February 14, 2015

This week in TV Guide: February 11, 1967

On Sunday February 12, NBC's Meet the Press presents a special one-hour edition with William Manchester, author of the controversial book The Death of a President, the authorized account of the assassination and funeral of John F. Kennedy.  Manchester is to be quizzed by Alistair Cooke, whom we'll get to know better as host of Masterpiece Theatre but at this point is the American correspondent for The Guardian; Chuck Roberts, White House correspondent for Newsweek, who was in Dallas and flew back on Air Force One with President Johnson; Robert MacNeil of NBC, the network's man in Dallas who covered the assassination; and Meet the Press producer Lawrence Spivak.  Edwin Newman is the moderator.

To understand why Manchester's book is so controversial, one has to step back in time to shortly after the funeral.  The Kennedy family realized that books about the assassination would come out; they worried about how both the event itself and the family would be depicted.  In an effort to control the story, they had commissioned Manchester, who had earlier written a flattering article about JFK, to write the book, and have exclusive access to family, friends, and political allies of the late president.

Once the manuscript had been produced, however, the family began to have second thoughts.  There were concerns that Manchester had revealed too many personal glimpses into the family's life, that Manchester's prose was "overwrought," and that his unfavorable portrayal of Lyndon Johnson could prove troubling to Robert F. Kennedy's political ambitions.  Jacqueline Kennedy had spoken frankly and personally with Manchester, but now feared the thought of those revelations in print.*  Bobby Kennedy, who was fanatically loyal to Jackie, got into the middle of the dispute. An agreement for a four-part serialization in Look magazine was, RFK charged, a breech of the agreement that "the final text" was not to be published until approved by the two Kennedys.  Manchester countered that Bobby had been in agreement that the book should be published as soon as it was finished, to avoid playing a part in the 1968 elections and also to counter the Warren Report critics, and that in fact Look was Kennedy's preferred magazine of choice. Lawyers were called, negotiations were conducted, Manchester himself almost suffered a nervous breakdown over the interference by the Kennedys and their Boston cronies.  When Jackie went to court, Manchester went to Meet the Press to tell his side of the story.

*Mrs. Kennedy later admitted that she never actually thought the public would read the book, but that it “would be bound in black and put away on dark library shelves.

In the end, things were settled.  As the family saw their popularity take a dive in the polls (people suspected the worst about their efforts to control the story, and that doesn't even take into account the conspiracy buffs already in full swing), Bobby decided he'd had enough; a drop in the polls is never welcome news for a politician.  As Spivak says on Meet the Press, everyone involved "has been hurt or somehow damaged - you, Mrs. Kennedy, Senator Robert Kennedy, President Johnson and the book itself." The two parties settled out of court, with Manchester removing 1,600 words from the Look serialization and seven pages from the book - "less than one percent," according to Manchester.  Look hit the newsstands at the end of January and immediately sold out; the book, published in April, became an instant bestseller.  But, as Alistair Cooke would later note, “the dispute is already more famous than the book,”

I've not been able to find any video of the program, but if you're interested, you can read the transcript of the sometimes-contentious interview here.  And you don't even have to send ten cents to Merkle Press to do it.

***

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 Sammy Davis Jr. welcomes Mickey Rooney, Liberace, singer Kaye Stevens, comic Lee Tully, the acrobatic Mascots, and Mr. and Mrs. Bob Top, English high-pole roller skaters.

Sullivan:  Scheduled guests: comic-actor Jack Gilford, who appears in a sketch with comedienne Nancy Walker; comics Joey Adams, Joan Rivers and Richard Pryor; singers Sally Ann Howes, Jerry Vale and Lola Falana; the rock 'n' rolling Young Rascals; dancer Peter Gennaro; and teh roller-skating team of Ravic and Babs.

Short and sweet.  Sammy Davis Jr.  If there hadn't been anyone else on the show, Palace still would have won.  As it is, include Mickey Rooney and Liberace, and you've got it made.  It's Palace, in a dance.


***

I don't think we've ever had the chance to look at dueling ice shows, have we?

First up is NBC's Monday-night presentation of the 1967 Ice Follies, hosted by Jimmy Durante and featuring Jimmy Dean and the Supremes.  These ice shows are something of a regular occurrence on NBC; later in the year, Ed Ames hosts a similar presentation of the Ice Capades.  But, between you and me, this has to be one of the strangest combinations I've seen in a long time - I mean, I can understand Durante, since somebody has to host the show, but where do Dean and the Supremes come in?  It just sounds like a real mishmash to me - no synergy, to put it in business-speak.  Maybe someone was skating while "Stop in the Name of Love" was sung in the background.

On the other hand, Milton Berle hosts ABC's presentation of Holiday on Ice (one of the Ice Follies' bitter competitors) Thursday night, and here the emphasis is clearly on the entertainment.  We learn about the composer of the original music (André Muscat) and the choreographer (Ted Shuffle), and the themes of some of the production numbers ("Egyptian Fantasy" and "San Francisco, 1900."  Berle should be a good MC for this; it's much like his hosting jobs on his other variety shows, and there are probably plenty of pretty girls in skimpy outfits for him to leer at.

Interestingly enough, the Ice Capades went out of business in the mid-90s, while in 1979 the Ice Follies merged with Holiday on Ice.  There's no limit to themed ice shows out there even today, though.

***

And now a brief pause for some culture, and I'm not talking about what you'd find in a petri dish, either.

On Friday night, NET Opera Theatre presents Jack Beeson's opera Lizzie Borden, based on the ax murderer of the same name.  The production is from the acclaimed world premiere staged by the New York City Opera in 1965, adapted for the television stage.  The music is modern and at times atonal, and Beeson has taken liberties with the story for dramatic effect, but it makes for compelling viewing both as an opera and a television production.  The broadcast is a prime example of the advantage to staging an opera in a television studio (as opposed to simply bringing in cameras to cover a live performance, as is done with the Metropolitan Opera's HD broadcasts), giving viewers camera angles and views that would be impossible to replicate in a live theater broadcast.  Following the opera, there's a half-hour profile of composer Beeson, looking at his work methods and motivations.

If opera's not your thing, how about Shakespeare?  On Wednesday, KTCA, the public broadcasting station, has An Age of Kings, a continuing series of the Bard's historical plays.  You'll see this pop up throughout the '60s, especially the early part of the decade, on Channel 2 - it was made by the BBC in 1960.  Later the same evening, Channel 11, the independent station, has The Wars of the Roses, another BBC production of Shakespeare's first series of historical plays, made in 1965.  I find it interesting that this was being shown on commercial, rather than public, television; possibly it was some kind of syndicated package similar to when Edward the King was broadcast in America in the mid-70s.  Incidentally, I have both of these, as well as Lizzie Borden; they're all very good.

***

Some other notes from the week:

The Golden Globes are telecast Wednesday night on NBC, hosted by Andy Williams.  I wrote a while back about the Golden Globes; for a few years the awards were actually presented on Andy's variety show, but this year they get their own place in the sun.  It's a short spotlight, though; the show still runs for only an hour, but that's plenty of time to give out a handful of awards, most of them to the movie A Man For All Seasons.  You'll recall that this would have been during the period of time when winners were actually tipped off in advance that they were bringing home the award; it was often the only way to get them to attend the show.

One of the great Star Trek episodes of all time airs on Thursday, also on NBC - "Space Seed."  It introduces us to a ruthless dictator played by Ricardo Montalban, and without it we'd never have gotten this immortal scene.


OK, maybe it didn't last that long...

There's an article on Steven Hill, the original head of the Mission: Impossible team.  After decades of reruns with Peter Graves as Jim Phelps*, it can be a little surprising to remember that for the first season of M:I, it was Hill's Dan Briggs who listened to the recordings at the beginning of each show and pulled the same pictures out of the dossier each time.

*Who is not a traitor to his country, no matter what Brian DePalma thinks.

Hill is actually very good in the role, with just the right amount of menace to suggest that, if things were to get tough, Dan Briggs could get even tougher.  It doesn't work out, though, and the reasons are clear in the article.  Hill is an observant Orthodox Jew who leaves the set in order to get home before sundown on Friday and does not work on Jewish holy days, and while his beliefs are respected, there's no doubt that it puts a crimp in shooting a complicated television series.  Many times Briggs' visible role is limited to the beginning and end of the story, and there's at least one episode in which he isn't seen at all.  His level of involvement in each week's mission is seldom as large as it becomes for Jim Phelps in future seasons.  So it's one year and out for Steven Hill, but don't worry too much - Law & Order will be by in a couple of decades, and he'll get ten seasons out of that.

And finally, one of the classic pieces of pop culture: Batman.

***

Dwight Whitney spends some quality time with Adam West, learning about what it's like being the star of the hottest television show around.  His portrait of West paints a restless man who has already been married and divorced twice, an ambitious man who gave up a successful radio show in Honolulu (and his second wife) when Hollywood called, an actor who wants to be thought of in the same company with Marcello Mastroianni.  Batman, Adam West says, "will make it possible for me to do what I want to do the way I want to do it."  And that is?  "Like be a big fat star."

Lest this sound too serious though, there's a wonderful bit at the beginning of the article that is pure West, speaking in that stiff, breathless staccato full of odd pauses, as campy and self-deprecating as we've come to see him in the years since Batman.  The scene: West's dressing room trailer as he prepares for the day's shooting.

"It's hero time," says Adam West lightly, tugging the top of the tights up over the flat of his stomach and starting on the skintight tunic.  "In a moment I will step from this humble dwelling and, to the plaudits of the crowd, plummet from a platform fully three and a half feet high."

The chant "We want Batman!" rises in shrill crescendo.  "Ah, the adulation!" he continues, undulating like a Girl Scout in a tight girdle.  "Oh, I love it, basking in the sincere warm smiles of the little children.   What!  You say Chief O'Hara isn't working today?  Oh, I miss the Chief.  The family's disintegrating - Robin off to college, Aunt Harriet drafted and being shipped to Vietnam.  Oh, the heartbreak of it all.  Here, give me that!"

His dresser hands him the tiny gray skullcap worn beneath the Batman helmet. West places it with exaggerated care. "I wonder if I should go out and bless the crowd?  No, perhaps not."  He jams the fiberglass-and-nylon helmet down over his ears.  "Marvelous bit of haberdashery," he mumbles.  "It's hot.  The sound bounces.  Can't hear.  My nose pinches and gives me a cleft palate.  Can't see.  And I owe it all to that peerless Prince of Trivia, our producer Bill - 'Bull' - Dozier, who refuses to supply me with a seeing-eye dog.  Now off to give another Academy Award-winning performance."

[...]

"Sign my autograph, Batman, please!"

"Later, kids," says the Caped Crusader coolly. "Got to rescue Alfred from the clutches of that infernal scoundrel, The Archer."

"Aw, Batman, you couldn't hurt a flea!" says one.

"Yeah," replies Adam West amiably.  "Disillusioning, isn't it?"

And that, my friends, makes this whole blog worth it.

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