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.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

The Late Great Jane Powell

Jane Powell is one of those stars from the Golden Age with whom I have been familiar since childhood. I saw Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) on broadcast network television and, like so many before me, I fell under Miss Powell's spell. As I grew older I would see more of her movies, including A Date with Judy (1948) and Royal Wedding (1951). In every role she played, she simply lit up the screen. It is to understand why she was one of the most successful stars of musicals in the Forties and Fifties. Sadly, Jane Powell died today, September 16 2021, at the age of 92.

Jane Powell was born Suzanne Lorraine Burce on April 1 1929 in Portland, Oregon. Her parents were instrumental in leading her to pursue a career in entertainment, seeing in her the potential for her to become another Shirley Temple. During World War II, when she was still a child, Jane Powell was already playing night clubs. Eventually she received her own weekly radio show. It was in 1943 that her family went on vacation in Hollywood. While there she appeared on a talent contest on Janet Gaynor's radio show Stars Over Hollywood. As a result she came to the notice of MGM, who signed her to a contract at $225 a week. At age 15 she was loaned to United Artists to appear in what would be her first movie, Song of the Open Road (1944). In the movie her character was named "Jane Powell," which she adopted as her stage name.

Jane Powell's second movie, Delightfully Dangerous (1945), would also be for United Artists. Her first film for MGM was Holiday in Mexico (1946). She was one of the three female leads in Three Daring Daughters (1948) and with A Date with Judy (1948) she received her first role as the primary lead. In the late Forties she also appeared in the movies Luxury Liner (1948), Nancy Goes to Rio (1950) and Two Weeks with Love (1950).

Jane Powell began the Fifties with one of her most famous roles, that of Ellen Bowen in Royal Wedding (1951). It was in 1954 that she appeared in what may be her most famous role, that of Milly in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. During the decade she appeared in the films, Rich, Young and Pretty (1951), Small Town Girl (1953), Athena (1954), Deep in My Heart (1954), Hit the Deck (1955), The Girl Most Likely (1957), The Female Animal (1958), and Enchanted Island (1958).  She made her television debut in an episode of Producer's Showcase in 1957. She guest starred on the shows Goodyear Theatre, Alcoa Theatre, and The Dupont Show with June Allyson. In 1959 she played Esther in a television production of Meet Me in St. Louis.

In the Sixties Jane Powell's career shifted from movie to appearances on stage. In 1964 she played Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady at Los Angeles' Valley West Theatre. She also played in productions of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, The Boy Friend, and The Sound of Music. She appeared frequently on television during the decade, including several appearances on The Red Skelton Show. She also guest appeared on the show The Dick Powell Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Tim Conway Hour. She appeared in the TV movies Hooray for Love and Feathertop. In 1961 she starred in an unsold pilot, The Jane Powell Show. In the pilot she played an actress and singer who marries a math professor who lives in a small California town.

In 1974 Jane Powell made her only appearance on Broadway in the production Irene. She also appeared on stage in productions of I Do! I Do! and South Pacific. She the voice of Celeste in the animated feature film Tubby the Tuba. During the Seventies she guest starred on the TV show Fantasy Island. She appeared in the TV movies Wheeler and Murdoch, The Letters, and Mayday at 40,000 Feet.

In the Eighties Miss Powell played the recurring role of Irma Seaver, the mother of lead character Dr. Jason Roland Seaver (Alan Thicke), on the sitcom Growing Pains. She guest starred on the shows Fantasy Island; Love Boat; and Murder, She Wrote. She appeared in the movie Marie (1985). In the Nineties she was a temporary substitute for the role of Lisa Grimaldi usually played by Eileen Fulton on the soap opera As the World Turns. She appeared in the mini-series Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: JonBenét and the City of Boulder and in the TV movie The Sandy Bottom Orchestra. She appeared in the movie Picture This (1999). In 2002 she guest starred on an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

Jane Powell had very close ties with Turner Classic Movies. In fact, she was tied to the cable channel from the very beginning, as one of the people present at TCM's launch on April 14 1994, along with Robert Osborne, Ted Turner, Celeste Holm, Van Johnson, and Arlene Dahl. She attended the TCM Classic Film Festival and also sailed aboard the TCM Classic Cruise.

Quite simply, Jane Powell was one of the greatest musical stars of all time. She had an incredible voice that served her well in multiple movies and stage musicals. What is more, she had an effervescence and charisma that made her irresistible. Many think of Jane Powell's roles as always being that of the girl next door, but she actually did play much more. Milly in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was strong willed and stubborn enough to go head to head with seven mountain men. In The Girl Most Likely she played a woman who becomes engaged to three men at the same time. On Murder, She Wrote, she played the mother superior of a convent. Jane Powell was one of the last stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood. What is more, she was ever inch a star.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The 50th Anniversary of Columbo

It was 50 years ago today, on September 15 1971, that Columbo debuted as one of the rotating television shows on The NBC Mystery Movie. It would prove to be the most successful shows on The NBC Mystery Movie. It outlived The NBC Mystery Movie itself. When The NBC Mystery Movie ended its run in 1977, Columbo continued to air as a series of television movies in the 1977-1978 season. Columbo was revived in the 1988-1989 season as one of the shows on The ABC Mystery Movie. When The ABC Mystery Movie went off the air at the end of the 1989-1990 season, Columbo would continue on ABC as a series of TV movies that lasted until 2003.

Columbo centred on Lt. Columbo (played by Peter Falk), a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. Lt. Columbo was usually unshaven and almost always wore a rumpled raincoat. He smoked cheap cigars. On the surface he appeared to be bumbling and overly deferential to the point that he was almost always apologizing. While Columbo might appear bumbling, he possessed a razor sharp mind. He was an excellent judge of human nature, a sharp observer who picked up on clues others might miss, and a genius when it came to deductive reasoning.

While Lt. Columbo was a sharp contrast to other television detectives, the show itself was a sharp contrast to other mystery series. Quite simply, it was a prime example of the inverted detective story, in which the crime is shown at the beginning of the story and the culprit is known to the reader (or in the case of Columbo, the viewer) from the start. Indeed, one gets the feeling even Lt. Columbo realizes who has committed a murder from the beginning. It is just a matter of gathering enough evidence before he can arrest them.

Here it must be pointed out that Lt. Columbo actually pre-dates the show bearing his name. The character's origins go back to "May I Come In" by Richard Levinson and William Link, first published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March 1960. In the story there is a smallish detective named Lt. Fisher. Richard Levinson and William Link adapted the story as the episode "Enough Rope"for The Chevy Mystery Show, which aired on July 30 1960. In "Enough Rope" Lt. Fisher became Lt. Columbo, played by Bert Freed. Messrs. Levinson and Link were disappointed with how the episode turned out, and then set about adapting "Enough Rope" as a play. The play was titled Prescription: Murder and featured Thomas Mitchell (who played Uncle Billy in It's a Wonderful Life) in the role of Lt. Columbo. While Lt. Columbo was only a secondary character in the play, it became clear audiences loved the character.

It was for that reason that when Prescription: Murder was adapted as a television movie, Lt. Columbo occupied centre stage. The role of Lt. Columbo was first offered to Lee J. Cobb, who turned out to be unavailable. It was then offered to Bing Crosby, who turned it down. The role finally went to Peter Falk, who had appeared in such movies as Murder Inc. (1960), for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, and The Great Race (1965), as well as the TV series The Trials of O'Brien. Prescription: Murder aired on NBC on February 20 1968. The movie proved so successful that NBC wanted a series spun off from it, but Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter Falk did not want to do a regularly scheduled television show at the time.
vFor the 1971-1972 season NBC was planing an umbrella series, The NBC Mystery Movie. As an umbrella series The NBC Mystery Movie would rotate various programs in the same time slot. One of the programs NBC wanted as part of The NBC Mystery Movie was a Columbo series. Fortunately, Richard Levinson, William Link, and Peter Falk were more agreeable to a regular TV series at this point, and so a pilot, "Ransom for a Dead Man," was commissioned. "Ransom for a Dead Man" aired on March 1 1971 and proved to be a success. Columbo was then added to the rotation of The NBC Mystery Movie, along with McCloud and McMillan & Wife.

Columbo became the most popular shows to emerge from The NBC Mystery Movie and in many respects it easy to see why. Much of the appeal of the show was Peter Falk's performance as Lt. Columbo. He was nominated for ten Emmys for playing the character, and won five. In addition to Peter Falk, Columbo always featured big name guest stars. The culprit in every single episode was always some big name star, and murderers on the show were played by such actors as Eddie Albert, Anne Baxter, Robert Culp, Martin Landau, Ross Martin, and many others. The murder victims were often big name stars as well. Among the actors who appeared as victims on Columbo were Richard Anderson, Pat Crowley, Anne Francis, Martin Milner, Martin Sheen,  Forrest Tucker, and others. Big name guest stars even appeared in secondary roles, some of which were sometimes rather small. In the episode "Negative Reaction," Larry Storch played a driving instructor. In "Lovely But Lethal," Vincent Rice played the head of a cosmetics company.

Beyond the appeal of the show's many guest stars, Columbo probably also appeals to many because it pits an everyman, Lt. Columbo, against the rich and powerful. The murders that Lt. Columbo investigate always seem to take place among the affluent. The murderers on Columbo were almost always rich, powerful, and intelligent. They also tended to be arrogant, leading them to underestimate the overly polite, often bumbling Lt. Columbo, much to their eternal regret at the end of the episode. Speaking as a fan of the show since childhood, I think most viewers take great satisfaction in Lt. Columbo taking down rich, powerful, and overly arrogant individuals a peg or two.

The success of Columbo would lead to a series of books, the first of which was published in 1972. There would be another series of books published between 1994 and 1999. In 2010, Columbo co-creator William Link  wrote an anthology of short stories featuring the character, The Columbo Collection. It was published in 2010.

The last episode of the original run of Columbo, "The Conspirators," aired on May 13 1978. NBC was not finished with Columbo, as a spinoff, Mrs. Columbo, debuted on NBC on February 26 1979. On the original show, Columbo often referred to his wife, but Mrs. Columbo ignored the continuity of the original show to the point that it was unbelievable. Kate Mulgrew played Kate Columbo, supposedly the wife of Lt. Columbo. The casting of Kate Mulgrew in the role posed some problems with continuity, in that at the time Miss Mulgrew was only 24 years old. That means when Prescription: Murder first aired, she would only been 13. As it is, the show had been launched over the objections of Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link. As time passed the show would be renamed Kate Columbo, with Kate having gotten later. Still later, the show was renamed Kate the Detective and Kate Loves a Mystery, with the producers entirely ditching the show's original premise. Regardless, the 1989 revival of Columbo would entirely ignore Mrs. Columbo, making it clear the two shows did not share continuity.

It was in the 1988-1989 season that Universal Television and ABC sought to revive the NBC Mystery Movie concept with The ABC Mystery Movie. Columbo was one of the original programs on this new umbrella series, along with Gideon Oliver and B. L. Stryker. Columbo proved to be the only show on The ABC Mystery Movie to have any success, outlasting the umbrella series by several years. The last episode of Columbo, "Columbo Likes the Nightlife," aired on ABC on January 30 2003.

While the original run ended in 1978 and the revival in 2003, Columbo has persisted in reruns ever since the last episode of the original run. To this day Lt. Columbo remains one of the most popular characters on American television. It is safe to say that Columbo will still be around for another fifty years.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

TV Writer Irma Kalish Passes On

Irma Kalish, who wrote episodes of such classic shows as F Troop, Family Affair, All in the Family, and others, died on September 2 2021 at the age of 96. The cause was complications from pneumonia. She often wrote with her husband, Austin Kalish.

Irma Kalish was born Irma Ginsberg on October 6 1924. She graduated from Syracuse University and began working as a magazine writer. She soon shifted to comedy writing. She married Austin Kalish in 1948 and the two moved to the West Coast. The couple then got a job writing for the radio show The Martin and Lewis Show, showing Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

Mr. and Mrs. Kalish eventually moved into television.  Irma Kalish's first television writing credit was The Millionaire episode "The Philip Sargent Story," co-written with Seelig Lester. In the Sixties Mrs. Kalish wrote several episodes of F Troop, Family Affair, and My Three Sons. She also wrote episodes of the shows The Patty Duke Show, Gidget, I Dream of Jeannie, Gidget, My Favourite Martian, Please Don't Eat the Daisies, The Hero, That Girl, He & She, Cimarron Strip, The Flying Nun, and Nanny and the Professor.

In the Seventies Irma and Austin Kalish served as executive producers on the sitcom Good Times. They also wrote several episodes of the series. They also served as producers on the short lived series Good Heavens and wrote several episodes of that show as well. They wrote several episodes of All in the Family. Among their work in that decade was the controversial two-part episode "Maude's Dilemma" of the TV show Maude, in which the title character considers whether or not she should have an abortion. Irma Kalish also wrote episodes of the shows Anna and the King, The Bob Newhart ShowThe Brian Keith Show, Apple's Way, Dusty's Trail, and Carter County, as well as several TV movies.

In the Eighties Irma Kalish served as a producer on the shows Too Close for Comfort and Oh Madeline. She served as an executive producer on The Facts of Life, 227, and Valerie. She wrote episodes of the shows Too Close for Comfort, Foot in the Door, Oh Madeline, Finder of Lost Loves, The Facts of Life, and 227. Mrs. Kalish also co-wrote the TV reunion movie I Dream of Jeannie..15 Years Later. She was one of the co-creators of the short-lived sitcom Sugar and Spike and co-wrote the pilot. Her final writing credit was co-writing an episode of The Famous Jett Jackson in 1998.

>With regards to movies, Irma and Austin Kalish co-wrote the screenplay for the movie Keep Off the Grass! (1975)

Irma Kalish was an active member of the Writers Guild of America. She served on both the board and as a vice president. She also served on the board of the Motion Picture and Television Fund for twenty years. She was one of the first presidents of Women in Film.

As a writer Irma Kalish was certainly versatile, both with and without her husband Austin Kalish. She could write for comedies in multiple genres. You wrote some of the best episodes of the broad spoof F Troop, but at the same time she and Austin Kalish could handle serious topics (such as in the case of "Maude's Dilemma") with sensitivity while still remaining funny. She wrote several hours of some of the funniest classic sitcoms on television, everything from I Dream of Jeannie to Too Close for Comfort. She was also a pioneer. When Irma Kalish began writing for television, there were only a few women in the medium. She paved the way for other women to work in television. Irma Kalish may not be a recognizable name to the average person, but she provided them with many hours of quality television.

Monday, September 13, 2021

Godspeed Don Collier

Don Collier, who starred on the TV Westerns as Outlaws, The High Chaparral, and The Young Riders, and appeared in the John Wayne movies El Dorado (1966), The War Wagon (1967), and The Undefeated (1969), died today, September 13 2021, at the age of 92. The cause was lung cancer.

Don Collier was born on October 17 1928 in Santa Monica, California. He served in both the United States Navy and the Merchant Marine. Following his service he worked on a cattle ranch in San Fernando Valley owned by actor Francis Lederer. Mr. Lederer asked Don Collier to to join the drama classes that he conducted there. He attended Hardin-Simmons University on a football scholarship, but dropped out after his freshman year. He worked odd jobs for four years before returning to acting, studying acting under Estelle Harman.

Don Collier made his film debut in a bit part in Twelve Hours to Kill in 1960. That same year he appeared in the movie Seven Ways from Sundown (1960) with Audie Murphy. He made his television debut in the second episode of Bonanza, "The Mission. That same season he was one of the leads in the Western Outlaws in 1960. On the show Mr. Collier played Deputy Marshal Will Foreman. In the second season Will Foreman was promoted to United States Marshall and he was the show's primary lead.

In the Sixties Don Collier played Sam Butler, the foreman of the title ranch on the TV series The High Chaparral. He guest starred on the shows Bonanza, Wide County, Temple Houston, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Profiles in Courage, Wagon Train, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Peyton Place, Branded, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, Death Valley Days, Hondo, and Land of the Giants. He appeared in the movies Safe at Home! (1962), Moment to Moment (1966), Incident at Phantom Hill (1966), Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1966), El Dorado (1966), The War Wagon (1967), 5 Card Stud (1968), The Undefeated (1969), and Flap (1970).

p>In the early Seventies Mr. Collier continued to appear on The High Chaparral. He guest starred on The Man and the City, Bonanza, The Waltons, Banacek, Gunsmoke, Chase, Little House on the Prairie, Sara, and How the West Was Won. He appeared in the mini-series Aspen and The Sacketts. For eight years in the Seventies, Don Collier appeared as the Gum Fighter in commercial for Hubba Bubba bubble gum.

In the Eighties Don Collier played storekeeper William Tompkins on The Young Riders. He guest starred on Little House on the Prairie and Highway to Heaven. He appeared in the mini-series The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. He appeared in the movie The Cellar (1988) and Kid (1990).

In the Nineties Don Collier continued to appear on The Young Riders. He guest starred on the TV shows Renegade and Legend. He appeared in the reunion movie Gunsmoke: One Man's Justice and the reboot movie Bonanza: Under Attack. He appeared in the movies Benefit of the Doubt (1993) and Tombstone (1993). From the Naughts onward he appeared in the movies Jake's Corner (2008), Bill Tilghman and the Outlaws (2019), and Legend (2020).

Don Collier was a remarkable actor. While he will likely always be remembered as Sam from The High Chaparral, he played a wide variety of roles in his career. He appeared on Bonanza no less than five times, playing a different character each time. In the episode "The Good Samaritan" he played Wade Tyree, a friend of Hoss who has just been freshly jilted by his sweetheart. In "Credit for a Kill" he played a sheriff about as far removed as Wade Tyree as one could get. And while Don Collier is generally known for playing good guys, he did play villains on occasion. In The War Wagon he played one of the villain's henchmen. Throughout his career he played a variety of roles, from a physician on The Waltons to Admiral Russ Carton in War and Remembrance.