Saturday, 27 September 2014

50 Years Ago Today My Living Doll Debuted

It was fifty years ago today, on 27 September 27 1964 at  at 9:00 PM Eastern/8:00 PM Central on CBS, that the sitcom My Living Doll debuted. It is safe to say that, other than television historians and fans of Julie Newmar and Bob Cummings, most people under the age of 55 have never heard of it. That having been said, the mention of My Living Doll to men and women between the ages of 55 and 62 will often elicit fond memories of the show. While My Living Doll did not remain on the air for long, it was not forgotten by those who happened to see it.

My Living Doll centred on a prototype robot designated AF 709 and developed for the United States Air Force in the shape of a beautiful woman (played by Julie Newmar). When the robot's inventor, Dr. Carl Miler (Henry Beckman), found out that he was being transferred to Pakistan, he entrusted the care of the AF 709 to his friend Dr. Bob MacDonald (played by Bob Cummings). Dr. McDonald passed the AF 709 off as Dr. Miller's niece Rhoda and "hired" her as his secretary at work (a job for which she was perfectly suited--she could type hundreds of words a minute and her memory banks held thousands of bits of information). He also took it upon himself to teach her to be the "perfect" woman. All the while Dr. McDonald had to keep her true nature as a robot secret from the rest of the world. This included his sister Irene Adams (played by Doris Dowling), whom he moved into his apartment to both keep house and insure that no one thought anything improper was taking place between him and Rhoda. He also had to keep the truth about Rhoda from his co-worker, friend, and neighbour, physicist Dr. Peter Robinson (played by Jack Mullaney), who unfortunately had a crush on Rhoda.

My Living Doll was produced by Jack Chertok Television Productions, the company that had a hit with another fantasy sitcom, My Favourite Martian, in the previous season. The series was created by Bill Kelsay and Al Martin (who had both worked on My Favourite Martian), based on an idea suggested by Leo Guild.  Originally titled The Living Doll, CBS bought My Living Doll without a formal pilot at the insistence of then president of the network James Aubrey. It was in March 1965 that CBS announced it was adding four new situation comedies in the fall, among The Living Doll starring Julie Newmar. Miss Newmar had already appeared in such films as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Li'l Abner (1959), and The Marriage-Go-Round (1961), and had guest starred on such shows as The Defenders, Route 66, and The Twilight Zone. She had appeared on Broadway in Silk Stockings and Li'l Abner.

For the role of Dr. Bob McDonald the producers had wanted either a young DJ named Bob Crane (later of Hogan's Heroes) or  Efrem Zimbalist Jr. (then fresh from 77 Sunset Strip), but CBS had insisted on film and TV Bob Cummings who was under contract to the network. Mr. Cummings had appeared in such films as The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Kings Row (1942), Saboteur (1942), and Dial M for Murder (1954).  He already had considerable experience in television, having starred in three shows. His first series was the short lived My Hero in 1952. From 1955 to 1959 he starred in the hit series The Bob Cummings Show, which went onto a successful run in syndication. He starred in the short lived The New Bob Cummings Show during the 1961-1962 season. It was with the casting of Bob Cummings that the show's title was changed from The Living Doll to My Living Doll, Mr. Cummings apparently wanting some acknowledgement of his character in the title.

For the role of Bob McDonald's friend Peter five actors were auditioned, among them Jerry Van Dyke (Dick Van Dyke's brother who would appear in My Mother the Car the following season). Ultimately the role went to Jack Mullaney. Mr. Mullaney had already been a regular on The Ann Southern Show and Ensign O'Toole. Doris Dowling was cast as Irene in June. She had appeared in such films as The Lost Weekend (1945) and The Blue Dahlia (1946).

Two sets of opening credits would be shot for My Living Doll. The original opening credits featured Julie Newmar as Rhoda in a very brief baby doll nightie (what today might called a "teddy"). This opening was considered much too suggestive and so a new opening was shot in which Miss Newmar was clad in a full length gown. The original opening credits never aired, although it has been used as the opening on bootleg copies of episodes and was included as a bonus feature on the DVD set  My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1.

Upon its debut My Living Doll received mostly positive reviews. Win Fanning in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette  described My Living Doll as "..inspired whimsey about a beautiful robot and a man with an eye for feminine allure..." Jack Gould in The New York Times wrote of the show, "“With Miss Newmar giving a light and amusing performance as the automated dish, the premise could work out. It will depend on how skilfully the heavenly looking object is introduced to the ways of human existence." Cecil Smith of The Los Angeles Times was perhaps less impressed by My Living Doll than Messrs. Fanning or Gould, but still gave the show an over all positive review, calling it,  "...a fairly amusing show that in a season less cluttered with comedies might be outstanding." The consensus of critics at the time appears to have been that My Living Doll had potential.

Unfortunately My Living Doll was scheduled in what was the worst possible time slot in the 1964-1965 schedule. The show was scheduled at 9:00 Eastern/8:00 Central on Sunday night. This put it in direct competition with Bonanza on NBC, then the #1 show on the air. As might be expected, ratings for My Living Doll were then less than stellar. While My Living Doll  was being consistently beaten in the ratings by Bonanza, CBS's smash hit sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies had faltered slightly in the ratings on Wednesday night. CBS then decided that The Beverly Hillbillies needed a better lead in than the low rated CBS Reports and CBS News specials that had been preceding it. In December 1964 it was then decided to move Mister Ed (then on its fifth season) to 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 PM Central and the brand new sitcom My Living Doll to 8:00 PM Eastern/7:00 Central on Wednesdays, right before The Beverly Hillbillies. According to then President of CBS James Aubrey Mister Ed and My Living Doll replaced CBS Reports and the news specials in the time slot because children appeared to be in control of television sets in the early evening.

The time slot of My Living Doll would not be the only change that the show would see. After 21 episodes on the show Bob Cummings asked to be released from his contract, a request which CBS granted. Reportedly Mr. Cummings had been unhappy from the very beginning at the low ratings My Living Doll had been receiving. Chicago Tribune television critic Larry Wolters also claimed in an article first published in the Tribune on 27 January 1965 (and reprinted in the The Corpus Christi Caller on 7 February 1965) that Mr. Cummings "... was dissatisfied with, the slim role, he had as co-star with Julie Newmar." Corroborating Mr. Wolters's statement in his article are reports of Bob Cummings's behaviour on the show. According to producer Howard Leeds in the bonus retrospective on the DVD set My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1, Mr. Cummings was constantly trying to instruct Julie Newmar on acting. According to other sources Bob Cummings also commissioned a script in which Dr. McDonald received a visit from his grandfather (to be played by Mr. Cummings) in which Rhoda barely appeared at all (Bob Cummings had also played his character's own grandfather on The Bob Cummings Show). Mr. Cummings's behaviour on the show is probably what gave rise to rumours at the time and ever since that Bob Cummings and Julie Newmar did not get along on the set. In the bonus retrospective on  My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1, however, Julie Newmar stated that she and Bob Cummings got along quite well and was unaware of any problems he might have had with the producers.

Regardless, it was decided not to replace Bob Cummings. Instead his character, Dr. McDonald, was written out of the show as having been reassigned to Pakistan. Dr. McDonald's sidekick, Dr. Peter Robinson, then, learned Rhoda was a robot and became her guardian. The changes in the show's cast certainly did not help My Living Doll in the ratings. While My Living Doll was no longer opposite the top rated Bonanza, its new time slot put it opposite The Virginian on NBC (which ranked #22 for the season) and The Patty Duke Show on ABC (ranked #28 for the season). My Living Doll then continued to be plagued by low ratings. In fact, it was not included on the tentative schedule CBS issued in February 1965.

 Despite this the producers may have still been holding out hope for the show. Also in February gossip columnist Hedda Hopper quoted Ezra Stone, who directed the majority of the show's episodes, as saying that the “...future of the show depends on reaction to the last five segments without Bob Cummings." She also claimed that CBS wanted John Forsythe to replace Bob Cummings as the show's male lead if it had a second season. Later in the month Hedda Hopper reported that John Forsythe would not be able to take over the starring role on My Living Doll because he would be starring in his own show, The John Forsythe Show, set to debut in the fall of 1965.

Whatever merit Hedda Hopper's claims about My Living Doll might have had, one thing is certain. CBS would change the tentative schedule it had issued in February 1965 many times before it took its final form in May of that year, and at no point did My Living Doll appear on that schedule. In the end My Living Doll was cancelled after one season and 26 episodes. The series would be rerun during the summer and its last episode aired on 8 September 1965.

Having run for only one season and with only 26 episodes available, My Living Doll would not see a syndication run. In the years since the show had gone off the air various rumours swirled about whatever had happened to My Living Doll. There were rumours that either Jack Chertok Television Productions or CBS had deliberately destroyed the negatives, or that they were destroyed in a fire. In truth the original 35mm negatives had been destroyed in the earthquake that had hit Northridge, Los Angeles in 1994. Episodes of the show still existed, however, so that a few would occasionally surface on bootleg VHS tapes, DVDs, and even on YouTube. Eventually the Jack Chertok estate was able to gather together enough elements from various collectors and other sources that MPI was able to release eleven episodes in a 2 disc set called My Living Doll: The Official Collection Vol. 1. As of yet there have been no formal announcements regarding the release of the rest of the series on DVD. More recently ten episodes of My Living Doll have been made available on Hulu.

Today there are many who might see the premise of My Living Doll as sexist, but the show does not come across that way at all (especially considering it was made in 1964). First, the whole idea of Dr. McDonald teaching Rhoda to be the "perfect woman" seems to have been dropped after the very first episode. Instead, after the first episode the show becomes much more about Dr. McDonald trying to get the extremely intelligent, but also very naive robot to adapt to human society. Second, while one would think a show featuring Julie Newmar as a very sexy robot would be filled with sexual innuendo, there is actually very little innuendo to be seen on the show. In fact, its contemporary Bewitched contained much more in the way of sexual innuendo (and sex in general)! Third, like its contemporary Bewitched and the subsequent I Dream of Jeannie (which would debut the following season), it is more often than not Rhoda who comes out on top in the various episodes. As a result My Living Doll has a slight feminist subtext much the same as Bewitched (although as Rhoda is a robot perhaps "individualist" rather than "feminist" would be a better word in the case of My Living Doll--despite her appearance, Rhoda is essentially genderless). Like Bewitched, on My Living Doll a man attempted to make a powerful woman (or, a robot shaped like a woman, in this case) to conform to traditional expectations of women, only to have his efforts utterly defeated by that woman.

Seen today My Living Doll compares favourably to both My Favourite Martian and I Dream of Jeannie. Indeed, the dynamic seen between the characters on My Living Doll foresees the dynamic between the characters on I Dream of Jeannie in the days before Roger knew Jeannie's true nature. Bob is trying to get Rhoda to adjust to human society, all the while keeping her true nature as a highly advanced robot secret. At the same time Peter does not realise Rhoda is a robot and has a crush on her, so that he is always trying to get her alone. While the debt Sidney Sheldon owed Bewitched in creating I Dream of Jeannie has often been acknowledged, one has to wonder that I Dream of Jeannie doesn't owe a good deal to My Living Doll as well.

Over all My Living Doll was a very good show that is similar in quality to other better known fantasy sitcoms from the era. In fact, many of the writers who worked on My Living Doll also wrote episodes for My Favourite Martian and Bewitched. While My Living Doll benefited from some good writing, however, the primary reason to watch the show is the performance of Julie Newmar as Rhoda. Julie Newmar did a remarkable job of playing a robot who has no emotions and is entirely naive of most aspects of human society. And despite the fact that Rhoda is human only in appearance and essentially devoid of emotion, Miss Newmar endowed the character with a warmth and innocence all her own. There can be no doubt that Julie Newmar's training as a dancer benefited her in the role. As a dancer Miss Newmar was likely much more aware of her movements than many actors, to the point that she can move like something that is not quite human when called upon to do so.

While My Living Doll lasted only one season, it was never entirely forgotten. As mentioned earlier, many  men and women between the ages of 55 and 62 have fond memories of the show. In fact, it seems likely that My Living Doll was more popular than was reflected by its ratings. According to The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, the phrase "does not compute" (which was a bit of a catchphrase for Rhoda) originated on My Living Doll. It would seem that for a show to have spawned a phrase that still remains in use fifty years after its debut it would have to have been at least somewhat popular. At any rate, My Living Doll was certainly a show worth remembering. Well written and wonderfully acted by Julie Newmar, My Living Doll deserves to be ranked alongside My Favourite Martian, Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie as a classic fantasy sitcom.

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