I looked at the origins of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, one of the best TV sitcoms, last month. Here are some further thoughts on the series as it evolved during its second through fourth seasons.
One of the most often remarked-upon aspects of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis – something I omitted from the first half of this piece just because I’m tired of reading about it – is the starry supporting cast. First there was Tuesday Weld, who at sixteen-going-on-thirty was already three years into her unique career as the American cinema’s greatest nymphet; according to Dwayne Hickman, Weld really was Thalia Menninger, prone to cutting her leading man dead with lines like “For heaven’s sake, don’t be such a simpleton” and “You act like a farmer.” (Hickman and Weld had both been in the film version of Max Shulman’s novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! – surely a factor in their casting on Dobie Gillis, even though Shulman’s screenplay for Rally was rewritten and he disliked the film.) The third point of the first-season love triangle was an unknown Warren Beatty, minutes away from stardom; although histories of the show and Nick at Nite ads have given Beatty an outsized prominence, he appeared in only five episodes as conceited rich boy Milton Armitage before leaving to make Splendor in the Grass. The first season also unearthed, for one full episode and a few moments of another, the likes of a twenty-one year-old Michael J. Pollard, filling in for Bob Denver, who was drafted but then kicked back, Maynard-like, by the army as a 4F. (On-screen justification: Maynard’s allergy to khaki, and a hardship discharge – hardship for the army, that is.)
Pollard is very funny in “The Sweet Singer of Central High,” but his kooky rhythms threw Shulman and the rest of the cast for such a loop that they were relieved to get Denver back. For movie buffs, of course, the tantalizing aspect of this brief confluence of before-their-time casting is the Bonnie and Clyde connection: Had only Weld, the first choice to play Bonnie (a role that then went to Faye Dunaway), not turned down Beatty’s and director Arthur Penn’s offer, Dobie Gillis would have assembled the three principals of that breakthrough New Hollywood film, and in a not-wholly-dissimilar configuration, eight years avant la lettre.
Dobie Gillis lost the brightest stars in its constellation early on – Pollard after two episodes, Beatty after five, Weld largely after the first season – in a process of attrition that can be seen as symbolic. Dobie Gillis was an endeavor that achieved near-perfection at the outset and struggled, with mixed results, to hold onto it over the course of four zig-zagging, hit-and-miss seasons. Rarely has a show proven so malleable and restless over the course of a medium-sized run. It’s symptomatic rather than coincidental that Shulman’s creation went through three different titles in four years, contracting to just Dobie Gillis in the second season and then expanding again to the deserved possessory Max Shulman’s Dobie Gillis in the fourth.
In its sophomore-slump second year, Dobie fell victim to a remarkably encompassing array of traps that beset popular series as they age; it probably invented some of them. Overreliance on catchphrases? Check: In season two, the writers tried consciously to coin them, coming up with more clunkers (“It’s only you, Maynard”) than keepers (although I’m fond of “It’s Dobie with a B,” the exasperated response to anyone who addresses our hero as “Dopey”). Greedy, synergistic attempt to turn the star into a recording artist and a teen heartthrob? Check: Hickman’s cringeworthy yowling in “Jangle Bells” and “The Day the Teachers Disappeared” were, to put it in Krebsian terms, Sellout City. Hijacking of the show by an obnoxious secondary character, a la The Fonz or Steve Urkel? Gradual sanding off of prickly characters’ rough edges, in conjunction with a broadening and sentimentalizing of the show’s tone? Check and check. In retrospect, it’s amazing that Dobie waited until the final year to succumb to “Cousin Oliver Syndrome,” with the introduction of Bobby Diamond as a cousin, Duncan “Dunky” Gillis, who was just young enough to rehash some of the high-school misadventures that Dobie had stumbled into in the first season.
Always one of the cheapest-looking shows of its day, Dobie reduced its visual imagination even further in season two by striking the malt shop set where the teens congregated. Its replacement was a dinky assemblage of picnic tables on the lawn of Dobie’s school – a substitution of quotidian reality for fifities-iconic fantasy. (The very Middle-American Central City’s malt shop was called Charlie Wong’s and staffed entirely by Chinese: a funny, off-kilter sight gag, rescued by the fact that the non-caricatured countermen were played by actual Asian Americans and not Vito Scotti.) Other seemingly cosmetic changes – like the elimination of the bold opening animation in favor of a non-title sequence superimposed over the action, and the change of Dobie’s hairstyle from platinum-blond crewcut to average-length brown – had a similar effect of subtly scaling the show down from Tashlin-sized exaggeration to television-normal. Even the holes in Maynard’s filthy sweaters disappeared; no one wanted to see Bob Denver’s navel, least of all Bob Denver (who agitated for this advance in decorum).
The most damaging of the changes in Dobie Gillis was probably the expansion of Maynard G. Krebs from sidekick to co-star. By the middle of the second season, it was basically The Maynard-and-Dobie Show. As much as on Gilligan’s Island, Denver was a one-note actor and an acquired taste. As Dan Castellaneta would do with Homer Simpson, Denver literally eliminated an edge to his character, raising the pitch of his voice early in the first season to make Maynard sound more goofy and childlike. (The same vocal inflection carried over into Gilligan; it’s startling to hear Denver speaking like a relatively normal person in the first few Dobie Gillis episodes.) The broadening of Denver’s performance reflected a gradual shift in the series’ depiction of Maynard, from an underachieving non-conformist to an oaf whose disability-scaled imbecility was the butt of hyperbolic and sometimes cruel jokes. The dimwitted Maynard who got himself shot into outer space with a chimpanzee (in “Spaceville”) was probably easier to write than the existential Maynard who swapped jazz references and kooky jokes with beatnik chicks and Riff Ryan (Tommy Farrell), the goateed record shop owner. But he was harder to take, and less of a piece with the rest of Dobie’s world.
Maynard’s increased prominence maneuvered Dwayne Hickman into the function of straight man, for which he was well-suited. (Hickman had studied Jack Benny’s and his own mentor Robert Cummings’s reactions, and imitated them as Dobie.) The Andy Griffith Show evolved in the same direction, but whereas turning Griffith into a foil for an array of eccentrics eliminated a cornpone schtick that no one would miss, shifting Dobie into second position muted a far more valuable aspect of his series: Dobie’s fickle but insatiable pursuit of the opposite sex. After the irreplaceable Tuesday Weld left the show, Thalia was, in effect, replaced by Maynard. Dobie’s horndog instincts were never completely suppressed, but cutting back on them to emphasize Maynard’s adolescent antics made the show subtly less adult-oriented. Supposedly, the elimination of Herbert’s filicidal invective (“I gotta kill that boy”) after the first season was network-dictated, and one wonders if CBS also compelled Shulman to render Dobie as less of a perv.
The Maynardization of Dobie Gillis also left less room than before for the Sturgesian array of wacky minor characters, like Richard Reeves’s angry Officer Parmalee and Marjorie Bennett’s Mrs. Kenney, the world’s most miserly grocery shopper. The parade of Central City eccentrics gradually faded away during the second season (perhaps moving to Mayberry, to torment Sheriff Taylor), and the Dobie scripts contracted to focus on a core group: Dobie, his parents, Maynard, Zelda Gilroy, and Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., as well as his impossibly snobbish battle-axe mother (Doris Packer, better than anyone at projecting through clenched teeth) and long-suffering butler Trembley (David Bond).
Chatsworth was the spoiled-rich-kid replacement for the departed Beatty’s character, Milton Armitage, and as played by young character actor Steve Franken, he was the series’ best invention: an over-the-top spoof of clueless inherited privilege, but drawn with great specificity and wit. Chatsworth was insufferable but perversely sympathetic; deep down he knew that people only liked him for his money, and that he was something of a prisoner in a gilded cage. Franken’s beaky face and wonderfully cartoonish mannerisms (the drawn-out vowels, “DOH-bie-DOO,” the clock! of his tongue as he mimed swinging an invisible polo mallet) made him a young, live-action version of The Simpsons’ C. Montgomery Burns, who must have been at least partly inspired by Chatsworth. Shulman claimed he didn’t know any beatniks, but he had to have run across his share of cloddish prep school man-boys – which may be why I, for one, think that Chatsworth would have been a better choice for co-equal status with Dobie, and Maynard far more tolerable in smaller doses. The rich are always with us, and more inviting of satire now than ever. Beatniks, not so much.
As it turned out, though, the show became increasingly stingy in doling out the Osbornes’ appearances: Franken appeared only four times in the final season. Also during the fourth year, Florida Friebus’s role shrank somewhat, long-suffering Professor Pomfritt (William Schallert) was gone entirely, and, in the most lamentable development of all, Sheila James sat out a full six months while CBS filmed an ill-starred spinoff pilot, Zelda. Contractual shenanigans kept her off Dobie Gillis while the network decided its fate, and when James did return as a freelancer in the final season, it was (like Franken) for a meager four episodes. (James recalls that CBS rejected Zelda because her character was “too butch” – an executive’s verdict relayed to her by director Rod Amateau, and a devastating one, as James was a closeted lesbian. However, Shulman believed that both Zelda and a pilot he and Amateau made the preceding season, the very Tashlinesque Daddy-O, were set up to fail; he was later told that network president James Aubrey intended to buy neither series, but green-lit the pilots as a means of keeping Shulman and Amateau off the market and under contract to CBS.) By the end, the show’s formidable stock of talent had been depleted to the point that viewers had a weekly guarantee of just Hickman, Denver, and Frank Faylen – not enough notes for a rich symphony.
But Dobie Gillis didn’t progress along a straight downward line. One of Shulman’s innovations was to envision his series as a bildungsroman – perhaps television’s first? – and to liberate Dobie from the medium’s customary temporal stasis. In four years Dobie went through all the stages of young adulthood that were typical for his generation: high school, military service, the prospect (but not the certainty) of college, and the looming twentysomething urge to settle down (presented, for Dobie, as more of an obligation or a default than a source of enthusiasm). One suspects that young men who were Dobie’s age related to his uncertainty in navigating these changes, much as I did as a first-run Wonder Years viewer who happened to be in the same grade as Kevin Arnold. The idea of Dobie maturing as in the real world was unusual enough for TV Guide to press his creator on the reasons why. “I hate television,” was Shulman’s typically surly reply, meaning, in essence, its repetitiveness and predictability. Rod Amateau clarified for the reporter: “If we didn’t keep the show interesting, we’d lose Max.”
Shulman’s early stabs at serialization did not always go smoothly. Mid-second season episodes traversed an arc toward Dobie’s high school graduation, and then radically upended the show’s basic format by enlisting Dobie and Maynard in the army. (That drab high school courtyard set was half-heartedly redressed as a nearly identical outdoor PX, complete with the same picnic tables; who did they think they were fooling?) Although the first few scripts were funny – especially “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier, Sailor, or Marine,” in which Chatsworth poses as an AWOL Maynard, and both prove utterly confounding to the regimental mentality of the army – the service comedy version of Dobie Gillis was a poor man’s The Phil Silvers Show (or even, looking ahead, a poor man’s Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.). Did Shulman abruptly reverse course after the army episodes were poorly received? I’ve found no evidence either way, but my guess is that Camp Grace was always meant as a temporary way station (a place to use up a storehouse of boot camp jokes) and Shulman’s destination was always college – the place where, for Shulman, the character started in the first place.
“College” is perhaps a generous term for Dobie’s institute of higher learning, the humble S. Peter Pryor Junior College (named after Shulman’s accountant). Implausibly, Shulman also contrived for not only Maynard but Mr. Pomfritt, the high school English teacher who bore the brunt of the pair’s goofing off, to matriculate as well. Jean Byron, who with Schallert would go on to play Patty Lane’s parents on The Patty Duke Show, became a semi-regular as another of Dobie’s teachers, Dr. Imogene Burkhart (an in-joke; that was Byron’s real name). Typically for Shulman, Dr. Burkhart vacillated between a positive representation of a smart, slightly sarcastic intellectual, and a shrill anti-feminist caricature. “Beauty Is Only Kin Deep,” Burkhart’s final appearance, rather viciously retrofits her as a frump with a dweeby boyfriend.
The fourth season is often described as the worst, but it’s more like the weirdest – an enthusiastic, out-of-nowhere embrace of the Tashlinesque hyperbole that had been on the fringes of the show, coming only occasionally to the fore in early episodes like the monster-movie parody “The Chicken From Outer Space” and the brilliant, bizarre “The Mystic Powers of Maynard G. Krebs,” in which Maynard develops ESP and goes on television to predict whether Nixon or Kennedy would win the following week’s election. (Shulman turned the handicap of not knowing the actual outcome into a hilarious final punchline.) Although specific pop-culture parodies had never been a primary ingredient in Dobie Gillis, during the fourth season Shulman spoofed his way through a checklist of movie and television genres: doctor shows (“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to a Funny Thing”), cop shows (“What’s a Little Murder Between Friends” was a riff on Car 54, Where Are You?), jungle adventures (“The General Cried at Dawn”), boxing movies (“Requiem For an Underweight Heavyweight”), spy movies (“I Was a Spy For the F.O.B.”), monster movies again (“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Gillis”), musical biopics (“There’s a Broken Light For Every Heart on Broadway”), A Face in the Crowd (“Northern Comfort”), Rain (“The Ugliest American”). Shulman must have found the great hunky-doctor face-off of 1961 hilarious: Not only did “Funny Thing” mock Ben Casey’s man-woman-birth-death-infinity opening and paste gigantic tufts of hair all over Hickman’s chest and arms (a pretty cruel dig at Vince Edwards’s hirsute appearance), but TV doctor gags also found their way into “Strictly For the Birds” and “And Now a Word From Our Sponsor.”
Inside jokes abounded in the fourth season. “Lassie, Get Lost” mentions a Tuesday Weld Fan Club, and “Peter Lawford” became a running, all-purpose zinger – why, I have no idea, although the show’s commitment to the bit was funny on its own. Overt surrealism ran rampant: “The Iceman Goeth” encloses an oil gusher in an envelope (a sight gag that ups the ante from Frank Tashlin to Jerry Lewis). “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” in which Maynard mutates into a busty female whom Dobie is perfectly willing to fuck, was totally bonkers. Other episodes lampooned consumer-society excess (“Too Many Kooks” has the Gillises peddling the Quickie Cooker™) or chased the tail of about-nothing minutiae in the way that The Dick Van Dyke Show had started to do. The excellent “The Beast With Twenty Fingers,” in which Herbert and Maynard each get a digit stuck in a Chinese finger trap, was an excursion into absurdism reminiscent of the time Laura Petrie got her toe stuck in the bathtub faucet. Even the introductory monologues grew strange and a little scary: the Thinker statue moved out of its cozy park and into a blackened limbo, so that Dobie appeared to be narrating the show from inside his own deranged id. Dobie Gillis’s senior year probably didn’t leave anyone wanting more, but it had an insouciant disregard for sitcom conventions that more shows could stand to go out on.
It’s difficult to trace the reasons behind the steep fluctuations in the series’ quality. Shulman said that he “had a staff of five good writers: four regulars and one occasional.” The four men Shulman found who could write successfully for the series were: Joel Kane, an Australian who wrote for dramas as often as comedies; Bud Nye, like Shulman a prose humorist, who had written for the first live sitcom, Mary Kay and Johnny; Arnold Horwitt, a Broadway lyricist (Plain and Fancy); and Ray Allen, a playwright (The Loving Couch) who was stabbed to death with a letter opener by his wife, sitcom actress Fay DeWitt (who successfully claimed self-defense), in 1965. (Allen’s first wife – who only divorced him – was the daughter of a vaudeville comic named “Blue Bert” Kenney; Allen likely named Central City’s resident battle axe, Mrs. Blossom Kenney, who first appears in an episode written by Allen, after his ex-wife. The Internet Movie Database erroneously attributes many of Allen’s credits, including Dobie Gillis, to a younger comedy writer, Ray Saffian Allen, who wrote for The Andy Griffith Show and Hogan’s Heroes during the sixties.)
Shulman’s generosity in sharing credit aside, my hunch is that all of the scripts lived or died based largely on the extent to which Shulman was available to punch them up in his own voice. Bob Denver thought that Shulman “went Hollywood” during the third season, then rededicated himself to the show during the fourth, while Darryl Hickman believed the final season was the most Shulman-deprived. Shulman lived in Westport, Connecticut – a veritable colony of early television writers, including Rod Serling and Reginald Rose – and commuted to Los Angeles to make Dobie Gillis during the entirety of its run. Hickman recalled that Shulman’s trips to Westport increased during the fourth season. I can’t determine whether it’s related to the distraction that Hickman observed, but Shulman suffered a personal tragedy just weeks after production on the series wrapped: his forty-one year-old wife, Carol, died of pneumonia on May 17, 1963.
The irregular application of the “Shulman touch” meant that, increasingly, Dobie Gillis segregated itself into two different shows with the same cast and characters: one a zany farce that plied the standard sitcom tropes, albeit with more wit and variety than most; the other a thoughtful, often melancholy character-driven dramedy that took it upon itself to contemplate the essential nature of life itself. That second Dobie Gillis manifested itself less often – in perhaps as few as a dozen episodes – but it is the one that is responsible for fans’ enduring loyalty to the series.
The blueprint for Dobie Gillis’s “mythology” episodes is the second season’s “The Big Question.” One of the show’s very few excursions outdoors (into what appears to be the loading dock of Fox Western, but no matter), it is a loose-jointed half-hour in which Dobie and Maynard simply wander around town, mulling over what they want from an uncertain post-high school future. The catalyst for this interlude of self-discovery is an essay topic – “Whither are we drifting?” – proposed by Mr. Pomfritt. If Dobie’s narration was a way for Shulman to smuggle his own logorrheic wit into the mouth of an otherwise amorphous teenager, Mr. Pomfritt (whose first name, “Leander,” was an anagram for “learned”) became a surrogate within the narrative for the adult Shulman, explicitly articulating values (some of them well outside the Eisenhower-era mainstream) that the series appeared to endorse as elements of a life worth living. In “Blue-Tail Fly,” Pomfritt advocates for substance over image in student elections. In “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Me and Robert Browning,” effectively a sequel to “The Big Question,” Pomfritt introduces the theme that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,” and by way of example confesses to being a failed novelist. Mr. Pomfritt was the ethical and intellectual center of Dobie Gillis, and the kindly, non-threatening, easy-to-take-for-granted Schallert was an inspired choice to play him. Imagine how pompous much of Mr. Pomfritt’s gentle wisdom would sound coming from a more traditional authority figure type (Raymond Burr, say, or George C. Scott).
In practice, Dobie’s reach exceeding his grasp meant short-changing Zelda to pursue a prettier girl. There’s a sweet scene at the end of “Browning” in which Dobie recommits to Zelda, acknowledging his poor treatment of her; naturally, she accepts this dubious apology without protest. That detente established a kind of holding pattern for the Dobie-Zelda relationship, further explored but not advanced in the equally commitment-phobic “For Whom the Wedding Bell Tolls” and “The Marriage Counselor.” Just as Dobie all but openly conceded that Zelda was a girl to settle for as much as settle down with, so Shulman needed to keep the door open for as many pretty guest stars as possible. It was left for the TV-movie reunion, twenty-five years hence, to confirm for good that Dobie and Zelda finally ended up together.
Hanging over any possible Dobie-Zelda union, not to mention over the series itself, was the specter of Thalia Menninger. Shulman got Tuesday Weld back for two episodes in the third and fourth seasons, and probably wanted more. (“Flow Gently, Sweet Money” features the series’ favorite runner-up femme fatale, Yvonne Craig, as an identical character, even dropping Thalia’s old catchphrase “Love doesn’t butter any parsnips” into her dialogue; and there are other late episodes that could have been written with Weld in mind as well.) The second of Thalia’s encores, “What’s a Little Murder Between Friends,” treads water (although Shulman tried to rewrite it as the basis of the 1988 reunion, a script that CBS rejected wholly), but the first, “Birth of a Salesman,” is one of the shrewdest scripts.
Credited to Arnold Horwitt, “Birth of a Salesman” grasps the significance of Thalia’s return after nearly two years, both for Dobie and for the viewer. In the prologue, Dobie and Maynard speak dismissively of that gold digging girl Dobie knew back in high school. The implication is that he knows better now than to fall for such a shallow creature. In a lovely scene in the soda shop (the series had a new, smaller one by season three), Thalia’s return plays out as a reunion between lovers who never quite got over each other; it feels as if more than a year or two have passed. Now a would-be corporate go-getter, Thalia is back in Central City to tempt both Dobie and Mr. Pomfritt with lucrative jobs in sales. We see that Pomfritt’s office just a desk in a room crowded with other college administrators; he complains of spending more time with unions and contractors than students. With sympathetic characters articulating both sides, “Birth of a Salesman” is structured as a debate between pragmatism and idealism. Thalia and Herbert argue that money and security are the key to happiness; Maynard and Mr. Pomfritt make a case for the less tangible benefits of contemplative, scholarly pursuits. Dobie stays in school – for the time being – but who’s to say who is right? Shulman doesn’t stack the deck.
The undistinguished final episode, “The Devil and Dobie Gillis,” brought the series full circle, by reviving a plot from the pilot about a rigged raffle. (Several other late episodes also recycled first season storylines.) A more fitting finale would have been Bud Nye’s “The Moon and No Pence,” which reprises, and settles, the question of Dobie joining the family business as a career. Zelda has a different future in mind for him, one in which she nags Dobie into a gray-flannel-suit corporate world. In the brief glimpse we get of Dobie as a Mad Man, he’s a stressed-out philanderer, unfulfilled in his work and prone to Don Draperish dalliances with free-spirited women. Broadcast four months and sixteen episodes before the series went off the air, “The Moon and No Pence” was our last look at Dobie’s inner life.
According to Hickman, cast and crew disbanded in 1963 before word from the network arrived as to the series’ future – no goodbyes, no finales. “The Moon and Six Pence” contains enough dots to connect into an ending, in which the path Dobie finally chooses – Gillis and Son – is conventional but also, perhaps, a middle course between the opposing futures materialistic Thalia and head-in-the-clouds Maynard staked out in “The Big Question.” Not bad, although I prefer the one in the back of my own mind, in which Glenn Corbett tools through Central City in a half-empty ’Vette, drops into a nondescript corner grocery, and asks the bored-looking young man behind the counter if he’d like to go for a ride.
April 11, 2014
Rescued from obscurity last year with an essential complete-series DVD release, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis remains one of the most distinctive and intelligent American situation comedies. Conceived and successfully marketed as a youth-oriented enterprise – the everyday life of the ordinary teenager – Dobie expanded its vision, as all great television does, to articulate an overarching point of view on existence itself – a wry, wise one, with a strong undercurrent of melancholy. Verbally witty and tonally unpredictable, it was probably the most sophisticated sitcom to debut before The Dick Van Dyke Show – although its sharp edges and complicated relationship with realism (and reality) make Dobie Gillis more relevant as a precursor to the spirited insanity of Green Acres.
Dobie Gillis was one of the earliest television comedies to embody the unmistakable voice of a single, brilliant writer – from the fifties, only Nat Hiken’s The Phil Silvers Show and arguably David Swift’s Mister Peepers come to mind as fellow members of that fraternity. Though he had successes on Broadway (The Tender Trap) and in films (adaptations of The Affairs of Dobie Gillis in 1953, with Bobby Van in the title role, and his novel Rally Round the Flag, Boys! in 1958), Max Shulman began as a prose writer who took on college life in his first book (Barefoot Boy With Cheek, 1943) and introduced the character of Dobie in a series of short stories. Although the unity of tone in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis is self-evident, Shulman asserted his control over the television series in no uncertain terms: “In Dobie Gillis, every script in the end went through my typewriter, sometimes for minor changes, sometimes for major ones. Out of 39 or so episodes, I’d write maybe 10 – anywhere from 6 to 12 – but I would polish or tinker with every one of them, because I wanted to keep the same tone.”
A TV pilot script for Dobie had been around for a couple of years before it coalesced at Twentieth Century-Fox in 1958, when Martin Manulis (the legendary Playhouse 90 producer) became the studio’s new head of television production and revived it from the dead. Although Manulis quit after less than a year in the job, before the series debuted, his production company’s logo appeared at the end of Dobie Gillis for all of its one hundred and forty-seven episodes. The Dobie series was also an early agency package, from General Artists Corporation (GAC), the forerunner of ICM. A “package” was a situation where the key talents, usually all clients of the agency in question, were assembled by the agency and presented as a bundle to the buyer. It was probably GAC that put Shulman together with his key collaborator, producer-director Rod Amateau.
Shulman and Amateau would be the brains behind Dobie Gillis for its entire four-year run. “We were just two little schnooks trying to put a comedy show together,” said Shulman (and it was literally true, in part; neither man stood taller than 5’5”). After clashes with studio executives over the pilot, Shulman contrived to move production to a smaller annex lot, Fox Western (which was actually east of the main Fox studios, but named after its location at Sunset and Western), where they would be left alone. Shot quickly, with two cameras and no audience, on a cluster of sets that were cramped and threadbare but got the idea across, Dobie Gillis was a quasi-independent production nestled under a big studio banner.
In print, Dobie Gillis was a college kid; university life seemed to be Shulman’s creative starting point in the same way that service in the war formed the points of view of many other writers of his generation. Television lowered his age and transplanted Dobie (played by Dwayne Hickman, previously a supporting player on The Bob Cummings Show and the Shulman-scripted Rally Round the Flag, Boys!) to high school, because Manulis felt that his escapades were too silly to seem plausible otherwise. In a way that anticipates, oddly, the workplace comedy formula of Dick Van Dyke and many of its successors, Shulman divided his attention evenly between Dobie’s “professional” life at school and his family life at home. Dobie’s parents (Frank Faylen and Florida Friebus) were the proprietors of a rather shabby little grocery store; his older brother, Davey (played, in a gimmick of casting, by the actor’s older brother Darryl Hickman), was already away at college, leaving Dobie for narrative purposes an only child.
The rest of the ensemble comprised friends and teachers from Dobie’s “work” sphere, Central High School (and later S. Peter Pryor College). Dobie’s best friend, for instance, was a beatnik, allegedly the first to figure prominently in a television series. Maynard G. Krebs – played by Bob Denver, a casting director’s secretary’s brother, whose inexperience lent him a innocent quality that Shulman and Amateau found lacking in the other applicants – was a bedraggled loafer with a hint of a goatee and a wardrobe consisting entirely of torn sweatshirts. Maynard was such a topical notion that he could not have existed in the days when Shulman first started writing about Dobie. More than any other character, as both Shulman and Denver would later recall, Maynard was an ongoing invention of the actor who played him.
If everyone on The Twilight Zone sounded like Rod Serling, then all of Shulman’s characters tended to share the same loquacious, declamatory speech pattern – almost a proto-Sorkinese. Collectively, the citizens of Central City had a more prodigious vocabulary than anyone else on television in the early sixties. Some critics, as well as Hickman and others who worked on the show, have claimed that Shulman’s use of Dobie as a simultaneous participant and narrator in the series was ground-breaking. Perhaps, but Dobie’s funny monologues – at first delivered, in a self-mocking gesture, next to the local park’s copy of Rodin’s The Thinker – don’t play as a jarring, fourth-wall breaking device, in the manner of Kevin Spacey turning away from a scene and towards the viewer in House of Cards. Rather, they strike me as a natural (if unusually fluid) extension of the importance of speech and wordplay in Shulman’s writing, and of a piece with the sort of on-screen hosting that Serling and Alfred Hitchcock provided for their own shows – more about establishing a particular tone than delivering exposition. A closer modern analogue for Dobie’s monologues might be the interpolation of the stars’ stand-up routines into episodes of Seinfeld or Louie.
Although catchphrase humor isn’t usually thought of as a sophisticated sitcom device, Shulman infused Dobie Gillis with a roster of intricate litanies, the best of which became calling cards for the characters who delivered them, as well as pleasurable running gags. Dobie and Maynard sit on a park bench, volleying back and forth “What do you want to do tonight,” in tribute to Marty. Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), Dobie’s earliest, just-out-of-reach inamorata, calmly explains the rationale behind her monomaniacal gold-digging: “My father’s sixty years old and has a kidney condition, and my mother isn’t getting any younger either. I have a sister who’s married to a loafer, and a brother who shows every sign of turning into a public charge.” Herbert T. Gillis recites his World War II service record, “with the good conduct medal,” the added emphasis underlining Dobie’s dad’s puffed-up view of himself.
Those catechisms are a key to understanding Shulman’s worldview, which is simultaneously cynical and warm. Shulman protects his characters in very specific ways: Herbert may be a windbag, living too much in the past; but as he reminds us with every recitation, his exasperation with his son’s aimlessness is rooted in legitimate Greatest Generation accomplishment. Herbert’s other major refrain was, in response to any infraction by Dobie, “I gotta kill that boy” – a line that, like Ralph Kramden’s “To the moon, Alice,” contains an undercurrent of abusiveness that couldn’t have gone unnoticed even among fifties audiences, especially as delivered by the raspy and irascible Faylen (essentially playing himself, according to Hickman). Shulman liked to point out that “we didn’t even pretend that there was any communication between parents and children,” but the relationship was more complicated: Whenever someone else insulted Dobie, Herbert was quick to take offense. He was far from warm and fuzzy, but Dobie was his burden to heap insult upon.
By the same token, Thalia’s lust for money has a rational grounding: Shulman gives her a sympathetic justification for craving coin even as he makes full use of it as a nightmarish, all-consuming spectre in Dobie’s life. “Girls who tell the truth are funny,” Shulman said – a statement that can be taken in more than one way. Like many of the television writers of his era, Shulman had a bit of a woman problem; and just as Stirling Silliphant used Route 66, in his own prescient/retrograde way, as a vehicle to work out a horror of and fascination for women’s lib, Dobie Gillis became a canvas for Shulman to sketch out contradictory female archetypes. Thalia’s opposite number was Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James), initially a one-off character (alphabetical seating fated her to be Dobie’s chemistry partner, and one-sided soulmate, in the third episode, “Love Is a Science”), but one who evolved into the show’s female lead. Shulman used Zelda to balance the equation of Dobie’s unsatisfying love life: As Thalia was unattainable for Dobie, so Dobie was unattainable for the lovestruck Zelda, to the endless exasperation of all concerned.
Although physical appearance is implicitly the reason that Dobie pursues every girl in sight except Zelda, the show steers clear of overtly cruel jokes at her expense (especially compared to the way that, say, Miss Hathaway is treated in The Beverly Hillbillies). Personality – specifically, the obnoxiousness with which she pursues Dobie, itself a refraction and a tacit critique of Dobie’s girl-craziness – can also be understood as Dobie’s main objection to Zelda. And of course, Zelda’s desire to remake Dobie into a suitable mate – “I’m going to nag you into being rich and successful and happy, even if it makes you miserable!” – isn’t all that different from the get-rich quick schemes into which Thalia enlists a somewhat more willing Dobie. If anything, Zelda’s plans for his future are even more explicitly fifties-conformist. (There’s a hint of the outlaw in Thalia: if Zelda was grooming Dobie to provide for them, Thalia saw him as a tool to provide for her.) For Shulman, womanhood was a continuum of emasculation.
Another of the show’s major touchstones was Dobie’s obsessive evocation of girls as “soft and round and pink and creamy.” Even when attributed to a gormless adolescent with only a theoretical conception of sex, that’s a slightly creepy and weirdly biological way of thinking about women. Like Silliphant, Shulman ended up trying to have it both ways: The women in Dobie Gillis were smarter and more assertive than Dobie and Maynard, but their objectification went largely unquestioned (something that was even more true of the lust-objects-of-the-week who appeared in many episodes than for the more fleshed-out Zelda and Thalia). But it would be misguided to offer an ahistorical scolding to Dobie Gillis for its ambivalent sexism, since on the whole (and relative to many more actively misogynistic series of the same period) Shulman’s show comes across as affectionate towards and admiring of women. One of the reasons that Dobie Gillis delights today is its honesty about Dobie’s lust. The teens in Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and even the down-to-earth Leave It to Beaver were asexual, but Dobie was a horny kid, persistent and even compulsive in his pursuit of sex. Shulman and Hickman always made it clear that this kid would tag as many bases as he could get away with.
The realism, at least by TV standards, of Dobie Gillis extended into areas beyond sex. Shulman was also obsessed with money, and not just by way of his gold-digging goddess Thalia. As a counterpoint to Dobie’s incessant mooching off his parents and Maynard’s infamous phobia for “work!” Shulman crafted an explicit accounting of the middle-class struggle to make ends meet that’s as rare on television now as it was then. The first season’s wonderfully dyspeptic Christmas episode, “Deck the Halls,” was a grumble about the travails of the merchant class, in which Herbert’s stingy customers contrive a dozen different ways to nickle-and-dime him into the poor house.
The even more specific “The Magnificent Failure” finds Herbert overvaluing his grocery store by a figure of $29,000; after his bad negotiating torpedoes a buyout deal, he goes in search of a job as a middle manager in a supermarket chain, only to learn the hard way that he’s not considered qualified to work for a big corporation. The dire economy of Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert), Dobie’s kindly English teacher (and later professor), also came in for scrutiny in a pair of morose episodes that examine, without any comedic exaggeration, the kinds of sacrifices that an educator must make in order to remain in a profession that Shulman clearly thinks of as noble. Pomfritt has to moonlight in order to make ends meet, a situation that he finds humiliating; and even at the junior college, in theory an advance over teaching at high school, he’s distracted from teaching by a heavy load of crushing administrative duties.
During the first season, Dobie Gillis gradually built up a roster of some of the funniest character actors in the business, most of them recurring in small roles as the Gillises’ neighbors, customers, and civic overlords: Doris Packer, Marjorie Bennett, Jack Albertson, Alan Carney, Joey Faye, Richard Reeves, James Millhollin, Burt Mustin, Milton Frome. Coupled with Shulman’s penchant for giving his characters long, silly names (Merrilee Maribou! Monty W. Millfloss! Truckhorse Bronkowski!), the populating of Central City with such a rich ensemble of oddballs felt like a conscious imitation of Preston Sturges, especially his small-town send-ups (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek; Hail the Conquering Hero).
At the same time, Shulman depicted fifties materialism, pop culture, and sex in a heightened tone – no other sitcom of its day did vulgarity as exuberantly as Dobie Gillis. Dobie’s lust, Thalia’s greed, and Maynard’s beat affectations – not to mention the screeching theme song and the first season’s lecherous animated opening titles – are painted in broad strokes that emulate the wild satires of Frank Tashlin, who was at his peak (with The Girl Can’t Help It and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) in the years when Shulman was putting Dobie Gillis together. Perhaps the best way to characterize the distinctive delights of Dobie Gillis is to suggest that it represented a synthesis of Sturges’s weirdness and Tashlin’s spikiness – or even that Shulman was consciously imitating both writer-directors. It’s hard to think of any other important sitcoms that followed in the tradition of either; Green Acres, maybe, had some of Sturges, and The Dick Van Dyke Show a bit of Tashlin, but these seem like incidental similarities compared to the extent that Shulman channelled both.
In the second half of this essay, I consider some of the changes that the very protean Dobie Gillis underwent in its second, third, and fourth seasons.
November 21, 2012
TV Guide named it as the fortieth best television episode of all time. On lists of favorite sitcoms, or favorite holiday episodes, it invariably ranks even higher. WKRP in Cincinnati’s seventh episode, “Turkeys Away” begins as a wholesome, almost bland, Thanksgiving show. Around the midpoint, though, the standard-issue sitcom setup – Mr. Carlson (Gordon Jump), orchestrates a secret radio station promotion – takes a spectacularly morbid and off-color left turn, one that sets up punchline after hilarious punchline. The last line of the show (which can be viewed on Hulu, albeit with substantial cuts and music replacement) has become one of the most oft-quoted gags in the history of television.
This month, in a series of entirely new interviews, members of the show’s cast and crew (along with the “real” Herb Tarlek) reminisced about the making of this historic half-hour.
HUGH WILSON (creator and producer of WKRP in Cincinnati): The starting point was that I was a young, kind of new writer at Mary Tyler Moore Productions – MTM.
MICHAEL ZINBERG (director of “Turkeys Away”): It was in the heyday of MTM. We often referred to it as Camelot, which it was. Those shows were hand-crafted. It was a remarkable group of writers and directors and producers, headed by Grant Tinker. Hugh Wilson came out from Atlanta, and in three years was creating his own show. That’s what the possibilities were.
CLARKE BROWN (radio executive): Hugh first started in the business as an account executive for Burton-Campbell Advertising. He was about to get fired, and they said, “Wait a minute, don’t fire this guy. This guy could be a great writer.” They moved him into a copywriting position, and he became arguably the best copywriter that’s ever been in Atlanta, Georgia. Later he became the creative director, and ultimately he became the president of the agency. Then he abruptly left. He got a divorce, and without a job or anything, he moved to California and ended up almost immediately getting a job with Mary Tyler Moore.
HUGH WILSON: Grant Tinker, who was Mary’s husband, let it be known one day in the most casual of ways that if anybody had any show ideas, they should tell him. I know pilot season [now] is more important than Versailles, but in the day he just said that. Anyhow, I was working on a short-lived show, two seasons, called The Tony Randall Show. Tony had had great success with The Odd Couple, and we did this. It never quite worked, but that was what I was doing. Anyhow, I got this idea for a radio station [series], and I told Grant, and we went over to CBS, and they all said, “Yeah, hey, great.” What was lucky for me was that most of those guys . . . had at one time or another been in the radio business. I hadn’t counted on having that kind of built-in affection for the idea.
So I went back to Atlanta, where I had some real good friends, at what was the number one rocker there, and I sat down with the station manager and told him what was going on. He was very excited, because it was [about] radio and also because it was good publicity.
CLARKE BROWN: WKRP was based on the radio station WQXI in Atlanta, and there were several characters who were very much based on people at QXI, and the others were sometimes amalgamations and sometimes just completely fictionalized. I was Herb Tarlek.
HUGH WILSON: Clarke Brown was a salesman at WQXI, and I based Herb Tarlek on him, although Clarke’s a pretty cool guy. But Clarke was dressing in these pretty bizarre polyester outfits back in the day.
CLARKE BROWN: Not to that extreme, but I was kind of known for dressing wildly, mod clothing and so forth. But he was making fun of me, essentially. It just made me laugh.
HUGH WILSON: The character of Johnny Fever, he was based on a guy I knew in Atlanta called Skinny Bobby Harper. That was funny, because he was the morning guy, so Skinny had to get up at four in the morning to get in there. But he also loved being in the bars at night. He was like Fever – in the pilot, I said [to Howard Hesseman], “You’ve got to play it like you’re sleepwalking, because you should be asleep by eight, but eight is just when you’re going out.”
CLARKE BROWN: Jerry Blum was “the Big Guy,” Arthur Carlson, and there was another guy that some of his personality was in the character also. His name was Doug Burton, and he was the Burton of Burton-Campbell.
HUGH WILSON: Jerry Blum was a little bit of Mr. Carlson, and Carlson is actually more of a wonderful man that I worked for in Atlanta advertising. He was my boss. He was a great, great guy.
CLARKE BROWN: The location was [changed to Cincinnati] because of its central location, with no accents. And obviously, “WKRP,” “W-crap” was the pun intended.
Hugh kind of worked with me in the mornings. One day he’d go and sit in the control room, and then one day he’d sit in the sales office, and he absorbed the actual workings of a radio station firsthand in that manner. Then, of course, he and I were drinking buddies, so he heard every story that was worth repeating over the years. When Hugh was writing the show, a lot of the incidents were real.
HUGH WILSON: I was allowed to see everything, and then Jerry Blum, the station manager, told me about a promotion – I believe in Texas, and I want to say Dallas, but I’m not sure – in which he threw turkeys out of a helicopter, and they didn’t fly. They crashed to the ground, it was just a horrible disaster, and he wound up losing his job over it. So I said to him at the time, “Jerry, I think you just won me an Emmy.”
CLARKE BROWN: The turkey drop was actually a real incident. It was at a shopping center in Atlanta; I think it was Broadview Plaza, which no longer exists. It was a Thankgiving promotion. We thought that we could throw these live turkeys out into the crowd for their Thanksgiving dinners. All of us, naïve and uneducated, thought that turkeys could fly. Of course, they went just fuckin’ splat.
People were laughing at us, not with us. But it became a legend. There were other stories of this nature that were embellished [on WRKP]; that one was really not embellished that much. Although the turkeys were thrown off the back of a truck, as opposed to how it was depicted on the [show].
HUGH WILSON: I didn’t dream up the helicopter. My memory is Jerry said a helicopter.
CLARKE BROWN: It just ended with, the joke’s on us. And of course, our guys played it up. It turned out to be a great little unintended publicity gimmick, the fact that it failed the way that it did. Probably got more mileage out of it being screwed up than had it not been.
HUGH WILSON: Since that time, a couple of people have claimed that story, but Jerry said it was him. He’s the one that said to me, “You know, Hugh, turkeys can’t fly.”
CLARKE BROWN: It is very possible that another radio station at some point in time had done something similar. But I know for a fact that we had no conscious awareness that it had been done elsewhere, successfully or not. We weren’t deliberately trying to clone somebody’s promotion. Not that we wouldn’t do that, because clearly we would, and have. But not that particular day.
HUGH WILSON: It didn’t matter to me whether it was true or who did it. I knew I could use it on the show. We decided that we would make it our Thanksgiving show of the first season, which I think was the sixth one we did.
The teleplay for “Turkeys Away” is credited to the late Bill Dial.
HUGH WILSON: He was a friend of mine from Atlanta, from the agency I worked with, that I had brought out too, because I thought he was good, and also I felt that somehow or other I had been let past the guards at one of these great studios, and now my job was to sneak in as many friends as I could.
CLARKE BROWN: A lot of people from Atlanta were involved with that show – his writers and music people. A guy named Tommy Wells, who just recently died, did the music for the show and wrote the theme song.
HUGH WILSON: I just thought [Bill Dial] kind of missed it completely. Dial, bless his heart, would tell you the same. He got the credit and I think he kind of dined out on it, but you know, I pretty much wrote every word.
The premise of “Turkeys Away” is a kind of continuation of the pilot, in which station manager Arthur Carlson (Gordon Jump) begins to feel left out and unappreciated following WKRP’s format change under the new program director, Andy Travis (Gary Sandy).
HUGH WILSON: That made sense to me. The pilot was about a whole change there, and it would make sense that this guy, a dear man but an inept man, would want to reinsert himself into it. It would be fun [to have] him to engineer it, rather than the angry Herb Tarlek. It was good that Herb be his lieutenant. Herb and Les, they kind of sided with the old guard, so it was great to have all of them on the wrong side of this.
Seeking to ingratiate himself with the staff, Carlson makes fumbling overtures to all of them. To African American deejay Venus Flytrap, he proffers a watermelon.
TIM REID (“Venus Flytrap”): That actually came from a true story! This was way back in 1968, about four years removed from the [start of] the Civil Rights movement. I’d just come out of college. I was claimed as the first black hire to be a marketing representative for this company. I’m not going to call the company’s name, but it was a major corporation and I was the first black hired in management. Anybody with a college degree in a white company was looked upon as just landed from PlanetUniversity. Nobody really knew quite how to deal with us. We were all in training together, and there was a lot of joking, a lot of racial joking, and everybody got their turn in the barrel.
The person who [gave me the watermelon] was from the Deep South and I was from the South, and we had really been giving each other a pretty good row at the time. I had given as much as I got. It was a touché kind of thing, because I had really done something to him earlier. Let’s just say I showed up in a sheet. [Laughs.] But that one topped it. Then the shit hit the fan. Everybody realized, Oh my god, this really isn’t funny. This has gone too far. So then the pressure all came to me as to how am I going to respond to it. Which I never thought was quite fair.
That person and I never became great friends, but we – I saved his job, actually. They were going to fire him because of that when word got around. He came to me, very sadly, and asked, and I called [the bosses] and said, “Look, this was a give and take. I don’t want to waste my opportunities on this one. Let me save them for when I really need a chit.” I knew he had learned his lesson, and I certainly had learned mine.
A lot of things in our lives became seeds of a story, or elements of a story. Oftentimes when Hugh was writing, he’d talk to you, and you’d say something and he’d laugh and walk away. Then you’d look up and it would be in the script. Hugh would say, “Can I tell that?” And I go, “I dunno.” So, suddenly, innocently, Carlson doesn’t know what to do and he handed me a watermelon!
“Turkeys Away” has an extraordinarily slow build to its famous ending. Arthur Carlson’s much-hyped secret promotion doesn’t emerge until the second act, and just what it is not revealed until the last few minutes.
HUGH WILSON: If you’ve got a real hot piece of comedy that you like, you sure don’t want to put it up front. I tried hard to make it the climax, where the climax is supposed to be.
MAX TASH: We started with the table read on Mondays, and we would shoot on Fridays. There would be a big rewrite Tuesday nights, and then usually a smaller rewrite on Wednesday night.
TIM REID: It was a great table read. We’d get the script a day or so before table read, so you know going in whether or not you’ve got something that’s going to be a lot of fun to do. And we all just couldn’t wait to get there. I think it’s one of the first times in four years that we were all ever on time for a table read.
The classic payoff commences when Les Nessman’s live broadcast from the shopping center’s parking lot quickly becomes a bloodbath – one that echoes another famous disaster.
HUGH WILSON: I put in the thing that Les would be present, and I wrote that whole thing that made it sound like the Hindenburg and all of that.
TIM REID: The opportunity to see Les Nessman recount the falling of the turkeys in the style of the Hindenburg was just, tears to your eyes. I mean, who takes on the Hindenburg, and does a comedy? Takes one of the great tragedies in this country, and puts it in a comedy show? We went there.
People don’t give us credit for a few firsts, but WKRP was the first television show to do an episode about Vietnam [“Who Is Gordon Sims?,” in which Venus Flytrap is revealed to have been a draft dodger]. Lou Grant did one after us, but we were the first, and it was so touchy and so difficult, that they sent the military to sit in the stands every day in the rehearsal. It was literally going to be up to a commander from Camp Pendleton, that somebody had brought up as our advisor. He was going to watch us rehearse for at least two to three days, and it was going to be his decision. And if he said “no,” we were not going to do the episode.
MAX TASH (production associate): “Turkeys Away” was probably the most famous episode we did of that whole series, but there was an episode we did called “Les on a Ledge,” which had Les Nessman on the ledge of the Flimm Building, contemplating suicide because one of the Cincinnati Reds baseball players made a comment about Les after he had done an after-game interview, saying, “What a queer little fellow he is.” So he took that to mean they think he’s gay. And it was the third or fourth episode that we produced of this brand new sitcom, that was dealing with this issue, in a very funny way. But that episode, to me, stood out even more than “Turkeys Away” because it showed the direction that the series was eventually going to go in.
Les quotes the famous line from Herbert Morrison’s radio coverage of the Hindenburg crash: “Oh, the humanity!”
HUGH WILSON: You know what, we’d put in a line, and invariably somebody from the network would say, “I don’t believe people, particularly younger people, know what that line about the Hindenburg means.” And my answer was always, “So what?” They were always deathly afraid that we would be going over people’s heads. We did a commercial once that was for a beer where it said, “Look for the smiling face of Archduke Ferdinand on every bottle!” Somebody said, “Hugh, it was his assassination that started World War I.” And I said, “So what?”
The oft-told story is that Richard Sanders (“Les Nessman”) closely modeled his performance on Morrison’s broadcast.
MICHAEL FAIRMAN (guest star as the “Shoe Store Owner,” and Richard Sanders’s friend and writing partner on several WKRP scripts): We both listened to it together at one point. It was Richard’s idea. He said, “Why don’t I announce it as if it were [the Hindenburg broadcast]?”
TIM REID: We all did! We all sat in the room and we watched the actual crashing of the Hindenburg as it was recorded [in newsreel footage], over and over, and we sat there as he [Sanders] did it. And he did it so well. If you look at him and look at the guy who gave the report on the Hindenburg, you’ll see the similarities.
MICHAEL FAIRMAN: Richard is an interesting guy. Very – oh, what’s the word? Very ordered. Kind of strait-laced, kind of tight. Sometimes we’d have little battles about that. He had a very dramatic, teutonic kind of personality. It had to be this way or that way. He was very much like Les Nessman. Compulsive, a little bit. But a good guy, at base.
GARY SANDY (“Andy Travis”): Richard Sanders was my favorite character on the show. I thought Richard was incredible in that part of Les Nessman. He knew what he was doing every single second, every moment that he was on camera. But, everybody was funny on that show. Frank Bonner was funny in that episode. I was young and cute. [Laughs.] Everything kind of worked.
As Les Nessman narrates the unexpected demise of hundreds of ill-fated turkeys, most of the other characters – Andy, Venus, Johnny Fever, and Bailey Quarters – listen in disbelief from the booth.
HUGH WILSON: That was all shot just as you see it. They were in their set, and [Sanders] was in the swing set – that’s a set that you don’t see every week. He was right there next to them on the stage; we didn’t shoot it separately and cut it in. We did everything we could to make it work for the live audience.
MAX TASH: There were a few more extras [needed] than we had budgeted for, so our runner, Tim Womack, was one of the passersby when Les Nessman was doing the play-by-play. In the background of that shot, also, was Hugh’s secretary, Lissa Levin, who eventually became a story editor and a renowned writer on her own. And there were other production people and office staff who were in that episode as background people. We were always throwing friends and family into the shots.
MICHAEL ZINBERG: You never know what you have until you get it in front of the audience. Then when the laughter started, and turned into howls when those turkeys started coming down, it was hard to keep doing the show, because we were laughing so much watching the show.
HUGH WILSON: They were cracking it up. There’s probably some good outs from that – I don’t know where – where they just started laughing and we had to cut.
TIM REID: We just could not keep from laughing throughout the whole taping of it.
HUGH WILSON: Richard Sanders never did that. He was really amazing. He could have the whole soundstage fall and he never broke character. But the rest of them, being human . . . . Particularly Gordon Jump, if he said something that amused him, he was sure as shit going to laugh himself. Actually, those kind of things I enjoyed, because the audience loved to see somebody make a mistake. They felt like they were on the inside.
FRANK BONNER (“Herb Tarlek”): My most fond memories of “Turkeys Away” are Richard Sanders’s (a very good actor) use of the reporter’s description of the 1937 Hindenburg disaster – [and then] “…the turkeys are hitting the ground like bags of wet cement.”
HUGH WILSON: That line was mine.
Before the turkey drop, Les reads aloud the text of the banner trailing behind the helicopter – even, slowly, the station’s call letters, as if he’d never seen them before.
HUGH WILSON: Where he had to read it? That was his gag. I’m pretty sure that that came up in rehearsal, and Richard did that. Isn’t that good? They were a funny bunch of people, all of them.
Jennifer (Loni Anderson), the station’s receptionist, fields a call from the Humane Society: “But, Mr. Colley, a lot of turkeys don’t make it through Thanksgiving.”
HUGH WILSON: That I don’t think I wrote. I think that’s from Dial.
Finally, Arthur Carlson and Herb Tarlek return to the station, dazed and disheveled.
HUGH WILSON: I was a real grizzly about keeping to the lines. There was a great deal of respect for writers at MTM. Tinker and Mary were always right behind the writers. I guess that started with Jim Brooks being so key to her show being a success. So [the cast] stayed to the lines, but invariably they found funny things. A lot of times they would find something and I would say, “Augh! Nope, don’t do that!” Then they’d try things and I’d go, “Yeah, that’s great. Thank you very much.” I must say I didn’t write it in the script that Gordon would show up with – Frank and him had makeup put those little feathers on them. When I saw it, I fell down in laughter, so they realized I supported that.
No turkeys actually appear on-screen in “Turkeys Away.”
HUGH WILSON: No, thank God. And I sure didn’t want one on the set, after Jerry said the turkeys attacked the people. He was the one that said they landed and decided they’d let them out there so the people could grab them, but the turkeys were vicious to the people. So I put that right in the script, too.
MAX TASH: I thought the funniest lines were happening because the audience was imagining what was happening. You never saw turkeys thrown out – you only saw how it was being described. You saw the aftermath when Carlson comes in with feathers in his hair. So the funniest laughs were in the audience’s imagination.
Finally, Arthur Carlson re-emerges from his office, and utters the ten lines that would immortalize “Turkeys Away.”
GARY SANDY: The famous line from that show, “As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly,” is famous because, at the moment – and it’s like it was yesterday, I can see it – the genius of Hugh Wilson and Gordon Jump came together. Gordon Jump was one of the nicest men that ever lived, really, he truly was, and I think his humanity, who the man was – he got by with a lot of stuff because he was just a great human being. Gordon Jump was a very religious guy, so somehow or another “as God is my witness” is coupled with all that.
HUGH WILSON: Yeah, I wrote that. That was from my mother. She was always using God as her witness. “As God is my witness, I have never in my life seen a boy,” etc., etc. [I was] an only child who got caught for everything. I mean everything. I have five children, so I never really know who did what, but when you’re an only child, you’re screwed.
Jump does not utter the “As God is my witness…” line until after the end credits have begun to appear.
MAX TASH: The thing we learned from Hugh was: you tell the joke and you get out of there. Don’t be hanging around.
HUGH WILSON: At the time, the show hadn’t been on the air [yet], and these were people [in the live audience] who were out vacationing, who were given these tickets at Universal’s [studio tour] and all, and they really wanted to see a show they had seen for years on TV. They weren’t too happy to come in and see a show they hadn’t seen yet. But that was the biggest success in terms of audience enjoyment up to that time. So we were real excited about it. So was the network. People were just pitching fits.
MAX TASH: There were so many big laughs that you do end up cutting out laughs, because you’ve already established how funny the joke is, and you’ve already heard the audience, and if they went on maybe twice as long with a particular laugh it just takes away from the program time.
HUGH WILSON: That’s the kind of problem you prayed for.
MAX TASH: So, yeah, we did [trim the laugh track], but it wasn’t unusual on WKRP to do that.
Although it was meant to air the week before Thanksgiving, “Turkeys Away” was actually first broadcast on October 30, 1978. The ratings-challenged series spent the holidays fighting for its life.
HUGH WILSON: I think after the sixth or eighth show we were taken off the air and put on hiatus for, quote, “repairs.” That’s what Variety, I believe, reported that CBS said, that they were having a second look at the show and they were “tweaking it.”
Well, in point of fact, I just sat there and waited. I didn’t tweak anything. I went to some meeting where we all agreed that it should be funnier. And then I turned in some scripts that they hadn’t seen, and they thought that they saw in there a reaction from me from that meeting. But they’d been written way before that. I just changed the dates on the drafts, so it would look like they were written after we were taken off the air.
I think, in a way, “Turkeys” saved us from getting cancelled, because it got a lot of talk. Anecdotal, around town kind of talk. Those people, of course, were ruled by necessity by Nielsens, but they also wanted to be involved with something that was thought around town to be good.
TIM REID: Today, not only could you not get away with that, nobody would get it.
HUGH WILSON: I meet people for the first time, and if we get to talking and it somehow comes up that I created WKRP, they immediately start saying, “As God is my witness, I didn’t know turkeys could fly.” It’s rather amazing that the line itself is [legendary]. I’m just thrilled and tickled to death by it. People either say “Oh, I love that show,” or they go right to “As God is my witness…” It seems like half and half.
GARY SANDY: It’s not surprising to me that this has become what it’s become, because that moment was etched in my memory as being something really special.
Thanks to all of the participants in the above, and especially to Hugh Wilson, whose generosity in opening his rolodex made this piece possible, and to Justin Humphreys, who introduced me to Hugh. For more “Turkeys Away” stories, check out the DVD audio commentary featuring Hugh Wilson, Loni Anderson, and Frank Bonner.
November 5, 2012
Q: “What was Dorothy about?”
A: “Two weeks.”
– Archive of American Television interview with Bob Carroll, Jr.
In August of 1979, a situation comedy about a middle-aged woman who served as a sort of den mother for a quartet of rambunctious boarding school girls debuted on Friday night, in the 8:30PM time slot.
No, it wasn’t The Facts of Life. It was Dorothy.
Although the “summer tryout” was and remains an unusual method of launching a series, the networks that year, in their boundless imagination, used it to test-launch two nearly identical shows in the same month. The Facts of Life, on NBC, became a modest but long-running hit that lasted for seven seasons and enjoyed a strong syndicated afterlife. Dorothy, on CBS, vanished into obscurity after its initial batch of four episodes were broadcast.
The Facts of Life (which actually featured seven girls at the outset, pared down to four a year later) starred Charlotte Rae as the teacher / surrogate mother figure. Dorothy was named after its star, Dorothy Loudon. Both Rae and Dorothy Loudon were Broadway veterans – they knew each other, had vied for some of the same roles – but while Rae had become familiar on television as a character comedienne, playing regular parts on Car 54, Where Are You? and Diff’rent Strokes (from which The Facts of Life was a spin-off), Loudon was a pure theatre performer. She had made a brief splash on television in the early sixties, taking Carol Burnett’s comedy-and-songs slot on The Garry Moore Show, but before and after that Loudon stuck mainly to nightclubs and the stage. After fifteen years as a sort of Susan Lucci of Broadway, consistently earning the best reviews in a series of high-profile flops, Loudon had won a Tony Award in 1977 for her role as Miss Hannigan, the conniving head of the orphanage, in Annie.
Dorothy was a classic high-concept “package,” a Hollywood entertainment that attemped to fuse disparate but proven elements. Often those packages are assembled by agents, trying to get jobs for several clients at once, but Dorothy was the brainchild of a Warner Bros. executive named Alan Shayne. A former casting director (for East Side/West Side and N.Y.P.D.), Shayne had seen Loudon in Annie and thought she would be a natural to headline her own series. Even though Miss Hannigan was the villain of Annie, and not at all enthusiastic about little girls, it made sense to exploit the connection to the hit show by placing Loudon in a similar setting. Separately, Shayne was also taken with Linda Manz, the teenaged actress who had played Richard Gere’s sister in Days of Heaven (1978) and whose thick Brooklynese provided the film’s unusual narration. Manz (below) would play the most prominent of the girls featured in Dorothy, a tough-talking tomboy very similar to Jo (Nancy McKeon), a character added to The Facts of Life in its second season.
The third element that informed the construction of Dorothy was Alice, the blue-collar Linda Lavin sitcom that was at the time Warner Bros.’ most successful television property. Shayne, as the studio’s executive vice president in charge of television, oversaw Alice and drafted its executive producers, former Lucy writers Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr., to develop Dorothy. “They were my mainstays,” Shayne said in a recent interview. “They would, in a pinch, always save any show that was in danger.” The premise devised by Carroll and Davis – who shared a creator credit with Nick Arnold, a name that was not mentioned in publicity for the show and that Shayne could not recall – had Loudon playing Dorothy Banks, a former showgirl reduced to teaching music and drama at a run-down private school.
To direct, Shayne hired television’s top comedy director, John Rich (The Dick Van Dyke Show; All in the Family). Though Rich was been a director on Alice, Shayne had awarded the famed pilot director a royalty for every future episode of the show in order to screen the uneven early episodes and suggest some critical changes. (Alice ran for eight seasons and Rich probably earned more from a few hours’ work than some directors make in a whole career.)
With all those heavyweights involved, how did Dorothy turn into such a massive flop – grotesque and all but unwatchable even by the middling-at-best standards of lowbrow fare like Alice or The Facts of Life?
One clue may be in the chronology. Loudon committed to the Warner Bros. Television deal in 1977 or 1978, while she was still in the cast of Annie, but the show had to wait once Loudon committed to star first in Ballroom – a musical adaptation of the made-for-television movie Queen of the Stardust Ballroom – on Broadway. Only after Ballroom closed, earlier than expected, on March 24, 1979, did Loudon go to Los Angeles for Dorothy, and only then did “format and script work” commence on the series.
Loudon’s limited availability boxed the entirety of conception, writing, casting, and taping into a period of just over four months. Little wonder, then, that Manz’s character made no sense – she looked and spoke like a street urchin, but had a vaguely identified patron whose charity kept the school from closing, and therefore from expelling her – or that the other principal girls were barely developed beyond the teen-Charlie’s Angels stereotypes of blonde (Elissa Leeds), brunette (Michele Greene), and nerd (Susan Brecht). Shayne cast another broadway star, Russell Nype (Call Me Madam), as the spineless headmaster, but Nype seemed stiff and ill at ease, while the two actors who played Dorothy’s fellow teachers – Priscilla Morrill (French) and Kenneth “Kip” Gilman (biology) – were shrill and overbearing.
The process of casting Gilman was an example of the haste that went into assembling Dorothy. Davis and Carroll remembered him from Loves Me, Loves Me Not, a short-lived sitcom with Susan Dey, and hired Gilman without a formal audition. “The two of them were just the sweetest people in the world,” Gilman recalled. “They basically were saying, well, you’ve got the role, do you want to do this? They had a piano in their office, and just out of the enthusiasm of the meeting, I sat down and started fooling around, and I think that’s maybe where they got the idea that I might also be able to do some musical stuff with Dorothy. I don’t think they had that in mind originally, because I was the science teacher.”
To write the four episodes, Davis and Carroll assembled three pairs of comedy writers: themselves; Rick Hawkins and Liz Sage (The Carol Burnett Show); and Vic Rauseo and Linda Morris (Welcome Back, Kotter). All but Davis and Carroll were relatively new to the business, but the most of the jokes could have been pilfered from Buddy Sorrell’s gag file. (Some examples: “While our students were looking at fish, Mimi and I were going to make a few waves!” “You shouldn’t be intimidated by Mr. Foley just because he’s headmonster … er, headmaster.”)
Loudon hinted at conflicts with the writers when she did publicity for the series, telling one journalist that she’d had to show them clips of her appearances on the Tony Awards broadcasts as a guide to the kind of material she could do. According to associate director Gary Shimokawa, Loudon clashed with the writing staff – “I think she just didn’t think they wrote to her, wrote enough to what she could do” – but found an ally in Rich (now earning his Alice windfall, it would seem). “I think John managed to keep her together on that, and she trusted him. He was a big personality as a director, and so I think that helped a lot,” said Shimokawa.
Even Gilman (below, with Loudon), who was inclined to focus on the positive and who sidestepped most of Dorothy’s behind-the-scenes conflicts, spoke out about the scripts:
Even though I was having fun with it, I [wanted] it to be a little bit more subtle and not as much on the nose. I remember saying something to John Rich, and I think Dorothy might have felt the same to some degree, that I felt that somehow we were doing like a radio show, where some of the jokes were – they had some crust on them. They were a little old. And John’s response to that, as the director, he said, “Well, you’ve got to understand, Kip, this is television, and these [gags] are like old friends!”
Since Loudon’s claim to fame was as a musical comedy star, one element that Rich had deep-sixed from Alice became central to Dorothy: an abbreviated but showy song or two in every episode. In the four produced episodes Loudon performed “There’ll Be Some Changes Made,” “Hard Hearted Hannah” (with Gilman), “Strike Up the Band,” “Keep Your Sunny Side Up,” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Monarch of the Sea” (with the girls). The selections were probably made by Loudon, who had used some of them in her nightclub act. “Changes” was one of two songs she had performed in a 1946 audition for the talent agency MCA that had launched her professionally, and she once described singing “Hannah” “on top of a piano in a bar in Troy, New York” as the worst job of her life. Loudon also performed Dorothy’s title tune, which was written by Bill Dyer and the distinguished film and television composer Billy Goldenberg (Duel; Columbo), who probably got involved because he had made his Broadway debut with the score for Ballroom.
The songs were arguably the show’s main draw but they created a plausibility problem, as Alan Shayne pointed out:
When we did Alice, we did a couple [of episodes] and it was a bomb. I mean, it wasn’t going at all, I thought, and one of the things John Rich said was – at that point, Linda Lavin was going to sing a number in each show – and one of the things he said was, “Let her sing on somebody else’s show, but not on Alice, because she seems like a loser. If she sings great, what is she doing as a waitress?”
Well, in a similar way, with Dorothy, it was more about her being a performer, and when she did her number, you kind of thought, “Why is she in this girls’ school?” But I loved her performing. I must say, I loved her when she sang.
But Shayne’s hoped-for successor to Alice died on arrival. “It simply didn’t work,” he said recently. What no one had told Shayne was something that the company of Annie had discovered very quickly: that Loudon, in the words of the show’s composer Charles Strouse, “really, genuinely, sincerely, hated children . . . . She was very ill-natured, in that respect.” Loudon would shoo away not only the many little girls in the show’s cast but also the dog, Sandy, whom she also despised. Doubtless she was less than thrilled that, in her bid for more widespread recognition, the baggage of Annie made youngsters an unavoidable part of the package.
While Loudon’s pedophobia might have been perfect for the larger-than-life hostility of Miss Hannigan, it couldn’t work for a den-mother sister to Mrs. Garrett. “Dorothy really didn’t like the kids, I don’t think,” Shayne said. “And although she was at war with the kids, you had to feel that she also loved them. That didn’t really work. Dotty was a tough lady, you know. She had a lot of hostility.” Loudon’s husband, a television arranger and composer named Norman Paris, had died unexpectedly just six weeks after she won the Tony for Annie, upending her personal life just as she reached her professional peak.
Kip Gilman also observed Loudon’s discomfort around her young co-stars, and thought that Manz – a casting director’s off-the-streets discovery whose experience up to that point had been limited to Terrence Malick’s highly idiosyncratic style of moviemaking – was especially ill-at-ease with the demands of performing comedic material in front of a live audience. Gilman suggested that, as a consequence of all that, the other three episodes may have been altered to reduce the girls’ roles and build up the screen time of the (still underdeveloped) faculty characters.
That was a miscalculation, since the juveniles were more appealing than any of the adults on display. The closest Dorothy came to being any good was in the premiere episode (it was the second one taped), “The Bookworm Turns.” Loudon was less manic in this one than in the other three, and it ends with a sweet moment in which she consoles her gawkiest charge (the appealing Susan Brecht, above) over an unrequited crush on Gilman’s character, Mr. Landis (also a totally implausible romantic interest for Loudon, who was old enough to be Gilman’s mother).
When Dorothy premiered on August 8, the publicity marked it as a lame duck. Loudon hemmed and hawed over whether she really wanted to do television or move to Los Angeles, all but publicly apologized for the writing, and suggested that if the show were renewed, the school setting might be dumped, and her character could make a return to the stage. But the reviews were surprisingly kind. Kay Gardella of the New York Daily News compared the show unfavorably to Our Miss Brooks but felt that “[s]till Loudon is a welcome addition to television.” Variety hedged: “Loudon was forced to work awfully hard for the laughs she got – but the point is, she got them.” Jerry Krupnick of The Star-Ledger wrote that “[t]he plot is ordinary, the rest of the cast is merely competent, but Dorothy Loudon is sensational.”
Only later, after the show was safely buried, did the knives come out. “Dorothy, you may recall … was a total disaster,” was how Krupnick reversed himself in 1983. “It was loud, frantic, senseless, unfunny – with Dorothy reduced to a desperate series of leers and triple takes.” On her website, Michele Greene (the only one of the four girls to have a durable career as an actress) calls the show “horribly idiotic.” Loudon herself must have realized, from the first moment she saw herself on screen, that no one had succeeded in scaling down her broad, stagy style. In later years, she told interviewers about a mortifying premiere party that she spent sitting in a corner, drinking wine. “Thank goodness nobody saw [Dorothy],” she said in 1982. “I watched the first episode and cried all the way through.”
Sources: Author’s telephone interviews with Kip Gilman, Alan Shayne, and Gary Shimokawa; Archive of American Television interview with Madelyn Davis and Bob Carroll, Jr.; Charles Strouse interview, Life After Tomorrow DVD (2008); John Rich, Warm Up the Snake (University of Michigan Press, 2006); Kay Gardella, “Loudon sounds off for songs,” New York Daily News; August 1, 1979; Kay Gardella, Dorothy review, New York Daily News, August 8, 1979; Jerry Krupnick, “Dorothy is dazzling in long-overdue return,” Star-Ledger, August 8, 1979; Arthur Unger, “‘Bound to have viewers begging for more,’” Christian Science Monitor, August 8, 1979; Stephen M. Silverman, “Dorothy has high hopes for her sitcom,” New York Post, August 14, 1979; Dorothy Review, Variety, August 15, 1979; Richard Christiansen, “Singing, clowning, touring, winning: Loudon’s dues are paid in full,” Chicago Tribune, September 12, 1982; Jerry Krupnick, “Dorothy Loudon: Musical comedy star adds a distinctive note to ‘Best of Everything,’ Star-Ledger, September 18, 1983.
This piece was an outgrowth of my work on a project of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to digitize Dorothy Loudon’s papers, which were donated to the Library following her death in 2003. I am also writing about Loudon for the Library’s blog.
As of this writing, the episode “Lies and Whispers” is available on Youtube, along with some clips from other episodes of Dorothy. The Paley Center for Media has copies of all four episodes in its collection.
July 29, 2011
I never really met Jay North, who played Dennis the Menace on television, but I saw him once at an autograph show. North, who has long been as much of a poster-boy for the fucked-up child star as you can be without actually dying from it, was slumped face-down over his table, cradling his head in his arms amid a puddle of eight-by-ten glossies. Jeannie Russell, his former co-star, stood behind him, hand on his shoulder, quietly talking him off of whatever ledge of mental anguish on which North was perched. What struck me as I studied this scene was how routinized it seemed: I got the idea that these two had acted out this ritual countless times before, a sad-funny part of arrested adult lives built upon vague memories of a childhood in which they remained trapped like the proverbial bugs in amber. And although the spectacle might have been new to this particular roomful of fans, I was certain that I wasn’t in the midst of the first crowd that had tiptoed awkwardly around North in a public setting, waiting for him to get himself together. Exactly who, I wondered, was benefitting from this transaction? What does Jay North get from these people? Why is an old photo of a burned-out child actor worth five bucks and a trip to North Hollywood to anyone? Nostalgia is the slowest-acting poison.
Jay North: Rebel without a comb.
Anyhow: This month brings us the DVD release of the second season of Dennis the Menace (the third, out of four, has already been announced for the fall, suggesting unexpectedly robust sales), and Shout Factory, in its usual puckish fashion, saw fit to send me this set but not the first season, which came out back in March. Ordinarily, I’m a completist about this kind of thing, but then I decided that if there was ever a series that did not need to be seen from the beginning, it was probably Dennis the Menace.
My Nick at Nite memories of Dennis the Menace, which I found agreeable as a child, were of an epic, all-out guerilla combat between male Bad Seed Dennis and querulous, nasty old retiree Mr. Wilson. This turns out to be inaccurate: the show is sweeter, gentler, blander, and less funny than I recalled. Though it is based, of course, on the long-running Sunday strip by Hank Ketcham – himself apparently a nasty old man who based and named his creation after his own attention-deficit-disordered son, then became estranged from the child who earned him millions – the TV Dennis affects a comics-page atmosphere only in the repetition of cloying catchphrases (“Great Scott!” “Good ol’ Mister Wilson!”) and the exaggerated costumes of Dennis and his know-it-all nemesis Margaret (the aforementioned Ms. Russell). The rest is straight sitcom-generic, a second-tier entry in the stable of cheap Screen Gems domestic comedies, which also included Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show, and Hazel.
Like those other, better Screen Gems comedies, Dennis the Menace tried for warmth as much as for humor; and it’s a sad reality that warmth, especially yesterday’s warmed-over warmth, does not age as well as a good gag. The premise hints at a dire form of suburban combat: a symbiotic bond of irritation between two essentially unpleasant people, a bratty child and a mean-spirited retiree, Maple Street denizens burdened by opposite extremes of age but both with too much time on their hands. Dennis Mitchell is sometimes bratty, occasionally disobedient or disingenuous, but more often just accident-prone or hyperactive. Mr. Wilson is an asshole and a hypocrite, susceptible to flattery or bribery, querulous by default but obsequious when the potential for personal gain presents itself. Whenever he has a chance to finally vanquish his enemy, though, as when Dennis runs away in the season opener “Out of Retirement,” Wilson turns nice and sees to it that no harm comes to the boy. (Paul Mavis, in a customarily credulous and exhaustive survey of the first season, suggests that the earliest episodes offered a livelier and more maleficent Dennis.) It is probably wise that the show’s creators chose to soften these characters, because I see no one on the show’s roster of creative talent – Screen Gems staff producer James Fonda, B-movie directors William D. Russell and Charles Barton, a list of journeymen writers, and a less than ideal cast – with the talent to have made the show darker without also making it impossible to take. But as a result Dennis the Menace has no subtext, no edge, neither the nuanced view of human behavior that distinguished Leave It to Beaver nor even the fascinating, barely suppressed hysteria of Donna Reed.
My favorite of the dozen Dennis episodes I watched this week was “Dennis and the Radio Set,” in which Mr. Wilson finds a cache of cash hidden in an old radio, purchased (thanks to Dennis’s meddling) at auction. Mr. Wilson and Mitchell pere immediately start spending the money in their heads, until Dennis stops them in their tracks by insisting that a search be undertaken for the true owner. The adults agree to place a classified ad in the local paper, but word it so that the person to whom the cash belongs is unlikely to come forward. The ethical positions taken by the various characters – Dennis as idealist and moral compass, Mr. Wilson and the usually unassailable Henry Mitchell as morally compromised or, at least, pragmatic to excess – are not consistent with those they affect in other episodes. But they are, at least, mildly surprising. The teleplay (credited to Fonda, who was not primarily a writer) also finds room for a not-quite-absurdist gag in which the characters never realize that the old radio only broadcasts a South African station (say what about a lion on the rampage?) and the best role I’ve ever seen gangly bit actor Norman Leavitt play, as an American Gothic-styled ne’er-do-well angling to claim the cash, with a crib sheet tucked into his hat, yet.
But in its efforts to set up and then embellish some sustained gags, “Dennis and the Radio Set” runs somewhat counter to the series’ format. The prototypical Dennis episode would be one like “Henry and Togetherness,” in which the towheaded twerp manages to destroy, among other things, a cookie jar, an aquarium, and Mr. Wilson’s new hat. Mr. Wilson, meanwhile, runs a con on Dennis’s father, manipulating him into giving up a golf game in order to spend more time with Dennis, on the dubious logic that this will keep the little brat out of his own hair.
(Mr. Wilson often behaves according to that heightened dream-logic of sitcoms, in which people do things that make absolutely no sense in order that we may have a plot each week. See also, for instance, Jeannie’s psychotic fixation on “helping” Major Nelson, despite his constant pleas that she mind her own fucking business; Darrin Stephens’s monomaniacally self-defeating anti-feminism; and practically all the behavior of the castaways on Gilligan’s Island. I’m still working out my Lost-like theory that Gilligan’s isle was actually a top-secret asylum for the dangerously insane, and that everyone on the Minnow was a multiple murderer, heavily drugged and circumvented in escape by unseen government agents.)
Loose in its structure, slack in its pacing, “Henry and Togetherness” is content to assemble a modest catalog of routine childhood antics and banal adult reactions around only a smidgen of plot. It is inoffensive in its mediocrity, and actually superior to episodes that contrive more elaborate or far-fetched conflicts between Dennis and Mr. Wilson, like “Dennis the Campaign Manager” (Dennis inspires Mr. Wilson’s bid for parks commissioner) or “Dennis and the Miracle Plant Food” (more or less self-explanatory). But is that ambition enough to justify one hundred and forty-six half-hours?
There are other “classic” shows that have, arguably, gotten by with this approach. If you enjoyed The Cosby Show, it was because you liked spending time with Bill Cosby and his appealing TV family, not because any of them were killing themselves trying to make you laugh. But the cast of Dennis is too cut-rate to coast on slight material. Radio actor Joseph Kearns plays Mr. Wilson with a catalog of overdone, old-womanish gestures and expressions. He’s the right type but he isn’t much fun; Dennis needed a sharp, operatically hateable antagonist, like The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Richard Deacon or The Lucy Show’s Gale Gordon (who, in fact, replaced Kearns on Dennis after he died suddenly toward the end of the third season). Herbert Anderson, playing Dennis’s father, is a nebbish with a tremulous voice, a slight build, and no chin. In contrast to windbaggy sitcom dads like Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, or Carl Betz, Anderson is a non-entity, displaced entirely by the monster-grandpa figure of Mr. Wilson. A father figure of such extreme weakness, positioned within the standard nuclear-family dynamic, is an intriguing source of unease. But I have yet to come across a Dennis episode that mines Anderson’s odd passivity for either humor or pathos.
And as for Jay North, a Village of the Damned escapee with a spooky death-rictus grin, he bellows his dialogue with a presentational delivery, like a seal whose trainer stands just off-camera, ready to toss a fish after each correctly timed bark. On one level it’s hard to argue with his casting, because Dennis is supposed to be annoying and North certainly fits that bill. I kept wishing, though, that Dennis could have been Stephen Talbot, who played the similarly unctuous character of Gilbert on Leave It to Beaver in a more likable and realistic manner. Indeed, Beaver’s rich supporting cast contrasts sharply with the lack of background color in Dennis the Menace; all of Dennis’s friends and most of the other adults (including Gloria Henry as his mother) are forgettable. Beaver had an first-rate secondary cast and it deployed them shrewdly, to extend its tonal richness. If Wally and the Beav were flawed but also likable and recognizably human, then their assortment of friends were either venal (Eddie Haskell, Gilbert Bates) or stupid (Lumpy Rutherford, Larry Mondello), a collective suburban id that had no place in a plainer, sunshinier show like Dennis the Menace.
I wrote above that Dennis the Menace had no subtext, but that’s not quite true. Out of the myriad ways in which a little boy might torment an elderly pensioner, nearly half of my random sampling of episodes zeroed in on incidents whereby Dennis caused, or threatened, a financial loss for Mr. Wilson. This obsession with economics is expressed with numeric precision. Every teleplay spells out the exact sums of money at stake. Mr. Wilson’s worthless stock escalates in value to $500 just as Dennis throws it out with an old phone book (“The Stock Certificate”). Mr. Wilson’s parcel of scrap land goes up in value from $2,000 to $5,000 after Dennis finds gold on it (“The Rock Collector”). Mr. Wilson gets a hundred dollar bill in the mail, only to see it snatched away by a crow (“Woodman, Spare That Tree”). And so on. The amount of money in that radio set was $1600, and in conversations with each of two potential claimants, the exact figure of a reward is haggled over. So much uncouth discussion of dollars and cents called up, in contrast, one of my indelible childhood memories of Leave It to Beaver, in which the Beav asked his dad if they were rich and Ward replied only that the Cleavers were “comfortable.” (I think that line may have triggered my earliest conception of the middle class, and the awareness that I numbered among it.)
On other occasions I have praised shows (like The Wire) that emphasize money, because frank depictions of economic hardship rarely emerge from Hollywood. But when Dennis the Menace does it, the show merely reflects George Wilson’s avarice; you can practically imagine the writers looking over his shoulder and smacking their lips in unison with Mr. Wilson as he grubs for some wad of cash. It’s an unthinking validation of the capitalist trap: the anxiety surrounding financial loss is the most real thing in the world of Dennis the Menace. Still, I’m not unsympathetic. As I grow older and ever less “comfortable,” the thought of living on a fixed income moves further up on my list of fates worse than death, inching past even the threat of torment by unruly children.
The Writers Guild of America has confirmed the death of prolific television writer Preston Wood on January 13. Wood was 87 and lived in Grover Beach, California.
Although there was no obituary at the time, word of Wood’s death has since surfaced in a detailed Internet Movie Database bio, bylined by his son Mark, and in this introduction to his papers at the Belknap Collection for the Performing Arts at the University of Florida.
Wood began as a writer for radio, then made an unusual detour into directing live television and another into the executive suites of Madison Avenue, where he developed TV programs for the ad agency Young & Rubicam. In the early sixties, Wood transitioned back into story editing and then freelancing for television.
(It wasn’t uncommon for ad execs to migrate into creative roles in early television. Some of the prominent live TV directors – although none of those who became important filmmakers – doubled as agency staffers. Recently I’ve been interviewing another major television writer, Jack Turley, who spent a decade planning and directing TV commercials for ad agencies before making a career move similar to Wood’s, and at the same time.)
As a live television director, Wood worked mainly on We the People and Holiday Hotel. In Los Angeles, he began his writing career as a story editor on the underrated western Outlaws, and also served briefly as a story editor during the first season of The Wild Wild West. He wrote episodes of Bonanza, Mr. Novak, Slattery’s People, The Virginian, The Addams Family, The Patty Duke Show, Rawhide, Destry, Gunsmoke, Matt Lincoln, Little House on the Prairie, Quincy M.E., Kaz, and Jessica Novak.
Wood’s most significant work came for producer / director / star Jack Webb, during the twilight years of Webb’s crime show empire. Wood wrote a few episodes of the 1967 revival of Dragnet before moving over to Adam-12 as its primary writer (he penned ten out of twenty-six episodes during the first season) and then on to Emergency! A bit more than the other early writers, Wood mastered Adam-12’s emphasis on arguably trivial vignettes that made up the professional life of its prowl-car cop protagonists. My favorite Adam-12 is one of Wood’s. The tense “Log 33” abandons the show’s usual loose structure and imprisons Officer Reed (Kent McCord) in a room with a tough Internal Affairs investigator (Jack Hogan) who shakes his confidence in his memory of an officer-involved shooting.
Wood seems to have evaded a comprehensive career interview. I contacted him in 2004 but a brief correspondence subsided without the opportunity of an interview, and Michael Hayde, Jack Webb’s otherwise thorough biographer, seems to have missed Wood as well. As Wood’s archive of scripts is one of the most comprehensive records of a television writer’s output that we have, so I particularly regret missing the opportunity to complement that resource with an account of the events in his career that occurred off the page.
Also largely unreported: The death of comedy writer Norm Liebmann on December 20 of last year. Born on January 16, 1928, Liebmann’s primary claim to fame derived from one-half of a murky “developed by” credit on The Munsters. According to Stephen Cox’s The Munsters: A Trip Down Mockingbird Lane, a shady Universal executive merged Liebmann and collaborator Ed Haas’s proposal for the series with another by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, without bothering to inform either set of writers until they met on the set. A Writers Guild arbitration resulted in the convoluted (non-) creator credits. Liebmann told Cox that he came up with some of the characters’ names, and he and Haas wrote a couple of early episodes.
Much of the rest of Liebmann’s resume holds more interest than The Munsters. Alternating between sitcom and variety assignments, he wrote for the 1961 Bob Newhart Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Hazel, and Chico and the Man, as well as for Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
February 12, 2011
“As a dear friend of mine pointed out: ‘Life is discovering we keep a lot of appointments we didn’t make.’” – John McGreevey, in a letter to the author, January 28, 2003
Emmy Award-winning television writer John McGreevey died on November 24 of last year. His death has been mentioned in various internet forums, but was not noted in the press at the time. McGreevey’s son, Michael, a writer and actor, confirmed his father’s death in an interview last week. “He died an incredibly satisfied and fulfilled human being,” said the younger McGreevey.
John McGreevey wrote well over 400 teleplays and screenplays during a career that spanned six decades. Best known for the twenty-one stories he crafted for the Depression-era family melodrama The Waltons, McGreevey won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, three Christopher Awards, the Writers Guild of America’s Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award, and numerous other honors. Neither an opinionated social critic like Rod Serling or Chayefsky, nor a “writer’s writer” like Howard Rodman or Richard Alan Simmons, McGreevey has been somewhat neglected by historians, probably due to the variety and prolificity of his output. He nevertheless ranks among his generation’s most skillful craftsmen of popular television.
Born in Muncie, Indiana, on December 21, 1922, McGreevey wrote his first one-act play at the age of five, and performed it in his family’s backyard. His enthusiasm for writing and reading saw the bookish McGreevey through a troubled childhood, during which his father struggled with alcoholism and money problems. Once McGreevey came home with a good report card, only to be jeered for his bookishness by his father and his father’s drunken poker buddies. According to Earl Hamner, Jr., and Ralph Giffin’s book Goodnight John-Boy, McGreevey turned his memories of his father, a World War I veteran, and his father’s “wartime trench-mates” in to an early Waltons episode, “The Legend.”
When McGreevey was nine, financial difficulties compelled his father to split up the family. Separated from his two sisters, John went to Fort Wayne to live with two “rather strange Irish Indiana Hoosier great-aunts,” according to Michael McGreevey.
“He didn’t have the structured family that most of us know, and I think he always yearned for it,” Earl Hamner, Jr., the creator of The Waltons, said last month. “The Waltons was sort of an idealized family, and I think that he found it gratifying to work with, to write about such people.”
Possessed of a very high I.Q., McGreevey advanced through school quickly, and left for college when he was only fifteen. As a student at Indiana University, he gravitated to the drama department, where the future character actors Charles Aidman and Andrew Duggan (a lifelong friend) were fellow students. Jug-eared and painfully slim, McGreevey nevertheless exuded enough charisma to attract the attention of both talent scouts (he screen-tested at MGM in 1940) and the ladies. But the woman whom McGreevey married was not a fellow student but a secretary in the university’s theater wing. Seven years older than her husband of sixty-eight years, Nota McGreevey survives him.
Radio, still in its heyday during World War II, was an obvious place for an aspiring writer to get his start. McGreevey, classified 4F during the war due to his poor eyesight (he had disobeyed a doctor’s order that he do no reading while recovering from the measles), applied for work in all the big cities but was rejected. Eventually he found a job at KATR, a Phoenix station, where he wrote and performed in over four hundred weekly segments of a western anthology called Arizona Adventures. His wife was a frequent co-star.
Around 1952, McGreevey moved to Connecticut, hoping to crack the fresh new market of live television that had sprung up in New York. John sold scripts to Lights Out, Danger, and the Philco Television Playhouse, as well as radio dramas like Curtain Time, Stars Over Hollywood, Nick Carter Master Detective, Dr. Christian, and The First Nighter. But the first wave of live TV writers had already established themselves, and McGreevey found the pickings slim. He jumped at the chance to move to Los Angeles when a friend offered him a six-month contract writing for MCA’s television unit, Revue Productions. Writing episodes of Revue’s bland filmed anthologies, Studio 57 and Schlitz Playhouse, did little to secure him a West Coast foothold, although McGreevey did manage to adapt one of his favorite stories, Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel,” for Schlitz. (An avid Crane enthusiast, McGreevey amassed a collection of rare first editions of the writer’s works.)
In 1956, an aggressive William Morris agent named Sylvia Hirsch took an interest in McGreevey and landed him assignments on a series of popular independent shows: Lassie; Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre (he wrote the premiere episode, “You Only Run Once,” and “Three Graves,” one of Jack Lemmon’s last television appearances, before settling in as a fast, reliable rewrite man for the show); and Screen Director’s Playhouse, an anthology drama whose proto-auteurist gimmick was to assemble a lineup of fading big-screen directors who were still a few notches above accepting routine television work. One of McGreevey’s scripts, “Markheim,” was directed by Fred Zinnemann, and working alongside the director of High Noon convinced the young writer that, perhaps, he would really be able to have a career in Hollywood.
At the same time, McGreevey was working as a de facto story editor on Climax, the live dramatic anthology that was one of the flagship shows to originate from CBS’s new Television City facility in Los Angeles. McGreevey doctored scripts under the table until one of the show’s directors, John Frankenheimer, took him aside and told him that he should stand up for himself and demand credit for his work. McGreevey followed Frankenheimer’s advice.
A western fan, McGreevey welcomed the chance to launch his own horse opera, co-creating Black Saddle with Zane Grey producer Hal Hudson in 1959. A fairly generic vehicle for Peter Breck that got lost in the glut of late-fifties TV westerns, Black Saddle lasted for a year and a half. McGreevey found his next niche far from the old-west, in the anodyne suburban world of Don Fedderson. He story-edited My Three Sons early in its run, and continued to write for that show and the even more treacly Family Affair for the rest of the decade. For McGreevey, these innocuous comedies were meaningful. They encapsulated his belief in the value of family, which he thought should be (in Michael McGreevey’s phrase) a “safety net of unconditional love for everybody.”
Most comedy writers tended to get pigeon-holed in the land of the laugh track, but McGreevey darted nimbly between the most saccharine of sitcoms (Hazel, The Flying Nun, Mayberry R.F.D.) and tougher action shows (Wagon Train, Court Martial, Ironside). McGreevey was a plot wizard, not a gagman, and his son recalled that the show which tickled his father the most was an off-beat failure called Grindl, created by Mister Peepers’ David Swift and starring Imogene Coca as a maid who worked in a different household each week. “I remember him coming down the stairs, actually laughing, when he was writing that one,” said Michael McGreevey. McGreevey gravitated towards shows that blurred the line between the serious and the comedic; he wrote eight episodes of the slapstick western Laredo, and often contributed light-hearted episodes to dramatic series. “Birds of a Feather,” for instance, was an atypically semi-comedic Arrest and Trial that featured Jim Backus as one of several con artists trying to outwit one another.
During the sixties and early seventies, McGreevey was one of those impossibly prolific writers who made the network-television engine run. Just to pick out the obscurities from his resume which have not (as of this writing) made it onto his Internet Movie Database profile makes for an exhausting list: Celebrity Playhouse; Soldiers of Fortune; Cimarron City; The Californians; Michael Shayne; The Islanders; Hong Kong; The Americans; The Bob Cummings Show; It’s a Man’s World; Gentle Ben; Nancy; The Name of the Game; Make Room For Granddaddy; Sarge; Lucas Tanner; Bridget Loves Bernie. McGreevey always juggled three or four assignments at a time, tracking his progress on each on a corkboard (later replaced with a dry-erase board) in his office.
The Waltons debuted in 1972 with an episode scripted by McGreevey, who became the most important writer for the show other than Earl Hamner. Like Hamner, on whose adolescence The Waltons was based, McGreevey tapped a well of autobiography whenever he paid a visit to Walton’s Mountain. Hamner liked “The Foundling,” McGreevey’s story about a deaf girl abandoned by her family, so much that he chose it over one of his own segments to launch the series. Along with Kathleen Hite, Marion Hargrove, and Rod and Claire Peterson, McGreevey was one of the inner circle of writers who could be counted on to get the show’s rural, period setting right.
According to his son, McGreevey identified strongly with the central character of John-Boy (Richard Thomas), the artist-as-a-young-man character at the center of the show. Michael McGreevey, who acted on and wrote for The Waltons, referred to Hamner and John McGreevey as “John-Boy 1” and “John-Boy 2.” But the identification was more complex than that. At the same time he channeled the bottled-up hurt of his own turbulent childhood through John-Boy, McGreevey articulated his adult perspective – his ideas about family and fatherhood – in the dialogue the character of the Walton patriarch (Ralph Waite).
McGreevey won his Emmy for a 1973 episode of The Waltons called “The Scholar,” which explored adult illiteracy. McGreevey’s protatonist, an African American woman (Lynn Hamilton) who was deeply ashamed of her inability to read, became a recurring character on the series. “It was a mark of his excellence that any characters he created were usually so well-designed, so beautifully created, that they lived on. They were so good we just kept them in the show,” said Hamner.
Hamner and McGreevey became close friends, and traveled together – to Japan, to Athens – with their spouses. McGreevey was a knowledgeable traveling companion, Hamner recalled, but also a notorious “klutz” who managed to fall off a bicycle into a French canal and once had to be fished out of the ship’s pool during a cruise.
The recognition he received for his work on The Waltons elevated McGreevey’s status in the industry; from then on, he was able to give up episodic scripting and work exclusively on made-for-television movies and mini-series. Even there, McGreevey was chameleonesque, developing parallel specialties in fact-based docudramas (Judge Horton and the Scottsboro Boys, Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes, The Unabomber) and trifles like Little Mo and the Andy Williams Christmas specials. His first movie-of-the-week, Crowhaven Farm, was an atypical excursion into gothic horror, which retains a cult following today.
When McGreevey retired in 2003, his son was sure that he would find it impossible to stop writing. Not so: he put his pen down for good, and never looked back. “He was one of those lucky writers for whom it wasn’t painful at all,” said Michael McGreevey. “It was liberating, almost.”