Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Go, Betty!

Here's wishing a very happy 96th birthday to the one and only Betty White, born January 17, 1922.

Hard to believe it's been more than a decade since I had the privilege of interviewing her for my first book, The Women Who Made Television Funny: Ten Stars of 1950s Sitcoms. Long may she flourish!

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Sitcom Interruptus

Van Dyke and Lange, with TV daughter Angela Powell.
Some forty-odd years ago, my sister and I tried hard to convince my mother that we were big fans of The New Dick Van Dyke Show. What we liked best about it, in truth, was that it aired on Monday nights after Here's Lucy, which we were allowed to watch before being hustled off to bed. My mother, of course, never fell for that routine, designed to let us stay up a bit longer.

Not available on DVD, and little-seen in syndication, Van Dyke's second TV sitcom, which aired on CBS from 1971 to 1974, never came close to matching the popularity or the critical acclaim of his first. But the writers and producers and writers did try to bring a 1970s topicality to the show, with plots revolving around topics like marijuana and interracial dating. They went one step too far for CBS' comfort with the third-season episode Lt. Preston of the 4th Cavalry, which network executives refused to air as shot.

Norman Lear's sitcoms had radically changed sitcom standards in the early 1970s, so Van Dyke's producer Carl Reiner was shocked that censors targeted this episode. It does have a premise you won't see on I Love Lucy, or My Three Sons. The episode finds Van Dyke and his TV wife (in this series, Hope Lange) coming to the slightly horrified realization that their young daughter unwittingly barged in on her parents while they were making love. Even though the script handled the premise in good taste, CBS censors felt that the episode was not in keeping with the star's family-friendly image. Reiner was so angered by this decision that he promptly quit the show, and shortly afterwards Dick Van Dyke refused to continue the series for a fourth year.

Like so many other TV obscurities, that episode has now been posted to YouTube, along with several others. Having heard about the brouhaha for some years, I was interested to see the show for myself. Take a look, and let me know what you think. Did CBS make the right call, or did executives overreact?

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

"And Agnes Moorehead as ... Marilly?"

Earlier this week, I was excited to see Axel Nissen's new book Agnes Moorehead on Radio, Stage and Television under the Christmas tree. (Granted, I'd dropped a few hints!) Nissen's earlier book The Films of Agnes Moorehead gave us a thorough and knowlegeable overview of the actress' motion picture career. This new volume complements that work by focusing on an area Hollywood biographers often fail to adequately cover -- performances in media other than film.

Although Miss Moorehead's greatest claim to fame with modern viewers is still the role of Endora on Bewitched, Nissen wisely resists the temptation to let that classic characterization overwhelm the rest of his book. Instead, he covers Bewitched (making some interesting and insightful observations) alongside some two dozen other performances by this always-intriguing and versatile actress. I especially appreciated his chapter devoted to Mayor of the Town, a long-running radio series of the 1940s in which Moorehead played the opinionated housekeeper of Lionel Barrymore's lead character. While some of the TV roles he covers here are the expected ones -- a beleagured woman valiantly battling "aliens" on The Twilight Zone, as well as her Emmy-winning turn on The Wild, Wild West -- other chapters shine light on performances you probably haven't seen, ranging from The Revlon Mirror Theater (her television debut) to her "deliciously camp" turn as leader of a band of pirates on Adventures in Paradise. 

Given the ephemeral nature of actors' work in media like the stage and radio, some of Agnes Moorehead's creative output is no longer available for us to experience first-hand. But Nissen's enjoyable and valuable book is, as the saying goes, the next best thing to being there.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

"A Terrific Writer"

I'm honored that Classic Images and reviewer Laura Wagner have named my book on Martha Raye to their "Best Books of the Year" list. Congratulations to the other authors with whom I share this accolade -- Candace Hilligoss, Michael Gregg Michaud, Scott O'Brien, and Tom Weaver. My friend Derek Sculthorpe also received some much-deserved praise for his excellent book on Brian Donlevy.

Here's hoping for more good reading in 2018!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A December Deal

There's still time to take advantage of my publisher's terrific Holiday Sale. Buy two or more books, use the coupon code HOLIDAY17, and get 30% off your order. You can browse the entire catalog here.

I'll even understand if you buy a book by one of my fellow McFarland authors instead of mine. I think...

Friday, December 1, 2017

Paging Mr. Picerni

Born 95 years ago today, actor Paul Picerni (1922-2011) was one of those journeyman actors who was always working. He needed to -- he and wife Marie had eight kids.

Probably best-known for playing Agent Lee Hobson on The Untouchables, Picerni could be found all over the place -- in movies (House of Wax, Marjorie Morningstar), daytime soaps (The Young Marrieds), and practically every prime time series you could name. When I was researching my book on Gale Storm, darned if he didn't turn up on both of her hit sitcoms of the 1950s.

I never had the privilege of meeting Mr. Picerni, but I feel that I got to know him through his interviews with author Tom Weaver. His startling stories about making House of Wax are captured in I Was a Monster Movie Maker, and he reminisces about his Western films in Wild Wild Westerners. He also collaborated with Weaver on a career memoir, Steps to Stardom, which I haven't yet read. I think I'll remedy that oversight.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Ackerman Anniversary

Ever noticed how many fondly remembered 60s sitcoms sport the credit line, "Executive Producer, Harry Ackerman"? Born 105 years ago, Mr. Ackerman's successful career hit its peak when he served as Vice-President of Production for Screen Gems, the TV subsidiary of Columbia Pictures. During that fertile period, Screen Gems boasted a multitude of hit shows, including Bewitched, Hazel, The Flying Nun, and Bachelor Father. 

Not every Ackerman show rang the ratings bell -- in Lost Laughs of 50s and 60s Television, I covered two that never saw a second season -- Grindl, starring Imogene Coca, and the romantic comedy Love on a Rooftop. But, overall, his batting average was one most other producers would envy. Off-screen, he raised a family during his long marriage to actress Elinor Donahue.

Though he passed away in 1991, Mr. Ackerman left behind an impressive body of work that pays tribute to his taste, intellect, creativity, and tenacity. And whenever you find yourself reading this, you can be pretty sure that, somewhere in the world, a Harry Ackerman show is making someone laugh.