Saturday, December 28, 2013

Five to Remember

What self-respecting showbiz blog could end the year without a post on either 1) the best and worst of 2013; or 2) a tribute to the actors we lost over the past 12 months? Far be it from me to flout tradition, so I've opted for the latter. But since there are already plenty of places online to read about the death of, say, a certain young action movie star, I decided to forego being a completist. Instead, here's a brief tribute to a handful of talented performers who passed away in 2013, and who had a particular impact on classic TV:

Michael Ansara (1922-2013) was not only the distinctive-looking leading man of TV's Broken Arrow, but also the husband (from 1958 to 1973) of Barbara Eden. I Dream of Jeannie fans remember him for his memorable guest appearances on that show, where he played a varied lot of characters, including Hawaii's King Kamehameha, the evil Blue Djinn, and Jeannie's dashing date Biff Jellico.

Jane Connell (1925-2013) may be best known as Agnes Gooch in the Broadway smash Mame (a role she reprised in the 1974 film), but she also brightened Bewitched with her guest appearances as regal and imperious women. In various episodes, she impersonated Queen Victoria, Martha Washington, and even Mother Goose. Remember her as Hepzibah, with her free-floating device on which she tracks Darrin's demerits?

Elliott Reid (1920-2013) was a stage-trained actor who also enjoyed a busy radio career, and played Professor Shelby Ashton in Disney's The Absent-Minded Professor and its sequel, Son of Flubber. I always picture him as "Ed Warren" on I Love Lucy, the Murrow-like interviewer who finds himself refereeing a squabble between the Ricardos and the Mertzes when both couples appear on his TV show Face to Face.

Christine White (1926-2013) was the leading lady of CBS' 1961-62 sitcom Ichabod and Me, which was the subject of a chapter in my book Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television. Another big credit in the minds of classic TV watchers was her guest appearance in one of The Twilight Zone's best-ever episodes, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

I Love Lucy: Shirley Mitchell (r.), Vivian Vance
Last but in no way least, Shirley Mitchell passed away on November 11, 2013, at the age of 94. It would take at least another full entry to list her many radio and TV credits, but it's a tribute to her talent that she's so well-remembered as Marion Strong on I Love Lucy, despite playing the role in only three episodes. Who could ever forget Lucy Ricardo snapping at her, "Marion, stop cackling! I've been waiting ten years for you to lay that egg!" Ms. Mitchell left a wonderful legacy not only in her peerless performances, but also in her many interviews and convention appearances, where she graciously shared her memories of working with some of the biggest names in comedy.

There are, of course, many other talented performers who left us in 2013. Which one(s) meant the most to you, and why?

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Happy Holidays!

Best wishes to all of you for a happy holiday season. Here's what Christmas looked like at Eve Arden's house in 1953, celebrating with husband Brooks West and their family.

Thanks for helping me launch this blog, and please keep reading in 2014!

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ab---ner! It's Sandra Gould!

Scoff if you will, Bewitched fans, but to me Sandra Gould was always the "real" Gladys Kravitz. When I first saw the show, in syndicated reruns of the 1970s, the black-and-white episodes were never shown, so it wasn't until much later that I had the chance to appreciate the genius of the late Alice Pearce, who created the role (and was awarded an Emmy for it, posthumously). Because Pearce was so good in the role, it was a challenge for Gould (1916-1999) to win over fans when she assumed the role in Season 3.
Gould as a telephone operator on Gilligan's Island.

I recently read a 1966 interview she did with writer Joan E. Vadeboncoeur, shortly after she joined the show. Gould explained that she originally declined to read for the part. Not only had she been friendly with Pearce, with whom she shared a dressing room when they worked in the film Dear Heart (1964), but Gould was also grieving the loss of her husband, producer Larry Berns, to cancer. "I stayed home and nursed him [for] five years," Gould recalled. "When he died I was like a basket case." She finally agreed to meet Bewitched executive producer Harry Ackerman because "I knew I had to get out of the house. They had already read 60 actresses and I read with 14 or 15. Then they wanted me to test, and I was still reluctant ... [O]ne day they called and said, "Come down and sign your contract." Once cast, Gould chose not to view episodes in which her predecessor appeared. "I can't be Alice," she decided, "so I'll do it the way I am."

Gould had been making people laugh the way she was for years, including a long run as Miss Duffy on radio's Duffy's Tavern. She was also a favorite of the late Joan Davis, and I enjoyed seeing Gould in numerous episodes of I Married Joan, as I researched my forthcoming book on its star. Sandra Gould had a rich, rewarding career as a character actress, not the least of which was giving us a memorable Take Two on Gladys Kravitz.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Case of the Captivating Cast

David White: not just Darrin's boss.
Around my house, we've been watching the classic Perry Mason series on DVD lately. Aside from the main selling point -- this is one of TV's all-time best mystery shows -- it's fun to check out the guest players each week and say to yourself, "Hey, isn't that...?" I enjoy seeing some of my favorite sitcom actors playing roles quite different from the one(s) for which I know them. Unlike the later Murder, She Wrote, the producers of Perry Mason weren't really engaged in stunt casting; many of these actors were little-known at the time. It was just a question of using some of Hollywood's best character actors to make the show the strongest it could be. Little wonder that Mason's real-life creator, author Erle Stanley Gardner, wrote the show's producer after seeing an early episode, saying, "I kept wondering how on earth you ever chose every single actor so they were perfectly cast."

In The Case of the Witless Witness, for example, a highly respected judge faces an embarrassing scandal just as he's nominated to run for Lieutenant Governor. He finds himself on the wrong end of a warrant when the key witness in his corruption case turns up conveniently dead before having a chance to testify. Who could have done the dastardly deed? Could it be the judge's chief rival for the party nomination, played by David White ("Larry Tate" from Bewitched)? Maybe it was the sleazy lobbyist, played by Jackie Coogan (The Addams Family's "Uncle Fester"). Surely no one suspects the judge's loyal, longtime secretary, played by Florida Friebus ("Winnie Gillis" from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis).

I'd like to recommend a book to read about this marvelous series, but unfortunately the best one I know is out of print. However, the authors maintain a website at that's chock full of information about the show and its cast. If you haven't experienced this classic series from TV's golden age, by all means give it a trial (so to speak). I think your verdict will be favorable.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Book Review: Garlen's Guide to Movies

I was taken aback recently when a Netflix search for classics suggested that I try Beetlejuice (1988). If your idea of a classic movie is more likely to star Joan Crawford or Humphrey Bogart than Michael Keaton, then you'll appreciate Jennifer C. Garlen's book Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching (Westview, $18.00). Garlen, who writes regularly about Golden Age cinema for, has compiled a smart, readable, and eminently browsable guide to the best of the best.

After a brief introduction covering 10 films so famous that even classic movie novices have likely seen them (It's a Wonderful Life, Citizen Kane), Garlen delves eagerly into her Top 100 list. Many won't surprise anyone who cares enough to pick up this book -- All About Eve, High Noon, North by Northwest -- but there are others you might not so easily guess. Able to appreciate, and assess, a variety of genres, Garlen's good taste ranges across Westerns, comedies, musicals, and even horror films (House of Wax, Horror of Dracula). Most of her choices are American releases from the 1930s through the 1950s; however, silent and foreign films are represented as well. For each film, she offers not only intelligent commentary (being a Georgia boy myself, I was amused by her crack about the cast of Jezebel: "They all go around mouthing that Hollywood version of a Southern accent, but Southerners who watch old movies have grown used to hearing it...") but also tips for further viewing if you liked the cast, genre, or premise.

Veteran old movie watchers will enjoy seeing some of their old favorites through her sharp eyes, and maybe even note a few movies they've overlooked. Those relatively new to classic movies will find this a treasure trove of suggestions that will keep their Netflix queue or their DVD player occupied for weeks, or months, to come. It would make a great stocking stuffer, or a last-minute gift, for someone on your list.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Thank You, Classic Images!

Color me flattered. My book Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television: Thirty Sitcoms That Faded Off Screen was named one of the Best Books of the Year by Classic Images and its longtime reviewer Laura Wagner. She wrote, "Tucker is blessed with a writing style that is very distinct, informative, clean-cut, to the point, and easy to understand. I learned a lot from this book." To paraphrase the great Groucho Marx, if Classic Images continues to publish such nice things about me, I may be compelled to get a subscription.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

My Christmas Reading List

I know you've been lying awake nights, tossing and turning, wondering what to get the author of this blog for Christmas. It would be churlish of me to make you guess, especially those of you who don't really know me all that well, so I decided to come right out and publish my list. I love reading thorough, well-researched, and readable biographies of show business figures whose work I admire. Here, alphabetically billed, are three such people whose biographies I would most like to read this holiday season:

Bea Benaderet (1906-1968) may be best-known as good-hearted Kate Bradley, proprietress of the Shady Rest Hotel, on TV's Petticoat Junction. However, before that late-in-life success, she was a prolific and highly respected character actress whose credits include the role of Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, Iris Atterbury, best pal to Liz (Lucille Ball) on radio's My Favorite Husband, and the voices of characters such as Tweety Bird's Granny in Warner Brothers cartoons.

Willie Best (1916-1962) was a comic actor who appeared in more than 100 films between 1930 and 1950, and went on to play regular roles in two early TV sitcoms, My Little Margie and The Trouble with Father. Often saddled with the stereotypical characters assigned to other African American actors in that era, he nonetheless displayed a genuine talent that led Bob Hope, whom he supported in The Ghost Breakers (1940), to call him "the best actor I know."

Martin Kosleck (1904-1994) was a German-born artist and actor who left his native country in the early 1930s, as Nazism was on the rise. Landing in Hollywood a few years later, he built an impressive career as a character actor, ironically often cast as Nazis. Among his better-remembered roles are leads in two cult favorite horror films, House of Horrors (1946, pictured below) and The Flesh Eaters (1964).
If Martin Kosleck (center, sculpting Rondo Hatton) can create an original work of art, why can't you?

Don't those sound intriguing? There's just one slight hiccup, and that's why I'm giving you a couple of weeks extra notice before December 25th. Nobody's actually written these books yet. Granted, that does provide an extra bit of complication, but I have faith in you. Get to work, okay? I'm looking forward to a few days off work after Christmas, and it sure would be nice to curl up on the sofa and read your book.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Outtakes #4: Eve Arden

While we may think first and foremost of her sixty-plus movies, and starring role in Our Miss Brooks, Eve Arden had a lifelong love for live theater, and continued to perform onstage as often as possible, even after achieving her Hollywood fame. In 1970, fresh from her two-year run in TV's The Mothers-in-Law, Eve accepted an offer to star in the national touring company of Leonard Gershe's Broadway hit Butterflies Are Free. Eve played Mrs. Baker, overprotective mother of a young man who's been blind from birth, and is falling in love with his new neighbor, aspiring actress Jill. The New York production opened in 1969, starring Eileen Heckart and Keir Dullea, and would run for more than 1100 performances. Heckart reprised her role in the 1972 film, winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Interviewed during the Chicago run, Eve said, "It's a very good, interesting, fun play ... It's a comedy, but very touching. I can't remember doing a play so satisfying to an audience." In Los Angeles, the company settled in for a healthy run at the renowned Huntington Hartford Theatre. Ready to long for the good old days? According to this vintage playbill, top ticket prices, for orchestra seats on Friday and Saturday nights, cost $7.50. A nosebleed seat in the upper balcony at a Wednesday matinee could be yours for only $2.00. Of Eve's performance, newspaper critic Joseph H. Firman wrote, "Arden shows herself once again to be the among the best of America's comediennes, but adds serious acting that reveals skill and depth."

It's a shame that Eve's performance in Butterflies Are Free exists only in playgoers' memories. But close your eyes and listen -- can't you just hear that voice responding to Jill, the wannabee actress, with, "Might I have seen you in anything, besides your underwear?"