th Century, but the basic conflicts are theological," Kieser is quoted as saying. "We have discovered that theological conflicts make great drama."  Its tone might have been earnest but was not especially preachy or moralizing; nonetheless, in its low-key way, it got the point across.  Early shows featured Kieser at the blackboard, Sheen-like, but by the second season he had evolved into giving Serlingesque introductions to each episode.

The tone of the article is admiring and respectful, with nary a hint of cynicism - almost too good to be true.  Kieser is portrayed as unassuming and modest, perhaps a bit nerdy ("I've found actors give better performances if you feed them."), but with an undeniable presence, as indicated by the story of an unnamed non-Catholic actress who after one rehearsal, tells Kieser she's decided to join the Church.

Hollywood Priest, which was written in 1991, gives us another, slightly different side of Ellwood Kieser.  His televison fame brought him a job providing network commentary on what was then called the "Ecumenical Council," i.e. Vatican II., and led to his producing several faith-themed movies, including biographical portrayals of Archbishop Oscar Ramiro and social worker Dorothy Day.  Insight itself wound up a 23-year run in 1983, winning six Emmys in the process.  

The book also detailed another side of Kieser, one that a more cynical article might have hinted at back in 1963.  Kieser's spiritual struggles in the wake of the changes wrought by the Council, including a romantic (but ultimately chaste) relationship with a nun - one of the hoariest cliches of the post-V2 Church.  Kieser considered breaking his vows, leaving the priesthood, marrying (he did none of them).  He dabbled in psychotherapy and the New Age.  He lived in the limelight, rode the talk-show circuit, and enjoyed it.

In a telling story, Kieser relates how he was once accused by a conservative Los Angeles monsignor of being one of those priests who "start out playing around with the liturgy. Next you question church doctrine. You end up dating nuns."  Said Kieser, "I was furious; partially, I guess, because I was doing all three."

Was this all present in 1963, when Kieser was a young priest on a television mission?  Did the writer miss it, or choose not to look at it?  Or was it all a product of the turbulent times, something just under the surface, waiting for the breakdown in discipline that the era brought, a breakdown that claimed many souls?  (Would the same thing, for example, have happened to Bing Crosby's Fr. O'Malley after Going My Way?  He is, after all, described in the movie as a "modern" priest.) We'll probably never know, but I'm reminded of the story of a bishop in the early 60s, one of the staunchest defenders of Church tradition, especially celibacy.  In the wake of the Pill, he was confronted by a climate that suggested the Church was about to change its mind on many of the principles which the bishop had fought so hard to defend.  By the time Paul VI's encyclical Humanae Vitae came out in 1968, reaffirming the Church's opposition to birth control, the horses had been let out of the barn, so to speak.  The bishop wound up leaving the priesthood and marrying a former nun.

*****

If the ghosts of the near future were present in the article on Kieser, the ghosts of our near future might well have been present in an odd little story appearing on Sunday, June 9 on the Dupont Show of the Week.  Entitled "The Triumph of Gerald Q. Wert," and starring Art Carney, the story presents us with a dystopian future in which - well, let me give you the description that appears in the listings:
Gerald Q. Wert, the only comedian left on earth, finds his talents in great demand.  But plying his trade is dangerous.  The totalitarian regime has decreed that making people laugh is a crime punishable by death.  Now government agents are hot on his trail and a suspicious little boy has seen him hiding from the police.
Although there's undoubtedly a good deal of humor in this episode, it is not a comedy - far from it.  And I can't help but wonder about this; couldn't find anything on Google about it, no clips on YouTube, so I'm forced to rely on this listing for my information, but I wonder how close we are to something like this today?  The Thought Police and Speech Police are everywhere, the slightest suggestion of disrespect merits condemnation, and everyone seems a victim, sensitive about everything.  We're quick to anger,slow to forgive, disinclined to understand or make allowances.  Once we've reached that level of humorlessness, will we even need a regime to outlaw humor, or will we be content to do it ourselves?

June 5, 2012

This week in TV Guide: May 30, 1998

I don't want to say we're scraping the bottom of the barrel this week.  Now, it's true that by 1991 my interest in TV Guide has waned, but I would never - never - say that anything with Frank Sinatra on the cover was bottom of the barrel.  It may be over twenty years since the Chairman died, but I'd still be afraid he'd come after me.

When this tribute issue went to press, Sinatra had died only a couple of weeks before, and a large part of the shiny section is a tribute to him, with reminiscences from those who'd worked with him and a timeline of Sinatra on television.  Frank had not one, but two weekly series, neither of which were successful - perhaps he was just too big a personality for the small screen to hold him.  Or, as was the case with his friend Sammy Davis Jr., maybe he felt all he had to do was show up and he'd bring in the ratings.  Whatever the reason, while Sinatra failed as the star of a weekly show, his specials were enormous successes.  And perhaps that's the point of being a star: your television appearances should be larger than life events, not ordinary, run-of-the-mill programs.  And there was nothing ordinary about Frank Sinatra.

The regular television season has wrapped up by the end of May 1991.  The Letters to the Editor tell us that Seinfeld has signed off for the last time, and while some people miss it already, others still wonder what all the fuss was about.  Murphy Brown, too, took its last bows, and I still ask myself why anyone ever thought that show was a big deal.  But then, that's just me.

On of the things you instantly notice about this issue of TV Guide is that the printing is so small and cramped you practically need a magnifying glass to read it.  Of course, that's what happens when you have almost a hundred cable channels to deal with, instead of just four networks.  But even here, there's still the oddity to catch the eye.  For example, what do you think of Mickey Rourke as a priest?  Yep, that's what he plays in the TNT movie Thicker Than Blood.  Apparently Rourke's pretty good in the role, but, as the reviewer says, he "needs a better script."  

On the other hand, there are some things that never change, but in this issue of TV Guide they aren't quite the same, either.  CBS has a presentation of Hallmark Hall of Fame in its post-quality incarnation: the series that once brought us classics such as "Amahl," "Hamlet" and "MacBeth" now gives us "What the Deaf Man Saw," in which Matthew Modine must decide whether to "break a 26-year silence to save the people he loves."  Yep.  And Billy Graham crusades, now as then, were a staple of TV Guide, but in 1991 they're hosted by Billy's son Franklin.  The NBA Finals, which appeared in April in a TV Guide from the early 60s, now starts on June 3.  (NB: I write this on June 4, 2012, and the NBA Finals still haven't started.)

There are a host of shows that were ratings winners at the time: Spin City, The Nanny, Suddenly Susan, Home Improvement., The Practice.  Some of them will be remembered better than others.  John Beluchi wasn't even a twinkle in the eye of TV Guides from the 50s and 60s, but in 1991 E!'s True Hollywood Story covers the details of his life and death.  And Gary Shandling's brilliant The Larry Sanders Show appears for its last episode.  Remember who was supposed to take Larry's place on his fictional talk show?  Jon Stewart.  Whatever happened to that guy?

Ah, but here's one thing we can depend on: one thing that shows us that no matter the passage of time, no matter how television (and TV Guide) may chance, there's one show you can always depend on: Nick at Nite features a Brady Bunch marathon.  Finally, a familiar face.

June 4, 2012

Richard Dawson, R.I.P.

Most people probably knew Richard Dawson from Family Feud, and before that Match Game.  He was the go-to celebrity on Match Game, so much so that the producers changed the rules of the game to keep from having the contestants choose him every time it came to the final match.  It was said that Dawson resented this, having grown accustomed to being the star.  After that, hosting his own game show would have been an inevitability.

It is said, however, that somewhere in the world Hogan’s Heroes is always being shown, and that is how I would prefer to remember Richard Dawson.  I’ve alluded in the past to my love of Hogan’s Heroes, probably my favorite situation comedy of all time; it may be fashionable today (as it was in the day) to criticize the show for finding humor in a questionable situation, but in real life there’s always been a thin line between comedy and tragedy, and I always thought Hogan’s Heroes came down on the correct side of that line.

Hogan’s Heroes was smart, clever and very funny, and one of the smartest, cleverest, and funniest in the cast was Richard Dawson.  When the show was first being assembled, he was apparently in contention for the lead role, before it was decided (sensibly, I think) that the star should be an American.  I don’t know if this bothered Dawson, but in the end it shouldn’t have, because with all due respect to Bob Crane – well, considering Crane’s post-Hogan escapades, I’d have to guess that Dawson probably emerged with less of an ick-factor.

Playing Corporal Peter Newkirk gave Dawson a chance to display his talents – the smart-aleck, the card-shark, the lady-killer, the impressionist, and the hint, just under the surface in those times when Hogan dipped into a more serious vein, of a cold-blooded soldier ready to carry out whatever orders he was given.  Hogan was an ensemble show that depended mainly on three stars: Hogan, Klink (Werner Klemperer) and Schultz (John Banner), and a well-oiled supporting cast.  And one couldn’t ask for a better cast of secondary heroes than Robert Clary, Ivan Dixon, Larry Hovis and Dawson.  They worked brilliantly, both together and individually.  Without them, I don’t think the show would have worked as well, even with the strong star turns of the big three.  And now they’re almost all gone – only Robert Clary still survives from that magnificent cast. 

Before I go, one other memory of Dawson – his essentially autobiographical turn as a smarmy game show host in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Running Man, an.  I liked it not only because it was a wonderful self-parody of his image as a backstage tyrant/oily glad-hander, but because we got to see him act again.  So what if he was playing himself, or a character very much like him?  For everything else he did, Richard Dawson was still an actor, one who have his fans a great deal of pleasure - and that’s how I prefer to remember him.

June 3, 2012

Jack Twyman, R.I.P.

Jack Twyman, the NBA Hall of Famer, died last week. Although he's primarily known for his humanitarianism, he was also the color analyst for ABC's coverage of the NBA in the 60s and early 70s. In fact, he's responsible for one of the great calls of all time: Willis Reed's dramatic appearance prior to the 7th game of the 1970 finals. After that, the Lakers didn't have a chance.

Over at Our Word, I have an appreciation of Jack Twyman, the player and the man.

June 1, 2012

What's in a name?

When people find out I write about television, especially from the era of the 50s and 60s, I’m inevitably asked whether or not I’ve ever seen Mad Men.  The truth of it is: I haven’t.  I’m not really sure why; I did see an episode early on, but for whatever reason I decided I wasn’t going to make it appointment television, the way I have, say, Top Gear. 

There was another reason as well: I’ve always been apprehensive about programs (or books or movies) that attempt to recreate a period from the past while applying the conventions or mores of the present.  From what I’ve read, this does happen from time to time, which may or may not affect your enjoyment of the program, depending on your perspective.

I’ve always thought that if you wanted to see how things were in the 50s, the best way to do it was from the media of the time.  A television show, or magazine article, or newspaper advertisement, from that era, is as likely to tell you something significant about the time as anything we can contribute now.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for historical analysis, as it were – often, we can’t gain perspective on a given period until we’ve had a certain passage of time.  But, and I think this is crucial, we need to apply our modern sensibilities to our understanding of it, not our portrayal. 

In other words, we know that society’s treatment of women and minorities was often lacking in this time period.  We know this because of a certain enlightenment, a deeper understanding of human rights, the examples set by others.  But if the writer is to accurately portray these events, he cannot allow that knowledge to inhabit the minds of his characters.  Otherwise, he runs the risk of allowing the portrayal to become not insightful, but ironic.  And you often wind up with not a snapshot of a moment in time, but an allegory.  Nevertheless, I can appreciate what I’ve heard and read about the quality of Mad Men, and I’ve kept up with the talk about it enough to have a somewhat good idea what it’s about and where the various storylines go, so I’ll probably rent the DVDs at some point and watch it from beginning to end. 

But I have to admit that my appetite has been whetted a bit by this wonderful post from the always-interesting Stephen Bowie, who speculates on how one would cast Mad Men if it were being produced in the same time period in which it takes place.  It’s great fun looking at the names that Stephen and his readers come up with (be sure and read the combox!) – some of them major stars, others character actors who pop up in small but crucial roles in so many of the series of that time – and by imagining how they’d play a role, it gives us a pretty good idea of what these Mad Men characters are like, even if we haven’t seen the show.

We can, and should, do this with other shows as well, but in reverse: imagine who would play Lucy and Desi, or Colonel Hogan in Hogan’s Heroes today, or Lewis Erskine in The FBI, or Mike Nelson in Sea Hunt.  The list, and the fun, is endless.  Be sure and check Stephen out, and then be prepared to check out Mad Men as well – maybe you, too, will find yourself doing it earlier than you’d planned.