May 26, 2011

Recalling Richard Denning

I know, I haven't done a very good job keeping up lately. But I do have some goodies in the hopper, namely an interview with one of the best JFK video historians around, and what I hope will be a provocative piece bout the relationship between Route 66 and the philosophy of Rousseau. (Boy, doesn't that sound like a mouthful?)

In the meantime, here's a piece I did for Our Word last year, which I think is an appropos follow-up to my previous article on the Sammy Davis Jr. Show.

* * *

During the course of my research for my series last year on those dreadful Sammy Davis Jr. TV theme covers, I dipped into the archives on the original version of Hawaii Five-O and pulled out the name of Richard Denning.

Now, when people think of Hawaii Five-O, they probably think first of the theme, and then of Jack Lord. True enough, since in my opinion, Jack Lord is Steve McGarrett, and his catchphrases are part of TV lore: "Book 'em, Danno," and "Be here - aloha," when doing the promo for the next week's show. Some people might remember James MacArthur, who played Danno for eleven years, and booked all those suspects. Others might recall one of the other officers, primarily from the opening credits (e.g. "Cam Fong as Chin Ho").

But Richard Denning? Well, for all those years he played Paul Jameson, the governor of Hawaii,* and he was one of only a handful of actors who appeared in all twelve seasons of the original series. It must have been an ideal role for Denning, who had already retired to Hawaii and was coaxed out of retirement by the offer of five-hour days and a four-hour work week.

* Surely one of the most successful politicians in all of television.

Richard Denning had a long and successful acting career. His most well-known roll was probably that of Jerry North, the mystery writer-turned detective in the whimsical crime series Mr. and Mrs. North, in which co-starred for three seasons with Barbara Britton as his wife Pam. I first ran across this series in one of those boxed set compliations of public-domain crime dramas, and to be honest I didn't think much of it. Oh, Denning's pretty good, given what he has to work with, and Barbara Britton's certainly lovely to look at. But her character is one of those screwball wives we see so often in sitcoms of that era, the kind that induces you to shout at the screen while you're watching, or just as often to mutter something like, "I'd slap her if I was him."* Added to that, even though Jerry was the supposed crime expert, it's Pam who generally winds up solving most of the cases, with little help from her bumbling, somewhat patronizing husband. It's a low-budget version of The Thin Man without the charm, and I was only able to make it through two episodes before I gave up.

* Not an advertisement for spousal abuse.

Here's a clip from the opening of a typical Mr. and Mrs. North episode:

May 11, 2011

The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, 1966

Over at Our Word a while back, I had occasion to do a piece on Sammy Davis Jr. and an album he’d done in the 70s which apparently involved, for reasons known only to God, Sammy doing covers of hit TV show themes. There were several of them, enough to give me a week’s worth of material, including some that to the best of my knowledge hadn’t even had lyrics.

For instance, there’s the theme to Hawaii Five-O. This was a big hit when it first appeared in the late 60s. I hadn’t ever thought, though, that it had – you know, words.

If you want to see the week’s worth of videos, including the Baretta theme (the only one that was actually the real deal and not a cover), you can look here, here and here.

But, and here’s the great thing about blogging, how you can change your mind halfway through a piece, I’d originally intended to simply repost the five videos, which I thought would themselves make for an interesting, if somewhat disconcerting, story. This isn’t the Vintage Sammy here – the man who could sing, dance, do impressions, act in comedy and drama, and take brilliant photographs, the man who was perhaps pound-for-pound the greatest entertainer of his time, which is why listening can be a bit painful.

And that got me thinking about vintage Sammy, and whether or not we’d ever actually seen that Sam on TV (aside from guest shots on other people’s specials). It seems as if you had to see him live, on stage or in clubs, appearing solo or hamming it up with the Rat Pack, to truly experience him, to appreciate everything he could do. Even the big screen wasn’t really big enough to hold him.

Granted, Vintage Sam probably was a bit ahead of his time as far as television was concerned. It wasn’t easy for black entertainers to have their own shows on TV in the 50s and 60s; Nat King Cole lasted as long as he did primarily because of guest stars who waived their massive fees to give his sponsorless show a chance, and he was probably a lot less threatening than Sam, who’d already converted to Judaism and was involved in a torrid relationship with the white actress May Britt – in fact, Davis, an outspoken supporter of John F. Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race, postponed his marriage to Britt (under some pressure, one might think) until after the election, lest it become an issue for JFK.*

*Davis appeaedr as part of an all-star celebrity chorus singing the National Anthem at the 1960 Democratic Convention in Los Angeles and was booed by southern delegates, so there was a real chance it could have been an embarrassment for JFK. One letter addressed to Davis and signed “A Former Kennedy Supporter” started out “Dear Nigger Bastard.”

Heck, in the mid 60s you had enough trouble getting an interracial kiss on Star Trek. I recall a letter to the editor in a TV Guide issue of the time, from a southern writer, who allowed that blacks might be good on TV in dramatic roles, but they certainly shouldn’t be allowed to sing. Another letter, from the same general time period, complimented the brilliant Ella Fitzgerald’s appearance on Ed Sullivan, but said that Ed then ruined it by daring to touch her on screen.

Anyway, enough of a digression – this wasn’t meant to be an extensive social critique of the nation and its attitudes toward race relations, but was really kind of a roundabout musing as to whether or not we’d seen Vintage Sammy on TV. And, in fact, Sammy Davis Jr. did get his own TV show, in January of 1966. Unfortunately, the genesis of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show was probably as odd as it gets, and matched the series itself for drama and pathos.

For starters, in the fall of 1965 Davis had made a special, “Sammy and His Friends,” which, like other Davis specials, was bought by ABC. (The “friends” included Frank Sinatra, Edie Adams, Joey Heatherton, and Count Basie and his orchestra.) In order to protect its investment, the terms of the ABC contract prohibited Davis from appearing on any other network show for a period of three weeks preceding the broadcast.

However, according to The New York Times, as early as October 18 of 1965, NBC and Davis had discussed starting The Sammy Davis Jr. Show in January of 1966. ABC’s decision to air “Sammy and His Friends” on February 1, therefore, meant that Davis would be prevented from appearing on his own show for almost a month after the January 7 premiere, and it’s hard to imagine a more awkward way to start a television series.

I’m not sure exactly what transpired behind the scenes. In a 1966 TV Guide article, Alan Ebert, NBC’s publicity director for the Davis show, mentions a “crazy contract hassle with ABC” that would keep Davis off the show for a month. Did ABC deliberately schedule “Sammy and His Friends” for a date which would damage his new NBC series? Did NBC, or Davis, think they could appeal to ABC to waive the no-appearance portion of the contract? Either way, "hassle" suggests trouble.

There’s nothing to suggest that NBC had considered postponing the start of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, which was being scheduled as a midseason replacement for the failed war drama Convoy. Television scheduling was more rigid back then – the fall season always started in early September, and the so-called “Second Season” began right after New Year’s, so NBC may have felt there was no choice.

The show seemed to have a good setup: Davis was already considered one of the most exciting performers around. Joe Hamilton, who would later produce an extremely successful variety show starring his wife Carol Burnett, was tapped to produce. George Rhodes, Sammy’s longtime musical director, would head up the show’s orchestra.

However, in addition to the conflict with ABC, there were other problems. Chief among them, as Ebert points out in his TV Guide article, was Davis’ own approach to the show. He was frequently difficult to reach, almost impossible to schedule for promotional interviews, and was perpetually surrounded by hangers-on and camp followers. (It was, interestingly enough, similar to the approach Davis’ mentor, Frank Sinatra, took toward his own variety show in the late 50s. That show, too, was doomed to failure.)

The initial episode of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show was taped on December 19, featuring Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, Nancy Wilson, Corbett Monica, Augie and Margo and The Will Mastin Trio. It was, by all accounts, a disaster. Taylor was, in Ebert’s words, “so nervous she’s practically hysterical.” In fact, the only person who seemed happy with the result was Davis himself.

By the time of the show’s premiere, on January 7, 1966, Davis had built up the reputation around NBC as “difficult, a prima donna.” The premiere broadcast garnered terrific ratings, but the reviews were dismal – every bit as bad as Ebert had feared. He laid it on the line to Davis: without major changes, the show was doomed.

Perhaps because of Ebert’s bluntness, Davis himself appears to have been overcome by doubts. He later would tell a newspaper reporter that he “knew one week after the first show that he wouldn’t be picked up for more than 13.” He complained that he was being prevented from being himself – he “couldn’t undo his necktie or smoke. . . this is like putting a muffler on a drag race or refusing to let Jack Benny fold his arms.” He pleaded with the network to “take me as I am,” to no avail. "If I don’t know anything else, I know how to entertain people, but I’ve got to be me” he told the reporter. “I ain’t a good somebody else – hey, listen, I ain’t but a fair me.”

Davis was finding himself the victim of the same sea change that would eventually claim Ed Sullivan, along with other variety shows of the time. Sullivan’s decision to appeal (or pander, as some thought) to the younger generation meant the traditional variety format – the very format that NBC wanted from Davis* – was living on borrowed time.

*In the interview, Davis complains that NBC wanted seven acts –“another Hollywood Palace,” he called it.

Added to this was the enforced vacation that Davis was about to endure. Following that premiere telecast, he was off the show for three episodes, replaced by guest hosts. Johnny Carson, Sean Connery and Jerry Lewis would fill in for Davis, and at this point – one month into the show’s run – each of them had appeared on The Sammy Davis Jr. Show as often as Davis had – once.

But though Sammy was nowhere to be seen, he was busy behind the scenes, though. Despite his later observation that it wasn’t until after the cancellation notice that the network let him be himself, Ebert said that in preparation for the second episode, Davis had decided “without consultation, that he’ll revert to the old Sammy Davis and be ‘on’ constantly.” He rolled up his sleeves, doing as many as 19 interviews a week to promote the show, even though he resented having to do any publicity, feeling that his stardom was enough to stand on its own. He worked hard on a new format, one that would make him less of a host and more a participant. He would sell the one thing that only The Sammy Davis Jr. Show could give people – himself.

Ebert said of the second show, which featured singer Trini Lopez, that it was “truly one of the best variety shows I’ve ever seen.” Davis “kills himself in it,” Ebert wrote. “He even made Trini Lopez look better than he ever has before.”

The reviews were better, much better. But it was too late. It may have been that those three missing weeks right at the start were too much to overcome, or it could be that Davis was never able to gain any traction after the disastrous initial episode. (You never get a second chance to make a first impression, after all.) Davis himself felt that NBC realized too late the need to let him be himself (or, in the words of one of his biggest hits, “I gotta be me”) – “[T]hose were our best shows,” he lamented, “and they said it, too, afterward.” The show disappeared on April 22, after 15 episodes (only 12 of which Davis actually hosted), with perhaps the best show of them all – a one-man show by Davis. Vintage Sam, indeed.*

*Reminiscent of the final episode of Jerry Lewis' failed variety show of a couple years previous - a two-man show featuring Jerry and Sammy.

So, in the end, it may be that my hypothesis was right after all – the small screen was too small for Sammy Davis Jr. Had he come along at a different time, in a different era, or had the network given him more freedom, things might have been different. As it was, the Sammy Davis Jr. Show is known today primarily for the oddity of its host being MIA for almost a month. Davis himself continued to entertain in nightclubs and on concert tours, producing several more hit records, making frequent appearances on other people’s shows, and even taking another turn with his own show – a mid-70s late-night talk show that ran for only two seasons (Ironically, it may have been Sammy’s high-octane performance that did him in this time, in a time slot that generally required something lower-key.)

Here is a clip from the March 4, 1966 show, featuring The Supremes. The opening titles probably had more energy than any other five variety shows combined. The entire episode is available on YouTube.