Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Debbie Does Television

The slowdown of big studio movie production in the late 1960s, along with the increased emphasis on attracting young audiences, left many veteran movie stars seriously considering series television for the first time. Although the decision worked well for stars like Rock Hudson (McMillan and Wife), a surprising number of other big names didn't enjoy equivalent success on television -- Jimmy Stewart (The Jimmy Stewart Show), Henry Fonda (The Smith Family), and Shirley MacLaine (Shirley's World) were among those whose early 1970s shows were relatively unsuccessful.

Another cautionary tale was that of Debbie Reynolds, whom NBC eagerly signed to a lucrative contract in 1969. With visions of her comedic talents producing a Lucy-sized hit, Reynolds was given a two-year guarantee, a movie deal on the side, and the services of Lucille Ball's former writer-producer Jess Oppenheimer. But The Debbie Reynolds Show hit a snag moments after its premiere, when the star saw a cigarette commercial during its broadcast. She believed she had been promised that only family-friendly products would be advertised during her 8 p.m. show; having taken up smoking for movie roles, she found it difficult to kick the habit, and didn't want to be responsible for others being tempted.

Firing off an angry telegram to NBC executives, Miss Reynolds had a rude awakening when she was told that she had cost the network a great deal of money and bad will from the sponsor, who promptly canceled his advertising. The deal that was hammered out over the next few days cleared the smoke from The Debbie Reynolds Show, but also left a simmering resentment that, combined with mediocre ratings, resulted in cancellation after one season. Ironically, it was only a short time later that federal law resulted in the complete ban of cigarette commercials from TV.

Though her first venture into series television had been mostly an unhappy one, Debbie Reynolds tried again a decade later, as star of ABC's short-lived Love Boat clone Aloha Paradise (1981). Nearly as unsinkable as the lady Titanic passenger she played in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Debbie's still around today, and hit bestseller lists with her autobiography in 2013. If she chose to focus more on her movie triumphs in that book than on the short-lived Debbie Reynolds Show, it's not hard to understand why.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Case of the Birthday Boy

Ninety-seven years ago today, the fine actor who embodied Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason for a generation of TV viewers was born. Prior to his television stardom, Burr enjoyed a successful career as a movie character actor, featured in classics such as Rear Window. Burr won two Emmys for his work on Perry Mason, and by the end of its historic run was TV's highest-paid dramatic actor

After his long run in that show, from 1957 to 1966, he had another television hit from 1967 to 1975, as Ironside. He reprised both of his classic roles in TV-movies in later years, and also starred in a short-lived third series, Kingston: Confidential.

Happy birthday, Mr. Burr.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Singing the Cancellation Blues

Every spring, anxious television actors impatiently await the release of the networks' fall schedules, eager to find out if their new series was picked up, or if their existing one was renewed for another season. Sometimes they find out in odd ways: actor Marty Ingels, after a year of co-starring in ABC's 1962-63 sitcom I'm Dickens...He's Fenster, claimed he learned the news of the show's cancellation when a sandwich named after him was abruptly removed from the menu of the studio commissary.

For Imogene Coca, after a happy year as star of NBC's Grindl (1963-64), the ax fell after weeks of rumors and uncertainty, as network executives considered whether to renew her show or The Bill Dana Show. Even after the decision was made, she had difficulty putting it behind her: "Wherever we went, people didn't call me Imogene, or Miss Coca. It was always 'How are you, Grindl?' or 'We watch you on television, Grindl.' Especially the kids ... And every time I heard the name, it was like a little slap in the face." 

Even the star of a popular show, who should have some job security, can be caught by surprise. Ken Berry's Mayberry R.F.D. was still riding high in the ratings when CBS canceled it in 1971, part of a widespread purge of shows appearing primarily to rural viewers. With viewer demographics becoming increasingly important, suddenly mere popularity was no longer enough. Soon, Berry had to put his new home up for sale, gratefully grabbed a role in a TV-movie, and expressed relief that his then-wife, actress Jackie Joseph, had been cast in The Doris Day Show. "I hope they start shooting soon," he told columnist Marilyn Beck, "because we can really use the paycheck."

Saturday, May 10, 2014

From Hollywood to Collinwood

Speaking of Joans, as we seem to have been doing lately, I've long been an admirer of movie and television star Joan Bennett (1910-1990), whose allure and style I first encountered when I watched 1970s syndicated reruns of Dark Shadows.

After a successful career as the beautiful leading lady of such classic films as Man Hunt and Scarlet Street, surely no one expected Miss Bennett, in her mid-fifties, to take the no-frills job of starring in a daily ABC-TV soap opera. As documented in Brian Kellow's fine book The Bennetts: An Acting Family, Joan had recently lost her real-life love, actor John Emery, and was frustrated in her attempts to find a suitable Broadway role. Of her dormant film career, she told interviewer Don Royal in 1968, "You reach a certain age in Hollywood and, if you're a woman, there's a shortage of glamor parts. A man can play leading roles until he is 60 -- Cary Grant seems to be going on forever -- but not a woman."

Largely because she needed a steady income, Joan reluctantly agreed to the TV role in 1966. For a decidedly unglamorous $333 per episode, Joan played regal Elizabeth Collins Stoddard in the Gothic serial, which after a low-rated start became a popular phenomenon upon introducing tormented vampire Barnabas Collins. Playing in a soap opera was no easy task even for a well-trained actor; Joan learned pages and pages of dialogue each week, too near-sighted to rely on the teleprompter that bailed out most of her co-stars when they forgot a line. Although shot on videotape, the show was performed as if live, flubs and all, since editing tape was then so cumbersome and costly that it required the OK of a high-level network executive to make changes. Against the odds, Joan stayed with the show until its end in 1971, and achieved a new popularity with younger viewers, many of whom didn't even know her reign as a movie star.

Some Dark Shadows purists think those early, pre-Barnabas episodes a little tame and dull, compared to what came later in the show's run. But when I first watched reruns thirty-odd years ago, it was those early episodes that captivated me. Joan Bennett was a big part of the reason why.

Monday, May 5, 2014

That Joan Rivers

Remember when it was just CBS, NBC, and ABC? Now there's a multitude of ways and places in which to watch TV. Ironically, what some of these platforms do best is give us a chance to see dimly remembered -- or never before seen -- curios from TV's vaults.

Hulu is currently unspooling That Show, a late 1960s syndicated talk show hosted by comedienne Joan Rivers, who'd previously made guest appearances on the likes of The Hollywood Palace and The Ed Sullivan Show. Aimed at a female audience, the format called for each segment to be devoted to a discussion topic. Joan began with a monologue on the subject of the day, then introduced an expert and a celebrity guest to the discussion. Later in the show, Joan went into her studio audience to take questions. I watched the series opener, in which a young and slightly giggly Joan, joined by her guest Johnny Carson (back when they were friendly), interviewed the proprietress of a nudist camp. As you can imagine, Joan had a few things to say about that.

Compared to the outrageous Joan Rivers we've come to know in the forty-odd years since, she's pretty tame on That Show. Still, as she confessed in a November 1968 interview with United Press International's Patricia E. Davis, Rivers had a tendency to set off censors' alerts. "I can't swear and I can't say 'Oh, God,'" she explained. "I've always said that to fill up a space between sentences but now every time I slip the censors blip me and subtract $35 from my salary." Since beginning the show a few months earlier, she estimated that she'd been bleeped on an average of three times per segment. Can you imagine how busy she'd be keeping those censors today?