February 29, 2016

What's on TV? Sunday, March 4, 1956

We've returned to North Texas for this week's listings. In this current run of mid-'50s Dallas TV Guides, I don't think we've taken a look at Sundays, or if we have it's been quite a while. As might be expected for the time, Sunday mornings are heavy on religious broadcasting, and programming also starts much later in the morning than it does during the week.

One of our observant readers pointed out recently that back in the day, television signals between Dallas and Fort Worth weren't always reliable, which is why you'll occasionally see the same program on two different stations in what is ostensibly the same market. It's why both WBAP in Fort Worth and WFAA in Dallas have joint NBC/ABC affiliation, although WFAA has always been primarily with ABC, and WBAP with NBC. It also reminds us that 40 miles was a much longer distance back then than it is today.

February 27, 2016

This week in TV Guide: March 3, 1956

We spent most of last week talking about quiz shows, and so perhaps it's appropriate that our first story this week is about - a quiz show! Actually, it's cover boy Hal March, who hosts The $64,000 Question, television's top-rated program, every Tuesday night at 9:00 pm CT on CBS. (Lynn Dollar, pictured next to March, is the show's "assistant.")

Hal March has that important quality that often makes the difference between a successful quiz show and one that comes and goes in a matter of weeks: likability. Contestants feel comfortable around him, and audiences like him because he's, well, human. One night he forgets to ask a contestant the $32,000 question, another time he accidentally gives the answer as well as the question, and then there was the time he almost forget the sponsor plug before signing off...

But, like Donald Trump in a completely different context, March doesn't seem to be hurt by these flubs. In fact, he's increasingly moving beyond quiz shows to other areas of entertainment. He's already appeared as himself on Perry Como's show, and he's played a forger on Omnibus, acted opposite Maurice Evans and Vivian Blair on stage, and even made the big screen in the Warner Brothers movie It's Always Fair Weather. The talk now is that March might be headed for Broadway, and more movies may be in store as well.

The scandals put all of that to an end, of course; although there's no evidence that March was involved in fixing games*, there's that taint of guilt by association, and with it March's opportunities begin to try up. There are the odd guest star bits here and there; I've seen him on Burke's Law, and he's good, not great, but very natural in his technique. By 1969, though, things seem to have turned a corner, and March signs up to host a game show called It's Your Bet.  But only a few weeks into taping, tests show that March has lung cancer, and he dies in 1970, only 49 years old.

*If anything, the pressure to fix Question came not from the producers, as was the case with other quiz shows, but from Revlon, the sponsor. 

***

We've read about Lawrence Welk's success before, so there's no reason to rehash all that. One example should do fine. Last year he and his orchestra played five nights a week at the Aragon Ballroom in Ocean Park, California grossed the maestro $100,000, which in today's dollars comes out to a little over $884,000. Besides that, there's his income from his television show, and then the royalties from all those records he sells. So in other words, he's doing all right.

For as long as Lawrence Welk was around, his show was described as something your parents, or more likely your grandparents, watched. It holds true today, even though the "grandparents" who watch it would have been kids when he was originally on. And yet there's no doubting his success. His show ran on local television in Los Angeles for four years, and moved to ABC only the year before this issue of TV Guide, where it stayed until 1971, only to reemerge in first run syndication until 1982, before reruns found a home on PBS stations to this day. By any measure, this has to be the definition of success, don't you think?

***

SOURCE ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDES
It's been a while since we've looked at "As We See It," the TV Guide editorial. However, we know in general about what appeals to the editorial staff, and one of their enthusiasms has always been for "quality" television, and it's safe to say they're very enthusiastic about NBC's programming the next couple of weeks.

It begins this week with the network's telecast of George Bernard Shaw's witty "Caesar and Cleopatra," starring Claire Bloom and Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Tuesday night on Producers' Showcase, and continues with a movie version of Richard III and Hallmark Hall of Fame's "The Taming of the Shrew." The programs face steep competition, especially "Caesar and Cleopatra," which has to deal with Burns & Allen, Arthur Godfrey and I Love Lucy on CBS. And while the editor, probably Merrill Panitt, points out that TV Guide "is far from a highbrow publication," he adds that they are "grateful for any sort of programming that tends to enlarge television's scope." How, for example, could one say that they don't like Shakespeare or The $64,000 Question unless they've seen them?

NBC should be thanked, he concludes, "for gambling money and prestige on the theory that viewers want such fine fare." I suppose at some point they did, although even in the Golden Age documentaries suffered, and Voice of Firestone dragged down the ratings of every show on the network that night. Quality television has been said to have made a comeback on cable in the last few years, and indeed there is no doubt a high quality of drama available for viewing. But as for the classics, I don't think we'll be seeing them anytime soon. Not even on PBS.

***

Not much on the sports front this week - Illinois takes on Iowa in college basketball on CBS Saturday afternoon, and the Minneapolis Lakers play the Rochester Royals in the NBA Game of the Week on NBC at the same time.

NBC's Wednesday Night Fights gives us probably the best matchup of the week, a middleweight bout between Jackie LaBua and #7 contender Gene Fullmer in Syracuse. Gene Fullmer, who died just last April, was one of the great middleweight champions of the era; in less than a year, on January 2, 1957, he will upset the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson to win the middleweight championship for the first time. He loses a rematch with Robinson, then wins the title back with a victory over Carmen Basillo, fights Robinson to a draw and then defeats him again, and remains champ until 1962, when he's defeated by Dick Tiger.

***

Elsewhere on the dial this week:

On Tuesday, The Phil Silvers Show presents one of the greatest episodes in sitcom history. It's "The Court Martial," in which Bilko winds up defending a chimp that's accidentally been inducted into the Army. Silvers himself called it "the funniest half-hour on television, unconditionally." Probably the funniest segment of this hilarious episode occurs during the court martial (which would have been funny anyway), when the chimp, given the name "Harry Speakup" by the induction center, begins acting up and Silvers, completely in character, ad-libbs to the chimp's antics. You can see the other actors in the scene trying valiantly to keep from laughing, but Silvers never breaks stride. How wise they were to let the camera keep rolling.


Also on Tuesday, Dave Garroway and the rest of The Today Show staff make the journey to Williamsburg, Virginia to check out "the famous restoration of colonial houses." The restoration of Colonial Williamsburg, which began in the late 1920s, was the brainchild of the Rev. W.A.R. Goodwin, with major financial support from John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

For four seasons, the CBS anthology series Climax! presented various tales, mostly of the mystery type; it was later known as Climax Mystery Theater. It's first episode was, appropriately enough, an adaptation of the Raymond Chandler classic "The Long Goodbye,"* and it's perhaps best known for two things: the third episode of the series, "Casino Royale," which represented the first screen adaptation of a James Bond story**, and the fact that all episodes were broadcast in color, a rarity on any network other than CBS.

*Famous because an actor playing a supposedly dead body got up mid-scene and walked off the set.

**"Jimmy" Bond was played by American actor Barry Nelson

However, this Thursday the show presents a change of pace with "The Louella Parsons Story," based on her autobiography The Gay Illiterate. Parsons, America's most influential gossip columnist from the early '30s into the '60s, achieved a level of stardom as great as that of some of her subjects, and she maintained a feud with her hated rival Hedda Hopper for decades. What makes this show so unusual is not just the subject matter, but that following the story, there's a tribute from stars of the industry, emceed by Jack Benny and featuring Gene Autry, Charles Boyer, Rock Hudson, Susan Hayward and John Wayne, among others. An odd hybrid of genres, no?

Speaking of odd hybrids, there's M-G-M Parade on ABC Wednesday night. The half-hour show, hosted by actor and future U.S. Senator George Murphy, was one of MGM's first ventures into television. They didn't really get it, though - at least not with this show, which contained clips from vintage MGM movies of the past, and plugs for upcoming MGM releases. This week, for example, Judy Garland sings in an excerpt from The Harvey Girls, and we see previews from the new movie Meet Me in Las Vegas. Eventually, the studio succumbs to the show's bad reviews and adds more extensive, condensed versions of its classic movies.

***

Finally, what gives a network censor headaches? A similar article appeared in a 1980 issue, and though there's a vast difference between the shows of the mid '50s and early '80s, the censor's job is pretty much the same. The censor in question is Stockton Helffrich, Director of Continuity Acceptance for NBC, and he strongly believes that one of the jobs of a censor is not to censor. "We are not kill-joys, spoilsports, crape-hangers or wet blankets," and part of the philosophy is that "children should be able to reach adulthood as really mature people without prejudices." What that means is that much of their work deals with censoring "racial stereotypes, religious oversimplifications, unkindness toward the physically handicapped, ignorance regarding the emotionally disturbed."

However, censors also represent the interests of sponsors, which means if your favorite show is brought to you by Your Gas Company, you probably aren't going to see someone commit suicide by sticking their head in an oven. If the show is sponsored by a billiard company, the script can't suggest that pool halls are the exclusive domain of underworld characters and shady punks. While the sponsors' interests clearly need to be taken into account, Helffrich warns against "authors and producers [indulging] in fearful knuckling under." In other words, don't self-censor yourself - let the professionals decide what ought to be included.

Oh, there's the occasional "low neckline," but Helffrich says those are "an exception on current TV," and there's no discussion of profanity - I suppose that isn't even an issue in 1956. For Helffrich and his three dozen colleagues (and assistants working with them), it's a never-ending job, encouraged by the occasional constructive letter from a viewer that "has made us take pause and try to do better."

February 26, 2016

Around the dial

As you know, Mannix has a preferred spot in my Saturday night viewing, and so it was good to read The Flaming Nose's endorsement of Mannix as "excellent entertainment."  It is, perhaps, the perfect blend of a character's private life - in this case, as simple as giving us the eminently human Joe Mannix - and his work, at which he is very good. As The Nose says, "He was also a nice guy. I miss nice people. We now seem to search out the weird and the cruel." Isn't that the truth?

Us television viewers are so picky; sometimes I think we allow ourselves to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Of course, I wouldn't say that if I weren't a picky viewer myself, and although a lot of the shows I pick on are ones that I can't stand (e.g. NCIS, SVU), I even do it with some of my favorite shows - just ask my wife if you don't believe me. So I enjoyed this piece at The Last Drive In on two counts - in looking at the questionable science found in Planet of the Apes, it not only looks at a movie I enjoy (as does the writer), I also have fun with the nits being picked.*

*Eew, gross!

I don't eat a lot of pie, but when I do eat pie, cherry pie is one of my favorites. Michael's TV Tray points out that February 20 was National Cherry Pie day, something which I did not know. Of course, from a consumption standpoint it doesn't matter that I didn't know about it - I don't eat desserts during Lent anyway - but at least I could have watched an episode of Twin Peaks, right?

My more recent TV Guide reviews have spent a lot of time in the mid '50s (and will continue to do so over the next few weeks), and if you enjoy them then you'll appreciate Television Obscurities' look at the Nielsen ratings for the end of January, 1956. It's one of the best snapshots of what television (and America) looked like at that point in history; so much so, in fact, that I might well borrow these ratings when I look at a future issue.

Those who fondly remember the Sid & Marty Krofft Saturday morning kids' shows will likely be interested in TV Time Machine's interview with Marty in which he discusses his Nickelodeon series Mutt and Stuff.

And at Those Were the Days, it's a look at another issue of TV Guide - this one from February 25, 1956 with the delightful Gisele MacKenzie on the cover.

Finally, for those of you who remember when the Oscars was fun TV, I've got a piece at The Other Blog with my review of the Oscarcast - even though it isn't on until Sunday. It's that predictable.

February 24, 2016

What about the rest of the week?

When last we looked in on the TV Guide from February 23, 1957, we were looking at the Friday night listings. Before that, we returned to the world of quiz shows and their celebrities: the winner who was really a loser, the loser who sounded more like a winner, and the emcee who became the most feared newsman of his time. But, as I said on Saturday, there was a lot more to the week than that, so let's take a few minutes and see what was on the rest of the week.

One of the most praised drama series of the early '60s was CBS' legal series The Defenders, starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as the father-and-son legal team involved in defending controversial, often unpopular social issues. On CBS Monday night we see the genesis of the series, part one of the two-part Studio One drama "The Defender," with Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner assuming the roles of the defenders (here called the Pearsons), Martin Balsam as the tough prosecuting attorney, and a very young Steve McQueen as the defendant in what looks to be an open-and-shut murder case. Reginald Rose, one of the most gifted writers from the Golden Age, is the author. It's a pity that this show has never had a DVD release.

We've already looked at Tuesday with our quiz show piece from Saturday, so let's skip to Wednesday. I know that it wasn't until 1963 that CBS and NBC expanded their evening news programs from 15 minutes to a half hour, but I have to admit I never gave a lot of thought to what went into the other 15 minutes in that time block. Oftentimes we see local stations such as WCCO schedule their own news program into the spare time, but it also makes a perfect place for a network to put a 15 minute music show. That's what NBC does, with tonight's premiere of The Xavier Cugat Show (6:30 CT), which features his fourth wife, singer Abbe Lane, performing hit tunes with Cugat's orchestra. The show airs twice-weekly - Friday is the other night, while the quiz show You Should Know fills the spot on Monday, Jonathan Winters hosts his variety show on Tuesday, and Dinah Shore appears on Thursday. Today, Xavier Cugat is best-known for his fifth and final wife - Charo.

A couple of socially relevant dramas make up Thursday night's offerings. On CBS' Climax, Richard Boone stars in "Don't Ever Come Back," the story of townspeople trying to come to terms with the fact that a man once convicted of murder, one they all thought was guilty, is returning a free man after 18 years in prison - now that someone else has confessed to the crime. That's followed by Playhouse 90 and "The Blackwell Story," the Blackwell in question being Elizabeth Blackwell (Joanne Dru), who in 1849 became America's first woman doctor. It seems as if the townspeople had a problem with her as well, although they're certainly not the same townspeople, and it's likely not the same town either.

An article in an upcoming TV Guide (you'll read about it in April, I believe) asks why so many big-screen stars fail to fill up the small screen. One of those could well be Gene Kelly, who was larger-than-life in movie musicals (although still not as good as Fred Astaire), but never really succeeded in a TV series of his own. This Friday he makes his television dramatic debut in "The Life You Save," an episode of Schlitz Playhouse on CBS. And while the description sounds as if it would qualify as a light drama ("Tom T. Triplet is an engaging one-armed tramp*, a man who has been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things..."), it is still a headline occasion when a movie star of Kelly's status makes a television appearance.

*He wasn't so engaging when he traveled to Stafford, Indiana and murdered Helen Kimble, apparently.
***

This week's starlet is Barbara Lawrence, who's played a bushel of characters on television lately, although she prefers movies because they give her more exposure with producers. At the time of this feature she's married to former baseball player Johnny Murphy, the second of her three marriages. She'll wind up playing in 70 television shows, including four turns on Perry Mason, and I'm guessing her best-known movie role was Gertie* in Oklahoma. As her 2013 obituary put it, "She was usually cast as the leading lady’s best friend or — if there was a man involved — worst enemy."

*As proof that there's no such thing as coincidence, Gertie is also the name of Perry Mason's receptionist.

Although her star looks bright in this issue, she never really has that one movie that makes her name, that one shot at a TV series that catapults her to fame. Instead, she retires from acting in the early '60s, becoming a novelist and real estate agent.

***

Finally, this week's review features a cartoon character that most of you will recognize, even if you're not aware of it. The review is of CBS' animated series The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show, based on the children's story by Dr. Seuss, which tells the story of a child who can't speak, but can only make sound effects. There were four McBoing-Boing cartoons made for theaters, one of which was nominated for an Oscar for best animated short, before the series debuted in 1956. The review is a very favorable one, praising not only the cartoon's ground-breaking modernistic animation, but the stories, "most of which point a moral in amusing but nonetheless significant terms."

Gerald on his own show(left), with Mr. Magoo (right)
However, even if you've never seen the McBoing-Boing Show, even if you've never viewed any of the theater shorts, you've probably seen Gerald McBoing-Boing, for he plays the role of Tiny Tim in Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol. It's no surprise, since Magoo was made by UPA, the same production company as McBoing-Boing. And, as you might recall, the framing device for the Magoo Christmas Carol was a stage play, with Magoo literally playing Scrooge. None of the other "actors" playing the Dickens characters are identified, although they are clearly shown taking bows at the curtain call. But there can be no doubt that the little boy playing Tim is Gerald, even though he now has the faculty of speech. As far as that discrepancy goes, though, you can take your choice: either Gerald's learned how to speak, or there's another little boy out there who not only acts but looks exactly like Gerald.

My suspicion is that the same people who think the two animated characters are one and the same also think that Number 6 is John Drake.

February 22, 2016

What's on TV? Friday, March 1, 1957

We're back in the Twin Cities this week, but it's an area with a station lineup much different than we're used to seeing. Nothing in Duluth, for example, or central Minnesota, but we do pick up a station from Waterloo, Iowa. TV is still TV though, regardless of where you get it or when.

February 20, 2016

This week in TV Guide: February 23, 1957

I mentioned the Van Doren family briefly last week, and here we are with Charles, the poster boy for the rise and fall of the 1950s quiz show. I don't say that disparagingly; I actually have a great deal of respect for Charles Van Doren. I thought the movie Quiz Show, while very good as entertainment, didn't particularly present an accurate portrayal of Van Doren. But it is true that for many, discussion of the Quiz Show Scandal begins and ends with Van Doren.

As opposed to the vapid, "mistakes were made" non-apologies that pollute today's celebrity landscape, Van Doren took his punishment with dignity. He had no choice but to resign his position at Columbia and he was sacked from Today by NBC, but he went further than that, virtually disappearing from the public eye. That doesn't mean he quit living, though: he became an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and continued to write books, the best-known of which were A History of Knowledge (which resides in the Hadley library) and How to Read a Book. But as the years went by he never attempted to reenter public life (as so many do after the appropriate penitential period), never tried to tell his side of the story, never alluded to what had happened, didn't even return to Columbia for twenty-three years, when his son graduated. There were only two exceptions to this: an appearance on Today in 1985 to promote A History of Knowledge, where he spoke briefly of the scandal's aftermath, and a fascinating 2008 article he wrote for The New Yorker, in which he discussed not only the scandal, but the attempts by the makers of Quiz Show to enlist him as a consultant, an offer he eventually declined. Other than that, though his words have been read by many, he has not been seen (except as a teacher), not been heard. Would that others would follow his example, one worthy of admiration.

I know you might suggest he could have done nothing else, particularly given the time and mores, but many others have been busted for more egregious crimes than cheating on a quiz show (assault, drug use, embezzlement). True, his wrongdoing was, in a way, quite different: he, along with the producers, sponsors and other contestants, was guilty of taking advantage of the good will and trust (some might say "gullibility") of the American people, and that's nothing to be laughed at, even though it might or might not get you a second glance today. One can come up with all the justifications, the rationalizations, that one wants - and yet, in the end, it doesn't change a thing. Van Doren pleaded guilty to the criminal charges against him, as did all those involved, and accepted the public verdict casting him out of the square.

All this is in the future, however. The focus of this 1957 article is on Van Doren's experience on 21. He is, in the words of writer Bob Stahl, "a 9 o'clock scholar," a college instructor making $4,400 a year at Columbia. "How does he feel," he's asked, "to win $122,000 on a TV quiz show like Twenty-one?" "In a word," Van Doren replies, "incredible."  What is he going to do with all that money? "For one thing, there are so many things I won't have to worry about now. You know, the little things." Instead of worrying about his 1948 Studebaker, and putting leather patches over the elbows of his suit, "I can get that Mercedes-Benz sports car I've wanted so long, and I can buy any suit that I choose." He'll probably invest the rest of the money.

Juxtaposing this article with Van Doren's New Yorker story makes for some interesting moments. For example, Van Doren has received hundreds of women, some sending their pictures while others just their measurements. When Stahl asks him about marriage plans, he says, "I'm not talking," then adds, "my accountant tells me that under the tax setup, a wife will be worth about $17,000 to me this year. That almost makes getting married worth while." In fact, of course, he has a special young woman, Geraldine, whom he will marry six months later, and to whom he remains married today, and it is Gerry to whom he turns whenever he needs to discuss his growing doubts about the whole thing.

He's become a hero to his students at Columbia; "When I came to class this Tuesday morning after I won $99,000, I couldn't quiet them down for 15 minutes." When he returns to the show this week, he'll have a big decision to make: whether to quit, or to risk his $122,000 (none of which he's seen yet; that won't happen until he leaves the show) and continue on. His biggest concern right now seems to be his tax status; since he started winning on the show in 1956 but hasn't yet received it, will the government consider his winnings to be for 1957 only, in which case their cut will be bigger, or will they divide the income proportionately between the two years? Yes, life is good for Charles Van Doren.

We know how the fairy tale ends; the hero loses it all - his jobs, his money, his social standing. But it seems to me that he feels a sense of relief that the truth has come out, perhaps he has wanted it to happen all along. His father had wondered if his new life, his fame and fortune had really made him happy, and I think Charles wondered that himself. He knew there would be a price to pay for what he had done, and he pays it without complaint. As the years pass, as times change and standards loosen, he remains silent, continuing his career writing and teaching, with his wife Gerry supporting him when the temptation to return arose. His life has been productive, content, happy. What happened to Charles Van Doren might have brought others down, but he has shown it does not have to be the end of life; it can be a beginning as well. However politically incorrect it may be to say so, Charles Van Doren has taken his punishment like a man, and has lived his life like one as well.

***

Following Bob Stahl's article, Frank DeBlois takes a look at the other side of quiz show success, with the story of Al Einfrank. DeBlois catches up with him the day after Einfrank's spectacular flame-out on The $64,000 Question, where he loses his $32,000 in winnings due to a question on geography.

Einfrank's specialty is geography, he explains. He's been "gone" on it since he was a kid, spending hours reading maps, studying history, using his time in the Navy to travel the world and see everything he's read about. When he finds himself answering watching The Big Surprise on TV and doing better than the contestants, his wife suggests "you ought to go on that show." He writes to The $64,000 Question and tells them his story - a truck driver for Douglas Aircraft who's also an expert on geography,m zoology and U.S. history. It's the human interest story that producers love. A week later he receives a phone call, and before he knows it he's on the show. His winnings accumulate, week after week, until he's at the $32,000 level, facing the $64,000 question. He asks his wife whether he should take his winnings or go for it all, and she tells him, "you know what you're doing. Go ahead and do it your way, Al."

He does, and the question he receives from emcee Hal March is "a question Einstein couldn't answer." It consists of "seven outline maps, each showing a country, its capital and an important river. Al was asked to name each country and the river identified on each map." All he could do was gulp and tell March, "Hal, you got me." He tells DeBlois, "I should have had a college professor go down with me. It would have softened the loss." I wonder who he might have been talking about?

Einfrank insists he's not bitter, doesn't regret his experience, even though all he receives as a consolation prize is Cadillac convertible, to which he remarks, "What am I going to do with a Cadillac? I'm going home more broke than when I came here." The producers tell him he might be invited back on Question's companion show, The $64,000 Challenge, as soon as they can find a geography expert to challenge him. He's met plenty of friendly people in New York, from the jeweler who have him a money clip with an emerald, one of only three like it in the world. "Ike's got one of them and MacArthur's got the other," to the stranger who came to him the morning after his defeat and gave him $50, saying he was sorry Al had lost, and that he should "Go buy a nice breakfast."

The story doesn't end with the TV Guide article; later stories in the newspapers tell how he sold the Caddy for a cheaper car and headed back home, but suffered a nervous breakdown in Tucson and spent six days in the hospital. His wife, so supportive in the article, leaves him, saying "Why didn't you stop at 32?" to which he replied, "We've been married 32 years; Is money everything?"

Our last report on Al Einfrank comes in Paul Coates' Los Angeles Times column of January 26, 1960. Coates has kept in touch with Einfrank since the initial Question appearance. True to the producers' words, they bring him back on Challenge, where he wins $16,000 and retires. In a second appearance he gets to the $16,000 level and loses, netting him a consolation price of $1,000. He and his wife eventually reconcile - after all, you can't throw away over 30 years just like that. Coates keeps in touch with Al ("He was the kind of man whom it's a pleasure to keep in touch with."), and when the scandal breaks he asks Al if his appearance was rigged. No, Einfrank replies "supported by the circumstantial fact that he lost the big question." His last contact with Coates comes when Al stops in to the paper to say hi; he's been laid off from his job and the money from the shows is long gone, but "I got unemployment and my Navy pension." He's a bit bored, but still has a sunny outlook on life - one much brighter than it appeared in that TV Guide interview - and says what he's said throughout it all, that he has no regrets about any of it.

***

Sometimes these TV Guide pieces just write themselves. I mentioned how Al Einfrank's big adventure had started by watching The Big Surprise, and now we get the biggest surprise of all. For our next article is about the "innocuous emcee" of The Big Surprise, who happens to be none other than:

Mike Wallace. Yes, that Mike Wallace.

And the question running through the New York television world right now is, "When is Mike Wallace going to get his face punched in?"

To explain how Mike Wallace's past and future seem to have converged in one page requires a bit of explanation. It starts with Wallace's TV work, which not only includes The Big Surprise but a pair of talk shows done with his former wife Buff Cobb, as well as acting roles in series like Stand By for Crime, which he did under his real name, Myron Wallace, and as an occasional panelist on To Tell the Truth. He also did commercials, as did so many actors of the time.

And then Mike Wallace decides he wants to do something serious. The result is Night Beat, which appears on New York's WABD, which is described as "part Person to Person and part Spanish Inquisition."  The difference between Wallace the game show host and Wallace the interviewer is as stark as the set on which Night Beat is shot, a set with just two chairs and a spotlight, which shines on an increasingly nervous guest as Wallace pumps him or her with blunt questions. For example, the article contrasts Wallace's Big Surprise contestant, 11-year-old Leonard Ross ("Hello, there, you little rascal!") with his recent grilling of the author of a "best-selling and highly erotic novel," asking her if the book was autobiographical. And then there's the time he asks Arctic explorer Peter Freuchen, this one: "Psychiatrists say that a man who risks his life many times is not a brave man but one who doubts his own manhood. Does this apply to you?" So successful has the series been, Mike's now headed to ABC for what would turn out to be The Mike Wallace Interview.

For those of us who grew up with Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes, none of this would have come as a particular surprise. In fact, we might thing some of these questions were rather soft, given the spectacular ambush interviews we've seen him spring on unsuspecting victims. But in 1957, nobody had any clue that this "Mr. Hyde" side of Wallace existed. And even having seen Wallace asking "rude questions" on Night Beat, would those people have been prepared for the fame and accomplishment of 60 Minutes? It's not just the crossover between entertainment and news that was common back in the day*, but the stark difference between the two aspects of Wallace. I'm not sure what you'd compare this transformation to today; not John Stewart or Steven Cobert and their faux-journalism, but someone with real chops.

*For example, it's not odd that avuncular Hugh Downs could make the transition from sidekick to Jack Paar and Arlene Francis to host of Concentration to lead on The Today Show. Perhaps you could cite John Daly's double-duty on the ABC evening news and as moderator on What's My Line? (on two different networks, yet!), or Ron Cochran hosting Armstrong Circle Theatre (which always had a docudrama edge to it) before anchoring the ABC news. Try imagining Merv Griffin, let's say, going from band singer to game show emcee to talk show host to, what? Anchor of ABC's World News Tonight?

One could only imagine what it would have been like if Wallace had sunk his teeth into Charles Van Doren around this time.

***

Rarely have I seen a piece that wrote itself the way this one has. We haven't even had a chance to dip into the week's programs, but I think we've been able to fully capture a particular era in time: the late '50s, the time of the quiz show scandal, the so-called "end of television innocence," and the beginning of the transition into the '60s and the first glimpse of the future of television journalism.

What did you think of it? In some ways, it's a throwback to how I saw this feature when I first conceived It's About TV. In looking to TV Guide to illustrate the impact television has had on American culture, I thought we might only occasionally have to dip into the programs themselves to illustrate it. Given the way one story flowed into another this week, I thought it was a good idea to just stick with it and see what happened, and I think this piece is long enough that we don't have to add more to it. We've got Monday, after all, when we'll look at a day's programming. Perhaps I'll take Wednesday to share some of the program highlights of the week - there are a few, you know, enough to have filled a page most weeks.

February 19, 2016

Around the dial

Lileks has an interesting column up today; not about classic television per se, since he's writing about American Crime, but it has a lot to do with how to watch TV, or at least how I watch it - looking at the writer's intent, archetypes vs. well-rounded characters, how to deliver a message without appearing to do so, and so on. Well worth reading - Lileks always is - and something to consider whether you're watching a show made in the '60s, or yesterday afternoon on someone's Apple. I go back to something Carl Reiner said a while back on one of those old Merv Griffin shows, about how if his kids could predict what was coming next, then the show was already too cliched for him. That's all I ask for in the shows I watch: if you're going to try and manipulate me, at least do it well enough that I can't see it coming.

I'd just read the title of Classic Film and TV Cafe's piece on the film of Shirley Jackson's famous story The Lottery, and I recalled that it had been grade school when I'd seen that, one of the special films they used to show us from time to time in the classroom. They were always good times because it meant you could let your mind relax for a little while, and the movie might even be somewhat entertaining. And then with Rick's first line about Encyclopedia Britannica Films, I knew that we'd all grown up in the same boat, so to speak. It's one of those universal experiences that all school kids of a certain age can identify with, just like Scholastic Book Services. Anyway, I remember how disturbing this movie was when I saw it, and Rick's review confirms it - does it match your memory as well?

In a couple of weeks I'll have an interview with Vote4BobCrane's Carol Ford, co-author of Bob Crane: A Definitive Biography. It's a great interview if I do say so myself - not because of any skill on my part, but because Carol's such a charming and delightful person, full of information you'll find as fascinating as I did. If you need any reason other than that to buy her book, she's letting us know that all the profits from the book will be going to charities in Bob Crane's memory.

It's been years since I thought about The Rich Little Show - I enjoyed watching him when I was younger; perhaps I remember him as more of a caricaturist than an impressionist, since he got the essence of his subject more than the actual sound (with a few exceptions). But as I say, I hadn't thought of that show for a long time, until David at Comfort TV brought back the memories in his latest installment of terrible shows he likes.

Andrew at The Lucky Strike Papers has a nice set of clips a television appearance his mother, Sue Bennett, made on local Boston TV in 1961. You probably remember reading about Andrew's book on his mother and how much I enjoyed that, and here he asks a question that I've often asked as well: whatever became of local TV programming?

Television's New Frontier: the 1960s is back with a look at the final season of a television show I'm currently watching (well, not at this moment, but you know what I mean) - Bat Masterson. I must admit that by this time I'm watching it more for star Gene Barry than for the show itself, but it - and this article - are still good fun.

February 17, 2016

From page to TV tube

Today we're going to take a look at books. Not the books that fill the shelves in the television section of my library, although I can't rule out the possibility that some of these books have a home elsewhere on the shelves.

No, this week we're going to take a look at one of the staples of the center section of TV Guide: an ad for The Literary Guild. At the time of this issue, 1977, The Literary Guild has been around for 50 years, and as you can see from the link above, it's still around, selling special editions of bestsellers, emblazoned with the special Literary Guild imprint on the title page. Books sold by The Literary Guild are selected by an editorial board, the first chairman of which was Carl Van Doren, brother of Mark Van Doren, uncle of Charles Van Doren*. I'd say that's enough of a TV connection to continue, wouldn't you?

*And that's not even all the Van Dorens. What an extraordinary family.

There are lots of interesting books here, each one of them telling us something about the likes and dislikes, the hopes and fears, of America in the 1970s; and while that's quite the story in and of itself, I though we'd concentrate today on those books that have some kind of connection to television, tenuous though it might be.  So let's start with the first page, shall we?


General Dwight Eisenhower, commander of the Allied Forces during the pivotal years of World War II and two-time President of the United States, had been dead for about seven years, but was still very much a respected and iconic figure to Americans. And so it was with some degree of surprise that we saw Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower, written by Kay Summersby Morgan, Ike's driver and secretary during the war, and published following her death in 1976. In the book, she claimed that she and Eisenhower had had an affair during the war, a claim that has been the subject of dispute ever since the book came out. While there's no question the two were very close, many Eisenhower biographers doubt the story told in her book, as well as some of the corroborating evidence provided by former President Harry Truman. It's an interesting but sordid story which you can read about in that entry at the always-reliable Wikipedia, but its importance to us is the 1979 miniseries adaption, Ike, starring Robert Duvall as Eisenhower and Lee Remick as Summersby. You don't have to wonder too much about how it chose to portray the relationship.

A couple of books down the line, we see First, You Cry, NBC correspondent Betty Rollin's story of her fight against breast cancer. Mary Tyler Moore played her in the inevitable TV movie. I was never a big fan of Rollin (I always preferred Liz Trotta, for what it's worth, as a superior reporter), and I've liked her less as she's gotten more involved in the assisted suicide movement (which was the subject of another book and TV movie), but there's no question that she fought a courageous, and ultimately successful, fight against the horrible disease.


On the next page, we see a book that isn't new, but certainly had a distinguished television reputation: Alistair Cooke's America, the companion to the landmark 1972 series from which I learned a great deal about history - probably more than I did in high school. It was (and is, actually) a marvelous series, and the fact it was aired on a broadcast network rather than on PBS makes it even more so. Can you imagine anything like this on TV today? Even if it were on NatGeo or History, it likely wouldn't have the dignity of Cooke's presentation.


Continuing on, we run into Rich Man, Poor Man, Irwin Shaw's 1970 blockbuster that became the first great miniseries of any consequence*, running for seven weeks in 1976 (and, back in 1977, being rerun Tuesday nights on KTVI). Catapulting its cast (Peter Strauss, Nick Nolte and Susan Blakely) to stardom, it would have been considered even more of a landmark series had it not been overshadowed so quickly by the adaptation of the book on the bottom row, Alex Haley's Roots. But then, we talked a bit about that last Saturday, didn't we?

*I don't count QBVII simply because it didn't run for night after night after night. 

In fact, as you can see to the left, there's an entire sidebar devoted to "TVs Top Best Sellers," including Captains and the Kings (which we also discussed Saturday), Serpico, Sybil, and perhaps my favorite, How to Make Money in Wall Street by the ubiquitous host of Wall $treet Week, Louis Rukeyser. In addition, there are other books, such as Muhammad Ali's autobiography, that deal with topics and personalities popular on TV at the moment.

I'm sure you can spot many more books with that TV connection, some of them perhaps even stronger than the ones I picked out. But this was a particularly fortuitous edition of TV Guide to have this much to choose from. How many of you joined a book club, or perhaps a record club, because of an ad you saw in the magazine? This was so much fun, I think we'll have to do it again sometime.

February 15, 2016

What's on TV? Wednesday, February 16, 1977

This week we're in St. Louis, a city I've never visited except for stopovers in the airport. I have seen the Arch and the new Cardinals stadium from the air, though; very impressive.

There's a real similarity between these stations and those which I grew up with in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  Our Channel 4 was a CBS affiliate, and so is their's.  Our Channel 5 was an NBC affiliate; so is their's. Our Channel 11 is an independent - guess what? We had Channel 2 and Channel 9 as main stations, but our Channel 2 belonged to PBS, while here it's ABC. Our Channel 9 was ABC; here it's PBS. So it's the same, but different. Anyway, let's see what these stations have to offer.

February 13, 2016

This week in TV Guide: February 12, 1977

There are a couple of items in this week's Washington Report; little things, really, but combined they'll help produce one of the most controversial stories of the decade. The first note isn't that import; it really just sets the stage for what's to come, by discussing some of the ideas being bandied about to make the new President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, more accessible to the public. We'll take a closer look at those ideas later on, but right now we're only interested in mention of Carter because the next story, likely unnoticed by Carter or anyone else in the White House, details how NBC has just secured the rights (for a record $80 million) to televise the 1980 Summer Olympics from Moscow.

Those Moscow Olympics, of course, took place in a strange kind of limbo, after Carter announced that the United States would boycott the Summer Games in protest of the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In all, 65 countries wound up refusing to participate in the Games, and it would not end there, as the Soviet Union would lead an Eastern Bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1984. With that tit-for-tat out of the way, the Olympics have gone on in a relatively normal state ever since.

It was hugely controversial in the United States; although a majority of political types signed on and there was widespread public support, the people most hurt by the boycott were the athletes. To be sure, there was an American Olympic Team for 1980, but they didn't travel to the Olympics. Some of them even suggested competing without a national affiliation, just to have the chance. Those that were critical of the boycott often faced accusations of selfishness by the public. The whole thing was, in an understating word, unfortunate.

For NBC, the Moscow boycott was a bitter pill. By winning the bid for the 1980 Games, the network was poised to break the television stranglehold by ABC, which had shown every Summer Olympics since 1968, and had televised six of the eight Olympics contested since 1960. The network launched massive print and on-air promotions for their coverage, which they promised would be the most extensive ever attempted, at 150 hours. NBC didn't completely abandon the Olympics, but many affiliates refused to air even the drastically limited coverage provided by the network for their local news programs (an additional six hours of highlights broadcast nationally faced similar clearance problems), and the Peacock wound up losing $34 million on their original $87 million investment.

NBC would have to wait until 1988 to air the Summer Olympics, when they once again outbid ABC for the rights. Since then, however, NBC has become the network of the Olympics, having carried every Summer Games since, as well as every Winter Olympics since 2002.

***

Those ideas for engaging President Carter with the peoole - among them are "Fireside Chats," with Carter interviewing people, including possibly Republicans; call-in shows, where the President can hear directly from the public; televised policy conferences, meetings with ordinary citizens in their own homes, and so-called "town meetings," where POTUS can here what's bothering the folks out there.

I can only remember one speech that was specifically billed as a Fireside Chat, harking back to the days of FDR; it was given before a raging fire with the President wearing a cardigan sweater, and was widely derided. I don't think it was attempted again. He also did a call-in show on CBS radio - "Ask President Carter," I think it was called, which was hosted by Walter Cronkite, and generated enough gravitas that it was lampooned on Saturday Night Live. (By contrast, Ronald Reagan introduced the Saturday radio address, which continues to this day.) In fact, the idea with the longest shelf-life has probably been the town meeting, which has become the bane of presidential debate season ever since.

***

Wow! On Saturday, World Championship Tennis (10:00am, KDNL) presents Jimmy Connors taking on future Clinton budget director Leon Panetta! Who knew!  What's that, you say? Oh - Connors is playing Adriano Panatta, not Leon Panetta. Sorry, my mistake...

You can tell we're in a quiet time for sports, in an era when college basketball has yet to dominate the airwaves. CBS has skateboarding, long before the X-Games, while ABC carries the $100,000 Midas Open on the Pro Bowlers Tour, which is followed by a Soviet gymnastics exhibition, the World Barrel Jumping Championships, and the Figure Eight Stock Car Championship, all on Wide World of Sports. Meanwhile, NBC has fourth (of five) round coverage of the Bob Hope Desert Classic, once one of the biggest stops on the PGA Tour. But just as Bob Hope has slipped into obscurity, so has the tournament - it's not even named after him anymore.

On Sunday, at 12:45pm, it's the NBA All-Star Game from Milwaukee, shown live on CBS. This marks the first time one of the big leagues (except for the NFL) has scheduled their all-star game on a Sunday; previously, these games were played on Tuesdays in order not to interfere with the weekend schedule, when the in-person gates are the biggest. But as sports has morphed from an in-person spectator sport to a made-for-television event, that gate has become less and less important, and playing the game on the weekend has allowed the leagues to turn all-star games into spectacles, with skills competitions, special events, and even variety shows. The NHL would soon shift their all-star game to Saturday afternoon (the day before the Super Bowl) before landing on Sunday, where (with the exception of a disastrous one-year return to Tuesday a few years ago) it has remained ever since.

***

ALL: HADLEY TV GUIDE COLLECTION
Monday is Valentine's Day, and CBS marks the occasion with Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, one of the Peanuts gang's lesser-known specials. Of course, when you think about it, aside from the Christmas and Halloween specials (and, to a lesser extent, the Thanksgiving show), most of the Peanuts specials lack the staying power of the original few. Even Charlie Brown's All-Stars, which wasn't concerned with a holiday at all, failed to become an annual tradition beyond the first few airings, which is why it's good that most of these specials have found their way to DVD. Is it because few occasions pack the wallop of Christmas and Halloween, or is it because the novelty of the cartoons, with the characters being voiced by real children, wore off?

If you're still in the mood for something mushy but don't yearn for Charlie Brown, there's always The Captain and Tennille on ABC, with guest stars Leo Sayer, Lou Rawls, John Byner and the recently late Abe Vigoda. If, on the other hand, your idea of romance tends toward the wide-open vistas of the American West, ABC has that covered too, with the conclusion of the miniseries How the West Was Won, starring James Arness and Eva Marie Saint. It was based on a 1976 movie called The Macahans, and spawned a regular series the following season.

Speaking of miniseries, that Washington Report article we referenced earlier mentions that Roots surpassed Gone with the Wind as television's most watched program, with the final episode - aired only two weeks before, on January 30 - drawing an audience estimated at 80 million. For those of you who weren't around at the time, it's really difficult to explain just what a sensation Roots was - mainly because of the subject matter, of course, which hadn't really been dealt with on television in such a scale, but also because of the way in which it was scheduled, running on eight consecutive nights for various lengths of time (45 or 90 minutes). It's been said that ABC did this for fear that the show would be a bomb - this way, at least they'd be able to be rid of it in a week - but if so, it just proves to be an example of network executives once again misjudging the audience. As this week's editorial puts it, "Roots was talked about in homes and, the morning after, in places of work. For eight winter nights it was the principal family activity in many millions of houses and apartments all over America."

*Wikipedia puts it at 100 million, and since it's always reliable, I suppose we have to go with that. 

The editorial also lauds ABC "for breaking out of the comic-strip mold; for giving us something that combines popular appeal with a serious subject; for producing the films with care, attention to detail and a generous budget; for scheduling them in a manner that gave us a change of pace from the weekly 30- and 60-minute routine; and for bringing it all off with a combination of taste and showmanship." I suppose you'd have to go back to the first couple of runs of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? to find something that captured the public's imagination in such an unexpected, enthralling way.

***

Here's another ABC feature. I don't know if you've noticed, but from time to time on the weekly listings, you might have run across a five-minute daytime series called The Children's Doctor, featuring Dr. Lendon Smith. Based on that series, and his 62 appearances with Johnny Carson, he was probably the nation's best-known pediatrician.

This week, Smith makes an appearance on Wednesday's landmark Afterschool Special "My Mom's Having a Baby" (4:00pm CT, KTVI in St. Louis) where he gave what presumably was, for the time, a frank talk (described in the listing as "simple and tasteful") on where babies come from. Nowadays a story like this would probably have been titled, "My Mom's Having a Baby and She's Not Married," but that, as I frequently say, is another discussion for another time.

I always liked Lendon Smith; his appearances with Johnny were witty and charming. He wasn't without controversy though, as this article indicates. (Hint: if you're a doctor, seeing your name pop up on an Internet search at a website called "Quackery" is probably not a good thing.) Ah, another hero with feet of clay.

***

And here's another note on miniseries: while Roots was extraordinary in that it aired over eight consecutive days, NBC tried another approach: Best Sellers, which was literally a succession of miniseries of varying lengths, all based on best-selling books. The first, and most successful, was Taylor Caldwell's Captains and the Kings, a story about a rags-to-riches immigrant obsessed with seeing his son become the first Catholic president of the United States, which made a star out of Richard Jordan and featured an all-star cast including Patty Duke Astin, Charles Durning, Perry King and Blair Brown. Presumably, any resemblance to the Kennedy family, including the story's conclusion, was purely coincidental.

At any rate, we're straying far from the story at hand. Captains and the Kings was followed by Anton Meyer's Once an Eagle, which starred a young Sam Elliot. Which brings us to where we are this Thursday: part two of Seventh Avenue, based on the novel by Norman Bogner, starring Steven Keats and Anne Archer. As an indication of the series' waning popularity, Seventh Avenue, unlike the first two installments, is both shorter (six hours, as opposed to nine hours each for the first two), and its schedule is compressed (three two-hour episodes, rather than the hour-long episodes that comprised the majority of the first two stories). It gives the story a rushed feeling, rather than the epic weekly dramas that preceded it, as if NBC could see the sagging ratings and wanted to get rid of it as quickly as possible. By the time of the fourth and final story, The Rhinemann Exchange by Robert Ludlum, the running time is down to five hours (a one-hour episode sandwiched by a pair of two-hour installments). After that, Best Sellers itself disappears. It's too bad; I think people still liked miniseries (after all, Holocaust, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance are still to come), but it's also clear that sweeping, turbulent stories along the lines of Captains and the Kings were far more successful fodder for the format. Something like, perhaps, War & Peace, the BBC's massive 19-part adaptation of Tolstoy's classic from 1972, part one of which airs Tuesday night on KETC, Channel 9, the PBS affiliate in St. Louis.

***

Finally, you probably remember Hunter, the Fred Dryer police series that ran in the late '80s and early '90s, but did you know there was another Hunter? This one, featuring the totally unconvincing ad at left, stars James Franciscus (Mr. Novak!) as a two-fisted secret agent, with Linda Evans on board to provide an asset or two on his behalf. It's not the most original plot in the world; according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, the original premise of the show actually sounds much more interesting. In that version, Hunter's character had been framed for a crime he didn't commit, and upon leaving prison after eight years, became determined to find the man who framed him and bring him to justice. In fact, it sounds a lot like the British spy drama Man in a SuitcaseFor Franciscus it was, I believe, his final go-round with series television as the lead, while Evans, I'm told, went on to some prime-time soap.

February 12, 2016

Around the dial

First, a note of apology for not having been active answering emails or joining in on the comments section this week. I usually try to get involved with the comments in the comments on various pieces, but once again I've fallen victim to whatever allergy/bug was attacking me a couple of weeks ago. Nothing serious, but it does tend to leave me more fatigued than usual, and since most of this week's material was done up a week or so ago (this piece excepted), I've been able to maintain the illusion of business as usual. Except for that. So I'll be trying to catch up this week.

Next, a note of personal promotion. Last week I did an interview with Dave Palmer at radio station KATH (910 on your radio dial, serving the North Texas area) regarding my novel The Collaborator. For those of you interested, I'd urge you to give it a listen here.  My thanks again to Dave and the great people at KATH, and if you're in the DFW area, give it a listen sometime.  And now on to our regular news.

The Onion's A.V. Club does some very nice work with classic television, and this week is no exception: a look at an episode from the half-hour version of Gunsmoke. It's an episode that serves to be thought-provoking, plays with your expectations, and offers no simple solutions - all in less than 30 minutes. Our dramas today have an hour to play with - why can't they do that?

In honor of the Chinese New Year, Comfort TV takes a close look at the way the Chinese were portrayed on classic television. Yes, there are some terrible stereotypes on those old shows - but it's not always what you might expect. In other words, save your knee-jerk responses.

I've never seen the movie Mrs. Mike, even though it has Dick Powell. But I read it in school; or, rather, I should say I was assigned to read it. It's not the kind of book I would choose on my own but, with no choice, it offered a surprisingly compelling story. Silver Screen looks at that movie version, and tells us why the values it demonstrates aren't just for Canadians.

I think I've mentioned before that I've never seen an episode of Love That Bob, though all I have to do is type it in on YouTube. I do like Bob Cummings, so it probably merits at least a look. Fortunately, The Horn Section is here to provide another in the series of recaps of episodes, this one called "The Wolf Sitter." It's not the four-legged kind we're talking about, either.

I don't often write about Cleveland Classic Media, although it's a site I've enjoyed for a long time - but here's the kind of thing I'm a sucker for. (For which I'm a sucker?) It's a review of the book Cleveland TV Tales, and in my opinion there ought to be a book like this about every major television market in the country, while some of the television veterans are still around to contribute!

"A Town Has Turned to Dust" is one of Rod Serling's more problematic television experiences; his fictionalization of the Emmett Till lynching faced predictable interference from network executives and sponsors during his initial attempts at staging the drama, first on CBS' Playhouse 90, and then on an episode of his own Twilight Zone (entitled "Noon on Doomsday.") At Made for TV Mayhem, Amanda looks at the third attempt to tell the story, this time on SyFy's (or Sci-Fi, if you prefer) 1998 made-for-TV movie.

And the always-interesting Cult TV Blog offers us a look at how railway journeys are portrayed in TV series, starting with the second-season Man From U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Adriatic Express Affair." Since I just mentioned U.N.C.L.E. on Wednesday, I was bound to notice this, and moreso to enjoy it.

That's it for today - back here tomorrow, same Bat-time, same Bat-channel, for another TV Guide review.

February 10, 2016

Don't mess with the Men from U.N.C.L.E., and other Friday night fun

As some of you might recall, last summer I started what I thought would be a nice little project to fill some time - sharing with you the classic TV lineups we watch in the evening. Unlike many, we don't binge-watch shows, nor do we tend to watch the same shows every night. No, being the anal person I am, we have a set lineup for the three or four nights a week when we just relax from the pressures of daily life and settle down to an evening of retro TV.

Well, you can see how well that worked. I finished Saturday and Sunday, and even then I'd abandoned the idea of profiling each show, instead doing the Sunday night lineup in one fell swoop. And then the whole thing just kind of went away, as I found other things more pressing - or should I say interesting? - to write about. In time, I forgot the idea altogether.

But, lo and behold, I find myself today with nothing particular to write about, and - lo and behold - the idea came to me. Why not just finish what you've started for once? I couldn't really argue with that logic, so here's another look into our viewing habits - this time for Fridays.


The Man From U.N.C.L.E.
During one of my frequent times of underemployment, when I was temping while between permanent jobs, I got an email from Deep Discount announcing their Deal of the Day. It was a boxed set of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., complete in the fake attaché case, for something like forty bucks. Well, even though we were really trying to avoid big expenditures while we were were living under a reduced income, that seemed too good to pass up. Other people apparently thought so as well, because when I clicked on the button, the set was already on back order. It did come eventually, and found a place leading off the Friday night lineup.

I never much watched U.N.C.L.E. when it was originally on, and I'm not sure why. I remember once being grumpy about there being nothing on TV, and my mother suggesting I watch that. I did, but I don't think I got much out of it. I was aware of it, of course, what with the books and games and comics and other tie-ins, but it didn't have a whole lot of appeal to me. Of course, by the time I picked it up, I was ready for it - it was firmly entrenched in the classic TV oeuvre, and right about in the middle of the timeframe to which I increasingly found myself attracted. I knew all about the disastrous third season, when the show ratcheted the camp level up to 11 or 12 to compete with Batman, but while there were a lot of stinkers in that season, it was still fun.

I've never been a big Robert Vaughn fan; to me, he epitomizes the word "smarmy," but he turns out to be perfect for Napoleon Solo - once the producers realized the appeal of David McCallum's Illya Kuryakin, that is. McCallum's serious nature and ruthless edge balanced Vaughn's oily charm well, so that even when they were stuck in the most ridiculous situations (think "The My Friend the Gorilla Affair"), they were a winning team. By the shortened fourth season, when the show was finally cancelled, the turn to more serious storylines was an effective one, and it's too bad it wasn't tried earlier; we might at least have gotten a complete season out of it.

In short, it's a great show to kick off a Friday night.


The Saint
Vincent Price played him on the radio, and George Sanders and (more recently) Val Kilmer (!) played him on the big screen, but for my money, there's only one Simon Templar, and that's Roger Moore.

It's tempting, and fun, to look at this as Moore's tryout for James Bond, but this is a show that should be enjoyed on its own merits. Simon Templar, professional thief turned Good Samaritan (and occasional Avenging Angel) is a fascinating character, particularly in the black-and-white episodes, when he comes across as a good deal more ruthless than most TV heroes of the time. He seldom gets ambushed from behind, he rarely ever gets taken in by a femme fatale, and whenever the plot takes a twist you didn't see coming, he already seems to have been two or three steps ahead.

A word about that ruthless streak: looking back to the original source material for the series, the novels by Leslie Charteris, we see that Templar is often cast as someone trying to right a past wrong, and that he's not above killing those he refers to as the "ungodly" in his pursuit of justice. That side of The Saint is toned down a bit in the color episodes, when the show starts to take on a more Bondian feel, but it's definitely there in the early episodes.

Personally, I can't think of anyone other than Roger Moore in this role. He's smooth and suave, dryly humorous, confident in the extreme (if I could bottle a tenth of that confidence and use it myself, I'd be home free), and always surrounded by beautiful women. He'd be a charming dinner companion, and definitely a man to have on your side, but would you want to cross him in a dark alley when you'd been up to something you shouldn't have been? Not on your life.


The Untouchables
I'm convinced the writers on this series must have loved writing for Frank Nitti, the character played so well by Bruce Gordon. Whenever Nitti makes one of his occasional appearances as Eliot Ness' nemesis, Al Capone's enforcer while Scarface is in prison, he threatens to overshadow the entire cast. He always gets the best lines (impatiently watching Telly Savalas' scheme to transport illegal booze by running it through an underground piping system, Nitti snarles, "If there ain't booze coming out of them three holes, Pete's gonna put three holes in each of you."), and often has the air about him of a put-upon executive having to deal with underlings who just don't have the smarts to get the job done. It's a magnificent job of nibbling around the edges of the scenery while preserving a sense of real menace.

Of course, you have to have a protagonist for a show like this to work, and Robert Stack's redoubtable Ness is perfect. Yes, he's wooden in the role, but that's the way Ness should be played. As is typical of the era, you seldom see Ness at home; aside from the fact that he's married and has a child (shown in the two-part pilot), you never know anything about his personal life. He's mostly humorless, but has inspired great loyalty among his team of Untouchables because of his personal dedication and honesty.

Who am I kidding, though. The main appeal of The Untouchables, at least for the first couple of seasons, is the unbridled violence. Almost every episode ends in a huge shootout with the bad guys being filled full of lead before flamboyantly pirouetting to their deaths, often with their own machine guns still blaring. Virtually every car chase ends in an explosion, preferably crashing into a vat full of booze, which in turn produces another explosion. People were horrified at the time, which is one reason why it was such a big hit. Today, the violence looks tepid compared to what we've grown accustomed to, but for the time, it was sensational. Because of pressure from Congress and public interest groups, it gets toned down, much to the show's detriment.

The Untouchables won't receive any history awards, and it may not be included in any Golden Age of Television. It's just fun.


Route 66
I've mentioned before that this is the first series that I've ever dropped from our regular rotation. I've revived it in the last month, partly because we're still in the third (of four) seasons and already have the discs, and partly because thanks to Shout! Factory, we'll be able to watch the final season without having to buy them.

Route 66 was always preachy, thanks in no small part to Sterling Silliphant (who, nonetheless, could still uncork a doozy of a script on occasion), and this story of two young men (Martin Milner and George Maharis) driving a Corvette around the country in search of adventure and the meaning of life, provides what James Lileks would call an "inadvertent documentary" on America in the late '50s and early '60s. It's a time when America was still a nation that produced things, when ethnic neighborhoods still existed in most large cities, when someone could still make a living using their hands, when college degrees weren't used as a gatekeeper for even the most minor job. It's a wonderful look at the architecture of the time, at how America was still, for the most part, a regional nation full of dialects and quirks and everything we think of when we talk about a "melting pot."

Milner and Maharis, as Tod Stiles and Buz Murdoch, make for a great team of opposites. Tod's the idealist, the college educated young man with a penchant for thinking he can save the world one person at a time; Buz's education came from the streets, the school of hard knocks. He grew up in an orphanage, has seen the other side of life, knows that there aren't always easy answers. Of the two, he's the more likable, the one it's easier to identify with. When he leaves the series midway through the third season, he's replaced by Vietnam vet Linc Case, whose quiet, often thoughtful demeanor is too much like Tod's to provide the contrast required.

In fact, Tod really got on my nerves after awhile, which is why I wound up putting the show on hiatus for a couple of years. Every episode became a crusade of sorts, trying to change someone (especially a lovely female), increasingly settling things with his fists, falling in love too quickly, sticking around and becoming involved while you're shouting at the screen, "run, run away fast, these people are crazy!" I know they're looking for adventure, but sometimes enough is enough. And that's too bad, because I think Martin Milner was by far the most likable person in the cast; Tod just rubs me the wrong way. Linc's started to grow on me a bit since resuming the series; still, I won't deny that I'll be glad to see them reach the end of the road.

Waiting in the wings: Naked City (replacing The Saint), The Eleventh Hour (replacing The Untouchables)

Recently concluded: The Avengers


Next up: Thursday, if I remember to get around to it!