Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The 50th Anniversary of He & She

In the Eighties the USA Network reran the short-lived television series He & She. Being only four years old when it first aired, I had read about the show, but I had never seen it. I immediately fell in love with the show, which in many respects seemed as if it belonged in the early Seventies rather than the late Sixties. Indeed, while it was produced by Talent Associates (a company perhaps best known for Get Smart), if one didn't know better he or she might be convinced that it had been produced by MTM Enterprises (the company responsible for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, and other Seventies classics) circa 1971. It was fifty years ago today, on September 6 1967, that He & She debuted on CBS.

He & She starred Paula Prentiss and Richard Benjamin, then as now married in real life, as Paula and Dick Hollister. Paula was a caseworker for the Tourist Aid Society. Dick was a cartoonist and creator of the comic strip Jetman. Dick's life was complicated by the fact that Jetman had been adapted as a TV series starring Oscar North (played by Jack Cassidy). Oscar was an egotistical actor who constantly argued with Dick over his interpretation of Jetman. This probably would have been fine, save that Oscar was neither a very good actor nor was he particularly bright. The Hollisters' neighbour and best friend was fireman Harry Zarakartos (played by Kenneth Mars), who would drop by their apartment via a board between the firehouse and the apartment building. The apartment building's handyman Andrew Hummel was played by folk singer Hamilton Camp.

He & She was created by Leonard B. Stern, who already had considerable experience in television. He had written for such shows as The Honeymooners and The Phil Silvers Show and had previously created the short-lived sitcom I'm Dickens, He's Fenster. He was one of the producers on the classic Get Smart, then still phenomenally popular. In 1953, with Roger Price, he invented the popular game Mad Libs. In an article published in newspapers around September 24 1967, Mr. Stern said of He & She, "These are characters I created for television five or six years ago. I couldn't make the series because I couldn't find the right people to play the parts." 

Leonard B. Stern very nearly sold He & She when he first pitched it to Mike Dann, then Executive Vice President of Programming at CBS. Mr. Dann told Mr. Stern that he would commit to a pilot if Paula Prentiss would star. Of course, Leonard B. Stern realised this would mean that he would have to cast her husband Richard Benjamin, as she would only do it if he was on the show. Fortunately, he was able to sign them both.

CBS scheduled He & She following the high-rated sitcom Green Acres on Wednesday night at 9:30 Eastern/8:30 Central. Given Green Acres would rank no. 15 in the over all Nielsen ratings for the year, this would have seemed like an ideal placement for the series. Unfortunately it also meant that He & She was scheduled opposite The ABC Wednesday Night Movie, this at time when movie anthologies regularly trounced  dramas and sitcoms in the ratings. Despite having Green Acres as a lead in, ratings for He & She were then not particularly impressive.

While He & She initially did not do particularly well in the ratings, it did receive positive reviews from critics over all. He & She was respected in the television industry as well. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy for writers Allan Burns and Chris Hayward for the episode "The Coming Out Party". It was also nominated for the Emmys for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for Richard Benjamin, Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series for Paula Prentiss, Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Comedy for Jack Cassidy, and Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy for writers Leonard Stern and Arne Sultan for their episode "The Old Man and the She." Strangely enough, it was not nominated for the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

It seems possible during the 1967-1968 season that audiences eventually recognised He & She as a quality series as well. Ratings for the show gradually improved, so that late in the season He & She would regularly win its time slot. Unfortunately it was not enough to save the show. CBS seriously considered renewing He & She for a second season, but ultimately elected to cancel it instead. According to Harlan Ellison in his column in the Los Angeles Free Press (included in his compilation The Glass Teat) CBS president Mike Dann had to choose between renewing He & She or picking up a new TV series based on the comic strip Blondie. He chose the latter. Given Blondie debuted to universally hostile reviews and would prove to be one of the great ratings fiascos of the Sixties, it seems quite likely that Mr. Dann regretted cancelling He & She.

CBS reran episodes of He & She as a summer replacement from June 20 1970 to September 11 1970. It would be rerun on the USA Network from 1985 to 1987. Later TV Land would air repeats of the show in 1998. Sadly, it has rarely been seen since. He & She has not been released on DVD and is not available on any of the streaming services (not counting legally questionable uploads to YouTube).

In many respects He & She was ahead of its time. It was a very sophisticated, but at the same time sweet comedy of the sort for which MTM Enterprises would later become known. One could easily picture it airing on Saturday nights in the Seventies alongside The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show. Indeed, the character of egotistical, but none too bright anchorman Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore would seem to owe a good deal to the character of egotistical, but none too bright actor Oscar North on He & She. What is more, the show was ahead of its time in other ways as well. Paula Prentiss's character of Paula Hollister was one of the first wives on television who actually had her own job outside the home. With regards to Mr. Cassidy's portrayal of Oscar North, Leonard B. Stern said that CBS was concerned about Jack Cassidy's portrayl of the character on the show. Meant by the writers to be a mama's boy, Jack Cassidy played Oscar in such a way as to strongly intimate that he was gay. This was at a time when even the suggestion of homosexuality was relatively rare on American TV shows, particularly sitcoms. In the 1967-1968 season He & She stood out as a sophisticated sitcom about young people in an urban setting, this at a time when CBS was still dominated by rural comedies.

To this day He & She maintains a cult following. It is still regarded by television historians not only as being slightly ahead of its time, but also one of the best shows to ever be cancelled after a single season. With any luck it will one day find its way to DVD and to streaming services. Both a pioneering sitcom and one of substantial quality, He & She deserves to be seen.


Lefisc said...

First, this was a funny and sophisticated show at a time when shows were not made for "grown ups" but for families. This meant that children had to like it. And censorship was very tough. It would take unti All in the Family opened the doors to adult comedy. But that would take a few years.

The show followed Green Acres, which had an exremely different, non urban following. In other words those people wouldn't get this show. So they scheduled it badly. This would have fit in wonderfully in a few years when Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, mash were all on the same night.

tomservo56954 said...

The failure of this show likely caused Jack Cassidy to pass on another role, one written with him in mind...Ted Baxter. With his wife and son succeeding in THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY, I believe the issues with his career being more adrift helped to destroy his marriage to Shirley Jones, and compounded issues with alcohol that indirectly led to his tragic death.