Friday, 18 September 2015
There are those today who claim that we are in the middle of the Golden Age of Television. That this is not necessarily the case can be proven by simply looking over television schedules from decades ago. At a time when there were only three broadcast networks in the United States more quality shows were sometimes produced in a season than on the five major broadcast networks and the many cable channels and streaming services today. A perfect example of this is the 1965-1966 television season. Fifty years ago today two classic situation comedies debuted back to back and on the same network at that. I Dream of Jeannie debuted at 8:00 PM Eastern/7:00 PM Central and Get Smart at 8:30 PM Eastern/7:30 PM Central, both on NBC. Both shows have persisted on television ever since and are widely regarded as classics today.
The first of the two shows to debut, I Dream of Jeannie, centred on astronaut Captain Tony Nelson (played by Larry Hagman), who while stranded on an island finds a bottle containing a 2000 year old genie. Despite her age the genie, named Jeannie (played by Barbara Eden), looks and behaves like a twentysomething woman. Jeannie returns with Tony to his home in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
Mr. Sheldon came up with the idea of a show featuring a genie. Unlike previous portrayals of genies on film, the genie would be a nubile young woman rather some large man. In many respects it should come as no surprise that Sidney Sheldon should hit upon the idea of a show centred on a genie. One of the hit shows of the 1963-1964 season was My Favourite Martian, in which an ordinary reporter found himself living with a Martian. By the 1964-1965 season My Favourite Martian would be joined by other shows in which a mere mortal was living with someone extraordinary, including Bewitched (an ordinary man married to a witch) and My Living Doll (a man living with a robot). Mr. Sheldon met with Screen Gems, who were enthusiastic about the project. In no time Screen Gems had sold I Dream of Jeannie to NBC.
While Screen Gems had sold I Dream of Jeannie to NBC, that is not to say that the network did not have some reservations about a show in which a nubile young female genie was living with a single mortal man. Mort Werner, senior vice president for programming, gave Sidney Sheldon a memo from NBC's Broadcast Standards, essentially the network's department in charge of self-censorship. The memo was a full eighteen pages long and included such dictates as "They must never touch each other", "Jeannie must never go to Tony's bedroom", and "Never let Tony go into Jeannie's bottle." Mort Werner expressed his concerns about the show and was reassured by Mr. Sheldon that there would be no sexual innuendoes or double entendres.
NBC Broadcast Standards and Mort Werner weren't the only ones with concerns about the show. Sidney Sheldon also received a memo from a vice president at the network who referred to I Dream of Jeannie as a "one joke show" and wrote that it was "not going to work" and the show "will be short-lived." In Sidney Sheldon's reply to the NBC executive, he pointed out that I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and The Beverly Hillbillies were also all one-joke shows. Sidney Sheldon heard no more about I Dream of Jeannie being a one-joke show.
With regards to casting, Barbara Eden was the only actress who was auditioned for the part of Jeannie. Miss Eden already had a very successful career, having already starred in the syndicated sitcom How to Marry a Millionaire and having appeared in such films as The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), and The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (1964). For the role of Captain Anthony "Tony" Nelson about a half dozen actors were auditioned. The role went to Larry Hagman, the son of Broadway star Mary Martin and an upcoming actor who had appeared small parts in such films as Ensign Pulver (1964) and Fail Safe (1964). For the role of Tony's best friend and confidant (and the only other person who knows Jeannie is a genie) Roger Healey several actors were tested for the part. The role eventually went to nightclub comic Bill Daily, who really had no television or film credits at the time. Veteran character actor Hayden Rorke played Dr. Alfred Bellows, the Air Force psychiatrist for NASA who was always suspicious of the sometime odd circumstances in which Tony found himself.
Like many sitcoms of the era I Dream of Jeannie had an animated title sequence. The title sequence essentially portrayed Tony Nelson finding Jeannie's bottle on the island, opening it, and Jeannie emerging from the bottle. The sequence was created by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, who had also created the animated title sequences for the movies The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964), and How to Murder Your Wife (1965). DePatie-Freleng Enterprises also created the animated title sequence for The Wild Wild West, which debuted the same season as I Dream of Jeannie. The theme song for I Dream Jeannie during its first season was a jazz waltz composed by by Richard Wess. Sidney Sheldon never liked Mr. Wess's composition and as a result it was replaced with the start of the second season with a new theme entitled "Jeannie" composed by Hugo Montenegro.
While shooting the first season there was one complication. Quite simply, Barbara Eden discovered she was pregnant. To hide her pregnancy they simply shot her from above the waist and added more veils to her genie costume. Fortunately they made it from the third week of her pregnancy to the eighth month of her pregnancy without viewers being any wiser.
While both NBC and Screen Gems expected I Dream of Jeannie to flop, the show actually did moderately well in the ratings. For its first season I Dream of Jeannie ranked no. 27 out of all the shows on the air. It was with the show's second season that it made the move to colour, NBC becoming the first network to have 100% of its primetime programming aired colour. For its second season NBC also moved I Dream of Jeannie to Monday night at 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central following a new show called The Monkees. Perhaps because of the change in time slot, I Dream of Jeannie did not do as well in the ratings. It did not rank in the top thirty shows for the year.
Unfortunately I Dream of Jeannie would never have the same time slot from season to season. For its third season NBC moved I Dream of Jeannie to 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central on Tuesday Night. For its fourth it was shifted to Monday night at 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central. This particular time slot appears to have the best for the show. I Dream of Jeannie performed better in that time slot than it did in any other. It ranked no. 26 in the ratings for the year. Sadly NBC moved the show for its fifth and final season to Tuesday night at 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central. Its ratings faltered and it was cancelled, although it seems almost certain that other circumstances contributed to its cancellation beyond the shift in time slots (more on that later).
The biggest change during the show would come during the fifth season when Tony married Jeannie. It was towards end of the fourth season that Sidney Sheldon received a call from Mort Werner of NBC. Mr. Werner expressed the network's desire for Jeannie and Tony to get married and implied that the show might not be picked up for a fifth season if they did not. Sidney Sheldon was firmly against the idea, believing that a marriage between Jeannie and Tony would destroy any sexual tension on the show. The cast also disliked the idea and even went so far as to call Mort Werner to express their disapproval. Unfortunately, Mr. Werner stood firm on his insistence that Jeannie and Tony would be married.
As it turned out Sidney Sheldon and the cast of I Dream of Jeannie were correct in their belief that a marriage between Jeannie and Tony would kill the show. After experiencing all time high ratings in its fourth season (ranking no. 26 for the year), the ratings for I Dream of Jeannie plummeted. Ultimately I Dream of Jeannie was cancelled after 5 seasons and 139 episodes.
Reruns of I Dream of Jeannie entered syndication in the fall of 1970 where it proved to be one of the most successful syndicated reruns of all time. In fact, the October 6 1971 issue of Variety reported that I Dream of Jeannie was the first off-network series, airing in syndication, to best network shows in the ratings. Independent station WPIX in New York City aired reruns of I Dream of Jeannie back to back at 7:00-8:00 PM in primetime. The reruns beat their completion on the networks with an overnight Nielsen count with a 13 rating and 23 share.
The continued popularity of I Dream of Jeannie would lead to a Hanna-Barbera Saturday morning cartoon loosely inspired by the show. Jeannie debuted on September 8 1973 on CBS. The show actually had very little in common with the original show beyond centring on a genie named Jeannie (who, for some reason, was a redhead). There would be two reunion movies. The first, I Dream of Jeannie... Fifteen Years Later, aired on NBC on October 20 1985. Barbara Eden, Bill Daily, and Hayden Rorke returned as Jeannie, Roger, and Dr. Bellows respectively. Since Larry Hagman was tied up with shooting Dallas at the time, Wayne Rogers played the role of Tony. I Dream of Jeannie... Fifteen Years Later did very well in the ratings. The second reunion movie, I Still Dream of Jeannie, aired on NBC on October 20 1991. Barbara Eden and Bill Daily returned as Jeannie and Roger. Since Larry Hagman was unavailable due to his commitment to the TV show Dallas, it was explained that Tony was on a top secret mission for NASA.
To this day I Dream of Jeannie has continued to be popular in syndication. It still airs on several local stations throughout the United States. Over the years It has also aired on the cable channels Nick at Nite and TV Land, as well as the broadcast classic television network ME-TV.
Perhaps more so than other shows of the era, I Dream of Jeannie could at times have inconsistencies in its continuity. This was even true of how Jeannie came to be in the bottle. In the first season it was established that Jeannie had been a human woman who had been turned into a genie by an evil djinn (later revealed to be the Blue Djinn) when she turned down his proposal of marriage. Indeed, not only was Jeannie originally human, but her family was human as well. By the third season, however, it was established that Jeannie had always been a genie, as had her family.
There were even greater problems with continuity when it came to whether genies could be photographed or not. Early in the series it was established that genies cannot be photographed. In the third season episode “Who Are You Calling a Jeannie?" it is even established that genies cannot even be x-rayed. Despite this, in the third season episode “The Second Greatest Con Artist in the World" not only is Jeannie photographed, but her picture even appears in a newspaper. By the fifth season, however, in the episode "The Wedding", it is once more said that genies cannot be photographed. In its five year run there would be yet other glitches in the show's continuity, some greater than others.
Despite the passing resemblance of the show to Bewitched and its several lapses in its continuity, I Dream of Jeannie remains one of the most successful and beloved reruns in syndication. Much of the credit must go to the show's remarkable cast, quite possibly one of the best in any sitcom. As Jeannie, Barbara Eden was simultaneously sexy, impetuous, intelligent, naive, and possessed of a child-like wonder at the world. Larry Hagman presented a perfect contrast to Jeannie with Tony Nelson, who was serious and grounded in what he thought was the real world (or at least a world where genies couldn't perform magic on a whim). Bill Daily and Hayden Rorke both played their roles perfectly. It seems possible that I Dream of Jeannie might not be remembered if it had a lesser cast.
Ultimately the high quality of I Dream of Jeannie, as well as the sheer imagination that went into the show, are why the show still remains popular after fifty years. A show with only moderate ratings while on the air, it has since become a classic.
The origins of Get Smart go back to Talent Associates, a production company founded by legendary producer David Susskind and Alfred L. Levy. Daniel Melnick, formerly an executive at ABC, joined the company in 1963. Over the years Talent Associates had produced such shows as The Goodyear/Philco Television Playhouse, Armstrong Circle Theatre, and East Side/West Side. In 1964 David Susskind and Daniel Melnick wanted to launch a situation comedy. The two of them found inspiration by looking through a list of box office lists in the Hollywood trade papers. In 1963 The Pink Panther, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau was a huge hit. In 1964 the James Bond movie Goldfinger was a huge hit. It occurred to Daniel Melnick that combining elements of James Bond and Inspector Clouseau could produce an idea for a sitcom.
Daniel Melnick took his idea to writers Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. Mel Brooks had begun his television career writing for The Admiral Broadway Revue, the legendary Your Show of Shows, and Caesar's Hour. Buck Henry had written the screenplay for the movie The Troublemaker (1964) and written for the American version of the TV series That Was the Week That Was. Mel Brooks and Buck Henry took Daniel Melnick's idea of a show crossing James Bond and Inspector Clouseau, and created Get Smart.
Get Smart centred upon bumbling Maxwell Smart (played by Don Adams), Agent 86 for the secret counter-intelligence agency CONTROL. Max was clumsy, none too bright, and a bit too sure of himself. His partner was Agent 99 (played by Barbara Feldon), a beautiful, intelligent, and competent spy who for, whatever reason, was in love with Max. Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 reported the head of CONTROL, simply known as "the Chief (played by Edward Platt)". CONTROL's usual opponent was the " international organization of evil" KAOS. Throughout the series Max and 99 faced several KAOS agents (often played by big name guest stars), including their archenemy Conrad Siegfried (played by Bernie Kopell) and his assistant Starker (played by King Moody).
Edgar Scherick, Vice President of Programming for ABC, bought the pilot script for Get Smart. Tom Poston, then best known for the "Man on the Street" routines on The Steve Allen Show and perhaps now best known as handyman George Utley on Newhart, was signed to play Maxwell Smart if ABC picked up the show. As it turned out, ABC did not pick up the show. Edgar Scherick not only thought the pilot script for Get Smart was not funny, but he even said that it was "un-American". Not only did he reject Get Smart, but he even asked for ABC's money back.
It was Talent Associates themselves who cast Barbara Feldon as Agent 99. She had worked as a model for Revlon and in the early Sixties may have been known for a commercial for Top Brass hair dressing in which she appeared. Barbara Feldon had already guest starred in two Talent Associates shows, East Side/West Side and Mr. Broadway. It was in the latter that she played a sultry industrial spy. Edward Platt, who had appeared in such films as They Came to Cordura (1959) and North by Northwest (1959), as well as making numerous guest appearances on television, was cast as the Chief.
The pilot for Get Smart, "Mr. Big", was written by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry. While the regular series would be filmed in colour, "Mr. Big" was shot in black and white. Michael Dunn, soon to be forever known ad Dr. Miguelito Loveless on The Wild Wild West, played the villain of the title, Mr. Big. The pilot also introduced the character of Fang, "Agent K-9", a rather poorly trained dog who worked for CONTROL. Fang was played by a dog named Red, who had earlier played Jasper on Bachelor Father. Unfortunately Red was very poor at taking instructions and as a result shooting with Red often ran overtime. As a result Fang stopped appearing on Get Smart during the second season.
Get Smart debuted on NBC on September 18 1965 and immediately proved to one of the new hits of the season. Many of Maxwell Smart's catchphrases, including "Sorry about that, Chief," "Would you believe..," "Missed it by that much," "the old (fill in the blank) trick", and "I asked you not to tell me that" caught on with the general public. An individual at NASA's ground control during the Gemini 7 mission even used, "Sorry about that, Chief", when an accident occurred. The various sight gags on the show also proved popular, including Max's shoe phone, the Cone of Silence, and the bullet-proof invisible wall in Max's apartment, among others. Ultimately Get Smart ranked no. 12 in the ratings for the 1965-1966 season.
Over time Get Smart would develop a large number of recurring characters. Larabee (played by Robert Karvelas) was the Chief's slow-witted assistant and first appeared late in the first season and continued to appear until the end of the show. During the first season Agent 44 (played by Victor French) was a CONTROL agent who would appear in the oddest places, such as a file cabinet or some other small space. From the second season to the third season, Agent 44's role would be assumed by Agent 13 (played by David Ketchum), who also appeared in odd places. Hymie the Robot (played by Richard Gautier), was a robot built by KAOS, but who changed sides to work for CONTROL, Hymie first appeared during the first season and would continue to appear until fourth season. Of course, Siegfried and Starker first appeared in the show's second season and continued to appear until the show's final season.
The success of Get Smart was such that a theatrical film based on the TV show was considered during its first season. The project was abandoned when another feature film based on a TV series, Munster Go Home! (1966), bombed at the box office. What would have been the script for the Get Smart movie then became the three part, second season episode "A Man Called Smart".
Get Smart slipped in the ratings during its second season, ranking no. 22 for the year. While its ratings had slipped, the show did win two Emmy Awards, for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series (for Don Adams) and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy (for Buck Henry and Leonard Stern's writing on the episode "Ship of Spies").
Unfortunately, ratings for Get Smart would continue to fall during its third season. The drop in ratings may have been partially due to new competition in the form of popular family comedy My Three Sons, which CBS had moved opposite Get Smart at the start of the 1967-1968 season. That having been said, it seems more likely that the ratings drop was simply due to the fact that the spy craze had pretty much come to an end in 1967. Indeed, several spy films released during the year (Billion Dollar Brain, Casino Royale, Fathom and The President's Analyst among them) fared poorly at the box office. On television many of the spy dramas, some of them smash hits upon their debut, were also failing in the ratings. It should come as no surprise, then, that a spy parody such as Get Smart would see its fortunes change.
Regardless, Get Smart did continue to do well at the Emmys. It won the Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series, and Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy for the 1967-1968 season, and was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series (for Barbara Feldon).
Fortunately Get Smart would still receive a fifth season, as it was picked up almost immediately by CBS. CBS moved Get Smart from the 8:30 PM Eastern/7:30 Central, Saturday night time slot it occupied during its entire run on NBC to Friday night at 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central. The show also saw many other changes. Except for Larabee, nearly every single secondary character on the show was dropped. Siegfried and Starker appeared only once during the entire season, in the episode "Ice Station Siegfried". Maxwell Smart and Agent 99 had twins (born during the November sweeps period), but the twins swiftly fell by the wayside. Ultimately ratings for Get Smart continued to decline and CBS cancelled the show at the end of the season. For the first time in the series' run, it did not even receive one Emmy nomination.
Following its cancellation by CBS in 1970 Get Smart went on to a highly successful run in syndication. The show proved popular enough as a syndicated rerun that in 1980 a film based on the show debuted in theatres, The Nude Bomb. Unfortunately, The Nude Bomb departed considerably from the TV show. Max no longer worked for CONTROL, but instead for an agency called PITS (Provisional Intelligence Tactical Service). Aside from Max, only two characters from the original series appeared, Larabee (played by Robert Karvelas) and Agent 13 (although he was played by Joey Forman rather than David Ketchum). The Nude Bomb was not well received by fans of the TV show and bombed at the box office. It would later air on television under the title The Return of Maxwell Smart.
While The Nude Bomb turned out to be a dud both at the box office and with fans of Get Smart, a 1989 television reunion movie would receive a much better reception. Get Smart, Again! reunited much of the original cast, including Don Adams as Max, Barbara Feldon as 99, Bernie Koppell as Siegfried, King Moody as Starker, Robert Karvelas as Larabee, and David Ketchum as Agent 13. Get Smart, Again! was not only well received by critics, but also received very good ratings. It aired on February 26 1989 on ABC (the network that had originally rejected the series).
The revival did nothing to decrease the popularity of the original series. The entire run of Get Smart has been released on DVD and on August 10 2015 it was released on digital streaming platforms for the first time. In 2008 a feature film based on the series starring Steve Carrell as Max, Anne Hathaway as 99, and Terence Stamp as Siegfried, was released. The film received mixed reviews from critics and only did moderately well at the box office. A sequel was announced in 2008, but as of yet nothing has materialised.
Over the years Get Smart has remained popular as a syndicated rerun. It would be aired on such cable channels as TBS, WGN, and Nick-at-Nite. It currently airs on broadcast classic television network ME-TV.
It is easy to understand the success of Get Smart upon it debut in 1965. Get Smart debuted at a time when spoofs were exceedingly popular on television. Indeed, the same season that Get Smart debuted so too did F Troop, Hogan's Heroes, and Batman (as a mid-season replacement). At the same time as a cycle towards spoofs was beginning on American broadcast television, the spy craze as already sweeping the United States. As a spy spoof Get Smart was then able to take advantage of two popular trends on American television at the time--spoofs and spies. It would have been surprising if Get Smart had not been a success.
Of course, this does not answer the question of why Get Smart has continued to be popular for the past fifty years. This can be simply answered by pointing out that Get Smart was a show of very high quality. Indeed, it not only received largely positive notices from critics, but it also received multiple Emmy nominations for every season it was on except its last. The episodes of Get Smart were written by some of the best writers in the industry. Chris Hayward had written for various Jay Ward cartoons, as well as The Steve Allen Show and The Colgate Comedy Hour. With Allan Burns he co-created The Munsters. Producer Leonard B. Stern had written for such shows as The Phil Silvers Show, The Honeymooners, and The Steve Allen Show. Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso had written for the American version of That Was the Week That Was and would go on to write for The Monkees. Get Smart had several great writers work on the show, and as a result its episodes were of a higher quality than most shows of the time.
Of course, Get Smart benefited from an excellent cast. Don Adams was perfectly suited as Maxwell Smart, as was Barbara Eden perfectly suited as Agent 99. The rest of the cast was remarkable as well: Edward Platt as the Chief, Robert Karvelas as Larabee, David Ketchum as Agent 13, and so on. Bernie Koppell as Siegfried ranks as one of the greatest villains in American television. Between its writing and its cast there should be little wonder it has remained popular for fifty years.
I Dream of Jeannie and Get Smart debuted back to back on the same network and have remained popular ever since. In the years since it has been a rarity since two classic shows, especially ones with lasting success in syndication, have debuted together. What is more, this was not an isolated incident in fall of 1965--The Wild Wild West and Hogan's Heroes also debuted back to back on CBS that season. This would seem to lay to waste any argument those who think now is the Golden Age of Television might have.
Thursday, 17 September 2015
The Wild Wild West followed the adventures of Secret Service agents James West (played by Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (played by Ross Martin) as they battled diabolical masterminds and foreign agents in the American West of the late 1800s. James West was a master combatant whose fighting style even incorporated such exotic martial arts as kung fu. Artemus Gordon was a master of disguise, con man, and gadgeteer. Together they faced off against villains who often had access to technology that was very advanced for the late Victorian Era. Their archenemy (and the only opponent they fought more than twice) was Dr. Miguelito Loveless (played by Michael Dunn). a megalomaniacal dwarf who considered himself "the Napoleon of the West".
The basic idea for The Wild Wild West originated with Michael Garrison. Mr. Garrison had begun his career as an actor, but eventually became an associate producer on such movies as An Affair to Remember, The Long Hot Summer, and Peyton Place. He graduated to being a producer, working on movies such as The Crowded Sky and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs. Like many in Hollywood in the early to mid-Sixties, Michael Garrison noticed the spy craze that was was overtaking the United States. At the same time Westerns continued to be popular and television was actually experiencing a new boom in Westerns due to the success of The Virginian. It occurred to Garrison that crossing Bondian spy drama with the Western (essentially "James Bond on horseback") could make for a good TV series. He pitched the idea to CBS head of programming Hunt Stromberg Jr. Stromberg agreed that it was a good idea.
With the script for the pilot being written, casting for the roles of West and Gordon began. Initially they had wanted Western star Rory Calhoun for the role. After a screen test, however, CBS decided that Mr. Calhoun was not right for the part. Eighteen different actors auditioned for the role of James West, including Skip Ward, who would later produce such shows as The Dukes of Hazzard and V. John Derek, who had appeared in such films as Knock on Any Door (1949) and All the King's Men (1949), was supposed to audition, but did not show up. Robert Conrad was finally cast in the role of James West. Robert Conrad was already a veteran television star, having starred in the TV series Hawaiian Eye. The casting for the part of Artemus Gordon went much more smoothly. Although many actors were tested for the part, only two were ever seriously considered. One was character actor Pat Hinkle (who would later play Commissioner Gordon in the 1989 film Batman). The other was character actor Ross Martin, a talented character actor with a gift for dialects. Ross Martin had been a regular on the show Mr. Lucky and made numerous guest appearances over the years in shows ranging from Laramie to Dr. Kildare.
Film composer Dimitri Tiomkin was hired to compose the theme for The Wild West. Unfortunately Michael Garrison found the theme composed by Mr. Tiomkin, "The Ballad of Big Jim West", wholly unsuited to the show. Mr. Garrison then hired Richard Markowitz to compose the now familiar theme to The Wild Wild West. Mr. Markowitz had composed the theme to the Western TV show The Rebel and scored the films Face in the Rain (1963) and Cry of Battle (1963).
Sadly for The Wild West (soon to become The Wild Wild West) the course to making it on the air would not always be smooth. On the strength of the pilot ("The Night of the Inferno"), The Wild West was placed on CBS's 1965 fall schedule. Unfortunately in March 1965 there would be a major management change at CBS. James T. Aubrey, who had been president of CBS since 1959, was fired on February 27 1965. It was not long after James Aubrey was terminated that Hunt Stromberg, Jr. announced his resignation from CBS, although there can be little doubt that he was pressured out of the network. The new regime at CBS reshuffled the schedule for fall 1965, bringing back some shows that Mr. Aubrey had cancelled while cancelling some of those that he had bought. Among those that were axed was The Wild West.
CBS first looked to veteran director Jack Arnold to produce The Wild West. Jack Arnold had directed a good number of films (including the classics Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Incredible Shrinking Man) and had already produced such TV shows as Mr. Lucky and Gilligan's Island. For whatever reason, Mr. Arnold left before he could even produce one episode. The network's next choice was Ben Brady, who had produced The Red Skelton Hour, Perry Mason, and Have Gun--Will Travel. For whatever reason Mr. Brady was replaced without ever having produced an episode after only two months by Collier Young.
Collier Young was the former husband of director and actress Ida Lupino, and had already produced such shows as Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond and The Rogues. He would leave one lasting imprint on the show. Feeling that the title The Wild West sounded too much like a typical Western, he renamed the show The Wild Wild West. Unfortunately for Mr. Young, his vision of The Wild Wild West differed a good deal from that of Michael Garrison, as well as the vision CBS had for the show. In the end he was dismissed after only three episodes.
The pattern of changing producers that had been established even before The Wild Wild West had reached the air continued throughout the show's first season. The next man hired to produce the show was Fred Frieberger, who had produced Ben Casey and would go onto produce Star Trek. Mr. Frieberger was arguably the show's best producer. He established the format of the series, in which each week West and Gordon would face a criminal mastermind with some incredible plot (such as a former general seeking to establish his own kingdom in Mexico using an armour plated train, a crazed geologist who has figured out how to cause earthquakes, and a plot to rob a state of its treasury). Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Fred Freiberger's tenure as producer on The Wild Wild West was the introduction of West and Gordon's archnemesis, Dr. Miguelito Loveless.
While Fred Freiberger set the course that The Wild Wild West would maintain for the rest of its run, he did not last as the show's producer. For reasons that are not precisely clear, CBS fired both Mr. Freiberger as producer and Michael Garrison as executive producer. As it would turn out, according to their contract CBS could not fire Mr. Garrison as executive producer. Unfortunately, the same was not true of Fred Freiberger. . John Mantley, who had been the associate producer on Gunsmoke, was brought in as his replacement. John Mantley continued the series in the same vein as Fred Freiberger, with West and Gordon facing as a crazed puppeteer with steam powered "puppets" and an assassin with a body that has almost entirely been replaced by steel.
Mr. Mantley's tenure as producer of The Wild Wild West ended once Michael Garrison reclaimed his position as executive producer. Mr. Garrison wanted Fred Freiberger back as the series' producer, but CBS refused to reinstate him. Gene L. Coon was then hired as the show's producer. Gene L. Coon had already produced the short lived Western Destry and a single episode of The Virginian. Like Fred Freiberger, Mr. Coon would also go onto produce Star Trek. Gene L. Coon continued the series in the same vein as Fred Freiberger and John Mantley, producing such episodes as "The Night of the Murderous Spring" (in which Dr. Loveless plotted to poison the whole country with a hallucinogenic drug) and "The Night of the Freebooters" (in which a diabolical mastermind plotted to take over Baja California with his own private army). Gene L. Coon would quit the series after several episodes to accept an offer from Warner Brothers to write the screenplay for Tell It to the Marines.
After going through so many show runners, Michael Garrison finally had the opportunity to produce his own show. He produced the last few episodes of the first season as well as the first few episodes of the second season. Ultimately Michael Garrison named Bruce Lansbury as the new producer of The Wild Wild West. Mr. Lansbury was the younger brother of actress Angela Lansbury and a friend of Michael Garrison. He had worked in management at CBS and had worked on the TV series The Great Adventure for the network. He would go on to produce such shows as Wonder Woman and Murder, She Wrote. Bruce Lansbury would remain the producer on The Wild Wild West for the rest of the show's run.
Sadly, Michael Garrison would not live to see the second season of The Wild Wild West. On August 17 1966, only a little over a month after Bruce Lansbury had been announced as the show's producer, Mr. Garrrison died after falling down a flight of stairs in his home and fracturing his skull. A new executive producer was not hired to replace Michael Garrison and Bruce Lansbury took complete control of The Wild Wild West.
As might be expected of a show that was simultaneously a spy drama and Western, The Wild Wild West was in many ways a very stylised show, right down to its title sequence and the graphics that closed each act. The animated title sequence was created by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, who had also created the animated title sequences for the movies The Pink Panther (1963), A Shot in the Dark (1964), and How to Murder Your Wife (1965). They also created the animated titles for the TV show I Dream of Jeannie, which also debuted in the 1965-1966 season. The animated title sequence of The Wild Wild West was divided into four wide panels of the sort used in comic strips, with a narrow panel in the centre: in the centre panel would enter the hero figure; the lower left panel featured a robber just emerging from a bank; the upper right panel featured a gambler drawing a card from his boot; the upper left panel featured a gun; and the lower right panel featured a woman with a parasol. The hero figure would dispatch each of these characters in turn, after which the title The Wild Wild West appeared, followed by images of a train with the credits on the train's carriages. When The Wild Wild West switched to colour in the second season, the title sequence was set against an American flag.
Just as The Wild Wild West's title sequence differed from many shows on at the time, so too did the end of each act. The frame of each scene ending an act would freeze and then replaced one of the four panels of the opening sequence. In the pilot the freeze-frame images would become line drawings, but afterwards in the first season they were made to look more like tinted photographs. From the second season onwards the freeze frame images once more became line drawings. A company called Consolidated Film Industries was responsible the art at the end of the various acts.
Given that The Wild Wild West was conceived as "James Bond on horseback", it should come as no surprise that it featured plenty of gadgets. In fact, James West and Artemus Gordon even had their own equivalent to James Bond's gadget laden cars. The two of them travelled in a specially equipped train. The train featured in the pilot was Sierra No. 3. Built in 1891, Sierra No. 3 had made its first appearance on film the Tom Mix serial The Terror in 1920. Afterwards it appeared in several films and later TV shows, including The Virginian (1929), Duel in the Sun (1946), High Noon (1952), and Petticoat Junction (where it was the Hooterville Cannonball). For the regular series another train was used, the Inyo. Like Sierra No. 3, the Inyo also had a long history in film. It had appeared in the Marx Brothers' movie Go West (1940), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Red River (1948), and and McLintock! (1963).
Because even train passenger carriages tend to be rather narrow and impractical for shooting a TV show, the interiors of West and Gordon's specially equipped carriage were built as a set at a reported cost of $35,000. As might be expected, West and Gordon's train carriage had some amenities that other train carriages of the era did not. The billiards table featured some very special cue sticks (ones with concealed blades and others that fired bullets), as well as some very special cue balls (namely, they were explosive). The desk in the carriage featured two concealed pistols, and a shotgun was hidden beneath a table. The carriage's fireplace contained a secret escape hatch. When The Wild Wild West shifted to colour with its second season, the train carriage was slightly redesigned.
Of course, West and Gordon had access to gadgets besides those on the train. The one that most frequently appeared may have been James West's sleeve gun. West also had a lock pick hidden in his hat, a throwing knife in his jacket, a spring loaded knife in his boot, and breakaway Remington derringer also hidden in his boot.
West and Gordon would only face one other opponent more than once. The success of Dr. Loveless led to the creation of another villain who was meant to recur on the show. Count Carlos Manzeppi (played by Victor Buono) was a diabolical magician who put his skills to use in committing crimes. He first appeared in the premiere episode of the second season, "Night of the Eccentrics", in which he was involved in a plot to carry out an assassination. He appeared one last time in "Night of the Feathered Fury". Count Manzeppi was not particularly well received by critics and CBS did not believe Count Manzeppi was popular with the show's fans. It is perhaps for that reason that Count Manzeppi only appeared twice. Of course, Victor Buono would soon be playing King Tut on the hit TV show Batman.
Essentially being a spy drama set in the Old West, The Wild Wild West quite naturally involved a good deal of stunts. Early in the run of the show stunt doubles substituted for Robert Conrad for the more dangerous stunts. As Robert Conrad did not like the use of very many stunt doubles, it was not long before he began performing many of the stunts himself. It was largely because of Robert Conrad that more exotic martial arts than one might see in most Westerns (or shows set in the Sixties, for that matter) began to appear on The Wild Wild West. Quite simply, Robert Conrad was into kung fu as well as boxing. After a fall from a chandelier during the shooting of the third season episode "The Night of the Fugitives" from which Robert Conrad received a concussion, CBS insisted on the actor using a double for the most dangerous stunts for the remainder of the show's run.
The Wild Wild West did not receive a large number of awards while it was on the air. In 1967 Agnes Moorhead won the Emmy for Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Drama for her guest appearance in "The Night of the Vicious Valentine". In 1969 Ross Martin was nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series.
The Wild Wild West never again ranked in the top 25 shows for the year following its first season, but it still maintained fairly good ratings. In fact, most of its competition on the other networks were cancelled after one season or less, including The Green Hornet and Off to See the Wizard on ABC. Tarzan on NBC managed to last two seasons. During its fourth season The Wild Wild West was still doing well. It received a 33 share in the Nielsens for the year, which would have almost guaranteed it would be renewed. Unfortunately it was not to be.
The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4 1968 and Robert Kennedy on June 5 1968 had renewed outcry over violence on television. With the renewed outcry over television violence, the networks quite naturally took measures to curtail violence on the small screen. For the 1968-1969 season, then, the networks introduced new restrictions on acts of violence on television. CBS restricted the producers of their shows on the use of firearms, fighting in close quarters, and even such stunts as falling off a horse. For a series such as The Wild Wild West, which had always depended on a lot of action in its episodes, this made things very difficult.
Unfortunately, the new restrictions that the networks had put on shows did nothing to silence the outcry over television violence.Worse yet, The Wild Wild West was considered one of the most violent shows on television by various watchdog groups. Accusations that The Wild Wild West was overly violent had persisted since its first season. In an article in the October 29 1965 issue of the Ottawa Citizen about the return of violence and sex to the small screen, Joan Crosby included The Wild Wild West among the examples of television violence. In February 1967 the National Association for Better Broadcasting (NABB) denounced The Wild Wild West for "its brutality and ugliness." In a survey of incidents of violence on television conducted by The Christian Science Monitor in early 1969, The Wild Wild West was determined to be the second most violent show on American television after British import The Avengers.
The watchdog groups would continue to plague The Wild Wild West even after it left the air. In November 1970 that a group called the Foundation to Improve Television filed a lawsuit to prevent WTOP-TV in Washington D.C. from showing The Wild Wild West before 10:00 PM, contending it violated "the constitutional rights of child viewers" in exposing them to alleged violence. In January 1971 the lawsuit was dismissed in U.S. District Court. In 1973 the National Association for Better Broadcasting pressured Los Angeles TV station KTTV into an agreement to issue a parental guidance warning before 81 live action series the NABB considered violent. Among the 81 shows was, as might be expected, The Wild Wild West.
Despite various watchdog groups' distaste for the show, The Wild Wild West continued to be popular after it left the air. During the summer of 1970, CBS reran specially selected episodes of The Wild Wild West, with some of the more "violent" scenes cut out, at 10:00 Eastern/9:00 Central Monday nights. The Wild Wild West proved very successful as a syndicated rerun. Airing on around 57 local stations in 1971, by 1973 it was airing on 84 stations.
In fact, it was successful enough that a second reunion movie was made, More Wild Wild West. More Wild Wild West featured Jonathan Winters as Albert Paradine II, who had developed a formula for invisibility. More Wild Wild West relied even more on humour than it predecessor, but still did well in the ratings when it aired on October 7 and October 8 1980. Sadly, there would be no more adventures of West and Gordon when Ross Martin died on July 31981 of a heart attack.
Regardless, The Wild Wild West would continue to be popular. In 1985 it was still airing on 74 stations throughout the United States. In 1994 TNT began airing The Wild Wild West for several years. The series would later air on Encore Westerns as well as the classic broadcast network ME-TV.
The continued popularity of The Wild Wild West would also result, perhaps unfortunately, in a big budget feature film adaptation of the show. Wild Wild West starred Will Smith as James West and Kevin Kline as Artemus Gordon, along with Kenneth Branagh as Dr. Arliss Loveless (who only took his name from Dr. Miguelito Loveless and nothing more). Wild Wild West was directed by Barry Sonnenfeld. The film departed from the TV show a good deal, with comedy playing a much more pronounced role. It not only received largely negative reviews from critics, but it was reviled by fans as well and Robert Conrad himself. The film failed at the box office.
Despite the motion picture, The Wild Wild West has remained popular to this day. The entire series has been released on DVD. In 2010 it was announced that producers Ron Moore and Naren Shankar were planing a reboot of The Wild Wild West, but nothing ever came of it.
Of course, even as The Wild Wild West pioneered ground, much of its popularity may be simply due to the friendship of James West and Artemus Gordon. Along with Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy on Star Trek, they had one of the most enduring friendships on television in the Sixties. The two complimented each other perfectly--James West, the man of action, and Artemus Gordon, the master of disguised. Very few heroic duos were ever so perfectly matched. In addition to the team of West and Gordon, much of the continued popularity of The Wild Wild West may be due to the bigger than life villains that appeared. Such well known character actors as Burgess Meredith, Martin Landau, Keenan Wynn, Boris Karloff, Ida Lupino, Victor Buono, and Agnes Moorehead all played villains on the show. Arguably Dr. Miguelito Loveless, played by the incomparable Michael Dunn, is one of television's greatest villains of all time. Indeed, it seems possible that the reason Loveless never successfully killed West and Gordon is that he enjoyed matching wits with them too much.
The Wild Wild West had remained popular for fifty years now. Neither the anti-violence watchdogs nor a horrible film adaptation have done anything to decrease its popularity. One has to suspect it will continue to be popular for another fifty years.
Wednesday, 16 September 2015
The Shootist was based on the novel of the same name by Glendon Swarthout, who had also written the novels upon which the films They Came to Cordura (1959), Where the Boys Are (1960), and Bless the Beasts & Children (1971) were based. The screenplay was written by Mr. Swarthout's son, Miles Hood Swarthout, for who it was his first screenplay. The Shootist was directed by Don Siegel. Perhaps best known for Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Don Siegel had already directed several Westerns, starting with The Duel at Silver Creek in 1952. The Shootist would be both the first and last film Don Siegel made with John Wayne.
The Shootist starred John Wayne as ageing gunfighter J.B. Books, who is diagnosed with cancer from which he will die a slow and lingering death. He rents a room from widow Bond Rogers (played by Lauren Bacall) to think about what his next course of action should be. Both Bond and her son Gillom (played by Ron Howard) befriend the ageing gunfighter as he contemplates what to do with what remains of his life.
As mentioned earlier, Lauren Bacall had previously worked with John Wayne on the film Blood Alley (1955). As an outspoken Liberal Democrat, Miss Bacall had been a bit nervous when she heard that she would be working with John Wayne, an outspoken Conservative Republican, on Blood Alley. As it turned out, not only did John Wayne not mention politics at all during the shooting of Blood Alley, but Miss Bacall and Mr. Wayne learned they liked each other a good deal. It was because John Wayne enjoyed working with Lauren Bacall so much on Blood Alley that he hand-picked her to play the role of Bond Rogers in The Shootist.
Much has been made of how The Shootist reflected John Wayne's real life. Here it must be pointed out that at the time John Wayne made The Shootist, he was not yet diagnosed wit the cancer that would ultimately kill him. That having been said, John Wayne had been diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964, even having his left lung and four ribs removed. Five years later he would be declared free of cancer. While John Wayne had not been diagnosed with cancer during the making of The Shootist, however, his health was not particularly good at the time. While The Shootist was filming Mr. Wayne had a tear in the mitral valve of his heart that caused him to be dizzy at times. As might be expected of an older man who had one lung removed, at times Mr. Wayne had trouble breathing. Of course, The Shootist did foreshadow John Wayne's death from stomach cancer in 1979, a little over three years after the film's release.
Although not often acknowledged, The Shootist also reflected Lauren Bacall's own life. Lauren Bacall had been married to Humphrey Bogart for twelve years when he died of throat cancer. Diagnosed with cancer in January 1956, Mr. Bogart died nearly a year later in January 1957. Given Lauren Bacall's own experience with the death of her husband from cancer and the affection she felt for the Duke, it should come as no surprise that her presence was a comfort to him during the filming of The Shootist. Mr. Wayne would even hold Miss Bacall's hand.
While parallels in the plot of The Shootist could be drawn to both John Wayne and Lauren Bacall's lives, in many respects the film is about the end of the Old West. Indeed, the film is set in Carson City, Nevada in 1901, at a time when regular train service was available in most of the United States and automobiles were already being seen on the streets of American cities. Indeed, gunfighter Mike Sweeney (played by Richard Boone) drives an automobile. Trolley cars even travel the streets of Carson City where once there would only be horses and wagons. It is not simply gunfighter J. B. Books who is dying, but the Old West of folklore and legend as well.
Befitting a Western that is as much about the end of the West as the death of a gunfighter, the cast of The Shootist was filled by many who would be familiar to Western fans at the time. James Stewart, veteran of many a Western, has a cameo as Dr. Hostetler, the physician who gives Books his diagnosis of cancer. Richard Boone, best known as Paladin on the classic TV show Have Gun--Will Travel, played Mike Sweeney, the gunfighter with a grudge against Books. Hugh O'Brian, who had played Wyatt Earp on the very first adult Western on television (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp), played the faro dealer Pulford. Harry Morgan and John Carradine, both veterans of Western movies and TV shows, also had roles in the film.
Of course, there can be no doubt that John Wayne, Lauren Bacall, and Ron Howard were the stars of The Shootist. John Wayne delivered one of his best performances in the film, and one of his most poignant as well. Having already experienced cancer in his life and with his health failing, one has to suspect the Duke could easily identify with J. B. Books, the gunfighter whose time was at an end. Lauren Bacall also delivered one of her best performances as Bond Rogers, one of the few people who in Carson City who is not particularly eager for Books to die. Her approach to playing Mrs. Rogers was very natural, and her scenes with John Wayne are easily among the best in the film.
Sadly, The Shootist was only a modest success at the box office. It did receive overwhelmingly positive reviews. The National Board of Review included The Shootist in its list Ten Best Films of 1976. Roger Ebert included it among his ten best films as well. The review of the film in Variety referred to The Shootist as "one of John Wayne's towering achievements."
While The Shootist did not do particularly well at the box office, it may now be one of John Wayne and Lauren Bacall's best known films. In fact, it is considered by many to be one of John Wayne's best films. At the time The Shootist was made no one realised it would be the Duke's last film. Fortunately it turned out to be a very good film on which to end his career.
Tuesday, 15 September 2015
That Green Acres should be set in the same reality as The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction should come as no surprise, as the show was produced by Paul Henning, the creator and producer of both The Beverly Hillbilies and Petticoat Junction. While Green Acres shared the Hooterville setting of Petticoat Junction, however, Paul Henning was not the creator of Green Acres. Instead that honour goes to Jay Sommers. Like Paul Henning, Jay Sommers' career had begun on radio. He worked on radio's most famous hillbiily sitcom Lum and Abner, as well as writing for Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, and Red Skelton. Like Paul Henning, Jay Sommers also made the move to television. Prior to Green Acres Mr. Sommers worked on such TV shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Dennis the Menace, as well as Petticoat Junction.
In fact, Green Acres actually has its roots in a radio show created, written and produced by Jay Sommers, titled Granby's Green Acres. Granby's Green Acres was in some respects a spin off of the popular Lucille Ball radio show My Favourite Husband. On My Favourite Husband Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet (who eventually found her way to Petticoat Junction) played banker Rudolph Atterbury and his wife Iris Atterbury. Granby's Green Acres essentially took the Atterburys, gave them new names, and placed them in a new setting. Quite simply, on Granby's Green Acres Gale Gordon and Bea Benaderet played banker John Granby and his wife Martha Granby, who moved to the country to take up farming. Eb (played by Parley Baer) was the Granby's old farmhand. Granby's Green Acres had a very brief run, only lasting from 3 July 1950 to 21 August 1950.
Green Acres centred on New York City lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas (played by Eddie Albert) who decided to fulfil his dream of becoming a farmer, much to the displeasure of his glamorous wife Lisa (played by Eva Gabor). Unfortunately, Mr. Douglas purchased a decrepit farm with a derelict house from Hooterville's local confidence artist Mr. Haney (played by Pat Buttram). The sometimes temperamental Mr. Douglas knew pretty much nothing about farming, and his efforts more often than not ended in failure. He got little help from his young, glib, but none too bright farmhand Eb Lawson (played by Tom Lester), who regarded himself as the Douglases' adopted son (something on which he and Mr. Douglas differed). He also received little in the way of help from Hooterville's county agent, the scatterbrained Hank Kimball (Alvy Moore). Being set in Hooterville, Frank Cady from Petticoat Junction appeared in his role as Sam Drucker, owner and operator of the town's general store. Other characters included the Douglases' neighbours, Fred (played by Hank Patterson) and Doris Ziffel (played by Barbara Pepper in the show's first three seasons and by Fran Ryan in its last two), who treated their pig Arnold as their son (as did everyone else in Hooterville, except Mr. Douglas).
Like The Beverly Hillbillies, the cast of Green Acres tended to be relatively stable. In fact, there was only one change in the major cast during the show. Barbara Pepper had originated the role of Doris Ziffel on the show when it debuted in 1965. Unfortunately by 1968 her health had begun to fail, so she was forced to leave the show. She was replaced by Fran Ryan. Barbara Pepper died on July 18 1969.
Green Acres was still doing well during the 1970-1971 season, when it ranked no. 34 for the year. In previous years this would usually have meant a renewal for the show. Unfortunately 1970-1971 was the year of the Rural Purge. As early as the 1966-1967 season CBS had wanted to appeal to a younger, more urban demographic. It was during that season that CBS cancelled What's My Line, I've Got a Secret, To Tell the Truth, and Gunsmoke because their audiences skewed too "old (Gunsmoke would be saved by none other than CBS chairman and founder William S. Paley and go on to run several more seasons). With all three networks having to cancel more shows than ever due to the implementation of the FCC's Prime Time Access Rule (which took several hours a week away from the networks), CBS decided to rid itself of shows whose audiences were too rural, too old, or both. In the end CBS very nearly cancelled every show that appealed to rural audiences (The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour actually survived), including Green Acres.
While Green Acres was gone from network airwaves, it was hardly gone forever. In fact, it would go on to an extremely successful run in syndication. It would be run on Nick at Nite in the Eighties and Nineties, and more recently it has been run on classic television broadcast network ME-TV. Of course, it still runs on local stations around the country. The first three seasons of Green Acres have been released on DVD, and the entire series is available digitally through Amazon.
The continued success of Green Acres would result in a reunion movie aired on CBS on May 18 1990. Unfortunately Return to Green Acres departed from the show considerably, and as a result many, perhaps most, Green Acres fan were disappointed.
While Green Acres shared its Hooterville setting with Petticoat Junction, it was much closer in spirit to The Beverly Hillbillies. While Petticoat Juncton was essentially a gentle, if broad, traditional comedy, Green Acres, like The Beverly Hillbillies before it, was in many ways an absurdist farce. While The Beverly Hillbillies was essentially a comedy about a conflict between cultures (the Clampetts' backwoods culture with that of Beverly Hills), Green Acres was a comedy about perceptions of reality. Quite simply, there is the reality that Mr. Douglas perceives and the reality that everyone else in Hooterville perceives (even his wife Lisa). For instance, while Mr. Douglas had problems accepting Arnold Ziffel as anything other than a very bright pig, the other Hootervilians (including his wife Lisa) insist on treating him like a human child, even to the point that he attends school. It must also be pointed out that Mr. Douglas seems to be the only character on Green Acres who does not know that he is on a television show. An example of this are those instances where Lisa can hear the theme music and see the credits, while Mr. Douglas is totally unaware of them. In his review of The Beverly Hillbillies in the December 15 1962 issue of TV Guide, Cultural critic and writer Gilbert Seldes described the show as "unreal people in unreal situations". Arguably, not only was Mr. Douglas a "real person in an unreal situation", but he was a real person surrounded by unreal people in what can only be described as an unreality.
It is perhaps because of the very self-referential nature of Green Acres that it has lasted throughout the years. It set it apart from most other comedies on the air at the time (the very self-referential The Monkees being an exception). It also gave the show an appeal that went far beyond the rural audience it largely had at its cancellation. "City folk" may not be able to identify with the setting of Green Acres, much less many of the characters, but they can appreciate the very meta nature of the comedy of Green Acres. In the end the broad, surreal, self-referential comedy of the show gives Green Acres an appeal that goes well beyond that of many of the rural shows of the Sixties. I rather suspect people will still be familiar with Green Acres fifty years from now.
Monday, 14 September 2015
F Troop centred on the fictional United States Cavalry troop of the same name, who were based out of the fictional outpost Fort Courage somewhere in the American West following the Civil War. F Troop was commanded by Captain Wilton Parmenter (played by Ken Berry). While Captain Parmenter came from a long line of distinguished military officers, he was not a particularly competent military man himself. In fact, during the Civil War he was a mere private in the Quartermaster Corps. As he rode his horse to retrieve his commanding officer's laundry, he began sneezing. The soldiers around him took his sneezes as a command to charge. The end result was that Parmenter inadvertently turned what could have been a defeat into a victory. Parmenter was awarded a medal and commissioned as a captain for his role in winning the battle. He was also assigned the command of Fort Courage.
Captain Parmenter was barely competent as a commanding officer, often clueless as to what was going on around him and apt to stab himself with his own sabre. This proved to be a bit of a blessing for his two non-commissioned officers, Sgt. Morgan O'Rourke (played by Forrest Tucker) and Corporal Randolph Agarn (played by Larry Storch), who had long engaged in some very shady business dealings. Not only did they run the saloon in town, but they also had a secret business partnership with the local American Indian tribe, the Hekawis. The Hekawis manufactured various trinkets and souvenirs, that would be sold by Sgt. O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn, all under the heading of "O'Rourke Enterprises". As to the Hekawis themselves, they were a pacifistic tribe (as often said by Chief Wild Eagle, played by Frank de Kova, "Hekawi not fighters! Hekawi lovers!"). They could also be as mercenary as Sgt. O'Rourke or Corporal Agarn.
Fortunately for the peace loving Hekawi, they were under no threat from F Troop. There could be little doubt that they were the worst troop in the U.S. Cavalry. Private Dobbs (played by James Hampton) was the troop's bugler, even though he could barely play a note. Trooper Vanderbilt (played by Joe Brooks) was the troop's lookout, even though he could barely see with his glasses on. Trooper Duffy (Bob Steele) was positively ancient and had claimed to be the sole survivor of the Battle of the Alamo. Had Fort Courage been attacked by an Indian tribe other than the Hekawis, one has to suspect F Troop would have been wiped out.
Far more competent than any of F Troop or the Hekawis was the young owner of the town's trading post and operator of its post office, Wrangler Jane Thrift (played by Melody Patterson). While Wrangler Jane was blonde and beautiful, she could outshoot, outfight, and out-rope anyone around. She was acknowledged as the best person with a gun in the entire territory. For some inexplicable reason Wrangler Jane was in love with Captain Parmenter and was always trying to get him to marry her. It is to be noted that while Captain Parmenter often tried to discourage Wrangler Jane in her affections, he could become very jealous if any other man showed an interest in her.
Richard Bluel was credited as the creator of F Troop in its opening credits, although in truth it would difficult to attribute the creation of F Troop to any one person. Richard Bluel had written for such shows as Man with a Camera and Bourbon Street Beat and he had produced the shows The Gallant Men and Temple Houston. It was Richard Bluel who came up with the initial premise of F Troop, that of a U. S. Cavalry sergeant who has a deal with the local Indians to make money. Richard Bluel had the premise of F Troop written as a two page summary by Jim Barnett, who had written for such shows as Lawman, Maverick, Sugarfoot, and 77 Sunset Strip. This two page summary was then given to writers Seaman Jacobs and Ed James, who wrote the script for the show's pilot, "Scourge of the West". Seaman Jacobs had written for such shows as Bachelor Father, The Real McCoys, Petticoat Junction, and Make Room for Daddy. Ed James had created the characters for the long running domestic comedy Father Knows Best and had written for such shows as Leave It to Beaver, Dobie Gillis, The Real McCoys, and Petticoat Junction. It was Messrs. Jacobs and James who fleshed out Richard Bluel's initial concept, essentially developing the characters and milieu of F Troop. The show's creation could then probably best be attributed to Richard Bluel, Seaman Jacobs, and Ed James.
Cast as Captain Parmenter, Ken Berry had begun his career as a song and dance man. He played recurring roles on The Ann Sothern Show and Ensign O'Toole. He made several guest appearances on other shows, including one on the short lived George Burns and Connie Stevens sitcom Wendy & Me (the episode "Wendy's Secret Wedding"). It was his guest appearance on Wendy & Me that would lead to him being cast as Captain Parmenter, both George Burns and Connie Stevens recommending him. Of the four leads on F Troop, only Melody Patterson as Wrangler Jane did not have a good deal of experience in front of the camera. Her only credits before starring on F Troop was an uncredited, bit part in the film Bye Bye Birdie (1963) and a guest appearance on Wendy & Me. In fact, at the time she auditioned for the role of Wrangler Jane she was only fifteen--she had lied about her age in order to get the part. She turned 16 by the time production was started and by the time her actual age was discovered it was much too late to recast the part of Wrangler Jane.
Especially for a half hour sitcom, F Troop was not particularly inexpensive to produce. After all, the show required the construction of a 19th Century cavalry fort, Fort Courage. Fort Courage was built on Warner Bros.' "Tatum Ranch", an area adjacent to the studio's famous "Laramie Street" on the studio's backlot. Fort Courage, including its famous watchtower (which was constantly falling over), was patterned as closely as possible after the fort of the same name in the cavalry Western Fort Dobbs (1958). This was done so that stock footage from the film could be used any time there was a fight with the Indians. Reportedly many of the higher ups at Warner Bros. were none too happy with the amount of money spent on a half hour television sitcom or the space Fort Courage occupied on the Warner backlot, including Jack L. Warner himself.
Given the expense in producing F Troop, it should come as no surprise that both ABC (then the third rated and smallest of the broadcast networks) and Warner Bros. decided the show would be shot in black and white. This was at a time when nearly all of NBC's primetime line up was in colour--as of the 1965-1966 season only I Dream of Jeannie and the World War II drama Convoy aired in black and white. CBS was not far behind NBC, with about half of its primetime programmes aired in colour. ABC, always the third rated network and the one with the fewest affiliates of the three, would see only around one-third of its programming aired in colour during the 1965-1966 season.
The theme for F Troop, as well as the bulk of the music featured on the show, was composed by William Lava, who had scored a number of radio shows as well as many Warner Bros. animated shorts. During the first season, like many show of the Sixties, the theme song explained much of the premise of the show, such as how Captain Parmenter came to command Fort Courage and the relationship between the calvary unit and the Indians.
F Troop debuted on Tuesday, September 14 1965. Contrary to popular belief, the show received overwhelmingly positive reviews. In fact, according to an article by Roger Youman in the December 25 1965 issue of TV Guide. out of a survey of 40 newspaper columnists, 80% recommended F Troop. This made it the most critically acclaimed of the 35 new shows to debut in the 1965-1966 season. This was a considerable feat given fall 1965 saw the debut of such other classic shows as Run for Your Life, Green Acres, The Dean Martin Show, I Spy, I Dream of Jeannie, and Get Smart. F Troop also fared well in the ratings. While it did not rank in the top thirty shows for the 1965-1966 season, its ratings remained above a 32 share.
Quite naturally F Troop was renewed for a second season. The 1966-1967 season saw F Troop moved to a new night and time, Thursday night at 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central. It also saw the show make the transition to colour. Unfortunately this meant that F Troop lost its opening credits, complete with the theme song explaining the show's premise. The new opening credits featured drawings of the characters (they always reminded me of something from Mad magazine) and the instrumental version of the theme that was used during the closing credits of the second season.
Despite the move to a new time, F Troop fared well in the ratings during its second season. The show finished the season ranked no. 40 for the year with a 31.3 share. It was also ABC's second highest rated situation comedy after Bewitched. Larry Storch even received a nomination for the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series
On third rated ABC the ratings for F Troop in its second season would have generally warranted the renewal of a show, but sadly the second season of F Troop would be its last. And in fact, it was not ABC that cancelled F Troop. Instead it was Warner Bros. who decided to end production of the sitcom. As mentioned earlier there were those at Warner Bros. who were not happy with the expense spent on a primetime television sitcom. For its second season F Troop went $3000 over budget. This did not make Benny Kalmenson, then a vice president at Warner Bros, happy. Kalmenson then ended production on the series.
Of course, Warner Bros.' cancellation of F Troop did not mean the end of the show. F Troop immediately went into syndication where it has remained ever since. In addition to various local TV stations, it aired on Nick at Nite in the 1990s and currently airs on ME-TV. The entire series has also been released on DVD.
As to why F Troop has proven so successful over the years, that is difficult to say. In many respects F Troop was very much a product of its time. The mid-Sixties saw a cycle towards spoofs and parodies that produced such shows as Get Smart, Batman, Pistols 'n' Petticoats, and Captain Nice, among others. As a spoof on Westerns F Troop was very much in keeping with the many other parodies airing on television at the time. The Sixties also saw a very protracted cycle towards farces and at time very broad and even surreal comedies. It was the era of Dobie Gillis, The Beverly Hillbillies, Gilligan's Island, The Monkees, and yet other shows that sometimes played fast and loose with reality. With plenty of slapstick, comic misunderstandings, often complicated plots, and sometimes absurd jokes, F Troop fit in perfectly with the various farces and often surreal comedies that aired in the Sixties.
While F Troop was very much a product of the Sixties, however, it was also in many respects very original. It would be hard to deny that Sgt. O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn's money making schemes echo those of Sgt. Bilko on The Phil Silvers Show and Lieutenant Commander Quinton McHale on McHale's Navy (which F Troop followed in its first season). That having been said, F Troop was a far cry from The Phil Silvers Show in the Old West. While many episodes centred on Sgt. O'Rourke and Corporal Agarn's swindles, there were many more that centred on Captain Parmenter and yet other characters. What is more in some respects F Troop could be downright subversive in its comedy.
Indeed, the subversiveness of F Troop's comedy can be seen in the portrayal of the Hekawis. A lesser sitcom would have traded on American Indian stereotypes for their "humour". This was not the case with F Troop, which totally subverted stereotypes by taking traditionally Jewish stereotypes and applying them to the Hewkawis. Indeed, an inordinately large number of Hekawis were played by Jewish comics. Ultimately F Troop showed the ludicrousness of ethnic stereotypes by taking the stereotype of one ethnicity and applying it to another one. In other respects F Troop mocked the stereotypes found in Westerns prior to and during the Sixties. Wild Eagle might speak in the broken English used by Tonto on The Lone Ranger and American Indians in various films and TV shows when addressing Captain Parmenter, then speak in perfect English to his fellow Hekawi in an aside.
F Troop also tended to be a bit revolutionary in its portrayal of Wrangler Jane. At a time when many women on television were still housewives or secretaries, Wrangler Jane not only owned her own business, but she could also shoot and fight better than most men. Alongside such characters as Emma Peel on The Avengers and Honey West on the show of the same name, Wrangler Jane was in some respects a revolutionary character. She was an independent young woman who could take care of herself and handle herself in most situations.
While F Troop also tended to be a bit subversive in that while it was set in the Old West, the show was able to work in references to modern society all the same. Rock music was parodied. The Playboy Clubs were parodied. The show even managed to parody the then current spy craze with the episode "Spy, Counterspy, Counter Counterspy". Of course, F Troop may have been at its most subversive in that the show had an altogether anti-authoritarian tone. Except for Sgt. O'Rourke and possibly Corporal Agarn (both of who are crooks), all of the men of F Troop were incompetent as soldiers. Whenever someone from the regular Army arrived at Fort Courage, they were portrayed in an unsympathetic light and often as either boors or buffoons. It should be little wonder that F Troop would be popular during the Sixties, at a time when resentment towards the country's involvement in Vietnam was growing steadily. F Troop was not necessarily anti-military or anti-war, but it certainly took an irreverent approach to both.
Credit Where Credit Is Due Department: The information on the ratings for F Troop and the details behind its cancellation come from F Troop superfan Hal Horn's excellent blog The Horn Section. Many thanks to Hal for his hard work!