October 24, 2015

This week in TV Guide: October 25, 1969

This week's cover features William Windom, star of the NBC series My World and Welcome to It.  My World was a high-concept show combining live action and animation, as Windom played John Monroe, a cartoonist who was a thinly-disguised version of James Thurber. If you like Windom and/or Thurber, then you probably would have liked this show. Not enough did, however, as it ran for only the 1969-1970 season.

I remember watching it at the time and not really getting it, and it would appear this was a concern to others as well. Carolyn See suggests it "sounds a little like a wonderful cake with a few too many ingredients, or maybe an Indian recipe where you're expected to throw in the onion along with the coconut along with the pickled ginger and 23 other items besides." Windom, however, feels that for viewers willing to give it a chance, to "think outside the box" as we might say today, it's worth forgetting any preconceived notions you might have, particularly if you're a Thurber "purist" who might have trouble with his famous cartoons walking and talking. For those who do so, he says, "Then you can make the decision to take it or leave it alone."  You might even wind up learning something about Thurber.

I don't know what Windom's reputation was up until then. His most famous role might well have been as the Senator in The Farmer's Daughter, which firmly established him in the good-guy pantheon. I was surprised that most of the guest appearances in which I've seen him cast him against type as the villain, the smarmy, slightly greasy con man or killer. Later, of course, he'd go on to have a long, long run as Seth in Murder, She Wrote. It appears as if people accepted him as a bad guy as long as he was a guest star, but that he was destined to play the wise, humorous, good-natured type in a series. Whatever - I always enjoyed him, regardless of what he played, up until his death in 2012.

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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: Guests are Liza Minnelli, actor David Hemmings, Henry Mancini, composer-guitarist Mason Williams, Laugh-In's Judy Carne, the rocking Santana and the Trio Hoganas, aerialists.

Palace: Host Engelbert Humperdinck presents Sid Caesar (with Maureen Arthur and Mickey Deems), Nancy Ames, Gladys Knight and the Pips, comedian Jack E. Leonard and English musical-comedy performer Lonnnie Donegan.

Well, this is an interesting pair of lineups.  As we move ever closer to 1970, we see a very different set of guests from what we're used to.  Sullivan's lineup, for example, features Judy Carne, one of the stars of the hippest show of the time; David Hemmings, who starred in Antonioni's iconic Blow-Up; Mason Williams, who composed "Classical Gas" and hung out with the Smothers Brothers; Liza Minnelli, now on the verge of moving beyond being Judy Garland's daughter and Santana, who apparently is ageless.

Englebert, who would get his own variety series in a few month, was ABC's attempt to clone the success they had with Tom Jones, but it didn't pan out. I don't think Nancy Ames ever evolved beyond the B list of the era's singers, and I've never been much of a fan of Gladys Knight, et al.  Of all the guests on both shows, it's only Sid Caesar who really hearkens back to an older time. And I'm afraid this isn't going to be enough to save Palace; this week, Sullivan takes the title.

***

A new feature for us this week is a look at Cleveland Amory's television review, which appears in TV Guide every week throughout the first-run season. Amory, who was the magazine's TV critic from 1963 to 1976 was one of the cleverest writers on the staff, fond equally of puns and referring to himself in the plural, using the royal "we." He was usually able to find both good and bad in each show he reviewed; that, plus the fact that he occasionally seemed to be writing for his own amusement rather that to inform the reader, sometimes makes it difficult to tell what he thinks of a series.

That's not the case this week with Room 222, which Amory quite likes. It's a prime example of the move by sitcoms of the era to become more relevant, dealing with issues such as race which previously had not gotten a lot of attention.  Amory approves of this, as well as how the characters - black as well as white - stay away from stereotypical characterization, showing various shades of grey instead of (pardon the expression) simple black and white portrayals.  The writing and acting are both thoughtful, Amory says - "with a little extra work on the writing, a little extra care on the characterizations and, above all, fine acting . . . a half-hour show can give you more for your money than all the old hour-long bang-bangs and beat-beats put together" and in particular he singles out Lloyd Haynes and Michael Constantine for praise.  Based on the first two episodes he's seen, Amory finds Room 222 an engrossing new series.

***

This week's issue is from upstate New York, which gives us an interesting look at the sports programs of the week. The World Series is over, with the New York Mets having put the finishing touches on their remarkable championship run almost ten days before this issue came out,* and so for the most part the stage belongs to football.

*Remember when the World Series ended before Halloween?

CBLT, Channel 6, coming from Toronto, has Canadian Football Saturday at 2:00pm ET, with the Toronto Argonauts taking on the Ottawa Rough Riders in Ottawa.  South of the border, ABC's college Game of the Week is a Big 10 showdown between Iowa and Michigan State - showdown being a relative word, I guess, since these two former powerhouses had fallen on hard times, with Iowa finishing the season 5-5, while Michigan State wound up 4-6.  A far cry from the success these two have achieved this season; as I write this, both teams are undefeated.  Saturday night belongs to hockey, as Channel 6 picks up CBC's famed Hockey Night in Canada, with the St. Louis Blues facing the Maple Leafs in Toronto.

On Sunday it's more conventional action, although CFTO, Channel 9 in Toronto, has another CFL contest, this one between the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Montreal Alouettes. NBC has the AFL doubleheader this week, with the early game giving us the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins starting at 1:30, followed at 4:00 by the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers.  Meanwhile, on CBS' NFL coverage, most of the stations in the area get the St. Louis football Cardinals and the Cleveland Browns, with CBLT picking up coverage of the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Colts.

***

It's a big week on television as we approach November.  Let's check out some of the highlights.

On NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies at 7:30 ET, it's the network broadcast premiere of the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1963, Tom Jones. (The movie, not the singer.) For years, whenever I heard the title (not having seen the movie), I could only think of the singer. In those days before the internet, it wasn't always easy to get a description of a movie, even one that had won Best Picture, and until I saw Tom Jones for the first time I wasn't sure what to expect. Was it one of those "angry young men" movies that the Brits were so good at making movies about? After all, the star was Albert Finney, who'd been in his share of them. I heard somewhere that it was a comedy, other places that it was a drama. Whatever the case, I can say with confidence that when I did see it, it was not what I'd expected. It's an utterly charming, totally bawdy sex farce, with Finney* never better as the reprobate Tom, accompanied by a zany cast of bizarre characters. Judith Crist, in her stellar revue, wrote that "Movies haven't been the same since," and I can't argue with that. You might not think you could produce such a farce out of a novel written in 1749, but Crist praises how the movie "captures [author Henry] Fielding's classic in all the glowing coarseness, robust wit, unadorned venality, forthright hypocrisy, social cruelty and elegant crudity."

*Surely it was an injustice that Finney lost the Best Actor Oscar that year to Sidney Poitier, whom I generally like.  But his performance in Lillies of the Field can't hold a candle to Finney's.

Sunday at 7:30 on CBS it's the fourth showing of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the third Peanuts cartoon to make the transition to television. Like A Charlie Brown Christmas but unlike the second cartoon, Charlie Brown's All Stars, it's become an annual tradition; I wonder how much of a role it played in making Halloween the big deal it is today?  One thing I do remember is from grade school, a year or two after this airing, when I was introduced to one of the "Halloween Carols" to which Linus alludes during the cartoon.  To the tune of "Jingle Bells", the refrain went something like, "Pumpkin Bells, Pumpkin Bells/ringing loud and clear,/Oh what fun Great Pumpkin brings/when Halloween is here."

Monday Night Football won't become a TV staple until next year, but CBS makes a tentative foray into the prime-time market with a exhibition game pitting the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys. CBS supposedly turned down the chance for a weekly Monday night game, leading NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle to offer the game to ABC; the rest, as they say, is history. Perhaps as an indication of CBS' apprehension about football's drawing power, the game starts at 9:30, a half-hour later than next year's start time. That way, it's not so disruptive on the schedule - or the ratings.

Tuesday starts off with "The Desert Whales," the latest episode of ABC's The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, narrated by Rod Serling.  That's followed by The Red Skelton Show on CBS, with special guest star John Wayne, who's celebrating his 40th year in films. Opposite that, ABC's back with one of their made-for-TV movies, The Young Lawyers, which will return next season, with a slightly different cast, as a regular series. Whatever the viewers saw in the movie apparently didn't translate to the series, which ran for a mere 24 episodes.

Wednesday has one of the hottest musical acts of the day, along with another big network movie premiere.  The musical special stars Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, with special guest star Petula Clark. Herb Alpert (the "A" in A&M Records) and his trumpet are big stuff throughout the '60s, starting with "The Lonely Bull" and featuring five #1 hits; he and his band won six Grammys.

The movie premiere, on ABC's Wednesday Night Movie, is of Georgy Girl, which earned an Oscar nomination for Lynn Redgrave*, a bittersweet comedy-drama which Crist calls "offbeat and kooky and sentimental."  You might not have seen or heard of the movie, but I'm willing to bet you might remember the theme song, which also was Oscar-nominated.  The Seekers perform it here, on a clip from a Sullivan show of a couple years before:


*That year Redgrave went head-to-head against her sister Vanessa, who was nominated for Isadora.  Neither Redgrave sister won.

Thursday's variety night if it pleases you. At 8:00 CBS has The Jim Nabors Show, with Juliet Prowse as guest star. An hour later flip over to ABC, where This Is Tom Jones (the singer, not the movie) boasts Barbara Eden, Wilson Pickett and comics Hendra and Ullett. To round out the evening, turn to The Dean Martin Show at 10pm on NBC, with Tony Bennett, Sid Casesar, Charles Nelson Reilly and Pat Henry.

Friday morning opens with Today, as Judith Crist makes one of her occasional appearances to preview this weekend's new movies. On The Mike Douglas Show, author Irving Wallace promotes his new novel, The Seven Minutes, which is about a book called The Seven Minutes. It's not as strange as it seems, although the story itself is much stranger. At 4pm on NBC is a game show I freely admit I've never heard of, Letters to Laugh-In, hosted by Laugh-In announcer Gary Owens, and featuring two of the show's regulars each week, along with two guest stars. The premise is that viewers send in their favorite jokes, which are then judged by a panel of four. This week, the two Laugh-In stars are Henry Gibson and Teresa Graves, who are joined by Jack Carter and Louis Nye. The show runs for four months. I wonder if it was even shown in the Twin Cities?

***

Finally, if you've been reading these features for awhile, then you know one of the frequent subjects discussed in TV Guide is the effect on television on children. This week's article, as is often the case, is written by Edith Efron, and asks the question: what can children learn from television?

The process by which children develop their viewing habits is a fascinating one. At age two, the toddler, driven by an overwhelming curiosity, is captivated by "the light and bright and motion." By three, they understand what they're watching and have "distinct preferences." But by the time they reach elementary school, they're being bombarded by so many information and sensory experiences that "no one can untangle, with any precision," what the child picks up from TV as opposed to other sources.

In fact, the data on television's effect on children is often contradictory, as befits a discussion that has only been around for perhaps twenty years. While some experts suggest that "the brightest children are early starters" who would have watched TV from an early age, other studies claim that bright children who watch TV tend to fall behind children who don't. One thing that many experts on both sides agree on, however, is that by age 10 children start to get bored by television, and their viewing tends to decrease. Why? Because by that time children crave mental stimulation, and they don't find it on TV, which for them is a passive experience.

I can understand this. Though I'm often a harsh critic of the quality of TV, particularly in today's programming, I've always defended television in general, particularly the idea that someone who watches a great deal of it tends to be less creative , less communicative, not as smart. For example, I learned much of history not from my time in the high school of The World's Worst Town™, but by watching Alistair Cooke's America.  My love of classical music started with Bugs Bunny cartoons, and my fondness for reading was cultivated by Captain Kangaroo. My desire to write, particularly fiction, came from watching movies and critiquing their storytelling as much as by reading, which I often did while watching television. (A habit I maintain to this day, to my wife's exasperation.)

I don't argue that everyone is like me; there are a lot of TV kids who became couch potatoes, and kids who never watched it who are far better at almost everything than I am. But I'll leave it to you, readers, to decide whether or not television is Savior, or Satan.

3 comments:

  1. "His most famous role might well have been as the Senator in The Farmer's Daughter"

    That may have been true back in 1969, but I think that since Star Trek's popularity has grown exponentially since then, he is now best remembered by most as Commodore Matt Decker, commander of the ill-fated USS Constellation in the Planet Killer episode. He was essentially a villain for much of the episode, but by the end of the show he's a hero of sorts (although a crazy, obsessed one).

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    Replies
    1. Yes, now that I consider it I think you're probably right about that. And it's a testimonial to Windom's acting chops that he could give enough nuance to that "crazy, obsessed" role to pull it off. Good catch!

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    2. The "Star Trek" episode SaturdayMorningFan was thinking of is actually titled "The Doomsday Machine", and is one of the best episodes of that series.

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