April 6, 2024

This week in TV Guide: April 3, 1976

Our introduction to Liz Torres, the newest cast member of CBS's sitcom Phyllis, comes with the heavy shadow of Barbara Colby, the cast remember she replaced, who was murdered on July 24, 1975 in Los Angeles. Nine months later, her murder remains unsolved, writes Don Freeman, "[w]ith no clues, no motives and no suspects." He calls it a "bizarre case," and so it remains to this day. 

Phyllis, as you may recall, is a spinoff from The Mary Tyler Moore show, with Cloris Leachman reprising her role of Phyllis Lindstrom, who has moved from Minneapolis to San Francisco following the death of her husband, Lars. The premise has Phyllis taking a job as an assistant in a photographic studio owned by Julie Erskine, played by Colby. After having appeared in three episodes, Colby and a fellow actor, James Kiernan, were shot and killed shortly before midnight while walking from an acting class to their car. Colby died instantly; Kiernan was able to tell the police little before he, too, died—only that they'd been shot by two black men he didn't recognize, who had pulled up in a light-colored van, told them to put up their hands, fired two shots (each being hit by one), and then driven off. Neither Colby nor Kiernan were robbed, which would seem to rule that out as a motive. Left with little else to work with, the police concluded that it was either a "targeted killing" (i.e. a hit?) or a random drive-by shooting.

Today, nearly 50 years later, the murder remains unsolved. Colby was, at the time, separated from her husband, Bob Levitt, the son of Ethel Merman, but the couple were said to have been on good terms, and it appears he was never considered a serious suspect. There had been a string of crimes in the West Los Angeles-Santa Monica area that night, including another murder; police looked into the possibility that the crimes were related, and six gang members were taken into custody, but as far as the murders of Colby and Kiernan are concerned, nothing ever came of it.

In a filmed tribute, Leachman called Colby "one of the most joyful and giving people I have ever known," and referring to the decision to recast the role with Torres, she said "It was not easy to replace Barbara Colby as an actress, and it is impossible to replace her as a person." The tribute was intended to be shown prior to the start of the series, but it was vetoed by CBS. "It was felt simply that the film was inappropriate," an unnamed official at CBS says, "and that airing the three episodes in which Barbara Colby appeared was enough." "CBS probably felt we were visiting on a lot of people something they knew little about," Grant Tinker, president of MTM replies. "The network saw the film we made and said no. I think they were wrong." So does Ed. Weinberger, executive co-producer of Phyllis. "It’s a delicate, sensitive issue and the network does have its prerogative. We objected but we were all so disconsolate about Barbara that we had no stomach to fight for what we thought was just and proper. I don’t think the network was callous, just mistaken."

    Colby and Cloris Leachman on Phyllis
Today, such a tribute would almost certainly have been aired. Weinberg's conclusion that CBS was "mistaken" sounds very much like something said by someone who knew they would have to work with the network in the future, and didn't want to burn any bridges. The decision does sound callous, in other words, very much a standard operating procedure from a television network that long since lost any intension of providing anything that didn't, in some way, augment the bottom line. We've seen too many poor judgements over the years, too much meddling, too much unfounded arrogance, to think otherwise.

As for the show, it would run for two seasons before being cancelled. Torres continued in the role that Barbara Colby had begun for the rest of the season, before the character was eliminated. Whether or not that was by design—Torres says of taking the role, "I miss New York, but you go where the work is." She added, "I'm an actress who replaced an actress who was murdered. The show must go on. But there are times when I feel—a bit strange."

There are several podcasts and videos exploring the murders of Barbara Colby and James Kiernan, and you can find them easily enough. It is, however, surprising that the murder of a television actress is not better remembered that it is. Perhaps, being that it remains unsolved to this day, networks like CBS don't look at it as being commercial. Perhaps it doesn't have a happy-enough ending.

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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 shows of the era. 

Do you remember a series called Sara? Not Sarah, Plain and Tall (if you remember that), just Sara. I swear, this is the first time I've ever heard of it. Granted, these are the days of the World's Worst Town™, when I didn't have regular access to a CBS affiliate; still, I did have access to TV Guide, and if I ever saw this show in its pages, it didn't leave an impression.

Sara stars Brenda Vaccaro as a schoolteacher in 1870s Colorado Territory; she emigrated from Philadelphia, which she found "dreary and predictable." But, according to Cleveland Amory, the City of Brotherly Love was a cauldron of excitement compared to what we see here, where the stories "are so dreary and predictable that we advise you to snooze a bit. Then, when you wake up, you can figure out not what has happened (you'll already know that from being ahead before you dozed off) but what's going to happen." So maybe that was it—I slept through it all.

Sara is, it goes without saying, a liberated woman fighting a male establishment, and since she's also a teacher, this makes her cause at least twice as righteous. And predictable. One plot line involved her failure to get any new books from the school board, whereupon she decided to have her students write their own book, and have it published by the local newspaper. "Even in those days, it was publish or perish," Cleve notes, "—but in this case, it didn't matter which." So what we have here is a talented actress, Vaccaro, starring in a vehicle that moves at a glacial pace (what else do you think created the Rocky Mountains?), featuring predictable plots, stereotypical characters, and not much else. How this series survived for twelve episodes a mystery to me. One thing seems for certain, though; in this case, a bad memory serves to be a blessing.

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

Kirshner: Performers include Ike & Tina Turner ("Oh My My," "Sexy Ida"); C.W. McCall ("Convoy," "Green River," "Classified"); Queen ("Bohemian Rhapsody").

Midnight: Hostess Helen Reddy welcomes Barry Manilow ("Something's Comin' Up"); Fleetwood Mac ("Rhiannon"); pop group Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds; rock group Queen; and rock artist Gary Wright. Also featured is a tribute to Roger McGuinn and the Byrds.

Keeping in mind that these are all my personal opinions, not intended to inflame anyone with preferences to the contrary, this week's offering provides me, for once, with a clear choice. I would have been watching The Midnight Special, given that it was all that was available to me in the World's Worst Town™; nevertheless, I don't care for Helen Reddy, I don't care for Barry Manilow, and I really don't care for Fleetwood Mac. But what about Queen? Well, I like them, but I can get them on Kirshner, and besides, I can get Tina Turner as well. I think I can stand C.W. McCall in return for that. This week, Kirshner takes the prize.

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A couple of the week's more noteworthy programs unwittingly highlight how far TV Guide fell from its pinnacle to its final days as a weekly with local listings; we won't even discuss what it's become today.

One of the features that appeared in the magazine from time to time was called "Background." It was an article written by a distinguished historian or writer, putting one of the week's shows into a historical or cultural perspective, allowing viewers to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation—or to spur them to watch it in the first place, if they hadn't been thinking about it.

Case in point #1: Thursday night's Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation of "Truman at Potsdam" (8:00 p.m. PT, NBC), starring Ed Flanders as Harry Truman, John Houseman as Winston Churchill, and José Ferrer as Joseph Stalin, plus Barry Morse as Secretary of State James Byrnes, and Alexander Knox as Secretary of War Henry Stimson. Based on the book Meeting at Potsdam by Charles L. Mee Jr, it's the story of the Potsdam Conference, held in Potsdam, Germany in July and August 1945, at which Truman, Churchill, and Stalin met to work out the partition of postwar Europe. It was Truman's first meeting with the other two members of the so-called Big Three, having taken office only three months before. We're given the background on all this in an article by W. Averill Harriman, former governor of New York, who was at Potsdam as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union. In the article, Harriman focuses on the many decisions facing Truman, including Stalin's obvious reneging on commitments he'd previously made at Yalta. It's a brief but interesting look at the reasoning behind some of Truman's decisions, as well as how the Soviets wound up with a free hand in East Germany.  

("Truman at Potsdam" also merits a mention in "The Screening Room," the preview of some of the week's notable programs. The preview refers to a scene which "is bound to generate controversy," in which Truman states one of his reasons for using the atomic bomb on Japan: "What we're going to do is say to the Russians, ‘We’ve got it and we’re not afraid to use it... .'" Now, if this is accurate, and if Truman is actually justifying the use of this murderous weapon as being part of international power politics, that is truly an unconscionable decision. Granted, I've never been a fan of Truman to begin with, but his willingness to use the Bomb, and his attitude towards it afterward, have always been morally troubling, and this does nothing to lessen that.)

Case in point #2: Friday night, ABC airs The Story of David (9:00 p.m.), part one of a two-part movie presentation that concludes the following Sunday night with David and Bathsheba, with Timothy Bottoms starring as young David (Keith Michell plays the older David in part two) and Anthony Quayle as King Saul. (In case you're curious, Bathsheba is played in part two by Jane Seymour. Of course, you're thinking.) The background article in this case is provided by novelist Chaim Potok, who tells us about the historical David, his conflict with King Saul (including his twice-refusal to kill Saul when he had the chance), and his eventual rise to become king of Israel, over which he would reign for 40 years, ending with his anointing of Solomon as his successor.

Although neither of these articles runs more than a couple of pages, providing the briefest of perspectives on the stories about to appear on television, they're serious, incisive, and thought-provoking pieces, ones that could not only encourage someone to watch the programs, but also to read more about the historical events on which they're based. And while they're constrained by space considerations to offering in-depth scholarship, they're certainly heads and shoulders above the kind of fanmag mush and sensationalism that makes up TV Guide today. 

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For those of you who might think I don't pay enough attention to women's sports, here's one for you: the final two rounds of the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle Golf Championship (Saturday 3:00 p.m., Sunday, 2:00 p.m., ABC), the richest tournament on the women's tour, featuring a $200,000 total purse, with $32,000 to the winner. Dinah Shore co-founded the tournament along with David Forster, chairman of Colgate-Palmolive, in 1972; her name and involvement ensured the tournament would have a great deal of credibility, not to mention visibility. The tournament continues to this day as one of the women's tour's major championships, although it's undergone name, sponsor, and location changes in the meantime. In 1976, the top prize goes to one of the game's greats, Judy Rankin, who fires a final-round 68 to win by three strokes.

Speaking of "do you remember?" series as we were earlier, how many of you recall Almost Anything Goes? It was a show that held a certain amount of fascination for me, as was the case with so many of the shows that we weren't able to see in the World's Worst Town™; I don't know whether or not it was any good, but the idea of three teams, representing various smaller towns from around America, competing against each other in a series of stunts reminiscent of Beat the Clock or Wipeout sounded like fun. It had credible announcers as well: Charlie Jones, Lynn Shackleford, and the ubiquitous Regis Philbin. I never have seen an episode of it, so I can't say whether or not the fascination was justified. (Saturday, 8:00 p.m., ABC)

The movie highlight of the week has to be the network television premiere of Five Easy Pieces (Monday, 9:00 p.m., ABC), starring Jack Nicholson and Karen Black. Judith Crist calls it "a brilliant film, abrasive in its perceptions, brutal in its truths and near-lyrical in its composition," and it cops Nicholson his first Oscar nomination. It has some competition for the top spot, though, in a "bonanza week—for the serious film buff as well as the casual viewer." On Tuesday, it's Lord of the Flies (9:00 p.m., PBS), the 1963 adaptation of William Golding's novel, "both a gripping adventure-horror story and a frightening, thought-provoking commentary on the heart and mind of man," featuring a cast of "remarkable non-professionals." That's followed at midnight by the CBS late movie, The Fixer, directed by John Frankenheimer, written by Dalton Trumbo, and starring Alan Bates in an Oscar-nominated turn; it is, Crist says, "an intense, painful experience." And on the local side, Sacramento's KTXL chips in with a pair: first, Sidney Lumet's outstanding The Pawnbroker (Tuesday, 8:00 p.m.), with a powerful, Oscar-nominated performance by Rod Steiger as a Harlem Holocaust survivor; then, it's a two-part showing of Otto Preminger's epic courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder (Wednesday and Thursday, 8:00 p.m.), with James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, and George C. Scott. You don't see movie weeks like this anymore—but then, you don't see many movies like this anymore.

Meanwhile, Dick Cavett tours the backlots of Paramount Studios in Backlot U.S.A. (Monday, 10:00 p.m., CBS), where he's joined by Mickey Rooney, John Wayne, Gene Kelly, and Mae West; Red Skelton (and Clem Kadiddlehopper, George Appleby, Freddy the Freeloader, and Sheriff Deadeye) hosts America on Parade (various dates and times, syndicated), a Bicentennial trip through American history, from the Walt Disney parks in Florida and California; Perry Como reminds us that he's on TV more than just at Christmastime, as he celebrates Marti Gras in New Orleans with Leslie Uggams and Dick Van Dyke (Wednesday, 9:00 p.m., ABC); Barbara Walters hosts the fourth annual "Woman of the Year" awards, honoring ten women for their accomplishments in politics, sports, entertainment, education, and other areas, as selected by Ladies' Home Journal (Thursday, 9:30 p.m., NBC). Petula Clark, Kate Smith, and the Fifth Dimension provide the entertainment, while presenters include Pearl Bailey, Carol Burnett, and Marlo Thomas; and with Easter just around the corner (April 18), NBC debuts a new Easter cartoon, The First Easter Rabbit (Friday, 8:00 p.m.), with the voices of Burl Ives, Robert Morse, Paul Frees, Stan Freberg, and Dian Lynn.

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According to the Teletype, "One of the latest entries in the miniseries sweepstakes is a multi-hour version of Alex Haley's book Roots, currently being filmed for ABC. The book, which will be published later this summer, chronicles Haley's family history from Africa, through slavery in America, up to the present day." They have no idea of the sensation that awaits, do they?

Also from the Teletype, we have a true-life mystery that one might usually find on, say, Banacek: a $75,000 diamond ring lent to The Merv Griffin Show for use by some of its female guests (including the aforementioned Brenda Vaccaro) has gone missing! The ring was one of several pieces supplied by Laykin et Cie, jewelers; S.W. Laykin, the firm's president, says, "When we got ready to leave, we packed everything up and I asked my security officer if everything that we brought was there. He said yes. Then the bag was locked. The following morning we took inventory and the ring wasn't there. There's no question either it was stolen or it dropped out of the bag without any of us seeing it." Of course, if this had occurred on a TV series, it would have been an inside job: the security officer perhaps, conspiring with someone on the show's staff, perhaps even one of the female stars. But real life isn't always that entertaining.

Doesn't this story make you want to know more? Alas, I wasn't able to find out anything more, other than that the same jeweler, Laykin et Cie, once loaned $500,000 worth of jewels to Doris Day for her to use use in the movie Pillow Talk. (Apparently, there weren't any complications that time.) Now, admittedly, I didn't spend a whole lot of time checking this out (otherwise, you'd probably be reading this three days later than scheduled), so if anyone out there knows whether or not this case was ever solved, you know what to do in the comments section.

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Since it's the cover story, I suppose we ought to make mention of Melvin Durslag's predictions for the upcoming baseball season. It's an important year of change for the sport: in fact, at press time, the owners have locked the players out of training camp in a dispute over the terms by which free agency is to be introduced; the players want to be eligible after four seasons, while the owners want eight years of experience plus a draft to determine which teams a free agent could negotiate with. The players countered with six seasons and no draft, whereupon the lockout commenced. (Don't worry; it will get settled in time.) ABC has joined NBC in national telecasts, taking over Monday Night Baseball and sharing the All-Star Game, the playoffs, and the World Series on an alternating basis. And Bill Veeck, the bad-boy entrepreneur of baseball, is back, as the new owner of the Chicago White Sox. 

As for the actual game on the field, Durslag has the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds coming out on top in the National League, while the American League sees the Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals taking their divisions; he likes the Red Sox to win their first World Series since 1918. In the event, Mel gets three out of four right, only missing out on the Red Sox, who are beaten out by the New York Yankees; the Yankees advance to the Series with a memorable five-game playoff victory over Kansas City, but lose out to the Big Red Machine in a four-game sweep. Different team, same red color.

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MST3K alert: It Conquered the World 
(1956) Scientists discover that an outer-space monster has arrived from Venus to destroy Earth. Peter Graves, Lee Van Cleef. (Saturday, 9:30 p.m., KBHK) "He learned almost too late that man is a feeling creature… and, because of it, the greatest in the universe. He learned too late for himself that men have to find their own way, to make their own mistakes. There can't be any gift of perfection from outside ourselves. And when men seek such perfection… they find only death… fire… loss… disillusionment… the end of everything that's gone forward. Men have always sought an end to the toil and misery, but it can't be given, it has to be achieved. There is hope, but it has to come from inside—from man himself." TV  


  1. I remember Colby as (oddly enough) the victim in third Columbo film, Murder by the Book (one of my favorite Columbos). She was good actress and had a promising career. We probably never will find out what happened.
    Like you, I never saw Sara. CTVA has it listed as a 'western', which I guess it technically was. Sounds like a Little House on the Prairie clone. Which they also list as a 'western'.

    1. I thought also of Dr. Quinn; although I've never seen that either, I'd guess that's listed as a "western" as well.

    2. It is, I never watched one episode of Dr. Quinn. In the 90s I was working nights and playing Mr. Mom with my daughter during the day. So, I missed a whole decade of network television. By the time I caught up I realized I wasn't missing much. That's when I turned to British TV.
      I really think the term for the category of 'western' should be discarded IMO. Louis L'amour, who wrote tons of westerns felt they should be described as 'frontier fiction'. I gotta agree with that. Shows like Dr. Quinn and Little House (a show I hated) really would be best described as frontier fiction.

  2. I remember ALMOST ANYTHING GOES! I don't remember anyone who participated, but I remember events like the "buttered breadstick", where teams met stradding a small aboveground pool on a pole, as a big slippery padded stick was pushed back & forth, trying to knock participants off the pole into the pool. ABC had a Saturday morning version the next fall, JR. ALMOST ANYTHING GOES!, hosted by Soupy Sales, where celebrity coaches like Abe Vigoda & Anson Williams advised teams of pre-teens who competed against each other. I've read the show's games referred to as "trash sports", I guess meaning that the sports had no skill or value to them.

    CBS had what I thought was a neat variation on the kids' show early Saturday afternoons called WAY OUT GAMES, hosted by Sonny Fox, where kids on teams representing all 50 states & Puerto Rico competed in a single-elimination tournament, 3 or 2 teams at a time. I was so angry when my local CBS affiliate decided to preempt the show for SOUL TRAIN after I'd been following it for a few months.

    1. Preempting Way Out Games for Soul Train - that's cruel!

  3. I'm sure I can't be the only one bugged by that Dinah Shore golf ad. Like, somebody in the art department didn't think about flipping the image so that the dialogue would scan more naturally?

  4. I don't know where the "world's worst town" is that you refer to, but there are many problems that some cities have that are worse than "no CBS affiliate."
    Mel Durslag was a really good baseball analyst in those old TV Guides.

    1. The World's Worst Town is where I lived from age 12-18, and where I attended high school; it's been a running joke on the site for several years. The original genesis of the term refers to the culture shock I was undergoing moving from a metropolitan area of 1.5 million to a town of 800. There was no CBS affiliate, and ABC was included as a secondary affiliate on the NBC station, at a time when NBC was suffering from record low ratings. Trust me, though, that was only one of several issues that go into the town's sobriquet.

      I still have some friends with whom I went to high school, and for that reason the name of the town remains anonymous, although I've dropped clues over the years that would give sharp-eyed readers a pretty good idea of where it is.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!