March 28, 2020

This week in TV Guide: March 28, 1970

Is there a laugh to be found on the set of Laugh-In? Or is Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In? That’s Bill Davidson’s mission this week, as he goes behind the scenes of NBC’s groundbreaking variety show to find out if all that glitters is truly gold, or at least funny.

Rumors abound*, as they always do in Hollywood, that tension seethes just under the surface: rancor between stars, bitterness over stars leaving for film careers, tension between the writers and performers, between Rowan and Martin, and between Rowan-Martin and the producers, George Schlatter and Ed Friendly.

*Just like horses gallop, sheep graze, and geese fly south for the winter. It is, apparently, what rumors do.

According to Davidson, based on his three weeks of observation on set, along with that from an undercover reporter (!), most of the rumors are exaggerated. There is tension, to be sure, but not more than one is accustomed to seeing on the set of a busy television program. Schlatter dismisses stories of bitterness on the part of departed cast members, with the exception of Judy Carne, who complained about her salary. (“Judy’s enormous talent does not extend to her knowledge of the economics of television.”) He also doesn’t worry that the defections will weaken the show’s appeal; “On this show, if we don’t bring in fresh new people, we die. We lose a Goldie Hawn and we find a Lily Tomlin; we lose an Arte Johnson and we find a Johnny Brown.”

The one area in which the rumors do seem to pan out is the tension between the co-hosts and producers. Says Schlatter, “The one thing Dan and Dick have in common is hatred of me.” Some of it is relatively small; for example, the hosts wish people would refer to the show by its official title, Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, rather than the commonly used Laugh-In. The larger point of dispute, however, concerns credit for the show’s concept. Dan Rowan claims it originates with a 1963 pilot the duo did for ABC; Schlatter says that in 1967 he and Digby Wolfe came to Friendly, who at the time was VP of programming for NBC, with a “kooky idea” for an alternative comedy show without hosts. When NBC insisted that the show at least have hosts, Schlatter says, Friendly brought in Rowan and Martin, and—well, you know the rest. (Friendly was so pleased with his matchmaking that he quit the network to become Schlatter’s partner,)

Davidson suggests that the evidence, so to speak, tends to favor Schlatter’s version of the story; their 1963 pilot (as well as their 1965 NBC summer replacement show) was relatively conventional, whereas Schlatter had long been attracted to such avant-garde fare as Ernie Kovacs, and was responsible for hiring most of the talent. Rowan and Martin added their non sequitur bits from their nightclub acts, and: magic! Says Rowan, “The guts of this show came from our 17 years of hard work in the toilets of America. We finally got a chance to stand up and say, ‘Here’s what we do,’ and suddenly all the announcements are about Schlatter hiring so-and-so and NBC doing so-and-so, Why can’t it be The Rowan and Martin Show, just like it’s The Carol Burnett Show and The Bill Cosby Show?” Counters Schlatter, speaking of cast members such as Hawn, Johnson and Tomlin, “Who would even know them or want them if they weren’t with us?” In fact, suggests Davidson, neither Rowan-Martin nor Schlatter-Friendly have had that much success without the other, suggesting that it’s all mostly a team effort.

All well and good. What I find interesting, looking back at it all from the perspective of 50 years, is that for all the discussion of how Laugh-In represents “a TV landmark,” the show today appears rather tame. While it do much to make popular “the one-line gags, the quick cuts, the fantastic pacing,” the show lacks the timelessness of an Ernie Kovacs, or even Carol Burnett. Despite the many guest cameos (including Richard Nixon), it lacks the clips of musical and comedy acts that has make The Ed Sullivan Show such a treasure trove of cultural history. The humor, which was “iconoclastic and bawdy” back then, is tame compared to other shows today. Even the pacing and blackouts for which the show was so famous were done, and done better, by Monty Python’s Flying Circus, another show which has aged much better. In fact, one critic commented when the complete Laugh-In was finally released on DVD a couple of years ago, it’s remarkable how mild and conventional the show really is. Watching it today, one is tempted to say—as James Lileks said once about Christmas cartoons of the 1960s—that nostalgia is the prime appeal of the show. Without that, how many people would actually care?

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In spawned many performers and writers who went on to greater things, and shaped the future of television in a unique way. It was, for a time, the number-one show on television. However, it was also a show of its time, a show that looms large in the cultural history of the 1960s and ‘70s, but shrinks outside that bubble. Perhaps that was always its destiny, to be remembered more for what it did than what it was.

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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. 

Cleveland Amory already harbors a grudge toward Paris 7000, the ABC series starring George Hamilton as a troubleshooter based in the American embassy in Paris. It has to do with one of his personal favorites, Barbara Anderson, one of the stars of Ironside, “a girl with whom we’ve been going steady every Thursday night since any of you can remember.” Seems she was guesting on an early episode of Paris 7000, “just visiting a show, for heaven’s sake, the first time we’ve ever seen her on another show, and before we get a good look at her, she’s dead.” Thrown out a window, apparently. “She was a stewardess, you see, in Paris for the first time, and she’d fallen in love with him. Honestly, in love with George Hamilton. No wonder this show is going off the air. There’s no reality We ask you, in real life would a girl like Barbara Anderson fall in love with George Hamilton? It’s like asking would you rather read just any critic, or read us? The answer is obvious. Thank you.” Well, when you start off on the wrong foot like that, there’s nowhere to go but down.

This is one of those shows, says Cleve, that challenges you to justify its existence—as far as he can tell, its sole purpose is “to find something for George to do. He went down, you’ll recall, on the Titanic—or rather The Survivors—and ABC apparently had to keep on paying him. So they decided to shoot this show around him. Our feeling is they should have done the reverse.” The premise is that Hamilton is there to help Americans who find themselves in trouble and, if they can’t find Roger Moore or Patrick McGoohan or Richard Bradford or Steve Forrest to help them out (my interpretation), they enlist George. However, Amory notes, “With allies like George, who needs trouble spots?” There are plenty of them in Paris 7000, though; “in fact, the first show we were telling you about was all one.”

The key word here seems to be believability (Amory notes that one of the writers of that Barbara Anderson episode was named Guerdeon Trueblood, and it was directed by Jeannot Szwarc; “Why should we believe it?”), and even though you might be able to understand why Barbara Anderson would be attracted to Hamilton, there’s also the episode in which Diane Baker guest-stars as a German refugee who enlists Hamilton “to help her re-enter East German and find her long-lost brother and her accent.” By the end of the episode, Amory recounts, we’ve encountered “majors, colonels, security men, East German undergrounders and even Russians.” Some of them, he says, are unbelievably good, others unbelievably bad. But, like the show itself, they share one trait: they’re unbelievable.

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Television's real Nanny
I knew that QBVII, the 1975 ABC TV-movie, would be a waste of my time the moment Ben Gazzara, at his smarmy best (or worst), started tomcatting around while he was married to Juliet Mills. Seriously—this requires a suspension of disbelief I’m not prepared to invoke for anything that isn’t labeled Science Fiction, and even then I’m not so sure.

The winsome Miss Mills, daughter of the distinguished actor John and sister of the Disney star Hayley (and subject of many a young boy’s crush), is co-starring in ABC’s midseason replacement Nanny and the Professor as the aforementioned nanny, Phoebe Figalilly by name, whom Richard Warren Lewis describes as “a composite of the most commercial elements of Mary Poppins, the good witch Samantha, Jeannie, Dr. Dolittle and The Flying Nun.” Which raises the immediate question: why would a classically trained actress and member of a distinguished acting family, with stage credentials at Stratford-on-Avon, London’s West End, and Broadway, sign up for this—well, fluff?

Well, the money, for one thing. “Working in the theater in England you really don’t get paid anything,” she tells Lewis. As a star in plays such as She Stoops to Conquer, Mills was making less than $200 a week, not to mention falling behind her more famous family members careerwise. “It’s never much bothered me,” she says, “But I’ve been very much poorer than any of my other relations.” It was, in fact, her father, who urged her to consider it. “He thinks that to do a series in America is still the greatest way to get exposure. Millions of people see you and you can make a great deal of money.”

Thanks to the intervention of Fox’s VP of Sales, David Gerber, the rocky initial pilot (which included a kangaroo “in a very important part”) was reshot, minus the roo and with an entirely different cast except for Mills. Gerber went as far as to buy out the house at London’s Garrick Theater to free her up for the shoot. With ABC in their then-annual ratings crisis, the network bought the concept, and she got the call to be in Hollywood and ready to go in four days.

She very much misses London from the home she rents just three minutes from the studio (the end of her eight-year marriage doesn’t help); her new friend, Steve McQueen’s wife Neile, helped her pick out a puppy for company. She’s hired a nanny of her own to look after her five-year-old son Christopher—one who, like her own character, “could just muck in.” And while she admits to being totally ignorant about how American television and its ratings system works, she’s philosophical about everything. “If Nanny isn’t picked up [for the fall], I’ll be going home this spring. It won’t break my heart.”

Nanny is in a tough time slot, opposite Hee Haw on CBS, but it survives that initial half-season and makes it to the fall schedule, where it’s moved to Friday nights. In 1971 it’s moved again, to Monday nights, where it’s plagued by a lack of affiliate support and departs the airwaves at the end of December. It’s fondly remembered by people of a certain age, though, and so is Juliet Mills, who goes on to a long career in the theater and television, including almost 10 years on the NBC soap Passions, where she plays a character with magical powers as well. She even wins an Emmy for QBVII, which goes to show that there’s some magic in Juliet Mills as well, even if she wasn’t able to save it from being VI hours of my life I never got back.

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A couple of newsy-type notes before we kickoff some of the shows of the week: the Smothers Brothers are hunting for a comeback after their ignominious sacking by CBS last year; they're supposedly in "hush-hush" negotiations with ABC for a summer series, with the only stumbling blocks being "agreement by the Smotherses to be good boys, submit tapes well in advance of air time, and not give the network any CBS-type troubles." I'm shocked, shocked, that they'd be balking at that. In any event, the show does in fact become a reality, with The Smothers Summer Show debuting on Wednesdays starting in July 1970; the show's destroyed in the ratings by Hawaii Five-O and leaves the air in September.

My, he looks Senatorial, doesn't he?
Another show that's on the way: NBC's working to bring Hal Holbrook to the network in a series based on A Clear and Present Danger, the TV movie featuring Holbrook as a U.S. Senate candidate. This report also becomes fact, with The Senator premiering in the fall as one of the elements of The Bold Ones, replacing The Protectors. It's also a one-season show, but Holbrook does manage to cop a Best Dramatic Actor Emmy.

But enough of the future; what does this week bring us? Sunday is Easter, and what tipped me off to that was Saturday night’s feature on KYW, King of Kings, starring Jeffrey Hunter as the Messiah, with Robert Ryan as a much-too-old John the Baptist (he should have been about Christ’s age), Siobhan McKenna as am affecting Mary, Harry Guardino as a smug, insufferable Barabbas (not unlike many of the roles he plays, to be honest), Rip Torn as a confused Judas, and a dignified Ron Randall as the centurion who witnesses several of the events in Christ’s life, and ultimately becomes a witness to Him; it all takes place under a magnificent score by Miklos Rozas. The ad proclaims King of Kings as “the greatest Biblical epic of all times,” and at three hours, it had better be, since you’re going to start watching it at 11:20 p.m. 

Sunday features several Easter programs, including church services live from St. Peters Square (NBC, 11:00 a.m., hosted by Douglas Kiker), and Boston (CBS, 11:00 a.m.) The sporting life returns Sunday afternoon with a regular season NHL clash between the Boston Bruins and Detroit Red Wings (CBS, 1:30 p.m.), while the NBA playoffs tip-off with game three of the Eastern Division semifinals between the Baltimore Bullets and New York Knicks. Ed Sullivan and his guests Bobby Gentry, David Frye, Marty Allen, Nancy Ames, George Kirby, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos, and Gladys Knight and the Pips tour VA hospitals in Denver and San Antonio to thank Vietnam vets.

There's not a whole lot to report on Monday, but I couldn't let it go by without mentioning that our very own (well, sort of, anyway) Cleveland Amory is one of Dick Cavett's guests (11:30 p.m., ABC). Tuesday's highlights include a musical adaptation of Goldilocks (8:30 p.m., NBC) starring Bing Crosby and his family; Mary Frances gets to play Goldie, but in this version she doesn't shoot the Cheshire Cat. Speaking of which, I'm not even sure he makes an appearance in this version, set in a "swingin' place" that includes a bear family playing golf (Bing and Nathaniel,* natch), and "a militant bobcat starting a protest march." Riiiiight. Paul Winchell and Avery Schreiber supply additional voices. And over at Red Skelton's show (8:30 p.m., CBS), we've got the Original Caste singing "One Tin Soldier." Yep, the times are a' changing.

*Nathaniel was no mean golfer himself; he won the 1981 U.S. Amateur championship, a tournament won by Jack Nicklaus, Bobby Jones and Tiger Woods; it once counted as a major championship (and should still.)

As a tribute to the late Kenny Rogers, I mention this appearance by Kenny and the First Edition on The Johnny Cash Show (Wednesday, 9:00 p.m., ABC), where they perform “When I’m on My Journey,” “Ruby,” and “Ruben James.” Johnny’s other guests are Roy Orbison (who sings “Crying,” “Only the Lonely,” and “Pretty Woman”; too bad he didn’t do any hits) and humorist Shel Silverstein. That’s on against a Bill Cosby special on NBC, and I don’t have any problem deciding which one to choose.

I rather like the attitude of It Couldn’t Be Done (Thursday, 7:30 p.m., NBC), a salute to the marvels of American achievement and engineering, hosted by Lee Marvin, with music by the 5th Dimension and Steve Mills. Vintage footage and interviews cover the construction of such landmarks as Mount Rushmore, the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges, Hoover Dam, the Panama Canal, and the Alaska Highway. It’s a nice reminder, especially today, of our history of what we can do when we put our minds to it. And, unfortunately, a show with a topic that's becoming all too common in 1970: David Susskind's topic is "Where Did We Fail—Parents of Junkies" (9:00 p.m., WHYY),

Friday night starts off with an NBC Science Special (7:30 p.m.) on "The Unexplained" puzzles of science, from UFOs to life on other worlds to Stonehenge. It's hosted by 2001 author Arthur C. Clarke with a script by Clifton Fadiman and narrated by Rod Serling. And it's a night of specials at CBS, starting at 7:30 with a repeat of 1965's Cinderella—the Lesley Ann Warren version, with Stuart Damon as her prince, and a cast including Walter Pidgeon, Ginger Rogers, Celeste Holm, Jo Van Fleet, Pat Carroll and Barbara Ruick as the evil stepsisters. At 9:00 p.m., Don Knotts gets a chance to show the network what he'd do with his own variety hour, with Juliet Prowse, the Establishment, Andy Williams, and special guest star Andy Griffith. And you don't think that ad over there refers to any other show on television, cough—Laugh-In—cough, do you? That's followed at 10:00 p.m. by Like Hep!, Dinah Shore's chance to show the network that she's with it just like the kids out there, with Lucille Ball, Rowan and Martin, and Diana Ross along to lend a hand. And Flip Wilson guest hosts on The Tonight Show (NBC, 11:30 p.m.), with Louis Armstrong as one of his guests.

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Finally, after all that's been going on lately, I think we're entitled to wrap things up with a laugh or two, don't you? Since April Fools' Day falls smack in the middle of this issue, the editors thought it might be fun for TV Guide to lampoon itself with an evening of "not quite the real thing" listings (written by Roger J. Youman), with some very funny results. Not all of them are home runs; a bit that points out how television is dominated by shows that are simply variations on the same theme (a sentiment with which Cleveland Amory would surely agree) works the first time, but by the third or fourth go-round (Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett all have the same five guests, simply listed in a different order), you kind of want to shout, "We get it, we get it!"

Nevertheless, when the descriptions drift into the truly absurd, the parody works wonderfully, as in this family musical written by—Rod Serling?


This one is a spoof of the current naming craze in Hollywood (both movies and people):

 
I don't remember this ever happening to Dr. Welby:


How dare he!


I guess it really is all relative, isn't it? They only neglected to mention that it was written by Sterling Silliphant.


You can see the whole spread here. As I say, very funny. If they're not careful, these could wind up on Laugh-In.  TV  

8 comments:

  1. Just an aside to start: Do geese fly north in the winter in Australia & S. America? :)

    I've bought all of ROWAN & MARTIN'S LAUGH-IN on DVD, but I haven't watched much of it yet. I did buy a good book about the show awhile back that pointed out that LAUGH-IN was a lot tamer than the Smothers Brothers' CBS show, and it moved too fast to offend anyone for too long. I think I bought the full series as a type of silent protest against my dad, who thought it was "sick humor". As I was only 7 years old by the time the show went off the air, I was too young to be offended by anything political, and I think I just liked the fast pacing of the show. LAUGH-IN is very dated and "of its time" today.

    The lack of affiliate support for NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR in its last half-season is very understandable, considering that ABC stuck it all by itself at 8 PM ET, followed by 1/2 hour left to the affiliates, then MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL carried live nationwide at 9 PM ET. I doubt, like for other network programs following live nationwide programs, that ABC followed MNF w/ an announcement for West Coast viewers to stay tuned for NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR coming next. I know that, outside of perhaps ABC O&O stations in ET & CT, very few stations carried the show at its scheduled time. The 2 areas where I grew up carried the show early on a weekend evening, and this was true also of both ABC O&O stations in LA & SF. I'm not sure there's ever been a hit ABC show in that pre-MNF timeslot. I know THE SAND PEDRO BEACH BUMS wasn't a hit for the network there in 1977.

    TV GUIDE also had April Fools Day listings for April 1, 1969, and it had a whole 7-page section, written by Jay Ward and his cartoonists & writers for April Fools Day 1963. ("Ben Casey Smiles!", mentioned on the cover, leads into this special section.)

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    1. I'll have to lay my hands on that April '63 issue - sounds like a riot! And you're right, the scheduling for "Nanny" was atrocious. Perhaps it wasn't the greatest show in the world, but it deserved better than that.

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    2. No need to search for the Jay Ward issue - You can read that supplement right here:
      www.artofjayward.blogspot.com/2017/10/jay-ward-and-art-of-self-promotion-part_9.html

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  2. Mitchell, you are seriously hitting home with me with these early 1970 Guides. 11th grade and I was coming into my own. What's missing in the Nanny and the Professor is a reference to the co-star, the great,late Richard Long whose role in The Big Valley as lawyer Jared Barkley started me thinking of law school (as opposed to being a hot-headed cowboy like brother Nick).

    Then, in 1970, Hal Holbrook gave me my incentive to be an environmental lawyer and politician as "The Senator." These shows (along with Judd for the Defense) launched me on my career path to study environmental law. While I did go into public health and public service after college I chose not to go to law school because most of the lawyers I knew told me that I'd have to starve for years and hope a judgeship would come along to survive. Glad I took their advice and spent 23 great years in public health before moving into higher ed to recruit medical students.

    But the time period you are covering right now shows just how much impact TV had on a 16 year old.

    Everyone be careful and safe out there. I'm adapting to running graduate admissions for medical program from the comfort of my home...great place to read 40 page applications...

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    1. Thanks, J.D. these '70s issues have been a lot of fun, and we'll have some more later on.

      I'd fully intended to mention Richard Long, particularly since we're seeing him right now on both "Bourbon Street Beat" and "77 Sunset Strip," and I never got to it. Perhaps Juliet Mills still hypnotizes all these years later...

      You be safe yourself. I'll think of you while reading through my Excel spreadsheets...

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  3. On the nature of partnerships:
    Over the years I've read of many partnerships in all fields, which often ended in considerable acrimony.
    Rowan/Martin vs. Schlatter/Friendly is just one of many such teamings that went badly in the long run; as with many I could cite, the main reason seems to be plain old jealousy.
    Each side becomes convinced that the other side is getting credit for the success; often, this is fueled by hangers-on who feed the egos of the parties (usually both parties), telling them that the Other Side is holding Their Side back
    In Showbiz, the list is practically endless:
    Gilbert & Sullivan
    Abbott & Costello
    Martin & Lewis
    Desi & Lucy
    … so many others, running right up to the Sex And The City ladies.

    What many partnerships fail to learn is that sometimes the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
    Fred Dannay and Manny Lee, who partnered as Ellery Queen, were quite contentious in their work, but over time learned to deal with it (being real-life cousins likely helped with that).
    In the case of Laugh-In, Bill Davidson was able to figure out that however the partners clashed, at the end of the day they needed each other.
    It's the way of the world - some do, some don't …

    - By the bye:
    That Laugh-In photo is from Season 3.
    The blond guy in the white shirt, coming out of the floor in the lower-left-hand corner, is Jeremy Lloyd, who was Laugh-In's resident English silly-ass that year.
    Jeremy Lloyd was always better-known in Britain as a comedy writer than as a performer (usually with partners). his scripting hits included Are You Being Served?, 'Allo! Allo! … and a panel-quiz called Whodunnit?, with which you may be familiar …

    - About Juliet Mills:
    The thing to remember about British actors generally is that they aren't snobs about their work.
    It was 1967 when John Mills signed up to come to the US to do a Western-mystery series called Dundee And The Culhane, which was a fast flop that season, but there you are …
    When the opportunity arose for Juliet Mills to do a fantasy sitcom, of course her father encouraged her to take it - work is work, and Yank TV money is as good as anybody's, no?

    - Two postscripts to the above:
    Juliet Mills became a naturalized US citizen in 1975, and married a Yank in 1980; both conditions prevail to this day.

    After years of British TV fame, Hugh Laurie came to the US to do House, which became such an international hit that it got Laurie an OBE (that's a couple of levels down from a knighthood, but it counts).

    - A couple of real howlers in your week's recap:
    - Avery Burns?
    If that was in the magazine, it's bad enough.
    But conflating Jack Burns and Avery Schreiber that way …
    … were they both in this show? (I don't have the issue …)
    - In the CBS Cinderella, Celeste Holm was the Fairy Godmother; Ginger Rogers was Walter Pidgeon's Queen (after all these years, I still remember the commercials that ran on CBS's daytime schedule for the whole week leading up to the first telecast).
    Again, if this was the magazine's error, that's one thing …

    - By the Other Bye:
    Did anyone here ever see the time on General Hospital when Stuart Damon got to reprise his big song, "A Grand Night For Singing?/Ten Minutes Ago", with the whole female cast of GH at that time dancing with him?
    Now that was TV!

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    1. Yes, partnerships are tough. So is typing when you're in a hurry and trying to wrap things up - all fixed.

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  4. The Crosby family GOLDILOCKS was rerun the following October, up against the annual airing of IT'S THE GREAT PUMPKIN, CHARLIE (the Saturday before Halloween, which was the following Saturday--also noteworthy for America being introduced to Rhoda Morgenstern's mom Ida, in the MTM episode "Support Your Local Mother")

    Paul Duca

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!