Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mister Peepers

Members of my generation most likely remember Wally Cox as the voice of Underdog and his many appearances on television and in movies. Members of younger generations might not remember him at all. But Baby Boomers and older folks might well remember Wally Cox as high school science teacher Robinson J. Peepers.

Mister Peepers debuted on July 3, 1952 on NBC as a summer replacement only meant to last eight weeks. As often happens, however, the best laid plans of networks and men go awry. Doc Corkle, the regularly scheduled sitcom which debuted in Mister Peepers' place that fall, proved an abysmal failure, lasting only three episodes. Mister Peepers had proven incredibly popular to the point that it had caused dismay among viewers when it left the air. NBC then replaced Doc Corkle with Wally Cox's popular sitcom. The show would run three years in total.

The reason for the success of Mister Peepers may well have rested primarily with its cast. In fact, those who have not seen the show may be shocked to know how many well know television actors appeared for the first time on the show. Of course, Mister Peepers was Wally Cox's first regular series. Cox played Robinson J. Peepers, a painfully shy teacher whose childlike wonderment at science made him a favourite of his students. Not only was Mr. Peepers a bit naive, but he could also be incredibly clumsy--much of the humour on the series emerged from his struggles with inanimate objects or other similarly embarrassing situations.

Although undoubtedly the star of the show, Cox was supported by one of the greatest casts in the history of sitcoms. Indeed, Mr. Peepers' best friend, history teacher Harvey Weskit, was played by none other than Tony Randall. Weskit was similar in some ways to the sort of characters Randall would later play in Sixties sex comedies, a handsome and confident ladies man who was a sharp contrast to his shy best friend. Marion Lorne, perhaps best known as Aunt Clara on Bewitched, played the principal's wife and English teacher Mrs. Gurney . Mrs. Gurney was very similar to Aunt Clara--soft hearted, sweet, and incredibly absent minded. Jack Warden, later known for his roles in movies and the TV shows N.Y.P.D. and Crazy Like a Fox, appeared as athletic coach Frank Whip. Reta Shaw, who would go onto play Aunt Hagatha on Bewitched, played Mr. Peepers' Aunt Lil.

Mister Peepers was also gifted with some of the best writing of the time. David Swift, who would go onto write the screenplay for the classic How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, wrote the majority of episodes. James Fritzell, who would go onto write for The Andy Griffith Show and M*A*S*H, wrote nearly as many episodes. In the end the series would be nominated for eight Emmy Awards, including Best Situation Comedy, Best Supporting Actress in a Regular Series (for Marion Lorne), Best Written Material for a Comedy Series, Best Male Star of Regular Series (for Wally Cox), and Best Series Supporting Actor (for Tony Randall).

While Mister Peepers is often described as a gentle comedy, this is not quite the case. While it did not rely on the slapstick of I Love Lucy or My Little Margie, it did feature its share of physical comedy. It might be more accurate to describe the comedy of Mister Peepers as more subtle, more whimsical, than many of its contemporaries. Indeed, in one episode Superintendent of Schools Mr. Bascomb comes to inspect the school the very day that Mr. Peepers asked his students to bring their pets to school, leaving him to figure out a way to hide the biggest pet--a full grown cow. In another episode the machine which marked lines on the volleyball court went haywire, running all throughout the school. Given its cast, much of the humour also emerged from the characters, particularly the painfully shy, extremely kind hearted Mr. Peepers. While other comedies of the time relied largely on slapstick, Mister Peepers was very much an intellectual comedy, relying on comedy that was slightly left of centre.

Sadly, Mister Peepers would not last. In 1954 the show would receive its highest ratings ever when Mr. Peepers finally married his romantic interest, school nurse Nancy Remington (Patricia Benoit). Unfortunately, this episode precipitated a decline in the ratings which resulted in its cancellation. The show would leave the air in 1955.

Mister Peepers was broadcast live and filmed on kinescope for later broadcast. This would be unfortunate for future generations, as would mean that Mister Peepers would be largely unseen for many years. The quality of kinescopes are inferior to that of film, on which more and more series were being shot as the Fifties progressed. Although as great a classic as I Love Lucy, if not greater, then Mister Peepers would not be rerun the way I Love Lucy has been, simply because it was not filmed.

Indeed, I must warn anyone out there who would like to see the show that its production values are not going to be comparable even to concurrent, filmed series such as I Love Lucy. Being filmed live, the actors do occasionally make mistakes. The lighting is not always the best and there is sometimes some awkward bits of direction. Regardless, the very quality of the writing and the performances make such things easy to overlook.

Curiously, Wally Cox despised the character of Robinson Peepers, referring to him as "Mister Goodboy." Although typecast as the character for at time, Cox maintained he was nothing like Mr. Peepers. Indeed, on Hollywood Squares Cox was soft spoken, but at the same time possessed of biting wit and sarcasm that would have shocked Robinson Peepers. Sadly, Mister Peepers would be the last success Wally Cox would see playing the lead in a regularly scheduled, live action TV show (the animated Underdog was arguably his most successful show). During the 1956-1957 season Cox starred in the inventive, but short lived The Adventures of Hiram Holliday. It ran only twenty episodes. Cox never again played the lead in a live action series, instead making guest appearances on numerous TV shows, appearances in movies, appearing as a regular on Hollywood Squares, and providing the voice for Underdog.

For those who are interested in seeing Mister Peepers, the first two seasons are available on DVD. I rather suspect the third season of the show will come out eventually. I would seriously recommend it to anyone interested in classic television, classic comedy, Wally Cox, or Tony Randall. Mister Peepers is a true classic that deserves to be seen much more often.


Toby O'B said...

I have that first boxed set, but have yet to open it. One of those treasures I'm saving for a time when I can give it the attention it deserves. Always was a big fan of Wally Cox and I was quite disappointed when he passed away.

Terence Towles Canote said...

As you know, I've been a big Wally Cox fan from birth. His death is one of the earliest celebrity deaths I remember--I actually cried when he passed on. I just had to check out Mr. Peepers for that reason, as well as its place in TV history!