May 7, 2016

This week in TV Guide: May 17, 1958

Although Danny Thomas is on the cover of this week's issue, the article within is actually about Marjorie Lord, the "second wife" to Thomas' character, Danny Williams, on his successful sitcom.

Lord joined the show in the fourth season, after Williams' "first" wife, Jean Hagen, left the show (partly, it has been said, because of her acrimonious relationship with Thomas). The writers solved the problem by killing off Hagen's character Margaret between seasons; when the show resumed for its fourth season, Danny Williams was now a widower, it being explained that Margaret had "died suddenly" According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, this was the first time a main character had ever been killed off in a sitcom, though it certainly wouldn't be the last.

There are, generally speaking, three reasons why an actor leaves a television series: they're tired of or unhappy with the role, they leave because of a contract dispute or are simply fired, or they leave due to illness or death. It's always a roll of the dice when a cast change is made - some shows, like The Danny Thomas Show, adapt without missing a beat. Some, like M*A*S*H, evolve into a series with a much different tenor, while Doctor Who famously made the change in lead actors into an integral part of the show, introducing The Doctor's ability to change appearance through regeneration - a little trick that has enabled the series to continue (with one lengthy break) for over fifty years. Some, such as Bewitched, create a whimsical "which Darrin do you like best?" history, with fans forming camps behind one or the other actors. Some shows, like Route 66, suffer either artistically or in the ratings when they change main characters, losing whatever chemistry made the show a success; these series generally wind up in the cancellation bin.

The article itself doesn't go into the reaction that must have occurred when Hagen's character was killed off, noting only that "her absence has not hurt the popularity of the show, which has consistently landed in or near TV's Top 10." It will remain on television until 1964, which seems to qualify this change as a success. It could have been a failure though, and one wonders, if the recast show had bombed and it therefore became an accepted fact that you couldn't recast a main character, what television history might have been like.

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On a special 90-minute episode of NBC's Sunday afternoon news program Outlook, Chet Huntley looks at the forecast for the next ten years for Israel. The discussions center around irrigation, immigration and military training, all of which have played significant roles in Israel's history.

Now, the odds are that any ten-year period you look at in Israel's future is going to include either at least one outright war or multiple military conflicts of one kind or another. In this case, it's the Six-Day War of 1967, in which the Israelis launched a preemptive strike against Egypt, which had been massing troops along the common border. At the request of Egyptian president Nasser, who suffered massive losses in that initial attack, Jordan and Syria also became involved. When the dust had settled, less than a week later, Israel had scored a decisive military victory, capturing the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria. It was a dramatic demonstration of the country's willingness to act aggressively and unilaterally to any perceived threat to its security. When you recall that the duration of wars used to be measured in centuries, the idea of a major war lasting less than a week is shocking.

Since then, the region has been no stranger to continued turmoil. If you were to choose another ten-year period, you'd likely run into the Olympic Massacre in Munich in 1972,  the Yom Kippur War in 1973 (in many ways the sequel to the Six-Day War), the first Gulf War in 1991, and countless low-level exchanges and terrorist incursions, not to mention the raid on Entebbe*. You also would have seen the peace accords between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Jordan.

*Many of which have been made into television movies and documentaries. One could do an entire piece, if not a book, on how the Middle East conflict has been portrayed on television.

Really, has there been any country in the post-World War II era that has had as dramatic a history as that of Israel? And I wonder if any of this could have been foreseen in Chet Huntley's report?

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I've written off-and-on during this time period about Sid Caesar, who was never quite able to recapture the magic of his years with Imogene Coca on Your Show of Shows. As proof of that, there's this bit in the news and notes section that says he "had to reach into his happier past and buy sketches used on the Show of Shows which made him famous. He is reported physically ill as a result of the severe strain of this current season." A comic genius, and a troubled man.

We also read that the eccentric actor/comedian/pianist/composer Oscar Levant, currently hosting a talk show in Los Angeles, is being looked at to possibly have his show transferred to a national audience. I like Oscar Levant a lot: he had an acid, sometimes cruel wit; he was a complete neurotic who spent significant time in various mental institutions, a classical pianist who studied with Arnold Schoenberg, worked with Aaron Copeland, and was friends with George Gershwin and Al Jolson; and, as we read, he was a talk show host.

Here's a clip of Levant with Jack Paar:



Here he is (in a very shaky recording) on his own show, with guest Fred Astaire:



And here is a recording that demonstrates his classical music credentials, performing Chopin's Etude in C# minor, Op.10:


Like Sid Caesar, a very troubled man - and a very, very talented one.

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The highlight of this week's sports calendar is the second jewel of horse racing's Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes, telecast live on CBS from Pimlico in Baltimore.*

*Just last week, we saw the Kentucky Derby. See how quickly time flies? That's what happens with a concept as elastic as "This Week in TV Guide."

It's worth mentioning again that the broadcast of the race is minuscule compared to the saturation coverage we see nowadays. It starts at 3:30 on Saturday afternoon, and ends at 4:00. But then, after all, the race lasts just under two minutes. Tim Tam, the Kentucky Derby winner, adds the Preakness to his resume, and becomes a heavy favorite to take the Belmont Stakes in three weeks, only to succumb to injury in the home stretch, finishing second to Cavan. His consolation prize: a successful stud career. Oh well.

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Fifteen minutes before the start of Preakness coverage, at 3:15 p.m. on KRLD, it's the sports with Bill Sherrod. KRLD, at the time, was a CBS affiliate and was owned by the Dallas Times Herald. Working for the Times Herald at the time was a 38-year old sportswriter named William Forrest "Blackie" Sherrod - the same Bill Sherrod?

Blackie Sherrod died last week at age 96. At his death, he was acclaimed "the greatest Texas sportswriter of his generation or any other, now and forevermore" by the Dallas Morning News. He had an obituary in The New York Times, another in Newsday. Obviously, it's not every sportswriter from Texas that gets notices in New York newspapers.

Perhaps the only industry that loves hyperbole as much as sports is politics, but in calling Blackie Sherrod one of the greatest sportswriters of all time is no hyperbole - just stating a fact. He won the Texas Sportswriter of the Year award 16 times and received the Red Smith Award for lifetime achievement. During a career that spanned more than six decades, he won so many awards that "he stopped keeping plaques or certificates for anything other than first place." He outlived two of the newspapers for which he wrote. He mentored many future writers, including Dan Jenkins, the best sportswriter I've ever read. He was also more than just sports - he covered political conventions, moon shots, and was a major player in the Times Herald's coverage of the Kennedy assassination, leading a fellow writer to call him "the best newspaperman I ever knew."

It wasn't uncommon back in the day for newspaper writers to appear on television, or for TV figures to have newspaper columns. This is back in the days before these shows devolved into shoutfests, when writers were more interested in transmitting how much information they knew than they were being clever for being crude. (See Bayless, Skip - a fellow Texan, I'm sorry to say - for further information.) Now, of course, we live in the era of television specialists, of newsreaders whose prime qualifications often are how well they come out of the makeup chair; and the advent of the internet means that virtually everyone is a newspaper columnist, albeit some better than others.

It's not likely, however, that the internet will produce someone like Blackie Sherrod, someone with style and smarts and longevity, someone who demonstrated that newspaper writing was a craft, an art form of its own. In virtually every area of communications today, we live in a post-literate society, with the well-crafted word being devalued every day. I don't know that this trend can be turned around, but there will always be those who try, and to them, as to Dan Jenkins, Blackie Sherrod will be considered "our hero."

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