May 25, 2013

This week in TV Guide: May 25, 1968

As you're reading today's piece, I'm likely in our new home, waiting for our furniture to catch up with us. Fortunately, thanks to the miracles of technology, I've written this post weeks in advance!  Let's hope that the movie wasn't as big a fiasco as the story that follows.

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In the long and occasionally glorious history of television, there have been many fiascos. Some of them, such as Turn-On and You're In the Picture, each of which ran for only one episode, have become synonymous with failure.  The program which we are about to discuss, which TV Guide calls "The worst disaster of the TV season," is not one of them.  In fact, it's likely you've never even heard of it.  That doesn't make Edith Efron's autopsy of a story any less fascinating, though - after all, most train wrecks are.

The program, a television play entitled Flesh and Blood, aired on NBC on January 26, 1968.  There were high hopes for the program, "a powerful and  compassionate drama of a contemporary American family": written by award-winning Broadway playwright William Hanley, directed by Oscar-nominee Arthur Penn, and starring Oscar-winner Edmond O'Brien and Emmy winners E.G. Marshall, Kim Stanley and Suzanne Pleshette, along with a very young Robert Duvall.  NBC had paid Hanley $112,500 for the script - the largest amount ever for a television script - and touted the coming special for the better part of a year.

In case the article's title didn't give it away, the show did not go over well.  I love the quotes the feature - "a compression of enough emotional depression and disaster to sustain a soap-opera series through 1970" (New York Times), "a grim, depressing piece" (Boston Record American), "a catalog of calamities" (Philadelphia Inquirer), "an unrelieved chronicle of human misery" (Denver Post), "a numbing two-hour tirckle of unsjpeakable secrets" (Time) - well, you get the idea.

So, Efron asks - what went wrong?  A number of things, as it turns out.  NBC wanted a prestige program, and thought they could get it by outbidding Broadway itself - except, as Hanley himself points out, the show never was headed to the Great White Way.  With its depressing subject matter, Hanley says, "[i]t wouldn't have lasted five minutes on Broadway."  The network executives saw Hanley as an award-winning playwright, but his awards had been for off-Broadway work, and he'd never had a box-office hit.  The cast, many of whom were going through personal problems of their own, never really learned the script, and often ad-libbed their lines.  Most important, perhaps, was the grim story itself.  Hanley, refreshingly candid about the whole thing, says that "I do have a very dark vision of life" that is not for everyone.

The whole thing's a prime example of how network executives, through ignorance, hubris, arrogance, stupidity - for starters - can foul things up.  One executive tells Efron, "Some people thought we shouldn't put it on.  But we thought we could get away with it.  What the hell, we'd paid for it, we'd publicized it.  And any special will get you some praise."  And they did get some - at least the critic Rex Reed liked it.  Soon after, NBC would announce a policy change regarding their dramatic programming, signing an agreement with Prudential Life Insurance to produce "five original 'upbeat' dramas" in the coming season - dramas that will be "exciting, hopeful and affirmative."

And here is where we come to the moral of the story.  Clearly we have a disaster here, and although there are many reasons why, pretty much everyone would agree that William Hanley wrote a flop.  Conventional wisdom might suggest that this would signal the end of Hanley's career, at least when it comes to television.

But you'd be wrong.

William Hanley went on to write over two dozen TV scripts, winning two Emmys and being nominated for three others.  He wrote the landmark TV movie Something About Amelia with Ted Danson, as well as adaptations of Tommy Thompson's bestseller Celebrity and Shana Alexander's bestseller Nutcracker: Money, Madness and Murder, and The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank.  When he died last June at age 80, his New York Times obituary describes him as an "uncommonly gifted writer" who "received critical acclaim as a Broadway and Off Broadway playwright in the 1960s and who later won Emmys for television scripts."  Of Flesh and Blood, the newspaper that had described it as " emotional depression and disaster" merely mentioned that it had received "mixed reviews."

So let that be a lesson to you: failure does not have to be permanent.  Time can heel all wounds, and people have short memories.  Flesh and Blood did not ruin William Hanley's career; it merely disappeared into the ether.  He didn't give up, and neither should we.

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There are some great things teased on the cover of this issue (if you can get past the picture of Diana Hyland - more on that later).  We're given a preview of "Patrick McGoohan's puzzling, intriguing new summer series," and unlike so many promises, this one actually lives up to the billing.  The series in question is The Prisoner, McGoohan's legendary cult-fav that's part espionage, part sci-fi, part mystery, and completely compelling.

"It would be a grave error to pretend that this is anything other than a piece of entertainment of a certain type," McGoohan tells interviewer Joan Barthel, but at the same time it's clear McGoohan has something he wants to say about modern society.  "I've always been obsessed with the idea of prisons in a liberal democratic society," he says of the series, in which a former intelligence agent is kept captive by an unknown authority in an unknown place where people are known not by name but by number.*  "I believe in democracy, but the inherent danger is that with an excess of freedom in all directions we will eventually destroy ourselves."

*Many afficianatos of The Prisoner (including yours truly) believe that McGoohan's character, Number 6, is in actuality John Drake, the secret agent of McGoohan's previous series, Danger Man (the hour-long version of which was known in this country as Secret Agent). McGoohan always denied this, quite possibly because, since he didn't create Danger Man, he didn't own the name "John Drake" and would have had to share credit for it.

Speaking of America's obsession with opinion polls, McGoohan says that "[t]he reason we're so concerned with these polls is that we're so desperately concerned with saying, 'We're free!'  And I want to know, how free are we?  I think we're being imprisoned and engulfed by a scientific and materialistic world.  We're at the mercy of gadgetry and gimmicks; I'm making my living out of a piece of gadgetry, which is a television set, and anyone who says there aren't any pressures in it has never watched a commercial."

The Prisoner was one of the most puzzling, most controversial television programs ever shown.  Its ambiguity and its failure to provide a definitive end to the series outraged many, enthralled others, and confused most everyone.  And McGoohan wouldn't have had it any other way.  "I just hope there are a couple of thoughts in it somewhere that relate to the things that are going on around us, to our situation at the moment.  It will be interesting to see what viewers thing the symbols are.  I will say this: There are, within it, answers to every single question that can be posed, but one can't expect an answer on a plate, saying, 'Here you are; you don't have to think; it's all yours; don't use your brain.'"


***

During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Ed Sullivan: Scheduled: Mike Douglas; Nancy Sinatra; Spanky and Our Gang; comedians Scozy [sic] Mitchell, Bobby Ransen, and Hendra and Ullett; the acrobatic Trio Rennos; the roller-skating Bredos; and the Muppets Puppets.

Hollywood Palace: Co-hosts Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme (Mrs. Lawrence) introduce comics Tim Conway and Corbett Monica, dancers Szony and Claire, and the Mascotts, German head-balancing act.

Perhaps these lineups are indicative of the beginning of the end of variety shows, for neither is very strong.  The Palace, airing on Thursday night for a spell instead of its traditional Saturday night timeslot, is a rerun; Sullivan's show just sounds like a rerun, because we've seen it all before.  One point for Ed due to the Muppets, and Mike Douglas is always pleasant, but Steve and Edie, along with the very funny Tim Conway, are enough to carry the day.  The verdict: The Palace, somewhat indifferently.

Better to go with Dean Martin, airing opposite the Palace.  Deano's guests are singer Eddy Arnold, Phil Silvers, Janet Leigh, the Mills Brothers, and comedian Jeremy Veron.  I think that one would be hard to beat.

***

In 1968, Memorial Day was still celebrated on May 30; the holiday wasn't moved to its current fourth-Monday-in-May status until 1971. Then, as now, Memorial Day meant one thing for many people: the Indianapolis 500.

Besides the date, there were other things different about 1968. The race wasn't televised live, but instead was presented in highlight form on Wide World of Sports a couple of weeks later. No, if you wanted to follow the race, there were only two ways to do it: either on the radio, or via closed-circuit in a movie theater. And if you did, you'd have seen and heard how Joe Leonard, in one of Andy Granatelli's legendary turbine cars, leads the race only to have his car fail with 10 laps to go, leading to the first of Bobby Unser's three 500 victories.

In lieu of live race coverage, Channel 11 has something else in store: the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade, taped Tuesday evening, with Garry Moore alongside Sid Collins, the famed radio "Voice of the 500." Unlike so many things, the 500 Festival Parade is still around, and still on TV - it will be on NBC Sports Network the day before this year's race.


***

Well, ABC is at it again.  How many times have I written that ABC's talking about moving their evening news broadcast to prime time?   Several times, at least.  They even did it once, though that didn't last long.  This latest idea is to move the broadcast to 9:30pm CT, and to start their prime-time programming at 6:00pm rather than the then-starting time of 6:30.  It "could be fully competitive with the morning paper," says Bill Sheehan, second-in-command at ABC News.  It never happens, though.  ABC's news remains in the traditional time slot, against Walter Cronkite and Huntley-Brinkley.  It won't be until ABC Sports head honcho Roone Arledge takes over the news department and introduces World News Tonight in 1978 that the network finally catches up - and passes - the rest.

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This week's cover girl, as we mentioned earlier, is Diana Hyland, currently appearing as "the nymphomaniacal drunk minister's wife" in ABC's prime-time soap Peyton Place, and author Burt Prelutsky is in love with her.  She's got it all - a dazzling smile, lovely blue eyes, and legs that won't quit.  She's interesting, too - she believes in flying saucers, said good evening to Nikita Khrushchev at the UN and was winked at by Fidel Castro, and has remained 27 for the last five years*, the previous time when she was interviewed by TV Guide.  "I lied then," she tells Prelutsky.

*According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, Hyland was born in 1936, which means she was in fact 27 - in 1963.  She told the truth then; she's lying now.

She's a dedicated actress, and a successful one - "everything I've ever tried I've done well," she says.  Her Peyton Place director, Walter Doniger, calls her "an elegant, brigt, witty dame" who's also svelte, sophisticated, and a nonconformist.  In fact, she only has two vices - she owns 200 pairs of shoes, and she smokes three packs of cigarettes a day. 

I don't know if that last vice is significant or not.  Flash forward to 1977: she's in a happy relationship with John Travolta, she's signed to play Dick Van Patten's wife in Eight Is Enough - and she's diagnosed with breast cancer.  She dies in March of that year, aged 41. 

***

The Teletype tells us that Elvis Presley will be highlighting a special for NBC.  I suspect they're talking about this.  The rest, as they say, is history.

***

Finally, is it possible that the most interesting item in this week's issue is not an article, but an advertisement?


Hmm.  Could be.

3 comments:

  1. Garry Moore and Sid Collins . . . WISH (CBS/8) is the local broadcast rights holder ironically that nationally NBCSN has it nationally. Bob Jenkins is "coming out of retirement" for this weekend's Indy events as he filled in for Leigh Diffey for practice and today's parade.

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  2. As usual, a good post and a great site. My only complaint is that the Guide covers are so small. Even right clicking them does not make them any more readable. These things are Social History and I wish they were a bit more accessible. Thank you for all your hard work.

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    1. Well-taken. I've enlarged them somewhat since this post, but I'm actually working on some new formats that might make them more easily seen. Stay tuned - I'll see what I can do!

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