Category Archives: Television

50 Years Ago: “The Fugitive” Stops Running

The Fugitive

 

In our current age of Hulu, Netflix, You Tube and live streaming, it would now be hard to imagine everyone in the country watching the same show on the exact same day at the exact same hour of the day, unless of course it was a major sports or news event. But that most certainly was the case on the night of Tuesday, August 29, 1967, when tens of millions of Americans tuned into ABC television at 10pm to experience the conclusion of Dr. Richard Kimble’s four-year saga as the innocent man fleeing from the law…probably the greatest demonstration of the country being emotionally invested in a TV character since “Lucy Ricardo” gave birth to her son 14 years earlier.

As you no doubt remember, “The Fugitive” was the televisions series that followed the exploits of Dr. Richard Kimble (played by David Janssen), a man unjustly accused and convicted of murdering his wife, who escapes custody from the law as the result of a train wreck on his way to death row. For the next four seasons, which included 120 one-hour episodes, Kimble remained on the run, hoping to clear his name before he is recaptured. “The Fugitive” was the brainchild of Roy Huggins, a writer and producer whose earlier credits included “Maverick” and “77 Sunset Strip.” Although most people assumed that Huggins inspiration for Dr. Kimble was Sam Sheppard, a doctor accused of killing his wife in the 1950’s, Huggins denied this. It’s not hard to believe Huggins, as Western culture as filled with stories of innocent men being condemned to prison or death for crimes committed either by others or not committed at all. Alexander Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo,” is an early example, while Alfred Hitchcock’s career as a great film director includes several movies (“North by Northwest,” “The 39 Steps,” and “Saboteur”) where common men unwittingly get caught up in nefarious activity. Possibly the best comparison to “The Fugitive” is Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” where the main character, “Jean Valjean” is also a fugitive from justice, and is forced to stay on the run, hiding behind many aliases, trying to avoid being apprehended by “Javert,” a police inspector who remains in constant pursuit.

“The Fugitive” made its network debut at 10pm, Tuesday, September 17, 1963. Episode 1, titled “Fear in a Desert City,” opens with Dr. Kimble (Janssen) handcuffed to Lt. Phillip Gerard (Barry Morse), riding on the train that would deliver him to death row. The narration provided by William Conrad explains it best. “Name: Dr. Richard Kimble. Profession: Doctor of medicine. Destination: Death row, state prison. Richard Kimble has been tried and convicted for the murder of his wife. But laws are made by men and carried out by men, and men are not imperfect. Richard Kimble is innocent. Proved guilty. What Richard Kimble could not prove was that moments before discovering his wife’s body, he encountered a man running from the vicinity of his home. A man with one arm. A man who has not yet been found. Richard Kimble ponders his fate as he looks at the world for the last time, and sees only darkness. But in that darkness, fate plays a huge hand.” That “huge hand” was the train wreck that gave Kimble the freedom to roam the countryside, hoping to catch up with the one-armed man, all the while looking over his shoulder for the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture.

Over the course of the first season, viewers learned more details of the events the occurred the night of Helen Kimble’s death. It seemed that Dr. Kimble and his wife had argued earlier in the evening, their shouting overheard by neighbors. Kimble drove off in his car, attempting to cool off, almost running over the one-armed man who was fleeing from Kimble’s home. It was only after finding his wife dead that Dr. Kimble realized that the one-armed man was leaving a crime scene, but by then it was too late to quickly round him up. But although the premise of “The Fugitive,” was that of a man on the run, the program did not always focus on Kimble’s situation…Usually, while in in a strange town, and using a fake name, Dr. Kimble would come across a wide variety of folks with problems of their own, only to be helped by the man who always seemed much too bright to be working at whatever lowly occupation he managed to find that week. But Kimble’s successes were always short lived, as the looming shadow of Lt. Gerrard would force him to move on.

As early as the first season, the schoolyard and neighborhood rumor mills were filled with “reliable” information that “The Fugitive” as a series, was ending and that Richard Kimble’s situation would be resolved in a satisfactory manner. One of my classmates assured me he knew this because, according to his cousin in Nevada, viewers in Las Vegas were several episodes ahead of us. The most common story was that Lt. Gerrard himself would be proven to be the actual murder, but of course, “The Fugitive” stayed on the air for three more seasons. That “cousin in Nevada” provided countless fake news even beyond that.

By Season Two, “The Fugitive” was a huge hit, reaching #5 in the 1964-65 Nielson Ratings. “The Fugitive’s” popularity led to several other programs adopting the formula of an unsolved issue being a show’s main premise. “A Man Called Shenandoah,” “The Guns of Will Sonnet,” and “Coronet Blue” went this route, but it was NBC’s “Branded” that came closest to being a blatant rip-off. Starring Chuck Connors, “Branded” was the story of “Jason McCord,” a U.S. Army captain who is charged with cowardice during a battle with Apaches, and is discharged from the military. Like Richard Kimble, McCord drifts from town to town, hoping his name will eventually be cleared. At least “Branded” never incorporated a one-armed Indian into its storyline.

 

It was during the 1966-67 television season that ABC announced that “The Fugitive’s” fourth season would be its last. By this time, the show had sunk to #50 in the Nielson rankings, as viewers began to tire of the repetitive nature of the storylines. In an unprecedented move, “The Fugitive” would end its weekly run on April 11, and would return after a fourth month hiatus on August 22, 1967 with the first of a two-episode arc that promised to provide closure for the show.

“The Judgement” parts 1 and 2 aired on consecutive weeks, August 22 and 29. “Fred Johnson,” an alias used by the one-armed man, is arrested after a fight in a Los Angeles strip bar. Learning this, Richard Kimble heads to the West Coast hoping to catch up to him…But Lt. Gerrard also goes to L.A., figuring Kimble would be there in pursuit of “Johnson.” Gerrard finally succeeds in capturing Kimble, but not before questioning “Johnson,” and realizing that Kimble might have been telling the truth all along. Viewers also learn that Helen Kimble’s murder had an eye-witness in the form of a neighbor who kept silent, as his testimony would reveal that he was too frightened to help Helen while being strangled to death by the one-armed man. This information sends Gerrard and Kimble in joint pursuit of “Fred Johnson.” The chase ends at and amusement park, where “Johnson” shoots Gerrard in the leg. At that point, Gerrard tosses Kimble his gun. During the final confrontation on a carnival tower, the one-arm man manages to get Gerrard’s pistol, but is shot dead by Lt. Gerrard’s excellent rifle shot. With the former neighbor now willing to testify on Kimble’s behalf, it’s all over, except for narrator William Conrad’s final voiceover, “Tuesday, September 5…The day the running stopped.”

Despite its low place in the Nielson ratings, the final episode of “The Fugitive” was the most watched series episode up to that time. An estimated 78 million viewers tuned in, demonstrating that although no longer as popular as a weekly entity, much of the country still cared about the fate of Dr. Richard Kimble. “The Fugitive’s” finale numbers have only been surpassed by those of “Roots,” “Cheers,” and “M*A*S*H.”

For me, the conclusion of “The Fugitive” coincided with a pivotal moment in my life. I was about to embark on a four-year run of my own at Capuchino High School. After a few weeks of being a lowly freshman, Richard Kimble’s plight seemed trivial.

Notes: “Fred Johnson,” the one-armed man was played by Bill Raisch, who lost his arm in WWII. Raisch was originally a dancer with the Ziegfeld Follies.  “Helen Kimble” was portrayed by Diane Brewster, best remembered as “Miss Canfield,” “Beaver Cleaver’s” teacher during the first season of “Leave it to Beaver.”

What Became of Saturday Morning Television?

While growing up, there were several events that I could always look forward to. Halloween, Christmas, my birthday and the Fourth of July were occasions I could faithfully rely on to deliver a wonderful memory. Unfortunately, these special days happen months apart, but happily, there was another pleasant tradition that took place every week, year after year. I’m referring, of course, to Saturday, or, to be more specific, Saturday morning in front of the TV. For as long as I can remember, all of the commercial television stations in the Bay Area would devote 5-6 hour time blocks exclusively to children’s programing on Saturdays, usually beginning at 8am and continuing into the early afternoon.  Cartoons, adventure shows, kid variety and children’s education programs were featured from breakfast until lunchtime, giving many of us no real reason to change out of our pajamas long after waking up.

As you can tell by this article’s title, Saturday morning television has gone through many changes over the years, and is virtually unrecognizable from what most of us remember. Today, the four major networks are now presenting sports, news shows and infomercials in place of anything remotely geared towards children. Yes, I’m aware that there are now cable channels that are entirely aimed at kids (Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon ) but those networks offer kid’s stuff 24/7, robbing Saturday mornings of any remaining uniqueness….if fact, with so many organized activities available for children weekdays and weekends, I’m wondering if Saturdays hold any specific significance to the present young generation as opposed to us “Boomers.”

Children’s programming goes back to the advent of commercial television, almost 70 years ago when NBC introduced “Howdy Doody,” a puppet show that appeared weekdays at 5:30pm. Network producers quickly learned that the youngsters watching the show represented an important consumer demographic, and programs directed at children would be the perfect vehicle for promoting cereal, candy, toys and even toothpaste to an impressionable audience. Before long, “Howdy Doody” had plenty of competition, as all three networks began chasing after the youth market, while local affiliates and independent stations began to produce their own shows. Of course, weekday programing geared towards children could only be effective during after school hours, but Saturdays were wide open. Thus began the Saturday tradition that found me a most eager participant.

I’m guessing most kids would simply wake up on Saturday mornings, turn on the TV, and start searching for a show of their liking. My sister Patrice and I were much more methodical. Every Friday night, we would tear out the Saturday page of the television listings and plan, in detail, the next day’s viewing. Starting at 8am, every 30 minute interval until late afternoon would be covered,  With four channels to choose from, sometimes our decision making wasn’t easy, and there were the inevitable disagreements, but Saturday mornings were too important to allow for much squabbling…we were always willing to compromise, probably the only time we were so cooperative with each other. Although my impressive memory cannot accurately recreate a typical Saturday morning in front of the Daley TV set, we are all fortunate (?) that one of Brian-Patrice schedules, circa 1962, has survived. As I transcribe what is on the list, I will attempt to explain, as best as I can remember, the decision making employed for each choice.

7hqdefault:30am  “Popeye” KRON Channel 4…An easy choice, as the other stations were offering programs about hobbies and science, while Popeye was an “A” list cartoon star. As much as I admired the popular sailor, I never could wrap my brain around what he and Bluto saw in Olive Oyl…and Bluto got his ass kicked every week due to his obsession. Despite the obvious propaganda, I never grew to like spinach.

8am “Cartoon Time” KGO Channel 7…I loved seeing generic cartoons from the 1930’s and ‘40’s, and the best ones were those produced by Warner Brothers. Best known for “Bugs Bunny” and “Duffy Duck,” the studio also created dozens of cartoons featuring no one from their fabulous roster, but usually just as entertaining. I especially enjoyed the travel log that featured the camel who insisted, despite what the narrator said, that he was thirsty.

8:30 “Ruff and Reddy” KRON Channel 4…”Ruff and Reddy” was Hanna-Barbera’s first foray into television, debuting appearing in 1957. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera went on to greater heights with Yogi Bear, the Flinstones and the Jetsons, but the dog and cat duo of Ruff and Reddy remained a favorite long after their show ceased production in 1960.

9am “Captain Kangaroo” KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…Although the Captain is best remembered as a weekday morning staple, “Captain Kangaroo” was also included on CBS’s Saturday morning lineup from 1955 until 1968. Watching the Captain was always a refreshing break from the usual noisy and frantic pace set by almost every other children’s program. I’ll never forget Captain Kangaroo’s (Bob Keeshan) short tribute to JFK given in November of 1963, when “Captain Kangaroo” returned to the air after being pre-empted by network assassination and funeral coverage. Let me also add that another reason for choosing the Captain was that his NBC Channel 4 competition was the “Sheri Lewis Show” which I never forgave for replacing “Howdy Doody” in 1960.  Trivia: Bob Keeshan was the original Clarabell on “Howdy Doody.”

9:30am “King Leonardo” KRON Channel 4…Long forgotten by most, “King Leonardo” was the original Lion-King, ruling Bongo-Congo with the help of his loyal companion, a skunk named Odie O. Cologne. Better remembered is Tudor Turtle, who with the help of a lizard-wizard, would live out his various fantasies, until his failure to handle the situation would inspire his cry, “Help Mr. Wizard! I don’t want to be (that week’s fantasy) anymore.” “King Leonardo featured voiceovers by the great Jackson Beck.

FuryNotKing10am “Fury” KRON Channel 4…I’m sure everyone over the age of 50 is familiar with “The story of a horse, and the boy who loved him.” A live action show, “Fury” starred Bobby Diamond as young Joey Newton while Peter Graves played his father Jim Taking place on the Broken Wheel Ranch, Joey would constantly find himself in danger, only to be saved by his extraordinary horse, who seemed as smart as Lassie, but unable to unlock doors and climb in and out of windows like the famous collie. “Fury” was never terribly exciting, but it did feed my lifelong hope of owning a horse, which, sadly, never happened.

mitymous10:30am “Mighty Mouse KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…Even at age 8 or 9, I found Mighty Mouse cartoons to be a bit childish, but I also thought Terry Toons animation was very good compared to the quality that was employed for most television productions…In any case, “What a mouse…what a mouse!”

11am “Rin Tin Tin” KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…This live action show was comprised of reruns, some episodes already 8-9 years old. Set at a U.S. Calvary fort in the 1870’s, Rinny was a German Sheppard who was about as smart as Lassie, but was decidedly more aggressive. Of course, Lassie was never asked to fight Indians, so maybe she was just holding back.

11:30am “Top Cat” KGO (ABC) Channel 7…”Top Cat” was kind of an urban version of Yogi Bear, preferring to live off his wits rather than put any real effort into life. Voiced by Arnold Stang, “Top Cat” was inspired by the Phil Silvers’ character, “Sargent Bilko,” in fact, Maurice Gosfield, who played Private Doberman in the “Bilko” series, was the voice of “Top Cat’s” Benny the Ball.

220px-Gloria_Winters_Penny_Sky_King_1952Noon “Sky King” KPIX (CBS) Channel 5…Another rerun, “Sky King was a contemporary Western, which was obvious due to the fact that the main character owned and operated a twin Cessna airplane known as the “Songbird.” Every week, Sky (Kirby Grant) would use his piloting skills to apprehend smugglers, bank robbers and evil foreign spies, often with the help of his niece Penny (Gloria Winters). It always seemed to me that Penny, who was very well developed in the chest department, would constantly get herself kidnapped. Each kidnapper would tie Penny up, always making sure the rope was bound tightly around the chest area, accenting her impressive rack. Man, I miss that show.

I would love to describe the rest of the shows that were telecast that day, including the Three Stooges, “The Magic Land of Alakazan” and “Rocky and His Friends”, but to be honest with you, Patrice and I seldom made it past noon. Our mother, apparently sickened by the sight of two healthy children lounging in front of the TV on a glorious Saturday, would toss us out of the house on our respective ears. We never thought she would notice.

Saturday mornings remained kid’s territory for many more years, developing animated programs that featured comic-book favorites (Superman and Archie), or becoming used as a dumping ground for recently canceled prime-time shows (“Batman,” “The Monkees”). But as the Baby Boomers grew older, the networks adjusted their programing to maintain its relevance with an aging demographic. By the 21st Century, children’s shows had long been outsourced to the cable networks, allowing Fox, NBC, CBS and ABC to run, at least in the fall, wall to wall college football. This is fine with me…every generation should have their own traditions, and develop their own notion of what a certain day of the week should mean. But for me, as much as I like college football, I would not be least bit disappointed if an Ohio State-Indiana matchup was pre-empted by “Sky King”…no one ever gets tied up in football.

Notes: On September 14, 1968, “The Archie Show” made its Saturday morning television debut on CBS. An animated version of the popular comic-book icon, “Archie,” not only featured all of the title character’s pals, but also included a music component by having the cast form a faux band. One of the songs performed by “The Archies” was “Sugar, Sugar,” which surprisingly became the Number 1 song of 1969. There is a musical legend that “Sugar, Sugar” was originally offered to The Monkees, but was rejected, with prejudice, by Michael Nesmith, but the historical time-line suggests this never happened. “Sugar, Sugar,” recorded by studio musicians, featured Ron Dante’s lead vocal.

Death on the (TV) Frontier

Years ago, a study on television violence maintained that children exposed to an average of 25 hours of TV programming a week will witness 8,000 murders before they leave elementary school. If those numbers are accurate, that would probably mean that I, based on the number of hours of television I logged as a kid, combined with the types of shows I watched, probably saw a lot more than 8,000 murders. I assume this based on the fact that my genre of choice during my formative years was westerns, and there was usually a lot more mayhem in one episode of “Bonanza” than in five seasons of “I Love Lucy.” While the study did not conclude that a steady dose of television would necessarily lead to children being prone to violence, its findings did suggest that children at the very least, could become desensitized and develop a lack of empathy for human suffering. But using myself as a model, I am not a particularly physically aggressive person, and after countless hours of watching TV, I feel I am still very sensitive to human suffering, especially my own. But I do have to agree that, after a boyhood devoted to watching television westerns, I came away with a distorted view of death, mainly in terms of how it occurs, the frequency, and what it would look like up close. Re-watching many of those programs as an adult has allowed me to examine the obvious disconnect between reality and fantasy of life and death on the American frontier.

One cannot blame television for how much the American West during the second half of the 19th Century became so romanticized…the process began 150 years ago while the history of the West was still unfolding. Newspapers of the period were eager to report the exploits of outlaws such as Jesse James and “Billy the Kid,” as well as lawmen like Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp. Soon came the so-called “dime novels,” pamphlets that either exaggerated the activities of well know western figures, or invented them from whole cloth. By the 20th Century, the image of the cowboy had become America’s most noteworthy contribution to the world’s popular culture, immortalized by the paintings of Charles Russell, the sculptures of Frederick Remington, the writings of Zane Grey and the motion pictures of John Ford. By the time TV came along in the mid-20th century, America’s understanding of life on the frontier had been twisted into the simplicity of a 90 minute John Wayne movie, comprised mostly of cattle stampedes, barroom brawls, Indian attacks, train holdups, and of course gunfights…lots of gunfights.

In the early days of television, westerns were produced as children’s entertainment, relegated to Saturday afternoons. Starring the likes of Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy, these shows were action packed adventures with plenty of shooting, but surprisingly, not a lot of fatalities. The Lone Ranger shot to wound or disarm, never to kill. But in the fall of 1954, Walt Disney introduced Davy Crockett to America in a series of prime-time television episodes, m6oz2v-m6oz18davycrockettwhich not only touched of a national fad, but also convinced network executives to rethink westerns role in TV programing. In the fall of 1955, came the first three “adult” westerns…”The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” Cheyenne,” and of course, “Gunsmoke.”
Beginning as a radio series in 1952, “Gunsmoke” made its CBS television debut on September 10, 1955. Lasting 20 seasons, “Gunsmoke’s” principle character, Matt Dillon, played by James Arness, became one of television’s most enduring fictional figures, and, by my count, probably its most prolific killer. During “Gunsmoke’s” 635 episodes, Matt Dillon is estimated to have shot over 300 people, most of them fatally. Of course, Dillon can’t really be faulted for this, as he was the Marshall of Dodge City, Kansas, and shooting people was part of his job. But this is where I have to confess my personal interpretation of 19th Century frontier life was formed more from television than from books containing more accurate information. After years of watching “Gunsmoke,” I was shocked to learn that old west gunfights were not that common, and history records only about 30 significant shootouts occurring between 1840 and 1918. The reason why the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” stands out so vividly is because it was an exception to the reality of the historic frontier…Taking place in Tucson, Arizona on October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan, along with Doc Holiday, squared off against Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury. In a battle that lasted 30 seconds, Both McLaurys and Billy Clanton were killed, and it’s not certain if Wyatt Earp was responsible for any of the three deaths. Although no one is quite sure, historians figure Earp probably killed no more than six men in his entire lifetime, a number that pales compared to what Matt Dillon could rack up in half a TV season.

“Gunsmoke’s” initial episode, entitled “Matt Gets It,” is unique in that, in his first ever television gunfight, Matt Dillon is beaten, and severely wounded by gunfighter Dan Grat (Paul Richards) who then proceeds to run amuck in Dodge City during Matt’s long recovery period. Before their second confrontation, Marshall Dillon correctly figures that Grat, while obviously the faster with a gun than Matt, is not a particularly accurate shooter. Sure enough, in the rematch, Matt keeps his distance, and kills his opponent after Grat’s shot is just a bit outside. The myth of the gunfighter is commonplace in western folklore, and Matt Dillon was constantly being challenged by gunslingers eager to make Matt Dillon another notch on their gun barrels…in fact, the opening title sequence of “Gunsmoke” each week depicted Matt stepping out into the street and successfully dispatching a generic gunman. Gunfighters were so common on “Gunsmoke,” as well as on other TV westerns, that it seemed that there was some sort of formal rating service that determined who was currently the “Fastest Gun in the West.” Men were judged by their ability to handle a gun, comparable to today’s individuals having a golf handicap. Although Matt Dillon was usually reluctant, he was rarely able to avoid the ultimate showdown on Front Street, and the result was generally that his foe ended up regretting Dillon’s warning to “Get out of Dodge.”

But as stated earlier, gunfights were few in the actual old west, and the spectacle of two men facing each other in the street, daring one another to make the first move was almost unheard of. Most gun battles happened in the spur of the moment, and the shooting would start immediately, with no one asking anyone to “step outside.” In many westerns, prominent gunslingers would seek each other out, eager to test his skill against anyone with a top reputation. In reality, gunfighters who either worked for the law, or hired themselves out to protect the interests of wealthy ranchers, were not interested in facing anyone with equally abilities…kind of like Floyd Mayweather.

gun-gunsmokeI’ll say this for Matt Dillon…his killings were relatively bloodless. None of his targets were ever shot through the head, and most died instantly. In fact, Marshall Dillon was so practiced in his profession, he normally never felt the need to bother to check on the condition of the many bodies he left lying around the frontier. Speaking of which, I’ve also noticed that some victims of shootings are uncanny in their ability to access their own medical situation. How many times have we seen some hapless person, after suffering a bullet, forsake the services of a doctor, saying , “No, it’s too late for that,” but not too late to give a lengthy deathbed speech, a curtesy afforded only to the central characters…apparently henchmen #’s 2 and 3 never have any last words.

Although I’ve crowned Marshall Matt Dillon as televisions all-time death merchant, honorable mention has to be given to “The Rifleman’s” Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors). McCain, using his tricked-up Winchester, was able to blow away close to 120 men during the show’s five year run. Not only was McCain able to run up his number in just 168 episodes (compared to “Gunsmoke’s” 635), but he was able to do so while just being the owner of a small ranch. Although McCain’s son Mark witnessed many of his father’s shootings, he still trails me in the number of killings he witnessed by several thousand.

Yes, so let’s get back to that study about television violence. Although we’ve been told that children averaging 25 hours a week will see 8,000 murders before leaving elementary school, I have to dispute those findings. First of all, the term “murder” is a bit pejorative, as many of the deaths were in the line of duty, and those guilty who may have been guilty were often, in the old frontier, never convicted in a court of law. But secondly, these were scripted drams, and no real killing took place. In fact, the only real murder I saw before leaving elementary school was Lee Harvey Oswald being shot by Jack Ruby.

Note: ABC’s “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp,” starring Huge O’Brien debuted September 6, 1955, four days before “Gunsmoke.” What children may have found confusing was the fact that Earp and Matt Dillon both held the same job…Marshall of Dodge City. I guess in this case, the town was big enough for the two of them.

Television’s Animated Product Mascots…With Issues

Cartoons were always one of my favorite forms of entertainment, and even now I still enjoy watching a classic Bugs Bunny short or an episode from Rocky and Bullwinkle. Thanks to the likes of Warner Bros. and Walt Disney, animation had become a profitable arm of the motion picture business even before the advent of television, at which point Baby Boomers were introduced to literally hundreds of cartoon characters. But as popular as Fred Flintstone, Yogi Bear and Quick Draw McGraw were in the 1960’s, there were other animated figures that, despite not having their own shows, or even ever appearing in an eight minute animated feature, were just as familiar to us as any of the cartoon world’s biggest stars. Naturally, I’m referring to those characters who served as commercial spokespersons for many well-known consumer products. Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean, Snap, Crackle, Pop and Speedy Alka Seltzer are just of few of the advertising icons who have graced TV screens for several decades.

In most cases, a product’s mascot is a friendly, non-threatening, one dimensional character, suggesting nothing in the way of a controversial back story. The Pillsbury Doughboy, Elsie the Borden’s Cow and the Lucky, the Lucky Charms Leprechaun, all seem rather harmless as they pursue their life’s work of pitching their particular products. But over the years in has come to my attention that a few non-benign individuals have slipped through the cracks, and have made their way to our television screens despite having obvious personality disorders. Not only were these disturbed figures allowed to appear in commercials to begin with, but shockingly, were allowed by the corporate suits to continue in their capacities for decades, long after their problems had been spotted by viewers and sponsors alike.  In any event, I’ll now produce a short list of a few animated product mascots with issues.

Sonny the Cuckoo Bird (Cocoa Puffs).   I’m sure most of you are familiar with Sonny, and are aware of his unfortunate condition. Introduced in 1962, Sonny, whenever placed in the proximity of Cocoa Puffs, the popular General Mills cereal, comes completely unglued, and begins his crazed rant, “I’m cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs,” all while practically bouncing off the walls. At least by shouting out his plight, those witnessing his temporary insanity are not stuck with having to guess what ails the poor bird. You’d think that once Sonny’s condition became clear, the last thing you’d want to put in front of him would be a box of Cocoa Puffs, but unfortunately Sonny, in the original commercials, was paired with Gramps, presumably Sonny’s grandfather. Gramps was really the main culprit, as during each segment, he’d find some excuse to temp his grandson with a bowl of you know what, thereby lighting the fuse that would result in still another outburst. The one thing that has never been made clear to me…since I never remember seeing Sonny actually eat any Cocoa Puffs, how do we know his outbreaks stem from liking the stuff?

Tricks the Rabbit (Trix).   Another General Mills creation, Tricks , like his stable-mate, is totally obsessed with a particular brand of sugary cereal, but unlike Sonny, is able to keep is composure as he tries to move heaven and earth in order to get his paws on a bowl of fruit flavored Trix. Since 1959, the Trix Rabbit has donned a variety of disguises in a constant effort to fool a group of youngsters into sharing their box of Trix with him. For me, the question was always why didn’t Tricks take the money he spent on elaborate costumes and simply buy a box of his own? But to me, although I could see that Tricks had developed an unhealthy addiction to Trix, I never felt anything other than sympathy for the poor rabbit. But while I actually kind of liked Tricks, the same cannot be said for that selfish, unlikeable little snot-nosed kid that always busted the rabbit, denying him of even a mouthful.

In the early Trix television spots, Tricks would pose as a human authority figure, like a fireman or policeman, performing some sort of civic action that would compel a small circle of kids into offering him some of their Trix. The excitement of getting some of his favorite cereal would prove too much for Tricks, as his enthusiasm would cause part of his disguise to come off, enabling the children to recognize him as Tricks the Rabbit. At that point, one kid, apparently the spokesman for the group, would take the box of Trix away from the poor guy, admonishing him with the words, “Silly rabbit, Trix are for kids.”

Maybe the people at General Mills thought that boys and girls would identify with the boy who was saving his Trix from a being taken by a charlatan rabbit. Not me. I hated that kid! I’m sure most of us grew up knowing youngsters just like him…the ones that wouldn’t let you look at their baseball cards or borrow their comic books. If the makers of Trix really thought Baby Boomers were siding with the kid in those commercials, they certainly found out differently in 1976 when General Mills ran an election to determine whether the Trix Rabbit should be given a box of Trix (up to then, he never got as much as a mouthful in any of the previous ads).  Tricks was the overwhelming winner, and they actually aired a commercial showing that miserable kid handing over a box of Trix to Tricks. Yes, revenge really is a dish best served cold.

Charley the Tuna (StarKist Tuna). While the Trix Rabbit’s goal always seemed to be something in the way of self-gratification, the same certainly can’t be said for Charley the Tuna, who debuted in StarKist Tuna commercials in 1961. From the beginning, the running gag was that Charley, hoping to be chosen by StarKist, would put on an air of sophistication, thinking that they were interested in tuna with “good taste,” unaware that StarKist was really after tuna that “taste good.” Every effort by Charley would always end with him getting the same rejection slip, with the words, “Sorry Charley” attached to the end of a hook.

The big question, other than why a huge corporation would still be using such outdated fishing methods, is what is the deal with Charley? Does he know that being selected by StarKist means being chopped into 100 pieces before being stuffed into a can? If he’s in such a hurry to die, why not just offer himself up to some passing shark? Or is he mistaken over the nature of StarKist’s business…maybe he thinks they run a high-class aquarium somewhere, or a water-themed amusement park along the lines of Marine World? I wonder how Charley would feel if someone showed him a documentary about how the fishing industry really works? In any event, Charley should feel lucky that StarKist’s standards are as high as they are, and that they take the time to learn the names of fish they don’t want, and turn them down right there in the ocean, rather than at the factory when it would be too late to give them back their lives.

Punchy (Hawaiian Punch). No matter what one might think of Sonny, Tricks or Charley, at least they are not out to deliberately hurt anyone, which, of course, is the opposite of what we know about Punchy, the longtime mascot of Hawaiian Punch. We’ve all seen the TV commercials for Hawaiian Punch that features  the little guy wearing a straw hat, the first of which appeared in 1962. Punchy walks up to an unsuspecting man, probably a tourist, and offers him a “nice Hawaiian punch.” When the poor man replies, “sure,” Punchy proceeds to deck the guy with a vicious right-hand to the jaw. Haha…get it? Punch, as in a punch to the face, rather than the drink. This might be funny to a 3rd grader once, maybe twice, but the makers of Hawaiian Punch ran several variations of the same ad for many years, all with the same “punch-line,” if you will. I have wonder why a company that sells non-carbonated, overly sweetened soft-drinks would want their product associated with getting slugged, and who, in their right mind would find the character Punchy the least bit appealing?  I also wonder how many young impressionable children repeated Punchy’s joke on friends or siblings. I’ve been told that Punchy, whose ads no longer run on television, has toned down his behavior, as he now appears on Hawaiian Punch packaging as some sort of surfer dude, probably satisfied with the thought that he got away with slugging a man for decades, and emerged completely unpunished.

In preparing this article, I asked Mrs. Daley Planet if she knew of any examples of animated commercial characters with mental or emotional problems. She said no, but she had heard about an overly analytical middle-aged guy who takes simple, humorous television ads much too seriously…I’ll have to watch for him.

Trivia: In 1963, the makers of Post starting using a character called Linus the Lionhearted in TV ads promoting their newest cereal, Crispy Critters. Linus and his commercials were well received enough for Post to develop a half-hour cartoon show based on Linus, and other Post Cereal cartoon mascots. In the fall of 1964, “Linus the Lionhearted” was added to the CBS Saturday morning schedule, a 30 minute animated series featuring Linus, Sugar Bear (Sugar Crisp), Lovable Truly (Alpha Bits), So Hi (Rice Krinkles), and Rory Raccoon (Post Toasties). The “Linus” show lasted several years, but in 1969, the FCC ruled that children show characters could not be used to sell products on the same program they were starring in. Since that was the entire point of “Linus the Lionhearted,” the show was canceled.

Actors Playing Themselves

Among the motion pictures bring released in the summer of 2013, is the film “This is the End,” starring Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and James Franco. The unique aspect of this comedy is that all of the principle actors in the movie portray themselves, or at least a remote version of who they are. This approach has been a popular trend, mostly on television, for the past several years, as many celebrities have appeared semi-regularly on various programs playing fictionalized , and often, unflattering versions of their true identities. James Van Der Beek (“Don’t Trust the B… in Apartment 23”), Will Wheaton (“Big Bang Theory”), Seth Green (“Entourage”), and Regis Philbin (“How I met Your Mother”) have all made the sitcom rounds giving over the top performances, spoofing their show business personas. Of course, a few personalities have made creating humorous send-ups of their lives the basis for an entire series, as witnessed by Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes.” Although this may appear to be a recent development, the idea of a celebrity playing his or her self is a concept that dates back over 90 years.

Magician Harry Houdini used his fame as a master illusionist in the 1920’s as the basis for several silent films which starred the magician as himself, using his stage skills to solve crimes Decades later, both Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, having established themselves as the motion picture industry’s top screen cowboys, began to exclusively play characters the shared their well known names. In fact, in some of Roy’s later films, the scripts acknowledged that he was a well known movie star, who still found time to battle cattle wranglers during his spar time. Obviously, fact and fiction were being blurred, and even a young boy like me wondered how many cow thieves existed in California during the 1950’s. And why wouldn’t Roy just call the police?

It was Jack Benny who really seemed to straddle the fence between real and fictional, as his long running series seemingly gave us a behind the scene glimpse of his private life. As a kid, I marveled at who much attitude Jack’s butler Rochester seemed to get away with, and wondered how his long suffering girlfriend, Mary Livingston, put up with him. It was only as an adult that I learned that Rochester was actually an actor named Eddie Anderson, and never lived with Jack Benny, unlike Mary Livingston, who did live with Jack, probably because they had been married for several years.

Of course the all time best example of people playing somewhat altered versions of their real life selves was the classic sit-com, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” Starring all four members of the Nelson family, “Ozzie and Harriet” certainly had viewers convinced they were watching a typical American family go through life on a weekly basis. The Nelsons were a real family, and even the indoor sets used on the program were based on the Nelson’s real Hollywood home. But how closely did the show depict the Nelson’s actual life? Well, first of all, they appeared to be living an upper-middle-class existence, unlike the rich show business individuals they really were. Ozzie Nelson seemed to be without a job, constantly hanging around the house, avoiding any possible chores Harriet tried to give him. The real Ozzie was a workaholic, serving as director, producer, writer, as well as one of the principle performers on his show. But the biggest disconnect had to do with Ricky Nelson and his music. “Ozzie and Harriet” often featured Rick fronting a rock and roll band, usually playing in front of the number of people it took to fill his living room. In reality, Ricky Nelson was one of the biggest recording stars of the late 1950’s rock and roll era, and was selling millions of records during his years on the show. Having his records featured on the program certainly didn’t hurt Rick’s record sales, and his presence on the show obviously helped with the ratings, a kind of synergy that worked for another series, that debuted in 1966, the same year “Ozzie and Harriet” went off the air.

Although “The Monkees” was to be a TV show about a fictional struggling rock group, producers at Columbia Studios originally wanted to cast an existing band to star on the NBC series, but most groups were already signed to a record label, prompting the production to use four guys who had never previously worked together. Inspired by the Beatles’ “A Hard Days Night,” “The Monkees” was a comedy show, using music recorded by Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones and Peter Tork throughout the 30 minutes, a forerunner to the music videos that came into vogue a decade later. Having the four men use their own names on the program turned out to be a good idea, as “The Monkees” soon became one of the most popular recording acts in the country, and fans were never asked to remember more than four names. Eventually, “The Monkees” became a touring band as well, playing reasonable versions of their hits onstage, despite Jones and Dolenz having limited instrumental skills. Ironically, Dolenz-Jones-Tork and Nesmith kept the group together even after the show was canceled, with two or more of the members performing together right up until Davy’s 2012 death. It would almost like if the cast of “Cheers” opened a bar after the completion of that series.

However, I would guess that the most successful television show featuring a star portraying a facsimile of his self was “Seinfeld,” where Jerry Seinfeld was featured as a character that shared Jerry’s real life name and occupation. In the “Seinfeld” universe, Jerry was a fairly successful comedian, living in a one bedroom apartment in New York City, hanging out with ex-girlfriend Elaine, longtime buddy George, and his neighbor from across the hall, Kramer. Although his three companions were fictional, Jerry’s lifestyle depicted on the series may have accurate at one time, but as “Seinfeld” became a hit show, the real Jerry Seinfeld was worth millions of dollars, and no longer had people like “Newman” anywhere in his life.

Reality shows involving everyday people have flooded the airwaves over the past decade, making it, at times, even more difficult to dissemble what is real and what is scripted.. And while that’s been happening, network sitcoms, such as “The Office,” and “Modern Family” are presented in documentary style, reflecting, I think, the notion that everyone of us probably think their lives are interesting enough to be televised. This concept was the inspiration for a movie, “The Truman Show” (1998) where Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) was raised from infancy to adulthood in front of a television camera. The film’s twist was that Truman was the only person unaware of the situation, as his hometown was merely a giant-like bubble filled with hundreds of actors pretending to be his friends and neighbors. When Truman discovers the ruse, he opts for a regular life, and sets out for the real world. One wonders how many of us would have done the same.

 

Annette: The Persona That Launched a Million Dreams

As a young boy growing up in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there were a few things I had in common with almost every other kid my age. Almost all of us wanted to play baseball like Willie Mays, fight outlaws like John Wayne, sing like Elvis Presley, and date a girl like Annette Funicello. Suffice to say, a piece of my heart broke earlier today upon hearing the sad news of Annette’s death at age 70, after a 25 year battle with multiple sclerosis. While our dads had Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, and later Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Annette belonged to us, and the bond lasted almost 60 years. Debuting on Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955, it was obvious almost from the start that Annette Funicello had that hard to define “something special” going for her.

In the early 1950’s, much of Walt Disney’s attention was focused on a project we now know as Disneyland. To help finance the building of his theme park, Disney partnered with ABC, with the TV network providing Walt with much needed capital, while the Disney studio would provide ABC with high quality television programming. Disney’s first effort was the weekly “Disneyland,” an anthology show which included the highly successful “Davy Crockett” episodes during the 1954-1955 season. By the summer of 1955, Disney began working on a kids variety program that would be televised after school on week days, and had his production staff set about casting the show. But Walt made it clear that he wanted “real” kids, not seasoned child actors who often came across as adult midgets. On October 3, 1955, the “Mickey Mouse Club” premiered, and America was introduced to the “Mouseketeers.”

Looking now at the early MMC episodes, it’s clear what made Annette stand out. While most of the other children had what I might describe as stereotypical all-American waspish looks, Annette Funicello had dark curly hair and dark eyebrows…almost exotic, at least for a 13 year old. Within a few weeks, Annette was getting the majority of the fan mail, and the “Mickey Mouse Club” had its first breakout star. The following season Annette, although still a Mouseketeer, joined the cast of the MMC’s popular serial, “Spin and Marty,” which, to my chagrin, completely changed the dynamic of the series. While before, Spin (Tim Considine) and Marty (David Stollery) would ride horses and rope cattle, now they spent most of their time fighting over Annette. Annette returned for the third season of “Spin and Marty,” during the final year of the “Mickey Mouse Club,” and also starred in her own serial, “Annette.”

When the “Mickey Mouse Club” ended, Annette was the only Mouseketeer that Disney kept under contract. From 1959-1962, Annette was kept busy, appearing on Disney TV shows (“Zorro,” Elfego Baca”), feature films (“The Shaggy Dog,” “Babes in Toyland) as well as becoming a recording artist, with hit records “Tall Paul” and “First Name Initial.” But Annette’s biggest post “Mickey Mouse Club” success started in 1963 when she made the first of several “Beach” movies with co-star Frankie Avalon. “Beach Party,” produced by American International Pictures, was a formulistic film, which featured comedy, surfing, music, and plenty of bikini clad girls. Immediately acquiring a solid cult audience, “Beach Party” was quickly followed by “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” Throughout the entire series, Annette, at the insistence of Walt Disney, never appeared in a bikini, opting for a less revealing one piece bathing suit. By the late 1960’s Annette, now married with children, pretty much withdrew from show business, appearing infrequently in “Mouseketeer” reunion shows and other nostalgic venues. It was while filming “Back to the Beach” in 1987 that Annette first started noticing the symptoms that would later to be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. Annette went public with her disease in 1992, after various tabloids began reporting her difficulty to walk as alcohol related. From that point on, it’s fair to say that Annette Funicello dealt with her illness with courage and dignity.

My first recollection of Annette was during the original run of the “Mickey Mouse Club” (1955-1958), but I really started to take notice when the program went into syndicated reruns in 1962, giving boys like me the chance to contrast the 1955 Annette to the much developed version we were seeing on “American Bandstand.” I was such a huge fan of Annette Funicello, I actually resented Hayley Mills, who began to grab all of the featured Disney female roles once Annette turned 16. It’s unfortunate that Annette’s only star turn in a major Disney production, “Babes in Toyland” (1961), was not a huge hit.

At first glance, Annette Funicello’s career does not seem that impressive. After the “Mickey Mouse Club,” her TV work became somewhat sporadic, and her time as a teenage singing star was somewhat brief. Her “Beach” movies, while fondly remembered, did not result in any Academy Award nominations for Annette, or anyone else. So what made Annette Funicello an icon? I guess she was, with little or no effort on her part, the embodiment of the perfect, wholesome 1950’s girl…sweet, smart, a bit shy, and unmistakably beautiful. The Disney brand always stood for something wonderfully innocent, and Annette Funicello represented that to the hilt.

My favorite Annette Funicello story: Sometime during the 1970’s, Annette went on a Las Vegas vacation, and was spotted by one of her fans relaxing, with a cigarette and a cocktail, at one of the gaming tables. The woman gasped at the sight, saying, “Annette Funicello, drinking, smoking, gambling?” Annette smiled at the lady, and said, “I have three children, so guess what else I do.”

Note: The second photo shows Annette with the Beach Boys, performing the title song to “The Monkey’s Uncle.”

Mayfield’s Who’s Who

A few months ago, the Daley Planet ran a piece entitled “The Unforgettable Eddie Haskell,” noting that the Cleavers were far from being the most interesting characters on “Leave it to Beaver.” Although the distinction of the most interesting character goes to Wally’s best friend Eddie, played by Ken Osmond. The “Leave it to Beaver” roll call of fascinating individuals does not end with Eddie Haskell, as Mayfield had a very deep bench. During its six season run, “Leave it to Beaver” introduced us to dozens of unique people, some who came and went quickly, and a few who stayed with the program through all or most of its duration. Although Ward and June were practically perfect parents, and Beaver and Wally were all-American boys, I think even they would have to admit that their lives would have been pretty dull without some of the names that I am about to submit as Mayfield’s unforgettable characters.

Fred Rutherford: Fred (Richard Deacon) had the duel distinction of being both Ward Cleaver’s office mate and Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford’s father. In both roles, Fred sees himself in competition with Ward, with is unfortunate, as Ward seems to be to have Fred beaten 15 ways from Sunday in both categories. Fred comes off as both a stuffed shirt, and a bit of a blow-hard, particularly when he insists on speaking in pure Madison Avenue lingo. Mr. Rutherford constantly brags about his son Lumpy, although everyone is quite aware that Lumpy is a poor student, and is clumsy enough to have earned his nickname. In the earlier seasons, Fred seems oblivious to his boy’s shortcomings, but in later episodes, Fred seems to have caught on to the truth, which, of course, did nothing to stop the bragging. My favorite Fred line was his explanation for Lumpy being held back in his sophomore year of high school…”no sense rushing the boy, just because he has potential.”

Clarence “Lumpy” Rutherford: Lumpy (Frank Bank) was introduced during the first season as an older neighborhood bully, but eventually becomes a classmate of Wally and, next to Eddie, his most significant pal. In terms of friendship, Lumpy often seems closer to Eddie Haskell than to Wally, and sometimes displays some of Eddie’s negative traits, especially when it comes to picking on Beaver and his friends. But it should be noted that whenever Lumpy found himself in a mess, it was always Wally he turned to, possibly making Lumpy not as dumb as he seemed. Unlike Wally, Lumpy did not enjoy a close relationship with his dad, as he seemed fearful of Mr. Rutherford, whom he still called daddy. My favorite Lumpy moment was when he tried to pull rank over Wally after Wally made the football team. Although it was pointed out to Lumpy that he himself didn’t make the team, Lumpy shot back, explaining, “yeah, but four guys in my home-room did…four guys!”

Gus the Fireman: Beaver’s most reliable friend was not Larry, Whitey, Richard or Gilbert, but was instead an elderly gentleman who worked at Mayfield’s Auxiliary Fire Station # 7. Gus the Fireman (Burt Mustin) was both Beaver’s father confessor and his source for the kind of advice that only a well traveled adult could deliver. The great thing about was Gus was that he never talked down to Beaver, and he actually discouraged Beaver from idolizing him too much. “I might seem pretty smart to a young guy like you” Gus explained to Beaver…”but compared to other adults, I’d probably be the bottom of the barrel.” I never believed that for a minute.

Mrs. Margaret Mondello: While June Cleaver was depicted as the perfect mother, the same could never be said about Larry Mondello’s mom. Margaret Mondello (Madge Blake) seemed completely overwhelmed by the task of raising an eight year old boy, possibly because of two factors. First of all, Mrs. Mondello’s husband always seemed to be out of town whenever Larry would act up, and secondly, the woman appeared to be in her 60’s during her time on the show. I’m surprised no one ever seemed to realize that a Mayfield resident had apparently given birth in her mid-fifties, but I guess people minded there own business back then. Mrs. Mondello’s most memorable quote: “Things would be alright if my daughter could just find a husband. Then we’d always have a man around to give it to Larry when his father is out of town.”

Mrs. Cornelia Rayburn: Mrs. Rayburn (Doris Packer) was the longtime no nonsense principal of Mayfield’s Grant Avenue School, and frequently stepped in as Beaver’s teacher during his year in eighth grade. Mrs. Rayburn had obviously seen it all, and was seen given Miss Canfield valuable advice when the latter became flustered over Beaver’s failure to return with a response to the note she gave Beaver to bring home to his parents. It was in that episode that the raciest line in LITB history was delivered. Mrs. Rayburn, fooled into thinking that Ward was under the weather, sent him a card that read, “Dear Mr. Cleaver…Hope to see you back on your feet, Cornelia Rayburn.” Upon reading the card, an angry June asks Ward, “who is Cornelia Rayburn, and when has she seen you off your feet?”

Uncle Billy & Aunt Martha: William Cleaver (Edgar Buchanan), and June Cleaver’s Aunt Martha Bronson (Madge Kennedy) are the only two Cleaver relatives we ever meet or are even made aware of during Leave it to Beaver’s six seasons, and the two could not be more different. Aunt Martha is rather stodgy, and almost ruins Beaver’s social standing when, during an extended visit, she buys him fancy new clothes, the kind that almost would assure any kid a beating. Uncle Billy, on the other hand, is a loud and colorful fellow, filling Wally and Beaver with wild stories and outrageous promises, to the point where Ward becomes concerned that Beaver will become disenchanted if he learns the truth that Billy is all talk. Unfortunately, Beaver does find out while watching Uncle Billy get his hair trimmed at the hotel…Beaver notices the looks of disgust the barber and manicurist give each other while Billy talks their ears off. Happily, Uncle Billy redeems himself in a later episode when he deftly runs the Cleaver household while Ward and June take a short trip.

Harold “Duke” Hathaway: My all-time favorite. The Duke is only seen is two episodes, both during the third season, but his impact puts him right near the top of Mayfield’s who’s who. Hathaway was Mayfield High’s star athlete and big man on campus during Wally’s sophomore year, and is president of the school’s most prestigious club, the “Crusaders.” Like Eddie Haskell, Duke is overly polite around adults, but unlike Eddie, is not a suck-up, but instead, handles himself as an equal. Duke Hathaway almost seems out of place on “Leave it to Beaver,” as his mannerisms and self confidence make him better suited as a character in “The Great Gatsby.” Even June Cleaver swoons at the prospect of the Cleaver home being visited by a “swinger.” Duke’s personality is best summed up by the short conversation he and Ward conducted while waiting for Wally to come down stairs. Ward: “So Duke, do you think Mayfield will have a good basketball team next year?” Duke: “Oh, I don’t think so Mr. Cleaver…I’m graduating.”

Of course, I could go on (and on) and include such notables as Miss Landers, Mary Ellen Rogers, Tooey Brown, Judy Hensler and Benji Belamy, but I have to draw the line somewhere. In any case, Mayfield seems like a wonderful town, a place where anyone would love to live or visit. The only really problem would be finding it…at no point during its six seasons is it ever revealed in which state Mayfield is located.

Note: Two “Leave it to Beaver” regular cast members held down parts on other sit-coms during their time on “Beaver.” In addition to playing Fred Rutherford, Richard Deacon was seen as Mel Cooley on the “Dick Van Dyke Show.” Doris Packer, while playing Beaver’s principal, Mrs. Rayburn, was also Mrs. Clarice Osborn, the wealthy mother of Dobie’s main rival, Chatsworth Osborn Jr. (Steve Franken). Mrs. Osborn always referred to her late husband in the same manner…”he was a nasty man.”

 

October, 1962…Johnny Carson Takes Over the “Tonight Show”

Over the years, we have occasionally had the pleasure of witnessing people doing something they were undoubtedly born to do. What better example of this than Johnny Carson’s 30 year stint hosting the “Tonight Show”? Although it’s been exactly 50 years since he first stepped behind his NBC microphone, and over 20 years since his departure, Carson is still the gold standard to which all late night talk show hosts are measured. The “Tonight Show” had been successful before Johnny Carson took the helm, and Carson was certainly doing well prior to accepting the job, but I doubt any one would have guessed that Johnny’s debut as host of the program would eventually be seen as a watershed moment in television history.

Born in Nebraska in 1925, Johnny Carson’s initial fling as an entertainer was as a magician. Obtaining a book on magic at the age of 12, Carson developed an act, and by age 14, was performing at picnics and county fairs under the guise, “The Great Carsoni.” Over time, Carson realized that his real talent wasn’t in doing tricks, but rather the amusing dialogue he would employ while conducting the magic. Blessed with an excellent speaking voice, Carson migrated to broadcasting, beginning his career in Omaha at radio and television station WOW in 1950. Moving to California the following year, Johnny landed a job in Loa Angeles at the CBS affiliate KNXT, where he hosted “Carson’s Cellar,” a low budget comedy sketch show. Although only airing locally in Southern California, “Caron’s Cellar” developed a strong cult following, including Red Skelton, who invited Carson to join the writing staff of Skelton’s popular network variety show. Carson’s first major national exposure came in 1954, when Skelton was knocked unconscious during rehearsals shortly before airtime, and Carson successfully filled in for him. Soon, Carson was receiving plenty of TV work, appearing as a guest on various variety shows and as a panelist on different game shows. Unfortunately, Johnny Carson’s first attempt as a prime-time host was short lived as his CBS program, “The Johnny Carson Show” was canceled after the 1955-56 season. Carson, hoping to re-jumpstart his career, moved to New York where he accepted hosting duties for the ABC afternoon game show, “Who Do You Trust?”. The significance of Carson’s years with “Who Do You Trust” was that the show’s format (more time spent interviewing contestants than quizzing them) allowed Carson to hone his legendary art of conversation, plus it teamed him with Ed McMahon, who would remain with Johnny the rest of his show business career.

In the early days of television, late night broadcasting was comprised mostly of bad movies and test patterns. NBC president Pat Weaver felt there might be a larger potential audience if midnight viewers were given better programming, and so Weaver took a local nightly show, hosted by Steve Allen on WNBC, and added it to the NBC network on September 27, 1954. Part music, part comedy and part informal interview, the program was named “Tonight”, making it a counterweight to NBC’s morning offering, “The Today Show.” Airing weeknights at 11:15, “Tonight” ran for 105 minutes, or, as Steve Allen quipped at the beginning of the first show, “forever.” “Tonight” made Steve Allen television’s first late night star, but his popularity soon made him feel his stature had outgrown the still limited after-hours landscape. In 1957, Steve Allen left “Tonight” to concentrate on his prime-time variety show, prompting NBC to switch format, with something called “America After Dark.” Debuting on September 28, 1957, “America After Dark,” a news and feature show, modeled after the “Today Show,” was a ratings disaster from the start. After six months, NBC pulled the plug, and reverted back to “Tonight,” on July 29, 1957, with a brand new host, Jack Paar. Under Paar, the program gravitated toward what became its most recognizable format: a monologue, followed by a string of guests, filling the chair and couch that sat next to the host’s desk. The “Tonight” show made Paar a major television personality, but like Steve Allen, he was anxious move on to prime-time, making the “Tonight Show’s” desk empty again in March of 1962. Noting Johnny Carson’s success with “Who Do You Trust?”, NBC offered him the “Tonight Show”, an offer Carson accepted with a bit of reluctance.

Although Johnny Carson was announced as the “Tonight Show’s” new host in early 1962, he still had six months remaining on his ABC contract, and ABC saw no reason to release him any earlier. From March until the end of September, the “Tonight Show” functioned without a permanent host, relying on a series of “guest hosts,” a list that included Jerry Lewis, Joey Bishop and Groucho Marx. Finally, on October 1, 1962, Johnny Carson stepped onto the “Tonight Show” stage, after being introduced by Groucho Marx (Ed McMahon’s traditional “Here’s Johnny” began on the second night). Johnny’s opening night guests were Rudy Vallee, Tony Bennett, Mel Brooks and Joan Crawford. Although many, including Carson himself, were unsure if he could adequately fill Jack Paar’s shoes, but after a shaky first few weeks, Johnny began to put his own unique stamp on the, pushing the ratings far beyond where Jack Paar or Steve Allen were ever able to take them. Among some of the ongoing bits that Carson introduced to the “Tonight Show” audience were “Carnac the Magnificent,” the bumbling psychic, “Aunt Blabby,” the confused elderly lady who would usually chastise Ed for using any phrase that might suggest death, and “Art Fern,” the “Tea Time Movie” host, who would constantly interrupt that day’s film to give an oily sales pitch. Whether participating in a skit or performing his nightly monologue, Johnny Carson showed himself the master of comedic timing, a trait a credited from studying Jack Benny. Carson not only could be funny when delivering a great joke, but could often be even funnier if the joke fell flat, never wallowing in the discomfort of poor material. His live audience became so familiar with his style, that all Johnny would have to do is say, “boy, was it hot today,” knowing his crowd would be sure to ask, “how hot was it,” giving him the opportunity to produce a punch line. Carson’s comic instincts served him well as an interviewer, as he would be the perfect straight man for the many comedians who came on his show, knowing exactly what it took to put his guests over with the audience…no wonder that every funny man or woman would crawl over broken glass to appear on the program.

The success of the “Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” was not unnoticed by the other networks, and before long ABC and CBS began producing their own late night talk shows, hoping to steal a decent portion of Carson’s audience. Les Crane, Joey Bishop, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett were among those who tried and failed to unseat Johnny Carson as king of late night. In 1974, ABC even tried bringing back Jack Paar, but the former “Tonight Show” host could make no inroads against his successor. The only chance Johnny’s rivals had a chance for decent ratings were when he took one of his frequent vacations. Carson’s reign as “King of the Night” continued for the remainder of the 1960’s, and through the ‘70’s and 80’s. During that time, the “Tonight Show” underwent several changes, including the length of the show, from 105 minutes to eventually 60, and the program being moved, in 1972, from New York to NBC studios in Burbank, California. Probably the most obvious change was in Carson’s appearance, which is understandable considering the years in put into the show. As Carson himself said, “I started the “Tonight Show” as a young comedian, and ended up a white haired, old comedian.” In 1992, Johnny Carson finally retired, turning the program over to Jay Leno after an incredible 30 years.

Johnny Carson’s legacy is due to the fact that, unlike Steve Allen and Jack Paar, he never sought a move to prime-time in order to enhance his career. Instead, Carson stuck with late-night television, and built the “Tonight Show” into his own empire, making it by far the network’s most profitable property. The “Tonight Show” still exists as a valuable franchise, but as far as the show’s prestige, it has been suggested that when Johnny left, he took that with him.

Note: Going back to the Steve Allen days, the “Tonight Show’s” starting time was 11:15pm, which coincided with the conclusion of most of NBC’s affiliate’s newscasts. During the 1960’s, many local stations started expanding their news to 30 minutes, and would begin airing the “Tonight Show” in progress, 15 minutes into the program. Carson, aware that much of the country was missing his monologue, decided in 1965 to delay his appearance until the show reached the 15 minute mark (11:30), turning the first portion of the show over to Ed McMahon. NBC finally threw in the towel, and in January of 1967, permanently changed the start of the “Tonight Show” to 11:30.

 

Celebrities Dying in Threes…Myth and Reality

Recently, a good friend of mine e-mailed me about the passing of Ernest Borgnine, commenting that “Borgnine makes it three.” Of course, he was referring to the notion that famous people seem to die in groups of three. In this particular case, we agreed that Andy Griffith and Don Grady made up the rest of the trio, as both men had died shortly before Borgnine, and all three were prominent sitcom stars during the 1960’s. What I’m wondering now is when did this “celebrities always die in threes” theory start, and how much validity is there to it?

I have to believe that the “deaths in threes” concept has its origin in Western civilization’s obsession with the number three, whether it’s the Holy Trinity, the three wise men or “three’s a crowd.” I’m also guessing that the famous people dying in threes business is a 20th century American phenomenon that reflects our celebrity obsessed culture. Prior to the 1900’s, there were not many avenues to fame in our country, as most of the nationally known figures in early America were statesmen and military heroes. The first case of celebrities dying in threes I could come up with was in 1836 when Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William B. Travis all passed away at about the same time. I have found no publications from that time period that made any mention of their deaths having any cosmic significance. Of course, it could have been due to the fact that news traveled very slowly back then, and it was weeks before Americans learned that Crockett, Bowie and Travis were dead. Or, it might be because all three men died at the Alamo, making their deaths not so coincidental.

Whereas celebrities were a rare breed in the 19th century, the last 100 years have seen an explosion in the number of famous people. Sports and entertainment have surpassed politics and war in enabling individuals to achieve prominence, with movies, radio and television providing major assistance. Even crime figures such as Al Capone and John Dillinger became household names, some even given cool nicknames like “The Boston Strangler” and “The Underwear Bomber.” So, while it stands to reason that the death of a famous person will undoubtedly get our attention, when did we start grouping them in threes? Surely it came after World War II, as no one applied this practice when Joseph Goebbels, Eva Braun and Adolph Hitler all died within minutes of each other in 1945.

The first time the celebrities dying in threes theory was brought to my attention was in 1977. On August 16th of that year, the world was shocked to learn of the death of Elvis Presley, who died in Memphis at the age of 42. Three days later, comic legend Groucho Marx died in Hollywood, followed by character actor Sabastian Cabot on August 22. It was the day after Cabot’s demise that I heard someone mention that the deaths of Presley-Marx and Cabot were an example of how famous people die in threes. Up to that time, I was unaware of this “fact,” and I have to say that I was skeptical. Although Elvis Presley’s death was a stunner, Groucho Marx was 86, and been ailing, and although I admired Cabot’s work, it wasn’t as if Clark Gable had died. I searched for other examples of the death in threes theory, and the best that I could come up with was John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis (both on November 22, 1963), with the “Birdman of Alcatraz” (Robert Stroud) happening a day earlier. Over the years, several so-called death trilogies have happened, the most talked about probably being the Michael Jackson-Farrah Fawcett-Ed McMahon sequence in 2009. With dozens of examples, am I now convinced that famous people tend to die in threes? Not really.

To begin with, there does not seem to be any firm guidelines in place regarding how much time between the first and third deaths to qualify as an official celebrity death threesome. I’ve heard anywhere from one week to 10 days, but 11 days elapsed between Don Grady and Ernest Borgnine’s passing, so who really knows? And what determines if an individual is indeed, a celebrity? Don Grady was an actor who played “Robbie” on “My Three Sons,” and had not been in the public eye for several years….who is to say that joining Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine in the famous person death trilogy should have been Nora Ephron, the writer who penned, among other stories, “When Harry Met Sally,” and passed away on June 26, a day before Grady? This brings up another problem…why stop counting at three? I mentioned that C.S. Lewis, JFK and the “Birdman of Alcatraz” all died about the same time. Well, Lee Harvey Oswald, a freshly minted celebrity, was killed on November 24…should he be included instead of Lewis, or should the theory be expanded to four?

I think that it is in our nature to try to place meaning into practically everything that happens. Sometimes events are worthy of reflection and analytical discussion, but not always. Famous people die in ones, not threes, just like the rest of us. But that’s just one of my many opinions, which, of course, come in dozens.

Notes: Since I started writing this piece, I’ve been reminded that there is long term superstition that bad news comes in threes, and it was the tragic airplane crash in February 1959 that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the “Big Bopper” (J.P. Richardson) that began the celebrities die in threes theory. I’d be happy for any further imput.

Farewell Andy Griffith

Although Andy Griffith was a gifted actor, there is no doubt that his biggest successes came when he played characters that were very close to himself…an uncomplicated country boy from North Carolina. Griffith, who recently passed away at age 86, built his career 60 years ago on a Southern hick persona that he, with a few tweaks along the way, stayed with it the rest of his professional life. But despite countless film roles, television appearances, and several comedy albums, Andy Griffith will always best be known as Andy Taylor, the friendly, calm and wise sheriff featured on the long running “Andy Griffith Show.”

Griffith’s early career as a comedian brought about his first major success, as his signature monologue, “What it was, was Football” was captured on record in 1953, and went on the sell 800,000 copies through Capital Records. Griffith’s routine involved a puzzled country bumpkin attempting to describe the experience of witnessing his first football game. Listening to the bit today, one can find traces of some of Andy Griffith’s later characters, especially that of his first major acting role. “No Time for Sergeants,” a 1954 novel written by Mac Hyman, chronicles the misadventures of a backwoods lad, assigned to the U.S. Army Air Force. When the book was developed into a one hour teleplay, Griffith was considered perfect for the lead role of Will Stockdale. The broadcast was well received, resulting in “No Time for Sergeants” being expanded into a three-act Broadway play. “No Time for Sergeants, starring Andy Griffith, opened at the Alvin Theater on October 20, 1955, and enjoyed a two year, 796 performance run. Griffith reprised his role as Stockdale in a motion picture version of the story that premiered in 1958. Appearing with Griffith in “No Time for Sergeants,” in both the play and the movie was Don Knotts, whose association with Griffith would grow deeper during the following decade.

It was in 1957 that Andy Griffith made his film debut, playing Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes in the critically acclaimed “A Face in the Crowd.” Griffith’s character is, again, a Southern “country boy”, but with a major departure from Will Stockdale, or later Andy Taylor. Griffith’s Rhodes character is a television host, who becomes a power hungry egomaniac. Watching “A Face in the Crowd” today, I am totally amazed by Griffith’s performance, and also can’t get over how the film foreshadows what we see today on some of the various cable TV news channels.

“The Andy Griffith Show” had its origin on another television series, the popular “Make Room for Daddy,” which starred Danny Thomas on CBS. In the February 15, 1960 episode, Thomas’s character is caught speeding in the small North Carolina town of Mayberry, and its sheriff, Andy Taylor, seems determined to drain Danny of all of his cash, through a series of small fines. Ron Howard is introduced as his son, later known as Opie, while Francis Bavier also appears, but not as her later Aunt Bee character. Sheriff Taylor, although funny, does not become a sympathetic character until near the end of the episode, as viewers watch him interact with his motherless son. “The Andy Griffith Show” debuted in CBS on October 3, 1960, opening with its classic whistling theme (“The Fishin’ Hole) while Andy and his son are seen heading down a dirt road for a day of fishing. Rather than fashion Andy after Will Stockdale, Griffith and his producers decided to surround Sheriff Andy with a cast of bizarre people, led by his bumbling deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts), the chatty Floyd the barber, and Otis, the very cooperative town drunk. It’s interesting to point out, that “The Andy Griffith Show” did a feature a character very similar to Griffith’s “No Time for Sergeants” role, as during the third season, viewers were introduced to Gomer Pyle, a simpleminded gas station operator. After two seasons, the Pyle character was spun-off into “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.,” which was very nearly the same as “No Time for Sergeants.”

“The Andy Griffith Show” became one of the most successful sitcoms in television history, ranking in the top10 all eight seasons. Its appeal is still easy to see. Mayberry was a wonderful place, and Andy Taylor was someone we all felt we knew. He was a Southern sheriff, but not a redneck. CBS was quick to notice how easily America took to a program with a rural atmosphere, and soon shows like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction,” and “Green Acres” began to appear throughout the CBS primetime schedule.

“The Andy Griffith Show” was still pulling monster ratings in 1968 when Andy decided to step down as its star. The program was renamed “Mayberry R.F.D,” and continued for three seasons with Ken Berry playing the lead role. Griffith was listed as executive producer of “Mayberry R.F.D.,” and made a handful of appearances, but the show was never the same without Andy as a regular. Andy Griffith started his own production company in 1972 which developed several television vehicles for him, none of which found much of an audience. In 1986, Griffith landed the lead role in “Matlock,” a legal drama which centered around a country lawyer…think of it as Andy Taylor meets Perry Mason. Although “Matlock” was highly successful, to me, it was just a TV show…Andy Taylor and Mayberry were real.

The whistling heard during in the “Andy Griffith Show’s” opening theme (The Fishin’ Hole) was performed by the tunes co-composer, Earl Hagen. The song, with its lyrics, performed by Andy himself, has been included with this story. Farewell, Andy.