January 10, 2015

This week in TV Guide: January 7, 1967

This week's cover story on Ben Gazzara, written by Maurice Condon, is surprisingly devoid of snark.  It is, indeed, simply a visit by Condon to the Manhattan neighborhood where Gazzara grew up, to see some of the places where he spent his childhood, and talk with the people who knew him.

What we find out is that Gazzara was a talented actor from the beginning, appearing in numerous plays at the Boys' Club, taking his craft seriously, and determined to become successful.  And - that's about it.  There's no evidence that he was a bully, a thief, a truant; rags-to-riches stories about overcoming a poor childhood in the slums are, according to his brother, figments of press agents' minds, and the neighborhood priest at the church where Gazzara served as an altar boy debunks any tales about he and other altar boys getting "stoned" on sacramental wine.  In fact, the priest proudly mentions that Gazzara and his wife returned a few years ago to have their daughter baptized at the church.*

*The Catholic Gazzara, who was married three times and divorced twice, was already with his second wife at the time; wonder how they pulled that off?  No irony intended, just curious.

In fact, just about the only bad thing you find out about Ben Gazzara is that he used to stick his fingernail into the centers of penny candy at the corner shop, looking for the ones with pink centers that would win him a prize.  And the only reason that comes out is that a friend used the knowledge to blackmail him into stopping his coaching of her at the Drama Club, where he made her go over her sole line in a play over and over again.  She was 12 at the time, he was a little older.  He laughed and told her that she could "say the line any way you want to, just so you don't squeal to your grandpa.  But you're missing your chance to be a great actress."

I note the gentleness of this article because there's another one from a year later, during the final season of Run for Your Life, which portrays Gazzara in a slightly less flattering light - complaining about the rat-race of promoting a television show and tired of scripts that don't require any real acting of him.  It's a common complaint of classically trained actors, and often an accurate one, but it can come across as whining at the same time.  We'll leave that for another time, though.  Gazzara was a tough actor, frequently a very good one, and this is a nice portrait of the actor as a young man.

***

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..

Palace: Host Ray Bolger presents singer Diahann Carroll; actress Audrey Meadows; the singing King Family; impressionist Adam Keefe; Paul Revere and the Raiders, rock 'n' rollers; and the Morgan Ashton Family, acrobats.

Sullivan:  Ed's scheduled guests are Ethel Merman; singer Gordon MacRae; flamenco dancer Jose Greco; comics Myron Cohen, Flip Wilson, and Ross and Hunt; the Serendipity Singers; the Muppets puppets; King Toys, doll act; and the Canadian Black Watch and Dragoon, pipe-and-drum band.

Two good lineups to choose from this week.  The great Ray Bolger recreates his Scarecrow routine from The Wizard of Oz, Audrey Meadows (sister of Jane) is usually good fun, and Paul Revere and the Raiders were big stuff in the late '60s.  On the other hand, I was never a big fan either of Diahann Carroll (Julia) or the King Family.

Ed's lineup is vintage - Merman and MacRae have big voices, Jose Greco is one of the greatest of flaminco dancers, Myron Cohen is a terrific storyteller, and the Muppets are the Muppets.  As for Flip Wilson and the Serendipity Singers - again, not big fans.  On balance, I'm giving the edge to Sullivan, but if you chose the Palace, I wouldn't have any complaints.

***

The evening news programs on CBS and NBC expanded to 30 minutes within a week of each other in September 1963, less than three months before the assassination of John F. Kennedy.  The changes reflected the growing importance of news, with the Cold War, the civil rights movement, and various other foreign affairs crises demanding more and more attention.

More than three years later, on Monday, January 9, ABC joins the party, as Peter Jennings With the News goes to a half-hour, and in color to boot!  The fact that it takes ABC so long to join the other two networks is another indication that the network still lags behind its senior partners, not only in the news department but overall.  As a matter of fact, ABC will have only four prime-time shows in the top 25 at the end of the 1966-67 season with Bewitched, in seventh place, as the network's top-rated program.  ABC's era of dominance is still over a decade away.

One interesting note about all this is the addition of Howard K. Smith with daily news analysis.  Smith had left CBS in 1961 with hard feelings after refusing to remove controversial remarks from a civil rights documentary.  His move to ABC was not without controversy either - I'm thinking here of his premature "Political Obituary of Richard Nixon" in 1962 - and so his appearance with Peter Jennings is a welcome return.  By 1969 he'll be a co-anchor on the news, first with Frank Reynolds and then with Harry Reasoner.  Eventually, he'll return to being a commentator and Jennings will reemerge on World News Tonight, first as one of the co-anchor trio and later as sole anchor, as ABC becomes the dominant news network.

***

There's another return to the airwaves this week - the enduring cop drama Dragnet.  When last we saw Joe Friday and his partner Frank Smith patrolling the streets of Los Angeles, it was 1959; Friday had just been promoted to lieutenant and Smith to sergeant, and while the series was no longer in the top 30, it was still a solid hit when creator Jack Webb decided to hang it up and develop other programs.

Dragnet '67 premiers at 8:30pm CT on NBC, with Webb back as Joe Friday*.  He has a new partner, though; Webb wanted Ben Alexander back as Frank Smith, but by this time Alexander was sleuthing around on ABC's Felony Squad and was unable to get out of his contract, so Webb settled on Harry Morgan to play his new partner, Bill Gannon.  In reality, Gannon is no more than Smith with a different name, the two characters more or less indistinguishable - a combination of solid police work and quirky humor.

*Once again a sergeant; Webb thought it made for more interest. 

Dragnet is just one of a number of series making their debuts this week in the Second Season.  Also on NBC is Captain Nice, starring William Daniels, while CBS counters with the similar Mr. Terrific, with Steve Strimpell (both shows on Monday), and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour on Sunday*; we all know how that turned out.  As is to be expected, third-place ABC has the most new programming, with The Invaders on Tuesday night, the Wednesday Night Movie on - you guessed it - Wednesday, Tim Conway's Western comedy Rango on Friday, and the return of The Avengers on Saturday.

*A variety show " 'in the tradition of the Jackie Gleason and Red Skelton shows,' say the producers hopefully."  Obviously they knew something we didn't.


***

Let's take a random look at some of the other programs on this week.

Mission: Impossible (Saturday, CBS):  "In Zurich, Switzerland, the IMF must bankrupt a scheme by neo-Nazis who are intent on recovering Hitler's hidden millions to finance a fourth Reich."  Oh, those wacky Nazis!  Actually, this is a pretty good episode of a very good series.

On Gilligan's Island (Monday, CBS) "The castaways re-enact the sinking of their boat in an attempt to soothe the Skipper, who's decided to end it all because a radio broadcast blamed him for the plight of his passengers."  Never pictured Skipper as that kind of guy.

Also on Monday on NBC, I Dream of Jeannie: "Jeannie has created a marvelous miracle fabric that can withstand anything, even Dr. Bellows' clumsy efforts to learn how it was made.  Groucho Marx makes a cameo appearance as himself."  I wonder how they worked him in?

The Fugitive (Tuesday, ABC): Kimble is forced to help a California sheriff conceal his son's holdup attempt.  The boy, critically wounded, is at the sheriff's home, where the fugitive doctor has been ordered to perform surgery."  Sounds a bit far-fetched, but this is from the show's final season, when many fans noticed a drop-off in quality.

Whirlybirds (Channel 11, syndicated, Thursday afternoon): "A glib-tongued deacon hires the Whirlybirds to transport him to a preaching engagement in a nearby city.  When some toughs threaten the deacon at the airport, Chuck and P.T. begin to doubt his integrity."  Watched this as a kid when it always seemed to be on Saturday afternoons.  Would it hold up today?  I don't know.

Ben Casey (rerun, ABC, Friday noon): "A staff psychiatrist is disturbed by her patient's revelation under the influence of drugs."  No kidding!  The psychiatrist is played by Patricia Neal, who later that year would appear in the movie Hud, for which she'd win a Best Actress Oscar the next year.  She took TV roles around then because the work helped her cope with the sudden death of her first daughter.

***

From time to time TV Guide gives us profiles of up-and-coming starlets, those who are supposed to be The Next Big Thing.  Sometimes these actresses do indeed go on to bigger and better things, but most of the time they enjoy brief, undistinguished careers that fall short of the fame that was thought to be in their future.

This week we have a story about Melodie Johnson, who's parlayed a non-speaking role in Bob Hope Theater ("I got killed before I had a chance to say anything") into guest-starring roles in Laredo, Run for Your Life, The Rounders, and the movie that served as a pilot for The Name of the Game.  What's notable about her in the article, aside from her blonde hair and blue eyes, is that "Melodie Johnson" happens to be her real name - what one Hollywood veteran termed "a real starlet's name" - which her mother got from a character in an Andy Hardy movie, played by none other than Donna Reed.

So what happened to Melodie?  Off to Google, where we find that she's had quite an interesting life since January 1967.  She never did become a huge star, although she worked steadily in television throughout the '70s, but we do find out two rather striking facts about her.  One is that after acting, she became a writer, publishing short stories and essays, and authoring four mystery novels, one of which earned her an Edgar Award nomination for best first novel.  The other is that the man mentioned in the article as her husband, "Bones" Howe, is in fact still her husband, after 51 years of marriage.  Now that is probably as great an accomplishment as any we've seen in these profiles.  By any definition, we can conclude that Melodie Johnson Howe has had a successful life indeed.

***

And finally a little teaser for an upcoming show next Sunday - and a reminder that even before that's what it was called, that's what it was called.

3 comments:

  1. I remember seeing the Groucho cameo on JEANNIE in syndication. Roger Healey gets a wish, and asks Jeannie to make him the funniest man in the world. She turns him into Groucho.

    I researched the entire 1966-67 Nielsens for a blog post a couple of years back, and MR. TERRIFIC ended up being the highest rated show at season's end to be cancelled at # 36 (F TROOP, the focus of the article, was next at # 40, and discontinued by its studio rather than ABC). That season-ending ranking was highly misleading, as you might have guessed. MR. TERRIFIC's premiere ranked in the top 15 for the week, but the show dropped out of the top 50 altogether within two weeks and never returned. It did improve slightly on the show it replaced (RUN, BUDDY, RUN, which was in the mid-sixties when cancelled) but would not have if you removed the first two shows.

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  2. Here, there, and everywhere ... :

    - Didn't I observe here some weeks back that celebrity Catholics seemed to get special "indulgences"; so to speak, when it came to marriages and funerals?
    (Ed McMahon, Merv Griffin, Sonny Bono, Harry Caray, Frank Sinatra, et al.)
    So Ben Gazzara's baby should be denied baptism because Papa was on the second marriage?
    I don't recall that Catholics back then were ever that indignant about such things; Catholicism didn't develop a right wing until fairly recently.
    Just sayin' ...

    - In that Mission: Impossible episode, which ran on MeTV a few weeks back, I note that the top guest Nazi was played by Donald Harron, a Canadian actor who was all over prime-time in the '60s.
    Circa 1969, Harron, who'd been typecast as cold-eyed heavies, returned to Canada and the stage, where he went into stand-up comedy, of all things.
    In the '70s, Don Harron (as he now billed himself) returned to US TV - as the ratty-sweatered, stubble-bearded KORN newscaster on Hee-Haw!
    Same guy. No kidding.
    Thanks to DVR, I was able to compare Donald the icy villain and Don the hayseed comic.
    You have to look and listen closely, but the two Harrons are one.
    Trust me - this is too good to exaggerate.

    - Small correction about Melodie Johnson Howe:
    That's three novels and one collection of short stories, which appeared originally in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine - and continue to do so.
    I know this because I've got all four books (and so should you).

    - Look a little closer at the ABC ad on Friday.
    The Avengers joins the ABC lineup next Friday (12 O'clock High has one last episode to burn off).
    ... unless the ABC affiliate in your town delayed it ... which is, as Mr. Kipling says, another story ...

    All I have for now. Over to you.

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  3. For those who don't know, Bones Howe is a legendary record producer best remembered for work with the Association and the Fifth Dimension.

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