May 25, 2024

This week in TV Guide: May 25, 1968

In the long and occasionally glorious history of television, there have been many fiascos. Some of them, such as Turn-On and You're In the Picture, each of which ran for only one episode, have become synonymous with failure. The program which we are about to discuss, which TV Guide calls "The worst disaster of the TV season," is not one of them. In fact, it's likely you've never even heard of it. That doesn't make Edith Efron's autopsy of a story any less fascinating, though—after all, most train wrecks are.

The program, a television play entitled Flesh and Blood, aired on NBC on January 26, 1968. There were high hopes for the program, "a powerful and  compassionate drama of a contemporary American family": written by award-winning Broadway playwright William Hanley, directed by Oscar-nominee Arthur Penn, and starring Oscar-winner Edmond O'Brien and Emmy winners E.G. Marshall, Kim Stanley and Suzanne Pleshette, along with a very young Robert Duvall. NBC had paid Hanley the then-unheard-of sum of $112,500 for the script—the largest amount ever for a television script—and touted the coming special for the better part of a year.

In case the article's title didn't give it away, the show did not go over well. I love the pull quotes that Efron features—"a compression of enough emotional depression and disaster to sustain a soap-opera series through 1970" (New York Times), "a grim, depressing piece" (Boston Record American), "a catalog of calamities" (Philadelphia Inquirer), "an unrelieved chronicle of human misery" (Denver Post), "a numbing two-hour trickle of unspeakable secrets" (Time)—well, you get the idea.

So, Efron asks: what went wrong? A number of things, as it turns out. For starters, NBC wanted a prestige program, and thought they could get it by outbidding Broadway—except, as Hanley himself points out, the show never was headed to the Great White Way. With its depressing subject matter, Hanley says, "[i]t wouldn't have lasted five minutes on Broadway." The network executives saw Hanley as an award-winning playwright, but his awards had been for off-Broadway work, and he'd never had a box-office hit. The cast, many of whom were going through personal problems of their own, never really learned the script, and often ad-libbed their lines. Most important, perhaps, was the grim story itself. Hanley, refreshingly candid about the whole thing, allows that "I do have a very dark vision of life" that is not for everyone.

The whole thing is a prime example of how network executives, through ignorance, hubris, arrogance, stupidity—for starters—can foul things up. One executive tells Efron, "Some people thought we shouldn't put it on. But we thought we could get away with it. What the hell, we'd paid for it, we'd publicized it. And any special will get you some praise." And they did get some; at least the critic Rex Reed liked it. Soon after, NBC would announce a policy change regarding their dramatic programming, signing an agreement with Prudential Life Insurance to produce "five original 'upbeat' dramas" in the coming season—dramas that will be "exciting, hopeful and affirmative."

And here is where we come to the moral of the story. Clearly we have a disaster here, and although there are many reasons why, pretty much everyone would agree that William Hanley wrote a flop. Conventional wisdom might suggest that this would signal the end of Hanley's career, at least when it comes to television.

But you'd be wrong.

William Hanley went on to write over two dozen TV scripts, winning two Emmys and being nominated for three others. He wrote the landmark TV movie Something About Amelia with Ted Danson, as well as adaptations of Tommy Thompson's bestseller Celebrity and Shana Alexander's bestseller Nutcracker: Money, Madness and Murder, and The Attic: The Hiding of Anne Frank. When he died in 2012 at age 80, his New York Times obituary describes him as an "uncommonly gifted writer" who "received critical acclaim as a Broadway and Off Broadway playwright in the 1960s and who later won Emmys for television scripts." Of Flesh and Blood, the newspaper that had described it as " emotional depression and disaster" merely noted that it had received "mixed reviews."

So let that be a lesson to you: failure does not have to be permanent. Time can heel all wounds (and, if we're lucky, wound all heels), and people have short memories. Flesh and Blood did not ruin William Hanley's career; it merely disappeared into the ether. He didn't give up, and neither should we.

l  l  l

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: Scheduled: Mike Douglas; Nancy Sinatra; Spanky and Our Gang; comedians Scoey Mitchell, Bobby Ransen, and Hendra and Ullett; the acrobatic Trio Rennos; the roller-skating Bredos; and the Muppets Puppets.

Palace: Co-hosts Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme introduce comics Tim Conway and Corbett Monica, dancers Szony and Claire, and the Mascotts, German head-balancing act. Tim portrays a square at a hippie love-in, and Corbett’s monolog concerns family life. 

It's kind of an indifferent week here in variety row, with the headliners carrying the heavy load in both cases. Sullivan has Mike Douglas, who is, well, pleasant; and Nancy Sinatra, who is, well, a Sinatra; which means we have to depend on Spany and Our Gang and the Muppets. Over Palace way we have Steve and Eydie, Tim Conway, and Corbett Monica. It depends on what you like best, I suppose, but from where I see it, we have to go with Sullivan this week, or else Sundays will never be the same.

l  l  l

I suppose millions, if not billions, of words have been written about The Prisoner, Patrick McGoohan's legendary series that's part espionage, part sci-fi, part mystery, and completely compelling. I've contributed my share to the oeuvre over the years, and there's no need to go into more detail about it. But this week we get a unique opportunity to glimpse of the program before it becomes the legend; although it aired last year in England, it's about to make its American debut, and this week Joan Barthel talks to McGoohan—or, rather, listens to him talking—about what to expect from the series that, unlike Flesh and Blood, actually lives up to the hype.

McGoohan was given free rein (and a big budget) by Lew Grade and Associated Television, and in addition to being executive producer and star, he was also a part-time scriptwriter and director. In America, CBS, the network that aired McGoohan's previous Secret Agent, liked the idea of adding it to the regular fall schedule—provided a few changes were made. Michael Dann, VP of programming for the network, called it "the most extraordinary film I'd ever seen. It has style, taste, quality, and it’s quite sophisticated. But I told [McGoohan] that no matter how brilliant the production, the public likes to identify with a winner." And how did McGoohan react to that piece of advice? "He listened to me—he gave me a very understanding ear—but he was dedicated to this concept and I didn’t win my point."

Barthel notes that what Dann called "dedication" has been seen by others as "stubbornness" and "intolerance," which he exhibited in their "interview," which she called "a fascinating example of a strong will at work, determining the direction the talk was to take." Indeed, many of her questions brought responses such as, "I don’t know" or "I certainly don’t wish to talk about that now." Regarding some of the overly metaphysical interpretations of the show, he says that "It would be a grave error to pretend that this is anything other than a piece of entertainment of a certain type." Nevertheless, it's clear he wants the series to say something about modern society. "I've always been obsessed with the idea of prisons in a liberal democratic society," he says. "I believe in democracy, but the inherent danger is that with an excess of freedom in all directions we will eventually destroy ourselves."

The subject turns to America's obsession with polls, McGoohan says that "[t]he reason we're so concerned with these polls is that we're so desperately concerned with saying, 'We're free!' And I want to know, how free are we? I think we're being imprisoned and engulfed by a scientific and materialistic world. We're at the mercy of gadgetry and gimmicks; I'm making my living out of a piece of gadgetry, which is a television set, and anyone who says there aren't any pressures in it has never watched a commercial."

McGoohan himself rarely ventures out into that world other than to work, and when he does, he finds it "mechanized and computerized." "Computers have everything worked out for us. And we're constantly being numeralized. The other day I went through the number of units that an ordinary citizen over here is subject to, including license plate numbers and all the rest, and it added up to some 340 separate digits." McGoohan's character in The Prisoner, a former intelligence agent is kept captive by an unknown authority in an unknown place where people are known not by name but by number. is known by only one digit: Number 6. (He once said he chose the number because of its ambiguity, being the only digit that makes another digit when held upside-down.)

As for his program, McGoohan insists it isn't all that far-fetched. "What do you do with defectors, or with people who have top-secret knowledge of the highest order and who, for one reason or another, want out? Do you shoot them?" He says he knows better; "I know there are places where these people are kept. Not voluntarily, and in absolute luxury. There are three in this country—let someone deny it! I know about them because I know someone who used to be associated with the service."

The Prisoner was one of the most puzzling, most controversial—and most prophetic—television series ever. Its ambiguity and its failure to provide a definitive end to the series outraged many, enthralled others, and confused most everyone. And McGoohan wouldn't have had it any other way. "I just hope there are a couple of thoughts in it somewhere that relate to the things that are going on around us, to our situation at the moment. It will be interesting to see what viewers thing the symbols are. I will say this: There are, within it, answers to every single question that can be posed, but one can't expect an answer on a plate, saying, 'Here you are; you don't have to think; it's all yours; don't use your brain.'"

l  l  l

One of the reasons I tend to go long on some of these feature articles is that, as spring turns to summer, original programming transitions into reruns, with the odd summer-replacement series thrown in. There are exceptions, though, and one of those shows up on Thursday, May 30. In 1968, Memorial Day was still celebrated on May 30; the holiday wasn't moved to its current fourth-Monday-in-May status until 1971. Back then, Memorial Day meant one thing for many people: the Indianapolis 500, the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing." (And don't think I'm biased because I live in Indiana; I felt that way even back in 1968.)

Besides the date, there were other things different about 1968. The race wasn't televised live, but instead was presented in highlight form on Wide World of Sports a couple of weeks later. No, if you wanted to follow the race, there were only two ways to do it: either on the radio, or via closed-circuit in a movie theater. In lieu of live race coverage, we have something else in store: the Indianapolis 500 Festival Parade (Thursday, 4:00 p.m., syndicated), taped Tuesday evening, with Garry Moore alongside Sid Collins, the famed radio "Voice of the 500." Unlike so many things, the 500 Festival Parade is still around today, and still on TV, carried by Peacock the day before this year's race.

Elsewhere, Leonard Bernstein hosts a pop quiz on music on Sunday's Young People's Concert (3:30 p.m., CBS); the quiz covers "identification, observation, terminology, TV series, and famous composers, from Bach to the Beatles." Also on Sunday, Max von Sydow stars in a made-for-TV version of The Diary of Anne Frank (8:00 p.m., ABC), with Diana Davila as Anne, and a supporting cast including Lilli Palmer, Theodore Bikel, Viveca Lindfors, Marisa Pavan, and Donald Pleasence.

Tuesday night is the critical Oregon Primary, and all three networks plan late-night coverage. Richard Nixon has been strong in the Republican primaries so far, but Ronald Reagan finished strong in Nebraska, and is hoping for momentum to take him to his home state of California. On the Democratic side, RFK has the momentum, while Hubert Humphrey is skipping the primaries; Eugene McCarthy has refused to withdraw, and many think that this is part of his bid for the vice presidential nomination. In the event, Nixon wins the GOP vote, while McCarthy scores an upset victory for the Democrats. California now becomes the critical primary for the Democrats, and Kennedy heads there to put on an all-out effort.

And Ethel Merman is the guest on Friday's Tarzan (6:30 p.m., NBC). I wonder who's louder—Tarzan's yell, or the Merm when she hits the high notes?

l  l  l

This week's cover girl is Diana Hyland, currently appearing as "the nymphomaniacal drunk minister's wife" in ABC's prime-time soap Peyton Place, and author Burt Prelutsky is in love with her. She's got it all: a dazzling smile, lovely blue eyes, and legs that won't quit. She's interesting, too; she believes in flying saucers, said good evening to Nikita Khrushchev at the UN and was winked at by Fidel Castro, and has remained 27 for the last five years*, the previous time when she was interviewed by TV Guide.  "I lied then," she tells Prelutsky.

*According to the always-reliable Wikipedia, Hyland was born in 1936, which means she was in fact 27 —in 1963. She told the truth then; she's lying now.

She's a dedicated actress, and a successful one—"everything I've ever tried I've done well," she says. Her Peyton Place director, Walter Doniger, calls her "an elegant, bright, witty dame" who's also svelte, sophisticated, and a nonconformist. In fact, she only has two vices: she owns 200 pairs of shoes, and she smokes three packs of cigarettes a day. 

I don't know if that last vice is significant or not. Flash forward to 1977: she's in a happy relationship with John Travolta, she's playing Dick Van Patten's wife in Eight Is Enough—and she's diagnosed with breast cancer. She dies in March of that year, aged 41. 

l  l  l

The Teletype tells us that Elvis Presley will be highlighting a special for NBC.  I suspect they're talking about this.  The rest, as they say, is history.

l  l  l

Finally, is it possible that the most interesting item in this week's issue is not an article, but an advertisement?

Hmm.  Could be. TV  

No comments

Post a Comment

Thanks for writing! Drive safely!