Saturday, October 15, 2022

The High Chaparral

Even today Latinos are underrrepresented in the media. While Latinos make up 18.7% of the population in the United States according to the last census, they account for only 3.1% of all leading roles on television. In the Sixties Latino representation was much worse. Latinos rarely appeared on television and when they did, it was usually in Westerns where they were often portrayed as stereotypical Mexican bandidos or hot-tempered señoritas. When the Western television series The High Chaparral debuted, it was then positively revolutionary. Half of the lead characters were Mexican (even though they weren't played by actors of Mexican descent), and some of the supporting characters were as well. What is more, they were not presented as stereotypes, but as three-dimensional characters whose personalities were not entirely defined by preconceived notions about their ethnicity.

The High Chaparral
centred on the ranch of the same name, so named for the chaparral that grew in the area. In the pilot John Cannon (Leif Erickson), his wife  Anna-Lee (Joan Caulfield), his son Billy Blue (often called "Blue Boy," he was played by Mark Slade), and his brother Buck (Cameron Mitchell) settled the ranch, located near the border between Arizona Territory and Mexico. Anna-Lee was killed not long after they settled there in an attack by the Apaches. With the Apaches a constant threat, John Cannon had to enter into an alliance with Don Sebastian Montoya (Frank Silvera), who owned a large ranch on the Mexican side of the border. As a condition of the alliance, Don Sebastian required John to marry his daughter, Victoria (Linda Cristal).  Victoria's brother, Manolito (Henry Darrow), who did not get along particularly well with her father, accompanied his sister to her new home. Blue Boy initially did not approve of the marriage, although he grew to appreciate it in time. Although they married for reasons other than love and there was 30 years difference in their ages, John and Victoria grew to love each other as well.

The High Chaparral was the creation of David Dortort, who had also created what may be the most famous ranch Western of them all, Bonanza. David Dortort wanted to produce a Western where a son did not get along with his father, which would make it quite different from Bonanza. At the same time he thought Latinos did not get enough exposure on television and, when they did, too often they were portrayed as stereotypes. The end result of these two ideas was The High Chaparral, on which Blue did not particularly get along well with his father John and Mexican characters played large roles.

The pilot for The High Chaparral was shot in the summer of 1966. What set the pilot for The High Chaparral apart from any pilots before it is that it was meant to air in two parts, each an hour long with commercials. According to news reports at the time, it was the first two-part pilot ever. As might be expected, the pilot was expensive for television at the time. It cost $600,000. At the time David Dortort thought that if the pilot did not sell, then he could release it as a feature film.

At the time he assumed the role of Big John Cannon, Leif Erickson already had a long career. He had been appearing in movies since the Thirties and had appeared in such movies as On the Waterfront (1954) and Strait-Jacket (1964). Before playing Buck Cannon on The High Chaparral, Cameron Mitchell had also had a long career in film and television. He had starred on the short-lived British series The Beachcomber. Prior to playing Billy Blue, Mark Slade had been a regular on the short-lived show The Wackiest Ship in the Army and had guest starred on such shows as Gomer Pyle: USMC and Mr. Novak.

Despite the fact that their characters were Mexican, some of the actors playing members of the Montoya family were not even Latino. Although she grew up in Argentina, Linda Cristal was either born to a French father and an Italian mother or to Spanish parents. She had an impressive film career prior to playing Victoria on The High Chaparral, appearing in such films as The Perfect Furlough (1958) and The Alamo (1960). Frank Silvera, who played the recurring role of Don Sebastian Montoya, was Jamaican in ancestry. Throughout his career he had played a variety of ethnicities, although more often than not he played Latin characters. Of the Montoyas, the one character played by a Latino was Manolito Montoya. Henry Darrow was born Enrique Tomás Delgado in New York City to Puerto Rican parents. Initially using the stage name "Henry Delgado," he switched to the name "Henry Darrow" to avoid typecasting. Prior to The High Chaparral, he had made several guest appearances on television from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to Gunsmoke.

On many ranch Westerns on television it was often the case that ranch hands rarely appeared. Indeed, on David Dortort's own Bonanza it sometimes seemed as if the vast Ponderosa was ran by only four men. This was not the case with The High Chaparral, on which one of the lead characters was a ranch hand and several of the recurring characters were also ranch hands. Don Collier played the foreman of the High Chaparral, Sam Butler. Don Collier had been one of the leads on the Western television series Outlaws and had made several guest appearances on television shows.

While Sam Butler was a regular character on The High Chaparral, there were several other ranch hands who appeared in several episodes and appeared from the beginning of the show to its very end. Among these was Sam's brother Joe (Bob Hoy). Prior to The High Chaparral Bob Hoy had made several guest appearances on Bonanza and The Wild Wild West. Pedro was another ranch hand at the High Chaparral who appeared frequently on the show. He was also played by one of the only two semi-regular actors on the show who were actually Mexican in descent. Roberto Contreras was the son of director Jaime Contreras, who was born in Oaxaca, Mexico. Prior to The High Chaparral, Roberto Contreras had guest starred on several TV Westerns. The other semi-regular actor on The High Chaparral who was Mexican in descent was Rodolfo Acosta, who played Vaquero on the show. Like Roberto Contreras, Rodolfo Acosta had appeared on several TV Westerns prior to The High Chaparral. Among the other ranch hands who appeared on The High Chaparral from time to time were Reno (Ted Markland) and Ira (Jerry Summers).

The High Chaparral was filmed on location at Old Tucson Studios in Arizona, as well as  Saguaro National Park in Arizona. Shooting in Arizona presented some problems, as in the summer temperatures could easily rise above 100 degrees. Other exteriors were shot around California, in such places as Red Rock Canyon State Park and Bronson Canyon. All interiors and some of the exteriors were shot at Warner Bros. in Burbank, with scenes shot on Laramie Street on the back lot and Studios 20 and 25 at Warner Bros.

The theme of The High Chaparral was composed by David Rose, who served as the composer on Bonanza (although its famous original theme was composed by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans). In fact, he drew upon the score he had composed for the fifth season Bonanza episode "The Pressure Game" in writing the theme to The High Chaparral.

For a show that had a large ensemble, The High Chaparral had very few changes in its cast. Mark Slade left at the end of the third season. He was 28 when the show began and was over thirty by the third season. Quite simply, he was too old to convincingly play a teenager. Frank Silvera died shortly after the end of the third season. Don Sebastian was written out of the show as having died. He willed Rancho Monotya to his brother, Don Domingo (played by Mexican acting legend Gilbert Roland).

While The High Chaparral never ranked in the top thirty shows for the year, it did relatively well in the ratings for most of its run. It proved phenomenally successful in Europe, where it was the number one show there for a time. In Sweden a song titled "Manolito," about the character from The High Chaparral, was even written and recorded by singer/songwriter Thore Skogman. The High Chaparral can still be found in syndication in Europe.

The High Chaparral would end its run with its fourth season. Its last original episode aired on March 12 1971. The reasons for the cancellation of The High Chaparral seem to have been manifold. Its ratings were no longer as high as they had once been. It was also an expensive show to produce. The average episode cost $225,000 to produce.

Another possible factor in the cancellation of The High Chaparral may have been the fact that the 1970-1971 season was the year of the Rural Purge, at which time the networks purged themselves of shows that appealed primarily to rural audiences, older audiences, or both. It was mostly CBS that cancelled rural shows and shows that appealed to older audiences, although both NBC and ABC did their share of cancellations of such shows. NBC cancelled The Men from Shiloh (the new title of the long running Western The Virginian) because its audience was too old. Given Westerns have traditionally appealed to an older audience, it is possible that The High Chaparral fell victim to the networks' obsession with the 18-49 demographic.

Finally, it is possible that The High Chaparral fell victim to a moral panic over violence on television that had emerged after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. During the 1968-1969 season CBS had cancelled The Wild Wild West as a scapegoat in the moral panic over television violence. Sadly, the networks tended to identify the Western genre with violence. In an article published in the Pittsfield Berkshire Eagle, the Corpus Christi Caller Times, and other newspapers in mid-March of 1969, an ABC executive uses the fact that the network had eliminated all Westerns from their schedule as an example of their efforts to reduce violence on television. It is possible that NBC saw cancelling The High Chaparral as a means of reducing television violence on the network.

While The High Chaparral ended after four seasons, it would remain popular through the years. In addition to local television stations, it has been shown on such TV outlets as the Family Channel, the Hallmark Channel, INSP, and Heroes & Icons. The first three seasons have been released on DVD in the United States, and the entire run has been released on DVD in Europe. Although not as well known as such ranch Westerns as Bonanza and The Big Valley, The High Chaparral maintains a large following to this day.

Much of the reason The High Chaparral remains popular is that it was different from any other ranch Western on the air. The very fact that many of its characters were Mexican and were not played as stereotypes would set it apart from other Westerns of the time. While Victoria was strong-willed and had a temper, she was no stereotypical, fiery señorita. Indeed, she was responsible for much of the day-to-day running of the High Chaparral. And unlike a certain other ranch Western, when Victoria was captured she would not wait for the men to rescue her, but would figure out her own way to escape her captors. Similarly, Manolito was no stereotype either. Manolito was brave, intensely loyal to his friends and family, and he would always come down on the side of the oppressed. Even the Mexican ranch hands, such as Pedro and Vaquero, were not portrayed as stereotypes. Contrary to the "lazy Mexican" stereotype, they not only work hard, but they enjoy their work. Here it must be pointed out that Big John and Victoria had one of the few mixed marriages on television at the time. At a time when Latinos were rarely seen on television, The High Chaparral was positively revolutionary at the time in its portrayal of Latinos.

Even more so than Bonanza, The High Chaparral was sympathetic towards Native Americans. While the Apache were presented as a threat to both the High Chaparral and Rancho Montoya, they were treated with respect and as characters with their own motivations. For the most part, they were not portrayed as simple stereotypes, a sharp contrast to many of the Western television series of the Fifties.

Of course, another way in which The High Chaparral differed from other ranch Westerns is that it was much a grittier show. The characters on The High Chaparral did not always get along. Particularly in its early seasons, it was not unusual for Blue to fight with his father John, something the sons on Bonanza or The Big Valley rarely did. Even Victoria and Manolito, who were usually devoted to each other, would have arguments. In comparison to Bonanza and The Big Valley, The High Chaparral could be a very violent show. While the show was always centred around its characters (both the regulars and guest stars), it was at its core an action show. Gunfights and fisticuffs were not unknown in its earlier seasons.

The High Chaparral was one of the last Westerns on American television and it was a groundbreaking one at that. It featured Latinos in non-stereotypical roles at a time when Latinos were rarely seen on television. It also treated other ethnicities, from the Apache to Irish miners, with sympathy. At the same time, it was very effective as an action/adventure show. The High Chaparral may not be as well known as The Big Valley, let alone Bonanza, but there is every reason it should be.

Friday, October 14, 2022

The 50th Anniversary of the TV Series Kung Fu

It was fifty years ago today, October 14 1972, that the TV show Kung Fu debuted on ABC. Kung Fu would prove to be a success. For its first season it ranked no. 29 out of all the shows on the air. For its second season it ranked no. 27 out of all the shows on the air. It also seems likely that the show was at least partly responsible for triggering a kung fu/martial arts fad that lasted from 1973 to 1974. It maintains a cult following to this day.

Kung Fu
centred on Shaolin priest Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine), who was forced to flee China after killing his teacher's murderer (who just happened to be the Emperor's nephew). He then wandered the Old West, searching for his American half brother Danny Caine. All the while, Caine was pursued by bounty hunters and often faced injustice in his travels, forcing him to use his martial arts skills.

Kung Fu grew out of a movie treatment written by comedy writer Ed Spielman. Ever since had seen the movie Seven Samurai (1954), Mr. Spielman had been fascinated by East Asian culture. He wrote a movie treatment about legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi. In the original draft of the movie treatment, Miyamoto Musashi travelled to China where he was taught kung fu by a Shaolin monk. It was around 1967 that he showed the treatment to his writing partner, Howard Friedlander, who was fascinated by the character of the Shaolin monk. It was Howard Friedlander who suggested that instead of a movie about Miyamoto Musashi, Ed Spielman instead focus on a Shaolin monk wandering the Old West. The two then set to work on the treatment, eventually titled The Way of the Tiger, The Sign of the Dragon.

It was in 1969 that Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander submitted their jokes, along with  the movie treatment, to Peter Lampack, an agent at the Howard Morris agency. While Peter Lampack was not impressed by Messrs. Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander's jokes, he was interested in the treatment about a Shaolin monk wandering the Old West. Fred Weintraub, an Executive Vice President at Warner Bros., also took an interest in the The Way of the Tiger, The Sign of the Dragon. He had Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander write a screenplay based on the treatment in 1970. Unfortunately, Fred Weintraub was not able to stir up much interest at Warner Bros. in the project.

Fortunately, it occurred to Fred Weintraub that The Way of the Tiger, The Sign of the Dragon could be turned into television movie. It would be Jerry Thorpe and writer Herman Miller who would take Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander's screenplay and turn it into a ninety-minute teleplay for a television movie. Now simply titled Kung Fu, the TV movie aired on ABC on February 22 1972 as a Movie of the Week. The TV movie Kung Fu proved successful enough that ABC greenlit a TV series.

Ever since the publication of Linda Lee's memoir about her husband, Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, some have assumed that it was actually Bruce Lee who created the TV series Kung Fu. In many ways, it is understandable why some would assume this. It was in 1971 that Tom Kuhn, the head of the television division at Warner Bros., offered Bruce Lee a deal to develop his own television series. Among other ideas, Mr. Lee came up with the idea of a Shaolin monk named Ah Sahm who travelled the Old West helping the oppressed. Originally titled Ah Sahm, Bruce Lee retitled it The Warrior and submitted the proposal to Warner Bros. Ultimately Bruce Lee did not sign the contract for his development deal with the studio because of the success of the first film to star Bruce Lee in a lead role, The Big Boss (1971). With a movie career in the offing, there was no reason for his to star in his own television show.

Given Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander's original movie treatment dated to 1969, it seems more likely that any similarities between Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander's concept and Bruce Lee's concept were purely coincidental. Indeed, there were some differences between the two. Caine is only half Chinese and is searching for his half-brother. Ah Sahm was fully Chinese and was simply wandering the West helping the oppressed. Here it must be pointed out that the idea of "Far East Meets Old West" was not unknown in the Sixties and early Seventies. The 1971 movie Red Sun starred Toshiro Mifune as a samurai seeking to retrieve a sword owned by the Japanese ambassador in the Old West. Still yet earlier, the 1960 Wanted: Dead or Alive episode "Black Belt" involved bounty hunter Josh Randall (Steve McQueen) tracking a karate expert accused of killing his employer. The 1963 episode The Rifleman "The Sixteenth Cousin" featured a cousin of the Japanese Emperor and his bodyguard, a skilled samurai. That Ed Spielman and Howard Friedlander as well as Bruce Lee came up on the idea of a Shaolin monk wandering the Old West separately is then not at all far-fetched.

Regardless, Bruce Lee was considered for the role of Caine on Kung Fu. He had played Kato on the single season show The Green Hornet and later appeared on the TV series Longstreet. It was Longstreet that sparked Warner Bros.' interest in him for the show. Ultimately, Bruce Lee was not cast as Caine because Tom Kuhn felt his accent was too thick for a series lead. Other actors of Asian descent were considered. Mako was considered for role, but ultimately it was thought his accent was too thick as well. He later made a guest appearance on the show. George Takei, then as now best known as Sulu on Star Trek, was also considered, but it was ultimately decided he was the wrong physical type.

After having considered various actors of Asian descent for the role of Caine, the producers then looked elsewhere for an actor to play Caine. James Coburn, William Smith, and John Saxon were all considered for the role. Ultimately, David Carradine, who was decidedly not Asian in descent, was cast as the half-Chinese Kwai Chang Caine. The casting of David Carradine would result in controversy even before the Movie of the Week aired. The Association of Asian Pacific American Artists filed a formal complaint against the casting of Mr. Carradine on the grounds of unfair hiring practices. They demanded that David Carradine be replaced by an actor of Asian descent and that a Chinese history advisor be hired. While the producers would hire an advisor on Chinese history, David Carradine remained in the role of Caine on Kung Fu.

While a white actor played a half-Chinese actor on Kung Fu, the show would provide Asian and Asian American actors with more roles than they ever had been on American television. Kung Fu would often involve flashbacks to Caine's life at the Shaolin monastery, which often involved his teachers there, including his mentor Master Po (Keye Luke) and Master Chen (Philip Ahn). Other Asian actors would have recurring roles on the show, including James Hong, Victor Sen Yung, Richard Loo, and Yiki Shimoda. The show featured guest appearances ranging from actors Benson Fong to Nancy Kwan.

As mentioned earlier, Kung Fu proved to be successful in its very first season. There was some merchandising associated with the show. As might be expected, King-Seely put out a Kung Fu lunchbox. Topps issued a set of 60 bubblegum cards associated with the show. There were even at least three novels based on the show, credited to Lee Howard (a house pen name, the actual author was Barry N. Malzberg).

For its third season ABC moved Kung Fu from the Thursday night time slot to a new Saturday night time slot where it was opposite The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Bob Newhart Show on CBS. Its ratings then faltered and for the first time it did not rank in the top thirty shows for the year. It would not be ratings that would end Kung Fu, but instead its star. After three seasons on the show, David Carradine decided it was time to leave for multiple reasons. Indeed, he had warned the producers that the third season would be his last.

Kung Fu remained popular after ending its network run and enjoyed some success in syndication. In 1986, the television film Kung Fu: The Movie aired. The film introduced a son Caine did not know he had, Chung Wang (Brandon Lee). The following year the TV movie Kung Fu: The Next Generation aired. This movie was set in the present and centred on a descendant of Caine, Kwai Chang "Johnny" Caine (Brandon Lee). It was in 1993 that the TV series Kung Fu: The Legend Continues debuted in first run syndication. The series starred David Carradine as a Shaolin monk and a descendent of Caine who fights crime alongside his son Peter Caine (Chris Potter).

In 2021 a new series, Kung Fu, debuted on The CW. Although called a reboot, Kung Fu (2021) actually has very little in common with the original series. The series is set in present day San Francisco, and the show's lead character, Nicky Shen (Olivia Lang) is in no way connected to the Kwai Chang Caine of the original series. Furthermore, Nicky does not wander the United States, but instead fights evil in San Francisco. Regardless, the show has been well received by critics and has done well in the ratings for a show running on The CW.

While it only lasted three years, Kung Fu would have a lasting impact. It seems likely that the show helped spark the kung fu craze of the Seventies. Kung Fu debuted in the fall of 1972. It was in March 1973 that the Hong Kong  movie King Boxer (AKA 5 Fingers of Death) reached the top ten movies at the box office in the United States. It would soon be followed by yet other kung fu movies produced in Hong Kong that dominated the American box office. In turn, there would be comic books and magazines dedicated to East Asian martial arts. The "kung fu craze" would last well into 1974. The "kung fu" craze would forever alter American action movies, comic books, and television shows, with characters from Batman to Buffy the Vampire Slayer being skilled in East Asian martial arts. While it is possible the "kung fu craze" would have taken place had Kung Fu never aired, it seems likely that the show kick-started it.

Kung Fu was not a perfect show by any means. Casting David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine amounted to nothing more or less than yellow face. The show often had inaccuracies with regards to Chinese history and culture. The show would even err with regards to the Shaolin temple, with its priests quoting Taoism and Confucianism when in truth they are Buddhists. Regardless, Kung Fu did give many Asian actors the opportunity to appear in television in major roles. What is more, those roles were rarely, if ever stereotypes. While Kung Fu was certainly a flawed show, it remains popular to this day and would have a lasting impact on American popular culture.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

The Late Great Angela Lansbury

Dame Angela Lansbury, the acclaimed actress who was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in her film debut in Gaslight (1944), played Eleanor Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and played mystery novelist Jessica Fletcher in the TV series Murder, She Wrote, died yesterday, October 11 1922, at the age of 96.

Angela Lansbury was born on October 16 1925 in Regent's Park, London. Her father was politician Edgar Lansbury and her mother was Northern Irish actress Moyna Macgill. She spent her early life in Poplar, East London and then Mill Hill, North London. Her father died of stomach cancer when she was nine and her mother later remarried. She attended Hampstead School for Girls where she took part in school plays. She studied acting at Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art in Kensington, West London, and passed with honours from the Royal Academy of Music.

It was at the start of World War II that her mother moved with  both her and her younger brothers (Bruce Lansbury, who would become a well-known television producer, and his twin Edgar Lansbury, who also became a producer) to the United States. Angela Lansbury attended the Feagin School of Dramatic Art in New York City and graduated in 1942. She went to work in nightclubs as a singer, also doing imitations of comedy actress Beatrice Lillie. She received an offer from the Samovar Club in Montreal. She lied about her age and played a six week engagement there. After returning to New York City, Angela Lansbury then joined her mother in Hollywood.

Angela Lansbury, then only 18, was signed by MGM and made her film debut in Gaslight in 1944. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role of the young maid Nancy. In the late Forties Angela Lansbury played several high profile roles in major motion pictures, including National Velvet (1944), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945), The Harvey Girls (1946), The Hoodlum Saint (1946), Til the Clouds Roll By (1946), The Private Lives of Bel Ami (1947), If Winter Comes (1947), Tenth Avenue Angel (1948), State of the Union (1948), The Three Musketeers (1948), The Red Danube (1949), and Samson and Delilah (1949). She made her television debut in an episode of Robert Montgomery Presents in 1950.

In the Fifties Angela Lansbury made her debut on Broadway in 1957 in Hotel Paradiso. She also appeared on Broadway in A Taste of Honey. She appeared in the films Kind Lady (1951), Mutiny (1952), Remains to Be Seen (1953), A Life at Stake (1955), The Purple Mask (1955), A Lawless Street (1955), The Court Jester (1955), Please Murder Me! (1956), The Long, Hot Summer (1958), The Reluctant Debutante (1959), Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1959), A Breath of Scandal (1960), and The Dark the Top of the Stairs (1960). On television she guest starred on the shows Robert Montgomery Presents, The Revlon Mirror Theatre, The Ford Television Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Lux Video Theatre, General Electric Theatre, Fireside Theatre, Four Star Playhouse, Stage 7, Star Time Playhouse, Chevron Hall of Stars, The Star and Story, Celebrity Playhouse, Front Row Center, Screen Directors Playhouse, Studio 57, Undercurrent, Climax!, and Playhouse 90.

In the Sixties Angela Lansbury appeared on Broadway in A Taste of Honey, Anyone Can Whistle, Mame, and Dear World. She won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for Mame. She appeared in the movies Blue Hawaii (1960), All Fall Down (1962), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), In the Cool of the Day (1963), The World of Henry Orient (1964), Dear Heart (1964), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders (1965), Harlow (1965), Mister Buddwing (1966), and Something for Everyone (1970). She was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing Eleanor Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate. On television she guest starred on the shows The Eleventh Hour, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and The Trials of O'Brien.

In the Seventies, Miss Lansbury appeared on Broadway in Gypsy, The King and I, and Sweeney Todd,. She appeared in the movies Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Death on the Nile (1978), The Lady Vanishes (1979), and The Mirror Crack'd (1980).

It was in 1984 that Angela Lansbury began playing mystery novelist and amateur sleuth Jessica Fletcher on the TV series Murder, She Wrote. Murder, She Wrote proved very successful. It ranked in the top ten for eight of its twelve seasons, and in the top twenty for all but its last season. Miss Lansbury was nominated for the Emmy Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series three times for the show. In the Eighties also guest starred as Jessica Fletcher on Magnum, P.I. She played herself in an episode of Newhart. She also appeared in the mini-series Little Gloria...Happy at Last, Lace, and The First Olympics: Athens 1896. She also appeared in such TV movies as Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story, A Talent for Murder, Rage of Angels: The Story Continues, and The Shell Seekers. She appeared on Broadway in A Little Family Business and Mame. In the Eighties she was the voice of Mommy Fortuna in the animated film The Last Unicorn (1982). She appeared in the movies The Pirates of Penzance (1983) and The Company of Wolves (1984).

In the Nineties Angela Lansbury continued to play Jessica Fletcher on Murder. She Wrote. During the decade she reprised the role of Jessica Fletcher in two Murder, She Wrote television movies. She appeared in the TV movies Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, Mrs. Santa Claus, and The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. She provided the voice of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (1991) and the Dowager Empress Marie in the animated film Anastasia (1997).

In the Naughts Angela Lansbury reprised the role of Jessica Fletcher in two more Murder, She Wrote movies. She guest starred on the TV shows Touched by an Angel, Law & Order: Trial by Jury, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. She appeared in the movie Nancy McPhee (2005) and was the voice of Grandmamma in the animated movie Heidi 4 Paws (2009). She appeared on Broadway in Deuce, Blithe Spirit, and A Little Night Music.

In the Teens Angela Lansbury appeared in the movies Mr. Popper's Penguins (2011), Mary Poppins Returns (2018) and Buttons (2018). She appeared on Broadway in Gore Vidal's The Best Man. She appeared in the mini-series Little Women.  Later this year she will appear in the movie Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery.

Angela Lansbury was extremely versatile, so much so that she was described a "character actress" from when she was very young. While she might be best known as Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, she played  wide variety of roles throughout her career. She was the flirtatious, young maid in Gaslight (1944). She played dance hall girl Em in The Harvey Girls tavern singer Sibyl in The Picture of Dorian Gray. In The Court Jester she was the beautiful, but scheming Princess Gwendolyn. While today when many people think of Angela Lansbury playing older roles, when she was young she could and did play attractive, young, and even flirtatious characters.

Of course, even when Angela Lansbury was young she was playing characters older than she was. In Samson and Delilah she played Semadar, the older sister of Delilah, despite the fact that Hedy Lamarr was around ten years older than she was. Angela Lansbury was only ten years older than Elvis Presley, but played his mother in Blue Hawaii. It is well known that Angela Lansbury was only three years older than Laurence Harvey, yet he played her son in The Manchurian Candidate. The Manchurian Candidate is a mark of just how great an actress Angela Lansbury was. After playing a seductive maid in Gaslight and before playing the sweet-natured Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote, she played one of the greatest villains in movie history. As played by Angela Lansbury, Eleanor Shaw was absolute evil.

Angela Lansbury wasn't simply a great actress, but she was also a gifted singer as well. This can be seen in her musical roles in movies, from The Harvey Girls to Beauty and the Beast. It is little wonder that two of her best known roles on Broadway were in musicals, Mame and Sweeney Todd.

Given the length of her career, the many high-profile films in which she appeared, and her sheer talent as an actress, Angela Lansbury was well-loved in the classic film buff community. Classic film buffs also loved her for her well-known kindness. Miss Lansbury always had time for her fans and she treated with both warmth and respect. Over the years many fans met her, and all of them said that she was among the nicest people one could meet. Angela Lansbury may have played some of the most villainous characters on screen, but  in reality she was a true lady.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

The 60th Anniversary of McHale's Navy

It was sixty years ago today, on October 11 1962, that McHale's Navy debuted on ABC. At a time when ABC trailed behind both CBS and NBC in the ratings, McHale's Navy was one of their more successful sitcoms. It ultimately ran for four seasons. McHale's Navy starred Ernest Borgnine as Lt. Commander Quinton McHale, commander of the U.S. Navy PT boat PT-73 in the South Pacific during World War II. Stationed on a small island opposite Taratupa where they saw little in the way of action, Lt. Commander McHale and his men spent more time dreaming up money making schemes than fighting the Japanese. It was for this reason McHale often found himself at odds with his commanding officer, Captain Binghamton (Joe Flynn), who is always trying to get enough evidence on McHale and his men to put them in the brig permanently. If McHale's Navy sounds a bit like The Phil Silvers Show (AKA Sgt. Bilko), it should be kept in mind that it was produced by Edward J. Montagne, who had been a producer on The Phil Silvers Show.

It might surprise many to learn that the sitcom McHale's Navy actually originated as a very serious, World War II drama that had aired as an episode of Alcoa Premiere. The episode, "Seven Against the Sea," aired on April 3 1962 and starred Ernest Borgnine as Quentin McHale, the commander of PT-73 in the South Pacific during World War II. The relative peace that McHale and his men had been enjoying is disrupted by the arrival of a new executive officer,  Durham (Ron Foster), whose job it it is to get the base back to fighting the war. Naturally McHale and Durham clash, until word comes that a battalion of United States Marines are under siege. While "Seven Against the Sea" had some humour, it was firmly a drama and had a very serious tone for the most part.

Reportedly, "Seven Against the Sea" was a pilot for a show to be titled McHale's Men, although in later interviews Ernest Borgnine has said that Durham was to be the main character on the show. The point may have been moot, as "Seven Against the Sea" sparked little interest at Revue Productions. It was Jennings Lang, Vice President of MCA TV Limited (the parent of Revue) who suggested that instead the show be done as a situation comedy. Ultimately, McHale's Navy would retain only two members of the cast of "Seven Against the Sea." Aside from Ernest Borgnine as Lt. Commander McHale, it also kept Gary Vinson as George "Christy" Christopher, the quartermaster on the PT-73, and John Wrighat as radio man Willy Moss, a Southerner who also operated their still.

The rest of the cast of McHale's Navy would be entirely different from "Seven Against the Sea." Joe Flynn joined the show as Captain Biunghamton. Also joining the show was Bob Hastings, as Lt. Carpenter, Captain Binghamton's assistant who is utterly incompetent despite trying to do everything by the book. Tim Conway joined the show as McHale's second in command, Ensign Charles Parker. Mr. Parker was naive, more than a bit bashful, and utterly mild mannered. He also tended to be inept. While Parker is hardly a good officer, he is so likeable that the crew of the PT-109 take measures to protect him.

The rest of McHale's crew is rounded out by a diverse group of personalities. Lester Gruber (Carl Ballantine) was the PT-79's torpedo mate, an amateur magician and con man who is always concocting money making schemes that nearly get them put in the brig. The crew was rounded out by Machinist Mate Harrison James "Tinker" Bell (Billy Sands), Gunner's Mate Virgil Edwards (Edson Stroll), and Seaman Joseph "Happy" Haines (Gavin MacLeod). Staying with McHale and his crew is Fujiwara "Fuji" Takeo Kobiashi, a Japanese naval seaman and prisoner of war who had deserted from the Japanese Imperial Navy. He has no loyalty to the Japanese military and is entirely faithful to the crew of PT-79. They in turn hide him from Captain Binghamton and any other military officers (both American and Japanese).

McHale's Navy did respectably well in the ratings, particularly for a show on third rated ABC. For it second season it ranked no. 22 for the year in the Nielsens. For its third season it ranked at no. 29 for the season. Over all, McHale's Navy would be successful to have two feature films spun off from it. The first was McHale's Navy (1964), released at the end of the second season. In the film the crew of the PT-79 find themselves deep in debut after Gruber's horse betting scheme doesn't pan out and Ensign Parker destroys both the cargo and dock belonging to a rich businessman. Ernest Borgnine would be absent for the second film, McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force (1965) because of filming on Flight of the Phoenix (1965). In the film, after switching uniforms with a U.S. Air Force officer, Parker is mistaken for an Air Force officer. Aside from Ernest Borgnine, most of the cast appears in McHale's Navy Joins the Air Force, except for Carl Ballanine as Gruber.

McHale's Navy underwent very little in the way of cast changes. Of McHale's crew, only Gavin MacLeod left. He departed from the series at the end of the second season to appear in the movie The Sand Pebbles (1966). The show featured several recurring characters, including Roy Roberts as Admiral Rogers, Jane Dulo as Nurse Nancy Turner, and Henry Beckman as Colonel Harrigan.

While McHale's Navy underwent very little in the way of cast changes, in its fourth season it entirely changed its location. The crew of PT-79, as well as Captain Binghamton and Lt. Carpenter, were all transferred to the fictional Italian town of Voltafiore. In an interview in 1965 with TV Guide writer Peter Bogdanovich (yes,the one who would become a movie director), producer Si Rose said, "After three years in the Pacific, we thought the Allied and Japanese forces had had enough of McHale. You know, new enemy, new relationships, a new dimension for McHale."

As it was, the move perhaps turned out to be a bad idea for the show. After ranking in the top thirty for the past two seasons, ratings for McHale's Navy dropped low enough that it was cancelled at the end of its fourth season. Of course, things did not help that it aired opposite The Red Skelton Hour on CBS and Dr. Kildare on NBC.

McHale's Navy was gone, but hardly forgotten. It proved to be a success in syndication. The entire run of the show has also been released on DVD and it is available on streaming. In 1997 a film very loosely based on the TV series McHale's Navy was released, with Tom Arnold as Lt. Commander McHale. McHale's Navy (1997) received overwhelming negative reviews (on Rotten Tomatoes it boasts a rating of 3% based on 29 reviews) and it also bombed at the box office.

McHale's Navy was very much a product of its time. To a degree Fuji fits the stereotype of the passive, accommodating East Asian male.   Some of the other Japanese characters appearing on the show also conformed to stereotypes. It was not unusual for McHale and his crew to refer to the Japanese as "Nips," today considered an ethnic slur (here it must be pointed out that it appears in movies about World War II of the time). The native islanders are also often stereotypes of the sort often seen on Gilligan's Island. Although a good deal of progress had been seen in the previous decades, the Sixties were still a time when ethnic stereotypes were often seen on American television.

Regardless, McHale's Navy would have a lasting impact on the career of Tim Conway, even though he is better known for The Carol Burnett Show today. It was McHale's Navy that first brought him to prominence and gave him his first role in a feature film, reprising the role of Ensign Parker in the two McHale's Navy movies. The short-lived sitcom The Tim Conway Show re-teamed Tim Conway and Joe Flynn as co-owners of a charter plane company. Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway would later provide the voices of superheroes Mermaid Man and Barnacle Boy on the animated TV series SpongeBob Squarepants.

Today McHale's Navy does not necessarily count among the best known sitcoms. It is perhaps best remembered as a vehicle for Ernest Borgnine, up until that time an actor in feature films. Even so, it stands as one of ABC's few successes in the early Sixties and it remains a very funny sitcom. In 1963 both Ernest Borgnine and Tim Conway would be nominated for Emmy Awards. Although it is not as well remembered as it once was, McHale's Navy remains one of the better comedies to emerge from the early Sixties.