May 11, 2024

This week in TV Guide: May 9, 1964

This TV Guide came out the day after my fourth birthday, but that's not why I picked it up. No, I ran across this isolated copy in an antique store and, despite the fact it was somewhat battered and missing a page, I bought it to find out just what that outlandish TV spoof was that fooled a nation. After all, how can you pass up a teaser like that?

Somewhat to my surprise, it turns out the answer is the classic British series The Avengers. Perhaps it's our American sensibilities, the era in which the show first came to our shores, the episodes that were shown here, or the fact that I'm looking back on it with the perspective of many years, but I have a hard time believing that anyone could ever have taken The Avengers seriously as a spy thriller.

That doesn't mean I'm taking the series lightly or putting it down. If you're been a regular reader, you know The Avengers is a favorite of mine, particularly Patrick Macnee's dapper John Steed. (Of course, there's the beautiful Honor Blackman, the painfully young Diana Rigg, and the shapely Linda Thorson, but that is a topic—or two, or three—for another day. Or week.) But really. Considering the leather catsuits that Honor Blackman wore, could you really have thought this was straight drama? Apparently so, based on the frustration expressed by producer John Bryce, who after two seasons has finally admitted that "The Avengers was conceived as a satire of counterespionage thrillers, but the British public still insists on taking it seriously."

To be fair about it, the early episodes when Steed was partnered with Ian Hendry, John Rollason and Julie Stevens, were of quite a different tenor. The series was in black and white back then, and shot on tape rather than film, giving the shows a somewhat stagebound feeling. Cathy Gale, Blackman's character, was smart, independent, and tough—every bit the equal of her male counterparts. And the villains were typical spies, not fantastic, Doctor Who-type creations that came later, such as the Aquanauts and the Cybernauts. Seeing these episodes in isolation, one could understand how viewers might have seen The Avengers as pretty much of a straight drama, albeit with some lighthearted moments.

Mrs. Peel and one of her own leather outfits
The straw that broke the camel's back, apparently, came a year or so into the run when critic Lionel Hale, appearing on a television panel show, expressed amazement that people didn't realize the show "was being played for laughs." The others on the panel protested—The Avengers didn't bill itself as satire, so how could this be the case? Such a British attitude, don't you think? After this little exchange, producer Bryce started looking back at past episodes, "moodily wonder[ing] what more he could do in the realm of wild unreality to get the idea over." After all, the show had already featured (1) a neo-Caesar, planning to conquer the world from the headquarters of his fertilizer factory, (2) Mrs. Gale running for Parliament while someone plants to detonate an H-bomb underneath the foundation, (3) Steed being brainwashed into thinking World War III has started, and (4) a pair of lawyers who sell perfect legal defenses to criminals before they commit crimes, with guaranteed acquittal promised. Bryce even contemplated "a program in which Mrs. Gale would be tied to the railroad tracks with the midnight express swiftly approaching. He said this was bound to give the game away."

By the time The Avengers made it over here, it fit in perfectly with shows like The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Batman, and other over-the-top adventure series; besides, American viewers never did get to see episodes with Mrs. Gale until they appeared on cable years later, and the earliest episodes would have been phantoms until the DVDs appeared. So perhaps we were already well prepared for the joke by that time. Still, I have to admit that the hook for this article turned out to be something of a letdown. I guess the joke was on me this time.

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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: Scheduled guests include comediennes Phyllis Diller and Mary Tyler Moore; violinist Itzhac Perlman; vocalist Dusty Springfield; the Brooks Sisters, instrumental trio; comic Jackie Mason; the Cinco Latinos, vocal-instrumentalist quintet; and comic acrobat Doug Hart.

Palace:  Host Dale Robertson introduces actress-songstress Betty Hutton; comics Paul Lynde and Carole Cook; vocalist John Gary; French singers Varel, Bailly and Les Chanteurs de Paris; comedians Davis and Reese; juggler Dave Parker; the Bumpy Spectaculars, acrobats; Cueno's Horse Fantasy; and the Womenfolk, a singing group.

It's true that when it comes to someone like Phyllis Diller, your mileage may vary. (It may also be true that there's a lot of mileage there in the first place.) The same can't be said for the delightful Mary Tyler Moore, though, and the great Itzhac Perlman is evidence of the middlebrow culture that Sullivan understood so well—while, at the same time, Dusty Springfield represents the new pop mentality that's on the way. And Jackie Mason's a Sullivan favorite, at least for a few more months. Over at the Palace, I like Dale Robertson; he's my kind of guy. But I never was a fan of Betty Hutton; always thought she was too much over the top. Paul Lynde is good, but he needs to be playing off of someone else. The rest of the show doesn't do a lot for me, which means that this week, I'm giving the nod this week to Sullivan.

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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. 

Although television is a medium that could still be said to be in its infancy, it's not too early to talk about traditions being formed and followed. And, says Cleveland Amory, if there's any program on the air today that can lay claim to being part of a tradition, it's CBS Reports. An outgrowth of the legacy belonging to Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow, CBS Reports operates on two basic principles: "What we don't know can kill us," and "We are nobody's kept men—not even our own company's." One can see, especially from that last quote of Friendly's, how there would eventually be a break between Friendly and CBS, but that's a couple of years in the future.

The result, according to Cleve, is that CBS Reports has, "season after season, come up with the finest documentaries this side of a good book." He cites such landmark presentations as "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson" and "Harvest of Shame" as a retort to those who don't think there's anything worth watching on television today (see the stories below as examples), and adds that for much of the country, where newspapers and magazines are "either begging the issue or outright ducking it," it is the only news source that presents these stories from all sides; in typical Amory-speak, it is "on the side of the angels—not the angles." It's also ahead of the news: as early as 1962, before the Surgeon General's report on the effects of smoking, the show looked at "The Teen-Age Smoker."

This season alone has seen stalwart programs such as "The Legacy of the Thresher," which served both as a tribute to the men who lost their lives in the sinking of the atomic submarine and the lessons learned from what happened, that their loss might not be in vain; and "Case History of a Rumor," and how a whispered rumor about 124 foreign officers serving with American troops in a military maneuver in Georgia eventually became "100,000 Mongolians"—"barefoot" and "with rings in their noses." These shows have "both a point and a point of view—and, by the same token, there was a point to viewing them." (As I said last week, that "point of view" thing can be a problem, but we'll let it pass for now.) What is the secret to the success of CBS Reports in consistently producing such high-quality programs? Well, Amory says, among the many aspects, one stands out: "in five long years no member of the CBS Reports staff has ever been known to ask for, look at or even ask about a single, solitary rating report."

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I'm noticing a theme developing this week, that of quality television. It's interesting that in 1964 people are already looking back to the "good old days" of television, or at least taking stock of the industry and seeing what kind of progress has—or hasn't—been made. In the fourth part of a continuing series, TV Guide's editors have asked celebrities what they think of the current state of TV: has programming improved, what kinds of shows would you like to see, and what is the medium's greatest need.

I haven't seen the other articles in the series, but the respondents in this series seem like a pretty good cross-section of knowledgeable people: satirist and TV veteran Henry Morgan, writer and occasional teleplay author Gore Vidal, Dobie Gillis creator Max Shulman, novelist John Dos Passos, artist Leonard Baskin, photographer Philippe Halsman, TV host Lawrence Welk and Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz.

A portrait of your blogger as a young man  
In general, the consensus seems to be that TV has improved technically and in its ability to cover news and sports, but that the overall quality is either stagnant or has actually gone down. Vidal sees television with an "enthusiastic commitment" to producing junk, while Shulman blames a lack of talented writers and interference from network executives, and Baskin describes programming as "essentially pap." All bemoan the loss of live drama and anthology, and agree that there are too many commercials and too much pressure from advertisers (Halsman has the kindest word, saying that today's commercials "are now often more original and visually exciting than the shows they sponsor."), and Schulz talks of the need for the "artist to be able to record his work without its being torn apart and put together again by a host of others in authority." When asked what TV needs for the future, there are few surprises. The comedian Morgan would like more sketch comedy, comedy specials and comedy dramas; the musician Welk would like music "well played and in good taste"; the artist Baskin longs for the elimination of advertising, the novelist and historian Dos Passos would like more non-partisan news and analysis. Vidal comments acidly (and correctly) that television needs "a sense that getting people to buy things they do not need is morally indefensible," and Halsman looks back with nostalgia "of the time laughter came out of me and not out of a can."

In many ways, we could be having this conversation today. You'd see some of the same complaints about commercials and commercialism, you'd read comments about a need for more serious (and non-partisan) coverage of the news, you'd hear calls for more creativity and less interference. And yet this isn't really a situation where we look back at an era that was never as good as we thought it was, one that's been burnished by time. For those who know television history, one could indeed say that by 1964, the decline of TV from the Golden Age was well under way. Anthologies, the lifeblood of early television, were mostly gone, being replaced by sitcoms such as The Beverly Hillbillies—shows that, fairly or unfairly (and in the case of Hillbillies, I think the latter). 

In retrospect, of course, many of these shows—from Hillbillies and other sitcoms like The Addams Family, Ozzie & Harriet, and moreto programs such as The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Combat!, Burke's Law, The Bell Telephone Hour, Mr. Novak, The Defenders, The Fugitive, Slattery's People—are either critically acclaimed or fondly remembered. True, those critics from 1964 might reply that this says more, and not in a positive way, about our own tastes, but with the benefit of looking back, perhaps things weren't quite as bad as they seemed. Maybe the "new" shows didn't quite measure up to those of the past, maybe collective audience tastes were diminishing, but how many of us wouldn't gladly exchange them for what we have today? 

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Speaking of the sitcom (dumbed down or not), word on the street (or at least from TV Teletype) is that "Producers of Gilligan's Island are looking for three more regulars to co-star in the new comedy with Bob Denver, Alan Hale, Jim Backus and Natalie Schafer."  hose three would turn out to be Tina Louise, Russell Johnson and Dawn Wells. I don't know that I'd ever have considered myself a big fan of Gilligan, but I liked most of those people on it. And, as we read in books like Paul Cantor's Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization, Gilligan has a lot more to tell us than those critics back in the day might have thought.

There's also a note about some of the stories planned next season for The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, and all this reminds me that these two shows were on opposite each other for Gilligan's first season, meaning that Jim Backus, the voice of Magoo, is the first—and, I think, the only—person in the history of television to appear on two different shows on two different networks on the same day and at the same time. He was, essentially, competing with himself, playing two distinct, and beloved, characters. Hard to imagine that nowadays.

I'd tell you more of the Teletype news from New York, but that's one of the pages ripped out of this issue. Someone thought a coupon for Kraft mustard was more important. They were probably right.

Keeping with industry news, the 1963 Emmy Award nominations have just been announced. The categories are a bit different from what we're used to today; in addition to best comedy, drama and variety series, there's an award for "the best program of the year." The nominees are "Blacklist," an episode from the CBS drama The Defenders (also nominated for best drama); a news special, "Town Meeting of the World" (CBS); and three documentaries: American Revolution of '63 (NBC), The Kremlin (NBC), and The Making of the President 1960 (ABC). Not surprisingly, "Making of the President" won, and while it would have been very difficult not to vote for a program about the election of a man who had been dead for six months, I think that on the whole, it probably won on its own merits. As I mentioned in this space last week, documentaries that are well done are very good.

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Continuing on this theme, a look at a couple of medical dramas posing provocative questions for the viewer.

In 1964, there are two major medical series on television: Ben Casey on ABC, and Dr. Kildare on NBC. The shows are quite different in many ways, but they share a similar structure, that of a young doctor paired up with an older mentor (Vincent Edwards and Sam Jaffe on Casey, Richard Chamberlain and Raymond Massey on Kildare.) They've also spawned similar shows about psychiatrists: Breaking Point, which spun off from Casey, featured Paul Richards and Eduard Franz as the junior and senior psychiatrists, while Kildare's companion*, The Eleventh Hour, had Wendell Corey (first season) and Ralph Bellamy (second season; there's also a pretty good article about him in this edition by Richard Warren Lewis) as the elder doctor, and Jack Ging as the young psychologist.

*Not technically a spinoff, but since it was originally conceived as an episode of Kildare, we'll count it.

Each of these series features plotlines this week that I think would be told differently were they on TV today. In Breaking Point (Tuesday, 9:00 p.m. CT, ABC), the subject is autism, in the story "And James Was a Very Small Snail." Autism wasn't a very well-known or understood condition in 1964, so the material was probably much fresher than it would be today. Dr. Thompson's (Richards) small patient is seven-year-old Petey Babcock, whose only means of communication  with his therapist is through a crayon. Thompson's burden is to convince Petey's parents and older brother that Petey's only chance at making progress is if he remains at the clinic. Meanwhile, later that week, The Eleventh Hour (Wednesday, 9:00 p.m., NBC) presents "This Wonderful Madman Calls Me 'Beauty," the story of a biochemist recently diagnosed with a brain tumor, who wants to forego treatment until he's concluded his research on isolating a life-prolonging enzyme, work that he feels is on the threshold of success.

In each of these episodes, we're presented with something of an existential dilemma that in my opinion would be missed by today's television. Kenneth Newell, the biochemist in Eleventh Hour, is emblematic of a man driven to succeed, so much so that he's willing to jeopardize his own life in the quest for an answer that may save many other lives. Not having seen the episode, I can't say for sure whether or not Newell acts from ego or altruism, which I suppose is why it's being told on a drama about psychiatrists instead of brain surgeons, but at the very least there's a potential for a real philosophical debate about the meaning of life and whether or not Newell's potential breakthrough is more important for him that to simply preserve his own life.

Breaking Point is, I think, even more fertile ground. Today this story would be on a legal show (something like The Good Wife, probably), debating the legal rights of the family vs. the health of Petey, not to mention the various theories on the causes of autism, hotly debated today, which cause nary a ripple in the water in this episode. All this, I think, overlooks the heart of the drama: the mystery of existence, the depth of the human mind, the dynamics of family relationships, what "quality of life" really means. It's handled sensitively and effectively, with understanding for all concerned: the doctors, the family, and Petey himself. I thought it was very well done, even considering that Breaking Point is a favorite show of mine.

I should add that this week's drama isn't confined to medical shows; this week, the legal drama The Defenders (Saturday, 7:30 p.m., CBS) presents James Coburn in "The Man Who Saved His Country."  Coburn plays Earl Chaffee, an ordinary man who becomes an overnight celebrity after killing a man in self defense. The man just happens to be a top Cuban communist, traveling around the country incognito. A lot of people, the Prestons discover, have a stake in this case—including the Federal government. The question persists: does Chaffee automatically become a hero for acting in self-defense, even though he didn't know the man he killed was a communist? And does it matter that Chaffee wasn't even aware of it at the time? Is someone justified in killing a person who "deserves" killing, regardless of the circumstances motivating the killing? You can see how this can lead to other questions, other scenarios, even ones that aren't part of the specific story. 

My point here is that these shows, and ones like them, are what I'd call idea shows. These aren't prime time soaps, serialized dramas, or shows featuring explicit violence or sex. Whether by design or not, their stories contain themes and plot points that can be thought about, discussed, debated. One of the themes that ran through last week's lead story on documentaries is the importance of packaging, of acknowledging "the dramatic composition to life." The existential point of the story doesn't have to be dull. Neither does scripted drama. And viewers don't have to be afraid of it, either.

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If I haven't put you to sleep completely with that last section, a brief mention of this week's cover story should be a good way to wrap things up. Combat! was not only the best of World War II dramas of the 1960s, it was one of television's best dramas, period, a gritty, realistic portrayal of an American squad of troops working their way across Europe following D-Day. (It also didn't hurt that all but the last season was done in black and white.) The stars, Vic Morrow and Rick Jason, more or less alternated leads each week, though they also could appear together in stories. Morrow is probably the better known of the two, but Jason was thought by many to be the likely star of the series when it began, and he's the focus of this week's unbylined cover story.

The portrait of Jason we're given reminds me a bit of a similar profile of Jack Lord that was done a year and a half ago; both come across as men trying just a little too hard to show everyone what Renaissance men they are. In Jason's case, it's how he prides himself on sculpting, painting, woodworking, leathercraft, carpentry, plumbing, landscaping, cooking, photography, dog training, fish breeding, guitar playing, singing, writing, bridge, chess, hunting, fishing, underwater swimming, and karate, in addition to starring in a weekly hour drama. He also reads "everything from Aristotle and Plato to Henry Miller," pilots an airplane, and speaks Spanish, French, Italian and Chinese. Makes me tired just to type that.

The typically unnamed friend concedes that Jason probably does "most, if not all, of these things" but adds that "he's not as much of an expert as he'd like you to think." His first wife (of three, one of whom Jason says he wasn't legally married to at all) says "he is very handy—but he never finishes anything." Like Lord, he's seen as something of a throwback to Hollywood's larger-than-life stars of its glamorous past; "Vic is more of an actor," another unnamed source says, "Rick is a star." But whereas Jack Lord clearly rubs some people the wrong way, Rick Jason is inherently more likable, with "a naiveté which might leave him open to ridicule were it not for his very guilelessness." 

Hidden behind that façade, though, one suspects that sadness lurks; Jason himself says that "I enjoy being an actor because I can stop being me. Like many actors, I don't particularly like myself." His parents never really accepted or acknowledged his success in acting, and for all the various activities he say he's engaged in, acting appears to be what really matters. "I can't remember ever wanting to be anything but an actor," he says. 

As Combat! progressed through its five seasons, Morrow came to be perceived as the face of the series; although Jason still received top billing every other episode, more and more of the stories focused on his character, and he wound up directing seven episodes in addition. Jason is philosophical about it all: "If those are the conditions that prevail, I won't chafe under them. I can't say I have any complaints about this business." The two actors bring different strengths to their episodes; it's really impossible to say that the series could have survived for five seasons without each one of them bringing his own particular talent to the story. Combat! is a show that has aged well, primarily because it combines the storylines of a period piece with the eternal truths of the human condition, making for an intense, gritty, occasionally heartrending series. Perhaps it isn't part of the top ten, but it's very close.

However, I can promise that after I've watched an episode featuring Rick Jason, I've had no particular desire to get up and do some woodworking, fix the plumbing, whip up a gourmet meal, train a dog, study Chinese, . . . TV  


  1. Interesting discussion on what was considered the 'decline' of TV' in the mid-60s, the era I grew up in.
    For me, it represented an era when my parents could turn on the TV and walk out of the room, not concerned I might see something inappropriate. Those were the shows of my childhood. The aforementioned Avengers, Star Trek, Lost in Space, Hogan's Heroes, and yes, The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island. Everything was geared towards a 'general audience', not aimed at a particular demographic age group.
    My wife and I were watching Newhart the other night, and I commented 'this show was, as far as I know, the last CLEAN comedy on network TV.' When it left the air in 1990, there was no show left that could be seen as being for a 'general audience'.
    Those critics might have complained about the Beverly Hillbillies back then, but if they saw what passes for entertainment today, they might wish for a hundred hillbilly shows.

  2. I wonder what MTM did on Sulilvan's show. I don't see her delivering a funny monologue the way Diller would. She more likely sang & danced.

    Geoff Pierson is another actor who appeared against himself on network tv, as his WB series UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER premiered in Jan. 1995 on Wed. nights at 9 PM ET, up against his recurring appearances as Grace's ex-husband on ABC's GRACE UNDER FIRE. WB moved UNHAPPILY EVER AFTER to 9:30 PM Wed. the next fall.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!