February 15, 2014

This week in TV Guide: February 20, 1965

When we think of Burgess Meredith, we tend to associate him with the Penguin in the original Batman, or as the hapless librarian in the Twilight Zone episode "Time Enough at Last," or perhaps as the veteran cornerman in Rocky, for which he received an Oscar nomination.  But in February 1965, he's co-starring with James Franciscus in the high school drama Mr. Novak, where he plays Principal Martin Woodridge.

Meredith has come to the series in its second and last season, as a replacement for the ailing Dean Jagger, who was forced to leave due to an ulcer.  It is hoped that Meredith's character will inject some tension into the series; Jagger, as Principal Albert Vane, had been more of a father-figure, and Woodridge's introduction figures to inject some conflict with the idealistic Novak.  (It doesn't work, or at least not enough to boost the ratings; Meredith appears for 17 episodes, after which the show is cancelled.)

It's considered quite the coup to attract Meredith to series television; he'd previously turned down series such as The Travels of Jamie McPheeters, and is known much more as a Broadway actor and director. His TV guest shots, including four appearances on Twilight Zone, have been memorable, but he's well aware of the difficulties facing veteran actors.  "Let's face it, I live high," he tells Dwight Whitney.  "I raise jumping horses, Kaja [his wife] flies airplanes.  The younger people don't know who I am.  And that, in this day and age, is essential."

So Novak is not the show that will bring Burgess Meredith to prominence among the younger generation. But just wait a couple of years, and that will change. . .

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

Sullivan: Scheduled guests are Sid Caesar, actress Betsy Palmer, Metropolitan Opera soprano Roberta Peters, impressionist Frank Gorshin, comedian London Lee, singer Jerry Vale, dancer Conrad Buckner, British ventriloquist Malcolm Powell and the Three Kims, acrobats.

Palace: Actress Bette Davis makes a rare TV appearance, and also appears with Bert Lahr in "Jealousy," a comedy sketch.  Other performers on the bill: dancer Barrie Chase; singer Julius La Rosa; comic Jan Murray; Les Cinci, apache dance team; Australian comic juggler Rob Murray; and the Nerveless Nocks, Swiss sway-pole artists.

Sid Caesar! (Rest his soul.) Bette Davis!  Roberta Peters!  Barrie Chase!  Frank Gorshin!  Jan Murray! Betsy Palmer!  Julius La Rosa!  Two of the best lineups we've seen in quite a while.  No way to choose, no reason we have to.  The verdict:  Push, and both well-worth watching.

***

When the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Cinderella was originally broadcast live on March 31, 1957, it was, according to the metrics of the day, the single most-watched television program to that time.*  It was the only Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to be written for television, and with future superstar Julie Andrews in the lead role, it created a sensation.

*There have been suggestions that this program remains the most-watched TV ever - a claim that's debunked at Television Obscurities.  Nevertheless, the audience for that evening was substantial.

Unfortunately, the program, which was broadcast in color, aired prior to the invention of video tape (although a black-and-white kinescope was found in the last few years), and owing to its live broadcast, it was never repeated.  Hence, eight years later, CBS has decided that it's time for a remake.  The new version, featuring Ginger Rogers, Walter Pidgeon and Celeste Holm and starring Lesley Ann Warren in the title role, premiers on Monday evening.


I don't know how the critics come down between the two versions (a third, starring pop star Brandy and broadcast by ABC in 1997, isn't really worth discussing), but certainly the 1965 edition, owing to an excellent color videotape, is more accessible.  It aired eight times over the next ten years, and made a star out of Lesley Ann Warren.

Up against the second half of Cinderella is what must have been a riotous hour of comedy on NBC, a Jonathan Winters special starring Bob and Ray.  The result, according to the TV Guide listing: "Television of the Absurd."  Among the bits: Bob's famous character Wally Ballou ("winner of 25 diction awards") interviews a "free-lance paper picker-upper" and visits the annual Benjamin Franklin Look-Alike Convention, and later Bob and Ray go back in time to meet George Washington (Winters) at Valley Forge. I looked on YouTube for a clip from the show, to no avail, but here's a vintage Bob and Ray routine from Johnny Carson's Tonight show:


If you want to check out Winters, one of the funniest men who ever lived, there are plenty of clips from the obit I did for him last year.

My personal preference would have been to watch Winters (I don't know what we did have on that night; it was almost 50 years ago, after all), but it's hard today to imagine a time when viewers would have had to choose which one to watch.  There were no VCRs, no DVRs, no way to save one show and watch it later.  Unless you had two televisions out and tried to keep an eye on each one, you were stuck.  It's one of the true marvels of technology, this ability to record programming for later viewing, or to watch an entire series via DVD or streaming video.  I complain occasionally about not being able to find a clip on YouTube; to find anything at all from that far back is a miracle in and of itself.  How soon we become accustomed to it.

CBS must have felt viewers had too much fun that night; they followed Cinderella with the pompous and provocative political pundit Walter Lippmann, offering comments and opinion on the state of the nation and the world.

***

Opening titles, from Inger Stevens website
Stop me if you've heard this, but I'm always interested in the quasi-documentary specials that used to pop up from time to time in the 60s.  Case in point is the lovely Inger Stevens, star of The Farmer's Daughter, hosting the special Inger Stevens in Sweden on ABC Friday night.  This was one of a number of celebrity-helmed tours shown on ABC; the network had previously aired Sophia Loren in Rome and Elizabeth Taylor in London.  Stevens had left Sweden for the United States when she was 13, which means, as TV Guide puts it, "she's almost as much a tourist as she is a Svenska flicka (Swedish girl)."  Among Inger's guests during the show are Prime Minister Tage Erlander, former world heavyweight champion Ingemar Johansson, painter Bo Beskow and actor Max von Sydow, and she works in time to visit the gardens of the Royal Palace and make a trip to her hometown of Dalarna.  All in all, a pleasant way to spend the evening.

Another of ABC's long-running documentary series is Saga of Western Man, produced and directed by ABC newsman John Secondari* and his wife, Helen Jean Rogers.  The series featured such episodes as "The Legacy of Rome," "Beethoven: Ordeal and Triumph," "Christ is Born," and this Tuesday's installment, "I, Leonardo Da Vinci,"  frequently narrated by former Oscar winner Fredric March.

*Secondari is perhaps even better known as author of the novel Three Coins in the Fountain, which in turn is probably best-remembered for its theme, sung by Frank Sinatra - the only time Sinatra ever sung a theme for a movie in which he didn't appear.  The song, which won an Academy Award for best original, was performed at the Oscars by Frank's cohort Dean Martin.  

In the world of dueling documentaries, NBC counters Saga of Western Man with its own special, "The Journals of Lewis and Clark," narrated by Lorne Greene and produced and directed by Ted Yates.  Yates, an acclaimed television documentarian and former producer of Mike Wallace's ABC interview show, would be killed in 1967 while covering the Six-Day War.

It was a frequent complaint by viewers that the networks would dump documentaries into a ghetto timeslot, often opposite each other.  Even in the early 60s, which we might romanticize as a more civilized television era, docs were a drag on the ratings, and while the networks enjoyed the prestige and awards they brought, they cringed at the thought of the low viewership numbers.  I'm willing to bet that the winner of the 9pm CT timeslot that night was CBS' The Doctors and the Nurses, which attempted to take advantage by airing the first of a two-part episode, which would conclude the following Sunday on the network's legal drama For the People, starring William Shatner.

***

The Big Three
Things are reasonably quiet on the sports front this week.  Remember, neither professional nor college basketball receive the saturation coverage they enjoy today, the NHL is a limited attraction even in Minnesota, and though golf is in the midst of the "Big Three" era (Palmer, Nicklaus, Player), most golf coverage consists of made-for-TV events (including, fittingly, a series of "Big Three" matches, coming this week from the famed Firestone Country Club in Akron).  If you want serious sports, start with ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour, which this week brings us the Thunderbird Open from Wichita, Kansas, followed by Wide World of Sports, with taped coverage of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships from Lake Placid.

On Sunday, CBS' Wide World clone Sports Spectacular features next-day coverage of the AAU Indoor Track and Field Championships from Madison Square Garden in New York.  Today we think of track maybe every four years, around Olympics time, but in the day track and field was a major sport, and this meet would have brought the biggest names in sports to one of the most famous arenas in the world.  And if that isn't enough, there's also tape of last week's Westminster Dog Show, also from the Garden, which is probably the only one of these events to be even bigger now than it was in 1965.

NBC Sports in Action, their version of Wide World, counters with a track meet of its own, the Los Angeles Times meet from the Sports Arena, taped a couple of weeks ago.  Most of the big names from New York participate in Los Angeles as well, so if you're a track fan (and who wasn't back then?), this is your weekend.  Wisely, the two programs are not aired opposite each other.

And then there's the National Indoor Tennis Championships, live on a syndicated hookup from Salisbury, Maryland.  Unlike today, where the indoor game is played on a synthetic carpet (the most famous brand name being "Supreme Court"), the indoor game of the 50s and 60s is played on a canvas mat that had been stretched tightly over the concrete arena floor.  In another departure from how the game is structured today, tennis back then has a clear delineation between amateurs and professionals.  The pros are not allowed in the sport's biggest events such as Wimbledon, the U.S. Open (which, because it wasn't "open" to both pros and amateurs, was called simply the U.S. Championships) and the Davis Cup, and instead play a limited schedule of tournaments, combined with a cross-country barnstorming exhibition tour.  In 1965, the Indoor Championships would have been for amateurs only, and was won by the Swedish star Jan-Erik Lundquist, who defeated American champion Dennis Ralston. The tournament, which started in 1898, is still played today, having called Memphis its home since 1976.  Frankly, I don't know if it's even on television anymore, and it certainly doesn't have the cache it had back then.

***

Finally, this note from the TV Teletype that "MARLO THOMAS, daughter of DANNY, is starred with RON HUSMANN and ANNE JEFFREYS in Two's Company, a comedy pilot about a young married couple."

The pilot failed, but out of it was the genesis of another sitcom project featuring a young woman and her boyfriend, which Thomas talks about in this interview; a series we all know as That Girl.  That was a success, running for five seasons and giving Marlo Thomas an identity independent of her famous father. And now you know the rest of the story.

5 comments:

  1. Tragically James Franciscus died of smoking related emphysema at only 57 years old. He truly was a great actor.

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    Replies
    1. Indeed - it's sad to see someone so young die so early.

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  2. Like most people I have more than 300 channels to choose from today, but these pieces are a reminder of the time when having 5 or 6 was enough, as there was almost always something worth watching.

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  3. My complaints exactly, David. I've really latched on to this idea that the Golden Age of Television refers not only to the quality of individual shows, but the variety of programming as a whole. You're right - there was always something out there.

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  4. I once read an interview in which Jonathan Winters referred to this special, the first time he'd evr met Bob and Ray.
    In his telling, Winters says that he was shocked to learn that Bob and Ray wrote most of their material; he'd assumed that they improvised everything, much as he did.
    Winters specifically refers to the George Washington sketch, which he proposed to B&R as improv. That they wanted and needed to have it written out was apparently a great disappointment to Winters.

    About Cinderella:
    You didn't mention Stuart Damon, who played Prince Charming.
    Damon became far better known years later as Dr. Allan Quartermain on General Hospital.
    It was a twenty-plus year run, first as a romantic hero/villain (soaps are like that), but later and much longer as one of the most mordantly funny characters on any soap.
    This was Damon's own humor; he often gave interviews in which he viewed his soap stardom with a skeptical eye: one such observation - "I have some days when I've got 40 pages of dialog in one show, and others when, on a per-line basis, I'm the highest-paid actor in television."
    Damon eventually won a daytime for GH, playing " ...the oldest, fattest drug addict in TV history ..."
    Not long afterward, the momentary GH producing regime killed Dr. Quartermain off; their successors maintain that this was the biggest mistake they could have made - and history has proved them right.
    They keep bringing him back as a ghost, and it's good to see Damon, who's always funny, but it really isn't the same ...

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