July 10, 2021

This week in TV Guide: July 9, 1966




As you've probably noticed, the entertainment industry has a far different definition of the word "disaster" than you or I have. Whereas we might think of, say, a natural disaster, a fatal disease, a broken marriage, financial ruin—something not only disastrous but heart-rending—those in the industry has a far narrower definition. And for Sammy Davis Jr., a man whose life has so far included racial discrimination and abuse, a near-fatal auto accident that cost him an eye, and problems with drugs and alcohol, his "disaster" is the cancellation of his television program. 

The disastrous headline spread across this week's cover is inspired by part one of a two-part article by Alan Ebert, an NBC employee who served as publicity director for The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, based on the diary he kept while working on the show. And, within the confines of the industry's definition, it would be hard to imagine a more disastrous experience than The Sammy Davis Jr. Show, one so fully comprehensive that to fully understand and appreciate it, we need to start long before the beginning of this week's article. For the story of the genesis of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show is probably as odd as it gets, and matches the series itself for drama and pathos.

We begin in the fall of 1965 with Sammy and His Friends, a special which Davis had made for ABC (a follow-up to his earlier special for the network, Sammy Davis, Jr. and the Wonderful World of Children, which the network aired in November). With friends like Frank Sinatra, Edie Adams, Joey Heatherton, and Count Basie and his orchestra, it looked like a success for the network. But, as we're fond of saying—or at least I am—the devil is in the details; in this case, a clause in the ABC contract that prohibited Davis from appearing on any other network show for a period of 21 days before and eight days following the broadcast. 

We now move to another network, NBC, which comes up with an offer of its own for Davis: not a series of specials, but a weekly series of his own, a midseason replacement for its soon-to-be-cancelled war drama Convoy, which was being battered in the ratings by CBS's two military comedies, Hogan’s Heroes and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. The show seems to have a good setup: Joe Hamilton, husband of Carol Burnett, was tapped to produce. George Rhodes, Sammy’s longtime musical director, would head up the show’s orchestra. With Davis on-board, NBC announces a premiere date of January 7, 1966.

At this point, ABC makes an announcement of its own, that Sammy and His Friends will air on February 1. They also say they'll invoking the terms of the non-appearance clause in Davis' contract, meaning Sammy will be prevented from appearing on his own show for almost a month following the premiere. To say the least, it’s hard to imagine a more awkward way to start a television series. 

   The name is Connery—Sean Connery.
In the article, Ebert alludes to a "crazy contract hassle with ABC," which appears to be an understatement. First Davis tries to get ABC to air the special in December rather than Feburary. When that fails, he offers to buy the rights to the special from them; that's also a non-starter. NBC is equally committed to the January premiere date; in the rigid scheduling world of the time, the fall season always starts in early September, and the so-called “Second Season” begins right after New Year’s. The practical meaning of this is that Davis will host the show's premiere, and then guest hosts will fill in for the next three shows: Johnny Carson, Sean Connery and Jerry Lewis. (The network fills another week with a repeat of 1960's Peter Pan.)

However, in addition to the conflict with ABC, there are other problems. Chief among them, as Ebert points out, is Davis’ own approach to the show. He's frequently difficult to reach, almost impossible to schedule for promotional interviews, and perpetually surrounded by hangers-on and camp followers. (It was, interestingly enough, similar to the approach Davis’ mentor, Frank Sinatra, took toward his own variety show in the late 1950s. That show, too, was doomed to failure.) He's either making a movie, performing on Broadway in "Golden Boy," or doing a concert. Oh, and he also "ordered $30,000 worth of suits in various hues from Sy Devore, intending never to wear the same suit twice." Before long, Davis has built up the reputation around NBC as “difficult, a prima donna.” 

Gradually, however, Davis begins to win people over, including Ebert. They find that the "on" Sammy Davis Jr. is for real. "I enjoy being Sammy Davis. I love my life. I dig being the Sammy Davis cab drivers yell 'hi' to. . . Many people wear their success like a chain around their necks. Not me. I love mine." And then—

The initial episode of The Sammy Davis Jr. Show was taped on December 19, featuring Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, Nancy Wilson, Corbett Monica, Augie and Margo, and The Will Mastin Trio. It was, by all accounts (including Ebert's), a disaster. Taylor was, in Ebert’s words, “so nervous she’s practically hysterical.” Sammy spends more time trying to keep her calm than he does on his own performance. In fact, the only person who seemed happy with the result was Davis himself. The show garners terrific ratings, but the reviews are dismal, every bit as bad as Ebert has feared. He lays it on the line to Davis: without major changes, the show is doomed. "He decides then and there, without consultantion, that he'll revert to the old Sammy Davis and be 'on' constantly."

As part one of this diary ends, Davis has turned it on; the taping of his show with Trini Lopez is, Ebert says, "truly one of the best variety shows I've ever seen." But will the viewers buy it?

Short answer: no. Although the reviews are increasingly positive, even laudatory, the show never recovers from its initial start, and NBC announces its cancellation with three episodes still to be shown. (A premature cancellation, more than one reviewer will note, as the show gets better each week.) Davis would later tell a newspaper reporter that he "knew one week after the first show that he wouldn’t be picked up for more than 13.” He complained that he was being prevented from being himself—he “couldn’t undo his necktie or smoke. . . this is like putting a muffler on a drag race or refusing to let Jack Benny fold his arms." He pleaded with the network to “take me as I am,” to no avail. "If I don’t know anything else, I know how to entertain people, but I’ve got to be me” he told the reporter. “I ain’t a good somebody else—hey, listen, I ain’t but a fair me.”

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

Sullivan: Ed's guests this week are Ethel Merman; the rockin' Rolling Stones; singer Wayne Newton; actor Hal Holbrook; comics Sandy Baron and Eddie Schaeffer; and the Rumanian Folk Ballet.

Palace: We're playing a little fast and loose with the listings this week; the Coaches All-America football game, which I discussed a couple of issues ago, preempts Palace this week, which means we're dependent on KCMT's delayed broadcast of last week's show. In that one, host Ray Bolger presents singer Kay Starr; jazz vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, accompanied by 7-year-old drummer Jim Bradley; impressionist Rich Little; comedian Norm Crosby; escape artist Michael De La Vega; and the Five Amandis, teeterboard act.

James Bradley Jr., Lionel Hampton's accompanist, was already known to television viewers, having appeared on Jack Benny's program when he was five, and he'd later appear in a small role in Paul Newman's Cool Hand Luke. Combined with Hampton, the wonderful song-and-dance man Ray Bolger, and the very funny Norm Crosby, the Palace would normally have this week hands-down. But then Ed comes back with the Merm, the Stones, and Hal Holbrook. There can be only one verdict for this high-quality week: push.

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Saturday is the final round of the British Open (10:00 a.m. CT, ABC), live via satellite* from Muirfield, Scotland. It's the first Saturday finish for the Open; in previous years 36 holes had been played on Friday, with Saturday reserved in case of a playoff. Jack Nicklaus wins the first of his three Opens, edging Doug Sanders and Dave Thomas by a stroke. Nicklaus loved Muirfield so much that when he built his own course in Dublin, Ohio, he named in Muirfield Village.

*Interesting that in years to come, the Open would revert to same-day coverage on Wide World of Sports before attaining the massive television coverage it enjoys to this day.

A prescient special on Sunday (5:30 p.m., NBC), "Who Shall Live?" takes a look at the crisis facing medicine. As producer Lucy Jarvis puts it, "One hundred thousand people die of [uremic poisoning] every year, and only 150 are being saved. Why is that—in a country as rich as ours?" The answer: a rigorous treatment for those suffering from the disease, which costs $10,000 a year and lasts for the rest of their lives. Applicants for the treatment must go through a battery of tests and then await the judgment of a committee that decides "who shall live." Not for the first time, I wonder if this kind of rationing is the shape of things to come.

Monday night Joey Bishop begins the first night of his three-week stint for the vacationing Johnny Carson (10:30 p.m., NBC). Now, I know Johnny liked his time off, but three weeks? On the other hand, I've got a TV Guide somewhere talking about then-Today host Dave Garroway beginning the first of a five-week vacation. Must be nice; I just got back from a five-day vacation and I was grateful to have it.

Tuesday is Major League Baseball's All Star Game, from the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis (12:30 p.m., NBC). The National League wins an excruciating 2-1 victory in ten innings, played in 105° heat. Imagine if Busch Stadium had artificial turf. By the way, this marks the last time the All-Star Game is scheduled for a afternoon broadcast; the following year's game, played in Anaheim, starts at 4:15 PT in order to capitalize on prime time in the East. (That game will have non-heat related problems of its own, namely the late afternoon sun shining in batters' eyes, contributing to another 2-1 game, this time going 15 innings.) 

On WednesdayAt Issue (7:00 p.m., NET) presents a discussion on Congressional ethics—stop it, I know you're laughing out there—moderated by Robert Novak, long before he became famous on The McLaughlin Group. Interesting footnote: all the Congressmen being interviewed are Democrats; that's how much of a majority they held before that year's midterms. For another kind of controlled violence, Emile Griffith defends his world middleweight boxing championship against Joey Archer, live from Madison Square Garden (9:00 p.m., WTCN). Griffith wins a hard-fought 15-round decision.

I'm sure I've mentioned this before, but prior to Laugh-In, Dan Rowan and Dick Martin hosted a summer-replacement show for Dean Martin on Thursday nights (9:00 p.m., NBC), a much more conventional format than Laugh-In would prove to be. Joyce Jameson and Pat Henry are this week's guests, with regulars Lainie Kazan, Frankie Randall, Judi Rolin, and Les Brown and his Band of Renown. If you're not watching that, you might be tuned to the final episode of ABC's British-import The Baron, starring Steve Forrest, and featuring an appearance by Lois Maxwell, whom we all know and love as the original Moneypenny of the James Bond films. Replacing The Baron next week: The Avengers.

An interesting program on Friday: Pablo Casals conducting his religious oratorio "El Pessebre" (The Manager) taped at the United Nations in 1963 in honor of United Nations Day, with an all-star cast and Robert Shaw conducting the Festival Casals Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. (9:00 p.m., NET)

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Random notes for the week:

A letter to the editor lauds an "excellent" recent article on NBC newsman Frank McGee and reminding readers of his yeoman in the hours and days following the assassination of John Kennedy; "His intelligent, saddened calm was exactly right." It's signed "Leslie Nielsen, Universal City, Cal." I wonder—there can't be that many Leslie Nielsens, can there?

Then there's a letter praising Jim Backus and "Continental Showcase, "the freshest variety show I have ever seen! As a performer, I not only admire the talent we have thus far enjoyed, but believe we may have much to learn from how the producers manage to escape the usual musical stereotype." It's signed "Joi Lansing, Woodland Hills, Cal." There can't be that many Joi Lansings, can there?

And a humorous note appears in the "On the Record" section that leads off the issue's programming section. Seems as if the magazine has a writer, Richard Warren Lewis, whose assignment was to go undercover, as it were, as a contestant on ABC's The Dating Game, then come back and write an article about his experiences. The article's now a week overdue, but Mr. Lewis presumably has a good excuse: Joan Patrick, the young woman whom Lewis selected during his turn in the bachelor's seat. Miss Patrick, apparently, has quite the recipe for rock cornish game hen stuffed with wild rice and cooked in white wine. Well, as they say, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Next month the two are set to be married, and presumably the article will have to wait a while longer.

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I have to ask: has this been a duller issue than normal? It's true there's not much to choose from during rerun season, and as usual the week's programming is studded with replacement series: we've mentioned Jim Backus and Continental Showcase, taking Jackie Gleason's place on CBS Saturday night, and Rowan and Martin filling in for Dean Martin on NBC Thursday nights; but there's also Vacation Playhouse, one of those collections of failed plots from over the years, replacing The Lucy Show on CBS; John Davidson taking over NBC's Kraft Music Hall for the summer; Hippodrome filling in on CBS for Red Skelton; and Mickie Finn's replacing Mona McCluskey on NBC.  

Even the TV Teletype is pretty ordinary, but there is one thing that caught my eye: a plan to turn literary classics into soap operas. It says here that NBC plans a soap—excuse me, "daytime series"—based on Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights this fall, and that Jane Eyre and Rebecca could follow suit. I don't know that the Heights idea ever took off; NBC only had a handful of soaps in the coming season, and all of them—Days of Our Lives, The Doctors, Another World—were pretty well established by that time. A pity, I suppose; so many of these books were built-in soaps, just waiting for their stories to reach a daytime audience. On the other hand, though, it might have been difficult to figure out how the network could have stretched Heathcliff and Catherine's tortured romance out for thirty years or so. Even if they'd filmed it in real time they couldn't have made it last that long. Could they?  TV  

5 comments:

  1. That John Davidson summer show is the one with both George Carlin AND Richard Pryor, right? That was the first time I saw either of them.

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  2. The Frank McGee article would make a good read. Wonder if it exists anywhere.

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  3. I recall reading somewhere that The Sammy Davis, Jr. Show was supposedly the inspiration for the "Sammy Maudlin Show" sketches on SCTV.

    Pablo Casals will forever be in the public consciousness, not because of any individual accomplishments, but for being name-checked by Eddie Haskell in a Leave it to Beaver episode, "Eddie's Sweater" ("Zoom-zoom, zoom-a, zoom-a, zoom-a, zoom-a...").

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  4. The show that inspired the Maudlin SCTV sketches was a later 70's series--a syndicated talk show called "Sammy And Company" or some such.

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  5. Casey Stengel attended the All-Star Game in St. Louis's brand new ballpark. A reporter asked him how he liked it and he said "Well, it holds the heat well".

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!