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.

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