May 8, 2021

This week in TV Guide: May 9, 1970

Usually, when we talk about all-stars, it's in in the context of sports. But this week's lineup on David Frost's show is so star-studded, it doesn't give anyone else a sporting chance.

Frost's show, syndicated by Group W, is featuring an all-star week of single-guest programs: four reruns and one brand-new show. On Monday, the guest is Sammy Davis Jr.; Tuesday, it's Johnny Carson; Thursday, the Great One, Jackie Gleason; and Friday, a two-for-one with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.* These shows surround the Wednesday program, an all-new, exclusive conversation with Vice President Spiro Agnew. It's undoubtedly one of the best single-week lineups you're likely to see on any talk show—certainly now, when hosts can't fill up 60 minutes with a multiplicity of guests, but even back then, in the heyday of 90-minute TV talk, when the competition includes Carson, Griffin and Cavett. Fitting, then, that David Frost is on the cover this week. 

*I know; technically two persons, but I always thought of Burton-Taylor (or Taylor-Burton) as representing a brand more than two individuals.

As Edith Efron points out, the Frost show is carried on "only" 70 stations nationwide, but it makes up for that with the amount of conversation it generates, and for a very good reason: "on the Frost talk show, people talk." His guests, which include "writers, artists, churchmen and politicians," seem to have found a level of comfort with Frost that causes them to share items (or "little confidences" as Efron describes them) that no other host seems able to achieve. "Richard Burton thinks Shakespeare smoked pot, that Liz wants another baby, that Johnny Carson is a good ventriloquist with a weird soprano voice, that Arthur Godfrey and Harve Presnell have had themselves sterilized, that the Archbishop of Canterbury feels the presence of God most intensely when he experiences serenity in the face of suffering, and that Raquel Welch thinks the mind is 'the most erogenous zone.'" No wonder Nixon talked to him after he left office.

He's not everyone's cup of tea, though. His attentiveness, which works so sucessfully in drawing his guests out, can border on sycophantic. His favorite closing line, "It's been a joy having you here," has become the butt of jokes, and New York Times TV critic Jack Gould acidly described him as "deferential enough to be an assistant to a television vice president." Meanwhile, across the pond, the British, for whom Frost was a popular and dreaded satirist (That Was the Week That Was) with a reputation as fierce as Mike Wallace, wonder whether he's sold out to the cousins. Geoffrey Hobbs, TV critic for the London Evening Standard, says that the old frost would tear people apart. But now, "The David Frost interview started becoming a show-biz chat show—very pally. Now, he's gotten a bit plasticky—the smile too much in evidence. . ." 

This last part is up for debate. His friends insist he hasn't soften—as Clay Felker, editor of New York magazine puts it, "he uses a more sophisticated technique—of questioning people so that they hang themselves!" And British producer Peter Baker points out that TW3 was a scripted show, produced by a writing staff. "[I]t wasn't him talking!" (You'll notice that people around Frost tend to talk in italics a lot.) Others note that, like so many comic actors, Frost has simply traded in his comedic chops for a more serious milieu.  

Whatever it is, it seems to agree with him. He works 19-hour days ("Why anyone should want to work this hard," says Britain's ambassador to the U.S. John Freeman, "is a mystery to me."), runs his own TV company, makes in excess of a million dollars a year, and travels in a $25,000 Bentley to expensive restaurants where he's dining with prime ministers, princesses, and jet-setters like Jackie and Ari. Producer Ned Sherrin says that "David would quite like to be Prime Minister—and the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury. But being only one would limit him a bit." Some suggest that he was anti-Establishment only because he wasn't part of it. A friend calls him "a complex, brilliant, enormously neurotic man."

Frost himself insists that he works hard because he likes it, that he doesn't have any hangups, and that he's perfectly happy being who he is and doing what he does. Still, good or bad, people are talking about him; one wonders whether or not he's one who believes that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

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Speaking of talk shows as we have been, the Sunday morning political chatfest isn't my idea of entertainment, and I don't know if anyone feels any differently. But now I must stop viewing things like this through my current lens of cynicism, and return to the world of 1970, where these shows are engaged in the television version of big-game hunting, looking for the prize catch from Washington. And if you think the competition between Carson, Griffin and Cavett (and Frost?) is cutthroat, you haven't seen anything yet. 

"I don't concern myself too much with what the other shows are doing," Lawrence Spivak, moderator of NBC's Meet the Press and dean of the Sunday interview programs, tells Neil Hickey. Despite this calm exterior, Hickey notes, "privately he pursues potential guests with all the tenacity of a ferret." It's a "highly competitive" process, according to Prentiss Childs, co-producer of CBS's Face the Nation. "As long as we're all thinking about the major news stories of any given week, we're bound to be crashing into each other in the booking of guests." Adds Peggy Whedon of ABC's Issues and Answers, "I have lunch with various contact people three or four days a week. I try to stay highly visible on the Washington scene, and get my bids in early." 

One of the key players in the whole process doesn't work for a network at all; as director of communications for President Nixon, Herb Klein answers to a higher power. "My office acts as a coordinating element. One thing we do is assist the shows in breaking loose the people they want to interview." If one of the producers lets him know they're interested in, say, Senator X, "I might call that senator and chat with him about why I think he should go on. Or I might advise him not to go on at that particular time." Such is Klein's expertise, and level of trust within the White House, he doesn't even have to confer with the President before taking such action.

Each of the shows has had its share of memorable guests. Sometimes it's being in the right place at the right time; the guest on the very first Meet the Press (August 27, 1948) was Whittaker Chambers, who—unprotected by immunity of any kind—accused Alger Hiss, on the air, of being a Communist. Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater told Issues and Answers that low-yield nuclear weapons "might be useful in Vietnam to defoliate the jungles." Face the Nation scored big in 1964 when it landed Che Guevara, who was in New York to speak at the United Nations.

Other times it's a matter of being persistent. Spivak worked for 13 years to get Prince Philip, who "coolly" went on the show and confirmed that the royal household was all but broke. (Nowadays, you'd expect to see something like that on Oprah, although Philip has too much class for that.) And it was Peggy Whedon's hard work that brought off Issues and Answers' special primetime debate between Robert F. Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy, four days before the California primary—and RFK's shooting. Sometimes landing the right guest involves war zones, as was the case when Whedon interviewed King Hussein of Jordan, days after the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, arriving on a plane flying a zigzag course at night without lights, after Syria had threatened to shoot down any plane flying over its territory.

The all-time champ? That would be former vice president and presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, who filled in on less than three hours' notice for a missing guest on Issues and Answers, arriving in the uniform he'd been wearing while playing baseball with some friends. He borrowed a shirt, tie and jacket from some stagehands, and the cameramen only photographed him from the waste up. Hubert was as smooth as ever—a fact which would surprise nobody who lived in Minnesota while he was here.

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There's a feature in TV Guides of this era called "Second Look," written by Scott MacDonough, and I'll admit that the purpose of this totally escapes me. It's pretty much what it says it is: MacDonough takes a look at programs that recently aired and lets us know what he thought of them. It's not that I object to MacDonough, who does his job well, and often quite wittily. I just don't understand why this feature exists. In the days of VCRs or DVRs or TV on demand, yes—"Second Look" could tell you if that show you've recorded is worth hanging on to, or if you should press the delete button. But what good does it to do review a program that's already been on, unless it's to inform you about its viewing worthiness? Unlike the reviews by Judith Crist (movies) and Cleveland Amory (TV), this doesn't give you any advice about what to watch, because you already missed the chance. And if any of them are rerun, in a few months or so, what are the odds you're going to remember what MacDonough thought of them?  I don't mind saying that I'm confused.

With Tom Jones, Bob Hope and
John Wayne, no less!
All that said, this week's column is immensely entertaining, with MacDonough looking back at a recent week littered—"and we do mean litter"—with specials that aren't, as it happens, very special. We begin with CBS's Raquel, starring "That ravishing robot Raquel Welsh," which may be a pleasant enough show to look at—but "unfortunately came equipped with a sound track," and it "presented Miss Welch's 'many talents' (CBS's words, not ours.)" In the course of the 60 minutes, Raquel goes on to pose philosophical questions ("Sometimes I feel paradoxical"), sing a few tunes ("Dum-deedle-dee-dum-deedle-dee-dum"), show off her sense of humor ("I don't know if I could dance with a glass of water on my head"), recite a bit of poetry ("Fawr grrrest walls an' fawr grrreat towahs"), and terrorize a field full of horses (no other description required). 

Raquel is an example of something you see a lot in the 1970s and 1980s, the variety show hosted by someone you don't ordinarily associate with the genre. For example, Telly: Who Loves Ya, Baby. Whether shows like this are good or bad, what they accomplish is to give you the temperature of the times: who's hot, who's not. And while Raquel Welch is definitely hot, as MacDonough says, "We prefer our sex symbols laced with that intangible quality called talent. Paging Ann-Margret."

On the other hand, maybe I would remember this review the next time Raquel shows up in the listings.

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Enough of all this! Let's watch some TV!

Country music's growing in popularity, as seen by a trio of shows this week, starting Saturday with Harper Valley U.S.A. (7:30 p.m. PT, NBC), named not, oddly enough, for host Jerry Reed, but for guest star Jeannie C. Riley's hit single, which she will naturally sing. Other guests include Earl Scruggs, Louis Roberts, Delaney & Bonnie & Friends (without, alas, Eric Clapton), and the Dillards, while Tom T. Hall, who wrote the title song, is among those providing comic relief. Wednesday, it's Hee Haw (7:30 p.m., CBS), with guests Merle Haggard and his wife Bonnie Owens, who doubles as the former wife of the show's co-host, Buck Owens. I absolutely can't think of a better scenario for a C&W song that that.  And later Wednesday (9:00 p.m., ABC), it's the season finale of The Johnny Cash Show, with Tex Ritter, Roy Acuff, Marty Robbins, and Danny Davis and the Nashville Brass.

On Sunday it's a sports doubleheader, though you won't be able to watch them at the same time. At 11:00 a.m. on CBS, it's the fourth (and, as it happens, final) game of the Stanley Cup Final between the Boston Bruins and St. Louis Blues. Bobby Orr's overtime goal—one of the ◄ most iconic photos in sports history—gave the Bruins a 4-3 victory, and their first Stanley Cup in 29 years.

At 12:30 on a special edition of ABC's Wide World of Sports, it's same-day coverage of Formula 1's most glamorous race of the year, the Grand Prix of Monaco. Jochen Rindt, with Price Rainier and Princess Grace in attendance, drives to a smashing victory over Jack Brabham and Henri Pescarolo. It's a bittersweet reminder of what auto racing was like in the day: Bruce McLaren, the champion driver and car designer who finishes 14th, is killed in an accident less than a month later. Rindt himself will be killed in practice for the Italian Grand Prix later in the season; he will become the sport's first (and, hopefully, only) postumous world champion.

Speaking of racing, former Indy 500 winer and future world champion Mario Andretti plays himself in It Takes a Thief (Monday, 7:30 p.m., ABC), an epsisode which also includes Dick Smothers, who was himself an avid racer. Mason Williams, musical guru for those same Smothers Brothers, and Grammy winner for "Classical Gas," is the focus on NET Festival (Tuesday, 9:00 p.m., NET). Sammy Davis Jr. makes a guest appearance on The Beverly Hillbillies (Wednesday, 8:30 p.m, CBS) as a New York policeman, in an episode partly filmed in the Big Apple. Orson Welles does a Shakespearean reading on The Dean Martin Show (Thursdasy, 10:00 p.m., NBC); Deano's other guests are Gina Lollobrigida, George Gobel and Charles Nelson Reilly; nice guest mix, isn't it? And on Friday, it's the aforementioned David Frost interview with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, (8:30 p.m., KPTV), with Burton doing some classical readings of his own. One of the questions we won't hear from Frost: did Liz ruin Burton's career? Enquiring minds want to know.

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Last but not least, we have Peter Pflug's humorous piece on television violence. Peter is most assuredly a man after my own heart: "When I came home from work, cloted with choler and spoiling for a safe fight, I didn't take it out on my famly. Instead, I turned on television. After an hour or two filled with gunfire, screams and moans, I would find that all of my murderous fantasies had been massaged into nothingness."

But now, of course, we're in the era of the war on violence (no pun intended), one of the lasting (for now, anyway) legacies from 1968. Networks have promised, under pain of government oversight, to clean up their act and provide entertainment that was at least a little bit kindler and gentler. Pflug doesn't mention any of this, merely decring the acts of the "do-gooders," the "infernal ladies' clubs and their write-in campaigns," but it's the background to the situation in which he now finds himself. "All but gone are the days when TV heroes returned from the edge of the grave to gouge and bit their way to happiness in the final 10 minutes before the kiddies were put to bed." When the hero laments that the villian is simply a product of his environment, that's when Pflug draws the line, storming out of the house to punch a couple of trees lest he do something even more disagreeable while inside.

And that's when he overheard a conversation between two men, discussing the same show he'd just been watching. "I've seen terrible in my time but never so terrible as that," said one man. His friend replied, "When that rat told the hero he'd stolen his dog and sold it to a laboratory, I thought sure he'd bought himself at least a karate chop. But the guy just stood there and said, 'I feel sorryh for ayone with so much hate inside.'" I feel his pain, even though the characters who actually deserIt've to feel pain manage to avoid it.

It's very funny, but there's a point to it. I wrote a few years ago at this very site about Mickey Spillane's comment that what television needed was not less violence, but better violence. The act of seeing the bad guy punished—something that, as novelist Dorothy L. Sayers once pointed out, is essential to restoring the equilibrium of justice—is a cathartic event for the reader, or in this case the viewer, of a mystery. To remove that retributive violence through which justice is often dispensed is, in a way, a denial, a deprivation, of what the viewer not only wants but needs. To go without it leaves me, at the end, with a sour taste in my mouth. In this sense, television's relationship to violence is that not of a pressure cooker, but a pressure valve, a relesase to the accumulation of tensions in today's modern world. 

And you know what? Say otherwise and you'll get a punch in the nose. TV  

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