July 29, 2012

This week in TV Guide: July 26, 1975

0 comments
Ive mentioned in the past my preference for the ABC evening news when I watched the news back in the late 60s and early 70s.  After Peter Jennings left the anchor desk (for the first time), Frank Reynolds was teamed up with Howard K. Smith, but he was replaced by Harry Reasoner when Reasoner gave up on the idea that he'd ever succeed Walter Cronkite at CBS.

This feature on Smith, written by veteran TVG writer Neil Hickey, is of particular interest to me right now, because of a discussion about Smith I've been involved in over at the classic TV board of Radio-Info.com.  (Only among classic TV buffs can you get into a discussion of Howard K. Smith in a topic that's supposed to be about Walter Cronkite.)  Smith was a veteran newsman, having served his time at CBS before leaving in a dispute over continuing editorial interference in Smith's commentaries. 

Smith didn't find the going much easier at ABC, where he raised more hackles with a retrospective, which he presented as the end of Richard Nixon's political career, following Nixon's defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial election.  Among the guests on Smith's program was Alger Hiss, Nixon's old enemy from the Hiss-Chambers case in the late 40s.  Nixon's political allies were not happy about Hiss' participation in the program, most prominent among them being Dwight D. Eisenhower, who just happened to be the former president of the United States.  Ike complained to the network, with the result that Smith found himself assigned to less controversial activities for a while, before he would reemerge 1969 as Reynolds' co-anchor on the evening news.

Smith is no less outspoken in this profile, in which he talks about ABC's recent decision to remove him as co-anchor with Reasoner and reassign him to giving regular commentaries.  It's clear from Smith's comments that television news was a bare-knuckled proposition in the 70s, not for the faint of heart.  "I'm not running a Sunday School platform," he tells Hickey in defense of his controversial viewpoints.  And yet, as was the case in a 1971 article about Reasoner, Smith is a complex man, not easy to pinpoint politically.  "I'm totally liberal," he tells Hickey.  "I'm the most liberal newsman on the air."

Liberal, perhaps, in the classic sense of the word.  Smith is an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War, and an opponent of the spread of communism.  ("I am a hawk...[to win in Vietnam w]e would have had to do some brutal things, but war is brutal.")  He voices support, despite criticism from his colleagues, for former Vice President Spiro Agnew's harsh attacks on the news media.  ("We are too negative.  Bad news is easier to cover, and that's what wins prizes.")  He disagrees with those who moan about American influence worldwide ("In general, the period of American domination in foreign affairs has been one of the most progressive in history."), as well as those who accuse America of inertia in civil rights.  ("Anybody watching television news might conclude that we have failed on the race question.  But there's a black man on the Supreme Court, and we've had two in the cabinet.  Progress has been outstanding, but we have given the wrong impression.")  During Vietnam, some listened to Smith's commentaries on the war and dubbed ABC the "Administration Broadcasting Company."  Smith cites his support for civil rights, congressional reform and government activism on the economy as his liberal bonafides, but it's clear that, although his colleague Reasoner says "he's not particularly conservative," he's not a liberal in the MSNBC sense either.  A man of dignity and professionalism, in the Huntley-Brinkley mold; would that we had men like him on the news today.

Summer issues of TV Guide don't usually have much to offer but reruns, but there a a lot of items of interest to recommend this issue.  Perhaps the most interesting program - certainly one of the most interesting I've run across in in many a TV Guide - was on Friday night: CBS' Playhouse 90 presentation of Brian Moore's Catholics, starring Trevor Howard and Martin Sheen in a story of rebellion in the Catholic Church at a time of great change, something that could be ripped from today's headlines.  Ah, but there's a twist: the rebels are "a monastic community [that] is defying Vatican policy by continuing to celebrate the Mass in Latin instead of English." And the priest from Rome "[is] sent to crush what may be the seeds of a counterrevolution." 

To me, this is utterly fascinating.  On the one hand, this story "set in the future," with Sheen's "inquisitor" as "a young emissary of change" while Howard's dissident abbott "clings to the old ways as an affirmation of 'the real presence of God in the Mass,' is more or less the exact opposite of what's going on in the Church today, with the Latin Mass gaining popularity especially among the young.  And yet in many ways it's an eerie foreshadowing of what first happened in the post-Vatican II Church.  For Howard's Abbott, substitute Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), dedicated to the Latin Mass, harshly critical of the reforms allegedly introduced by Vatican II, eventually to lead his followers into what may or may not be a formal or informal schism from the Church.  In truth, traditional Catholics did feel lost with the changes in the Church in the 60s and 70s, as if everything they'd believed their entire lives had been cast aside in the name of "change."  And the SSPX did (and still does, to some extent) represent a challenge to the authority of the Vatican.  But look at the reality back in 1972, which is when this movie was originally made: Latin all but gone forever from the Mass, the tabernacles (containing the consecrated Eucharist, the "real presence" to which the Abbott refers) moved from the altars and in many cases taken out of the main church altogether, and guitars and folk songs the principal form of music.  Could anyone have possibly imagined that the future - today, in other words - would look so different, and that the old ways, which were hopelessly out of date, would now be on the way back? 

I'd love to see that program today, but I didn't watch it that Friday.  Instead, I was tuned to ABC for one of my favorite sporting events of the year: the College All-Star football game from Soldier Field in Chicago, featuring a team of college stars versus the NFL champions. The College All-Star Game began in 1934 as a benefit for Chicago-area charities, and continued until 1974, when it was cancelled forever over concern by NFL coaches that their prize rookies were missing too much traning camp and risking injuries by participating in the game. The collegians were usually overmatched, winning only nine times in the game's history (the Packers, for example, beat the All-Stars 38-0 in 1966), but many of the games were surprisingly competitive. Joe Namath's Jets, for example, had to hold on for a 26-24 win in 1969, and the undefeated Dolphins led the Stars only 7-3 in the fourth quarter before winning 14-3 in 1973. The 1975 game was no different, as the Stars, including Steve Bartkowski, Walter Payton and Randy White, led the Pittsburgh Steelers 14-7 in the fourth quarter before Joe Gilliam, coming off the bench to replace Terry Bradshaw, tossed a pair of touchdown passes as the Steelers pulled out a 21-14 victory.

In other news, the Democrats were back with another telethon, the fourth and last in the series.  This one was called "Tune In, America," and was the final step in the party's rehabilitation leading to Jimmy Carter's victory the next year.  The show started Saturday night and ran through to Sunday at 6pm, going head to head with the final round of golf's Canadian Open (which, coincidentally, is being played this year as I write this), which would be won by Tom Weiskopf.

Variety shows are sprinkled throughtout the week, with such 70s icons as Gladys Knight and the Pips (Thursday, ABC) and Tony Orlando and Dawn (Wednesday, CBS). On Sunday, the elegant guitar god Chet Atkins stars on PBS' Evening at Pops. The late Sherman Hemsley stars in The Jeffersons on Saturday, right after its parent show, All in the Family. Adam-12, The Rookies and Kojack fight crime in the present, while Matt Dillon patrols the old west in Gunsmoke.

Thursday ABC premieres a summer series called Almost Everything Goes, which predated modern shows such as Wipeout, with the novel twist that the teams, competing in events such as "You Bet Your Loaf" (in which players try to inch across greased poles while carrying loaves of bread, while at the same time trying to avoid opposing players swinging sacks at them) and "Grand Prix" (players drive dune buggys on a slalom course while carrying plates of jello),  are made up of participants from neighboring small towns.  In the opener, Burrisville (RI) takes on Webster (MA) and Putnam (CT).  Charlie Jones calls the play-by-play.

And finally, this great TV Guide allows me to relive the wonderful summers of my youth, when I didn't have to go to school the next day and could stay up as late as I wanted, watching all the shows I couldn't see the rest of the year.  Channel 11, the Twin Cities' independent station, was my go-to station, with my favorite late-night lineup of all time. The FBI at 10pm, Perry Mason at 11, and a double-dip of Alfred Hitchcock at midnight. I ask you, can you find a better three hours of television on the air today?

Well, actually, in our household you can, since among our DVD collection are complete season sets of The FBI, Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock.  I say again, back in 1975, could anyone have imagined that?

July 23, 2012

TV's top moments?

1 comments
Don’t know if you saw this item the other day – a list ofthe most significant moments in TV over the last 50 years, as voted on by television viewers in a survey conducted by Sony and Nielsen TV research. Not surprisingly, 9/11 was chosen as the top moment. (You can see the entire list here.)

Now, I don’t really put much stock in lists like this, especially when you consider the audience who did the voting. After all, we’re now almost 50 years out from the JFK assassination, and the number of people alive today who actually witnessed those events live on TV (and over 90% of the public did, back then) continues to diminish. Certainly the number is less than those who saw 9/11 live. Therefore, regardless of the importance of a given event, a list like this is going to be heavily slanted toward more recent events – events the voters saw for hemselves.* That’s probably why we have the arbitrary 50-year timeframe – which I think is wrong for reasons I’ll get into shortly.

*I mean, come on – the death of Whitney Houston (#11)?

I’m also not quite sure what the criteria should be for this kind of list. According to Sony and Nielsen, the survey ranked TV moments “for their impact, not just by asking people if they remembered watching them, but if they recalled where they watched it, who they were with and whether they talked to other people about what they had seen.” But what does this really mean? Are we talking about the most memorable moments ever seen on TV? Those with the biggest impact on the medium? Those that resonated most with viewers, or those that were most newsworthy? Those with the biggest cultural impact? Because these are very different things we’re discussing.* "What we were trying to measure was perception," Paul Lindstrom, a senior vice president at Nielsen told Reuters. And I understand that. But under these circumstances, what you’re bound to miss is perspective, while winding up with a list top-heavy in terms of feelings**

*Not to harp on Whitney Houston, but if Elvis had died during the age of CNN we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

**See Princess Diana, (#10).

From left: 9/11, the JFK funeral, the O.J. verdict, the Oklahoma City bombing
However, Lindstrom does have it right when he refers to events that “brought emotional memories together.” Television is, or at least was intended to be, a shared experience – a communal event that people could watch together, discuss together, share memories of together. In this sense, it should come as no surprise that all 20 on the list were news events; in today’s culture, news and sports are just about the only events that we all watch together. Everything else is just something we watch at our convenience, when and where and how we we want. (At this point I should be talking about what a shame this is, but I think regular readers of the blog have probably heard that from me enough times already.)

Television historians have their own bias, of course, which means a list drawn up by them might not be any better. I suspect we’d see more “culturally significant” events (the Beatles on Sullivan, for example) and “important” entertainment programs (Roots), but it might miss out entirely on the “emotional memories” that Lindstrom talks about. And then there’s the timeframe – the last 50 years, mind you, goes back only to 1962. A lot happened on television prior to 1962 – the Kennedy-Nixon debates, for example, or the Army-McCarthy hearings, each of which had a profound importance that carried far beyond their immediate times. Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater had an extraordinary impact on our culture – movie theaters and stores were practically empty as what seemed to be the entire nation sat around the TV watching this landmark show. Talk to someone from that era, and you’ll see how important it was – and countless other TV moments that occurred before ’62. Problem is, there just aren’t as many viewers left who can tell you what it was really like. And watching Berle today, on DVD, is a significantly different experience, shaded by our shifting mores, our tastes, and our historical awareness of what we’re seeing.

No, TV is a medium that is so highly dependent on individual tastes, and our culture today is so fragmented into minute subgroups, that it’s probably impossible to come up with a comprehensive list that takes all these factors into consideration and makes a significant contribution to television history. And I’m sure Sony and Nielsen were only looking for headlines, a chance to generate a story or two, and in that they succeeded. Maybe if you did it like the Book of Lists, where you ask a bunch of people – actors, historians, famous viewers – to list their moments, and then include the Sony/Nielsen survey to represent the public at large, you’d come up with something that was more significant, or at least entertaining. It would also be more worth arguing about. Speaking of arguments, for what it’s worth I’ll offer my own top 10 list, using all of those things I talked about above as a basis for my choices. They’re in no order other than chronological –feel free to show me how I’m all wet and your list is the one that really counts.
  1. Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater (1948)
  2. Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951)
  3. The JFK assassination and funeral (1963)
  4. The final episode of The Fugitive (1967)
  5. The premiere of Laugh-In (1968)
  6. Man walks on the moon (1969)
  7. The final episode of Roots (1977)
  8. The "Who Shot J.R." episode of Dallas (1980)
  9. The O.J. Simpson verdict (1995)
  10. September 11, 2001

July 21, 2012

This week in TV Guide: July 17, 1965

0 comments
It seems as if we've spent a lot of time lately looking back at the shows of our youth and wondering if they’ve held up. I wasn’t sure with Andy Griffith, and I’m not sure with McHale’s Navy.  But whereas Mayberry, NC seems to epitomize something timeless, an iconic image of America's past, it's harder to tell what Lt. Commander Quinton McHale's* band of merry pranksters represents.

*McHale's first name, Quinton, is one of television's great trivia answers, right up there with the names of Gilligan's Island's Professor (Roy Hinkley) and Skipper (Jonas Grumby).  I don't know why, but as a kid these little pieces of knowledge always fascinated me.

I've had some time to consider this, back to Ernest Borgnine's death a couple of weeks ago.  Just as Sheriff Andy Taylor was the stable point around which the rest of Mayberry's colorful characters pivoted, Borgnine's McHale was a relative oasis of sanity surrounded by slapstick.  And just as Andy Griffith's dramatic performances were overshadowed by the success of his series, most people still associate Borgnine with McHale (or, depending on your age, his late-career success as the voice of Mermaid Man in SpongeBob) rather than his 1955 Oscar-winning performance in Marty.  And that's too bad, because Borgnine could be a hell of an actor, often in some pretty nasty roles: From Here to Eternity, The Wild Bunch, Emperor of the North. 

But it's television we were talking about, wasn't it?  Specifically McHale's Navy, so let's stick with that.  It's interesting, reading about the show in this 1965 profile.  The program's preparing for its fourth and final season, with the entire crew about to be shipped from the Pacific to Italy.  That never made sense to me, even when I was a kid watching reruns of the show after school.  One minute they're fighting the Japanese, pulling various con games, forever dodging the range of "Lead Bottom" Binghamton, all while hiding a Japanese POW as part of the crew; the next they're pulling the same schtick in a completely different theater, now fighting Germans, conning Italians, all with the same exaxperated commander and even the same Japanese POW.  How does that work?

When I was eight or nine I thought McHale's Navy was hilarious, probably because of the broad characterizations and slapstick humor.  And the cast, in this profile, acknowledge as much: it's a kids' show, they admit, "Servicemen and kids," said Carl Ballantine, who played Gruber.  "Wives tolerate it."  Borgnine himself referred to it as "light and fluffy," though he doesn't appear to be using that in the critical sense.  Having caught a few minutes of an episode last week during MeTV's McHale marathon tribute to Borgnine, I think I can vouch for the show's kid quotient.  It just didn't work for me as a non-veteran adult, lacking the sophisticated zaniness of Hogan's Heroes and the unabashed larceny of Phil Silvers' Bilko.  I won't exactly go as far as to say that I'd be embarrassed to admit having enjoyed the show back then, not in the same way that I'd be embarrassed to admit having watched, say, My Mother the Car.  But it definitely is a childhood memory best left in childhood.


July 14, 2012

This week in TV Guide: July 12, 1975

0 comments
After the Apollo moon landings, the U.S. space program fell into something of a slump.  Actually, it had started during Apollo - the launch of the ill-fated Apollo 13, which was to have been the third manned flight to the moon, wasn't even covered live by the networks, such was the ho-hum status of space flight by that time.  There was a brief blip after Apollo, when the Skylab space station was launched, but by 1975 there just wasn't much to get worked up about if you were a space buff, except to wait for the space shuttle - whenever that would be.

So Apollo-Soyuz was a big deal.  A very big deal.

The Cold War was alive and well in 1975, even though things had thawed out somewhat after Nixon's overtures to the Soviets, and now we were about to see the ultimate in detente, as the former space rivals teamed up for a joint mission in space.  There's been some thought that the Soviets picked up a great deal of information about the technologically-advanced American space program, while the United States picked up some good P.R.*

* Which reminds me of a story about one of the many tours of North America by Soviet hockey teams in the 70s.  You might remember that the United States sold a massive amount of grain to the USSR in the 1970s - known in some circles as "The Great Grain Robbery."  At any rate, this USSR touring team was playing a minor league team in a city like Peoria, and the crowd chanted, "We gave them the wheat, they gave us the chaff."  Apollo-Soyuz might have been something like that.

TV coverage of the mission dominated the week, which otherwise would have been given over to reruns, a few summer replacement shows, and the British Open.  Both launches occurred on Tuesday, July 15 (the same day as the baseball All-Star Game), the Soyuz launch early in the morning and the Apollo following in mid-afternoon.  This was the first time a Soviet launch had been broadcast live on American television, and it was a must-see for me; summer vacation was on, and I remember setting the alarm to get up at 6 a.m. for the start of the television coverage.  The small hick town in which we lived at the time only got one TV channel (NBC), but I remember choosing to watch the launch on a grainy picture coming from a CBS affiliate in South Dakota.  The docking itself occurred on Thursday, and the spaceships would each return to Earth the next week, again covered live on TV.  Russian spacecraft, you probably know, did not splash down in water, but with the help of parachutes and small rockets, landed on dry ground.  The helicopter shots of the capsule kicking dirt up as it landed was quite a sight.

There was other television that week, perhaps not as exciting but notable nonetheless.  On Monday night Channel 2, the public broadcasting station in Minneapolis, broadcast a repeat of the Minnesota Orchestra's inaugural concert in spanking-new (and revolutionary) Orchestra Hall,* which they had originally shown live the previous fall.  On the program: Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Stravinsky's "Firebird" suite, and Beethoven's Fifth.  Not a bad program, by any means.

* After almost 40 years, the Minnesota Orchestra moves out of Orchestra Hall this season while the Hall undergoes a substantial renovation.  They'll be back next season, but I doubt the first concert will be on TV.

Also on Channel 2 was live coverage of the installation of John Roach as the sixth Catholic Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis (always remember to get the order right), at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday night.  I have to wonder abou tthe timing of that; I know that when the most recent Archbishop was installed, it was during the day, as is most often the case.  According to the listings, the liturgy was expected to be "joyful," which I take probably meant, "cheesy and with bad music."

Back in the day, the British Open ended on Saturday (as was the case with Wimbledon until the 80s, British sporting events traditionally weren't held on Sunday), and Wide World of Sports provided tape-delay coverage of the final round.  Only it wasn't really the final round, for Tom Watson and Jack Newton wound up in a tie, necessitating an 18-hole playoff the next day, which was won by Watson for his first major championship.  He went on to great fame, of course, while Jack Newton subsequently suffered a horrible accident, losing his right arm and eye when he walked into a spinning airplane propeller, before going on to a second, and far more successful, career as a golf announcer on Australian television.

I mentioned the All-Star Game, which was a lot of fun to watch back then, before interleague play pretty much messed up baseball for good.  The game was played in Milwaukee, and the National League won - again (they always won back then), 6-3.  People watched it on TV back then as well, unlike today.

There's an interesting profile of musical act about to get their own television show: Gladys Knight and the Pips.  There's an article about Chris Schenkel, one of my favorite announcers, but who took a lot of heat from the critics at the time.  Curt Gowdy did as well, near the end of his career, but I liked him too, and I suspect a lot of the critics who had at both of them back then would welcome them with open arms today, compared to the failed stand-up comedians we have in the booth nowadays.

And there's one more space tie-in: ABC's Sunday Night Movie, entitled Strange New World, which apparently bore the fingerprints of Gene Roddenberry at one time or another.  It's the story of astronauts who return to Earth after 180 years in suspended animation, and was a pilot for a weekly series that, needless to say, never materialized.  Moral of the story: Gene Roddenberry should have stuck to Star Trek, and ABC should have stuck to covering real space flights.

July 7, 2012

This week in TV Guide: July 8, 1972

0 comments
As was the case with last week's TV Guide, the July 8, 1972 issue was dominated by politics. And once again, we're going to see how things have changed.  This week, we're looking at the Democratic Convention, held in Miami Beach (as would the Republican Convention the next month).  The cover boasts "Complete Details," yet I'm sure nobody was prepared for what happened. 

The Democrats were understandably apprehensive about this convention, considering what they had gone through four years before in Chicago.  It couldn't possibly get worse than that, could it?  Well, the first session on Monday night ran until 6:00 a.m. Tuesday morning.  It pretty much went downhill from there.  Establishment Dems, such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daily, were rejected in favor of reform-minded (and far more liberal) delegations, slights which would come back to haunt the ticket in November.  Credentials and rules fights would continue to drag into the early morning hours, and though there wasn't a repeat of the violence in the streets (and on the convention floor) that had plagued them in Chicago, things were every bit as chaotic.  George McGovern, the favorite coming into the convention, won the nomination on Wednesday night, but his disasterous choice of Missouri Senator Tom Eagleton as his running mate, made after a half-dozen others (including Ted Kennedy) had turned the offer down, infuriated labor and feminist leaders, and resulted in a protracted nomination and roll-call process.  The resulting image - McGovern accepting the nomination and delivering his speech at something like 2:30 Friday morning* - provided reinforcement, if it was needed, of a campaign and party that didn't know what the hell they were doing.

*I remember this convention well - we were on vacation that week, and I stayed up until the bitter end - not out of any love of the Democrats, but because Dick Cavett was supposed to have Roger Kahn, author of the Boys of Summer, and several of the old Brooklyn Dodgers featured in the book.  Needless to say, by the time the convention ended, there was no chance the network would run the Cavett show.  Hours of my life I'd never get back.

But that wasn't the only political highlight of the week.  Starting Saturday night at 9pm Central and running for the next 18½ hours, the Democratic Party took over ABC with a national telethon to raise money to retire their massive debt.  Can you believe this?  In this day of big-money PACs and massive infusions of cash at every level of politics, one of the two major parties in the United States actually had to beg for money - and when George McGovern is your poster child, you have to know you're in trouble.  I actually watched this as well, again not because I liked the Democrats (I didn't then, and don't now), but because I'd gotten hooked on the idea of telethons by watching Jerry Lewis for the first time the previous year.  As far as entertainment goes, it wasn't much.  Every time the tote board hit a milestone number they'd stage a mock-demonstration as if it were a political convention, with signs and balloons and bands.  (One of the signs, as I recall, made reference to Watergate, which wasn't much of a deal at the time.)

An ad for the 1974 Democratic Telethon, telecast on CBS.  For
the four years or so the telethon ran, it rotated among the
networks.  I think ABC was the only one to show it twice.
Many of the celebrities appearing were the names you'd expect: Robert Vaughan, a close friend of the late Bobby Kennedy, looking smug as ever; Warren Beatty, who TV Guide noted had already raised over a million dollars for the McGovern campaign; E.G. Marshall, who never met a cause he didn't like; Shirley MacLaine; Henry Fonda; Jackie Cooper; and a host of others.  Many of them, I recall, made a point of saying they weren't necessarily taking sides, but were appearing because they believed in the two-party system and didn't think it was in the nation's interest to have one of those parties approaching bankruptcy.  (I'll give them points for at least trying to appear non-partisan, even though most of them were known liberals; nowadays, they don't even bother to lie.)  One other thing, which seems odd to me now: every three hours or so, TV Guide would put an update in the listings, including the stars they expected to appear in the next segment.  Apparently, they didn't think people would hang on for hour after hour unless they knew when their favorite celeb would be appearing.

Politics of a different sort: you probably noticed Merv Griffith on the cover, and the inside story tells of the acrimonious break-up between him and CBS, as Merv prepared to return his show to syndicated TV.  CBS claimed he couldn't attract ratings; Merv countered that the network never let him do his own thing.  There was sporting politics as well, in the men's final at Wimbledon, which NBC showed on tape delay Saturday afternoon, in that most of the top male players of the era (Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe) were prohibited from playing in the Grand Slam events due to their contracts with World Championship Tennis, Lamar Hunt's pro tennis circuit.  And on Friday night, CBS closed out the politica week with Ada, a movie starring Dean Martin as a corrupt governor and Susan Hayward as his wife, trying to free him from the grasp of his manipulators.

Oh, one last note.  On Thursday night, with the Democrats committing political hari-kiri by pushing their nominee's acceptance speech out of prime time, Minneapolis' Channel 11 was running the absurdist Fellini film 8½. I'll leave it to you to decide which of the two was really the more absurd.

July 3, 2012

Andy Griffith, R.I.P.

0 comments
You recall that the other day I mentioned televisions shows you watched when you were a kid but would be embarrassed to admit you watched now.

Well, I watched the Andy Griffith Show when I was a kid. I remember I was envious of the whistler in the theme song, because I couldn’t whistle then, and can’t now.* I thought Andy was a swell sheriff, and he seemed like a good dad (not having one myself, I didn’t know for sure). And, being a typical prepubescent boy, I thought the love story with Helen was stupid. I probably thought the sequel with Ken Berry, Mayberry R.F.D., was stupid as well, but I watched it as well, which means either that I was a true television addict, or lacked taste, or both.

*I can’t swim or ride a bike either, but those are stories for another day. 

I’ve only watched the Andy Griffith Show sparingly since those days, and I’m not sure whether I’m embarrassed by my viewing past or not. Perhaps that show, like I Love Lucy or The Dick Van Dyke Show, is one of those programs that either implants itself in you or doesn’t. Hogan’s Heroes did, Andy Griffith didn’t. Maybe it’s because, living in the big city, I couldn’t relate to small-town life, I don’t know.

I do know that one of my fondest television fantasies – you know, the stories you’d really like to see on your favorite shows – involves The Fugitive, Dr. Richard Kimball finding his way to Mayberry. Being a pediatrician, the ideal plot would have involved Kimball saving Opie’s life after an accident, perhaps on that gravel road he and Andy walked down during the show’s opening. Andy’s grateful, of course, but then – being a good cop – he finds out Kimball’s true identity. And therein lies the dilemma.

Andy Taylor, behind that down-home manor, was no fool, and was a shrewd judge of character. And while he’s a police officer sworn to uphold the law, he also knows when a man’s guilty and when he’s innocent. Richard Kimble, the sheriff surmises, is not a murderer. Likely what Andy would have done, in so many words, would be to let Kimball know he knew. And then, looking out the window, he might have mentioned that he’d been having a problem lately with hitchhikers. “They go out that road by the highway, where all the trucks run – you know the place – and they’s picking up rides out there all the time. Not a good thing for a town to be known for. I’m a-goin’ to have to go out there tomorrow morning and see what I can do.”

So Kimball picks up on the clue, and next shot we see is him thumbing his way on the road, and a trucker stopping to pick him up. In the Epilog, we see Lieutenant Gerard arriving in Mayberry – Barney probably tipped him off, you know – and Andy being shocked, shocked to find out that he had Richard Kimball, the wife killer, right here in Mayberry, under his very nose. “You just never do know people, do you?”

I like to think that fantasy is a testament not only to the fondness we have for our old shows, but to the character that Andy Griffith invested in Andy Taylor. We knew that Andy would do the right thing, and that he’d do it in the right way. Not every actor can pull that off, but Andy Griffith could.

So anyway, I say that I don’t really watch the old Andy Griffith shows. I watched his other big hit, Matlock, and found his character fascinating, with an edge you never really saw in Mayberry.* To find that edge, and where it came from, you’d have to watch one of the great political movies ever made, A Face in the Crowd. I’ve written about that in the past (you can read it here), but suffice it to say that after watching Griffith’s brilliant performance, you can understand why he might have been frustrated with being pigeonholed into Andy Taylor-like roles. The man could act.

*The show, however, drove me crazy. Here Ben Matlock absolutely takes apart the killer on the witness stand – just like Perry Mason – and then the next shot we see is of the jury coming back with a Not Guilty verdict. Really? You really think the prosecution wouldn’t have moved for a dismissal after what Ben came up with? 

Having looked at Griffith from the perspective of the post-Mayberry Matlock and the pre-Mayberry Crowd, there’s one other Andy Griffith I remember, and that’s the storyteller. When I was in grade school one of our teachers played the record of his monologue "What It Was, Was Football." Funny then, funny now. Dry, clever, insidious in its subtlety. And there was the role that made him famous – "No Time for Sergeants," which he played on television, on Broadway, and in the movies. If you’ve never seen it, you should. It’s one of the few great comedies from the Golden Age of Television, having aired on the U.S. Steel Hour in 1958. Funny then, funny now.

Andy Griffith died today, at age 86. It’s big news down here in North Carolina, the place that he loved and that loved him back. Even before today, it was easy to tell he’d touched a lot of people here. When you’re writing about television, and the great figures of the time, you don’t often find yourself this close in proximity to the story. But here it is.

And so, therefore, in the end there were several Andy Griffiths: the sly monologist, the earnest private, the political demagogue, the down-home sheriff, the shrewd attorney, the North Carolinian who stayed true to his roots. (And that doesn’t even get into the spirituals he recorded.) You can’t say that about many actors, and for that reason it doesn’t matter which Andy Griffith you remember. The point is, you remember him: and that’s something you can’t say about many actors, either.