Today when people think of fantastic situation comedies in which an ordinary person is living with someone with extraordinary powers, they are inclined to think of the Sixties. After all, that was the decade when such fantastic comedies as My Favourite Martian, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie aired. The first such show, however, aired in the Fifties. This pioneering sitcom was based on both a classic book and a soon to be classic series of films. The novel Topper by Thorne Smith was first published in 1926 and proved to be a best seller. In fact, it was so successful that Thorne Smith wrote a sequel, Topper Takes a Trip (1932). Topper would be adapted into the classic 1937 film of the same name starring Cary Grant, Constance Bennett, and Roland Young. The film version of Topper proved so successful that it would be followed by two sequels: Topper Takes a Trip (1938) and Topper Returns (1941). A radio show would follow; The Adventures of Topper, once more starring Roland Young in the title role, aired as a summer replacement series on NBC in 1945. Given the success of Topper in various media, it was quite natural then that in 1953 producers Bernard L. Schubert and John W. Loveton, who had already seen some success on the small screen with Mr. and Mrs. North, acquired the television rights to Topper.
Thorne Smith's novel centred on an uptight banker, Cosmo Topper, who finds himself haunted by a husband and wife team of ghosts, Marion and George Kerby, who take it upon themselves to liven Topper's life up. Both the 1937 film version and the 1945 radio show followed this same format, as would the television show. Screen actors Anne Jeffreys and Robert Sterling, who were married in real life, had a successful night club act in 1952 and, as a result, were cast in the role of the Kerbys. Leo G. Carroll, who had appeared in such films as A Christmas Carol (1938), Wuthering Heights (1939), and many Alfred Hitchcock films (everything from Rebecca to North by Northwest), was cast as Cosmo Topper and Lee Patrick, who had appeared in such films as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Now, Voyager (1942) was cast as his wife Henrietta. A character who appeared in neither the novels nor the films was added to the television series, that of the St. Bernard Neil, a ghostly dog who had died with the Kerbys.
For the television series the antics of the fun loving Kerbys were toned down a bit from the novels and even the films, although it was still clear that the couple enjoyed having a good time. Even in death the Kerbys continued to enjoy good food, good drink and smoking, and they still endeavoured to brighten Cosmo Topper's previously drab existence. As might be expected, the majority of the plots of Topper involved the Kerbys getting Topper in and out of trouble. Topper was then the direct forerunner of such imaginative sitcoms as My Favourite Martian, Bewitched, and I Dream of Jeannie, in which an ordinary person's life is complicated by a supernatural being living with them. Among the writers who contributed scripts to the show was a young Stephen Sondheim, who wrote eleven episodes for the show, including the pilot.
Topper debuted on CBS on 9 October 1953. Not only did it receive sterling reviews from critics, but it also proved to be a hit with viewers. The show was still receiving excellent ratings in its second season when it abruptly came to a halt. Quite simply, Camel cigarettes decided that it did not want to pay for a third season of Topper. This left Topper with only one sponsor, General Foods. Because Camel had decided to no longer sponsor Topper, the show ended its run after its second season. The show ended its run on 15 July 1955 with a total of 78 episodes. ABC would air reruns of Topper later that same year and then NBC would air repeats of the show in 1956. Afterwards it went onto a highly successful syndication run.
A pilot for a new Topper series was aired on ABC in 1979, with Kate Jackson and Andrew Stevens as the Kerbys and Jack Warden as Cosmo Topper, but it failed to sell.
Arguably Topper may have inspired the entire cycle towards ordinary
people living with supernatural beings that was so prevalent during the
Sixties. It was only six years after Topper left the air that Mister Ed (the sitcom about the famous talking horse) debuted. It was only three years after the debut of Mister Ed that My Favourite Martian (an ordinary man living with a Martian). My Favourite Martian proved to be a smash hit and soon the airwaves was filled with people living with witches (Bewitched), genies (I Dream of Jeannie), angels (The Smothers Brothers Show), and, of course, ghosts (The Ghost & Mrs. Muir). It seems possible none of these shows would have made it to the air had Topper not been there first. Quite simply, the success of Topper both in its first run and in syndication paved the way for a whole slough of fantastic comedies in the Sixties