October 7, 2017

This week in TV Guide: October 4, 1969

Bill Cosby's television career could be said to have been bookended by two landmark series: I Spy, in which he became the first black actor to star in a series, and The Cosby Show, which revived the sitcom and became one of the most loved series of its time, in the proces elevating its star to stratospheric heights. Of course, as many people can tell you from sad firsthand experience, heights such as those reached by Cosby don't last forever, but that's another story. (See also: Weinstein, Harvey.)

In between, Cosby appeared in several series*, and one of them - The Bill Cosby Show, in which Cosby plays high school phys ed teacher Chet Kincaid - helps land him on the cover of this week's issue. Things have turned out well for Cosby since I Spy; he lives in a $500,000 home on 1.7 acres, owns seven cars (including three Mercedes and a Ford designed by Carroll Shelby), earns $50,000 a week playing Vegas, and has a guaranteed two-year run for his show, thanks to the $15,000,000 contract he signed with NBC. The deal includes specials starring Cosby and others featuring Fat Albert. A $12,000 oriental rug adorns the living room. Yes, life is pretty good for Bill Cosby.

*Plus the four-season Cosby, which ran from 1996-2000.

He and the network have consciously taken an interesting approach to the show, in which it is the black characters who appear normal, while the white characters are outrageous stereotypes. This, Cosby says, is to help the television audience understand "that changes have come about in what we [the black race] are doing [in contemporary society]." Perhaps it's a byproduct of his success, but Cosby now finds it necessary to become more public in the civil rights struggle; he's been a target of criticism in the past for his failure to take a stand. He doesn't believe in violent resistance, he tells writer Richard Warren Lewis, because it's a fight blacks will never be able to win. Yes, the struggle is important, but "there's no need to go out screaming and hassling and punching out people."

He doesn't count the number of black actors in a given series, he says; "The thing I'm interested in is how groovy that show is." He wants his own show to have a diverse cast, to resemble the face of America itself. "The important thing in life is not how many black people work where or how many yellow people are on the screen, but how many qualified Americans join in to get the job done." He also doesn't believe television should be used as a weapon in that struggle. "I don't say that television is not the place to raise these issues, but not just now. If we do stories like that now, we may lose whatever viewing nmbers we have. For the first year, at least, I'm concentrating on comedy."

Although Bill Cosby is the first black man to star in his own sitcom, he stresses the need for the show to have widespread appeal - even Keaton-like slapstick. "I"m aware that the show will have a negative meaning for people who are really millitant about any story with a black person in it - black viewers included. But you can still pick a guy's pocket while he's laughing, and that's what I hope to do." Interesting, that - a lesson, one might observe, that those in today's industry might take note of.

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No "Sullivan vs. The Palace" this week, which is unfortunate; I was looking forward to that after a few weeks away. However, this Saturday we have one of ABC's rare (for the time) forays into prime-time college football, with Mississippi taking on Alabama from the Crimson Tide's home away from home, Birmingham. In this centennial season of the college game, Alabama's having a rare down year; they finish the regular season 6-4 and wind up not in one of the big bowl games, but in the Liberty Bowl, where they're defeated by Colorado. For Ole Miss, it's a different story, as the Rebels wind up 7-3, the #8 team in the nation, and beat Arkansas in the Sugar Bowl. Tonight, though, the result is as you might expect: Alabama comes out on top, defeating Mississippi 33-32. Great game, much better than the 2017 version, played last Saturday - Alabama won that one, 66-3.

This week's other major event on the sports scene is the inaugural American and National League Championship Series. For the first time, the leagues have been split into East and West Divisions, with the division winners facing off in a three-out-of-five playoff to determin the league representatives in the World Series. In the American League, the Minnesota Twins and Baltimore Orioles are the division champs, while in the National League the Atlanta Braves take on the Cinderella team of all time, the New York Mets. What's interesting from a television viewpoint is that the coverage is nothing like what you'd see today. First, NBC is the sole network provider; second, with postseason night baseball still two seasons away (the first World Series night game takes place in 1971), all the games are daytime affairs. It isn't a problem on Saturday, when NBC carries the historic games at noon and 3:00 p.m., CT, but on Sunday AFL football takes precedence at noon; the network follows at 3:00 p.m. with the Braves-Mets game. If you want the Twins-Orioles game, you're plum out of luck unless you live in Minnesota; WTCN, home station of the Twins, carries the game at 1:00.) It's not much better on Monday; the NL Game 3 starts at noon and is the network feature, while the AL game begins at 1:30 and will be joined in progress. Both series end in the minimum three games, but had they continued to Tuesday and Wednesday, the same staggered starts would have taken place. Remarkable difference between then and today, don't you think?

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's reviews were written by the witty and acerbic Cleveland Amory. Whenever we get the chance, we'll look at Cleve's latest take on the series of the era. 

Do you remember The Courtship of Eddie's Father? It was one of the many series of the era featuring single male parents (see also: My Three Sons, Batchelor Father, Family Affair, Kentucky Jones, etc.) If you have fond memories of Eddie's Father, you might want to pass up Cleveland Amory's review this week.

It's very much of a formula thing, the single father sitcom. There's the dad, of course, who is loving but slightly befuddled about the whole thing, but still well-meaning. There's the child (or children, depending on the series), who's mature beyond his or her years, has a vocabulary to match, and spends a lot of time trying to find a prospective mate for the dad. And you've got a housekeeper, who is all wise and has the ability to hold everything together. In the case of Eddie's Father, "Bill Bixby, whom you will remember from My Favorite Martian, does a good job in a role which, since it makes a hero out of a magazine editor, is a contradiction in terms." The housekeeper, Mrs. Livingston, is the new gimmick; "not an all-knowing battle ax, nor an all-thumbs cutie pie, nor even a wise-girl comedienne, nor perish the thought, just a plain menial." Miyoshi Umeki, Amory explains, is the Japanese housekeeper, "but please don't presume that she's completely inscrutable. She's also part all-knowing and part cutie pie and part comedienne."

Now, if you're a Brandon Cruz fan, this is the part where you might want to skip ahead to the next section rather than read Amory writing about this "little matchmaking monster" who spends half his time trying to find a wife for dad and the other half looking for "someone" for Mrs. Livingston. I think he finds it all rather tiresome, although I can't quite tell whether it's this particular matchmaker that wearies him, or the trope as a whole. He does find some aspects of it charming - or, as he puts it, "a small riot" - but he takes issue with a quote in which Eddie (Cruz) proclaims "I think I've got more than most kids. Most kids just have a father father. I have a father who's my best friend." Replies Amory, "Father fathers, we've always said, not best-friend fathers, know best best." It reminds me of a friend who told his children, "I'm not your friend, I'm your father. Maybe after you grow up we can be friends." Certainly not when you're a kid, though, and particularly when you're trying to find your dad's new wife. Or as Amory puts it after running through the rest of the cast, "That only leaves Eddie, and we wish we could."

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Sunday at 6:00 p.m. WTCN, Channel 11, presents Jim Klobuchar's weekly series. Klobuchar is, at the time, a columnist and former sportswriter for the Minneapolis Star, one of the best-known newspapermen in the city. He's also known for his love of the outdoors, and biking in particular; his annual "Jaunt With Jim," a bike tour of several hundred miles throughout Minnesota, starts in 1974 and will become a favorite not only of the many who join Klobuchar on his jaunt, but the readers who join vicariously in the trip through his columns. His weekly series is built on that outdoorsy spirit, the biking and hunting and fishing that Minnesota has been so proud of over the years.

When his daughter Amy ran for Hennepin County Attorney in 1998, a lot of people accused her of trading in on her famous father's name. Now, of course, it's Senator Amy Klobuchar, a potential future presidential candidate, who has the famous name, and Jim Klobuchar , now known as Amy's father, likely loves every minute of it.

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When I've written in the past about The Honeymooners, it's usually been in reference to the "classic 39" episodes that aired first in 1955-56 and then perennially thereafter. That wasn't the end of The Honeymooners, of course; the characters were frequently featured on Gleason's various early variety shows, so in fact we wound up with far more than just 39 episodes. And what's always been striking about the series (besides Ralph's empty threats to strike his wife) has been what it says about the American dream; the show proved quite useful in American propaganda during the Cold War, as a demonstration of how in America even working class people could have their own places, could aspire to modern conveniences such as the latest appliances, could have a standard of living that those living behind the Iron Curtain couldn't possibly compete with. It's not only one of the charms of the series, it's one of the central features.

Which is why I'm always a little uncomfortable with some of these big musical Honeymooners extravaganzas that are a regular feature of the new Jackie Gleason Show Saturday nights on CBS. (6:30 p.m.) Take this week's episode for example: "Bing Crosby, Maureen O'Hara and Bert Parks are the guests as the Honeymooners head for Hollywood to claim their songwriting prize. Hi jinks include a stay at Maureen's mansion, expense-account living and Ralph's plan to throw a party for Bing." True, there's always an entertainment quotient to these fish-out-of-water stories, and the idea of winning a songwriting prize isn't that far off from the contests that the Old Man is always entering in A Christmas Story. But they so often involve scenarios like this, European adventures or round-the-world cruises with big-name guest casts that are so completely different from the simplicity of the old storylines - not to mention the incongruity of the musical-comedy format. Is it authentic to the original concept? An American success story? They were entertaining, fanciful stories. CBS supposedly cancelled the Gleason show because they wanted the Honeymooners every week whereas Gleason wanted to keep it an occasional feature, so they were certainly popular. Maybe all it means is that a good storyline will succeed no matter what format it's in.

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While the Fall Season's new shows are still getting their footing, we're already reading the Teletype's scoops on the next round of new programs. Danny Thomas, for example - he says, "I've got a couple of sponsors in my back pocket" for a return to the sitcom world. It'll be a sequel to Make Room for Daddy but a few years older, which is why it'll be called, Make Room for Granddaddy. ABC, one season, 24 episodes.

Tim Conway also has something in the works, which is why he's cutting back on his variety show guest appearances. His new series is slated for CBS, and could begin as soon as January 1970. The Tim Conway Show does indeed premiere in January - it's a sitcom reuniting Conway with Joe Flynn, Captain Binghamton in McHale's Navy, as the owners of a struggling charter airline. One season, 12 episodes.

And then there's Dennis Weaver, veteran of Gunsmoke, Kentucky Jones, and Gentle Ben, is ready for another go. He's starring in a pilot for NBC, McCloud, in which he plays a Western sheriff who encounters "trials and adventures" in New York. The pilot airs in February 1970, and McCloud premieres that fall as part of Four in One before settling into the Mystery Movie slot. Seven seasons, 45 episodes. Well, one out of three ain't bad.

The Doan Report adds that Andy Griffith and Mary Tyler Moore are also back next season in new series for CBS. (Mary: 7 seasons, 168 shows; Andy - well, he has the distinction of going through two failed series in the same season.) And now there's a possibility that Mary's old co-star, Dick Van Dyke, might be headed for a new series of his own. He is - called, ingeniously, The New Dick Van Dyke Show. (Three seasons, 72 episodes.)

Dick Cavett, however, is another story. His summer series has come to an end, and while the network likes him, they're not sure just what to do with him next. Specualation - another shot next January. In fact, opportunity comes in unexpected ways, for when Joey Bishop parts ways with ABC over a new contract for his late night show, his replacement (on a week's notice) is none other than Dick Cavett. Five seasons, on and off, and multiple reincarnations.

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Finally, a quick word on the Hollywood fad for astrology. I don't suppose we should be surprised by this; many people depend on what the stars say (celestial bodies as well as the Hollywood type), and celebrities are people just like any others. Jackie Gleason won't fly because of what an astrologer told him, Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare believe their successful partnership in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir can be attributed in part to the fact that he's an Aries and she's a Sagitarius. Bob Cummings, Sheila MacRae, Flip Wilson, and Barbara Eden all trace important career or life events to reading the stars. In fact, one survey suggests 75% of all television people are hooked on it.

Not everyone's taken in by the fad, and some look for explanations in the insecurity that many entertainers suffer from. Says Dr. Lewis Wolberg of New York's Postgraduate Center for Mental Health, "In the absence of a strong father figure, people need an authoritative image to guide them." That person, for many, is the astrologer, who "helps quell their tensions, gives them confidence to face their problems, and thus performs a useful function." Like a placebo, perhaps?

Joan Rivers who scorns astrology, deserves the last word here. When she was asked at one party what sign she was born under, she replied, "THIS WAY TO THE MATERNITY WARD."

6 comments:

  1. Interesting info on the Klobuchars, Mitchell. Thank goodness you didn't get political...

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    1. Hey, I can be tactful once in a while! :) Thought people from outside of Minnesota would find it interesting - for people my age, hearing the name Klobuchar still makes me think of Jim first.

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  2. Regarding the mention of Cosby owning that Carroll Shelby Ford: the entire B-side of Cosby's "200 M.P.H." album is taken up with a long and winding story about the "Super Snake" Cobra that Cosby bought from Shelby - and, as the monologue explains, Cosby didn't keep it long (I think he'd gotten rid of it by the time this interview happened).

    "200 M.P.H." was once one of my favorite comedy albums....

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  3. You know, if Cleveland is annoyed by a show that feature’s a son spending half of his time trying to find a wife for his dad he could have saved himself a lot of time and simply avoided watching and reviewing a show’s who’s title is “The COURTSHIP of Eddie’s Father”. It says it all right there.

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  4. Bad "Honeymooners" was better than most other sitcoms at their best.

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  5. Concerning J.Gleason,his competition was...THE DATING GAME AND THE NEWLYWED GAME!!! Younger audience.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!