March 30, 2022

Star power

Xarlier this month, someone on Facebook asked me about my March 7, 1959 TV Guide writeup—in particular, about a teaser that ran across the top of the cover. What, he wondered, was the story "How Deals Are Made for Guest Stars" all about? I told him I'd be happy to oblige, and since writing is what I do here, let's see what that story is, indeed, all about.

Television, as we know, has always been a cutthroat business, and in the early decades of the medium, one of the most ruthless aspects was the competition for big-name guest stars. Movie stars, especially those rarely seen on the tube, were always in big demand, and TV itself had been around long enough to create its own stars. For the sponsors eager for sales and the network executives eager for ratings, that star power—whether applied to a variety show, drama or sitcom—could be a bonanza! 

But how to appeal to the star? Money isn't really an incentive, since the star's income probably puts him in the 90 percent tax bracket; who wants to work for so little in return? As for the exposure that a television appearance brings, he's well aware that too much of it takes the edge off his drawing power. The shows need him more than he needs the shows. Therefore, money alone is seldom the only factor in making a guest appearance. So what does one give the guest who has (almost) everything?

Well, in the case of Jane Powell, Steve Allen has been after her for a long time. But clever Jane waited until her appearance at the Hotel Plaza's Persian Room in New York before taking Steverino up on his offer. The result: increased publicity for her nightclub act, and one less trip required to New York. Coordinating such TV appearances with promoting upcoming movies is a major part of any star's strategy; Tony Curtis plugged his upcoming movie The Vikings with appearances on I've Got a Secret and The Perry Como Show in the same week, and the following week Kirk Douglas was on with Allen for the same movie. 

This strategy isn't always sure-fire, though; Esther Williams was all set to plug her new line of swimming pools with an appearance on the Bob Crosby Show when the show's sponsor nixed the promo—whereupon Esther nixed the appearance.

Cross-familiar promotion is a good way to snag a star; Helen Hayes appeared on the Arthur Murray show to publicize her son James MacArthur's career by dancing with him during the show. (She also contributed her fee to the Mary MacArthur polio fund; charitable donations are also effective in attracting top talent.) James Mason appreciates having his wife Pamela and daughter appear with him; Jerry Lewis wants the opportunity to put in a word for Muscular Dystrophy, and Danny Thomas does the same for St. Jude; perhaps the biggest example of this was Arthur Murray offering Walter Winchell $50,000 for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund (a fund which Winchell started) if he'd get Red Buttons and Jackie Gleason on his show. Winchell complied, but Gleason first insisted that another $50,000 donation be made to the Runyon Fund in his name alone. 

Finally, there's what I might call the "Ralph Edwards" method, although the two aren't complete alike. In this scenario, the enterprising producer approaches a major star with an offer to appear on a testimonial show, honoring their many years of service to the entertainment industry. "We shall salute you. Not only that, but we'll give you $10,000 just for your trouble." The producer then uses the attraction of this famous star as bait to get the star's friends—only the big ones, like Sinatra, Peck and Bacall—to be part of a "party" for the star, only telling them after they've agreed that the "party" is actually taking place on a television show. But you'll pay them a token fee, even though you know they're really only there to honor the star. Of course it's a racket, but it's too late at this point to back out. The Edwards method worked with Ethel Barrymore and Ed Wynn on a pair of Texaco Command Appearance shows. 

The article concludes with the dwindling list of really important stars who've yet to appear on television: Marilyn Monroe, Danny Kaye, Alec Guinness. But, if some executive out there is brushing up on Izaak Walton's The Compleat Angler, they might come up with the bait to attract them. It's an interesting article, and I'm glad I returned to it here, with an opportunity to go through it in more detail than if it had simply been part of the Saturday review. Today, of course, things have changed. It's prestige television that has the most to offer the movie star, and judging by the success that HBO, Paramount+, AMC and the like have had in attracting them to limited series, I'd say the practice is alive and well. TV  

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