November 29, 2017

The "It's About TV" Interview: Adam-Michael James, author of I, Samantha, Take This Mortal, Darrin

It's been over a year since we last talked with our old friend Adam-Michael James, author of The Bewitched Continuum, one of my favorite books of 2015 (and I don’t mean just the books I reviewed, either), so when I got the news that Adam-Michael had a new Bewitched project in the works, it presented a perfect opportunity to catch up.

Adam-Michael's new novel, I, Samantha, Take This Mortal, Darrin - which hit Amazon this week! - brings a sense of closure to the Bewitched universe. Like most series of its time, Bewitched made no attempt to bring the series to any kind of conclusion when it ended its eight-season run in 1972. "Final episodes" of popular television shows were a rarity back then (the most famous one to that time was the end of The Fugitive, but there had been a few others). It wasn't as if the characters were left in any kind of limbo; neither, however, was there any opportunity for them to say a proper goodbye to a loyal viewing audience that had grown to know and love Samantha and Darrin Stephens and the various characters that orbited around their world.

With I, Samantha, Take This Mortal, Darrin, Adam-Michael sets out to provide a fitting end to one of the most popular sitcoms of the '60s and early '70s. And I can't think of anyone better qualified to do it - so why don't I shut up and let him tell you about it himself?

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It's About TV: It has been a while since we last talked about Bewitched - so what have you been up to since then? 

Adam-Michael James: Mostly promoting The Bewitched Continuum. [laughs] No, there have been other things, too – I’ve done some acting in theatre and some local video projects. Ended a 15-year relationship, moved back to L.A. but changed my mind and returned to Canada three months later...never a dull moment!

Bewitched, as we've said, came from a time when most TV series did not have "final episodes" that wrapped everything up, so tell me how the idea for the new book came about. What was it about the series that begged to you for such an episode - to clear up "final business," so to speak? 

It was already something I’d thought of for The Bewitched Continuum, and that’s where the initial synopsis of this two-part “episode” is. I don’t know what viewers felt about it in 1972, but when you watch the show in order now, it just feels incomplete by the time you get to Episode #254, especially since it’s not only a regular episode, but one of the more blatant remakes with dialogue copied word for word. And, as you say, it’s not like the series finale concept was commonplace back then, so even if the cast and crew of Bewitched knew they were going off the air (and I don’t think they did), they wouldn’t necessarily have wrapped things up. I was already analyzing eight seasons for The Bewitched Continuum, so I thought, “Why don’t I come up with a series finale myself?”

Where did the idea for the story come from? 

Well, as you know, Bewitched is not just about a cute little witch whose family causes problems for her mortal husband every week. It’s about prejudice – and overcoming it. The show itself constantly layered messages of equality and acceptance into its scripts, sometimes subtly, sometimes directly. And because this was in the middle of the civil rights movement, it was quite a bold thing to do. So it was only natural to think a final episode of Bewitched would double down on those messages, and do what any series finale would do: bring the show full circle, answer long-standing questions, and raise the stakes higher than they’d been in anything that came before it. Of course, in The Bewitched Continuum that was just two paragraphs; I had so much fun fleshing them out and finding ways to tie in key moments and have characters interact who had never shared a scene. I even ended up channeling backstories for Samantha and Darrin!

As an author myself, I'm always interested in how other writers approach the writing process - how long did it take you to flesh out the plot, and how long did it take to write?

I had the idea for Darrin’s backstory around this time last year – and then as things came to me I would make copious notes. Sometimes something would occur to me as I was trying to get to sleep and I’d have to get up and write something down or at least reach for the phone and record it. But the actual writing only took about four months – and that was including the three weeks I had to take off to go down to Florida and get my mother out of the path of Hurricane Irma. Fortunately her home survived and everything was fine, but it certainly shut down my creative engine for a while!

Tell us a little about the premise. What adventures do we find the Stephens engaged in this time?

Again, I wanted to bring things full circle. So how it starts off is, Darrin finally gets his promotion and becomes a partner at McMann, Tate, and Stephens, which is something that came up more than once over the course of the show. Samantha throws him a hip party filled with funk music – I referenced several songs, many of which I’d discovered for the first time and listened to on auto-repeat as I was writing. And long-missing mortals are in attendance. Most had only ever appeared in one episode, but I created a comprehensive list of endnotes so readers could tell what episode what character came from, or from what part of “The Bewitched Continuum” I built a story point around. Not to mention, I wanted to make it clear what was my idea and what was a creation of the show.

Anyway, all is going well until some witchcraft happens in front of this room full of mortals, and Samantha is unable to explain it away the way she was able to when it was one or two people witnessing magic. So she tells her guests she’s a witch – and before they can react, the Witches’ Council steps in, and Samantha has to fight for her way of life via a hearing that involves many witches and mortals. My other rule was, no new characters. Everyone who shows up was on screen at one point or another. It’s quite the reunion!

You suggest that there's a message in Bewitched that's applicable to today's world, aside from the sheer fantasy and sitcom humor of the show. Can you elaborate on that? 

With pleasure. As I mentioned, Bewitched was all about equality and acceptance. Elizabeth Montgomery really believed in that. At one point Samantha said “all men are brothers, even if they’re girls.” Another time she called for the “acceptance of all differences, and a recognition of our common humanity.” That was very necessary during the ‘60s and ‘70s – regrettably, here in 2017 there’s a movement to drag society backwards into intolerance, prejudice, and the idea that one group of people is superior to another. If Bewitched were on the air today first-run, I’m willing to bet Samantha would be taking the same kind of stand she did 45 years ago, if not a stronger one. I feel I have a responsibility as an artist to take the messages of Bewitched and amplify them, because we really, really need to hear them right now. It’s all done subtly, but I think it’s what Elizabeth would have done and I hope she would be proud of it.

Do you think there are other shows out there that, like Bewitched, have this serious side, and a
kind of moral foundation that supports the show even if it remains mostly unsaid?

If you mean classic TV shows, it’s hard for me to say. I only know Bewitched and a handful of others this intimately. I’m sure issues of social justice were tackled in dramas of that day, but I’m hard pressed to think of another comedy that did. I think shows of all genres of television are much more apt to advocate for equality now. Because for as much as there are those lately who want to undo the progress of the past several decades, that progress is still there. It’s nice to think that Bewitched was at least in the forefront of taking a stand in the context of its magic and comedy.

In creating the backstories and writing the main story, did you find the characters saying or doing anything that surprised you, or situations occurring that you hadn't really expected?

Oh, all the time. Initially I’d just planned to follow the series finale synopsis I had laid out in The Bewitched Continuum. But as I went along it seemed these folks had more they wanted to say. Of course, the base for all of it was the show itself. For example, it was said in the pilot that Darrin was from Missouri, so I built on that; I figured he must have already been into advertising as a kid. With Samantha, of course, I had freer rein because she’s a witch, plus it had finally been confirmed in Season 7 that she was 300 years old. But a lot of stuff just came organically. Bits of humor revealing themselves in unorthodox places, dramatic parallels happening in others. Do you remember that
episode where Samantha was writing a play about the Civil War and she zapped up
characters that ended up telling her what to write?

Yes! [laughs]

Doing this book was not unlike that! [laughs]

One of the things I like about the book is how you mix comedy with drama, how you've created scenarios that create some very real danger for the Stephens family - after all, this is a last episode, anything can happen - and yet you maintain the natural humor of the characters that viewers will recognize. Difficult?

The show itself was already very adept at sprinkling drama into things – there were many moments, especially in the early seasons, that made you forget you were watching a sitcom. So I guess once I caught onto that wavelength, it wasn’t too difficult. I did worry a bit when I got to the showdown with the Witches’ Council that things might get overly serious, but sometimes you can find humor in the craziest situations, and that often helps you get through. A maxim I seem to have adhered by most of my own life!

So here's a scenario for you: the book has been optioned as a movie - tell me about your ideal cast, if there is one. 

Man, I hate to turn down that check. [laughs] It just couldn’t be done. The way I crafted this, it “airs” a week after the final episode that audiences actually saw. That means the cast as it existed in 1972 are the stars here. Relegating it to fictional status even more is the brief appearance of a character whose portrayer passed away during the run of the show, which would have already been impossible back then because the actor could simply not have been recast. So I, Samantha... (or as I’ve started to call it, “iSam” [laughs]) can only exist in our minds, unfortunately!

Any more stories in the works, or does this bring the Bewitched story to a conclusion?

Certainly the intention with this book is to bring the series as we knew it to a close. But let’s just say, if there was enough interest in it, following Samantha, Darrin, and the kids into the ‘80s, ‘90s, and even the 2000s wouldn’t require much arm-twisting.

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Ah, that was fun! My thanks as always to Adam-Michael for graciously answering my questions. You can find out more about Adam-Michael and his other work at his website, www.  I, Samantha, Take This Mortal, Darrin, is available from Amazon, and I'll be back on Friday with a review. See you then, right? Right!  TV 

November 27, 2017

What's on TV, eh? Saturday, November 27, 1982

I don't believe I've ever before had the opportunity to use the phrase "Moose Jaw" on this blog, and that alone makes this issue worth looking at. ("Swift Current" isn't bad either, but it could easily have been the title of an episode of Last of the Mohicans,) Anyway, as you can see, today's programs present a combination of the familiar and the foreign. Afternoon programming is dominated on both CBC and CTV by tomorrow's Grey Cup, but there's plenty else to note. For example, both networks have nightly news programs to go along with the late local news; CBC's is hosted by the legendary Peter Mansbridge, who assumed the weeknight edition of The National in 1988 and remained there until July of 2017. You might also note that the version of Wide World of Sports that airs on CTV is a Canadian version, running two hours and including Canadian content. Otherwise, let's get to it and see what we can find - this is classified as the Saskatchewan edition.

November 25, 2017

This week in TV Guide: November 27, 1982

This week we have something a little different to offer: the Canadian version of TV Guide. It may look similar to what we're used to seeing here (other than not having Meredith Baxter Birney on the cover this week as does the United States edition), but in reality they're two different publications.

As the always-reliable Wikipedia notes, the Canadian version was actually split off from the U.S edition in 1977 when the Canadian rights were acquired by Telemedia. Eventually, the Canadian version would have a completely different editorial conent, predominently Canadian but including features on American programs that didn't appear in the U.S. version. This is true; the layout, the article layouts and fonts, are completely different from anything we've seen in TV Guide during the '80s. One note that I enjoyed reading was that "while the U.S. TV Guide began reducing its television listings in favor of incorporating more editorial content, until the 2000s, the bulk of the Canadian magazine's content remained the localized listings." Which is as it should be.

Even with that, I would have been likely to give this issue a pass were it not for this week's feature presentation - one with a definite Canadian angle.

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The legendary football coach Bud Grant, who took the Minnesota Vikings to four Super Bowls in the 1970s, once described the Super Bowl as the American version of the Grey Cup. When the first Super Bowl was played in 1967, the Grey Cup had already seen 54 editions. The championship game of Canadian football was first played in 1909. (The NFL, by contrast, wasn't even formed until 1920). Originally, both professional and amateur teams were eligible to play for the Cup, but by the 1950s the Cup had come into exclusive possession of the newly formed Canadian Football League, an amalgimation of the country's two major professional leagues.

The Grey Cup as it appeared
in 1982
Over the years, the Grey Cup has seen a series of extraordinary games, including the 1954 game, in which Montreal, leading late in the game, fumbled a pitchout (according to some, the result of a risky play designed to make sure the Alouettes would cover the point spread) that was returned 90 yards by Edmonton for the winning touchdown; the 1962 "Fog Bowl," won by Winnipeg 28-27 over Hamilton in a game that took two days to play due to a heavy fog that literally made the field impossible to see; and last year's game, which saw hapless Ottawa, with a regular season record of 5-11, nearly pull off the greatest upset in the history of the Grey Cup, leading 14-1-1 Edmonton (winner of the three previous Grey Cups) at halftime 20-1 before seeing the Eskimos rally to win with a last-second field goal, 26-23.

In the 1982 contest, the Esks are back and looking for a reccord fifth straight win, this time against the Eastern champion Toronto Argonauts from Toronto, broadcast live on both CBC and CTV. The coverage actually begins at noon on Saturday, with the Grey Cup Parade through the streets of Toronto - the theme is "The Magic of Canada." CTV presents a replay of the 1981 game, while CBC has a three-hour review of the 1982 season, along with coverage of the awards banquet held on Thursday night. Sunday, CBC looks a the history of the Grey Cup at 10:30 a.m., while CTV shows highlights of the Miss Grey Cup Pageant and other events of the festival week. Finally, at noon, it's to CNE Stadium and the game itself (French-language coverage is via SRC). TV Guide's special Grey Cup section includes Bruce Dowbiggin with ten ways to improve the CFL (several of which have since been implemented), Richard Hidei on the rich heritage of Canadian-born players in the Big Game, Eric Nicol and Dave More on what it takes to be a succes in professional football, and recipies galore for your Grey Cup parties - avocado stuffed with crabmeat and lime mayonnaise, candy apple fritters, raspberry bombe). In the game itself, played in a steady rain, Edmonton does indeed win its fifth straight Grey Cup, defeating Toronto 32-16.

I saw my first Canadian football game sometime in the 1960s; there was a weekly game shown on WTCN, Channel 11 in the Twin Cities. I was already a football fan, and there was something about the Canadian version that immediately captured my interest. The field was longer (110 yards) with 12 players to a side and only three downs, and the teams had exotic-sounding names like the Argonauts, Tiger-Cats, Blue Bombers, Rough Riders, and Roughriders. (Long story; I'll explain it to you sometime.) It hasn't always been easy to keep track of Canadian football; in addition to the syndicated game on Channel 11, Wide World of Sports showed the Grey Cup for a few years, and NBC picked up some of the games during one of the NFL strikes, but until the advent of cable TV and the internet, it could be a real challenge. ESPN covered the game during the network's early years, and returned in the last few years to provided weekly coverage on TV and online. ESPN2 will be carying the 105th edition of the Grey Cup tomorrow evening (5:00 p.m. CT) from Ottawa; Toronto is back for the first time in five years, this time taking on the Calgary Stampeders. Calgary enters the game a heavy favorite, but as we've seen over the years, the Grey Cup is played on the field, not on paper. It's been years since I've watched the NFL, but I've remained a fan of the CFL - a quicker game, a quirkier game, and frankly a more entertaining game. We'll see how it turns out on Sunday, but in the meantime, go Argos!

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You might ask yourself what the content difference is between CBC and CTV, on the one hand, and, say, CBS and NBC on the other. We'll see that in more depth on Monday, but the short answer is: not much. Although federal law requires a certain percentage of Canadian content on Canadian television (a running joke on SCTV; the "Great White North" feature was mockingly designed to satisfy the CanCon requirement), prime time television in Canada can look a lot like it does south of the border. For example, a typical night might include series such as Remington Steele, Knots Landing, The Facts of Life, Real People, The Fall Guy, Dynasty, M*A*S*H, Newhart, and Simon & Simon. On the other hand, there's also the CBC series Seeing Things and Hangin' In, the long-running nature program The Nature of Things, and the Lassie-like The Littlest Hobo

It's also interesting to find out the kinds of things that are part of Canadian culture, such as a documentary tribute to champion skiier Steve Podborskia celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Canada CouncilThe Tommy Hunter Show, a country-variety show which ran on CBC for over a quarter-century, and, of course, The Alan Thicke Show. The National, the CBC's 10 p.m. news program, runs under the guidance of chief correspondent Knowlton Nash.

Vic Cummings is another integral part of Canadian television. As the daytime announcer and host of his own talk show on Hamilton's CHCH, Cummings acts more like the impresario of a matinee movie, and in his own way he's become as famous as the soap opera stars whose activities he updates on his daily half-hour show, Soap Box. As Shelly Davis points out in her article, Cummings is expected to know everything about every soap on the air, and his live interactions with fans during his program have made him so well-known that he now emcees mall appearances by soap opera stars throughout the area.

Now, it's true that most of the soaps that Vic Cummings waxes on, like most of the prime-time programming on Canada's various stations, come from America. Even today, watching the commercials for CTV that run on subsidiary TSN's coverage of Canadian football, most of the programs advertised are ours. But there are exceptions, as there always have been and always will, and that's as it should be. One of the things I dislike most about today's television is the homogenization of it all, how there are seldom any regional differences anymore, how every local news program sounds like every other local news program, how onetime niche cable networks now look so identical, sharing so much programming, that one has to ask what point there is in them even existing. It may well also be the case in Canada, but as long as Canadian television doesn't become a carbon copy of the United States, there's still hope.

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To understand the power and the appeal of Norman Mailer's "non-fiction novel" The Executioner's Song, a four-hour TV-movie aired on NBC November 28 and 29, it's necessary to understand the story of Gary Gilmore, the murderer executed in Utah in 1977, whose life - and, particularly, death - is the basis of the story. The Supreme Court had supposedly declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972 in the case of Furman v Georgia; in fact, the Supremes merely found that death penalty laws as they were presently constituted were cruel and unusual; in Gregg v Georgia in 1976, the Court upheld a new series of laws, and the death penalty was back. Gilmore, who refused any attempts by the ACLU or any other organization to prevent his execution, was the first prisoner in the United States to be executed in nearly ten years, and the drama of the legal battle catapulted Gilmore to international attention.

In this issue, William F. Buckley Jr., who was what we would now think of as a "frienemy" of Mailer's and at whose house Mailier was a guest during the writing of The Executioner's Song, looks at the movie - at the whole story of Gilmore, in fact - and meditates on the value of both.

Gilmore, unlike, say, Dillinger or Bonnie and Clyde, was not an interesting person; his life, says Buckley, was "fearfully dull." Nor was he a compelling personality - "He is rude, ungrateful, stubborn, boisterous, sullen, cruel." No, the interest that Gilmore creates is one of a social kind. "We will learn about these people," writes Buckley, "and it is always instructive to know sometihng about hyuman confusion." Gilmore's quest to be executed for his crime carries its own fascination." Even the end of his life, which came at the hands of a firing squad, is devoid of any tragic overtone. "The grief evoked by his execution is strictly of the catechism variety. We must grieve any man's violent death, the Good Book tells us, because, after all, Jesus forgave his own executioners. That reminds us of what is already overwhelmingly redundant - namely, that we are not Jesus."

Ultimately, Buckley pronounces the movie version of The Executioner's Song to be a failure. No matter how brilliant the screenwriter and director, "they cannot rescue what is adamantly boring, becuase, although words can transfigure, the screen cannot. As a screenwriter, Mailer cannot accomplish those miracles he can accomplish as a prose writer." In this sense, I suppose Buckley is speaking, as did Hannah Arendt during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, of "the banality of evil." Gilmore's evil, like his life, is unremarkable; it will be "an eternity before anyone devotes four hours to dramatizing the life and death of someone the forgetting of whom is altogether therapeutic, even as we tend to forget pain." The decomposition of the mind, says Buckley, is of interest to professionals, in schools. "For nonprofessionals, it wasn't fun even then. We don't stand to get any credits for sitting through this one."

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What else do we have this week?

Saturday night is Hockey Night in Canada, a CBC staple, and tonight at 7:00 p.m. the original incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets* take on the Maple Leafs in Toronto. At 9:30 p.m., the cable service Teletheatre (available in Regina and Moose Jaw) presents the truly adult murder mystery True Confessions, with a strong cast including Robert De Niro, Robert Duvall, Charles Durning, and Ed Flanders. And while NBC may have Saturday Night Live, CBC has Ed Sullivan's old favorites Wayne and Shuster (left). Tonight, in a tribute to the Grey Cup, "Coach Saul King (Shuster) pits his Jericho Jets against the Philistines in the 1975 B.C. Matzoh Bowl. Starters include David and Goliath."

*Not to be confused with the new Winnipeg Jets, who used to be the Atlanta Thrashers. The original Winnipeg Jets are now the Arizona Coyotes. As I said earlier, it's a long story.

Besides the Grey Cup, Sunday brings Country Canada (CBC, 4:00 p.m.), including a look at the annual wheat harvest, which runs from Texas to Saskatchewan. At 6:00 p.m., CBC has Walt Disney's World, with Professor Ludwig von Drake. Later, at 7:30 p.m., the same network has Super Show, featiuring a reunion between Pete Seeger and the original Weavers. And at 9:00 p.m., it's the Canadian WWII drama Home Fires; next week in the same timeslot, it's part one of a three-part miniseries based on Laura Beatrice Burton's memoir I Married the Klondike. I suspect that's a series that you'd only see in Canada.

Monday features a host of popular American comedies on CBC: Happy Days, Private Benjamin, M*A*S*H, Newhart, while CTV counters with That's Incredible! and the Valerie Harper-Dennis Weaver thriller Don't Go to Sleep. Meanwhile, on Tuesday at 10:30 p.m., KSRE, the PBS station in Minot, North Dakota (about a four-hour drive from Regina, home of the Saskatchewan Roughriders) has PBS Latenight; the topic under discussion is X-rated videos. I so wanted to find out that the host of Latenight is Charlie Rose; alas, it's Dennis Wholey instead.

You can tell Christmas is just around the corner - on Wednesday the North Dakota stations feature Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (CBS, 7:00 p.m.) and the rarely-seen Ziggy's Gift (7:30 p.m., ABC). At 10:00 p.m., CFQC in Saskatoon has To Light a Candle, the story of Canadian missionary Mark Buntain, who worked with Mother Teresa in Calcutta. And on CJFB in Swift Current, Merv Griffin's guests are the opera greats Beverly Sills and Sherrill Milnes, and New York Times columnist Russell Baker.

I mentioned soap operas earlier, and Thursday gives me a chance to point out that CBC carries the legendary British soap Coronation Street (2:30 p.m.), which came to Canada in 1966, six years after its premiere on ITV. In 1982, the episodes were being aired approximately 10 months after their initial broadcast in the UK. And Friday wraps up the week with Falcon Crest on CTV and Dallas on CBC, both at 9:00 p.m. (Dallas features a great story - the wedding of J.R. and Sue Ellen. I wonder how many times the two had married each other at that point?) Finally, would you be surprised to learn that at 11:30 p.m. CBC has SCTV Network? One of the highlights is a seasonal feature: Neil Simon's "The Nutcracker Suite."

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Well, it's been a most interesting experience, this journey through a foreign edition of TV Guide. Hopefully, between some of the programs I highlighted, the listings above, and the listings to come on Monday, you'll have a flavor for Canadian television in the early '80s. So what do you say we end the week with a recipe for Quiche de la Coupe Grey - you can enjoy it during tomorrow's game!

9-inch uncooked pastry shell (shouldn't that be in centimeters or something?)
½ lb. bacon, cut into pieces
3 eggs, beaten
1¾ cups milk or light cream
2 tsp. all-purpose flower
½ tsp. salt
Pinch of nutmeg
½ lb. Swiss cheese, shredded
½ cup sliced mushrooms

Bake shell in a 450⁰F [or 232⁰C] oven 7 minutes, or until golden. Remove shell and lower heat to 325⁰F. Cook bacon until crisp. Drain, crumble and set aside. Combine eggs, milk, flour, salt and nutmeg, mix well. Fold in bacon, cheese and mushrooms. Bake in 325⁰F oven 35 to 40 minutes, or until middle sets and a tester comes out clean. Serve with grilled sausages and back bacon. Serves 6.

Let us know if you try it, OK?  TV  

November 24, 2017

Around the dial

I hope everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving yesterday; I'm still cruising on a tryptophan high myself, but not so much that I don't have the energy to come up with some headlines for the week. Think of them as your Thanksgiving leftovers.

At Comfort TV, David has a thoughtful piece on the dilemma of David Cassidy. A sad story indeed.

When is the right time to start Christmas programming? As far as I'm concerned, once we get to December 1, all bets are off, but some of you may be ready even now. In any event, Joanna at Christmas TV History has a comprehensive list on where to watch Christmas programs.

Nice find by Carol at The Bob Crane Show:Reloaded: audio of Bob's guest-host stint on The Tonight Show on July 2, 1969.

"Quick-Quick Slow Death" is one of John's favorite Avengers episodes, and if you go to Cult TV Blog you'll find out why it's The Avengers at its best.

Last Saturday we spent a few moments recalling the great New York City blackout of 1965, and now at Garroway at Large Jodie takes us to a different kind of blackout. The Great Paris Blackout of 1959 involves the Today show, Dave Garroway, union leaders, and Brigitte Bardot. Need we say more?

The Twilight Zone Vortex returns with another edition of The Twilight Zone Magazine, including an article by George Clayton Johnson on his experience writing for the program.

Martin Grams Jr. is out with another book, one that's sure to be of interest to OTR fans - The Top 100 Classic Radio Shows. Looks to be a great book, at an affordable price.

Jack's latest installment in the Hitchcock Project at bare-bones e-zine is the Cockrells' "There Was an Old Woman," with a very nasty turn by Charles Bronson.

At Television Obscurities, the kind of story that I love running across: how an episode of The Patty Duke Show was edited due to the assassination of President Kennedy.

That's about all I have time for today, but I think it should keep you busy until the next time we meet. In the meantime, have another piece of that pie.  TV  

November 20, 2017

What's on TV: Thursday, November 25, 1965

The Minnesota State Editions aren't always my favorites, but I enjoyed this one immensely,  because of the variety in what different network affiliates decided to show. As I suggested on Saturday, there's just something about the programming today, how early it starts and how long it runs, that just makes the day seem special all day long. Of course, that turkey aroma doesn't hurt, does it?

November 18, 2017

This week in TV Guide: November 20, 1965

What a week, indeed! I don't know if you can read everything listed on the cover, but this is the kind of week that restores your faith in television and its ability to make things feel special. For me, growing up, Thanksgiving was always a big week; it's still, next to Christmas, my favorite time of the year. And when television crams as many specials and big events into a week that's already exciting - well, you can probably spend the whole time doing nothing other than watching TV and eating turkey. Yeah, my kind of week.

It's made doubly special in that 1965 is the first Thanksgiving I can actually be sure of remembering. By that I mean that while I may have memories from even earlier years (say, visiting the relatives for dinner), this is the first year I can specifically trace back to a year. Not surprisingly, I remember it because of the football games played that day. They both ended in ties.

I figure the best way to do this is to start with what's on the cover, with some extras thrown in as we go along.

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Saturday: Back in the day, before college football was irrevocably changed by conference realignment and billion-dollar television contracts, when there were no conference championship games and only a dozen bowl games, the Saturdays on either side of Thanksgiving were the days when the sport's storied rivalries took center stage. The highlight of the Saturday after Thanksgiving was the Army-Navy game, played before 100,000 fans in Philadelphia, and this Saturday gives us some of the great conference showdowns. Since NBC's contract with the NCAA limits us to one game per Saturday, the games are parceled out on a regional basis. Fans in the middle of the country get highly-ranked Missouri taking on Kansas, out East it's the Harvard-Yale game, down South Texas Tech plays Arkansas, and in the upper Midwest (and perhaps most of the country) it's The Game: Ohio State and Michigan. Usually, this game decides the Big 10 championship, but not in 1965: top-ranked Michigan State, the eventual national champion, is heading for the Rose Bowl, so the Buckeyes and Wolverines are playing for pride. Ohio State wins a tough defensive struggle, 9-7.

Sunday: Richard Nixon's appearance on Face the Nation (11:30 a.m. CT, CBS) is notable in that, after having been defeated by John Kennedy for the Presidency in 1960 and by Pat Brown for Governor of California in 1962, his political career was thought to be dead. However, by 1964 he's started to emerge as something of an elder statesman for the GOP; as one of the few "establishment" Republicans to not spurn Barry Goldwater (he even introducted Goldwater at the convention), Nixon is able to placate the party's conservative activists even as he remains part of the party's Eastern base. He spends most of 1965 and 1966 criss-crossing the country in support of Republican candidates in the mid-term elections; by 1967, he's become a serious possibility for the presidential nomination in 1968. It's a comeback quite unlike anything we've seen in American politics.

As for pro football, in Minnesota the AFL game on NBC pits the Kansas City Chiefs against the Boston Patriots (1:00 p.m.), while over on CBS (except for the blacked-out Twin Cities) the Green Bay Packers play the Vikings at 1:00, followed by the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys at 3:00 (although I suspect it'll actually be joined in progress.

Also of note: Robert Young hosts the Bell Telephone Hour's Thanksgiving program on NBC at 5:30 p.m., with Carol Lawrence, John Gary, Jean Fenn, William Walker, Matt Mattox, and the Choristers of teh LIttle Church Around the Corner.

Monday: I'm a little surprised that TV Guide didn't mention this, but on Monday Perry Como's Kraft Music Hall returns for a Thanksgiving special (8:00 p.m., NBC), with Gertrude Berg, Bobby Vinton, and the Lennon Sisters. It just wouldn't be a major holiday without Perry on television.

Tuesday: CBS's Salute to Stan Laurel (7:30 p.m.), who had died earlier in 1965, is hosted by Dick Van Dyke, the comedian most often compared to Laurel. The show, liberally spiced with clips from famous Laurel and Hardy movies, includes appearances by Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball, Harvey Korman, Phil Silvers, Bob Newhart, Audrey Meadows, Danny Kaye (who accepted an honorary Oscar for Laurel in 1961), Gregory Peck (as head of the Motion Picture Academy), and Audrey Meadows, Louis Nye, Tina Louise, Cesar Romero, and Leonid Kinskey. When they call this an all-star show, they aren't kidding.

Also of note: At 9:00 p.m, CBS presents "The National Citizenship Test," hosted by Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace. Viewers who are scoring at home* can keep track of their answers on a scoresheet found in their daily newspaper, and find out if they know enough about Constitutional and state rights, and how state and Federal governments work in order to be thankful for being a citizen.

*Or just watching the show.

Wednesday: Thanksgiving Eve features one of the biggest star in entertainment, Frank Sinatra, in "A Man and His Music" (8:00 p.m, NBC), featuring the Chairman's greatest hits from his 25 years in show business. Sinatra had tried and failed with two previous series, in part because he put little effort into selling them; after all, when you're Frank Sinatra, you don't feel as if you have to prove anything. These annual specials (this being the first), which start out on NBC and later move to CBS, are a perfect formula for success: highly-anticipated specials in every sense of the word, with few guest stars or comedy bits, concentrating on what Sinatra does best - singing his hits.

At 9:00 p.m., just in time for Thanksgiving Day, ABC presents "Mayhem on a Sunday Afternoon," a history of professional football from 13th century England to today's modern game. The documentary, a David L. Wolper production produced and directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) and narrated by Van Heflin, features clips from the game's greates, including Jim Thorpe, Red Grange, and Sammy Baugh. If that's a bit rough for you, NBC's "Congress Needs Help," hosted by David Brinkley, shows what happens when an efficiency expert looks at how the Congress is run and how it could be made to function more effectively. I was not able to find a recording of this show, more's the pity.

Thanksgiving: Lady Bird Johnson's lasting contribution as First Lady was her campaign to beautify America, and at 9:00 p.m. ABC takes a look at the success of that effort in the area including and surrounding Washington, D.C. Earlier in the day, the same network offers the incomperable Sammy Davis Jr. in "The Wonderful World of Children" (4:00 p.m.), in which Sammy joins with a group of "talented youngsters" to return to their "happy-go-lucky" world - which includes an appearance by Dino (Martin Jr.), Desi (Arnaz Jr), and Billy (Hinshe). At the risk of dipping into Twilight Zone-esque territory*, it doesn't seem as if the world of children is such a happy-go-lucky one today, what with the pressures and temptations they face well before they even become teens. That makes a special like this almost a museum piece - or does it? I like one of the kids' mottos, which I think kids have held to since the beginning of time: "Whatever it is I didn't do it unless it's good in which case I did it even if I didn't."

*Specifically, "A Stop at Willoughby."

"Music by Cole Porter" (7:30 p.m., NBC) continues the week's musicial specials, with with Robert Goulet, Maurice Chevalier, Nancy Ames, and Peter Gennaro offering a tribute to the late Cole Porter, who died just over a year ago. Of course, one of the greatest interpreters of Porter's sophisticated lyrics is none other than Frank Sinatra, who sang some of Porter's best, including "I've Got You Under My Skin" and "I Get a Kick Out of You."

But the best part of the day - parades and football! CBS carries its traditional assortment of parades (9:00 a.m.) from New York (hosted by Arthur Godfrey and Bess Myerson), Philadelphia (Bud Collyer), Detroit (Frank Gifford and Marilyn Van Derbur) and Toronto (Jack Linkletter), all hosted by Captain Kangaroo and Shari Lewis. Meanwhile, NBC's telecast of the Macy's parade (9:00) is hosted, as usual, by Lorne Greene and Betty White.

CBS follows its parade coverage with the traditional NFL game from Detroit (11:00 a.m.) as the Lions play the Baltimore Colts (final score: 24-24); NBC counters with a college-AFL doubleheader, starting at 12;30 p.m. with the then-traditional Turkey Day matchup between Oklahoma and Nebraska (the #3 ranked Cornhuskers win 21-9). The Thanksgiving games between these two resulted in some classics, including their 1971 game thought by many to be the greatest college game ever played; alas, thanks to conference realignment, this, too, is a rivalry that has fallen by the wayside. The day closes with the defending AFL champion Buffalo Bills playing the team they defeated for the title, the San Diego Chargers, from San Diego. Like the NFL game, this also ends in a tie - 20-20. Doesn't stop the Bills, though, as they wind up the season successfully defending their title, again against San Diego.

Friday: Can there possibly be room for anything else? There can, if your name is Sean Conery and you play James Bond for a living. Friday night's special "The Incredible World of James Bond" airs at 9:00 p.m. on NBC, and takes a look behind the scenes at the forthcoming Bond flick Thunderball. Fittingly, the show it preempts for the evening is The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

What a week - did I already say this once?

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During the 60s, the Ed Sullivan Show and The Hollywood Palace were the premiere variety shows on television. Whenever they appear in TV Guide together, we'll match them up and see who has the best lineup..

Sullivan: Ed's scheduled guests: political satirist Mort Sahl; pianist Peter Nero; singer Johnny Mathis;  Killer Joe Piro and his Discotheque Dancers; comedienne Jean Carroll; German musical-comedy star Heidi Bruhl; puppet Topo GIgio; singer-pianist Ginny Tiu and her family; and the Monterey singing boys choir.

Palace: Host Bing Crosby introduces songstress Diahann Carroll; song-and-dance man John Bubbles; comic Charlie Manna; the singing Kessler Twins (Ellen and Alice); Michael the Waiter, German juggler; Desmond and Marks, English comics; and the Black Theater of Prague, pantomomists.

Well, this isn't the best lineup we've seen, but we've got enough information to make a call. Mort Sahl and Peter Nero edge Bing Crosby's lineup, and with Johnny Mathis in tow, chances are that Ed takes the week.

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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. 

To say that you can do far worse than F Troop may sound like faint praise, but when Cleveland Amory says it, then you're doing pretty good. In fact, he says at the end of the first paragraph, "the first and third episodes were two of the funniest shows we've seen all season."

Amory is a big fan of Ken Berrty, as the inept Captain Parmenter, who "mumbles, bumbles, stumbles and even fumbles his way from reveille to retreat." He's also a fan of Melody Patterson, who plays Parmenter's inamorata Wrangler Jane, Frank de Kova as Chief Wild Eagle, and Edward Everett Horton as Roaring Chicken. He really enjoyed Bernard Fox, who in the third episode played Major Bentley-Royce, the "Phantom Maja from Inja," a master of disguise who tries to make everyone in F Troop invisible, disguising them as tree stumps, horses and even buffalo; the result, says Amory, is "hilarious." Strangely enough, though, he has very little to say about Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch, who play Sergeant O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn. Most people who've seen F Troop would likely remember them more than anyone else, but then again, it may be a case of the devil being in the details, or something like that.

Now, you'll recall in the first paragraph that Amory thought the first and third episodes were very funny, but that leaves the second episode. It's a story in which Parmenter's Philadelphia finacee arrives to try and get Parmenter away from both Fort Courage and Wrangler Jane, not necessarily in that order. It's a mix of "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Pygmalion," but even though fiancee Lucy faints twice and O'Rourke and Agarn faint once each, the show just doesn't add up. By way of explanation, Amory quotes Wild Eagle, who first offers the aphorism "Bark of tree never bitter to a hungry squirrel," and then, when asked what it means, shrugs and replies, "Well, it loses a little something in translation." So does this episode, which - as Amory concludes, "shows how quickly F Troop can go from F sharp to F flat.

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There was a lot of excitement among classic TV fans when the Rod Serling-developed Western The Loner, starring Lloyd Bridges hit the DVD market last year. It was a fairly unexpected development, as the series only ran for 26 episodes, but as I say, people were stoked about it. Part of the anticipation, I think, was due to the Cult of Serling, which in general holds that "It's Serling, it has to be good." Now, before you jump all over me, I've seen a couple of episodes - it is pretty good. Not great, but certainly watchable. Serling may have had his flaws as a writer, but he had more than a few gems as well.

This week, Fritz Goodwin's article goes behind the scenes on The Loner. It's really about Lloyd Bridges and how he came to the lead role - the attraction of working on a Serling project, of course - but by November, the series is in trouble, production has been suspended, and Serling is at war with the suits at CBS. What he'd sold the network, he insists, was "a series of 24-minute weekly shows - all legitimate, human, dramatic vignettes - set against a Western background." Now, he complains, the network looks at the ratings and demands "a show with violence and killing attendant on a routine Western." Michael Dann, the VP in charge of programming, denies that he told Serling this; instead, he had merely asked for more "action" and "movement" - "chases, running gun battles, runaway stagecoaches, etc." Of course, that sounds a lot like violence to me, but what do I know?

At this point, the show's ratings are still disappointing, but the network has put the show back into production with an assurance that it will stay on the air, at least through the winter. It's still struggling to find its place; even Bridges was bothered that his character's background wasn't more fleshed out, though he trusts Serling on this point. Finally, in March, the plug is pulled. It's easy to appreciate Serling's frustration - he was once heard to say that he wished the week would go straight from Friday to Sunday and skip Saturday so there wouldn't be any Loner. He couldn't have been surprised; after all, it was network interference that resulted in him going the sci-fi route in the first place.

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What else? Well, we've got a starlet - it's Marta Kristen, born Birgit Annalisa Rusanen, who's currently starring as Judy Robinson on Lost in Space. Melvin Durslag writes about the current controversy in pro football as to whether or not new, unproven rookies should be paid big bucks. "For the Record" examines how television covered the Big Blackout in New York the previous Tuesday; most networks shifted their live operations to Washington and used the West Coast feed to get their programs to the affiliates. The most memorable moment came when NBC switched to Frank McGee, reporting live from New York - by candlelight.

I don't know how to top that, so I think it's time to blow out the candle and say good night.  TV  

November 17, 2017

Taking the readers to school - with class

Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series
by Chuck Harter
BearManor Media, 374 pp, $27.00

For a series that lasted only two seasons and was seldom seen thereafter in syndication, it’s remarkable how fondly Mr. Novak is remembered. Until recently, I’d never seen an episode myself, and yet I knew about the show, that it starred James Franciscus, that it was about a high school teacher, that Dean Jagger, whom I had enjoyed immensely in White Christmas, played the principal, and that the series dealt with the typical issues that confronted high school students in the early 1960s. That was about it, but one can say that this is about all that most people know about most television shows that

It wasn’t good enough for Chuck Harter, though. A late-comer to Novak himself, he was surprised to find that there had been so little written about a series that had won such acclaim during its brief lifetime. So he did what writers are wont to do – he wrote a book about it. Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series does the show proud, and reflects well on the talent and passion of its author for his subject matter.

Many books have been written about television series over the years; some of them have, not surprisingly, found their way to my bookshelves. Most of them follow a fairly standard template: a recounting of how the series came to be; bios of the major participants; an episode guide, including thorough credits for everyone involved, with varying degrees of information about each episode; and an epilogue that brings us up to date on what happened to everyone after the show’s run ended. It provides an effective blueprint for writing a successful book on a given series, but sometimes these books serve as little more than television junk food – fun to read, with entertaining stories from many of the show’s participants, leaving the reader full for the moment but ultimately wanting a little more substance.

Harter’s book has all these things, but it’s what he does with them that makes this book a cut above the standard. In providing us with those brief bios, for example, Harter does a particularly good job in using them to illustrate the evolutionary process that led to the airing of Novak. At the same time, he introduces us to people whose names might ring a bell, especially with classic television fans, but who perhaps ought to be more widely known than they are. His chapter on E. Jack Neuman, for example, not only pays tribute to Neuman’s role in creating Novak, but it allows us to get to know a talented man with a long and successful career in radio and television who, even had he never been involved in Novak, would still have been an interesting character.

Likewise, Harter isn’t afraid to take a deep dive in writing about the series’ development. I suppose we sometimes think a television series sprouts, fully developed, from the ground,* when the truth is far different. Here is another area in which Harter excels, taking the time to use the filming of the Novak pilot as a primer on how a television series gets made. We go behind the scenes as Neuman and his partner, Boris Sagal, flesh out their ideas for the series and choose the writers and actors to bring it all to life, and Harter gives us a fascinating look at how a network – NBC in this case – goes about building the publicity machine that can make or break a new series.

*Reminding me of the scene from 1776 in which John Adams explains how the history books will regard the forming of the United States – “Franklin did this and Franklin did that and Franklin did some other damn thing. Franklin smote the ground and out sprang George Washington, fully grown and on his horse. Franklin then electrified him with his miraculous lightning rod and the three of them - Franklin, Washington, and the horse - conducted the entire revolution by themselves.”

We find out from the people involved – from Ed Asner, playing one of the new teachers, to some of the nearly 1,000 students of the real-life John Marshall High School in Los Angeles, extras essentially playing themselves – how things started to come together. As one of the co-stars, Marian Collier (who later would marry Jack Neuman) recalls, “we all had a real good feeling about the show being picked up by the network.” It was a feeling shared by Franciscus, co-star Jagger, and ultimately the network.

Ultimately, what really sells this book is that Harter illustrates how a television show can almost assume a life of its own. He writes what amounts to a biography of the two years that the show was on the air – the highs (critical acclaim, testimonials from actual teachers and the National Education Association, a bushel of awards) and the lows (Neuman’s ouster from the show in the second season and the replacement of several actors, including Jeanne Bal, amid salary conflicts and disputes with network personnel), and everything in-between. It’s really a history of the fictional (or is it?) Jefferson High, as well as the people who brought it to life. Whereas many books depend on the episode guide to provide the story, Harter’s use of a narrative format is one of the book’s most notable facets, as well as one of its biggest pluses

Harter does include an episode guide, but it’s likely to be more comprehensive that what you might be used to, including contemporary reviews that help give us a sense not only of the episode itself, but how it went over with viewers and critics. It’s valuable color, particularly when you’re talking about a series that many people haven’t seen (or haven’t seen for years) – in fact, one of the best pieces of news we’ve seen lately in the classic TV market was that Mr. Novak would finally be making it to DVD next year. Harter’s descriptions of these episodes won’t take the place of viewing them yourself, but they will act as far more of a companion to the viewing than is often the case with these books. There’s more to the book – a list of the many awards won by the show, including the Peabody, a writers guide written by Neuman, and a provocative episode on venereal disease (starting on Novak and concluding on Dr. Kildare) that was ultimately vetoed by the network. And that's not to mention dozens of very good interviews, and delightful contributions by Richard Donner, Walter Koenig, and the late Martin Landau.

Can a book make you care about a television show you’ve never seen, perhaps never even heard of? Can it make you want to watch the show? If you were to ask me that, I’d respond by saying that it depended on how well the book made its case, how it convinced me that I should care, how curious it made me to actually watch an episode or two. In the case of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series, Chuck Harter has succeeded on all fronts: he’s educated me on a series of which I’d only had a rudimentary knowledge, he’s made me become interested in it, and he’s made me want to watch it. Other than writing a best-seller, it’s about all an author can hope for, I suppose. A book like this is all a classic TV fan can hope for, as well.

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In case you missed it, my interview with Chuck Harter appears hereBe sure to check it out for more information on Chuck's book, the seris, and some great photos!   TV  

November 15, 2017

The "It's About TV" Interview: Chuck Harter, author of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series

There are many classic television programs out there - more than we'd like to admit - that, through no fault of their own, have fallen through the cracks, existing more as a memory than as a true celluloid creation. Episodes, if they exist at all, usually amount to no more than a handful of the series' total output, and pictures and descriptions from TV Guide serve to create an almost mythical aura. Meanwhile, people with fond memories of the show are left with very little with which they can explain their pleasure to those who aren't familiar with it.

Unless, of course, the series has a champion.  Mr Novak is such a series, and Chuck Harter is such a champion.

Chuck recently published Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series, the first book to tell the story about the series, which ran on NBC from 1963 to 1965 and starred James Franciscus as the young, idealistic high school teacher John Novak. The book includes comprehensive coverage of the original filming and airdates, an episode guide with vintage reviews and fresh perspectives, a list of all the awards the series won, E. Jack Neuman’s writers guide for the show and more, and it's also lavishly illustrated. It is the complete profile of one of the finest series that ever aired.

In case you want additional reasons to read this book, take the words of some of those involved with Mr. Novak: Director Richard Donner (Superman the Movie, Lethal Weapon), who directed seven episodes of the series, says, “I’m so glad that Chuck Harter is bringing the Mr. Novak experience to a wider audience…read his detailed behind-the-scenes account.” The late Martin Landau (Mission: Impossible, Ed Wood, and a personal favorite of mine), who appeared in two of the best episodes of Mr. Novak, writes in the Forward that “Chuck Harter has produced a superlative book that is both fascinating and informative.” In an Afterward, Walter Koenig (Star Trek), who appeared in three episodes of Mr. Novak and whose role of a Russian exchange student in “The Boy without a Country” led, in part, to his game changing role of Ensign Chekov on Star Trek, writes that, “You don’t have to be an actor…just a student to appreciate the skillful way in which Chuck Harter unfolds the stories behind the cameras.” I'll tell you, it's hard to pass up recommendations like that.

Chuck was kind enough to spare a few minutes for the latest It's About TV Interview, when we had a chance to discuss his relationship to the show, how the book came about, and more about the denizens of Jefferson High School.

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Chuck Harter in front of John Marshall H.S.
(The real Jefferson High)
It's About TV: I'm guessing you weren't alive when the show originally aired, or at least you weren't watching programs like this. So what drew you to Mr. Novak? What had you heard about it?

Chuck Harter: I was just a kid when it originally aired from ’63 to ’65. It was on opposite the very popular Combat! TV series and as my Dad was in the Air Force, and we had one set, the family watched Combat! So I never saw it in the original run. However, star James Franciscus, with his handsome visage, was featured in many of the teen magazines of the day such as 16 and Teen Screen. The girls in my classes would bring them in and drool over Mr. Novak so I was at least aware of the show from their fan’s devotion. As the years went by, I saw a few references to the show in some books on the history of television that were complimentary, yet brief. I never saw any of the reruns on the TNT Network in the late eighties. So I vaguely knew that it was an excellent dramatic TV series about High School life.

So how did you finally catch up with the series and become a fan?

About three years ago, a friend in New York, who sells underground music dvds, sent me a package. Along with a few music discs where 12 dvds marked “Mr. Novak.” I didn’t make the connection and called him to inquire about this unexpected gift. He said that as I liked 60’s music, here was a teacher show from that time period. I thanked him and hesitated to watch any segments as it was probably a dated and uninteresting relic from the past. For several weeks I paid no attention to them but just before I was going to file the discs away, I decided to watch one since my friend had sent them as a gift. I put on “First Year, First Day” which was the pilot. As the show unfolded, I was pleasantly surprised to find it an excellent program that had superior acting, scripting and directing. When the hour ended, I was really impressed by the series and watched a second episode on the disc called “The Risk.” This was a story of an ex-alcoholic teacher who has reformed and wishes to return to an educator position at the fictitious Jefferson High School. It was even better than the earlier segment. The same level of quality in every department and no part of either episode was dated in the least.

That's one of the great things about being a fan of classic television - finding one of these hidden treasures that you didn't know anything about, so you have no real expectations, and then when you do see it, you're blown away. And, and least in your case, at some point, you decide to write a book about it.

As a result of my favorable impression of the show, I wanted to buy a book on the series to learn more about this amazing program and discovered there wasn’t such a book. I searched for a biography on star James Franciscus and found that one didn’t exist. Frustrated by this lack of documentation, I discovered a website run by a teacher who apparently was a first year High School teacher when the show first aired in 1963. He wrote that the show helped him become a better teacher and his website was basically a love letter to the series. I called him and he told me that he knew of many young people who became teachers because of the show. I then decided that I would write the book about this unique television production of such superior quality.

Considering the lack of information on the series, you must have felt like you were something of a trailblazer, plowing new ground, that kind of thing. I don't know what your expectations were, but any surprises as you went through the process?

There were many delightful surprises in the course of putting the book together. I ended up interviewing over 50 people and every single one of them, when approached to talk about Mr. Novak, immediately agreed and had much good to say about the show. I interviewed over 40 actors and as many hadn’t seen their episode(s) in fifty years, or had never seen them, they asked me to send DVD copies for their reference. I did so, and everyone was absolutely amazed at what a great program it was and how the story elements, production, acting and direction had not dated at all. The many progressive themes of the show were still valid in the modern world of education.

I was astonished to learn that the show won 47 awards during its two year run with the majority of them coming from educational institutions including the National Education Association. Mr. Novak even won a prestigious Peabody Award for excellence. In a medium of much mediocrity both then and now, this series was a rare example of true excellence that encapsulated the finest qualities of television programming.

How long did it take you to research and write the book?

It was close to a three-year journey between research and writing. There were some gaps in that timeline, of course, but the work was pretty steady throughout.

Was there anybody you talked to who was particularly helpful?

I would say that Marian Collier, who was a regular on the series as Miss Marilyn Scott, the Home Ec teacher, was one person who really went the extra mile. It turned out that five years after the show ended, she married the late E. Jack Neuman, who was the series Creator/Producer. She gave me complete access to Jack’s archives which yielded much interesting and useful material. Several collectors opened their own archives to me based on their love and respect for the show which also helped considerably. I ended up hearing from several former students of John Marshall High School. This Los Angeles based institution was used for the filming of the pilot and exteriors were used throughout the series’ run. They all were very positive and recalled the days of Mr. Novak with much affection. One student in particular, Laure Georges (Gonzalez), was beautifully enthusiastic in her memories of those happy days and as a result, I ended up partially dedicating the book to her. Nearly everyone who participated was helpful in one way or another.

We're in the early '60s when Mr. Novak begins, and we're also in the thick of the space race with the Soviet Union, when there's a renewed emphasis on the importance of education. Did this play any role in the thinking of Jack Neuman and Boris Sagal, the co-creators, when they came up with the idea?

I don’t think the times’ emphasis on education played much of a part in their creation. At some point Sagal suggested to Neuman that a series based on high school life might be a possible project. Neuman initially rejected the idea as he didn’t feel there could be many valid storylines. Sometime later, he visited a high school and spoke to some of the Administrators. After hearing from them, Neuman realized that the real life triumphs and tragedies of both students and teachers had not been explored in previous television programs about schools. They had been sitcoms and while entertaining, didn’t reflect the realities of school life. He  developed the central character of a young teacher who is committed to making a difference in the education of his students. Neuman and Sagal proceeded with their concept and the series became a reality.

You have to admit that in a television world populated by policemen, private detectives, and cowboys (with the occasional social worker thrown in), a show about teachers might be thought of as a hard sell. Did NBC have any qualms about the concept, maybe concerns about the kind of subject matter that might be brought up, or that it might be kind of a downer, a la East Side/West Side?

E. Jack Neuman’s reputation as a writer and Producer of integrity and creativity was well known at NBC. He had written many scripts for various productions and was instrumental in the creation of the extremely popular Dr. Kildare series. The MGM studio, which ultimately filmed the Mr. Novak program, was also the home of the Kildare show. In initial meetings with the executives at MGM, there were some suggestions that Neuman’s new series would continue in the comic vein similar to the previous sitcoms. Neuman didn’t commit to a format and visited some additional schools to gain additional story concepts. When he was ready to proceed, the MGM studio green lighted his project with complete faith in his abilities based on his sterling reputation. In fact, during the first season, a rough agreement was established with the executives who ultimately didn’t interfere with the production. This was rare in an era when studio brass exerted a strong guiding hand in the production of their properties. After the pilot was finished and exhibited, it was only a matter of weeks until NBC bought the new series.

Before Mr. Novak, there was a movie from 1955 called Blackboard Jungle that showed a really rough side of inner-city schools, maybe for the first time to a lot of people. I don't see that kind of tension in Mr. Novak, at least in the episodes I've seen . I know that there is an episode later in the series that tackles the issue of integration, but was this a conscious effort to present a different kind of school from Blackboard Jungle?

Blackboard Jungle was an intense film set in an inner city school. The fictitious Jefferson High School of Mr. Novak was set in a middle class community so there really wasn’t a comparison. That being said, the Novak series provided cutting edge and provocative storylines that concerned cheating, racial prejudice, anti Semitism, unwed teenage mothers, alcoholism, dropouts, drugs, teacher’s inadequate salaries and extremism. The show, while presenting these vibrant themes, was always entertaining as well as informative.

The stars of Mr. Novak: Dean Jaggger (L)
and James Franciscus
Aside from the great writing, the show has to be remembered for the two leads - James Franciscus and Dean Jagger. Franciscus had most recently come from a very tough police show, Naked City, and the movie Marjorie Morningstar. How did he come to the role of John Novak?

James Franciscus had a youthful following from his role on Naked City as well as the many guest shots he had done. The actor had been the first choice to play Dr. Kildare when that series was in development, but was contractually bound to a pilot. His option would have cleared in a matter of days but the producers had to proceed with the Kildare series and cast Richard Chamberlain in the lead. Neuman would have known of Franciscus’ reputation as a dedicated actor of professionalism and integrity. Franciscus liked the approach of the program and agreed to be cast as the lead.

Dean Jagger was coming off of a very successful movie career, winning an Oscar for Twelve O'clock High and stealing the show (in my opinion) in White Christmas. What brought him to Jefferson High?

Dean Jagger was Neuman’s first choice to portray Principal Vane. The actor had not performed in many television shows but was intrigued by the concept of both the series and his character. He agreed to participate in the new series and became a major asset to the production.

One of the other major leads in the beginning was Jeanne Bal as the Assistant Principal. As I recall, there was an article in TV Guide about how her role was eliminated because of, let's say, the way she filled out her sweater and the effect that might have in a high school. Any truth to that?

Jeanne Bal, who played Assistant Principal Jean Pagano, became a major factor in the series’ success during its first season. She was a very attractive lady and there were a few comments from critics about her being too pretty. The majority of the critics however, lauded her performances and she became a big part of the success of the show. Early, in the first season, Dean Jagger suffered an attack of ulcers and had to leave the production for some weeks. Bal was given his lines and situations to great effect. Upon Jagger’s return, she was given more to do and even had a few episodes built around her character. She was to receive third star billing behind Franciscus and Jagger in the upcoming second season. During the summer of 1964 between the first and second seasons, a new Producer named Leonard Freeman was hired. He had his own ideas of the concept of the show and wanted to reduce the number of episodes that Bal would appear in. Bal disputed the change and ultimately left the series. This was a major blow to the program as she had been a real favorite with both the production and the viewing audience.

How was Mr. Novak regarded by real-life teachers and the education community?

The series was almost universally praised by the educational community. The National Education Association assigned script advisors to keep the stories as accurate as possible. Many educational associations awarded the show and the series was hailed as a landmark in the positive depiction of educators. Many young people, who had watched the show, decided to become teachers such was its positive influence. The series laid the ground work for such future programs about schools such as Room 222 and The Paper Chase.

Mr. Novak runs only two seasons - 60 episodes - and yet, despite the fact that it doesn't seem to have had an extensive run in syndication, and that even many classic TV fans aren't aware of it, there is still a core group of people who do remember it and think about it warmly. Why is that, do you think?

The people who saw the show during its initial run and were impressed by its superior qualities do retain the memories. The series really impacted its viewing audience in the middle sixties and it was such a new and realistic depiction of high school life that it was not forgotten. The reasons for this have been stated in this interview. It is interesting to note that during the work on the book, many people watched the show for the first time and were all impressed by its qualities. When the DVD set is released next year, and people either reacquaint themselves with a remembered part of their youth or discover it for the first time, I feel strongly that the result will be a very favorable opinion of this program.

If Mr. Novak were to be revived today, John Novak might well find that things had changed quite a bit from the Jefferson High of the early '60s. How do you think the issues he dealt with would be different, if in fact they would be different? 

There would be, of course, changes since it has been fifty years since the program aired. One interesting example occurred in an episode from 1965 called “Enter a Strange Animal” in which Martin Landau guest starred as an aggressive salesman of a new device called a teaching machine. It was a primitive computer.  He states that the computer can do the work faster and more accurately than the human educator. Another teacher argues the point that human interaction between the educators and students is paramount to success in learning. In today’s high schools, how much of the teaching is done by computers? There would, of course, be changes due to the shift in society and attitudes in the ensuing decades, but the real themes of the majority of the Novak episodes remain relevant to the modern day. This is why this series is indeed a genuine classic in the history of dramatic television programming. As said before, virtually everyone I contacted while doing the book remarked at how well the episodes held up and that they were not dated at all.

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Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter is published by BearManor Media. It is available in hardcover, paperback and Ebook editions from and at the Bear Manor Media website. The book’s website is here, and I'd encourage you to check that out for more information.

Thanks again to Chuck for his generosity, and stay tuned - we'll have a review of Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series in this space on Friday!  TV