Friday, September 17, 2021

Car 54, Where Are You? Turns 60

Car 54, Where Are You? isn't a show one hears much about any more, but it remains popular among fans of classic television. Among other things, the show was an early workplace comedy. It was set New York City Police precinct house fourteen years before Barney Miller. Ultimately, it would prove to be an influence on future sitcoms. Car 54, Where Are You? debuted sixty years ago today, on September 17 1961 on NBC.

Car 54, Where Are You? was the creation of Nat Hiken, best known then as now as the creator of The Phil Silvers Show. It emerged from Mr. Hiken's visit to a a New York City precinct house where he realized that the real life police officers there were a far cry from their counterparts on radio, on television, or in films. It occurred to him that the day to day work of police officers could form the basis for a situation comedy. He made further trips to the precinct house for research. In sharp contrast to the portrayal of police precinct houses in much of the media, Nat Hiken found the precinct house he visited to be "...a very warm, friendly atmosphere."

Car 54, Where Are You? centred on Officer Gunther Toody (played by Joe E. Ross) and Officer Frances Muldoon (played by Fred Gwynne) of the 53rd Precinct. Officer Toody was not terribly bright, and often overly talkative. His wife, Lucille (played by Beatrice Pons) could be domineering and was often loud. Officer Muldoon was his opposite. He had gone to college and was even intellectual to a degree. While Officer Toody could be loud and gabby, Officer Muldoon tended to be quiet and reserved. Officer Muldoon lived with his mother (played by Ruth Masters) and his two younger sisters. The title comes from the car to which Officers Toody and Muldoon were assigned, Car 54.

>Nat Hiken found a sponsor for Car 54, Where Are You?  in Proctor & Gamble, who financed the show's pilot. The show was picked up by NBC. Car 54, Where Are You? differed from other sitcoms of the era in that it was filmed on location in New York City. So the police cars on the show would not be mistaken for the genuine article, they were painted red and white rather than black and white. As the show was shot in black and white, the "red" would show up as "black" on the television screen. Interiors were shot at the old Biograph Studios in The Bronx.

Nat Hiken not only produced Car 54, Where Are You? and wrote and directed many of its episodes, but he also wrote the theme song with John Strauss. 

Car 54, Where Are You? also differed from other sitcoms in that it had a rather large cast of recurring characters. Captain Paul Block (played by Paul Reed) was the head of the 53rd Precinct. Among the other officers at the 53rd Precinct was Officer Schnauser, a role that Nat Hiken had created specifically for Al Lewis. He was married to Sylvia Schnauser (played by Charlotte Rae). Schnauser's partner was Officer Ed Nicholson (played by Hank Garrett). Other officers on the show included Rodriguez (played by Jack Healy) and O'Hara (played by Albert Henderson). The 53rd Precinct's radio dispatcher was Officer David Anderson (played by Nipsey Russell). In featuring Nipsey Russell in a prominent role, Car 54, Where Are You? was a bit ahead of its time. It also featured other Black actors, including Ossie Davis as Officer Omar Anderson and Frederick O'Neal as Officer Wallace.

Car 54, Where Are You? was well received. It won the Emmy for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Comedy and was nominated for Emmy Awards for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy and Outstanding Program Achievement in the Field of Humor in the 1961-1962 season. It was nominated again for Outstanding Writing Achievement in Comedy in the 1962-1963 season. It also did well in the ratings, coming in at no. 20 for the 1961-1962 season. It dropped in the ratings in the 1962-1963 season, but was still doing relatively well.

Unfortunately, Nat Hiken was under enormous stress producing, writing, and directing Car 54, Where Are You?. Furthermore, Joe E. Ross could often be a source of problems on the set. Nat Hiken then entertained offers from Hollywood studios for them to take control of Car 54, Where Are You? Four Star Productions made an offer for the series. Desilu also wanted the series, although negotiations between Desilu and Nat Hiken eventually fell apart. Nat Hiken then entered into negotiations with NBC itself, but those negotiations also fell apart. Ultimately, no one would Nat Hiken's terms with regards to Car 54, Where Are You? and as a result he ended the show after two seasons.

Car 54, Where Are You? went onto a fairly successful run in syndication. In 1990 a feature film, starring  John C. McGinley as Muldoon and  David Johansen as Toody was made. It would not be released until 1994. It bombed at the box office and received largely negative reviews.

The movie certainly didn't hurt the original series. Since the Nineties Car 54, Where Are You? has aired on MeTV and Decades, and is widely available on various streaming services. It is also available on DVD. While one doesn't hear much about Car 54, Where Are You? these days, it certainly left its mark on television.


Barry Bradford said...

Thank you for this very interesting article. I wasn’t aware that Ross caused problems on the set. Can you explain? I remember that Nipsey Russell was one of the first African-American actors to be featured in a non servant role on television.

Caftan Woman said...

Nat was a genius and Car 54 is one of those shows that impresses to this day and provides guaranteed laughs, and all can use guaranteed laughs.