April 25, 2015

This week in TV Guide: April 27, 1963

Not every issue of TV Guide is a blockbuster; not every issue has a hidden gem buried somewhere, or a historical tidbit that calls for greater exploration.  After the last two weeks, we return to an issue that is pleasantly enjoyable for being thoroughly unremarkable.  I think you'll enjoy the listings that go up on Monday; be sure and check them out.  In the meantime, let's take a closer look at the comings and goings of the week.

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Seeing as how Perry Mason is one of my ten favorite shows, it's not surprising that I'm taking a moment to focus on the cover story, that of Perry's perpetual foil, Hamilton (don't call me Ham) Burger, played to perfection by William Talman.

Richard Gehman's article is informative and pleasingly free of snark.  Perhaps it's because he spends so much time with Talman, who comes across as humorous, charming, and benignly resigned to his current fate.  He and his wife and four children have to live on the 13% of his $65,000 annual salary that he takes home after alimony payments for two ex-wives (24% to his first ex), 10% to his agent, 5% to his business manager, and 40% to the government.  Throw in the five unions to which Talman has to pay dues, and that doesn't leave much.  He's sanguine about it, though, asking Gehman "Could you urge your readers to send money?"

Then there's the suspension he underwent at CBS as the result of a morals charge (baseless, as it turns out) because of a party he attended which wound up being raided by the police.  He was forced to miss several months of the show, eventually reinstated due to the considerable efforts of Erle Stanley Gardner, executive producer Gail Patrick Jackson, and particularly Raymond Burr, whom I've read exerted some serious pressure.  Even here, Gehman notes, there's no visible bitterness on Talman's part.  He comes across as a professional, a good actor, a good sport, and a happy man - who's particularly delighted that his wife is expecting another new addition to the family.

Finally, of course, there's the role of D.A. Burger, who never defeats Mason - one wonders how he's able to keep his job.  We should appreciate Talman in this role; reading the books, Burger is far more unlikable - smug, arrogant, often accusing Mason of misconduct and, it's implied, caring more about winning the case than seeing justice be done.  It's clear there's no love lost between the two men, though Perry reacts more with bemused patience than anything else. Talman's portrayal softens some of the edges, presenting Burger as someone who really does care about convicting the right person, even if it takes cooperating with Mason (with whom he has a much less adversarial relationship) to do it.  Eventually, Talman's identification with the role causes Gardner to alter his written portrayal of Burger, allowing him to share friendly words with Perry on occasion, and in general making it easier to imagine Talman when reading the books.*

*As time went on, all of Gardner's characters came to resemble their TV counterparts more and more.

I became a fan of Perry Mason through reruns on Channel 11; what I remember most about William Talman is the shocking anti-smoking commercial he made before his death in 1968.  The commercial, part of a longer film he did for American Cancer Society volunteers, was filmed six weeks before his death and was aired posthumously.  (Note that the picture of Talman and Burr is the same as that used on this week's cover.) It's a stunning thing to watch, a dying man urging people not to make the same mistake he did.  Although he says he's involved in a battle he doesn't want to lose, you can read the truth in his eyes.  Most remarkable of all, according to this article: he did it all, even while pumped up on morphine and barely able to make it through the filming, without a script.  It was perhaps his greatest acting role.  Yes, a pro to the very end.


***

A couple of interesting points about NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies presentation of "Three Coins in the Fountain" - interesting to me, at least.  The theme song, which was a big hit for Frank Sinatra, marks the only time Frank ever sang the theme for a movie in which he didn't appear.  And the novel on which the movie was based, "Coins in the Fountain," was written by none other than John Secondari, whose name you may well recognize from the number of times I've mentioned the ABC documentaries he's produced and hosted.

Here's a recording of Frank's rendition - bet you'll recognize it.


Another mildly intriguing tidbit from NBC movieland: Monday Night at the Movies presents "The Hunters," a Korean war melodrama starring Robert Mitchum as a hot-shot Air Force pilot who becomes involved with the wife of another office.  The actress playing the wife is May Britt, at the time married to Sammy Davis, Jr. - who is guest-starring in ABC's The Rifleman, on the same time as the movie.  I wonder who won the ratings battle?

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That movie, "The Hunters," was directed by the late Dick Powell, who'd died just a little over three months ago, in January 1963.  His show, Dick Powell Theater, remains on the air, however, with guest hosts filling in.  This week's episode, a parody of hard-boiled detective stories called "Last of the Private Eyes," is seen on NBC Tuesday night, hosted by Ronald Reagan and featuring an all-star cast.  Bob Cummings stars as the private eye, with Jeanne Crain (the movie State Fair), Macdonald Carey (Days of Our Lives), Arnold Stang (Top Cat), Janis Page (the Broadway version of The Pajama Game), William Bendix (The Life of Riley) and William Lundigan (Men Into Space), and featuring cameos from Keenan Wynn, Sebastian Cabot, Eddie "Rochester" Anderson and Jay C. Flippen.  You'd think that with a cast like that, it would have been pretty good - I wonder if it was?

It was up against The Jack Benny Program, with Jack's guest Ann-Margaret, so we may never know if anyone saw "Last of the Private Eyes."

***

One of the great episodes of the hour-long version of Twilight Zone is on this week: "On Thursday We Leave For Home," shown (appropriately) Thursday evening on CBS.  James Whitmore stars as Captain Benteen, a man who has spent 30 years holding together a group of survivors after their spaceship crashes on a remote asteroid.  During that time, children have been born into the community, and their only knowledge of what Earth is like comes from Benteen's evocative memories.

Then, one day, a rescue ship.  Salvation!  Benteen assumes that the group will continue to stay together after they return to Earth, with him serving as their leader, and is stunned to find that everyone has their own lives to live, their own paths they want to follow.  I won't spoil the ending for you, but it includes one of the most striking camera shots, and one of the most touching endings, to any of the stories authored by Rod Serling.  By this point, four years into TZ, Serling was suffering from burnout, and too many of his teleplays were static and heavy-handed, filled with moralizing talking heads.  Not so with this one - it's sensitively done, and serves as a reminder of just how good a writer Rod Serling was.

***

Did I hear someone mention sports?

There's not a whole lot to report on this week.  As I've mentioned, we're currently in an era when network baseball coverage is blacked out in major league cities, so the only action we get from the ballpark is Sunday afternoon's game between the Twins and the Detroit Tigers on Channel 11, and Friday night's Twins contest with the New York Yankees.

However, there are five - count 'em, five - bowling shows during the week, including ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour, which precedes Saturday's Wide World of Sports.  Wide World has been on for exactly two years now, and this week's show, which would seem pedestrian by today's standards, is actually a throwback to the series' premiere - coverage of the Penn, Drake and Mount San Antonio Relays.  The Penn and Drake Relays were on that inaugural program in April 1961, and all three track meets are filled with world and American record holders, including the future "fastest man in the world," Bob Hayes, who will parlay that speed into a Hall of Fame football career with the Dallas Cowboys.  He is, according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, the first man to win both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring.

Oh, by the way - there's a note in Saturday's listing that if a seventh game is required in the NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, it will be televised on Channel 11 beginning at 7pm.  As it happens, the seventh game was not necessary; Boston won the sixth game, and the title, Wednesday night in Los Angeles (112-109).  But it reminds me of the time before saturation sports coverage, when an ad hoc syndicated network of stations would be put together to provide weeknight coverage of sports such as the NBA and NHL.  I remember this happening in 1971, when Channel 11 was part of the group of stations showing the Stanley Cup finals between Chicago and Montreal, and they showed the four games that were not played on Sunday and were not shown on CBS.  I'll always associate those games with springtime in Minneapolis, when school was nearly out, when the weather was warming, when you might even watch a hockey game with the windows open and the mild springtime air coming in.  How strong memories can be.

***

Finally, a droll letter from Mr. Ralph Cokain of New York City, who points out a trait common to television shows of the era - "titles which have nothing whatsoever to with the action that follows."  He cites a recent episode of a show - he doesn't name it, but it could easily have been The Eleventh Hour or Ben Casey, entitled "Beauty Playing a Mandolin Under a Willow Tree," the plot for which concerns "a psychiatrist confronted again with the girl he almost married."

Although many series episodes still have titles, I don't know if they make such a big deal out of them.  Back in this day, though, the titles were often included in the program listing, along with the writer of the episode (if there was room).  And pompous titles such as the one which so aggravated Mr. Cokain are not that unusual.  A prime perpetrator of this habit is Sterling Silliphant, the prolific screenwriter, whose entry this week is the Route 66 episode "But What Do You Do in March?" which concerns Tod's run-in with the gorgeous drive of a high-powered speedboat.  And then there's this week's episode of Dr. Kildare, "The Balance and the Crucible," concerning a medical missionary (Peter Falk) suffering a crisis of faith after his wife is murdered by "South American savages." (Ooh!)  One longs for the simple titles of the Westerns - "Outcast of Cripple Creek" on Cheyenne, and "Incident of White Eyes" on Rawhide.  At least there, you have a fighting chance of knowing what the story's about.  Me, I'd still be wondering what someone's doing in March, and why they're worried about that in April.

10 comments:

  1. I had never seen an episode of Perry Mason until a couple of years ago, when MeTV began airing here. I was hooked and watched the entire run of the show. Love it. Talman was great as Burger, perpetual foil to Mason.

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    1. He was. His expressions alone, when he suddenly realizes what Mason is up to, are priceless. Remember the two episodes in which Mason moves for mistrials? Burger's scream of incredulity cracks me up every time!

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  2. Wow. I'm too young to remember the Talman ad when it aired (the same year i was born) but I remember Yul Brynner's ads from 1985 with the same message very well. Talman really was terrific on the show and had me hoping he could win one once in a while. (I figure he had to be batting 1.000 in his non-Mason cases. :) So sad that he was such a young man when he passed.

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    1. Very sad, and I was very impressed with the man reading about him in this article. Funny thing about the Brynner ads - while I thought at the time that they were powerful, I always felt they didn't have the impact of Talman's, and that was coming from someone who was really a kid when those commercials ran. Now, looking at them again, I can see how Brynner's directness is even stronger than I remember.

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  3. In the fictional "Perry Mason" universe, Hamilton Burger only lost those cases where Parry Mason was the defense attorney.

    He won every other case he had.

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    1. Let's hope so! I always wondered how he kept getting reelected otherwise. You can imagine the campaign motto of his opponent: "Vote for Smith. He'll Beat Mason."

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  4. I couldn't agree with you more about "On Thursday We Leave For Home". Whenever I'm pressed to name not only my favorite TV show but, what I would consider the best TV show of all time I answer "The Twilight Zone" I never saw the show until I was 17 (and I was born in 1961) and I was immediately enthralled with it. Yes, there were several lame episodes, many I'm sure because of what you note, the burnout by Serling, but the great episodes are just so well done, that I can forgive the duds. The hour long season doesn't have many standouts, proving that the TZ story format was just perfect in it's 30 minute length. The hour long episodes seem padded and as you noted were heavy handed. But along with "Miniature" (the Robert Duvall episode, "On Thursday We Leave For Home" is incredibly powerful with an ending that's a kick to the gut.

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    1. Yes on all counts. "Miniature" should be seen and appreciated more, and you're spot on with the ending to "Thursday."

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    2. I agree that "Thursday" and "Miniature" are the two best hour long TZ episodes. Two others are worthy of honorable mentions IMO: "The Bard" is a rare Twilight Zone comedy that works, and benefits from the longer format. "Jess-Belle" is IMO Earl Hamner's best script for the series, well performed by James Best and Anne Francis.

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    3. Another one from that batch that deserves some mention is "Death Ship," primarily because of the excellent work from Jack Klugman and Ross Martin. Martin was such an underrated actor, and left us far too early.

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Keep those cards and letters coming in!