How Lee Harvey Oswald Fucked Up Television History

May 6, 2013

Milner LHO

My first piece for The AV Club ran last Friday.  It’s a look at the ritual of preempting or editing television shows in the aftermath of tragedies like the Boston Marathon bombing – a ritual that extends back at least as far as the murder of John F. Kennedy.  (That’s Martin Milner above, in the strange Route 66 episode “I’m Here to Kill a King,” which was meant to air on November 22, 1963, and bears some disturbing parallels to the assassination.)

As I was researching the aftermath of President Kennedy’s assassination, I noticed that the original broadcast dates for at least two of the preempted television episodes have been recorded incorrectly in nearly every reference source.  Presumably that’s because historians consulted newspapers’ TV listings without discovering that sudden changes were made after the listings were published.  As a sort of wonky footnote,  I thought I would untangle those errors here.

Channing, the one-season college drama with Jason Evers and Henry Jones,  had an episode entitled “A Window on the War” slated for November 27, five days after the president’s death.  An early work by the noted screenwriter David Rayfiel, who was adapting his play P.S. 193, “A Window on the War” involved an adult student’s plot to kill a professor (who is sort of a variation on the teacher character in All Quiet on the Western Front).  The subject matter led ABC to push the episode back two weeks, to December 11.  The episode that was substituted was Juarez Roberts‘s boxing story “Beyond His Reach,” which had evidently been penciled in for December 11.  Wikipedia supplies the correct dates but the Internet Movie Database and the Classic TV Archive still have it wrong.

The Alfred Hitchcock Hour had planned to show “The Cadaver,” a Michael Parks-starring episode about a practical joke involving medical students and a cadaver, as the first post-Kennedy episode, on November 29.  Instead, the episode that had been preempted on the night of the assassination, “Body in the Barn,” was shown on November 29, and “The Cadaver” (evidently because of its morbid subject matter) was pushed back until January 17.  Most references claim that “The Cadaver” aired as scheduled on November 29 and that “Body in the Barn” didn’t resurface until July 3, in the middle of summer reruns.  That’s wrong.

What’s interesting here is that, in their book The Alfred Hitchcock Presents Companion, Martin Grams Jr. and Patrick Wikstrom figured this out and printed the correct dates, with an explanation as to why they were given incorrectly elsewhere.  That book was published in 2000, and yet all of the data aggregation sites on the internet – the IMDb, Wikipedia, TV.com, Epguides, the Classic TV Archive – still reflect the incorrect dates.  It’s a good example of how sites like those tend to grab the low-hanging fruit and overlook more obscure sources.  Rely upon them at your own peril.

As documentation, I’ve reproduced some pages from some relevant TV listings below.  First, an early Los Angeles Times listing for Channing‘s “A Window on the War” on November 27:

Channing 11-27B

Then a New York Times listing for November 27, giving the evening’s episode correctly as “Beyond His Reach”:

Channing 11-27A

A Chicago Tribune listing for “A Window on the War” on its eventual broadcast date, December 11:

Channing 12-11

A Hartford Courant listing for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s “Body in the Barn” on its original airdate, November 29 (no date is given on the clipping, but the episode titles for other series correspond to 11/29):AHH 11-29

“The Cadaver” debuting on January 17, 1964, per the Los Angeles Times:

AHH 1-17

This New York Times TV listing for July 3 is one of several that declares “Body in the Barn” a repeat:

AHH 7-3

Also in the AV Club article, I mentioned that Espionage switched around its schedule in order to delay an assassination-themed story.  That episode was “A Camel to Ride, a Sheep to Eat,” which was pushed back from November 27 to December 18.  “The Light of a Friendly Star,” originally scheduled for December 4, was moved up a week.  I’m not sure of the original sequence for the episodes in between, but the Classic TV Archive has the final airdates right.  (Apropos of nothing, can I tell you how annoyed I am that the British DVD release of Espionage went out of print before I snagged one?)

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12 Responses to “How Lee Harvey Oswald Fucked Up Television History”

  1. Neville Ross Says:

    People still need to be coddled from harm like babies, I guess.

    The more things change….

  2. thomas tucker Says:

    You reminded me that, as a kid, I could hardly wait for the first TV showing of the movie Psycho, which I think was going to be on Friday Night at the Movies. Then the Richard Speck mass murder happened in Chicago, and so they cnacelled the showing out of respect or the victims. Now, they would use that to increase the publicity.

  3. DB McWeeberton Says:

    Hey Stephen–a vendor on Ebay has about 10 copies of the Espionage DVD set available right now for $45 plus shippin, so you still have a chance…

  4. Mike Doran Says:

    I just came back from the A/V post and read the one here.

    The two instances that I recall happened on daytime soaps.

    The Edge Of Night, the mystery/crime soap, had started a long storyline about a religious cult called (IIRC) the Children Of God.
    Because of their year-round production schedules, daytime soaps had to be plotted out and scripted months in advance.
    Edge was produced by Procter & Gamble for CBS, and every plot and script had to vetted at both ends long before taping.
    Edge‘s head writer then was the great Henry Slesar, who only had one sub-writer (I don’t know who it was then), and it was his practice to do his major plots as much as six months to a year prior to actual production.
    So the Children of God story clears the sponsor, the network, the casting, the sets, the taping (about two weeks in advance of airdate) … and Jim Jones and Jonestown happen.
    CBS in New York and P&G in Cincinnati go into full panic mode, and soon the word goes forth to Henry Slesar: End this one real fast.
    Slesar and his sub put in golden time, and the charismatic cult leader turns into a society gigolo in record time.

    – The second one that I recall was on All My Children, when a very disturbed lady decided to disrupt her ex-boyfriend’s wedding by bringing a homemade bomb to the ceremony.
    As usual, the plot is plotted months ahead, the scripts a re prepared weeks ahead, the taping is done at least two to three weeks before airdate … and the Oklahoma City bombing happens.
    Panic, emergency re-editing, disclaimers, apologies …
    …. and for a while anyway, the writing staff has to be awfully careful about what the villains can and can’t do.

    Actually, the non-stop schedules of soaps presented another hazard, unrelated to current events:
    Passions, NBC’s spoofy soap of a few years back, went into marathon production at the end of a year, to give the cast and crew an extended holiday vacation, covering Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day.
    An important actor on the show, David Bailey, died unexpectedly on Thanksgiving Day.
    His character, Alistair Crane, figured heavily in the banked episodes: he was the target of a murder attempt, was shown in hospital for days, and when he recovered he went around bellowing threats at all who had wronged him – all taped well before the actor’s real-life death.
    After hasty consideration, NBC decided not to retape, but instead to air all of David Bailey’s taped episodes as is – which meant that Mr. Bailey’s appearances continued well into the new year, by which time a replacement actor took over the part.

    I throw that story in to illustrate the innate peril of producing any dramatic show in advance of its actual airing.
    Some things simply can’t be anticipated.
    And some businesses can’t ever seem to learn …

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Very useful, Mike, thank you. I knew Henry Slesar, and corresponded with him about some specific shows, but he’s one of a number of important TV writers (Paul Monash, Reginald Rose, and George Bellak also come to mind) who died in 2002-2003, just before I committed to recording as many oral histories as I could in that area.

  5. J Leonard Says:

    Interesting dispatch, and also at The AV Club. Completely off-topic, I’m wondering where the Chicago Tribune got that episode title for the Ben Casey episode on December 11, “Why So Pale and Wan, Fond Doctor?” which is called “From Too Much Love of Living” in most other sources, including IMDB. I think I like the Tribune’s better. The writers were definitely more ornate with their titles back then.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Good eye … I was wondering the same time, and had the same thought! I have no idea, but I know from archival research on both East Side / West Side and Arrest and Trial that a lot of those underwent last-minute title changes. Either the lawyers hit a clearance problem, or somebody just thought up something they liked better, I guess. Unless “pale and wan” was somehow too morbid after JFK? That seems like a reach, though.

  6. Cory Franklin Says:

    As the cross reference indicates, the Psycho episode was pulled, not because of the Speck killings, but because of the Valerie Percy murder which happened two months later.
    Along with the racial violence, the Whitman clock tower incident, and Vietnam, it was a rough summer, especially in Chicago.
    Having Psycho on TV during the first weeks of the new season was a bit much back then.
    The Percy home where the killing occurred was just demolished recently. The killer was never found.

  7. bobby J. Says:

    The only thing I’d question, really question, is that Lee Harvey Oswald did it at all! But any other formulation for the title wouldn’t work quite so well.

  8. Rob Sinclair Says:

    This week, due to the devastating Oklahoma situation, CBS pulled the season finale of Mike & Molly titled “Windy City”, which had a tornado approaching Chicago storyline.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Yes, and Disney pulled an episode of some tweener show because it was “gluten intolerant,” thus taking the trend firmly into the zone of self-parody.


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