February 29, 2020

This week in TV Guide: March 2, 1974

It isn't easy making the transition from movie star to television star. Robert Montgomery did it, as both producer and occasional star of Robert Montgomery Presents. Robert Taylor did it, going from being one of the biggest of movie stars to The Detectives Starring Robert Taylor. Shirley Booth won a Best Actress Oscar before Hazel, and Walter Brennan won three Oscars before embarking on a long and successful career in television. I'm sure you can think of other examples from the day.

But it's not for everyone. Yul Brynner found that it was easier to play the King of Siam on Broadway and in the movies than it was on the small screen. Henry Fonda's TV career wasn't exactly Primrose Lane, and Bing Crosby was far more successful with his TV specials than with The Bing Crosby Show. Glenn Ford had some success, with Cade's County running for two seasons, but it helped that he already had a reputation as a western star.

And this brings us to Jimmy Stewart.

Stewart is currently starring in Hawkins, part of CBS's Tuesday Night Movies wheel series*, in which he plays small-town attorney Billy Jim Hawkins, a character not unlike Paul Biegler, the small-town attorney Stewart played so well in Anatomy of a Murder. Only eight episodes of Hawkins are made; according to the always-reliable Wikipedia, Stewart asked out of the series after one season, despite it being a critical success, believing that "the quality of scripts and directors in television could not continuously measure up to the level to which he was accustomed with theatrical films." It seems appropriate, therefore, that the entirety of Maurice Zolotow's article consists of Stewart, on the set of Hawkins, reminiscing about his Hollywood movie career.

*Hawkins alternated with various TV-movies, as well as Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree. What is it we were saying about stars trying to make the transition from movies to television?

The headline is pure Stewart: "Wal, in the Old Days, Y'See..." Sounds like it came straight from the Carson show, doesn't it? By this time, Stewart is the veteran of 74 movies in a career that stretches over 40 years, and you can tell he takes great pleasure in recalling the stars at MGM: Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, William Powell, Greer Garson—and, yes, Robert Montgomery and Robert Taylor. Stewart acted with them all; one of his fondest memories is when he had to kiss Jean Harlow in Wife vs. Secretary (1936). Did I say he "had" to kiss her? We should all be forced to do such things: "He reports that Jean Harlow really kissed when she kissed. She did not believe in make-believe. She kissed him to the depths of his soul. It remains one of his most shattering sensory experiences."

Ronald Coleman, William Powell and Myrna Loy thrilled him when he saw them in the commissary. He destroyed a new car—the brakes failed while it was parked—trying to impress Olivia de Havilland on a date. He also went out with Ginger Rogers, Jeannette MacDonald, Alice Faye, Hedy Lamarr, Eleanor Powell and Lana Turner before he married Gloria in 1949. He speaks highly of his time at MGM; "Don't believe those cliches about Metro being a factory." He remembers the magic of making movies—"They were magicians. They could build anything, stage anything, they could turn this sound stage into the Sahara Desert or the North Pole or fight the battle of the Spanish Armada—nothing." The memories of a remarkable life—souvenirs, Zolotow calls them—flow from Stewart; as Zolotow says in conclusion, "often, while he is filming Hawkins, he will bring one out and share it with those around him."

Hawkins was not Stewart's first try at a television series; in 1971 he starred in The Jimmy Stewart Show, as a small-town college professor. (See any similarities at work here?) The Jimmy Stewart Show (the only time Stewart ever allowed himself to be billed as "Jimmy" on screen, rather than "James") only ran for one season before being cancelled; after the end of Hawkins, Stewart will return to television only as a guest on talk or variety shows, but never again as the star of a series.

And perhaps that's it after all, the reason Jimmy Stewart never made it big on television: it was too small for him.

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On weeks when we can, we'll match up two of the biggest rock shows of the '70s, NBC's The Midnight Special and the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and see who's better, who's best.

Kirshner: The Steve Miller Band and the Raspberries are the guests. Songs include "Living in the U.S.A.," "Space Cowboy," "Mar Lou," "Gangster of Love," "Come On in My Kitchen," "Seasons," "The Joker" (Steve Miller).

Special: Gladys Knight and the Pips host, with Curtis Mayfield, Richie Havens, rock artist Jobriath, singer-composer Jim Weatherly, and rock groups Spooky Tooth and Les Variations.

This is another week where I don't have to think too much about the choices. Curtis Mayfield and Richie Havens work, but I can't say that I was ever a big fan of Gladys and the Pips—well, I could, but I'd be lying, and I don't want to encourage that. The rest of the lineup is just too not-to-my-taste. Not that I'm over the hill on Steve Miller either, but at least you know what you're getting: a lot of hits. Stick with Kirshner this week.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly 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. 

Sometimes you have to search to find out what Cleveland Amory thinks about a series, but other times it's right there in the first paragraph. This is one of those times.

The show in question is Dirty Sally, a comedy-drama Western starring Jeanette Nolan and Dack Rambo. And here is that opening paragraph in its entirety, for you to judge: "We've warned you before about watching shows that start with a song, but somehow you always forget. From now on just try to remember the three ills of mankind—wine, women and song. And the song that starts this one will really make you ill, man. It goes: 'She nursed him and she cursed him / And she taught him right from wrong / . . . She was a grandma to the lad / He was the son she never had.' There are more lines, but we've punished you enough. You can stop cringing."

Nolan, as Sally, is the woman in the song, nursing and cursing Rambo, whom she nursed back to health in a two-part episode of Gunsmoke a couple of years ago; I guess Doc Adams must have been busy at the time. Anyway, a spinoff was inevitable, since CBS claimed the story received more mail than any other episode in Gunsmoke's history. but Cleve isn't falling for it. "Our theory is that they received the mail, but did not open it." He also quotes the CBS press release describing Dirty Sally as a "half-hour family Western," and ads that the network "sure was right about the 'half' part, because if we ever saw half a show, this is it. It's so thin, you can lose weight just watching it." Dirty Sally premiered in January, as a replacement for the cancelled Calucci's Dept.; Amory describes the change as "not just a step down—it's a full flight." He doesn't particularly like the storylines, nor the characters, though he feels that Miss Nolan is getting "everything there is out of her lines," and Rambo does his best with what is "at best half a part."

I don't want you to be left with the idea that Amory doesn't like anything about the show, though; there's Worthless, the mule who is the only other regular. She's terrific, and Amory has the perfect solution: "Let's pick one episode where she has a big part, and start writing letters."

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Before there was the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-80, there was the Pueblo.

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a naval ship engaged in intelligence work, was attacked and seized by North Korea, and its crew of 82 (one was killed during the attack) taken prisoner. The United States claimed the ship was in international waters and the attack unprovoked, while North Korea countered that the ship had breached the DMZ several times and was in North Korean waters at the time it was seized.

For 11 months the men of the Pueblo were abused and tortured. The commander, Lloyd Bucher, was put through a mock firing squad and other psychological tortures; later, he was told by his captors that if he didn’t confess to the North Korean accusations, his men would be brought before him and executed. Bucher finally agreed to write out and deliver a confession, but inserted a pun into his confession that the North Koreans failed to catch, saying that “We paean the DPRK [North Korea]. We paean their great leader Kim Il Sung," pronouncing the word paean as pee on. Eventually, after the United States admitted to spying and promised that no such efforts would occur in the future (a confession which the U.S. government said was made only to obtain the release of the crew), the men were released. Bucher and his crew were eventually brought before a Navy Court of Inquiry, which recommended that Bucher and his intelligence offer be court-martialed for surrendering without a fight, and failing to destroy all classified documents; the recommendation was dismissed by Secretary of the Navy John Chaffee, who said of the men that “They have suffered enough.”

Wednesday at 8:30 p.m, ABC Theatre presents an encore of Pueblo, a dramatization of the events starring Hal Holbrook as Commander Bucher. Shot on videotape (not only giving the presentation the feel of a play but also creating a claustrophobic atmosphere), the drama presents Bucher testifying before Naval officers and congressmen, explaining the choices he faced and defending the decisions he made, both onboard the Pueblo and before his captors, intercutting scenes of his testimony with his experiences in the Korean prison. You can see the complete drama here.

The drama received widespread critical acclaim and was nominated for seven Emmys, winning five. Holbrook pulled off the rare accomplishment of winning two Emmys for the same performance, one for Best Actor in a Drama, and the other, a “Super Emmy” for Actor of the Year in a special (defeating miniseries winner William Holden in The Blue Knight).

Super Emmys only existed for one year; until and unless the Academy brings the category back, we'll never see anyone win two Emmys for the same performance again. 

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I've pointed out many times—it probably seems to you like many, many times—that Saturday was not always the night that nobody watched television. CBS, for instance, has it's murderer's row lineup tonight, with All in the Family (8:00 p.m. ET), M*A*S*H (8:30 p.m.), Mary Tyler Moore (9:00 p.m.), and The Bob Newhart Show (9:30 p.m.), while ABC offers The Partridge Family (8:00 pacc.m.) before the ABC Suspense Movie, and NBC's special presentation of The Green Berets (8:00 p.m.). But what I find most interesting about this Saturday is a real programming oddity: the Grammys. Now, I can't imagine scheduling a major awards show live on a Saturday night nowadays, but here it is on CBS at 10:00 p.m., from the Hollywood Palladium, hosted by Andy Williams. This year's nominees for Album of the Year are "Behind Closed Doors" (Charlie Rich), "The Divine Miss M" (Bette Midler), "Innervisions" (Stevie Wonder), "Killing Me Softly" (Roberta Flack), and "There Goes Rhymin' Simon" (Paul Simon). And the winner is: Stevie Wonder! The Record of the Year and Song of the Year both go to Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song," and the Best New Artist is Bette Midler (beating out Marie Osmond, Barry White, Maureen McGovern, and Eumir Deodato. I wonder how far over the scheduled 90 minutes (!) the broadcast runs?

As for the rest of the week, Johnny Cash is the guest killer on a memorable Columbo (Sunday, 8:30 p.m., NBC), as a country music legend who murders his wife (Ida Lupino). The relationship between Columbo and Cash's character is a fun one; at the end you can see a mutual respect between the Lieutenant and a man he knows is too honest to be able to live with the guilt of his crime.

A screenshot from the original broadcast of Heidi
Wednesday features a repeat of Heidi (8:00 p.m., NBC), starring Julie Andrews' stepdaughter Jennifer Edwards in the title role, along with Maximillian Schell, Sir Michael Redgrave and Jean Simmons. The movie was first broadcast in 1968; I can't imagine why the listings don't make any mention of its memorable debut. For all that, it makes more sense to me than ABC's Wednesday Movie of the Week, The Stranger Who Looks Like Me (8:30 p.m.), starring Meredith Baxter, Beau Bridges, and Baxter's mother, Hazel's Whitney Blake. Here's what I don't get about this—the listing talks about "two adopted youths' frustrating search for their natural parents," yet the headline in the ad proclaims, "A powerful story of a woman's search." So what the hell happened to the other adopted youth? Somebody's not giving us the straight story here. If none of these appeal to you, check out The Merv Griffin Show (8:30 p.m., WKBS), as Merv hosts the 53rd annual Photoplay Awards.

On Thursday, Buck Owens hosts Music Country U.S.A. (10:00 p.m., NBC), with a veritable who's who of country stars: Jerry Reed, Jim Ed Brown, Mac Davis, Red Simpson, Ray Stevens, Red Steagall, Charlie Rich, Lynn Anderson, Tom T. Hall, Donna Fargo, Tommy Overstreet, Barbara Fairchild, Johnny Paycheck, Doug Kershaw, and Pat Daisy. Dionne Warwicke also appears, doing a duet of "Lonesome Me" with Buck. If you aren't too worn out to stay up late, catch Lucille Ball sitting down for 90 minutes with Dick Cavett as Dick's sole guest (11:30 p.m., ABC).

Friday's the night for variety specials, starting with Raquel Welch's "one-woman show" (9:00 p.m., CBS) in which the star sings, dances, and spoofs her own movie work. That's followed by Glen Campbell's The Musical West (10:00 p.m., NBC), and this most certainly is not a "one-man show," not with a guest lineup of Burl Ives, Michele Lee, and John Wayne. And Meredith Baxter makes a second appearance of the week on ABC's late-night The Invasion of Carl Enders (11:30 p.m.); this time, she plays "a girl possessed by the spirit of a woman believed to have been murdered." I wonder if she was adopted?

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Certainly, you know by now that I've been a fan of the manned space program since I was a child, so it's no surprise that I'd notice a couple of space-related items in this week's issue.

First, the recent splashdown of Skylab 4 has brought to an end the current era of U.S. manned flight, not to be resumed until the space shuttle comes along. It's also the occasion for ABC's science editor Jules Bergman to do some reminiscing of his own (Jimmy Stewart isn't the only one) on his years as a NASA insider. Says Bergman, "[I]t's now possible to tell some of the stories that couldn't be told before Or didn't get told for one reason or another." For example, two days before Wally Schirra's 1962 launch in Sigma 7, the astronaut almost killed himself in a waterskiing accident when his skis stuck in the mud, flinging him into the trees. Scott Carpenter, the next American into space, overshot the landing spot by 250 miles, causing the networks to wonder whether or not he'd survived. There were rumors that Carpenter had been enjoying a farewell party late into the night before; Flight Director Chris Kraft vowed Carpenter would never fly again, and he never did. Alan Shepard and Gordon Cooper, in a dress rehearsal for the first Mercury flight, teamed up to prank onlookers, with Cooper looking up at the Redstone rocket, started yelling, "I won't go! I won't go!" and attempted to break away from the two technicians accompanying him. Bergman himself was almost killed by a flying head from a dummy that had been flung out of a Vertical Accelerator at several hundred miles an hour.

Most impressive, perhaps, is Bergman's memory of Frank Borman, commander of Apollo 8, the first flight to orbit the moon. Bergman had spent six months trying to learn everything he could about the mission; "Borman's loyalty was such that he'd given me the unlisted number of his phone in the crew quarters in case I needed any last-minute questions answered." And, in fact, Bergman did have a question, on the eve of the flight. He called and left a message with one of the support crewmen; a few minutes later, Borman called back. "Hi! What's up?" I've always admired Frank Borman, and that just increases it. A real mensch.

And then there's the TV-movie premiere of Houston, We've Got a Problem on ABC Suspense Movie (Saturday, 8:30 p.m.), telling the story of Apollo 13 by focusing on the flight controllers in Houston, starring Ed Nelson as NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz. According to Jim Lovell, the commander of the flight, you shouldn't waste your time with this one: "NASA did a disservice to the flight crew and ground personnel connected with Apollo 13 by co-operating fully with this film," Lovell writes in a letter to NASA chief James Fletcher that was quoted in last week's TV Guide. "I resent the mixing of fact and fiction. If NASA wanted exposure of this nature, the story should have been based on a fictitious space flight." (The movie couldn't even get the title right; the actual quote from Lovell, after the explosion on Apollo 13, was "Houston, we've had a problem.") Herman Sanders, the movie's executive producer, replies with a remarkable candor that reflects how dense network suits can be. "We could never have gotten a straight documentary on the network," he says, "So what we did was take the basic facts and add fictional drama on top. How would you keep people in suspense, otherwise, when they all know the outcome of the story already?" I dunno; ask Ron Howard, maybe? TV  

February 28, 2020

Around the dial

This week I'm starting things off with a video from the Oddity Archive YouTube channel, which looks at the history of radio and television news bulletins. If you're any kind of a news buff, most of these clips will be familiar to you (Pearl Harbor, JFK, 9/11), but what really sold it for me is the host's opening rant on how cable news has cheapened the concept of "breaking news" beyond recognition. I've been complaining about this for years, which is one reason why I, a self-professed news junkie, never watch it anymore. I'm tired of being manipulated by people who can't tell the difference between a genuine news bulletin and promoting whatever story the network is hot on at the moment. It's great stuff—I think you'll agree with what he has to say. One other thing he mentions, and you have to be of a certain age, I think, to appreciate this: there used to be a time when the words "bulletin" or "special report" made your heart skip a beat, because you knew, just knew, that something terrible had happened. Now, in the era where everything is breaking news, you don't feel that way anymore, which is good. But that sensation of waiting the five or ten seconds to find out what had happened—that feeling was indescribable.

At Comfort TV, David has a "purchase or pass" recommendation on Our Miss Brooks, the 1950s sitcom starring Eve Arden, which is just coming out on DVD. I've only see a couple of episodes on TV; I'm most familiar with the show from radio days, and though I enjoy Arden, I could never really get into the series. I'll let you find out for yourself what David thinks.

The Hitchcock Project returns to bare•bones e-zine this week with Jack's look at the Stirling Silliphant-written episode "Little White Frock" from Hitchcock's third season. We haven't seen this one yet, so I'm not going to go into detail, but you'll enjoy how Jack follows the tale from its short-story origins to its appearance on the small screen. Entertaining as usual.

Here's something sure to be a crowd-pleaser from Classic Film & TV Café: seven things to know about Angie Dickinson. It's probably a symptom of my sheltered upbringing, plus my mother's musical tastes, that I first knew her as Burt Bacharach's wife before I did as a movie star. (She has some interesting things to say about Burt, by the way. What a fool he was.)

Does Bob batch it or botch it? Well, according to Hal at The Horn Section, it's a little of both, as he reviews "Bob Batches It," a very funny 1956 episode of Love that Bob!  I've also got Hal to thank for linking to the site That's Entertainment, which this week takes an in-depth at the 1956 radio comedy The Magnificent Montague, starring Monty Woolley, which was Nat Hiken's claim to fame prior to doing The Phil Silvers Show.

At Cult TV Blog, John admits that he thought the 2000 reboot of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) would have everything he disliked, but to his surprise, he would up enjoying it thoroughly, especially the episode "A Man of Substance," which manages more than a nod to The Avengers.

It's time for Jordan's monthly look at the back issues of The Twilight Zone Magazine over at The Twilight Zone Vortex, and in the issue of October, 1982, we have movie and book reviews, an interview with Nicholas Meyer, director of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Marc Scott Zicree's continuing guide to the original series, and the teleplay of the fifth-season episode "In Praise of Pip," which contains one of the first mentions of Vietnam on television. TV  

February 24, 2020

What's on TV? Saturday, February 23, 1980

Sometimes I think I don't pay enough attention to the weekend listings. In truth, if we were to sort through the 281 previous "What's on TV?" features, we'd probably find that Saturdays and Sundays are represented just as often as any other day of the week. (We'd probably also find that we have far too much free time on our hands.) In this case, looking at Saturday's listings was an obvious choice since we just looked at a 1980 issue last month. Trust me, the weekday daytime programs haven't changed that much in a month. Today's listings, which give us a nice mix of shows, movies and sports, comes from the Kentucky issue, which includes Cincinnati.

February 22, 2020

This week in TV Guide: February 23, 1980

The Winter Olympics come to a conclusion this weekend in Lake Placid, New York, and of course that means the Miracle on Ice. When you ask people what that means to them, assuming they care anything about the 1980 Winter Olympics, they'll say the U.S. hockey team's 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union. And yet, miracle though it may have been, that victory only gets them into the final game, against Finland on Sunday morning; by winning that game 4-2, Team USA takes the gold medal, and earns a place not just in sporting history, but American history as well.

I've often wondered, though, how history would have been different had the U.S. lost that last game. It's not far-fetched; Finland led 2-1 in the third period before the U.S. rallied, and hockey is the most mercurial of sports. It would hardly have been a stretch to see the U.S. follow up that landmark win over the Soviets by losing to Finland; in fact, with the Iranian hostage crisis in full flower and the country in the grip of a malaise (according to President Carter), one might say that such a result could have been expected. It's to the credit of the players and especially coach Herb Brooks that the inevitable letdown didn't cost the Americans the gold medal.

Was the victory over the Soviets more important than winning the gold medal? It's easy to say that it was, since that's the game that people remember, but certainly, if not tarnished, it would have come with an asterisk; due to the complicated nature of the round-robin medal round, the loss could have knocked the U.S. out of the medals altogether. The players on that team would have been admired, but not revered. In fact, the memory of the victory over the Soviets probably would have become painful, an example of what-if. It would have been a footnote rather than a headline; Kurt Russell and Karl Malden would never have played Herb Brooks, and Al Michaels never would have had the chance to shout, "Do you believe in miracles?" as the clock ran out in the Finland game. Would Michaels have would up becoming a broadcasting legend?

The pertinent questions were answered with the U.S. victory on Sunday morning. Combined with the five gold medals won by speed skater Eric Heiden, the United States finished third in the total medal count. It was one of the last Winter Olympics to be held the same year as the Summer games, and one of the last to hold to a 12-day schedule before the Winter games followed the bloated schedule of the Summer games. It was a nostalgic return to Lake Placid, the small New York town that had hosted the 1932 Winter Olympics, and remains, for those with a good memory, one of the best-remembered and best-loved games.

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The first-in-the-nation New Hampshire Primary is Tuesday night, with all three networks providing coverage after the late local news, and as was the case with the Olympic hockey team, the real story actually begins earlier.

When last we checked in on the battle for the Republican nomination, we were in Iowa, where George Bush had scored a surprising victory over Ronald Reagan. That led to the one-on-one debate between Reagan and Bush in New Hampshire, coming just three days before Tuesday's primary, which culminates in the famous "I am paying for this microphone" moment that galvanizes Reagan's campaign, puts an end to Bush's momentum, and results in a decisive victory for Reagan in New Hampshire. Reagan doesn't forget the fiasco in Iowa, however; as soon as the New Hampshire results are in, he shakes up his campaign staff, including sacking his campaign manager, John Sears (who, if I remember correctly, had wanted to run a safe, risk-free campaign that didn't allow Reagan to be Reagan).

Less well-remembered, perhaps, is that President Carter faces a primary challenge of his own, from Senator Ted Kennedy. Kennedy gets off on the wrong foot due to a disastrous interview with Roger Mudd, and he is routed in both Iowa and New Hampshire by Carter. The nomination is never really in doubt after that, and Kennedy's famous refusal to pose with Carter on the convention podium is a portent of things to come.

Speaking of which, when we considered how things might have been if the U.S. had lost that game against Finland, could it have affected the presidential race? I'm not sure about that, but there are those who believe the U.S. defeat of the Soviets may have subconsciously created a sense that the Soviets were beatable, that their domination of Eastern Europe was not inevitable after all—which is what Reagan had been saying all along. Who knows? To coin a phrase, I report; you decide.

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On weeks when we can, we'll match up two of the biggest rock shows of the '70s, NBC's The Midnight Special and the syndicated Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, and see who's better, who's best.

Kirshner: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Chic, David Johansen, the Village People, REO Speedwagon, and comic Jay Leno.

Special: Fleetwood Mac, Barry Manilow, Queen, Helen Reddy, the Byrds, Gary Wright, Wolfman Jack.

Let's get this much out of the way up front; the week is a pushfor me, the negatives on each show outweigh the positives. But let's not get into that; what interests me here is the longevity of these acts. Fleetwood Mac: still around (albeit after a few reunions and some cast changes); Queen: still around (with a new lead singer); Jay Leno: still around (if not on The Tonight Show). Barry Manilow: still around (even though we may not have asked for him). REO Speedwagon: still around (part of the lucrative seniors rock tour). Even the Village People still sing about the YMCA (although only one original member still remains), and I have no doubt that Tom Petty would still be touring if not for the  inconvenient fact that he's dead.

Now, consider that this TV Guide is 40 years old (and that Midnight Special episode was originally shown in 1977), and yet, most of these acts are still around. And they're by no means alone in this durabilitythe Stones, for instance, go back even further, and they're going to be starting a new tour. Frankly, I'm not sure what this means: could be it's a testament to the timelessness of classic rock; on the other hand, it might be evidence of creative stagnation in contemporary music. But here's an experiment for you: as you read through this today, and look at the TV listings from this issue on Monday, keep track of the actors and actresses on the big shows of February, 1980, and see how many of them are still acting, still starring in their own series, still relevant in today's entertainment world. I wonder what we'll find out.

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The late John Simon was probably one of the most polarizing critics of recent history; his brutal takedowns of movies, plays and books make Judith Crist's harshest criticisms look tame by comparison. That I have three volumes of Simon's collected reviews on my bookshelf probably says as much about me as it does about what Simon says.*


This week he takes a look at the BBC's landmark project to adapt all 37 of Shakespeare's plays,which kicks off its second season with Twelfth Night (Wednesday, 8:00 p.m., PBS). Simon's of two minds about this, the two minds being "Democrat" and "Elitist." The democrat in him celebrates how "the great playwright is finally reaching the audience for which he wrote: the peopleall of them." The elitist responds that "even assuming that these productions were decentwhich I don't think that the 'Romeo and Juliet' was; and the 'Measure for Measure,' 'As you Like It' and 'Julius Caesar' were scarcely betteris 'decent' good enough for a work of genius? And is television a good enough medium for the world's greatest poetic drama and dramatic poetry?"

As the dialogue goes on, it becomes clear what Simon means when he talks about whether or not TV is "good enough." For one thing, the intimacy of TV, the way it places you on the stage itself rather than in the audience, shatters the illusion that you experience in the theater. "If you can see all too clearly that Romeo is a chubby Teddy Boy and Juliet a sweet little Plain Jane, without even the compensation of remarkable acting, the romance gets lost. On-stage, distance and makeup can help older and better actors look right for the parts."* He's also not wonders if Shakespeare on TV is too easy for the viewer; "I am not sure that a masterpiece that drops readily into our laps, that requires no sacrifices, can ever be fully appreciated." Watching the Bard at home leads to too many visual distractions; "Shakespeare needs the sheer size he gets from the stage or the big screen."

*A valid point, one that the opera world has discovered with the rise of HD transmissions in movie theaters. It's no longer good enough to sing the role; you have to look it as well.

Simon also makes a shrewd point about how television puts the viewer at the mercy of the actor. What does he mean by this? A poor performance "can to some extent be palliated in the theater, where the spectator frames his view as his eye chooses, not as the TV director decides to frame a shot." And if the performance is really bad, "it becomes too easy to flip the dial or turn the damned thing off."

That's not to say that television has nothing to offer. Simon's democratic side points to the ability to use the natural world as a backdrop (rather than a painted background or obvious prop), or how TV "allows the sword fights in "Romeo" to be more real and terrifying than they can ever be on stage." Simon's elitist side counters that too much realism detracts from and overwhelms the play itself,  To which the democrat replies, "Those are all arguments of a perfectionist who belongs in Utopia, not in this imperfect world." Is it not true that "half of a loaf is still vastly preferable to a perfect but unattainable whole"?

In the end, that's where Simon seems to come down: while the complete televised Shakespeare "may be only a partial and dubious blessing to sophisticated viewers," the majority will derive "pleasure, profit and perhaps even the stimulus to sit down and read and ponder the texts."

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Big news in the world of news: Walter Cronkite will be stepping down as anchor of the CBS Evening News in favor of Dan Rather. Rather has been the subject of intense interest from NBC and, especially, ABC; Roone Arledge reportedly offered Rather $1.5 million a year to make the jump. I remember at the time there was speculation that CBS, desperate to keep Rather at the network, had eased Cronkite out of the anchor desk; TV Guide reporters Sally Bedell and John Weisman say only that "when the seriousness of ABC's offer was discovered, CBS executives asked Cronkite to decide when he would retire, and were able to give Rather a firm offer" for five years and $8 million. Is that the real story? One of my Christmas gifts last year was Douglas Brinkley's Cronkite biography; maybe I'll find the answer there.

If John Simon has talked you out of watching Shakespeare on Wednesday, you might want to try the Grammy Awards (9:00 p.m., CBS), hosted by Kenny Rogers. TV Guide calls this "one of the most entertaining of the awards shows," which tells you how old this issue is. Another indication: the nominees. For example, in the category of "Best New Artist," the nominees are The Blues Brothers, Dire Straits, Rickie Lee Jones, The Knack, and Robin Williams; while the battle for "Record of the Year" comes down to "After the Love Has Gone" (Earth, Wind & Fire), "The Gambler" (Kenny Rogers), "I Will Survive" (Gloria Gaynor), "What a Fool Believes" (Doobie Brothers); and "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" (Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand). Rickie Lee Jones and the Doobies are the winners in those two categories, in case you're curious, and Billy Joel's "52nd Street" wins Album of the Year. Wednesday also sees the conclusion of Edward and Mrs. Simpson (8:00 p.m., syndicated); I wrote more about that series when it premiered.

The three-part miniseries Scruples, starring Lindsay Wagner and Barry Bostwick, is the centerpiece of CBS's schedule this week, airing on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday nights at 9:00 p.m. Whoops, I didn't mean to demean it by calling it a miniseries; the ads refer to it as "A CBS Movie Spectacular." And you can get ready for Scruples by watching She's a Good Skate, Charlie Brown (8:00 p.m. Monday, CBS), another of the subpar (in my opinion) Peanuts specials of the late '70s and '80s.

And, since it's the month for thinking of loved ones, just remember that nothing says love quite like a subscription to TV Guide. The two most honest men in American history, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, cannot tell a lie, so you can believe them when they offer you a no-risk, 37-issue subscription at the rock-bottom price of only $13.95. That's only $13.95 for 37 action-packed issues of the nation's #1 magazine! Or, if you want to hedge your bets, you can try 26 issues for the introductory price of just $9.87! Can you believe it?

A one-year subscription to today's version of TV Guide costs just $20, plus you get a free Organizer Tote and a Classic Covers calendar! Mind you, TV Guide is only published every other week, you don't get your local TV listings, and instead of incisive articles on the issues of the day you get fan-mag profiles of today's hottest celebrities. But, hey, free calendar! TV   

February 21, 2020

Around the dial

One of these days I'm going to hold a contest for you all to come up with the best caption/story behind the pictures I use in this feature each week. It doesn't matter what the real meaning of the picture is; take this week's, for example. I have no idea what the context is, but whatever it is, I'm confident that you can come up with a better, more entertaining one. For our classic TV bloggers out there, it should be no trouble at all.

One of the things I like best about Rick's movie reviews at Classic Film & TV Café is that they can make me want to watch a movie I've never considered before. Take Hour of the Gun, director John Sturgess' follow-up to The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It boasts a stellar cast, including James Garner in a rare straight dramatic role, and dwells in the aftermath of an event that became part of American history.

Staying in the Western genre, Television's New Frontier: The 1960s takes measure of Whispering Smith, the 1961 Audie Murphy Western that I reviewed myself a while back. I think the series made a more positive impression on me than it did at New Frontier, but there's some fascinating insider and behind-the-scenes information on this single-season series. I wonder if I can interest Eventually Supertrain in this.

Audie Murphy was a tough guy indeed, but so was Robert Conrad, and David has a very nice appreciation of Conrad's career at Comfort TV. The man has a lot of credits, and even in the shows and movies that were, shall we say, less than memorable, he almost always rose about his material.

Speaking of appreciation, you'll know from my TV Guide reviews how much I appreciate the rip jobs that Judith Crist would write about a particularly bad Saturday Night at the Movies feature. (There were a couple of good ones last week, in fact.) Therefore, you can't be surprised that I thoroughly enjoyed (and agreed with) the trashing of the PBS series Sandotin, based on the unfinished novel by Jane Austen, at The Flaming Nose. My wife, who loves Austen, wouldn't go near this.

Finally, on Wednesday I wrote about a rather critical review of The Andy Griffith Show, which generated a good number of interesting comments. One of the best came from BDHarrell, who linked to a very, very funny spoof from Spy magazine titled "The Truth About My Three Sons."  If you don't read any other link from today's roundup (and, really, you should read them all), read this one. I think you'll be glad you did. TV  

February 19, 2020

The Andy Griffith Show: Unsuitable for children?

A couple of years ago, I linked to an essay in one of our weekly "Around the Dial" features; it's called "The Decline and Fall of The Andy Griffith Show, the premise being that the author didn't think ole Andy and his Mayberry friends were "safe" for his children to watch. I didn't have much to say at the time other than that I thought he was overthinking the whole thing; in fact, I'd forgotten all about it, but a repost of the essay appeared on Facebook a few weeks ago, and I thought it was time to take a closer look at it.

The author is Joseph Pearce, British expat, Catholic author, and theological and social critic, and as you can see from his Wikipedia biography he's lived quite a remarkable life. I didn't mention his name back then, because, frankly, he's more famous than I am and I didn't think he needed the publicity. Although Pearce had been no stranger to American sitcoms growing up in England, The Andy Griffith Show was one that had escaped his attention until moving here, "at which point I became aware that it held an affectionate and nostalgic place in the hearts of many Americans."

Joseph Pearce, reading about—you guessed it.
Even then, he didn't pay much attention to the show, which his wife introduced into the family viewing schedule as something "safe" for the children. "And it was only over the past few weeks, while watching several episodes with our nine-year-old daughter, that I have come to realize that this iconic expression of American culture is not as 'safe' or wholesome as I had thought."

Let me interrupt at this point to disclose that I've never been a particular fan, either of Andy Griffith or The Andy Griffith Show. I realize that puts me in the minority among classic television fans, but it's one of those "your mileage may vary" moments. Nonetheless, even though the show's charms escape me, I've never thought of Mayberry as anything less than wholesome. So what's up? I'll let Pearce explain it in his own words:

The problem lies in the fact that the Mayberry that we see in the first few seasons is systematically undermined so that by the seventh and eighth seasons it has ceased to exist in all but the dereliction of its name, the iconic image of idyllic and idealized small-town America having been desecrated and destroyed by the iconoclasm of sixties’ ideological hedonism. What is presented over the eight years and more than 200 episodes is the demise of Mayberry and all that it represents. What we witness and experience is its decay and disintegration, and ultimately its death. This was brought home to me after I watched several episodes from the first season, in which I basked in the almost prelapsarian warmth of the benign sun that shines forth on the idealized simplicity of the small and beautiful world in which Sheriff Andy Taylor lives, and then, immediately afterwards, I watched an episode from the seventh season* in which the ideal had been swept away by sixties “progressive” preachiness. In this later episode the simple but sagacious Sheriff of earlier seasons has become an emasculated shadow of his former self, passively embracing the feminist modernism of the female protagonist as she undermines traditional values at Mayberry’s high school, encouraging her students to usher in the forthcoming summer of “love,” which would lead to the loveless loneliness of postmodernist alienation. And thus the timeless moral verities that had formed the solid foundation of Mayberry had succumbed to the quicksand quagmire of relativism, sinking without trace into the desert of the urbanized wasteland. And all with Sheriff Andy’s approval.

*"The Senior Play," first broadcast November 14, 1966

Pearce goes on to compare "the idealized world of Mayberry with the idealized world of Hobbiton, the home of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins in Tolkien’s mythical Shire." In many ways, they reflect the same values, "an ideal to which the better part of ourselves wishes to aspire, an inkling of a perfection to which, paradoxically, all our imperfections point, the latter being merely the perceived lack of the former." There is, however, a difference. More Pearce:

Whereas Mayberry suffers the scourge of modernism, succumbing to its sweet-tasting poison and thereby ceasing to be, the Shire suffers the same modernist scourge but is scoured and restored to health. After the hobbits return home from their quest, they discover that their beloved homeland had succumbed to industrialization and the crass materialism and big government socialism that is its consequence. Instead of capitulating and moving with the times, as does Sheriff Andy, they fight with indomitable courage to defeat the modernist enemy and to heal the culture which had been contaminated by it. The Shire is scoured; it is cleansed and purged.

Pearce's conclusion suggests that Mayberry has become a victim of a certain sort of nihilism; "[I]f we believe that there is nothing but decay we can expect nothing but death. This is the deadly price of decadence. If, however, we believe that the very heart of life is love, and that love is inseparable from a dying to ourselves, we will see that this sort of death always leads to resurrection. If we truly learn to love our neighbours and to love our neighbourhoods, laying down our lives for them in the spiritual death which is the essence of love, we can scour the Shire and rekindle the vision of human dignity which makes Mayberry feel like home." Or, in the parlance of the Sixties, "All you need is love."

Now, far be it from me to criticize anyone for introducing postmodernism, iconoclasm and relativism to the world of classic television; I'm certainly not an anti-intellectual, since I'm prone to discussing existentialism myself. Still, on rereading Pearce's essay, my reaction now is the same as it was two years ago: I think he's overthinking things. Perhaps the show's later seasons do lack the "prelapsarian warmth" of the early episodes, but is this due to "the quicksand quagmire of relativism," or is it more a case of the writers running out of ideas, and trying desperately to make the series relevant in a culture that was rapidly evolving out of control?

It's not surprising that Pearce invokes Tolkien and the Hobbit stories, given that one of the books he's authored is Tolkien: Man and Myth. Nevertheless, he comes across as one of those guys you meet at a party—you know, that guy who knows everything about one particular subject, and finds a way to work it into the conversation no matter what you're talking about. It could be the presidential election, the weather, the Super Bowl; you can be sure he's somehow going to steer it back to Tolkien. And don't misunderstand me; I consider myself second to none in my admiration for the works of Tolkien. I love the Hobbit stories, especially when Orson Bean plays one of them. But, just as the case of that guy at the party, pretty soon you just start to tune him out, and I think it was at this point that Pearce lost me.

I'm only too willing to grant that Pearce is right in much of what he says about the underlying message being delivered in "The Senior Play." The question is this: for those viewers less learned than Pearce, would they have the same takeaways at the end of the episode? And if we're going to talk about Mayberry in such a hyperrealistic way, how can we overlook the racial component? Let's face it: Mayberry is in the heart of the South (is it North Carolina? I've always thought so, for some reason), which in the Sixties wasn't exactly the most racially harmonious part of the country. What Pearce sees as "idyllic and idealized small-town America" looks quite different to progressive writer Ta-Nehisi Coats, who quotes his friend Brooke: "And as we all know--we all know this, right?--a 'simpler time' is shorthand for a time when white people didn't have to think about whether they were treating nonwhite people (or women) like humans. As Brooke said, it was mostly the 'good old boys' who still clung to the ideals of Mayberry." Apparently, when it comes to this small town, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Maybe we should just forget the whole damned town of Mayberry altogether.

As you can see, I'm somewhat conflicted about all this. I kind of agree with Pearce but not completely, and there's maybe something about his manner and reasoning that sort of turns me off. But, as I admitted at the beginning, I'm not a fan of the show. I'm sure many of you out there are. So let me put the question to you: is Pearce right? Would you let your kids watch The Andy Griffith Show? Or does its "decline and fall" mirror the disintegration of American culture in general; is it, does it, in fact, precipitate the decline? Share your experiences in the comments, and tell me what you think. TV  

February 17, 2020

What's on TV? Friday, February 21, 1969

I don't think it's a secret to any of you that my favorite issues are from the Twin Cities; we have a history, the Cities and me. That's probably why I enjoy these occasional excursions into other parts of the country; it gives me an idea of the shows we were missing back home. For instance, without TV Guide I would never have known that Donald O'Connor hosted his own variety show (8:30 p.m., WKBS), just as past issues introduced me to similar programs with Allen Ludden and Tom Kennedy. (I don't count the time I spent in the World's Worst Town™; you could probably put together an entire issue with nothing but the shows we didn't get there.) This week's issue, for the record, is from Philadelphia.

February 15, 2020

This week in TV Guide: February 15, 1969

This city of Chicago runs the city of Prague a close second right now as the world's least attractive tourist attraction." Now, before you get upset with me, I didn't say this; as a matter of fact, I rather like Chicago, even though it's one of the most violent and corrupt cities in the country, if not the world. No, these words come from CBS commentator Eric Sevareid, in the buildup to the 1968 Democratic Convention, and they set the tone for Neil Hickey's article, the second of four parts, on "Television in Turmoil"—in this case, the networks defending themselves against charges of bias and distortion in their coverage of the convention.

And they can use all the help they can get. As we saw a while back, the media were united as seldom before in their opposition to the violence and police abuse that they had witnessed (and, in some cases, experienced personally) during the "Battle of Chicago," only to find that the great majority of Americans were siding against them, and with Mayor Daley and his police. They're now being called upon by the FCC to answer the many letters of complaint received about their coverage, and in their defense they point out that a relatively small percentage of their overall convention coverage was devoted to the more violent moments. ABC, for example, points out that with their limited coverage (90 minutes per night), only 13 minutes and 49 seconds concerned the violence between police and demonstrators. Additionally, ABC counted William F. Buckley Jr. among their commentators, and both he and ABC newsman Howard K. Smith were strongly critical of the demonstrators. NBC had perhaps the cheekiest response, telling the FCC that many viewers simply had "forgotten instances of reporting which contradict their conclusions, while recalling only selectively or inaccurately to suit an argument." (Doubtless those same viewers probably felt the same way about the NBC,) CBS, meanwhile, criticized the limits set up by the Chicago police, "restraints upon the freedom of movement and technical resources of television . . . which have never before been imposed on the medium."

ABC's explanation may be the best: the events were so "inherently inflammatory," and "people identified so passionately with one side or the other, that no matter how these events were treated by the news media, there would inevitably have been criticism of the news coverage." However, Hickey concludes, that explanation has pleased nobody, neither "private citizen nor public official who was convinced that television behaved with partisan bad manners in Chicago last August and ought to be restrained from ever doing so again."

What's the moral of the story? For the news media, Chicago 1968 was an existential crisis, the first time they'd been confronted with the possibility they were out of touch with the views of the public, and many media people wondered if that might not in fact be the case. The question of media bias is rising, through the coverage of civil rights, Vietnam, the convention, and national protests, and it's only going to get more pointed with the outspoken speeches of Vice President Agnew. And, judging by what we read and hear today, the argument shows no signs of dissipating. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

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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: Tentatively scheduled guests: Arthur Godfrey; singers Caterina Valente and the Young Americans; the rocking Blood, Sweat and Tears; comedians Rodney Dangerfield, and Fiore and Eldridge; and juggler Eric Brenn.

Palace: Host Milton Berle welcomes Steve Allen, Jayne Meadows, Mel Tormé, singers Dana Valery and Leland Palmer, and comedian Jerry Collins.

This matchup could go either way. I think Sullivan has a deeper lineup, but I like the way Palace starts out strong with Steverino, Jayne, and the Velvet Fog. And anyway, this isn't about which lineup is better, it's about which one I like the best, and I think this week I prefer Hollywood over New York. Palace wins the week.

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Throughout the 60s and early 70s, TV Guide's weekly 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. 

Before Brian Lamb and Booknotes on C-SPAN, there was a program on NET, a much-loved program called Book Beat, hosted by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Cromie, in which Cromie interviews an author about his latest book. Now, there's nothing particularly new about authors being interviewed about their books, though rarely for a half hour. Johnny and Merv and Joey do it all the time. And this doesn't always make for the best television since, as Cleveland Amory points out, authors make for difficult interviewees: "All too often he exhibits that one unpardonable combination—nervousness and ego together. A man becomes an author, Somerset Maugham once said, because he is the kind of man who things of what he should have said on the way home from the party. We have often thought of that line as we watched some interview program and saw some author mumbling along."

(As an author myself, I'm probably not the best one to talk about the accuracy of this statement. It is true, I will admit, that many of my best retorts come post facto, when I become hilarious and erudite in the eyes of an audience of one. In my defense, however, as well as the defense of authors everywhere, I should note that the only important thing about coming up with the right thing to say is being able to remember it long enough to write it down. This I am usually able to do.)

What makes Bob Cromie, and Book Beat, different is this: not only does Cromie read every book that he discusses on the show, he proceeds from the assumption that his viewers are as interested in these books as he is. This makes a big difference. It also helps that Cromie knows his role on the show. For instance, notes Cleve, a recent program with Marc Connelly (Voices off Stage) required him to do little more than provide the punctuation for Connelly's nonstop stories. On the other hand, when interviewing Norman Mailer (Miami and the Streets of Chicago), Cromie's job was to "grin and bear it" in the face of Mailer's relentless negativity, and he did it so well that, Amory says, "at the end Mr. Mailer was actually likable."

Most memorable, perhaps, was an interview with Elie Wiesel (Legends of Our Time), in which Cromie's simple question, "You are, I believe, a survivor of Auschwitz?" was enough to "open the floodgates of one of the most memorable interviews we have ever heard." So memorable was it that Cleve dispenses with his clever bon mots and puns, in favor of quoting Wiesel's poignant words about the Holocaust. When asked how many of his family died in Auschwitz, Wiesel replies, "Dozens. Dozens and dozens and dozens. In each of my books I give life to one member of my family. In one book my father, in another my grandfather, in another my little sister. I try to bring them in and give them some kind of monument. In words, not stone—there is no stone." That, I think, is what it means to be an author, and also what it means to be interviewed by a pro.

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The Americanization of Emily is generally considered one of James Garner's best movies; with a script by Paddy Chayefsky, it combines the easygoing charm of Garner and co-star Julie Andrews with the savage satire and biting wit of Chayefsky's other hits, including The Hospital and Network. (In fact, both Garner and Andrews considered it their personal favorite of all the movies they acted in.) Its anti-war message was controversial in its time, however, and we get a hint of that in Judith Crist's review (Thursday, 9:00 p.m. ET, CBS). "[This week's] pretension is in The Americanization of Emily, an "almost" movie in that it almost gets where it thinks it's going before it changes its mind  and gets nowhere. Blame the fuzzy-minded and phrase-gimmicked screenplay extolling cowardice because heroics and heroism immorally support and encourage war. James Garner is simply unbelievable as the antihero and Julie Andrews is charming, but Emily barely gets her first papers.

If you think that's a bad review, though, wait until you get to her take on The Carpetbaggers (Sunday, 9:00 p.m., ABC). "Five years ago this screen version of Harold Robbins' foray into poor man's pornography was noteworthy for its being dull and dreary soap opera decked out with near-incest, nymphomania, alcoholism, prostitution, blackmail, big-business dirty-dealing and some antique theorizing about hereditary insanity. Since these are now the everyday stuff of entertainment, we're left only with the dull and dreary. The movie grossed millions because people paid to see if it was as smutty as the book. It wasn't." Ouch!

Lest you think all is negative, there's "one of Hollywood's best movie musicals," Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Friday, 9:00 p.m., CBS), directed by Stanley Donen and choreographed by Michael Kidd, and staring Howard Keel and Jane Powell. "The fresh humor of the plotting is irresistible and the dancing—particularly a barn-raising and rough-house sequence—still stands beyond compare." I know it's one of my wife's favorites, but I can't help but think about this version.

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College basketball is the big winner in this week's sports scene, highlighted by the famous Palestra doubleheaders that have been such a big part of the Philadelphia basketball scene for so many years. On Wednesday night it's Seton Hall vs. St. Joseph's, followed by Duquesne vs. LaSalle; Friday it's Brown vs. Penn and Detroit vs. LaSalle. Both nights begin at 7:00 p.m. on WPHL. While some of these colleges may be obscure in the big-time scene nowadays, Eastern basketball was big-time back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the NCAA tournament had maybe 22 teams and each conference could only send one team.

There's also golf this week; the PGA Tour event is the Phoenix Open (5:00 p.m. Sunday, ABC), and the made-for-TV shows include the CBS Golf Classic (4:00 p.m. Saturday) and Shell's Wonderful World of Golf (Saturday, 5:00 p.m., NBC). With their big names and color footage of some of the world's greatest golf courses, I think these shows had more to do with the growth of golf than the actual tournaments. The NHL Game of the Week gives us the Boston Bruins against the Black Hawks at Chicago (Sunday, 2:30 p.m., CBS), and the Flyers are on local TV, taking on the Blues in St. Louis Wednesday at 9:00 on WKBS.

Also on Wednesday, it's the second annual Academy of Professional Sports Awards, live from Hollywood (10:00 p.m., NBC). Last year, the host was Johnny Carson; this year, the honors go to Perry Como. I haven't been able to find out too much about these awards; I know there were several awards of this type around this time (the Victor Awards, for example), but I don't see any evidence of this outfit beyond this year.

And if none of these float your boat, there's ABC's Pro Bowlers Tour Saturday at 3:00 p.m., followed by Wide World of Sports, featuring figure skating and the World Figure-Eight Stock Car Championships at Islip, New York—always a favorite. Remember these?

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Raymond Burr has moved out of the courtroom and into a wheelchair, as the star of Ironside. In fact, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that, despite the supporting cast, Burr, virtually through an act of will, is the show. And in this interview with Edith Efron, he shows how similar the character is to the man.

Efron begins by looking back, to Burr's portrayal of Perry Mason, to find how the actor inhabits a role—or, more accurately, how he creates it. Speaking of Mason, Burr says he wasn't given much to work with: "Erle Stanley Gardner did not create a character with spiritual qualities." But Mason, like Robert Ironside, "is something like doing a Greek tragedy. You already know what the end will be. Because the action is schematized and predictable, the whole concentration must be on qualities of character. I had to project these qualities, these values, from the inside."

So what, Efron asks, does it take for an actor to portray a hero? "It's harder to play a hero than a heavy. It requires the ability to project honesty and truth, to project great moral purity. A certain subtle quality of evil can prevent an actor from conveying the purity required for a heroic lead." When Efron asks if, then, Burr lacks that quality of evil and has that purity, he replies "I didn't say that." Even though, implicitly, he did.

Because of the values he projects, Efron says, Burr "has gotten more than respect. He is the object of moral adulation by an incredible legion of human beings in 71 countries—where the Perry Mason show is breaking international records for inspiring devotion, as it did for so long in this country." He inspires awe in fellow actors, and even fear. Says an old friend, "Those eyes—they seem to go right through you to the core. He looks—and you've had it. He affects a lot of people that way."

Raymond Burr is something of a contradiction. He's an intensely private person, and yet to a great degree the man you see on the screen, regardless of the role, is Raymond Burr. He tells Efron a curious thing: "I never lie. I don't say all there is to say about myself. But I never lie. And I hate being lied to." Well, we know that he has lied, about his life and his background, though there's no evidence that it was ever done for personal gain, but simply to help create that barrier around him. (And in fairness, a number of the "lies" are simply conclusions drawn by others based on things he's said.)

This isn't the first article TV Guide has done on Burr, and it won't be the last. But no matter how many times we read about him, he continues to be more and more fascinating, even as we find we never get any closer to knowing him.

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I don't really know what to make of the show I'm about to mention. It's a special called Children's Letters to God (Sunday, 8:30 p.m. ET, NBC), hosted by Gene Kelly and by our old favorite, Dr. Frank Buxton, and based on the best-seller by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall. From the description, I think it's supposed to be a humorous half-hour, kind of like those bits that Johnny Carson used to do where he'd read Thanksgiving recipes from children. ("Put the turkey in the oven at 1,000 degrees for 10 minutes.") The letters were written by kids in Sunday school, and put to animation by Bill Melendez Associates, the folks responsible for the Peanuts specials.*

*Of which there just happens to be one this week, He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown, Thursday at 7:30 p.m. on CBS.

Some of these letters are pretty funny: "Dear God, Why did you make worms and things? I know you must have had a reason, but I hope it was a good one," reads an unsigned one, while Frank writes, "Dear God, I saw St. Patrick Church last week when we went to New York. You live in a nice house." The program description notes that a child may write about "anything—slum conditions, a show-business career or a distaste for [as we saw] crawly creatures." The letters are described as whimsical and touching, and there's something quite poignant about how these children share with God so freely and openly, about whatever happens to be on their mind, as if they were talking with a friend or parent—and that's the way it should be.

At the same time, I get the feeling there's something far more existential buried in this idea, especially considering when this show was made. I'm drawn back to that memorable 1968 Mister Rogers episode in which Daniel Striped-Tiger asks about assassination. Was there a letter from a child asking, "Dear God, Why do bad people kill good people? Or are they not really bad?" What about a letter like, "Dear God, Why did you make things like War? And why did my daddy die?" And, of course, we're right in the middle of the counterculture revolution; I wonder if anyone would have written, "Dear God, My older sister says you're dead. Is that true?" Maybe a Jewish child would have asked a question about the Holocaust, like Elie Wiesel. I realize that this all sounds terribly depressing, or at the very least like something that The Onion would have come up with. But there was great desperation taking hold of America at the end of the Sixties, and no wonder: war, race, poverty, sex, drugs, divorce. Children must have been frightened by it all, it also seems quite natural that this would have been a deeper, more reflective program than it is.

And then there's how a show like this looks from today's perspective. I know that these kinds of programs are still done by people like Steve Harvey, and books like this one are still written. (The original authors themselves wrote additional volumes.) But there's a segment of the population out there, the people who despise any kind of religion, and they probably equate Sunday school with some form of child abuse, or scoff at the naivety of these children that they actually believe in something as foolish as God. Certainly the East and West Coasts are far too sophisticated for this kind of sentimental claptrap. Seriously, could you air a program like this today? It seems to be a relic not just from another era, but another world.

That's why I say that I'm not quite sure what to make of this program. I look at the title and I see something that's probably completely different from what the program actually was. I look at the books with their brightly colored covers, and read the earnest letters written in a kid's handwriting, and I understand what they're going for. Then I look back at the title again: Children's Letters to God. There is something so very stark about that, don't you think? "Dear God, Please get me and my family out of this place." "Dear God, I pray every night. Do you hear me?" Maybe one like "Dear God, Thank you for the food we have every day," or "Dear God, Thanks for bringing my mom home from the hospital." Were there letters like those too? Why is there suffering? Why did my dog have to die? Kids ask these kinds of questions, and I think the answers would have been quite moving, as well as inspiring.

I know, I know; reading too much into something again. Still, a version of this program on Lamp Unto My Feet or Look Up and Live might have been interesting; Fred Rogers would certainly know how to do it. As the world seemed to crumble before our very eyes, it would have reminded us just Who holds it all together. TV