Tuesday, February 25, 2014

He Married Joan

What is it about February and funny men? A few days ago, we observed the birthday of Gale Gordon; today, we remember Jim Backus on the 101st anniversary of his birth. Born February 25, 1913, James Gilmore Backus will long be remembered for his classic roles as Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island, Judge Bradley Stevens on I Married Joan, and as the voice of the visually challenged cartoon character Mr. Quincy Magoo.
The short-lived Jim Backus Show.

Although a longtime TV mainstay, Backus had a love-hate relationship with series work, and claimed to have formed a support group called Series Anonymous. "Agents love to put an actor in a series," he groused in 1969, "'cause you don't bother them for nine months ... You live in a vacuum and come out asking who's president." Series Anonymous, he joked, would do an intervention for an actor offered a series role. "They call me up, bring over a bottle of booze, and I talk them out of it."

Apparently no one did that for Jim himself. You can read about his starring sitcom, The Jim Backus Show: Hot off the Wire in my book Lost Laughs of '50s and '60s Television. Jim also figures, naturally, into my new book on I Married Joan star Joan Davis, due out this spring. Jim's memoirs painted a less-than-flattering picture of Joan as a colleague; my book provides another perspective, and I hope will encourage you to seek out this classic comedy of early TV.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Gales of Laughter

Gale Gordon with Lucy.
Happy birthday to that consummate character actor of radio and television, Gale Gordon, born February 20, 1906 in New York City as Charles Thomas Aldrich, Jr. Best-known for his long association with Lucille Ball, which encompassed regular roles on radio's My Favorite Husband and three of her TV series -- The Lucy Show, Here's Lucy, and Life with Lucy, he also enjoyed great success supporting Eve Arden's title character as school principal Osgood Conklin on both the TV and radio versions of Our Miss Brooks.

In a 1973 interview with journalist Don Freeman, Gordon said, "To me, acting is a job, a nice way of making a living, something I've managed to do now with some measure of success for a total of 50 long years. But I would no more think of 'acting' in front of friends than a plumber would thread a pipe on a social visit to a friend's home. When I'm finished acting, I leave Gale Gordon at the studio and I immediately become Charles Aldrich, Jr., which is still my legal name."

Always in demand to play the kind of boss no one wanted to have (unless you were producing a comedy show), Gordon said, "Although I have always played bossy types, going back to my radio days as Mayor LaTrivia in Fibber McGee and Molly, I am probably the least bossy man in the world. But for the money they pay me, I'm only too delighted to play the bossy, sputtering blow-hard..." And did anyone do it better?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

In the Company of Writers

Solitary creatures that we are, even writers have to get away from the computer and out of the house sometimes. So, after a week of lousy weather in Georgia that made shut-ins of many of us, it was a pleasure to be a featured speaker at yesterday's meeting of the Georgia Writers' Association. Some of the audience members traveled quite a distance to attend the meeting, at which we talked about seeking an agent, getting contracts from publishers, the process of researching and writing a book, and the marketing that's now perforce a part of every writer's working life.
This was my second opportunity to present alongside author Peggy Vonsherie Allen, whose critically acclaimed memoir The Pecan Orchard: Journey of a Sharecropper's Daughter was published by the University of Alabama Press. Peggy, who originally began collecting these stories as a way of preserving family history for her young nieces and nephews, faced many obstacles before getting her book into print, and her energy and enthusiasm never fail to impress me. And then there's her authentic moonshine recipe!

In my presentation, I recommended two books about writing and publishing that have been helpful to me. Just in case you weren't in Decatur, Georgia yesterday, here they are:

The Art of the Book Proposal, by Eric Maisel, is the best guide I've found to preparing this document that's critical to selling a book in the 21st century. I used it when I queried my publisher on my first book, so I'm here to tell you it works.

Create Your Writer Platform, by Chuck Sambuchino, is a helpful guide for writers who want to promote their effectively via public speaking, social media, or (ahem) blogs. So if you have any complaints about this blog, please feel free to address them to Chuck on Twitter @ChuckSambuchino.

For those of you who are aspiring writers yourselves, by all means keep it up. I never want to run out of good things to read.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Gilligan Gunned Down by Gunsmoke

This'll take care of that varmint Gilligan.
In a small way, it was a decision that changed the course of TV history -- certainly where Baby Boomer fans are concerned. I'm talking about the spring 1967 showdown in which CBS first canceled, and then reinstated, the long-running Western series Gunsmoke, making room to do so by denying Gilligan's Island a fourth season in prime time.

After 12 seasons on TV, James Arness' Western favorite was on the decline in the ratings. Just as importantly, according to veteran Associated Press journalist Cynthia Lowry, the show's demographics were troublesome. "What apparently bothered the network," Lowry wrote in a March 1967 column, "was the fact that audience polls showed the program to be more attractive to older viewers than younger ones at a time when all three networks -- and many sponsors -- are preoccupied with reaching young families with growing children."  This type of audience research was becoming increasingly important to TV executives in the mid-1960s, and would hit a new high in the early 1970s, when CBS canceled long-running shows like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Red Skelton Show that had good numbers but attracted the "wrong" viewers from an advertiser's standpoint.

Lowry's column quoted a CBS spokesperson who said the 11th-hour switcheroo -- in which Gilligan and a new sitcom called Doc were poleaxed -- came about "after the surprise reaction of press and our affiliated stations" to dropping Gunsmoke. It's been rumored, though, that the change may have been the edict of network head honcho William S. Paley. Gunsmoke was said to be a favorite show in the Paley home, while the lowbrow comedy of Gilligan's Island was a bit of an embarrassment to the #1 network.

How might TV history have been different if Gunsmoke, which ultimately lasted until 1975, had been cut short eight years earlier? And what about those castaways? Would the show's enduring popularity in afternoon reruns, and the highly rated reunion shows, have come about in the same way had it lasted longer in prime time?

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Book Review: Married to An Alligator -- and Fred MacMurray

You might know her as the lady unlucky enough to marry one of The Alligator People. Or, surely a step up, the one who wed widower Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) on My Three Sons. Or loving mama to Kate Jackson on Scarecrow and Mrs. King. But if you watched TV, or went to the movies, in the latter half of the 20th century, you almost certainly know the actress who's the focus of Beverly Garland: Her Life and Career (McFarland).

Although I've long admired Garland's work, I was skeptical when I read that this book was written by a longtime officer of her fan club. Garland, who exhibits grit and fortitude in her performances, seemed the last person who should be the subject of a gushing, fawning biography. But this isn't that at all. It's a detailed overview of her personal life and her work, benefitting strongly from Garland's active participation.

Aside from Joseph Campanella's introduction, we don't hear a lot from Garland's co-stars and colleagues. But we do hear Beverly herself -- smart, witty, and candid -- and that makes this book a must-read for her fans. I'm not entirely sure I believe her story of how she smarted off to Raymond Burr while filming an episode of Ironside, but it made me laugh. She talks engagingly about her collaboration with Roger Corman on some of his best-remembered '50s films (Not of this Earth, It Conquered the World), and working with co-stars like Kate Jackson and Bing Crosby. If the book has an occasional misstep, it may be when the author gives her subject too free a rein, as when Garland shares an anecdote concerning Dick Powell and his marriage to Ann Sothern. Good story -- except these two were never married. Garland seems to be confusing Sothern with Joan Blondell, but it would have been better if the author had stepped in and clarified.

On the whole, though, this is a valuable record from an actress who left her mark on the entertainment industry over the course of a 50-year career, and had the scars -- and the stories -- to prove it.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Here Comes Bridget Hanley

Bridget Hanley as a Bride.
Happy birthday to Bridget Hanley, born February 3, 1941 in Minneapolis. A busy television actress from the 1960s through the 1990s, she's best known for playing Candy Pruitt on ABC's Here Come the Brides (1968-70). I first saw her, though, as spoiled, petulant Wanda Reilly Taylor on NBC's Harper Valley PTA (1981-82, later called simply Harper Valley). I admired her talent as a comic nemesis for Barbara Eden, and thought she deserved even more success than she had.

Originally under contract to Screen Gems' "New Talent" program in the mid-1960s, she made guest appearances on I Dream of Jeannie, The Flying Nun, The Rookies, and many other popular shows in addition to her role on Brides. Off-screen, Ms. Hanley was married to prolific TV producer/director E.W. Swackhamer (whose credit you can find on everything from The Donna Reed Show to L.A. Law) from 1966 until his death in 1994.

Go to YouTube to see our birthday girl in action at a recent convention appearance, or stirring things up in Harper Valley.