Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ewell Remember This Guy

Happy birthday to the late Tom Ewell (1909-1994), a highly respected character actor whose career encompassed Broadway, film, and television. Born April 29, 1909 in Owensboro, Kentucky as Samuel Yewell Tompkins, Ewell perfectly embodied a suburban Everyman. He may be best-known as the husband who finds that a new neighbor threatens to bring on The Seven Year Itch. Since the neighbor in question, at least in the movie, was Marilyn Monroe, most male viewers could understand his dilemma.

Ewell's film and stage success resulted in an offer to star in The Tom Ewell Show, a sitcom that premiered on CBS in 1960. Though the show was created by former I Love Lucy writers Bob Carroll, Jr. and Madelyn Pugh Martin (later Davis), it wasn't the outright hit many expected, and lasted for only one season. Baby boomer TV fans may remember him better for his co-starring role in the 1970s cop show Baretta.

You can read more about The Tom Ewell Show, both on-camera and behind the scenes, in my book Lost Laughs of 50s and 60s Television, now available in both paperback and eBook format.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Visit to April 1964

In the course of writing books on television history, I've come to appreciate the Associated Press' longtime radio and TV columnist Cynthia Lowry, who capably covered the video landscape of the 1960s. I thought it would be interesting to travel back 50 years (where's The Time Tunnel when you need it?) and see what was on Lowry's mind in April 1964.

On April 3, she was predicting the imminent rise to stardom of 35-year-old David Hedison, star of ABC's upcoming show Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. "I have a lot of enthusiasm for it," Hedison told her of the Irwin Allen adventure series. "The scripts look pretty good and there will be a lot of variety in the story lines." If you've read Tom Weaver's book Eye on Science Fiction, you already know that Hedison had a rather different attitude by the time his show ended its four-year run.

Furness the 1950s spokeswoman.
A few days later, Lowry caught up with ubiquitous 1950s commercial spokeswoman Betty Furness (1916-1994), who went on to host a CBS radio show. Furness told Lowry she was "deeply offended" by the way 1964 commercials depicted women. "They constantly suggest that the American woman is incapable of doing the simplest household chores and they have them learning from men -- repairmen and even delivery boys ... Imagine a grocery delivery boy teaching a middle-aged woman how to clean her kitchen floor." Furness, who clearly had strongly held opinions about television advertising, later had a noteworthy career as a consumer advocate. As for Hedison, he's been in the news this week because of his daughter Alexandra's marriage to actress Jodie Foster.

I wonder what another 50 years of television history will bring.

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Special Message from The Joan Davis Channel

If you're a Joan Davis fan, you probably know about the terrific Joan Davis Channel on YouTube. It's a dream site for followers of this brilliant comedienne, founded by collectors who have devoted many hours to preserving her work.

That's why I'm thrilled to have their endorsement for my new book. Check out their amazing video for more information. And while you're there, watch an episode or two. The laughs are on them.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: Surviving Child Actors, Jerry Lewis, and Elvis

Elvis' Favorite Director: The Amazing 52-Year Career of Norman Taurog, by Michael A. Hoey (BearManor Media, $24.95) is a lucidly written, comprehensive look at the career of a prolific, Oscar-winning director. Since Taurog directed the man from Memphis nine times, it's logical for this book to be marketed to Elvis fans. Hoey worked closely with Taurog during this period, and his book is rich in detail on the creation of films like Spinout and Live a Little, Love a Little. However, there was much more to Taurog's career, and almost any fan of golden age Hollywood will find this worth picking up.

Taurog (1899-1981) won an Oscar directing 1931's Skippy, starring child actor Jackie Cooper (the director's nephew), and went on to make films like Boys Town (1938), with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney, which won him another Oscar nomination. Adept at comedy, he spent much of the 1950s directing Martin and Lewis, and helped Martha Raye launch her career. Hoey, a veteran Hollywood writer/producer, draws on his strong knowledge of movie history, personal experiences, and original interviews to provide fresh insights into the director's life and career.

The accomplished director attracted some unwelcome notoriety late in life when former child star Cooper wrote a memoir, Please Don't Shoot My Dog. The book's title alludes to the emotional manipulation and threats Cooper claimed his uncle used in order to make the young actor satisfactorily perform scenes. Unable to personally confirm or deny Cooper's disturbing account, Hoey wisely refrains from making a final judgment as to its veracity. However, he not only notes that Taurog was acclaimed for his ability to direct child actors, but offers persuasive evidence from colleagues that he was quite capable of eliciting good work without resorting to the ugly behavior his nephew described. 

Hoey is clearly writing about a man he respected and admired, and his book is well worth the attention of movie fans and scholars both.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Many Unhappy Returns

Did your taxes weeks ago, right? Already have your refund check banked, or even spent? Then please have some sympathy for those classic TV characters who face the age-old suburban tradition of the yearly income tax deadline.

That's a plotline that's surfaced on many of our favorite comedies over the years, from The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (would you want to be the assessor interpreting Gracie's record-keeping?) to Sanford and Son (whose star Redd Foxx went more than a few rounds with the IRS in real life). And you know any attempt to part Jack Benny from his money has to be a battle royale.

My favorite such episode, though, may be I Dream of Jeannie's "My Master, The Tycoon," with Paul Lynde as revenue collector Henry Huggins. Not knowing who he is, Jeannie takes offense when the visitor makes some cutting remarks about Tony's house in typical Lynde style. Of course, for a genie, it takes only a blink to spruce up the place with a few priceless works of art. Now if Tony can just figure out how to pay his tax bill!

In case you're wondering why you never saw an income tax story on I Love Lucy, it's because star/executive producer Desi Arnaz vetoed it. Act Two of 1953's "Lucy Tells the Truth" was written to contain a plot twist in which Lucy gets even with Ricky by being way too candid about his tax deductions. Arnaz, proud of his hard-won American citizenship (and probably also aware that Latino viewers saw his character as a role model) protested that Ricky would never cheat the government, and the script had to be changed.

By the way, now that I've written five books about show biz history, do you think I could deduct my TV set as a business expense?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Appointment with Dr. Bellows

Few television actors have ever been more closely identified with one role than the late Hayden Rorke (1910-1987) was with befuddled psychiatrist Dr. Alfred Bellows on I Dream of Jeannie. Not to say that this fine character actor didn't have other credits on his resume -- quite the contrary. Originally a stage actor, he went on to perform in numerous films, including such well-remembered features as Pillow Talk, Father's Little Dividend, and Spencer's Mountain. You can also see him on I Love Lucy as a new neighbor who arouses the suspicion of Lucy and Ethel, making them fear that he and his wife plan to overthrow the country.

But it was as Dr. Bellows, the man who tried in vain for five seasons to figure out what made Major Anthony Nelson tick, that he became a recognizable face to TV fans. Just as some viewers seemed to honestly believe that those castaways were stranded on Gilligan's Island, others sought out the actor who played Dr. Bellows for psychiatric help. "I received one letter from a lady in Portland, Oregon," Rorke recalled in a 1967 interview, "who wrote, 'If I should ever need a psychiatrist I shall send you the money, since I can't leave here, and you'll have to come to me.' Another person wrote me three or four times, convinced that if she could meet me, I could solve her problems." As a longtime viewer, I liked that the final episode filmed allowed Dr. Bellows to learn Tony's secret at last, even if it was only in a dream sequence, alas.

Aside from Jeannie, Hayden Rorke was featured in two previous sitcoms, Mr. Adams and Eve (1957-58) and No Time for Sergeants (1964-65). He came out of semi-retirement in the 1980s to reprise his role as Dr. Bellows in the TV-movie reunion, I Dream of Jeannie...Fifteen Years Later. He died of cancer at the age of 76, having survived his longtime partner, director Justus Addiss.

While I'm not sure I would have sought out Dr. Alfred Bellows for therapeutic treatment, I still smile when I think of the gifted actor who played him, and the many hours of entertainment he gave us.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Joan is Kindled

The Kindle version of Joan Davis has just been released, and right now it's available for only $9.95. This price may or may not last, so hop to it if you want to cozy up with your e-Reader and America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy. Happy reading!

P.S. That's the late, great John Rich above with Joan, directing her in a classic I Married Joan segment.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

What You Don't Know About Joan Davis

Although I included a chapter on Joan Davis in The Women Who Made Television Funny, I hesitated before going forward with a full book about her. Much as I admired her work, and wanted to shed new light on her impressive career, I knew it wouldn't be easy to research her life, and add much to what information was already available. I drafted nearly half the manuscript before mentioning it to my publishers, in case I fell short of my goal.

Joan in vaudeville with husband Si Wills.
But I believe I can say with confidence that even those who already know this great comedy star, and have read everything they can about her, will learn at least a few new things from Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy, now available from McFarland and via online stores such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. (Right now, it's available in print, but an eBook version is soon to follow).

Here are a few examples of the information to be found within the book's pages:

1. Joan's real birth name (it's not "Madonna Josephine Davis," as she often told reporters during her lifetime), verified date of birth, and family background.

2. The name of the traveling act she joined as a teenager, dropping out of school to do so.

3. An account of how one of Joan's best-loved films became the subject of a plagiarism suit on behalf of another famous comedian, who not only sued for damages but tried to have all copies of Joan's movie destroyed.

4. The name of the 1960s television show that was on the verge of casting Joan's daughter Beverly Wills as a regular player, just prior to Beverly's untimely death.

5. The complete story of Joan's 1956 pilot for an ABC-TV sitcom, which nearly made it to the network schedule that fall, only a year after I Married Joan ended.

I hope that's whetted your appetite enough to consider diving into the book. It was a labor of love for me, and I'd be very pleased if it introduced at least a few new people to her unforgettable comedy.