Wednesday, January 30, 2013

America in Monochrome: The Lack of Ethnic Diversity on American Television in the Sixties

When I was a lad watching reurns of The Andy Griffith Show I noticed something very odd about the show. Despite the fact that it took place in a small, Southern town, there were absolutely no African Americans. This was particularly noticeable for me as I happened to live in a small, Southern town where I am guessing about 10% of the population is black. It then seemed strange to me that Mayberry was composed almost entirely of people of Northern European descent.

Of course, Mayberry wasn't the only small town on American television in the Sixties where the population was entirely white. Hooterville, the setting for both Petticoat Junction and Green Acres, also lacked any sort of ethnic diversity. As a lad this was not quite as jarring to me, as I just figured Hooterville must have been located in Iowa or another state where there were very few ethnic minorities (even today only 0.4% of Iowa's population is black). As an adult, however, I learned that producer and creator Paul Henning had based the show on his wife's experiences at her family's hotel, the Burris Hotel, in Eldon, Missouri. Now Eldon is very much like my hometown or any other small town in Missouri in every way, including the ethnic make up of the population. If Hooterville is to be considered a fictional version of Eldon, then, about 10% of the population should have been African American.

Sadly, The Andy Griffith Show, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres were not the only shows on American television that not only featured all white casts, but almost never featured guest stars belonging to ethnic minorities either. Now it is true that many the dramas of the era had made substantial progress with regards to ethnic minorities. African Americans appeared as both extras and guest stars on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Bill Cosby was one of the two leads on I Spy. One of the leads of The Green Hornet was Asian, Bruce Lee as Kato. Star Trek had a truly diverse cast, whose regulars included not only an African and an Asian American, but a Vuclan/human hybrid as well. Mission: Impossible featured Greg Morris as electronics expert Barney Collier. Unfortunately, these shows were largely the exception to the rule. Particularly with regards to the situation comedies of the era, not only were the lead and supporting characters largely Northern European in descent, but so too were any guest stars. The casts of such classic sitcoms as Bewitched, Get SmartI Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan's Island, and The Beverly Hillbillies were all white.

While as a child I noticed the lack of African Americans in Mayberry on The Andy Griffith Show, the truth is that most ethnic minorities were not to be found in the majority of television shows in the Sixties. Even though Anna May Wong had her own show,  The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, in 1951, characters of Asian descent were still a rarity on American television in the Sixties. Hong Kong, set in the city of the same name, obviously had a number of Asian characters, but the same could not be said of other shows from the Sixties. Valentine's Day (the first sitcom to feature an Asian American as one of the leads--the great Jack Soo), Star Trek, and The Green Hornet are the only ones to come to mind to feature people of Asian descent in major roles.

Jews were also invisible on American television in the Sixties. In fact, from 1956 when The Goldbergs went off the air until the Seventies, people of Jewish descent were hard to find on American television shows. While a number of the comedians who dominated American television in the Fifties and Sixties were Jewish, only one television character in the Sixties was Jewish. While it was not mentioned often, Buddy Sorrell (played by Morey Amsterdam) was Jewish. After The Dick Van Dyke Show went off the air there would not be another Jewish character on American television until The Mary Tyler Moore Show introduced the world to Rhoda Morgenstern.

Hispanics and Native Americans were more plentiful on American television in the Sixties, but only because of the large number of Westerns on the networks at the time. Even then it was rare that Hispanics and Native Americans appeared in regular roles on TV shows and it was quite common for them to be played by individuals who did not belong to either ethnic group.

Michael Dante played Hispanic characters, while Ricardo Montalbán played Native Americans. As to regulars on Westerns of the era, only The High Chaparral featured Hispanic characters as regulars (what is more they were played by Hispanics, Linda Cristal and Henry Darrow). Only Daniel Boone featured a Native American character in a regular role, although the Cherokee Mingo was played by Ed Ames, who was Ukrainian Jewish in descent. Sadly, with but few exceptions, most Hispanic and Native American characters on Westerns of the era were outright stereotypes.  While Hispanics and Native Americans at least appeared frequently as guest stars on Westerns, they almost never appeared in shows set in the modern era. Despite the fact that a Hispanic had played one of the leads on I Love Lucy (Desi Arnaz as Ricky Ricardo), there was only one show that featured a Hispanic character as a lead in the Sixties. That was The Bill Dana Show. Sadly, the lead character of Jose Jimenez was a gross stereotype played by the decidedly non-Hispanic Bill Dana.  The only Native American character to appear as a regular on a show set in modern times was Lt. John Hawk on the short lived police drama Hawk. He was the lead character on the show and was played by Burt Reynolds, one of the few instances of a Native American played by someone of Native American descent (Mr. Reynolds is part Cherokee).

While African Americans, Asian Americans, Jews, Hispanics, and Native Americans appeared infrequently in the monochrome world of American television in the Sixties, other ethnicities were virtually invisible except for the occasional guest appearance, in which case the character might be an outright stereotype. Arabs, Indians, Pacific Islanders, and many other ethnicities were virtually unknown on American television in the Sixties.

Of course, the question is why was American television in the Sixties so, for lack of a better term, white? The answer is that it was perhaps a combination of outright racism and the fear on the parts of the networks of either offending advertisers or a large portion of the American population. In 1956 The Nat King Cole Show debuted on NBC. Not only was Nat King Cole a phenomenally popular singer of the time (as he still is), but NBC supported the show and many famous performers appeared on it for industry scale or free of charge. Unfortunately, NBC was not able to find a national sponsor for the show. In the end NBC gave the time slot of The Nat King Cole Show to The Californians (who had a national sponsor in the form of the Singer Sewing Machine Company) and offered to move The Nat King Cole Show to a 7:30, Saturday night time slot. Nat King Cole rejected to the move of the show to a new time slot and as a result it was cancelled.

Sadly, the short run of The Nat King Cole Show was not the only instance of racism on American television, nor would it end with the Fifties. In interviews Howard Morris (who played Ernest T. Bass and directed many episodes) has said that many people behind the scenes wanted African American characters to appear on The Andy Griffith Show, but found resistance to the idea from certain quarters. Another example of racism at the time in the American television industry can be seen in the unfortunate fate of what could have been Bruce Lee's first television vehicle. Producer William Dozier had developed a concept for a show called Number One Son, which would have starred Bruce Lee as Charlie Chan's oldest son having James Bond type adventures around the globe. The project came to an early demise, without even a pilot, when ABC made it clear they would not consider a show with an ethnic lead. I Spy was a historic show and the first to feature an African American man in a lead role, but even it fell afoul of racism. While NBC fully supported producer Sheldon Leonard in his casting of Bill Cosby, some affiliates in the South initially refused to air the show.

Such racism was still to be found in the television industry as late as 1968. In early 1968 Petula Clark was set to appear in her own television special, Petula, to be aired on NBC. Her guest star was singer Harry Belafonte. Miss Clark and Mr.Belafonte performed a duet on the special, "On the Path of Glory," during the taping of which Miss Clark innocently touched Mr. Belafonte's arm. A representative of the special's  sponsor, Chrysler, was present during the taping and insisted that it be re-shot for fear that the "interracial touching" might offend viewers in the South. Both Petula Clark and her husband, Claude Wolff (who was executive producer on the special) refused to reshoot the song and even went so far as to destroy every other take of it, leaving only the one in which Miss Clark touched Harry Belafonte. Petula later aired with the performance of "On the Path of Glory" intact. Contrary to the Chrysler representative's concern, there was no viewer outrage.

Strangely enough, much of the reason for the lack of ethnic diversity on American television in the Sixties may not have been a simple case of the networks fearing that they might offend white viewers, but of offending ethnic minorities as well. In 1951 CBS brought the radio show Amos 'n' Andy to television. It was significant as the first network television with an all African American cast. Unfortunately, the characters on Amos 'n' Andy were also stereotypes, which led to the show being denounced the NAACP and many other African Americans. In 1953 CBS cancelled the show, still doing well in the ratings, largely because of the controversy. Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the controversy over Amos 'n' Andy African Americans would nearly disappear from everything except appearances on  variety shows. Only Eddie Anderson as Rochester on The Jack Benny Programme and Amanda Randolph as Louise on Make Room For Daddy remained. Rather than striving to create respectable roles for blacks on television shows, the American networks simply stopped featuring blacks in any roles until the early Sixties, perhaps for fear of another controversy such as that created by Amos 'n' Andy.

Fortunately, as the Sixties passed American television would become more diverse. In 1965 I Spy debuted, the first show to feature an African American actor in a lead role. In 1967 The High Chaparral debuted. While it was not the first show to feature Hispanic actors in lead roles (The Cisco Kid, with Duncan Renaldo as Pancho, Zorro with Guy Williams as the title character, and Rawhide with Robert Cabal as Jesús  pre-date it), it was the first in some time. In 1968 the ground breaking sitcom Julia debuted. It starred Diahann Carroll as nurse Julia Baker, a widow with a young son. In 1970 The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted, featuring the first Jewish character (Rhoda) since Buddy Sorrell on The Dick Van Dyke Show. The Seventies would see far more ethnic diversity than the Sixties ever had, with shows that featured blacks, Hispanics, and Asians in lead roles. While many shows would still have casts composed almost entirely of European Americans, the Seventies were an improvement over the Sixties with regards to ethnic diversity on American television.

Today American network television is much more ethnically diverse than it was in the Sixties. On Chicago Fire Eamonn Walker not only has a lead role, but he has a position of importance as Battalion Chief Wallace Boden. The sitcom Community has characters of African American, Asian American, Jewish, and Palestinian American descent. On Elementary Lucy Liu not only plays a female Watson, but one who is Asian American as well. Unfortunately, while it is much more diverse than it was in the Sixties, American television still has a good deal of improvement to make with regards to ethnic diversity. Hispanics are still under-represented on American television. While there may be others, I can only think of two show with  recurring Hispanic characters: Vegas with Aimee Garcia as Clark County Sheriff's Department office manager Yvonne Sanchez and Chciago Fire with Monica Raymund as Paramedic in Charge Gabriela Dawson and Joe Minoso as Joe Cruz. As rare as Hispanic characters are on American television at the moment, Native Americans are even rarer. I can think of only one show with a recurring, Native American character and even he does not appear that often, and again on Vegas: Gil Birmingham as tracker Don Simmons. While American network television is much more diverse than it was in the Sixties, it still has a long way to go.

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