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Category Archives: 1960s Shows

That’s Why It’s Called Hooterville

07.17.16 - Petticoat JunctionThere’s something you notice while watching the first season of Petticoat Junction. The Bradley girls (except for the one whose father produced the show) experience a remarkable upper-body expansion.

The Bradley girls (Riley, Woodell, Henning) in the first episode of the season.

The Bradley girls (Riley, Woodell, Henning) in the first episode of the season.

In the first episode (“Spur Line to Shady Rest,” 9/24/63), Billie Jo (Jeannine Riley) and Bobbie Jo Bradley (Pat Woodell) have perfectly pleasing figures. But over the course of the season, a captivating curvature is underway.

The ballooning bosom phenomenon is most apparent in Jeannine Riley, whose role on the show expands in tandem with her bra size. But before long, Pat Woodell is busting out as well. Was there a competitive bra-stuffing campaign underway? Or had the girls’ figures been craftily confined in the early going, gradually giving way to their full unbound glory as the year went on?

The DVD release for that season includes commentaries from castmates Woodell and Linda Henning, but their chatter is limited to gushing praise for each other and nostalgia for the time they spent on the show. Left unsaid is why Jeannine Riley left after the second season, how well they all got along, and why those very feminine dimensions seemed to grow over time. But maybe it’s all my imagination anyway.

All eyes are on Jeannine Riley in the last episode of the season.

All eyes are on Jeannine Riley in the last episode of the season.

I didn’t have high hopes for Petticoat Junction. I’m too young to remember its original run, and I never saw it in syndication. But I found it to be a pleasant little show, for the first dozen or so episodes at least. Afterward, the freshness is about gone and it becomes a pretty generic sitcom.  But you do get to see old pros like Bea Benederet, Edgar Buchanan and Charles Lane on a regular basis, and the theme music is one of my very favorite TV tunes of all time. There are a good handful of memorable episodes, like “Bobbie Jo and the Beatnik” (1/7/64, with Dennis Hopper), and every now and then a touch of sweetness emerges and overcomes the sitcom tropes and the canned laughtrack. The Christmas episode (“Cannonball Christmas,” 12/24/63) is a good example.

In later seasons, Billie Jo and Bobbie Jo would be played by Meredith MacRae and Lori Saunders, charming actresses who became big fan favorites. But my own favorite of the Bradley girls remains Pat Woodell, who left the show after the second season, looking for an elusive singing career. That didn’t really work out, but I have to admire her courage in walking away from Hollywood to pursue a dream, and it’s easy to admire someone this beautiful and appealing anyway. She passed away last September.

Also from the last episode of the season: Pat Woodell stands out.

Also from the last episode of the season: Pat Woodell stands out.

 
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Posted by on July 17, 2016 in 1960s Shows

 

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The Ten Least-Convincing Aliens of LOST IN SPACE

06.26.16 - Lost in SpaceIrwin Allen’s 1960s sci-fi shows tended to start out pretty well, with imaginative scripts, impressive sets and lots of action. But before long, things would start falling apart.

Lost in Space has always been the most popular of his shows. While it was never a big hit in the ratings, it lasted for three seasons and pulled better numbers than the far more respected Star Trek. Afterward, it did well in syndication throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. That’s probably due to the casting (usually a weak area for Allen): Billy Mumy as the likeable boy hero with whom young viewers could identify, Jonathan Harris as his mincing adult sidekick, and a big friendly robot. (Even CBS chief William Paley, who hated the show, liked the robot.)

The concept was solid (it’s essentially The Swiss Family Robinson in space), and early episodes offer some imaginative adventures. But even during its first season, when the show was definitely at its best, there are some real clunker episodes. By the middle of the third season, almost every episode is just completely stupid, as if the producer had decreed that every script had to be tailored for an audience of eight-year-olds. Although the budget increased substantially, much of that went to pay salaries, leaving the show looking nearly as low-rent as Space Patrol had a generation earlier.

Nothing illustrates its decline better than the various aliens and space monsters encountered along the way. Again, during the first season these can look pretty good. But toward the end, they’re just laughably bad. Here are my picks for the ten absolute worst-looking aliens on Lost in Space.

10. Episode 3:20: “Fugitives in Space,” 1/31/68

10. Episode 3:20: “Fugitives in Space,” 1/31/68

9. Episode 3:19, “The Promised Planet,” 1/24/68

9. Episode 3:19, “The Promised Planet,” 1/24/68

8. Episode 1:12, “The Raft,” 12/1/65

8. Episode 1:12, “The Raft,” 12/1/65

7. Episode 3:16, “Target: Earth,” 1/3/68

7. Episode 3:16, “Target: Earth,” 1/3/68

6. Episode 2:04, “The Forbidden World,” 10/5/66

6. Episode 2:04, “The Forbidden World,” 10/5/66

5. Episode 3:14, “Castles in Space,” 12/20/67

5. Episode 3:14, “Castles in Space,” 12/20/67

4. Episode 3:22, “The Flaming Planet,” 2/21/68

4. Episode 3:22, “The Flaming Planet,” 2/21/68

3. Episode 3:12, “A Day at the Zoo,” 11/29/67

3. Episode 3:12, “A Day at the Zoo,” 11/29/67

2. Episode 2:17, “The Questing Beast,” 1/11/67

2. Episode 2:17, “The Questing Beast,” 1/11/67

1. Episode 3:23, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion,” 2/28/68

1. Episode 3:23, “The Great Vegetable Rebellion,” 2/28/68

 

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Hot tip for collectors: As we all know, a lot of vintage TV shows have never been officially released on DVD. But that doesn’t mean they’re unavailable. Some wonderful stuff circulates on the collectors’ market. For many years, my friend Steve Russo has made a lot of rare material available to collectors, and he’s now offering a special selection at sale prices. Email him at steverussovideo ((at)) msn ((dot)) com and he’ll send you the list. Of course, keep in mind that none of these shows have been digitally transferred from 35mm camera negatives, but Steve is proud of the quality he’s been able to obtain. I can already vouch for his Make Room for Daddy and Colgate Comedy Hour releases, and I plan on placing another order myself. There’s a lot of good stuff there. Grab it while you can.

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2016 in 1960s Shows

 

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“With Tonight’s Guests… Bette Davis and the Who!”

06.19.16 - Tony Orlando and Dawn

You’d probably never expect to see Ronald Reagan on the same stage with the Jackson Five. But during the golden age of the TV variety show, it was fine to book two performers from opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum. Incongruous couplings happened all the time. Sometimes they’d appear together and sometimes separately, but the following list proves that when it comes to variety shows, expect the unexpected—

 

Jackie Robinson and Bela Lugosi (Texaco Star Theater, 9/27/49)

Frank Sinatra and Lon Chaney Jr. (Texaco Star Theater, 11/28/50)

Jane Russell and Jerry Lee Lewis (The Steve Allen Show, 8/11/57)

Liberace and Lou Costello (The Steve Allen Show, 8/18/57)

Errol Flynn and Don Adams (The Steve Allen Show, 12/1/57)

Lenny Bruce and the Three Stooges (The Steve Allen Show, 4/5/59)

Nat King Cole and Rin Tin Tin  (Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, 10/21/59)

Jimmy Durante and Ray Charles  (Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall, 2/22/61)

Sophia Loren and Mel Brooks (The Steve Allen Show, 11/29/61)

Tallulah Bankhead and the Beach Boys (The Andy Williams Show, 5/2/66)

Elvis Presley and Charles Laughton (The Ed Sullivan Show, 9/9/56)

Lana Turner and the Electric Prunes (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 4/16/67)

Bette Davis and the Who (The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour, 9/17/67)

Arthur Godfrey and the Bee Gees (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 2/4/68)

Kate Smith and Jefferson Airplane (The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, 11/10/68)

John Wayne and O. J. Simpson (The Bob Hope Special, 11/27/68)

Sid Caesar and the Grateful Dead (Playboy After Dark, 1/18/69)

Lucille Ball and George Carlin (The Carol Burnett Show, 11/24/69)

Ronald Reagan and the Jackson 5 (The Sonny and Cher Show, 9/15/72)

Kate Smith and Chuck Norris (The Donny and Marie Osmond Show, 11/16/75)

Roy Rogers and Sherman Hemsley (Tony Orlando and Dawn, 2/25/76)

Abe Vigoda and the Bay City Rollers (The Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour, 12/7/76)

Buddy Hackett and ABBA (Dick Clark’s Live Wednesday, 11/15/78)

 
 

Slap Leather!

06.12.16 - GunsmokeVintage TV westerns tend to be violent. Really violent. And considering all the gun violence that rages across the network frontier, it was inevitable that a government official would step in and demand that everybody lay down their firearms. That’s what happens in a Gunsmoke I saw recently (2:25, “Bureaucrat,” March 1957). Marshal Dillon is ordered by a visiting supervisor from Washington to make Dodge City a gun-free zone. The idea is to eliminate the shooting deaths which are a weekly feature of this show.

So far, the script doesn’t care whether you see this as a common-sense step toward public safety, or as an assault on the Second Amendment. The citizens of Dodge see it as a means of being rendered helpless to defend themselves against the sort of people who don’t obey gun laws (or any other laws). I won’t bury you in plot details but in the end, the experiment in gun control is dropped after failing completely.

The script was based on a Gunsmoke radio play by John Meston, offering a muscular defense of frontier justice along with a swat at government intrusion. A lot of these early Gunsmokes are steeped in the grim insecurity of the Cold War, when the threat of sudden death on a massive scale was a very real danger. From that danger come these masculine studies in keeping the wolf from civilization’s door.

If this episode had been from the late-‘60s, written by someone from the Rod Serling – Sterling Silliphant School of Earnest Social Commentary, we’d probably see Dodge City’s loudest gun rights advocate accidentally shoot his own little girl to death. Or maybe he’d lead an angry mob to gun down an Indian suspect (who turns out to be innocent), as the wise old government bureaucrat sighs. Personally, if I have to choose, I prefer the Meston approach, but the level of violence would be about the same either way.

I’m not sure that you can have a really compelling western series without violence. Dramatically, threatened or implied violence can be more effective than the real thing. For example, take this episode of Wanted: Dead or Alive (1:15, “Rawhide Breed,” December 1958), one even grittier than usual for this two-fisted series. Steve McQueen’s bounty hunter character is stranded in the Arizona desert with a companion. Hostile Apaches are scattered everywhere, and the sanctuary of an Army fort is many miles away. McQueen and friend are traveling on foot. They’ll die if they don’t find water. They manage to capture a young Apache, and McQueen tries to intimidate him into revealing the location of the nearest water hole.

Any other show would have the hero shout at the Indian, or appeal to his sense of mercy. But this is Wanted: Dead or Alive, so McQueen threatens to slice the Apache’s nose off.

A scriptwriter from the Serling-Silliphant School would now have McQueen be overwhelmed by remorse for resorting to such a brutal display: “Look what I’ve become! The savage one is me!” He’d recoil in shame and drop to his knees, whereupon the unexpectedly kindly Indian would point out the water hole, and both would drink together.06.12.16 - Wanted Dead Or Alive

But this is a Samuel Peeples script, the product of an earlier era. McQueen never does slice off the truculent Apache’s nose (imagine getting that past Standards and Practices!). He drops the knife with a sigh of resignation— not over his own violent impulses, but because the threat doesn’t work. The first moment McQueen is distracted, the Apache runs away. Soon there are encounters with other Apaches, all of whom are gunned down just before they can kill our protagonists.

There’s no attempt to explain why the Apaches are out for blood. They’re just there to move the action along. Is that bad? Is it lazy writing? Not necessarily. Westerns exist in a universe in which violence spurs action, and actions spur violence. If we can accept those ground rules in Game of Thrones, we can certainly accept them in a ‘50s western. (Admittedly, I’d probably feel differently about this episode if I were of Apache descent.)

The paradox about westerns is that if you take out the violence, all you have left is a travelogue, whereas too much violence reduces your story to a Punch-and-Judy show of monotonous gunfire and men endlessly wincing and falling over. You have to strike the right balance. The producers of Rawhide liked to tackle character studies in which complex people confront their inner demons in a parched landscape, but viewers would write in and complain that they weren’t seeing enough killing (or cattle). Similarly, Chuck Connors recalled how the fans felt a little cheated whenever The Rifleman was able to resolve the week’s conflict without resorting to his awesome rapid-firing rifle.

Some observers would crown the HBO series Deadwood as the greatest TV western of all, and if ever there was an adult western, it’s this one. You get a good measure of historical authenticity, and complex characters whose personalities are revealed slowly over time. Nobody’s purely good or bad, and every relationship includes a degree of conflict. There’s violence to be sure, but primarily there’s misery, a grueling unpleasantness that makes this the least fun western ever. (Its most memorable episode is all about a guy trying to pass a kidney stone, an hour of agony for character and viewer alike.)

Is it art? Maybe. But I guess it’s art that I can get along without. It’s not the level of violence that gets oppressive, but the ugliness and the ennui. There are unforgettable things in Deadwood, but I lost interest in the show. It spends so much time gazing into its own filthy navel that it stopped entertaining me and I drifted away in the middle of the third season.

For the most part, I have even less interest in the antiseptic old kiddie westerns like The Roy Rogers Show and The Gene Autry Show. The dopey sidekicks are incredibly annoying, and the stories tend to be uninspired. I need a western with a little more meat on its bones than that. But there are juvenile westerns worth watching, especially if you really, really like dogs (The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin), horses (Fury, The Adventures of Champion) or trains (Casey Jones).

There are also women’s westerns. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman is the most conspicuous example, but I’d add Here Come the Brides and Little House on the Prairie to that category and maybe The Big Valley too. The Virginian crosses into that territory pretty frequently as well. There’s nothing wrong with this sub-genre, but it just doesn’t appeal to me and I’m not sure why. There are plenty of shows I like that explore love, relationships and family life. But I don’t want that stuff to crowd out the shoot-outs and the saloon fights, so we’re right back to the dilemma of striking the right balance.

The level of violence isn’t really a concern, at least as long as my young son isn’t watching it with me. I want whatever level of violence the story needs.

For me, the perfect TV western will have the advantages of brevity, authentic location shooting, plenty of action, a hero I can admire, and plots that are complex enough to be intellectually stimulating without sagging under the weight of extraneous detail. Gunsmoke comes close, but it’s too frequently formulaic (stranger comes to town —> conflict ensues —> someone gets killed).

06.12.16 - Have GunA few sentimental favorites aside, a clear winner emerges. It’s Have Gun – Will Travel. It avoids the genre’s fatal extremes: the simple-minded shoot-‘em-up horse operas of the classical tradition, and the tiresome brooding, self-absorbed anti-heroes of the modern. Violence is only used for dramatic impact; it’s there as often as the story requires it, but no more. It’s got Richard Boone and that perfect voice of his.

The show doesn’t preach at me. It isn’t trying to save the world. It’s entertaining without ever being silly. It’s intelligent enough to be compelling without being ponderous. It’s got the authentic western scenery, and at 25 minutes an episode, it moves.

Usually the bad guy gets blown away in the end. Sometimes he only gets exposed, shamed and shunned, which can be just as well. Whatever works.

There are episodes here and there in which Paladin describes how his gun was hand-crafted to his exact specifications to ensure perfect balance. That describes the show itself… perfect balance.

 

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Review: DARK SHADOWS, Summer 1968

05.15.16 - Dark Shadows 07

Personalities aside, Dark Shadows is as good (or bad) as the storyline it’s telling. Like chapters in an epic novel, the show’s narrative is apt to take an abrupt turn now and then. The most remarkable shift of all had come in the spring of 1967, when the sleepy Gothic soap suddenly added a vampire to its heretofore mundane cast of characters, saving the show from cancellation and making TV history.

Assuming you can accept the conventions of daytime drama— the low budgets, the cramped sets, the occasional boom mike dipping into the frame, the extended dialogue scenes and the relative scarcity of action— Dark Shadows was a riveting show for the next six months. But then the show took another narrative turn, taking a lengthy detour back to the year 1795 before returning to the modern day with new developments in the vampire story. And so it would go, for the rest of the show’s run. Every few months, it would sweep its characters and settings off the stage, re-invent itself, and then do it all over again, frequently with the same familiar actors playing new roles.

Producer Dan Curtis had a special enthusiasm for period pieces. The show would eventually swoop back to 1796, then forward to 1897, back to 1797, then up to the present day, back to the past, then to 1995, then backwards again, even exploring alternate universes in “parallel time.”

Most of the fans just wanted to see what the vampire, Barnabas Collins, was up to, and how he’d handle the latest supernatural threat to the Collins family. Instead, viewers were jerked from one tedious period piece to another, buried under a succession of ancillary characters and dull story developments. If Dark Shadows had a fatal flaw, it was a tendency to spend weeks or months bumping around in the corners of creative blind alleys before inching its way out again. The audience drifted away, and in the spring of 1971 the show was cancelled so swiftly that its final storyline was allowed only a perfunctory resolution.

But when the show is good, it’s a delight. Dark Shadows has a cult following fanatic enough to rival the Trekkies, and I guess I’m a member myself. If you love the show, you not only forgive the flubs and the technical glitches, you can’t get enough of them. The more melodramatic the dialogue, the better. And your favorite characters are always the ones larger than life.

At least for me, the cherry atop the sundae is the dynamism of certain actors on the show. This is a little hard to explain coherently, but I’ll try. If you’re an old movie buff, you may have seen performers like Lee Tracy and Tod Slaughter, guys who are so much fun to watch and listen to that you don’t care whether their performances are convincing, and you don’t care whether the plot is any good or not. The entertainment is in watching them do their stuff, and in listening to the relish with which they deliver their lines. Sometimes flamboyance is a lot more fun than realism.

Robert Rodan as Adam.

Robert Rodan as Adam.

It took me a long time to realize that this was the real draw of Dark Shadows, and the element I most enjoyed about the show. Lately I’ve been watching the episodes that aired in the summer of 1968, and while the storyline at this point is pretty good, the real treat is that nearly every one of my favorite Dark Shadows hams is in attendance during this period.

Missing is Dennis Patrick (one of the great unsung TV character actors), who wasn’t really part of the core Dark Shadows family. Patrick played charming villains and cunning sleazeballs on everything from Laramie to The Untouchables to Dallas, and the blackmailer he’d played on this show had been dispatched by Barnabas the previous year.

Jerry Lacy checks in with the low-key role of an attorney, but what you really want is another, far more arresting character he played previously on the show, the ruthless witch-hunter Reverend Trask. (Lacy’s roaring, scenery-chewing performance as Trask was the best thing about the sojourn to the year 1795 that had consumed five long months of the show beginning in November 1967.) By this point in the narrative, Trask too has been killed, but his ghost appears briefly.

Louis Edmonds.

Louis Edmonds.

Of the handful of actors who’d been with the series at its 1966 inception, the only really dynamic one was Louis Edmonds. Most of them had been shoved into the background when Dark Shadows became The Barnabas Collins Show, but Edmonds was too good to keep on the bench. He doesn’t have a great deal to do in these Summer 1968 episodes, but the show springs to life whenever he does appear.

His voice is impossible to capture in print, but it’s one of the greatest treasures of vintage television. It’s a low, rumbling voice with a heavy, formal Mid-Atlantic accent. You’d swear he was a British actor, perhaps trying to tone down his English accent to play his aristocratic American character, Roger Collins. But Edmonds wasn’t English at all; he’d been born and raised in Louisiana. His voice underwent a good deal of training as he learned his craft, but the accent was his own, and he claimed that everyone back home talked just like he did.

Roger Collins is haughty and pompous, frequently seen wearing an ascot and holing a glass of sherry, and the character isn’t necessarily an appealing one. But Edmonds plays that voice of his like a musical instrument, and when he speaks he has my full attention. When I really listen for it, I can sort of hear the Cajun origins of that accent, but maybe it’s just my imagination.

Thayer David was another member of the Dark Shadows acting fraternity, and here in the summer of ’68 he’s playing the stuffy but gentlemanly Professor Stokes. David had been a handsome man in his youth, but by the time he joined the cast at age 39, he’d put on a lot of weight, and his thick, dark lips droop in a way that isn’t very attractive. But those characteristics help make him a memorable character actor, and the quality of his voice really seals it.

Thayer David.

Thayer David.

Again we have an elegantly Mid-Atlantic accent, delivered with genteel formality. There’s also a dignified bearing which makes the character stand out from the rest of the cast, since there are a lot of overwrought people on this show.  David was versatile enough to portray eight different characters during its run (plus another couple in the two movies it spawned). My favorite of those is Count Petofi, a deliriously over-the-top character even by Dark Shadows standards, who wouldn’t appear until July 1969.

Needless to say, the heart of the show is Barnabas Collins, and the appeal of Barnabas is the dynamism of Jonathan Frid’s performance. Frid was a good actor, with a long resume of stage work in the US, England and his native Canada. I find his acting style on Dark Shadows a bit theatrical, which is a good thing. It makes him stand out, and if you’re going to put an 18th-Century vampire in the middle of your aristocratic modern-day soap opera, he needs to stand out. Frid tends to project when he speaks, and with elegant precision, clearly enunciating every syllable.

Physically Frid is thin, sallow and pale, so it’s not such a stretch to believe that he sleeps in a coffin. His hands are oddly huge, but he doesn’t physically dominate the screen— and with that voice, he doesn’t need to. He can be commanding, soothing, courtly or menacing, and his voice does most of the heavy lifting.

The public’s fascination for Barnabas Collins meant that Frid had a lot of pages of dialogue to memorize every night, which was challenging for the actor. Cue cards were always just out of camera range, but Frid was nearsighted and Barnabas Collins didn’t wear glasses. One thing you notice right away is how frequently he looks offstage (with varying degrees of alarm in his eyes), searching for a cue to his next line.

Jonathan Frid.

Jonathan Frid.

Frid is also the king of flubs on the show. Each day’s episode was performed from start to finish live-on-tape, and a mistake had to be awfully severe to prompt an interruption in the process. Editing the videotape in this era was next to impossible, so a lot of outrageous bloopers went out over the air: stagehands can be glimpsed, props fall crashing to the floor, cameras wobble during tracking shots, stone pillars shudder when bumped by an actor, etc.

Virtually the entire cast stumbles through a line of dialogue now and then, but Frid is particularly prone to mistakes. For example, just in the span of three weeks that summer, he offers the following:

“No point in trying to prevent that something that cannot happen.” (Episode 583)

“Well, because if you were to conduct the experiment… Who… How can I… um… fit into that… You’d be giving the life force!” (Episode 584)

“You know what to do, Mag… Vicki… um, uh… You know what to do now, Julia!” (Episode 585)

“We should not have let her… him go to her.” (Episode 597)

“Let’s hope that we suspect isn’t true: that Adam and his mate haven’t left.” (Episode 600)

But hey! The guy was basically performing five new plays every week, with very little rehearsal, and he had to carry much of the dialogue himself. He does a great job under the circumstances, and the bloopers add a lot to the show’s charm. If we can overlook a blown line on Playhouse 90, we can do the same for Dark Shadows.

Frid truly is the star, and his charisma elbows the show’s shortcomings out of the way. No matter how good or how dank the current storyline might be, when Frid is on hand, the show is compelling. I love his dramatic bearing, that velvety voice, and the way he uses it. But there’s someone I like even better.

Humbert Allen Astredo.

Humbert Allen Astredo.

In June 1968, the show presented a new character, Nicholas Blair. The writers were coy about spelling out exactly who and what Blair is, but it emerges over time that he’s a warlock: a supernatural agent of Satan himself with the power to hypnotize anyone into eternal enslavement. He can summon evil spirits and even raise the dead. Throughout that summer, the storyline is centered on Adam, a Frankenstein’s monster who’s been created using the life force of Barnabas himself (a transformation that happily cures Barnabas of vampirism). But the hulking Adam becomes progressively more violent, lonesome and deranged, ultimately threatening to murder the entire Collins family unless a mate is created for him. Nicholas Blair sees this sort of dark science as the perfect means by which to rule the world.

Clearly, this wasn’t a role that just anyone could play. Producer Curtis came up with the perfect, I mean perfect, man for the job: Humbert Allen Astredo.

That sounds like a bad pseudonym, but it really was his name. And I find his performance in this role to be the most dynamic of the entire series. He seldom has a scene with Jonathan Frid, but Astredo owns the stage no matter who he shares it with.

Like Frid, his speech is clipped and precise. Unlike Frid, he rattles off paragraphs of dialogue quickly and accurately. Best of all is his appearance: dapper but in a style not quite of this world, most often seen in a formal, light green suit, complete with hat and gloves. He has dark hair and pointy sideburns, and his eyes are gleaming black holes. He smiles often but like a shark, with an abundance of perfectly even, tiny teeth. He’s courtly and genial, but you know he’s always up to something, always manipulative and devious. There’s a subtle evil behind everything he says and does.05.15.16 - Dark Shadows 04

Nicholas Blair is the perfect villain. Astredo is so eerily perfect for the role that I’m tempted to claim that he wasn’t cast for it, he was summoned for it from the misty candle smoke at a black mass. But now I’m getting carried away. In reality, Astredo was a witty Broadway veteran and sailing enthusiast, known by his friends as “Bud.” Sadly, he passed away in February of this year.

I haven’t mentioned any of the show’s women, and that’s because there just isn’t much to say about them. For the most part they’re not very interesting, even in the show’s early months, when it was a fairly conventional soap about a young governess working for an aristocratic family in an old mansion.

Playing that character, Alexandra Moltke dominates the first several hundred episodes of the series. (Producer Curtis was out of his mind to entrust the leading role of his new soap opera to a young, inexperienced actress, but she worked out just fine.) ‘Forties film star Joan Bennett is also a significant presence in the early going, typically seen wringing her hands and scowling into the camera. Frankly, despite all her experience, the rest of the cast acts rings around her. There are other women on the show, of course. But for the most part I find them dull, unattractive and annoying. There’s very little romantic chemistry or sex appeal in Dark Shadows, even when the narrative requires some.

05.15.16 - Dark Shadows 08  You don’t have to be gay to love Dark Shadows, but maybe it helps. Most of the actors were gay (certainly most of the interesting ones were), and it’s hard to ignore the recurring theme of distraught men with a secret. Barnabas is far more sensitive than cunning. He never refers to himself as a vampire, instead speaking vaguely of “my affliction” or “what I am” while looking away with downcast eyes. Men who become vampires on Dark Shadows never come out and admit it— instead, they wrestle with that identity, struggling and failing to contain impulses they can’t control. After giving in, they’re overcome with self-loathing. You could almost say that the male vampires of Dark Shadows spend their days in the closet rather than the coffin, and in that respect the show is very much a product of the pre-Stonewall era.

Maybe I’m reading too much into it. It would have been easy for the show to just follow the conventions of Dracula, but those are usually avoided. Part horror show, part Gothic romance, part character study and part family drama, Dark Shadows is always unique. It always goes its own way.

Now, you can say that Dark Shadows is a silly comic book of a show, and you’d be right. You could also say that it’s an imaginative, unpredictable circus, frequently delightful and always larger than life. You’d be right on that score as well. But whatever it is, as long as there are guys like Edmonds, Frid and Astredo in it…. I’m watching!

 
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Posted by on May 15, 2016 in 1960s Shows

 

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Adventures in Film Collecting

05.08.16 - CansLong before home video, film buffs were collecting their favorite movies on 8mm or 16mm film. From the 1920s onward, various dealers popped up to offer little tin projectors and murky-looking prints of old cartoons and silent comedies.

The variety and the quality got much better over the years, and by the 1960s-70s, film collecting was almost mainstream. Millions of middle-class families owned a reasonably good projector, a shoebox full of home movies, and maybe a few cartoons or “old-time” movies to keep the kids interested.

I got into the hobby myself at age 11 in 1976, buying Super 8mm prints of silent movies from the legendary Blackhawk Films. My mania for vintage TV didn’t emerge until many years later.

By then, film collecting had gone through a near-death experience. Around 1980 a spike in the price of silver drove prices sky-high, and many collectors drifted away to video discs and VHS machines. We die-hards carried on, buying and selling our prints through ads in collector papers like The Big Reel and Film Collectors World.

Brand-new film prints became harder to find. But by then, there were tens of thousands— in fact, probably hundreds of thousands of prints in circulation. All of us found some real treasures over the years.

The lair of a typical film collector.

The lair of a typical film collector.

Among film buffs, there’s a very common bias against anything produced for television. The golden age of Hollywood has a mystique that television has never been able to share. The typical film collector might specialize in silent comedies, or in talkie B-westerns or whatever. But relatively few collectors have much interest in vintage television, even though the TV stuff can be just as entertaining and fascinating as the movies, if not more so.

I have an old friend from the San Diego area who shared some of his collecting adventures for this blog. He’s one of the few film buffs I know who never considered television to be second-class entertainment. He prefers to remain anonymous, so we’ll just call him “George Lugner” (a name producer Mark Goodson once used when he guested on his own show, I’ve Got a Secret).

The stories you are about to hear are true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent… and the not-so-innocent.

………………………………………………………………………

Q: How and when did you get into film collecting?

Lugner: I bought my first Super 8mm prints about 1968. In those days, you could go to Sears and buy little condensations of 1950s science fiction movies, so it was easy. Besides classic comedy, my focus has always been on horror, science fiction and fantasy. I made the jump to 16mm in 1972 or ’73— the quality was so much better with 16mm, but 16mm was a lot more expensive— and a year or two after that, I began collecting my all-time favorite TV show, The Adventures of Superman with George Reeves. Harley Jeske had Superman dupes for fifty or sixty bucks each. Then I started networking with other film collectors, they connected me with their contacts, and I was on my way.

Q: How many of those Supermans did you have by the time I met you, in 1981 or ’82?

Lugner: Twenty of thirty. It took a lot of time, and a lot of looking, but eventually I got them all. And along the way, I was upgrading. If I had a dupe of an episode and an original came along, I’d buy the original and sell off the dupe.

Q: I met you at Sean Rock’s house in San Diego. He was a big film buff. Besides having theater chairs and a huge outdoor screen in his backyard, he’d turned his living room into a screening room, with a separate projection booth. I’d never seen TV shows on film, projected onto a screen, until then. The difference between seeing them that way, versus on a little TV set between commercial breaks, was like night and day.

Lugner: Some of the prints we showed were mine. But Sean and his crowd were mostly into movies. I’d put a terrific first-season episode of Superman on the screen and the room would almost empty out.

Q: They’d all salivate over a two-reel short subject. But a 25-minute movie made for TV? Forget it.

Lugner: Right.

Q: I still got to see a few great TV things on the big screen there. I remember a good one was an episode of a 1950s anthology show, and it had Bert Lahr and Margaret Hamilton from The Wizard of Oz in it.

Lugner: Right, Bert Lahr discovers a gold mine in the New York City subway system and Hamilton plays his wife. I don’t remember what series that was from. (Editor’s note: It was a very obscure show, Rendezvous (1:12, “A Very Fine Deal,” December 6, 1958).)

The murderous wax figures of "The New Exhibit." That one in the middle gave me a few sleepless nights.

The murderous wax figures of “The New Exhibit.” That one in the middle gave me a few sleepless nights.

Q: One of you guys brought in a print of the first hour-long Twilight Zone I’d ever seen (4:13, “The New Exhibit,” April 4, 1963). I remember being very creeped out by it, seeing it in the dark on the big screen in Sean’s living room. To this day, it’s the only Twilight Zone that ever really got to me.

Lugner: That was mine, another print that I picked up and then traded away— or sold away. I also showed another one of those at Sean’s, “He’s Alive” with Dennis Hopper.

Q: Tell me about other TV show prints that passed through your hands over the years. I was mainly into silent movies in those days, but I remember you had stray episodes of shows I’d never heard of then, like M Squad.

Lugner: Most of it was things I didn’t necessarily want to keep forever, but I’d grab it to watch, and re-sell. I had the Three Stooges on Ed Wynn, an original (1:25, March 11, 1950). I had pilots for Get Smart— the 25-minute syndicated version, and the unaired 30-minute pilot.

Q: I still remember when you ran that for us at your parents’ place. I’m not a huge Get Smart fan, but that pilot was great.

Lugner: I had pilots for Land of the Giants, Lost in Space (with and without Dr. Smith)… all of this is out on Blu-Ray now, but in those days it was all unseen and forgotten. I had the Batman pilot. I had a gorgeous print of the Star Trek “Trouble with Tribbles,” which I ran at one of the early comic conventions for a standing-room-only crowd. None of them had ever seen the original Star Trek up on a movie screen, and it went over like gangbusters, people laughing and applauding and enjoying it all together as one big audience. That sort of thing eventually stopped. They stopped using collector prints at shows like that.

05.08.16 - Korla PanditQ: I remember you had those little fillers with Korla Pandit playing the organ.

Lugner: Yeah, those all ran fifteen minutes or so. They were made so that TV stations would have something to fill out the hour with, when a movie ran short. They couldn’t just run commercials for ten or fifteen minutes straight, so they’d run these Korla Pandit things. At one time I had thirty or forty. I think I still have a couple of them. Those came from a collector whose niece was selling them off really cheap.

Q: I remember watching those with you in your parents’ garage. He kept looking up from his keyboard with a mysterious smile and then looking down again.

Lugner: At one time I had this reel that was nothing but openings, closings and commercials from The Abbott and Costello Show, where they were pushing Chunky candy bars. I knew a guy who really collected Abbott and Costello, so I called him and let him know it was available. I asked for $500, and instantly he says “Sold!” I felt great. Then he tells me he would’ve offered me two grand for it.

Q: I don’t think the DVDs of that show have the original closings on them.

Lugner: No. Once I had an episode of The Felony Squad with Russell Johnson in it. He played an arsonist (2:26, “The Human Target,” March 18, 1968). I knew that he was going to be appearing at a convention that was coming up, so I film-chained it and made a VHS copy. I gave it to him and he was ecstatic, which was nice.

Q: How about kinescopes? Did you ever run across very many of those?

Lugner: Now and then. I probably had some one-of-a-kind kinescopes to shows you’ll never see again. One had Dick York from Bewitched, one of those shows they did live on the air. I think it was a cop show. There was one shot where there’s a guy on a gurney, and they wheel him in and they bump the wall, which shakes like it’s about to fall over. I’m trying to remember the title. (Editor’s note: This may have been Eye on New York (“Night of the Auk,” December 1, 1956).) I had a couple Colgate Comedy Hours with commercials. I had a Jackie Gleason Show with a live Honeymooners sketch in it, and commercials of Jackie pushing products.

Q: Tell me about that package of Felix the Cat cartoons. Somewhere around 1985 or 1986 you suddenly had a ton of Felix cartoons from the 1920s, which had been released to television in the ‘50s. I bought a bunch of those from you.

Lugner: Well, there was a guy named Mack Plummer, who’s still around. He called me one time and offered me complete runs of three or four shows I wanted: every episode of each. I said okay and wrote him a check. He came back saying there was a delay and that he needed more money. I wrote another check. He never did come up with the prints. What happened was, he was involved in a video store that was in trouble and he spent my money trying to save this store. So I started talking mail fraud if he couldn’t make good on what he owed me, or at least make an effort. In the end I was only able to get this package of Felix cartoons. In the ‘50s someone turned up these silent Felixes, and slapped soundtracks on them: just tinkly piano music and occasionally a guy going “Me-wowwww,” you know. And independent stations would run them. I had about fifty of them. A few were still silent for some reason, and there were some duplicates here and there.

Q: There are a lot of eccentric collectors and dealers. You told me about this one guy who’s a major TV collector and his house is full of stacks of boxes of film reels, including stuff he’d get in the mail and then never open.

Lugner: He’s still around. He’s ticked off every person he’s ever come in contact with. He was involved in one of the annual film conventions until he alienated everybody there. When I met him, he was living with his elderly mother, who couldn’t have been sweeter, and he would talk down to her. After she died, he inherited the house and it became the dumping ground for his film collection. Film everywhere. In his room was just a cot, a table with rewinds, and big racks of films. He used to make good money selling trailers and clips to things like Entertainment Tonight, but when the internet came in, it killed off that business.

Q: Wow.

Lugner: There was another guy who’d rent films from Universal 16. He’d keep the prints and mail back a box with bricks in it. He never got in trouble for it; he’d just play dumb.

Q: There were guys who’d get film prints from TV stations.

Lugner: Well, until around twenty years ago, anytime you saw a movie or a syndication TV show on your local station, you were seeing a 16mm film print. A station would lease a package of prints of old movies (or they’d lease an old TV series) for five years, with an option to renew. If the station didn’t want to pay to renew that lease, they could either destroy the films and mail in a form, saying the films were destroyed… or they could box up all those prints and mail them back to Bonded. Well, if you’re some guy working at the TV station, you know it’s a lot easier to just carry the prints out to the dumpster and be done with it.

I'm sure they lock the dumpsters now.

I’m sure they lock the dumpsters now.

Q: I remember hearing about a collector who found an entire run of I Love Lucy in a dumpster, and loaded up his car with Lucys.

Lugner: Yeah, there was a guy in L.A. who’d drive over to Channel 11 and check their dumpster every week on the day before trash day. Eventually he hit the jackpot and there was a whole run of I Love Lucy, still in the yellow Viacom cans. Another time, Channel 51 in San Diego threw out their entire film collection. My friends Matt and Ross were working close to the station, and they heard about it, so they went over there on their lunch break and just loaded up their cars.

Q: I remember that.

Lugner: And the equipment got junked too. These expensive machines that would run the films and send them out over the air…. they were just sitting there in the rain. The real heartbreaker was Channel 6. I knew they had a ton of film, and I knew that eventually it would all go in the trash. And I knew a guy who worked there. I’d call him every few months to touch base and let him know I’d make it worth his while, if he’d tell me when it was time to dump the prints. And then one day they threw out all the prints, and the guy never told me.

Q: And throughout all of these years, you were steadily working on your Adventures of Superman collection.

Lugner: I was looking for episodes from the mid-’70s all the way until the mid-‘90s. I finally got every one of them, all 104 episodes.

Q: I remember a lot of them had the original bumpers at the commercial breaks— “The Adventures of Superman will continue in just a moment!”

Lugner: The down side of collecting on film is that the color can start to go red. You can pick up scratches. The print can turn vinegar. When I discovered that some of the color prints were just beginning to turn warm, I began selling them off. I got as much money for the bad ones as I did for the good ones. I don’t have many Supermans left now.

Q: And besides all the episodes, you had pilots for Superboy and Superpup.

05.08.16 - Stamp Day for Superman.Lugner: My prize was “Stamp Day for Superman,” which was a special short made by the government where Superman tells everybody to buy savings bonds. Dupes were all over the place, but I wanted an original. Finally I met a guy who had one, which he’d personally bought direct from the U.S. Treasury for about two hundred dollars. (There was a time when you could buy things like that from the Treasury, like Abbott and Costello pitching savings bonds.) It was almost pristine mint. I’ve never found another original. So that was my prize. I even sent it to a film lab to have it coated, to treat it. But then the print couldn’t breathe, and it turned vinegar. Finally the vinegar was so bad that it couldn’t be projected anymore. But I kept it for another two or three years anyway! Finally I threw it out and didn’t look back. All of that took the wind out of my sails as far as film collecting went. That was about 2007.

Q: I’ve sold 99% of my 16mm. It’s still the golden age of collecting, but video just makes way more sense than film.

Lugner: There’s still no substitute for the way film looks, projected on a big screen. But yeah.

Q: Tell me about the “Warehouse O’ Film.” I’ve been hearing about that place for years, but only in bits and pieces.

Lugner: Jay Masterson had this warehouse. I knew collectors who shopped there, but they kept it a secret from me. It was the promised land for film collectors. Finally I happened to meet the guy at the Ray Courts show. (Editor’s note: this was the forerunner of the Hollywood collectors’ shows, at which dealers sell their goods and yesteryear’s celebrities sell signed photos.) He handed me a flyer and I went up there the next week.

Q: When and where was this?

Lugner: Mid-‘80s. In Burbank, he had a warehouse. Just big gorilla racks, piled floor to ceiling with pallets of film. Boxes of film everyplace. New lab prints. Well, nearly new. Everything was priced very reasonably. Movies, cartoons, TV— cartoons were five dollars each— he just wanted to get things out of there and he had new stuff arriving on a regular basis.

Q: He had complete runs of various TV series?

Lugner: Maybe every TV series you’d see in syndication was there. He had TV shows for about twenty bucks in the box, but Supermans were fifty. Most of the color prints looked pristine because Warners had done some restoration on those. Some of the Batmans he sold were red but they were in good shape otherwise. He had original Bilkos, still in their boxes, and over time I bought about fifty of them. F Troop… you name it. Bryce Schwab would buy complete runs of Batman, Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, The Green Hornet and so on. Mint low-fades.

Q: But how did Jay get all of this film in the first place?

Lugner: He got them from Bonded Film Services. They originally came from the studios— the labs— and they’d go out to TV stations. Then when the leases expired, the stations would either destroy them (or toss them out and say they were destroyed), or they’d get sent back to Bonded.

Q: But how did Jay get them?

Lugner: If the prints came back to Bonded and they were considered too old to keep in circulation, Bonded didn’t want them anymore. It would embarrass the stations to run something with a splice or a scratch in it, so Bonded figured that when the print had gone through the equipment so many times, its working life was over and it needed to be retired. Now there’s a trace amount of silver in film. That’s where Jay comes in. He would pick up a load of film, sign something saying he was going to reclaim the silver, and now he’s got all these prints.

Q: I see.

Lugner: I think he told me he was paying them about $1.10 per fifty pounds of film. So officially, his warehouse is full of stuff for silver reclamation. But if you come in and you’ve got cash in your pocket, he’ll make you a deal.

Q: Now I get it.

Lugner: He was a great guy. Most of the collectors called him Jabba, like Jabba the Hutt, because he weighed about four hundred pounds. He’d sit behind his desk, give orders to a couple of Mexican guys working for him, and they’d go pull prints for you. But if he knew you were looking for something in particular, he’d tell you he had it, and then he’d charge you twice as much for it. But it would still be cheap. Behind his desk was what he called the “gems.” For example, mint Star Treks for fifty bucks each, which I would later on sell for $200 or $300 each.

Q: And you made a living selling film prints, basically.

Lugner: This was before the internet. If I knew then what I know now, I’d have borrowed every nickel I could find and I’d have bought as much stuff as I could get, which would have been a lot! Film collecting is mostly on the internet now. The big collectors are on eBay— there’s a big Bewitched collector. There’s a Lucy collector, who’s sold almost all of his prints by now…

Q: So whatever happened to the “Warehouse O’ Film”?

Lugner: The Northridge earthquake hit and damaged the warehouse. He said “Screw it,” closed up shop, moved to Vegas and died on his toilet. Like Elvis.

The Lost in Space pilot. Penny knows that a little picture tube can't compare to the big screen.

The Lost in Space pilot. Penny knows that a little picture tube can’t compare to the big screen.

 
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Posted by on May 8, 2016 in 1950s Shows, 1960s Shows

 

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TV Shows Referencing Other TV Shows

05.01.16 - Emergency

TV shows nowadays refer to each other all the time. A character on 30 Rock mentions Community. A character on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air mentions Saved by the Bell. Characters on The Simpsons and Family Guy mention other shows on a regular basis.

Society has become saturated with pop culture, and TV simply reflects that reality. But it hasn’t always been this way.

Go back further— past the last twenty years— and these references become much more rare (at least if we exclude stuff like parody sketches on variety shows). In vintage television, a character might watch TV or talk about a TV show, but it’ll almost invariably be a non-existent show. Even a station’s call letters are fictional. Why? I can understand why phone numbers in Televisionland always begin with 555, but why is it so wrong to mention an actual show that viewers might recognize?

05.01.16 - I Love LucyThere are exceptions to the rule. The most conspicuous is probably I Love Lucy (6:13, “Lucy and Superman,” January 1957) with George Reeves, which is all the more unusual because his The Adventures of Superman was still on the air, and not on the same network. Another familiar reference can be found on The Honeymooners (1:01, “TV or Not TV,” October 1955), in which Norton watches Captain Video. The Honeymooners was on CBS, and Captain Video was on DuMont… or at least it had been. The dying DuMont had cancelled the show six months before Norton turned his set on, but I guess that’s the magic of television for you.

On The Patty Duke Show (1:7, “The Babysitters,” October 1963), Patty babysits a little brat who keeps shouting “I wanna watch Wagon Train! I wanna watch Wagon Train!” That venerable western was still on the air at the time, but without Ward Bond it was lumbering toward cancellation. Patty was whipping it in the ratings, and it had moved over to her network (ABC) anyway, so mentioning it on her show wasn’t exactly plugging the competition.

05.01.16 - Emergency2On Emergency! (1:10, “Hang-Up,” April 1972), the guys at Station 51 are seen enjoying Adam-12 on their TV— and it’s not just a dummy voice-over, but a lengthy clip from the climax of a recent episode (4:08, “Ambush,” November 1971). An emergency call comes in and the guys have to rush away, leaving woebegone Fireman Gage to spend the rest of the show wondering how that Adam-12 episode ended. Ultimately, in a moment of tranquil enlightenment worthy of Kung Fu‘s Kwai Chang Caine, he resigns himself to the need to just wait for the re-run.

Both shows were produced by Jack Webb’s Mark VII Limited and aired on NBC, so the plug makes sense from a business standpoint. Oddly, though, the stars of Adam-12 had already appeared (in character) in the Emergency! pilot. Months later, everyone from Emergency! would appear (in character) on Adam-12 (5:4, “Lost and Found,” October 1972). The fact that these shows exist in overlapping fictional and real-life universes is something even Kwai Chang Caine couldn’t have wrapped his head around.

05.01.16 - CHiPsMore straightforward is an episode of CHiPs (1:09, “Hustle,” November 1977) in which highway patrolmen Jon and Ponch pull over a driver who turns out to be Broderick Crawford, star of Highway Patrol from twenty years earlier. It’s not Crawford’s character who gets pulled over (fat chance of that ever happening), but the actor who played him. Ponch is overjoyed and peppers the visibly annoyed Crawford with old Highway Patrol dialogue. “I don’t believe it! ‘Twenty-one-fifty, over!’ Right? Right?… Boy oh boy… I’ve watched you for years, over and over and over…”

Crawford tries to ignore Ponch, turns to Jon and drawls, “You know, I was making those Highway Patrol shows long before you were born.” Jon replies, “Yeah, they don’t make TV shows like that anymore.” As an in-joke it falls a little flat, because CHiPs isn’t Highway Patrol on motorcycles— it’s Adam-12 on motorcycles with a dash of Car 54, Where Are You? thrown in.

‘Fifties nostalgia was the bread and butter of Happy Days (at least in its early seasons, when the show was worth watching). That included several nods to the TV of the era, most conspicuously the time You Asked for It comes to town to televise Fonzie’s motorcycle stunt (3:3, “Fearless Fonzarelli,” September 1975), and the time Richie attends a Howdy Doody telecast (2:17, “The Howdy Doody Show,” February 1975). Happy Days gets bonus points for bringing in Jack Smith and Buffalo Bob Smith to appear as themselves, but I’d have liked to see Broderick Crawford confront Fonzie even better.

The references I like best are oblique, unspoken. There’s a late episode of Dallas (I think it’s 14:13, “90265,” February 1991) in which a character disdainfully drops hints about a TV show with a backwards-talking dwarf. That’s obviously Twin Peaks, which was waging a doomed struggle to avoid cancellation at the time. Perhaps the fact that Dallas and Twin Peaks were on competing networks (CBS and ABC respectively) explains why the title remained unspoken.

Later, Dallas itself would be subtly referenced, on Walker, Texas Ranger (3:17, “Blue Movies,” February 1995). One character mentions J.R. Ewing in passing, but there are other clues suggesting that this was almost a tribute episode. Making one-shot guest appearances were Howard Keel and Cathy Podewell, former Dallas stars, and the skyscraper housing the office of Dallas’ perennial gadfly Cliff Barnes is prominently seen. Since Walker was produced by longtime Dallas showrunner Leonard Katzman— and this episode was directed by veteran Dallas director Michael Preece— it was inevitable that a little homage would be paid.

Oblique references aren’t always so sentimental. There’s an early episode of Vega$ (1:08, “The Pageant,” November 1978), in which the central character, detective Dan Tanna, is hired by a man who wants to find the thug who beat and raped his daughter. The man is played by Robert Reed, the father of The Brady Bunch; the daughter is played by Maureen McCormick, his Brady daughter. There’s no way that was just a crazy coincidence. Maybe someone in the casting office had a sick sense of humor, but we can at least be grateful that Reed wasn’t hired to play the rapist.

Someone wants to watch Wagon Train.

Someone wants to watch Wagon Train.

 

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