Saturday, November 30, 2013

Our Mr. Crenna

Happy birthday to Richard Crenna, born November 30, 1926 in Los Angeles, California. Some fans might most readily recognize him as Luke from the long-running sitcom The Real McCoys (1957-63), or from his appearances with Sylvester Stallone in three "Rambo" movies, but to me he's first and foremost the nerdy teenager Walter Denton from radio and TV's Our Miss Brooks.

Crenna as another teenager on I Love Lucy.
A busy radio actor throughout his teen years, Crenna was already in his early twenties when he joined the ensemble cast of Eve Arden's radio comedy as the gawky high school student with the squawky voice. When Our Miss Brooks transferred to TV in 1952, Crenna tried to bow out of the role he'd outgrown, but acquiesced when Miss Arden implored him to help get the video version off to a solid start. He would ultimately spend three more years as Walter on TV -- "I had a very delayed puberty," he would later say with a laugh -- before being written out of the series in 1955.

Unlike many child performers, Crenna (who changed his professional name from Dick to Richard as he aged), was equally successful as an adult, enjoying a career notable both for its longevity and its variety. It took time to change his image from gangly teen to leading man, but he managed to do so, and would be in demand for the next several decades. He won an Emmy for his role in the 1985 TV-movie The Rape of Richard Beck, and had a recurring role on CBS' Judging Amy at the time of his death in 2003. Interviewed by syndicated columnist Gene Handsaker in 1967, Crenna gave a clue to his success as a performer when he said, "Everything you do can't be great. But you have to go in feeling you can make a 100 per cent contribution of your talent. An actor just doing a part for the money isn't giving the producer his money's worth."

You can find more information on the history of Our Miss Brooks, both on radio and television, in my book Eve Arden: A Chronicle of All Film, Television, Radio and Stage Performances. Unfortunately, the TV show hasn't had a proper DVD release, but you can catch Walter in all his ear-bruising glory on YouTube.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Book Review: Murder, He Wrote

Me and Murder, She Wrote: An Unauthorized Autobiography, by Peter S. Fischer (Grove Point Press, $18.95), is a highly readable, enjoyable memoir by the veteran TV writer-producer who co-created CBS' long-running Sunday night mystery series Murder, She Wrote. Although he worked on shows outside the mystery genre, Fischer is probably best-known for contributing scripts to Columbo, as well as writing and producing for Ellery Queen and The Eddie Capra Mysteries, before striking gold with Jessica Fletcher.

Fans of the long-running hit will enjoy going behind the scenes with Fischer as he recalls his working relationship with star Angela Lansbury, the pressures of devising a new mystery plot each week, and choosing those guest stars that gave the show an extra cachet. He explains why convincing the studio to pony up sizable talent fees not only made the show more fun but was a good investment: "Familiar faces help keep the suspects separated in the viewer's mind. If three of your suspects are the accountant, the lawyer and the banker, most people won't remember which is which. But if Van Johnson is trying to blackmail Troy Donahue into killing Veronica Lake, that they can follow." He reveals the name of the only actor who balked at the alphabetical Guest Stars billing (about which producers were adamant), and preferred to appear unbilled rather than share the glory.

Admirers of Ms. Lansbury's work won't be disillusioned, as Fischer paints a complimentary portrait of her as a professional and colleague. On the other hand, he did acquire a healthy dislike for series star Hal Linden while producing Blacke's Magic, and doesn't hesitate to explain why. I also loved his anecdote blasting the auteur theory, giving credit to directors at the expense of writers and other colleagues -- "Or as one well known writer once said as he handed a particularly obnoxious director a bound sheaf of 120 blank sheets of paper, 'Auteur this!'" Even if you're not a Murder, She Wrote devotee, Fischer's memoir is a great read if you're interested in television production and history.
Since retiring from the television industry, Fischer has not only written this memoir but also continued his lifelong love for the mystery genre with a series of "Hollywood Murder Mysteries" in book form. You can learn more about those here.

NOTE: Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

A "Margie" Memento

A 45-page script for My Little Margie.
Here's a fun little collectible I acquired in researching my book The Women Who Made Television Funny -- a crew member's copy of an original My Little Margie script. Dated January 14, 1953, it's for an episode called "The Homely Margie," first aired March 5, 1953 on CBS. In this script by Frank Fox and G. Carleton Brown, Margie poses as Cousin Carolyn from Philadelphia, with a "goony voice," to resolve one of those crises only Margie and Vern Albright could find themselves in. Page One lists not only the cast regulars who will appear (and the phone numbers of stars Gale Storm and Charles Farrell -- imagine that today!) but also the guest players needed for the episode -- Joe Sparks ("handsome, Southern, 25"), Bill Houseman ("homely"), and Mr. Michaels ("bewildered"), the latter amended by hand to "Miss Michaels."

This particular copy of the script belonged to crew member Hazel W. Hall, who enjoyed a long career as a script supervisor on shows like Perry Mason and The Andy Griffith Show. Maintaining continuity was the major function of her job, and conscientious Ms. Hall has scribbled notes all over the script, noting exactly how actors made their entrances, what costumes they wore, and other details. Without careful attention to these, it might be difficult for multiple takes of the same scene, from different angles, to be successfully pieced together in the editing room. For one scene, she writes, "Open on Vern, seated reading. Margie enters from dir[ection] of b'room [bedroom], Xes [crosses] to Vern & kisses him. Leans elbows in divan as Vern turns to her." When dialogue is changed during a take, Ms. Hall writes a stern reminder -- "Margie's line 'Nite, Dad' is changed to 'Goodnight Uncle Vern' in closer three. This line must be used! in corrected 3-shot."

Would you think it took this much careful work to make one lighthearted episode of My Little Margie?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Confessions of a Cord-Cutter

Did you know there's a name for people like me? (Be nice!) I am what trend-watchers call a "cord-cutter." To put it another way, mine is what the Nielsen company calls a "Zero TV" household. That means that, although, there is a television set in our house (more than one, in fact), we currently don't subscribe to any cable TV service, and watch nothing in real time on broadcast TV. You can read more about the phenomenon in a USA Today article from earlier this year.

Remember "rabbit ears"?
Like many Baby Boomers, television has been a constant in my life since sometime in the 1960s. However, I've lived through a lot of changes in the way we watch TV. I remember rabbit ears atop the set, renting videocassettes from the local video store (R.I.P. Blockbuster), and the excitement that went through our neighborhood when it was wired for cable TV sometime in the 1970s. But nowadays, my TV viewing is pretty much confined to Netflix rentals, library checkouts, and DVD boxed sets, with an occasional online foray. We dropped our subscription to cable TV about a year ago, and I can't honestly say I miss it.

Although I could wax nostalgic about the old days when you eagerly awaited the prime time broadcast of your favorite show on NBC, CBS, or ABC, I'm still watching plenty of TV -- and, in many cases, the same shows I've always liked. In the last week or two, my viewing lineup has included episodes of Hazel, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, and The Lucy Show. Writing books about the stars and shows of yesteryear, after all, makes a terrific excuse for that tube time. It's research, you see?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Book Review: What's So Funny?

Since The Carol Burnett Show is a fondly remembered favorite of many Baby Boomers, it's no surprise that memoirs, reunions, reminiscences, and tributes have become a virtual cottage industry since the original series left the airwaves in 1978. Now one of its best-loved players, Tim Conway, weighs in with What's So Funny?: My Hilarious Life (Howard Books, $25.99), co-written with Jane Scovell. Conway, who turns 80 next month, has written a warm, likable, and wacky memoir that will hit the spot with his many fans.

With credit undoubtedly due to co-author Scovell, the book nicely captures the veteran funnyman's voice, and the impish sense of humor that has served him well over a long career. He reminisces fondly about his four-year run as bumbling Ensign Charles Parker on TV's McHale's Navy (1962-66), and, of course, his long and happy association with Burnett's classic variety show. Although Vicki Lawrence and Burnett herself beat him to this particular punch, Conway offers a few tidbits you may not have heard before (including the real origin of Mr. Tudball's unusual speech patterns), and pays a warm tribute to his friend, the mad genius Harvey Korman, with whom he was so memorably teamed in countless skits.

Any readers searching for the gossip, backbiting, and raunchy confessions that seem to be all the rage in celebrity autobiographies will troll in vain for dirt here. If there's a harsh story to be told about Conway's divorce from his first wife, who bore him six children in the course of their 16-year marriage, you won't find it in these pages. On the other hand, you'll enjoy some genuine laughs (recalling his military service, he cracks, "Why is it when I tell people I was in the Army, they always ask, 'Ours?'"), and you'll be either relieved or disappointed that you weren't the department store customer who failed to recognize Tim Conway and asked him, "Pardon me, where is your underwear?"

NOTE:  Review copy courtesy of NetGalley.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Where TV History Meets Real-Life History

I'm not what you'd call a history buff -- unless it's TV, movie, or radio history. But I was intrigued by the congruence of real and reel drama that you can see in this YouTube video, when one of the most famous tragedies in American history interrupts the November 22, 1963 live broadcast of As the World Turns on CBS.

Any of the many 50th-anniversary observances will remind you that President Kennedy was shot at approximately 12:30 p.m. Central Time in Dallas, just as CBS' most popular daytime soap opera was beginning its daily half-hour broadcast. How long would it take today for that news to hit TV? In 1963, it's about ten minutes before a "CBS News Bulletin" breaks into the soap opera to announce that the leader of the free world has been shot, with wounds that could be fatal. The bulletin lasts for only about a minute, before going to a commercial break. After a second update, CBS then returns to let another scene from As the World Turns play while awaiting further details. Did the actors performing in the live broadcast know what was going on in the world around them as they enacted the domestic drama of Oakdale?

As for the program that was interrupted, it's interesting to see what a typical episode of this long-running show (finally canceled in 2010) was like. Note that the opening scene, between Bob Hughes (played by Don Hastings) and his mother Nancy (Helen Wagner) runs for about four minutes -- imagine that today! -- and is a far cry from the grab-'em-by-the-throat approach needed to maintain the attention of a later video generation. After a leisurely discussion of the homemade Christmas gift Nancy is making, mother and son gradually ease into the slightly more exciting topic that is at the heart of the scene -- whether or not Bob's ex-wife Lisa and young son Tom will be attending the Hughes family's Thanksgiving dinner. It's amazing, in today's fast-paced entertainment world, that actors Wagner and Hastings would spend another forty-odd years inhabiting these characters; he was still the show's top-billed player when it left the airwaves, while she passed away only a few months earlier, having continued to appear as Nancy into her early nineties.

Although I was around in 1963, I was too young to remember "where I was," as so many people would be asked, when the news of Kennedy's assassination broke. It's a little poignant to see, all these years later, that millions of viewers were happily ensconced in Oakdale, U.S.A., worrying about nothing more pressing than how Lisa Hughes would behave at Thanksgiving dinner, when the bullets fired in Dallas changed American history.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

New Book on Joan Davis in 2014

I'm excited to announce the forthcoming release of my fifth book, Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy, to be published by McFarland & Company in spring 2014. Here's the publisher's description:

"The Emmy-nominated star of the classic 1950s sitcom I Married Joan, Joan Davis (1912-1961) was also radio’s highest paid comedienne in the 1940s--and she displayed her unique brand of knockabout comedy in more than forty films. This book provides a complete account of her career, including a filmography with critical commentary, and the most detailed episode logs ever compiled for her radio and television programs. A biographical chapter offers never-before-published information about her family background, marriage to vaudeville comedian Si Wills and relationships with other men, and her tragic early death."

I hope the book will not only help Joan's longtime fans learn more about this brilliant comedienne, but also introduce her work to those who have not yet discovered her. In the meantime, check out The Joan Davis Channel on YouTube to see her timeless comedy as preserved by one of her most devoted fans.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Book Review: Remembering the Perfect Fool

As a longtime aficionado of classic TV and radio, I certainly knew the name of Ed Wynn (1886-1966), but not much more than the barest outline of his lengthy career. That's been corrected now that I've read Garry Berman's Perfect Fool: The Life and Career of Ed Wynn (BearManor Media, $19.95). A slim volume at just over 200 pages, Berman's book is nonetheless a well-written, thoroughly researched account that restores Wynn to his proper place as one of the biggest funnymen of his era. 

Berman's book covers Wynn's beginnings in vaudeville, his radio stardom as Texaco's Fire Chief, and his popular Broadway revues such as Hooray for What! A clown in the classic tradition, Wynn's comedy was aimed at the masses, yet even highbrow New York critics were helpless to resist its pure fun. (For a taste of Wynn's comedy style, here's a YouTube clip).

Unlike many radio comedians, Wynn wasn't unnerved by the emerging medium of television; in fact, he was eager for it to arrive, and had been so since the early 1930s. He recognized TV's capacity to showcase his visual comedy, and undertook his first regular series, CBS' The Ed Wynn Show, in 1949, a year or so before even video pioneers such as Groucho Marx, Burns and Allen, or Jack Benny. He won an Emmy for his television efforts, and also gave a number of Hollywood stars some of their first exposure to the new medium, including Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz prior to I Love Lucy. In the mid-1950s, with his comedy style seemingly falling out of favor, Wynn took the advice of his son Keenan and launched a second career as a dramatic actor in film and television, giving impressive performances in Requiem for a Heavyweight and The Diary of Anne Frank. 

Author Garry Berman is extremely well-versed in not only show business history, but also the inner workings of radio and television in the 1930s through the 1960s, and this informs his writing throughout this fine book. You can visit the author's website at

(No need for the usual disclaimer today - bought my own copy at full price, OK?)

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Everyone's Favorite Martian

Happy birthday to Ray Walston, born November 2, 1914 in New Orleans, Louisiana, and beloved to Baby Boomers as the out-of-this-world star of CBS' My Favorite Martian. The fantasy sitcom, which cast Walston as a professor from Mars whose spaceship crashes and strands him on Earth, was a Top Ten hit in its first season (1963-64), and enjoyed a three-year run on network TV. An established stage actor, Walston hoped the series would overcome the typecasting he'd experienced since playing devilish Mr. Applegate in the Broadway hit Damn Yankees (a role he reprised for the 1958 film version).

TV's funniest spaceman.
Ironically, the popularity of My Favorite Martian only made the problem worse, as his memorable interpretation of "Uncle Martin" made some producers hesitant to cast him in other roles. Walston did, however, go on to play the frustrated high school history teacher Mr. Hand in the popular movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and enjoyed late-in-life success as Judge Henry Bone on TV's Picket Fences prior to his death in 2001.

Walston's working relationship with My Favorite Martian producer Jack Chertok wasn't always amiable. In 1964, he grumbled to columnist Dick Kleiner, "I think that I was in a large measure responsible for the success of My Favorite Martian. I know that in at least 19 of the shows last season I had to use my acting experience to overcome bad scripts." Still, kids and adults alike loved the show, and made Walston a television star.

For a fun 50th anniversary tribute to Walston's show, direct your antenna here. You can also hear the catchy theme music, courtesy of YouTube.