Saturday, September 27, 2014

50 Years Ago Today My Living Doll Debuted

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 26, 2014

50 Years Stranded On Gilligan's Island

There an be no doubt that Gilligan's Island is one of the all time champions among syndicated reruns. According to its creator, Sherwood Schwartz in his book Inside Gilligan's Island, the show has been repeated more than any other show in television history, even I Love Lucy. There are probably very few Americans who cannot name its characters by heart, and a good many of them probably know the lyrics to its theme song as well. Gilligan's Island debuted 50 years ago tonight, on 26 September 1964 at 8:30 Eastern/7:30 Central. Fifty years after is premiere, Gilligan's Island shows no sign of disappearing from television screens any time soon.

For those few of you unfamiliar with Gilligan's Island, the show centred on seven castaways shipwrecked on an island somewhere in the Pacific.  The show centred on the first mate of the S.S. Minnow, Gilligan (played by Bob Denver), who was both inept and accident prone. The Skipper (played by Alan Hale Jr.) was the captain of the S.S. Minnow and acted as the castaways' de facto leader. Thurston Howell III (played by Jim Backus) was an incredibly wealthy and very eccentric millionaire. His wife was Lovey (played by Natalie Schafer) who genuinely cared about her fellow castaways.  Ginger Grant (played by Tina Louise) was a glamorous movie star, while Mary Ann (played by Dawn Well) was a sweet, wholesome, and very pretty Kansas farm girl. The Professor (played by Russell Johnson) was a genius and a scientist who built many gadgets on the island.

Gilligan's Island was created by Sherwood Schwartz, who already had a long career in comedy by 1964. He had started out in radio writing gags for Bob Hope. During World War II he wrote radio shows for the Armed Forces Radio Network. Following the war he worked on such radio shows as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Alan Young Show, and Beulah. Mr. Schwartz made the transition to television writing for the sitcom I Married Joan starring Joan Davis and Jim Backus. He literally worked for years on The Red Skelton Show, both as one of its writers and as a script supervisor. He also served as a script consultant on the classic sitcom My Favourite Martian.

It was not long after his stint on My Favourite Martian that he conceived of an idea for a situation comedy about a diverse group of people stranded on a deserted island.  Nearly from the very beginning Mr. Schwartz conceived of the Skipper's mate as the focus of the show. He also conceived of the Skipper's mate as incompetent from nearly the beginning. As to his name, he found "Gilligan" in a phone book. Mr. Schwartz also decided that the characters would be portrayed in broad strokes. They would essentially be extremes in character types.

Since his usual agent, George Rosenberg, thoroughly detested the idea of Gilligan's Island, Sherwood Schwartz turned to Peter Leff of Creative Management Associates to sell the show. It was only a matter of days before Mr. Leff worked out an agreement between United Artists, Phil Silvers' production company Gladaysa Productions, and CBS. Unfortunately, after that Gilligan's Island would have a difficult time making it to the air. While CBS head of programming Hunt Stromberg Jr. liked the idea of Gilligan's Island, President of CBS Television James Aubrey was a different matter. He liked the idea of the Gilligan, the Skipper, and their charter boat, but not the idea of a deserted island. He thought it would be better if the show revolved around the charter boat, with Gilligan and the Skipper taking out a different group of passengers on cruises each week. Quite simply Mr. Aubrey wanted Gilligan's Travels, not Gilligan's Island.

Fortunately Sherwood Schwartz stood his ground and CBS approved the shooting of a pilot for Gilligan's Island. Mr. Schwartz then set about casting the pilot. Amazingly enough, Bob Denver was not Mr. Schwartz's first choice to play Gilligan. Instead that was Jerry Van Dyke, then best known for appearing on his brother's show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, as Rob Petrie's brother Stacey Petrie. Jerry Van Dyke turned the role down, so the role ultimately went to Bob Denver, then best known as beatnik Maynard G. Krebs on Dobie Gillis. The Skipper proved difficult to cast. Several actors were auditioned before Alan Hale Jr. was cast in the role. The son of screen actor Alan Hale Sr., Alan Hale Jr. had already appeared in several films and had even starred in two TV shows, Biff Baker, U.S.A. and Casey Jones. For the role of eccentric millionaire Thurston Howell III only one actor was ever considered. Sherwood Schwartz had written the part specifically for Jim Backus. Then best known as the voice of Mr. Magoo, Jim Backus had played a similar character, Hubert Updike on The Alan Young Show on radio. Over the years Mr. Schwartz had worked with Jim Backus multiple times.

Amazingly enough the characters of Ginger and Mary Ann did not appear in the pilot, and The Professor was played by a different actor. Instead of Ginger and Mary Ann, there were two secretaries: a practical redhead named Ginger (played by Kit Smythe) and a bubble headed blonde named Bunny (played by Nancy McCarthy). The Professor was played by John Gabriel. The theme song was different as well. It was a calypso tune written by John Williams, with lyrics by Sherwood Schwartz and sung in the style of Sir Lancelot. The setting of the pilot also differed from that of the regular series. Although still set on a deserted island, it was an island in the Caribbean rather than the Pacific.

The editing of the pilot would prove to be a battle for Sherwood Schwartz. The original film would be cut and recut over Mr. Schwartz's objections before it was shown to CBS executives in December 1963. at which point the pilot was rejected. Hunt Stromberg Jr. then made suggestions, including doing retakes and shooting additional scenes on top of re-editing the film. This version would also be rejected by CBS. Finally Sherwood Schwartz had editor Larry Heath recut the pilot the way he wanted it. This new edit of the pilot was submitted to CBS in February 1964, just as the network was finalising its fall schedule. Very nearly at the last minute, then, Gilligan's Island was added to the CBS fall schedule.

Gilligan's Island was retooled before it reached airwaves in September. The Professor was recast, with Russell Johnson assuming the role. Mr. Johnson had already appeared in several films and TV shows, and was a regular on the Western TV show Black Saddle. The characters of secretaries Ginger and Bunny were jettisoned and replaced with two new characters. Ginger Grant was a glamorous movie star in the Marilyn Monroe mould. Cast in the role was Tina Louise, who had appeared in several films and TV shows, as well as on Broadway. Mary Ann Summers was a sweet and fairly innocent Kansas farm girl. Cast in the part was Dawn Wells, a former Miss Nevada who had guest starred on such shows as Maverick, Wagon Train, and 77 Sunset Strip. Mary Ann easily proved to be one of the most popular characters on the show, if not the most popular. Dawn Wells received more fan mail than any of the cast, receiving over double that of Tina Louise.

Gilligan's Island also received a new theme song, the now familiar tune written by George Wylie with lyrics by Sherwood Schwartz. The original version used during the first season was performed by a vocal group called The Wellingtons, who would later guest star in the second season episode "Don't Bug The Mosquitoes". The theme song would be changed slightly starting with the second season. In the first season neither Russell Johnson nor Dawn Wells were acknowledged in the opening credits, with the theme song's lyrics simply referring to The Professor and Mary Ann as "...the rest". This did not set well with star Bob Denver, whose contract specified that he could determine where his name appeared in the credits. Mr. Denver told the producers that if the Professor and Mary Ann were not acknowledged in the opening credits, then he would simply become part of "the rest". The theme song was then re-recorded with new lyrics, acknowledging the Professor and Mary Ann,  by an uncredited vocal group.

Curiously Gilligan's Island also saw what was its first imitator debut before it had even made it to the air itself. CBS-TV president James Aubrey had made no secret that while he hated the idea of Gilligan's Island, he liked the idea of a sitcom about a charter boat service. Mr. Aubrey then turned to his friend, producer Keefe Brasselle, to produce his concept of a sitcom centred around a charter boat business. The end result was The Baileys of Balboa. There were significant differences between The Baileys of Balboa and Gilligan's Island, although there were some remarkable similarities as well. The show centred on Paul Ford (who had played Colonel Hall on The Phil Silvers Show) as Sam Bailey, the owner of the charter boat Island Princess. He was essentially an older and somewhat crustier version of the Skipper. Sterling Holloway (who had done considerable voice work for Disney) played Buck Singleteon, his somewhat inept and accident prone first mate (sound familiar?). The show even had its own Thurston Howell III figure, although his role was much more antagonistic to Sam and Buck than Mr. Howell ever was to the Skipper and Gilligan. John Dehner played Commodore Cecil Wyntoon, the wealthy head of the local yacht club who was always at odds with Sam. The cast was filled out by  Les Brown, Jr. as Sam's son Jim, who was in love with Commodore Wyntoon's daughter Barbara (played by Judy Carne).

The Baileys of Balboa would not prove to be successful. The show received largely negative reviews and did poorly in the ratings. It was cancelled after only one season and 26 episodes. The show would also proved to be source of trouble for James Aubrey. Not only did Mr. Aubrey buy The Baileys of Balboa and two of Keefe Brasselle's other shows without a pilot being filmed, but he bought them without hearing a pitch or even seeing scripts for the shows. The preferential treatment Mr. Aubrey had shown producer Keefe Brasselle resulted in a lawsuit brought by CBS shareholders against James Aubrey and would be one of the many factors in his termination as CBS President on 27 February 1965.

While Gilligan's Island would prove much more successful than The Baileys of Balboa, its reviews were no more better and, in fact, may well have been worse. Upon its premiere Gilligan's Island received some of the worst notices for a TV show ever. In The New York Times legendary critic Jack Gould wrote of the show, "Gilligan's Island is quite possibly the most preposterous situation comedy of the season." Terence O'Flaherty wrote in The San Francisco Chronicle, "It is difficult for me to believe that Gilligan's Island was written, directed, and filmed by adults. ..It somehow marks a new low in the networks' estimate of public intelligence." Hal Humphrey was even more brutal  in The Los Angeles Times, writing "Gilligan's Island is a television series that never should have reached the air this season, or any other season." Not all of the reviews for Gilligan's Island were bad. No less than Ed Omstead in The Hollywood Reporter wrote of the show, "Even viewers who expected something heavier than breezing entertainment must  have stayed with the show from here in." Terry Turner in The Chicago Daily News wrote, "The biggest surprise on CBS, which premiered six new shows this week, was Gilligan's Island...a half hour comedy on Saturdays which has come up with an excellent comedy team in Alan Hale Jr. and Bob Denver."

The overwhelmingly negative reviews for Gilligan's Island would have a deleterious effect on the fate of the show. CBS founder and chairman William Paley wanted CBS to be known for producing shows of a high quality and the reviews for Gilligan's Island proved to be something of an embarrassment to him. CBS had long had a policy of keeping its hit shows in the same time slot year after year. For example, Gunsmoke had spent its first several years in the same time slot on Saturday night. Because of the bad reviews it had received Gilligan's Island would be an exception to this rule, receiving a new time slot each season.

Regardless of its bad reviews, Gilligan's Island proved to be a hit. Indeed, for its first season it ranked #17 for the year in the Nielsen ratings. For its second season Gilligan's Island was moved to Thursday nights at 8:00 Eastern/7:00 Central where it also performed well. It ranked #19 in the Nielsens for the season. For its third (and what would be its final) season Gilligan's Island was moved yet again, this time to Monday night at 7:30 Eastern/6:30 Central. While Gilligan's Island did not even rank in the top thirty for the year, it still won its time slot and did well enough to warrant renewal. In fact, for the first time the show's history it was scheduled to return in the same time slot it had on Monday night for its third season. Unfortunately there would not be a fourth season.

It was during the 1966-1967 season that CBS programming executives cancelled the long running Western Gunsmoke. The show was still doing respectably well. Indeed, it had ranked #34 in the ratings for the year. Unfortunately CBS programmers had decided its audience was both too old and too rural and because of this they had decided to remove it from the air. This proved to be mistake on the programmers' fault, as both viewers and critics were outraged by the cancellation. Senator Robert Byrd even criticised the network's decision on the Senate floor. Unfortunately for the programmers among those angered by the cancellation of Gunsmoke was William Paley himself. Gunsmoke was among the favourite shows of both William S. Paley and his wife Babe. When he saw that Gunsmoke was not on the fall 1967-1968 schedule, he immediately called CBS vice president Mike Dann and demanded that the show be renewed. There can be no doubt that CBS programmers realised their jobs were on the line.

Unfortunately for fans of the show,  the solution to the CBS programmers' dilemma would result in the cancellation of Gilligan's Island. Gilligan's Island had received absolutely atrocious reviews, a situation that had earned the sitcom no love from William Paley. At the same time CBS' affiliates had shown an extreme dislike for the new sitcom Doc, which was set to follow Gilligan's Island on Monday nights. It was then decided that Gilligan's Island and Doc (which had not even yet aired) would be cancelled and Gunsmoke would return in the 7:30 PM Eastern/6:30 Central Monday time slot. In the new time slot Gunsmoke rebounded in the ratings, jumping to #4 in the ratings for the 1967-1968 season.

Although Gilligan's Island was cancelled, it was hardly gone. The show went on to possibly the most successful syndication run of all time. What is more, it would also see several revivals over the years. In 1974 a Saturday morning cartoon based on the show, The New Adventures of Gilligan, debuted on ABC. Except for Tina Louise and Dawn Wells, the original cast provided the voices of their respective characters.

In 1978 a television movie,  Rescue from Gilligan's Island, reunited the cast in their original roles except for Tina Louise (Ginger Grant was played by Judith Baldwin). Another reunion movie, The Castaways on Gilligan's Island, aired in 1979, once more with Judith Baldwin playing Ginger. The Castaways on Gilligan's Island involved the Howells and the other rescued castaways converting the island into a resort. The movie was essentially a pilot for a semi-anthology series similar to The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. It did not sell as a series, although The Castaways on Gilligan's Island received good ratings. A final reunion movie, The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island, aired in 1981. In The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan's Island Ginger was played by Constance Forslund

In 1982 another Saturday morning cartoon based on Gilligan's Island aired. On Gilligan's Planet the Professor had built a spaceship in order to escape the island. True to form, Gilligan bungles things so that the spaceship goes to another planet instead of landing somewhere on Earth. Except for Tina Louise the original cast voiced their characters. Dawn Wells voiced both Mary Ann and Ginger. 

In 2002 a documentary with dramatic recreations, Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three Hour Tour in History, aired on CBS. Surviving Gilligan's Island: The Incredibly True Story of the Longest Three Hour Tour in History featured Dawn Wells, Russell Johnson, and Bob Denver, as well as creator Sherwood Schwartz, discussing the history of the show.

Over the years the characters of Gilligan's Island would appear in tribute episodes on other TV shows. In a 1987 episode of ALF the title alien dreamed he was on  the island where he encountered slightly skewed versions of Gilligan, Mary Ann, and the Professor (played by Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, and Russell Johnson respectively). It was also in 1987 in a dream sequence on Growing Pains that Alan Hale Jr. played a cabbie named "Jonas Grumby (the given name of the Skipper)". In a 1992 episode of Baywatch Bob Denver and Dawn Wells appeared in a dream sequence as Gilligan and Mary Ann. Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, and Russell Johnson also appeared as Gilligan, Mary Ann, and the Professor in an unaired 1997 episode of the short lived comedy Meego.

The hit comedy Roseanne would do a very unique tribute to Gilligan's Island with its 1995 episode "Sherwood Schwartz--A Loving Tribute". The centrepiece of the episode is a fantasy sequence in which the characters of Roseanne appear as the characters of Gilligan's Island. The end of the episode not only features Bob Denver, Dawn Wells, Russell Johnson, and Tina Louise as characters from Roseanne, but also a cameo by Sherwood Schwartz.

Over the years Gilligan's Island has also inspired a number of imitators and, for lack of a better term, clones. One of these was created by Sherwood Schwartz himself and his brother Elroy Schwartz. Dusty's Trail was a Western sitcom about a a wagon and stagecoach in the Old West that got separated from the wagon train to which they belonged. The characters roughly corresponded to the characters of Gilligan's Island, with the inept scout Dusty (played by Gilligan), the wagonmaster (Mr. Callahan, played by Forrest Tucker), a rich banker and his wife (Mr. and Mrs. Brookhaven, played by Ivor Francis and Lynn Wood), an intellectual (Andy Boone played by Bill Cort), a saloon girl (Lulu, played by Jeannine Riley), and a wholesome teacher (Betsy, played by Lori Saunders). Dusty's Trail aired in syndication for only one season in 1974-1975.

One of the more bizarre shows inspired by Gilligan's Island was a reality/competition show entitled The Real Gilligan's Island. The show resembled Survivor and similar shows in placing people in a remote location, although in the case of The Real Gilligan's Island the people were chosen for their resemblance to the characters on the classic sitcom. The show debuted in 2004 and ran for two seasons of four to five episodes each.

Gilligan's Island also inspired a NES video game, The Adventures of Gilligan, released in 1990, as well as a pinball machine, Gilligan's Island, made by Midway and released in 1991.

Upon its debut Gilligan's Island received some of the worst reviews for a television show ever. If this seems unusual, it must be considered that only two years earlier another television classic, The Beverly Hillbillies, also received largely negative reviews. While The Beverly Hillbillies' reputation has largely improved since then, however, there are still a good number of people who regard Gilligan's Island as one of the worst shows in the history of television. Indeed, an article by Ginia Bellafante in the 13 March 1995 issue of Time labelled Sherwood Schwartz "The Inventor of Bad TV" for his role in creating both Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch.

Of course, while many still regard Gilligan's Island as a bad show, there are many others (including myself) who regard it as a television classic. Let's face it. Truly bad shows are rarely remembered, let alone have syndication runs lasting nearly fifty years. The Hathaways, Pink Lady, and Cop Rock are now largely forgotten by everyone except television historians, and perhaps those unfortunates who saw the shows when they first aired. This is in stark contrast to Gilligan's Island, which long ago became such a part of American pop culture that people know the lyrics to its theme song by heart. Quite simply, I submit that Gilligan's Island has remained on the air all these years because it is actually a good show and any critics who still turn their nose up at it are simply wrong.

It is no coincidence that both The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island received incredibly poor reviews when they debuted. After all, to a large degree both shows were something relatively new to television: comedies that were so broad in nature as to be absurd. In both cases the comedy emerged from the sheer outlandishness of the shows' plots. Neither show was meant to approach anything close to realism, and this was particularly true of Gilligan's Island. The sheer preposterousness of both the show's concept and the plots of its episodes were part of the show's humour.

Indeed, in an essay on The Beverly Hillbillies in TV Guide cultural critic and writer Gilbert Seldes pointed out while the typical formula for comedy was "real people in unreal situations", the formula for comedy on The Beverly Hillbillies was "unreal people in unreal situations". The description of "unreal people in unreal situations" could also be applied quite easily to Gilligan's Island. The characters of Gilligan's Island were intentionally meant to be broad types rather than realistic characters. In many respects, the castaways are not unlike the character types of commedia dell'arte or even British farce. And like commedia dell'arte the plots of Gilligan's Island could be so preposterous as to be unbelievable.

Along with The Beverly Hillbillies, the sheer preposterousness of Gilligan's Island placed it on the cutting edge of a relatively new sort of situation comedy on television in 1964. Quite simply Gilligan's Island was one of the earliest absurdist comedies of the Sixties, comedies in which reality did not stand in the way of getting a good laugh. It would be followed by yet other absurdist comedies, including Green Acres, Batman, The Monkees, and yet others. It then seems likely that in 1964 many of the critics did not quite know what to make of Gilligan's Island. It would seem that in 2014 many critics still don't.

Of course, in the end it perhaps does not matter that Gilligan's Island was absurdist in nature or that it was among the earliest shows in a cycle toward such sorts of shows. In the end what matters is that for many people (including myself) is that it is just plain funny. Unlike comedies that rely upon topical humour, the situations portrayed on Gilligan's Island remain essentially timeless. And it must be pointed out that physical humour almost never changes. A pratfall was funny in 1914, was still funny in 1964, and remains funny in 2014. It is true that the comedy of Gilligan's Island is very broad. And it is true that it is not highbrow at all. That having been said, the ultimate litmus test for comedy is not how broad it is or how intellectual it is, but in the end how funny it is. It would seem that for most of the population Gilligan's Island has succeeded on that account for years.

Regardless of what critics said of Gilligan's Island in 1964 and what some still say about it in 2014, Gilligan's Island is still airing around the world after fifty years. Currently it is shown on ME-TV. It is also available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and through various streaming services. Like the castaways who remained stranded on that desert isle, Gilligan's Island shows no sign of going anywhere soon.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Actor Stefan Gierasch Passes On

Stefan Gierasch, a character actor who appeared frequently in both films and on television, died 6 September 2014 at the age of 88. The cause was complications from a stroke.

Stefan Gierasch was born on 5 February 1925 in New York City. He studied acting at The Actors Studio. He made his debut on Broadway in Snafu in 1944. In the late Forties he also appeared in productions of Billion Dollar Baby and Montserrat. The Fifties saw him appear in productions of Night Music, Threepenny Opera, A Month in the Country, Compulsion, The Shadow of a Gunman, and Little Moon of Alban. Mr. Gierasch made his television debut in a bit part in an episode of Mr. Peepers in 1952. In the Fifties he appeared on such shows as The Philco-Goodyear Playhouse, You Are There, Goodyear Playhouse, Studio One, Brenner, and Play of the Week. He made his film debut in a bit part in The Young Don't Cry (1957) and appeared in the film That Kind of Woman (1959).

In the Sixties Stefan Gierasch appeared on Broadway in such productions as The Sound of Music, Isle of Children, The Deputy, and War and Peace. He appeared on television on such shows as The Defenders, Naked City, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Untouchables, Dr. Kildare, and Gunsmoke. He appeared in the films The Hustler (1961) and The Travelling Executioner (1970).

In the Seventies Stefan Gierasch appeared on Broadway in the productions The Iceman Cometh, Of Mice and Men, and Tartuffe. On television he was a regular on the TV show Nichols. He appeared on such shows as Bonanza, Ironside, Mod Squad, Kung Fu, Switch, Baretta, Dallas, Fantasy Island, Barney Miller, and The Incredible Hulk. He appeared in such films as What's Up, Doc? (1972), The New Centurions (1972), Jeremiah Johnson (1972), High Plains Drifter (1973), Cornbread, Earl and Me (1975), Carrie (1976), Silver Streak (1976), and The Champ (1979).

In the Eighties Stefan Gierasch appeared on Broadway in Brighton Beach Memoirs and You Never Can Tell. He appeared on television in such shows as M*A*S*H; Quincy M.E.; The Jeffersons; Remington Steele; Matt Houston; The Twilight Zone; Murder, She Wrote; Cheers; Miami Vice; and Tales from the Crypt. He appeared in the films Perfect (1985), The Rosary Murders (1987), Spellbinder (1988), and  Megaville (1990).

In the Nineties Stefan Gierasch was a regular on the short lived revival of Dark Shadows. He appeared on such TV shows as Star Trek: The Next Generation, Knot's Landing, The Practice, ER, and Brimstone. He appeared in such films as Mistress (1992), Jack the Bear (1993), Dave (1993), Junior (1994), Murder in the First (1995), and Starry Night (1999). In the Naughts he appeared in the films Legend of the Phantom Rider (2002), Off Track Betting (2003), Cover-Up '62 (2004), and The Hunter's Moon (2009).

Stefan Gierasch was a remarkably versatile actor, as can be seen in his best known roles. He was the witless Principal Morton in Carrie, the colourful but somewhat luckless mountain man Del Glue in Jeremiah Johnson, and both art historian Professor Schreiner and the killer George in Silver Streak. Mr. Gierasch did all of the parts well, as he did all of the roles he played. There should be little wonder, then, that he was very much in demand on stage, in television, and on film.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire In Memoriam

Deborah Mitford was not only born into nobility, but into one of the most famous and eccentric sets of sisters of all time. Her eldest sister, Nancy, would become a celebrated novelist. Her sister Diana married Bryan Guinness and later British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. Her sister Jessica left Britain for America where she became a political activist and a celebrated muckraking journalist. Her sister Unity became enthralled by Adolph Hitler and later attempted suicide. Her sister Pamela married an eccentric scientist. Deborah Mitford would lead a quieter than most of her sisters and one that was certainly less controversial than some of them, but it was a life that was no less filled with accomplishments. Upon the death of Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire, she became the Duchess of Devonshire. It was largely due to the efforts of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire that Chatsworth House, the ancestral home of the Cavendish family, was rebuilt. Sadly, Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, died today at the age of 94.

Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was born Deborah Freeman-Mitford on 31 March 1920 at Asthall Manor, Oxfordshire, England. Her parents were David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney Bowles, the daughter of  Thomas Gibson Bowles (the founder of the magazines Vanity Fair and The Lady). As a child Deborah did not attend school and, in fact, was deathly afraid of school. Instead she spent her time hunting and caring for her chickens. She was remarkably good at ice skating, so much so that she attracted the attention of professional coaches. Unfortunately her parents would not allow her to pursue skating as a profession.

At age 21 Deborah married  Lord Andrew Cavendish, the youngest son of Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire. Lord Andrew Cavendish became heir to the dukedom when his older brother, William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington was killed in combat during WWII. It was in 1950, upon the death of his father, that Lord Andrew Cavendish became the 11th Duke of Devonshire and hence Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire. Andrew Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire died on 3 May 2004 at the age of 84.

Deborah would be responsible for the day to day running of Chatsworth House. Indeed, she oversaw the restoration of Chatsworth House, which had been in decline for many years, as well as its gardens. The house was thoroughly modernised, with new wiring and plumbing installed, as well as central heating, telephones, and 17 new bathrooms. It was a process that took literally years. She was also responsible for developing Chatsworth commercially. She sat up Chatsworth Farm Shop, where locally grown produce and meat is sold. She opened gift shops at Chatsworth and even played pivotal roles in the development of the Cavendish Hotel at Baslow and the Devonshire Arms Hotel at Bolton Abbey, both relatively near Chatsworth. Throughout it all Deborah took an active role at Chatsworth, greeting tourists, conducting lectures on farming, and acting as the public spokesman for Chatsworth House.

Over the years Deborah wrote many books on Chatsworth, including Chatsworth: The House, The Estate: A View from Chatsworth, and Treasures of Chatsworth: A Private View. She even wrote a children's book about the estate, The Farmyard at Chatsworth. She also wrote a book in tribute to her late husband, Memories of Andrew Devonshire, published in 2007. In 2010 her memoirs of her life as the youngest Mitford Sister, Wait for Me!, were published. In 2012 her book All in One Basket, a collection of memories of everything from Chatsworth to such friends as John F. Kennedy to Evelyn Waugh was published.

In 1991 Deborah was named a Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for her work in preserving British residential heritage.

Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was not the most famous Mitford sister, but she leaves behind works that will be no less lasting than anything her sisters did. During the 20th Century many of the great houses were sold, converted to other uses such as schools, or even demolished. Chatsworth House not only still stands, but even prospers, because of Deborah's ingenuity and determination. She was also instrumental in preserving and disseminating the history of Chatsworth, writing volumes upon the subject. As the last of the Mitford sisters she also played a role in preserving and helping define the legacy of her famous family, not only writing the book Wait for Me!, but appearing in many documentaries on the sisters.

Despite belonging to possibly the most famous set of sisters of the 20th Century and being a Duchess, Deborah Mitford was often described as "down to earth". In fact, in 2003 she told The New York Times, "I'm just a housewife." In interviews she always seemed warm and approachable, as eager to discuss her chickens, Chatworth House, gardening, or Elvis Presley (of whom she was a big fan) as anything else. She was apparently much the same way in person. To the many visitors to Chatsworth she was always a gracious hostess.

Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire is survived by her son, Peregrine Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire. and her daughters Lady Emma Tennant and Lady Sophia Topley.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Actor Sir Donald Sinden Passes On

Sir Donald Sinden, who appeared frequently on the British stage, in British films, and on television, died on 11 September 2014 at the age of 90. He had been diagnosed with prostate cancer years ago.

Sir Donald Sinden was born on 9 October 1922 in Plymouth, England. He grew up in Ditchling, East Sussex. As a child he suffered from asthma, a condition that would prevent him from later joining the British Navy. At age 15 he was apprenticed in carpentry and he took classes in draughting of an evening with the goal of becoming an architect and surveyor. It was in Brighton where he worked that he became involved in amateur theatrical productions. This led to Charles F Smith, director of the Theatre Royal, to inviting him to join his Mobile Entertainments Southern Area (MESA) company. He made his debut with Mr. Smith's company as Dudley in a production of George and Margaret in 1942.

Kept out of the service due to his asthma, Mr. Smith entertained the troops as part of many MESA productions. He trained as an actor at the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art before joining the  Leicester Rep and in 1946 the Stratford-upon-Avon Memorial theatre. In 1948 Mr. Sinden made his film debut in a minor role in the film Lost Daughter. In 1949 he appeared at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket in a production of The Heiress.

It was in 1953 that Sir Donald Sinden starred in The Cruel Sea. The success of the film led to a seven year contract with the Rank Organisation. It was in 1954 that Donald Sinden appeared as skirt chasing medical student Tony Benskin in Doctor in the House. Mr. Sinden reprised his role as Tony Benskin in Doctor at Large in 1957. During the Fifties he appeared in such films as Mogambo (1953), A Day to Remember (1953), You Know What Sailors Are (1954), The Beachcomber (1954), Simba (1955), An Alligator Named Daisy (1955), Tiger in the Smoke (1956), Rockets Galore (1958), The Captain's Table (1959), and Your Money or Your Wife (1960).  Mr. Sinden made his television debut in a BBC Sunday-Night Theatre production of The Frog in 1958. He appeared on ITV Play of the Week and ITV Television Playhouse. He appeared as John Jaspar in an ITV mini-series adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

In the Sixties Mr. Sinden appeared on stage in productions of There's a Girl in My Soup (1966) and Not Now, Darling (1967).  On television he played the Reverend Stephen Young in the series Our Man at St. Marks and as Richard, Duke of York in The War of the Roses.  He appeared in the role of The Colonel in The Prisoner episode "Many Happy Returns". He also appeared on such shows as Drama '61, Festival, First Night, Blackmail, and Armchair Theatre. He appeared in the films Twice Round the Daffodils (1962), Mix Me a Person (1962), and Decline and Fall... of a Birdwatcher (1968).

In the Seventies Sir Donald Sinden appeared in the Thirty-Minute Theatre mini-series Seven Days in the Life of Andrew Pelham. He starred in the TV shows Father, Dear Father; The Organisation; and Two's Company. He appeared in the films Villain (1971), Rentadick (1972), The National Health (1973), The Day of the Jackal (1973) , The Island at the Top of the World (1974), and That Lucky Touch (1975). He appeared on stage in productions of  In Praise of Love (1973) of An Enemy of the People (1975). He appeared on Broadway in London Assurance and Habeas Corpus.

In the Eighties Sir Donald Sinden starred in the long running sitcom Never the Twain. He appeared in the film The Children (1990). He appeared on stage in productions of Present Laughter (1981); The School for Scandal (1983); The Scarlet Pimpernel (1985); and  Major Barbara (1988). In the Nineties Mr. Sinden provided the voice of Doc in Balto (1995). He appeared in the TV films The Treasure Seekers, Richard II, and The Canterville Ghost. He appeared on stage in productions of That Good Night (1996) and Quartet (1999). In the Naughts Mr. Sinden starred in the legal drama Judge John Deed. He appeared in the films The Accidental Detective (2003). In the teens Mr. Sinden appeared in the film Run for Your Wife (2012). He guest starred on Midsomer Murders and Agatha Christie's Miss Marple.

To modern audiences Sir Donald Sinden may be best known as fussy antiques dealer Simon Peel  on Never the Twain, but he played a wide variety of roles throughout his life. Indeed, his television roles alone were quite varied. On Two's Company he played Robert, the English butler with a stiff upper lip. In his guest appearance on The Prisoner episode "Many Happy Returns" he played "The Colonel", one of Number Six's former colleagues. Sir Donald Sinden played a wide variety of roles in film too. He was the womanising Tony Benskin in the "Doctor" films, the brutal criminal Wade in Eyewitness (1956), and barrister Philip Bellamy in Mix Me a Person (1962). Sir Donald Sinden was an incredibly talented actor with a very wide range, as capable of playing a brutal criminal as he was a very proper butler or a doctor with the eye for the ladies. While he may now be best known for his work in television, he had a rich and varied career in film and stage as well.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Turns 50

It will be 50 years ago tonight that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. debuted on NBC. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. proved to be a veritable phenomenon, easily the biggest television fad of the Sixties outside of Batman. It was also historic as the first American show in the spy craze of the Sixties. In fact, it would largely be responsible for inspiring further spy shows on American television, to the point that it was hard to find a night of the week when there weren't spies on the small screen.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. centred on two agents for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement (the U.N.C.L.E. of the title): charming, sophisticated Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn) and quiet, intellectual Illya Kuryakin (played by David McCallum). The two reported to Alexander Waverly, the head of U.N.C.L.E. (played by Leo G. Carroll).  Although they battled other opponents in the course of the show, U.N.C.L.E.'s primary opposition came in the form of the criminal organisation THRUSH, a group bent on world domination.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. began in the mind of television producer Norman Felton. It was in 1961 that Mr. Felton had enormous success with Dr. Kildare. For his next show Mr. Felton looked to the spy films of Sir Alfred Hitchcock, in particular the director's recent hit North by Northwest (1959). Eventually Norman Felton decided that the time was right for a new kind of hero beyond the various cowboys, detectives, doctors, and lawyers who had filled American television screens up to that time. Quite simply, America was ready for spies.

While The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would take inspiration from Hitchcock's espionage films, the works of Ian Fleming would lead to the TV show after a fashion.  At the time the Ashley-Famous talent agency represented Norman Felton and his company Arena Productions. The agency had decided to consider Ian Fleming's travel book Thrilling Cities as possible inspiration for a TV series. In Thrilling Cities Mr. Fleming examined thirteen different cities that he had visited. The head of the Ashley-Famous, Ted Ashley, brought the book to the attention of Norman Felton and arranged a meeting between Mr. Felton and representatives of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency and the Ford Motor Company. Ultimately Norman Felton did not think Thrilling Cities would make for a very good television show, and instead interested them in his idea for a tongue in cheek spy series. It was Jack Ball of J. Walter Thompson who brought up Ian Fleming's James Bond novels, of which Norman Felton had heard, but with which he was not familiar. It was Mr. Ball who suggested to Norman Felton that he try to develop his new spy show with Ian Fleming.

Norman Felton met with Ian Fleming and ultimately Ian Fleming developed a few ideas regarding the series. It was Mr. Fleming who provided the show's hero with his name, Napoleon Solo, although his character of Solo would differ a good deal from that which eventually emerged on the small screen. Like James Bond, Napoleon Solo would flirt with his superior's secretary, who was named "April Dancer". While the secretary "April Dancer" would ultimately not appear on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the name would be used for a character related to the show (as detailed below). In the end this would be the only real work Ian Fleming would get to do on what would become The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Eon Productions, the producers of the Bond movies, objected to Mr. Fleming's involvement with the prospective TV show and he had to leave the project.

To further develop the prospective TV show Norman Felton then brought in Sam Rolfe, the co-creator of the critically acclaimed Western Have Gun-Will Travel who had written for such series as Playhouse 90 and The Twilight Zone. Mr. Rolfe jettisoned most of Ian Fleming's ideas, instead drawing upon an old idea he had for a show entitled St. George and the Dragon. It was Sam Rolfe who created the international organisation known as U.N.C.L.E. and the character of Napoleon Solo's partner Illya Kuryakin. He also created the original head of U.N.C.LE., Mr. Allison. In the original pilot for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Mr. Allison was played by Will Kuluva. After viewing the original pilot an NBC executive suggested to Norman Felton that he cut one of the secondary actors whose name started with a "K". Norman Felton thought the executive meant Will Kuluva, who was then dismissed from the series. Sam Rolfe then created a new head of U.N.C.L.E., Alexander Waverly, who was played by Leo G. Carroll. Mr. Carroll had previously played another spymaster, The Professor, in the film North by Northwest. Will Kuluva's scenes were then re-shot with Mr. Carroll as Alexander Waverly. As it turned out, NBC did not want Will Kuluva cut from the show, but instead Illya Kuryakin, a move that would have been a big mistake given the role Illya Kuryakin would play in the show's success.

Leo G. Carroll would not be the only thing that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would inherit from North by Northwest. The plot of North by Northwest involved an ordinary person who becomes involved with spies. Norman Felton then proposed that each week feature an innocent person who would become entangled in the adventures of Napoleon Solo. Over the course of the show's run actors from Pat Crowley to William Shatner to Shari Lewis played "innocents" in episodes of the show.

Here it must be pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was not inspired by the success of the first James Bond movie, Dr. No. Dr. No premiered in the United Kingdom on 5 October 1962 and would not premiere in the United States until May 1963. Development on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. began in the autumn of 1962, so that the film's success played little role in the creation of the show. That having been said, once the show was on the air there can be no doubt that the success of the Bond movies helped The Man from U.N.C.L.E. a good deal.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. debuted at 8:30 PM Eastern/7:30 PM Central on Tuesday, 22 September 1964 to mixed reviews. Writing in TV Guide critic Cleveland Amory panned the show. In the review for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in Variety the complaint was made about "The fact that you couldn't tell if they were playing it for satire or for real." In The Hollywood Reporter Bill Ornstein offered a much more positive review, and drew comparisons to the Saturday matinee serials of old. While critics were mixed in their reviews of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., the audience seemed to be staying away from it in droves. The initial ratings for The Man from U.N.C.L.E. were extremely low. In fact, the ratings were so low that The Man from U.N.C.L.E. did not appear on NBC's preliminary schedule for the 1965-1966 fall season issued in December 1964 .

Fortunately a number of factors would lead to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. becoming not only an hit, but an outright phenomenon. Among these was a publicity campaign launched by the producers of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. in order to save the show. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum were sent on an extensive tour of twenty four American cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, New Orleans, and St. Louis. Promotional spots were even filmed for local stations, often using familiar landmarks in the stations' viewing areas.

Another factor in the transformation of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. from a low rated show into a smash hit may well have been the premiere of the third James Bond movie, Goldfinger, in the United States in December 1964. Goldfinger proved to be the most successful Bond movie up to that time and helped spur the growing spy craze in the United States. For Americans hungry for more adventures featuring spies it would have been natural for them to turn to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. on NBC.

While the publicity campaign to save The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and the success of Goldfinger played their roles in saving the show, it could well have been NBC moving it to a new time slot that helped turn it into a hit more than anything else . In its original time slot The Man from U.N.C.L.E. aired opposite two high rated shows: The Red Skelton Hour on CBS and McHale's Navy on ABC. Indeed, The Red Skelton Hour ranked #6 in the ratings for the 1964-1965 season. Effective 11 January 1965 NBC moved The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to Monday night at 8:00 PM Eastern/7:00 PM Central where its only real competition was on CBS (the high rated To Tell a Secret and The Andy Griffith Show). In the new time slot not only did The Man from U.N.C.L.E. get better ratings. It became a smash hit. Indeed, by the end of January The Man from U.N.C.L.E. drew in 20 million viewers each week.

Ultimately, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. became the biggest television fad of the Sixties besides Batman (which would debut two years later).  Much of the show's popularity centred not on Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo, but instead on David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin. Kuryakin was initially meant to be a minor character on the show, only helping out Solo from time to time. As it turned out, however, Kuryakin proved popular with teenage girls and young women, so that he was very quickly promoted to Solo's full time partner. Eventually Illya Kuryakin would become so popular that, according to an article in The Boston Globe, David McCallum received more fan mail than any actor in the history of MGM.

Given the success of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. there should be no surprise that there was a ton of merchandise related to the show. Gilbert made action figures of Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. Aurora issued model kits based on the show. Thermos put out a Man from U.N.C.L.E. lunchbox. There were also trading cards, board games, arcade games, and much more. There was even a series of novels written by  David McDaniel (it was there that it was revealed that THRUSH stood for the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity).

In addition to the various merchandise, there were The Man from U.N.C.L.E. feature films. These films were not original movies based on the TV show like the 1966 Batman movie, but instead episodes with new footage added. And while the first season episodes aired on television in black and white, the feature film versions were shown in colour. Both  To Trap a Spy (based on the pilot episode "The Vulcan Affair") and The Spy with My Face (based on "The Double Affair") were released in the United States, although later Man from U.N.C.L.E. films would be only be released abroad due to complaints from theatre goers paying for something that they felt they had already seen. The other Man from U.N.C.L.E. films were: One of Our Spies is Missing (1966), The Spy in the Green Hat (1966), The Karate Killers (1967), The Helicopter Spies (1968), and How to Steal the World (1968).

The success of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would even lead to a spinoff, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. The backdoor pilot for The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was the second season Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode "The Moonglow Affair", which  featured Mary Ann Mobley as agent April Dancer (as mentioned earlier, a name created by Ian Fleming) and Norman Fell as her older partner Mark Slate. The lead roles would be recast for the regular series, with Stefanie Powers cast as April Dancer and Noel Harrison (considerably younger than Norman Fell) cast as Mark Slate. The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. was not well received by either critics or viewers and left the air after only a single season.

Sadly the success of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would not last. While the show did very well in its second season (it ranked #13 for the year in the ratings), it faltered in its third season. Much of this may have been due to a shift in tone in the series. For its first two seasons, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was a serious adventure series, albeit one with fantastic adventures and one played with tongue deftly in cheek. With its third season, however, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. shifted to entire episodes that were played purely for laughs. Many have blamed The Girl from U.N.C.L.E for the change in tone of The Man from U.N.C.L.E., although this does not appear to have been the case. A few purely humorous episodes began to creep into The Man from U.N.C.L.E. late in its second season. And while The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. began its single season as a somewhat serious, if tongue in cheek spy show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. started off its third season almost immediately with episodes containing a good deal of comedic content.

It is difficult to say why The Man from U.N.C.L.E. shifted from a tongue in cheek adventure show to outright (and often poorly done) comedy is hard to say,  but it could well  have been due to the success of the TV show Batman. Batman debuted in January 1966 on ABC and soon proved to be a phenomenon in its own right. Batman had a deliberately camp style, playing the adventures of the Dynamic Duo for laughs. With Batman a huge success, it seems possible that NBC decided to emulate its success by incorporating a large dose of comedy into The Man from U.N.C.L.E. If that was the case, their plan backfired. What worked so well for Batman (which is considered a classic to this day) did not work so well for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  It is perhaps significant that just as The Man From U.N.C.L.E. went "camp" it began losing viewers in droves.

In an effort to save The Man from U.N.C.L.E. the show was returned to a more serious tone for its fourth season. It also returned to Monday night after spending its past two seasons on Friday night Unfortunately it would not be enough to save the show. Its ratings did not improve and it was cancelled at mid-season. The last original Man from U.N.C.L.E. episode aired on 15 January 1968.

Fortunately, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would not disappear from television screens forever. The show went immediately into syndication where it would have some success. Over the years the show has aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network (the forerunner of the Family Channel), TBS, and the  American Life TV Network. It is currently airing on ME-TV. On 21 August 2008 the entire run of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was released on DVD.

The continued success of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would lead to a reunion television movie in 1983. The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen-Years-Later Affair aired on CBS on 5 April 1983 and reunited Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo and David McCallum as Illya Kuryakin. Leo G. Carroll having died, the new head of U.N.C.L.E. was Sir John Raleigh played by Patrick Macnee (best known as John Steed on another hit Sixties spy show, The Avengers). 

Although it only lasted three and a half seasons, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would prove to be one of the most influential shows of the Sixties. Alongside the James Bond movies it was largely responsible for spurring the spy craze on American television during the decade. In 1964 The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the only spy show on the air. By 1966 the network schedules were filled with espionage series, including both original American series and British imports (such as The Avengers). What is more, spies would figure in episodes of sitcoms ranging from Gilligan's Island to The Monkees. The impact of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would even go beyond television. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was directly responsible for inspiring the Marvel Comics feature "Nick Fury, Agent of  S.H.I.E.L.D.", first published in Strange Tales #135 (August 1965).  S.H.I.E.L.D. would soon become an integral part of the Marvel Universe and would even inspire its own TV show (Agents of  S.H.I.E.L.D. currently on ABC).

The spy craze started by the Bond movies and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would last until around 1967 when it finally came to an end. In the years during which the spy craze lasted, however, it produced such shows as Get Smart, The Wild Wild West, and Mission: Impossible. While many of these shows might have made it to the air had The Man from U.N.C.L.E. never debuted, it seems likely that they might not have survived had The Man from U.N.C.L.E. not proven successful.

It must also be pointed out that the style of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. would have a lasting impact on American television. Part of the series' style was in its transitions between scenes, in which a whip pan was used to simulate someone rapidly moving through a bunch of pictures. These transitions were imitated on other series, most notably Batman (in which a spinning transition with the Bat-symbol was used). The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was also one of the first series to identify its settings with superimposed captions. For instance, there might be a shot of the United States Capital and the caption would read "Somewhere in Washington D. C." This device has been used on many series since, one of the most recent being The X-Files (which not only identified the place, but the time of day as well).

Fifty years later The Man from U.N.C.L.E. continues to be popular. In fact, a feature film based on the show, starring  Armie Hammer and Henry Cavill, is set to be released next year. Much of its continued success may be due to its place in television history. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was the first hit espionage show on American television and one that started the whole cycle towards spy shows on the networks in the Sixties. It also became a phenomenon in its own right, with a ton of merchandising associated with the show. In fact, it was probably the second largest television fad of the Sixties, surpassed only by Batman. Of course, its continued popularity is also likely due to the fact that it was a well done show. During its first two seasons The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a well written adventure series with tongue in cheek humour. It was also a very stylish show, its episodes having the look of a feature film. Indeed, the show was so novel and so unique when it debuted that many critics did not know quite what to make of it.  Even today, fifty years after its debut, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. remains as fresh and as original as ever.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Godspeed Polly Bergen

Singer and actress Polly Bergen died yesterday at the age of 84.

Polly Bergen was born Nellie Paulina Burgin in Knoxville, Tennessee on 14 July 1930. Her father William Burgin was a construction engineer who also had musical talent (he would later perform under the name "Bill Bergen"). She grew up in Ohio and Indiana. As a child she was a fan of the musicals of Deanna Durbin and Shirley Temple. She was also a fan of Sarah Vaughn and learned to sing by listening to Miss Vaughn's records. Miss Bergen began her career by winning a talent show for teenagers and at only 15 she had her own show on radio station WKBV in Richmond, Indiana. Eventually she began performing nightclubs and would go on to regularly perform in  Las Vegas.

Polly Bergen's voice was heard in the film Champion (1949) as a radio and jukebox singer, and she made her proper film debut the same year in the film Across the Rio Grande (1949) as a cantina  singer. In 1950 she appeared in the Martin and Lewis movie At War with the Army (1950). Miss Bergen made her television debut on an episode of The Alan Young Show in 1950.

During the Fifties Polly Bergen appeared in such films as That's My Boy (1951), Warpath (1951), The Stooge (1952), Cry of the Hunted (1953), Fast Company (1953), Arena (1953), and Escape from Fort Bravo (1953). She made her debut on Broadway in 1953 in John Murray Anderson's Almanac. During the decade she appeared on Broadway in the productions Champagne Complex and First Impressions.

On television in the Fifties she was the host of The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, which ran from 1954-1955, and The Polly Bergen Show, which ran from 1957 to 1958. She appeared on a number of variety shows including The Colgate Comedy Hour, Cavalcade of Stars, Your Hit Parade, The Dick Clark Show, and The Garry Moore Show. She also guest starred on such shows as Studio One, General Electric Theatre, Playhouse 90, The George Burns Show, and The United States Steel Hour.  Miss Bergen won an Emmy for Best Single Performance - Lead or Support for her appearance on Playhouse 90 in "The Helen Morgan Story".

Arguably the Sixties might have been the height of Polly Bergen's career. She appeared in the classic thriller Cape Fear (1952) as well as the Doris Day film Move Over, Darling (1953). She also appeared in the films The Caretakers (1963), Kisses for My President (1964), and A Guide for the Married Man (1967). On television she was a regular panellist on To Tell the Truth. She appeared on such variety shows, game shows, and talk shows as The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, Password, What's My Line?, The Andy Williams Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Dean Martin Comedy Hour, and The Joey Bishop Show. She guest starred on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train, Dr. Kildare, The Dick Powel Theatre, and The Red Skelton Hour.

In 1971 Polly Bergen had her own television special, The Polly Bergen Special. In the Seventies she appeared on the shows The Wide World of Mystery, Thriller, and Ellery Queen, the mini-series Harold Robbins' 79 Park Avenue, and the TV movies Death Cruise, Murder on Flight 502, and How to Pick Up Girls!.

In the Eighties Polly Bergen appeared in the TV mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. She guest starred on the shows The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Hotel, Murder She Wrote, My Two Dads, and Jake and the Fatman. She appeared in the films Making Mr. Right (1987), Mother, Mother (1989), and Cry-Baby (1990). She appeared on Broadway in Love Letters.

In the Nineties Miss Bergen was a regular on the TV show Baby Talk. She guest starred on Burke's Law, Touched by Angel, and Twice in a Lifetime. She appeared in the film Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995).  From the Naughts into the Teens she had recurring roles on the TV shows Commander in Chief and Desperate Housewives. She guest starred on The Sopranos and appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation "Candles on Bay Street". She appeared in the films Paradise, Texas (2005), A Very Serious Person (2006), and Struck by Lightning (2012).

 In addition to her singing and acting careers, Polly Bergen also had her own cosmetics, jewellery, and show lines. 

Polly Bergen was an incredible singer. She was gifted with a wonderful voice that was warm and sexy all at the same time. In many respects she was the very definition of a torch singer, capable of relaying sorrow or sensuality (and often both) simply by the tone of her voice.

Of course, today Miss Bergen may be best known as an actress. Her most famous part may be that of Gregory Peck's wife (terrorised by Robert Mitchum) in Cape Fear (1962). She also played a psychiatric patient in group therapy in the film The Caretakers (1963), for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. As great as Miss Bergen's performances in her dramas were, however, I think that she might have been better at comedy. Indeed, she seemed to have a gift for it. She was great fun as the "other wife" in the Doris Day movie Move Over, Darling (1963). And while she wasn't on screen for long, she was very funny as the "technical advisor" Clara Brown in A Guide for the Married Man. Very few were gifted with the talents that Polly Bergen had. She was a first rate actress and singer who could perform both drama and comedy equally well.