The " '68 Comeback Special," as it's since come to be known, airs Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. PT on NBC, and as one of the full-page ads proclaims, it's "his first TV special. . . his first personal performance on TV in nearly 10 years!" It's not that The King had been idle all those years, of course; he made a lot of movies during that time, and then there was that stint in the Army. But the idea of Elvis the performer, rather than Elvis the actor or Elvis the personality, has been in remission; and with the music scene having changed so dramatically over those ten years - with the once-radical Presley now being seen as somewhat square - you can imagine the pressure that's riding on the outcome of this special. In anticipation, RCA has already released an album of music from the show (proclaimed in yet another full-page ad), so you get the point: this better be good.
In his feature article on the program, Dwight Whitney goes behind the scenes, writing of the promotional efforts made by Presley's manager, Colonel Tom Parker: holding a mass press conference involving 50 TV editors from around the country, asking Presley the same old questions (at one point, he's overheard muttering "Not that one again," under his breath in response to a query about whether small towns were still the backbone of his popularity); pressuring Whitney for "a signed statement guaranteeing Elvis the cover" (it was not, Whitney notes, forthcoming); working frantically to ensure that the audience for the "live" segment of the concert didn't include "too many oldish people," and all the time playing the role of the carnival huckster to perfection. And no wonder - this would be Presley's first live performance since 1961 - would he be up to it?
This is the real Elvis story. This is the language - the only language- he speaks, and he speaks it loud and clear. Old hat? Upstaged by the Beatles? Movie grosses slipping? Well, sure, but this man is a performer, one of half a dozen in America today who can step out on a stage and make it his. Nothing eclectic about him. He transcends any era. And he instinctively knows what's right for him.
And that, ultimately, is what it's all about, this '68 Comeback Special. Take away all the baubles and fancy suits and expensive cars, even take away Tom Parker, and what you're left with is - Elvis, "an American original." As one of his concert movies is entitled, "That's the way it is."
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: Tentatively scheduled: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass; comedians Jack Carter and Scoey Mitchell; and dancer Peter Gennaro.
Palace: Host Milton Berle presents comics Martha Raye, Joey Forman and Joe Besser; singer-dancer Barrie Chase; former gridiron star Roosevelt Grier; and the Third Wave, a teen-age quintet from the Phillippines.
That Sullivan lineup just doesn't sound complete, does it? And in fact, there is more to it than that. A quick internet search reveals that in addition to the listed guests, Ed also had Engelbert Humperdinck, Tiny Tim (singing "Great Balls of Fire" and "I'm Glad I'm a Boy"!), Gloria Loring, and actor David Hemmings, reciting Dylan Thomas poems. We have to give points to Herb and the gang doing seasonal music - "The Christmas Song" and "My Favorite Things." On the other hand, the Palace strikes me as exceedingly tired; Berle had bombed in his comeback effort last year, and aside from Barrie Chase and, probably, Third Wave (who are, after all, teens), there just isn't much energy here. Sullivan may not have his best lineup, but this week it's good enough.
Every once in a while, one runs across a series of which there simply is no memory. This week, Cleveland Amory reviews one of those series: The Outcasts, what we would probably refer to today as a revisionist Western. It stars Don Murray and Otis Young as, respectively, a former slaveowner and a former slave, each of whom in the post-Civil War finds himself as an outcast. Thrown together by chance, the two wind up forming a team as bounty hunters. As I say, no memory of this whatsoever, and this is from someone who remembers It's About Time.
Obscure and short-lived (26 episodes) doesn't necessarily indicate a lack of quality though, and Amory was mightily impressed with the pilot, of which he said "There was good writing, both Young and Murray proved themselves star-quality series actors and there was not only a fine performance by Slim Pickens but also a host of lovely little touches" that helped provide both grit and realism. He notes that future episodes have not lived up to that pilot, but "a couple have been almost as good." Even when the plots seem to stretch credulity, the show continually delivers those quality scripts and fine performances, and that's not nothing.
The series, notes the always-reliable Wikipedia, was not only the first Western to feature a black co-star*, it was cancelled after complaints of excessive violence - which we probably wouldn't think anything of today. At an easily-packaged 26 episodes, I'm a bit surprised this never made it to DVD.
*Perhaps a forerunner of Brisco County, Jr.?
Well, there's a big one: Friday at 7:30 p.m., NBC trots out the perennial favorite Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer. It seems that by 1968, Rudy has taken his place as the unofficial television kickoff to Christmas, so I'd expect more programs in store next week. Of course, it's anybody's guess as to whether or not we'l still be in 1968 next week.*
*I lie, of course. Actually, I've already written next week's piece, and I can authoritatively tell you that it may or may not be from December 7, 1968.
But, you sputter, what about the "Week of Big Specials"? The thing is (and there's always a thing), while the week between Thanksgiving and Christmas is often marked by blockbusters, they don't have to be holiday-themed to be of the time. Take Perry Como, for example. On Sunday night (10:00 p.m., NBC), Mr. C. makes his "only TV outing of the season," and there's nary a Yuletide tune to be found between Perry, Don Adams, Carol Burnett, and the Young Americans. There's also a note that the show would not be seen if the technicians' strike continued, so it's anyone's guess.
There are other things on which similarly lack the Christmas spirit, but which we've come to see as a staple of the season. On Saturday, ABC presents a college football doubleheader - two games that scream "end of the season." First up is the traditional Army-Navy game from Philadelphia, a game that by this time exists so far outside the regular college football scope that it isn't even listed in TV Guide as "College Football," but as "Army-Navy Game," as if it were somehow apart from regular football, or regular sports for that matter. That's followed by a game that's never been mistaken for anything other than big-time, Notre Dame vs. USC from Los Angeles.
Moving from the secular to the sacred, if not directly related to Christmas, at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday night, ABC presents an hour-long documentary on Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, "one of the world's towering art treasures," narrated by Christopher Plummer and Zoe Caldwell. Great tagline in the ad for the show - "Michelangelo put his heart into the Sistine ceiling. Will you spend an hour looking at it?" Imagine how spectacular this would have been if they'd already restored the ceiling, as they have since. I think this fits the season pretty well.
What makes this a really special weekend, in addition to Elvis, are a couple of variety specials with rookies as hosts. On Sunday at 9:00 p.m., it's the vivacious Ann-Margaret, one of Elvis' old flames, with guest star Bob Hope and special appearances by Jack Benny and Danny Thomas. It's hard to believe this is her first special, but so it is. At the time, and for some time afterward, she was one of the most exciting performers anywhere, and if the cover is any indication, the show packs a wallop. I don't know why, but for some vague reason I feel as if I might have watched this. At eight years old, the obvious reasons would hardly have applied to me.
I ought to note one more of the specials mentioned on the cover - an edition of CBS Playhouse entitled "Saturday Adoption," airing Wednesday night at 9:00. I'm not so concerned with the story itself as with the folderol enwrapping it. It's yet another example of a network striving for the "youth" movement.
They trumpet, for example, that the story "puts the accent on youth, the leading players [Rick Gates and Eric Laneuville] are young unknowns, and the playwright, 23-year-old Ron Cowen, is the youngest writer to be commissioned by CBS." The plot itself revolves around race relations, what would be called white privileged today, and the hopelessness of the ghetto. I don't know whether or not the play's any good; Cowen's had what looks to be a fairly successful career, Rick Gates has had a serviceable career, and Eric Laneuville has done a lot of directing for television. The show was directed by Delbert Mann, who won an Oscar for Marty, so there's every possibility that it was good, but the publicity doesn't tell me it's good - it just uses the key words young, young young!
But for all the claims that "TV is waiting breathlessly for new, young, talented writers!" George Bamber isn't so sure. Looking back on his career, he remembers when he was relatively young (35), and relatively talented, even if he does say so himself, but he was caught in the eternal conundrum. You can't get writing credits without work, you can't get work if you don't have a recognized agent, and you can't get a recognized agent . . .unless you have credits!
The thing is (and there's that thing again), Bamber doesn't even blame them. "Today television is firmly entrenched, and doesn't want untried people. It is, after all, a business, and as such must justify its profits and losses." They are in the business of making a profit, and "[o]ne way of doing this is to deal with established writers." "Recently," Bamber writes, "a network announced that it would start an hour-long dramatic anthology that would feature the works of new writers. Later, they announced the names of the writers: Reginald Rose, Tad Mosel . . .I think Rod Serling was unavailable." Combine that with a note in the Teletype that "CBS is talking to Tad Mosel about a 'major dramatic production' to follow his CBS Playhouse entry" from last spring, and I think we know which network program Bamber is talking about.
So maybe CBS felt it had to trumpet a young playwrights' script about young people. Maybe it had to convince everyone that they really were interested in new and promising young talent. Maybe they even had to convince themselves.
First, Mrs. R.G. Moore of Jackson, Tennessee, writes about the recent presidential election in which Richard Nixon won a narrow victory over Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. Says Mrs. Moore, "Was it my imagination or did seven out of 10 network commentators have a Democratic Party bias during the election coverage?" At least I think she was writing about Nixon and Humphrey, and not Trump and Clinton.
Howard Wachter of Brooklyn decries those who don't vote on Election Day. "If the American citizen can so degrade the sacred right to vote by letting others decide for him, this country is truly in trouble." Not at all like this year's election, as we haven't heard any stories of people not voting. Right?
John Caswell of Burlington, Vermont, speaks for voters everywhere at all times when he says, "Thank goodness the elections are over. Now the regularly scheduled comics can return to television."
And Edmond H. Davis Jr., writing from Piedmont, Alabama, says that on "Sunday, Oct. 27, I watched the Smothers Brothers for the last time. I enjoy comedy, but when a mockery is made of the Bible and religion such as on this program, then I will watch it no more." An editorial note below the letter says, "Many wrote us in this vein." So many people want to think of the Smothers Brothers as cuddly comedians who simply wanted to shake things up - this is a reminder that a lot of people thought of them as a pretty malignant cultural force as well.