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.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Hammer Horror on TCM in October 2017

If there are two things I love, it is Turner Classic Movies and the old Hammer Horrors. As if it wasn't already special enough as the month of Halloween, every October TCM shows a tonne of classic horror movies, including those produced by Hammer Films. Below I have listed the Hammer movies they are showing this October and the times they are showing. Note that all times are for the Central time zone.

For those new to Hammer Horrors, aside from the obvious Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958), I would recommend checking out The Brides of Dracula (1960), The Devil Rides Out (1968), The Mummy (1959), and The Plague of the Zombies (1966). In my humble opinion, they number among the best films ever made by Hammer. Of course, one should try to watch all of them (even the ones that aren't that good).

October 15 2017:
7:00 PM Dracula (1958), released in the United States as Horror of Dracula
8:45 PM The Brides of Dracula (1960)

October 17 2017:
7:00 PM The Devil Rides Out (1968), released in the U.S. as The Devil's Bride
8:45 PM The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
10:15 PM The Mummy (1959)
12:00 Midnight The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
1:45 AM The Plague of the Zombies (1966)
3:30 AM The Reptile (1966)

October 22 2017
7:00 PM Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1965)
9:00 PM Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1969)

October 29 2017
7:00 PM Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970)
9:00 PM Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972)

Monday, September 4, 2017

TCM Party Turned Six

Yesterday was the sixth anniversary of TCM Party. If you are unfamiliar with TCM Party, it is a collective live tweeting of movies airing on Turner Classic Movies using the hashtag #tcmparty. TCM Parties often, but not always, have hosts who tweet tidbits about the specific film on at the time and essentially curate the whole event. The first film that was live tweeted at that first TCM Party held on September 3 2011 was Casablanca (1942). Since that time TCM Party has become an established part of Turner Classic Movies fandom and is even recognised by Turner Classic Movies itself. Indeed, there is even an official TCM Party Twitter account, as well as a Facebook page and a Tumblr blog. Even such luminaries as actress Illeana Douglas have taken part in TCM Parties. While TCM Parties were originally scheduled for specific movies, TCM Party has evolved to the point where there it basically runs 24 hours a day. If you want to read more about TCM Party, I posted a history of the phenomenon last year on the occasion of its fifth anniversary.

I first took part in a TCM Party on December 22 2011. I am not sure why I did not participate earlier, although it is quite possible I did not hear about it until it had been around for a few months. At any rate, I had live tweeted movies on Turner Classic Movies before. Regardless, I chose a good time to begin live tweeting with TCM Party. That night as part of the TCM Party, I live tweeted The Thin Man (1934), After the Thin Man (1936), and Another Thin Man (1939). Turner Classic Movies was showing all of the "Thin Man" movies that night, but after Another Thin Man I was tired and had to go to bed. Regardless, the experience was so much fun that I was hooked on TCM Parties.

Indeed, I have fond memories of many of the TCM Parties that I have participated in. One of my best memories is from March 2012 when Turner Classic Movies was showing British New Wave movies every Monday. I participated in TCM Parties for many of those movies, including Room at the Top (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), A Kind of Loving (1962), and Billy Liar (1963). Although I don't believe I was the official host of the British New Wave movies airing in March 2012, I tweeted trivia about them and was on hand to translate the Northern accents in the films (for some reason many of my fellow Americans have difficulty understanding them). The first TCM Party I officially hosted was also a British film--Bedazzled.

Following Bedazzled I would host many TCM Parties. In fact, I believe I am the default host for A Hard Day's Night (1964). While I have fond memories of the first time I hosted it, which was also the first time Turner Classic Movies ever aired it, my favourite TCM Party for A Hard Day's Night was on the occasion that I was a Fan Favourite on TCM introducing the movie with Ben Mankiewicz. It was a bit surreal, hearing my own voice on the television while I was tweeting about the movie on Twitter!

Of course, the TCM Parties I seem to remember the best are those that I did not host. I remember that on February 1 2014 Turner Classic Movies showed Oscar nominees from 1939, widely regarded as the greatest year in the history of American cinema, as part of their 31 Days of Oscar. I spent much of the day in TCM Parties for Wuthering Heights, The Wizard of Oz, and Gone with the Wind.

I also have fond memories of each October when Turner Classic Movies shows horror movies. I have been the host for TCM Parties for many of the Hammer horrors. While I love the old Universal horror movies, I must confess most of my favourite horror movies were produced by Hammer Films. It always fun live tweeting to The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1960), and so on. Of course, I always love live tweeting William Castle's movies as well. They are often very goofy and a lot of fun. In fact, my all time favourite tweet is one I made last year when TCM showed Homicidal (1961). I would reveal the tweet to you, but I fear it would spoil the movie for those who haven't seen it!

While I have enjoyed every TCM Party for A Hard Day's Night and the many ones for Hammer Horrors, my all time favourite TCM Party remains one for The Loved One (1965). In May 2013 Turner Classic Movies aired a series called Second Looks on Friday nights, hosted by Illeana Douglas. They aired The Loved One on May 24. For those unfamiliar with The Loved One, it is an outrageous Sixties comedy in the vein of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Its tagline was "the motion picture with something to offend everyone!". Quite naturally, then, The Loved One is a very fun movie to live tweet. It was made even more fun by the fact that Illeana Douglas live tweeted along with us. I do believe at one point she was sent to "Twitter jail" for tweeting too much!

Of course, beyond the many fond memories I have of the TCM Parties that I have participated in are the many dear friends I have made through TCM Party. I had several classic film buff friends before I began taking part in TCM Parties, but after TCM Party the number grew substantially. My life has then been enriched a good deal by TCM Party. I hope it continues for many more years!

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Shelley Berman Passes On

Comedian and actor Shelley Berman died on September 1 2017 at the age of 92. The cause was complications from Alzheimer's disease. Among many other things he won the first Grammy Award for a spoken comedy recording in 1959.

Shelley Berman was born Sheldon Berman in Chicago, Illinois on February 3 1925. During World War II he enlisted in the United States Navy, but was released on a medical discharge due to his asthma. Afterwards he studied acting at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago. He later joined the Woodstock Players theatre company based out of Woodstock, Illinois. There he acted alongside such people as Geraldine Page, Betsy Palmer, and Tom Bosley.

Mr. Berman and his wife Sarah then moved about the country where he worked jobs ranging from teaching at an Arthur Murray dance studio to working as a social director in a hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida. In New York City he worked as a  sketch writer on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show. He made his television debut as an actor in an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse in 1954. He also appeared on the TV show Goodyear Playhouse and the movie Dementia in 1955. In 1956 he returned to Chicago to join the Compass Players, where he worked with the now legendary comedy team of  Mike Nicholas and Elaine May. It was in 1957 that he began his own career as a stand-up comic. He guest starred as comedian Danny Holland on the Peter Gunn episode "The Comic" in 1959 and that same year released his first comedy album, Inside Shelley Berman. It was followed by the comedy album Outside Shelley Berman that same year and The Edge of Shelley Berman in 1960. As a comedian he appeared on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Steve Allen Plymouth Show, The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney, The George Gobel Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, and The Jack Paar Tonight Show. In 1959 he appeared on Broadway in the revue The Girls Against the Boys.

Shelley Berman began the Sixties as one of the most popular comedians in the United States. During the decade he would record more albums, including A Personal Appearance, New Sides, and Let Me Tell You a Funny Story. He recorded the album The Sex Life of The Primate (And Other Bits of Gossip) with the comedy team of Stiller and Meara and actress Lovelady Powell. He appeared on Broadway in the musical A Family Affair. He continued to appear frequently on television on such shows as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Merv Griffin Show, What's My Line?, The Judy Garland Show, and The Linkletter Show. He guest starred on such shows as The Twilight Zone; Car 54, Where Are You?, Rawhide, and Breaking Point.

Unfortunately it would be a television appearance that would very nearly end his career as a comic. In 1963 NBC-TV filmed a documentary that followed his life as a comic, "Comedian Backstage", for their programme The DuPont Show of the Week. It was during his monologue "Father and Son" that a phone rang backstage and Shelley Berman lost his temper. The documentary damaged his career as a comedian and it never quite recovered. While he continued to appear as a comic on various talk shows, he turned increasingly to acting as the Sixties progressed. He guest starred on such shows as Burke's Law, Bewitched, Mister Roberts, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., Get Smart, and Mary Tyler Moore. He had a recurring role on the short lived show That's Life. He appeared in the films The Best Man (1964), Divorce American Style (1967), and Every Home Should Have One (1970). He continued to appear on various talk shows, game shows, and variety shows, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Match Game, Hollywood Squares, The Dean Martin Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, The Jackie Gleason Show, The Joey Bishop Show, and The Hollywood Palace.

In the Seventies Shelley Berman guest starred on such shows as Adam-12; Love, American Style; Emergency!; Police Woman; Vega$; and CHiPs. He had a recurring role on Forever Fernwood. In the Seventies he appeared on such talk shows and variety shows as The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, and Dinah!. He appeared in the movie Beware! The Blob (1972). In 1980 he appeared in his own one man show, Insideoutsideandallaround with Shelley Berman, on Broadway.

In the Eighties he guest starred on such shows as Matt Houston, Hotel, Knight Rider, St. Elsewhere, Mike Hammer, Night Court, and The Munsters Today. He appeared in the movies Rented Lips (1988), Teen Witch (1989), and Elliot Fauman, Ph.D. (1990). 

In the Nineties Mr. Berman had a recurring role on L. A. Law. He was the voice of Alderman on The Blues Brothers Animated Series. He had a regular role on the short lived show Walter & Emily. He guest starred on the shows Monsters, MacGyver, Civil Wars, Friends, Providence, and Walker, Texas Ranger. He appeared in the films Motorama (1991), In God We Trust (2000), and The Last Producer (2000).  In 1995 he released his first comedy album in years, Live Again! Recorded at the Improv.

In the Naughts Shelley Berman had recurring roles on both Boston Legal and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He guest starred on such shows as King of Queens, Grey's Anatomy, Entourage, Pushing Daisies, and C.S.I.: NY. He appeared in the films Meet the Fockers (2004), The Holiday (2006), and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (2008) He provided a voice for the animated feature The Legend of Secret Pass (2010). His last appearance was on an episode of Hawaii Five-0 in 2012. Shelley Berman released two last comedy albums, To Laughter with Questions and When Jews Were Funny, both in 2013.

Shelley Berman was one of a group of revolutionary comics to emerge in the late Fifties and early Sixties, a a group that included Lenny Bruce, Bob Newhart, Nichols & May, Mort Sahl, and Stiller & Meara. Rather than simply telling jokes, many of these comedians told stories, created sketches, or simply made observations on everyday life. Indeed, in many ways Shelley Berman was not really a stand-up comedian at all. He did most of his act sitting on a stool. And his act did not consist of one gag after another, but instead it consisted of monologues on the vagaries of everyday life. His monologues involved everything from a man with a hangover who is reminded by his host of all the damage he caused the night before to an airline passenger trying to alert a seemingly oblivious flight attendant that the plane's wing is on fire. Shelley Berman's monologues were not only funny, but they also expressed much of the anxiety people had about the modern day world.

Of course, before he was a comic, Shelley Berman was an actor, and he would turn to that career when his career as a comedian faltered.  He was very good as an actor, and he did drama as well as he did comedy. He was impressive in The Twilight Zone episode "The Mind and the Matter", as a man who remakes the world in his own image through the sheer power of his own mind. He also did well as Judge Robert Sanders, the somewhat senile old judge on Boston Legal. In many respects it should come as no surprise that Shelley Berman would be a good actor. As a comedian he essentially played different roles in his monologues. Indeed, it was one of the many things that made him such a good comedian.