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The Face is Familiar

The Face is Familiar

Allen Jenkins – If you’ve seen a few of the wonderful Warner Bros. films of the 1930s, you’ve probably seen Allen Jenkins, since he pops up in literally dozens of them. Thanks to his nasal New York accent, he specialized in Damon Runyon-type characters, the sort of people you’d find in saloons, newsrooms and race tracks. He remained a busy character actor right up to his death in 1974. But after about 1952, most of his work was in television— everything from I Love Lucy to Playhouse 90 to (of course) Damon Runyon Theater. I was delighted to find him in this episode of Adam-12 (4:09, “Anniversary,” November 1971), but also sorry to see he’d been separated from a few teeth over the years.

05.22.16 - Allen Jenkins - early05.22.16 - Adam 12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Carolyn Jones – A television immortal thanks to her role on The Addams Family (1964-1966), Carolyn Jones was a busy and far more versatile actress than she’s given credit for. That was especially true during the decade leading up to Morticia’s debut. You never know what Jones is going to look or sound like; if you spot her name in the credits and watch out for someone looking like Morticia Addams, there’s a good chance you’ll miss her altogether. Her climb up the ladder had been a fairly short one, and by the age of 25 she was playing leads in TV crime shows and anthology dramas, not to mention supporting roles in major movies. I can recommend a couple of her performances in particular— the sexy, reckless flirt on Wagon Train (1:03, “The John Cameron Story,” October 1957) and the cool con woman who passes bad checks all over town on State Trooper (1:02, “The Paperhanger of Pioche,” November 1956). She’s also great in this early role as a shooting suspect on the original Dragnet (3:31, “The Big Girl,” April 1954).

05.22.16 - Addams Family05.22.16 - Dragnet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jonathan Banks – Possibly the finest actor in contemporary television, Banks is best known for playing elderly tough guy Mike Ehrmantraut on a pair of outstanding shows (Seasons 2-5 of Breaking Bad and both seasons of the still-running Better Call Saul). The early years of his TV career were spent playing assorted thugs on dramas like Barnaby Jones and Lou Grant. Here’s how he looked in an excellent episode of Simon & Simon (1:12, “Matchmaker,” March 1982), in which he plays (you guessed it) a criminal.

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Brad Pitt – I guess he needs no introduction, but his career does stretch back farther than you might think. Brad Pitt’s first credited role was on Dallas, in which he played Randy, a kid who dates Charlie Wade, the step-daughter of two-fisted rancher Ray Krebbs. Randy was a recurring character during the show’s eleventh season. He eventually goes too far with Charlie, gets his butt kicked for it and is never seen again. The producers evidently recognized some potential in the 23-year-old actor, but they still let him go after just four fleeting appearances. If you’ve seen those final seasons of Dallas, you know the producers were making more than a few unfortunate decisions in those days. Anyway, here’s Pitt, knee-deep in the ‘Eighties as romantic Randy (11:14, “Daddy’s Little Darlin’, December 1987).

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Angela Cartwright – Very few child actors ever win a supporting role on a successful network show. Angela Cartwright got two of them, one right after the other: The Danny Thomas Show (1957-1964) and Lost in Space (1965-1968). But when young actors make the slow-motion leap from childhood to adulthood, their careers usually fall into the gaping crevasse in between. This didn’t quite happen to Cartwright, who landed a smattering of one-shot roles here and there, and even reprised her Danny Thomas role on Make Room for Granddaddy (1970-1971). But her acting career would never regain its momentum, despite being a talented and lovely young lady. Here she is at age 19, trying to avoid sniper fire on Adam-12 (4:11, “Assassination,” December 1971).

05.22.16 - Angela Cartwright05.22.16 - Adam 12 Cartwright

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Posted by on May 22, 2016 in Personalities

 

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Review: DARK SHADOWS, Summer 1968

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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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Before They Were Murdered

04.24.16 - QuincyBob Crane – The Hogan’s Heroes star was found murdered in Scottsdale, Arizona in June 1978. The case remains officially unsolved, although incriminating evidence implicates a former friend who was tried and acquitted in 1994. Prior to his death, Crane was primarily working in dinner theater, but he also did occasional TV work. Hogan’s Heroes was in heavy rotation on independent stations all over America, and Crane seems to have been eager to escape the wisecracking Hogan, expanding his range with roles such as the sensitive doctor in this episode of Quincy, M.E. (2:07, “Has Anybody Here Seen Quincy?,” March 1977).

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04.24.16 - SWATSal Mineo – Best known for film roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus, most of Mineo’s credits were actually in television; he appeared in about a dozen anthology dramas in the 1950s and early 1960s. Most of his credits thereafter were guest shots in TV crime dramas like Hawaii Five-O, Columbo and Police Story, and there were plenty of them. Before he was stabbed to death in February 1976, the movie offers had dried up, but new opportunities in theater and television were perhaps better than ever. He landed the leading role in this early episode of S.W.A.T. (1:02, “A Coven of Killers,” March 1975), playing a Manson-like cult leader with memorable intensity.

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04.24.16 - CombatRamon Novarro – Making history as the star of M-G-M’s silent epic Ben-Hur (1925), Novarro remained one of that studio’s biggest stars right to the end of the silent era. After talkies arrived, he continued to play leads, but by 1935 his stardom had waned. Thanks to wise investments, he continued to live comfortably and he only accepted roles that appealed to him. After 1960, those were all on the small screen. They were always meaty, featured parts (Thriller, Dr. Kildare, Bonanza, The High Chaparral, etc.). He played a French count in this episode of Combat (4:15, “Finest Hour,” December 1965), and his French accent is startlingly good, coming from Hollywood’s first Mexican-American star! Tragedy struck in October 1968: Novarro was beaten in his own home by a pair of hustlers, and choked to death on his own blood. The killers served only a few years in prison before being freed to commit further crimes. One of them killed himself in 2005 and the other was returned to prison on a rape charge, where he remains today.

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04.24.16 - Burns and AllenCarl “Alfalfa” Switzer – Hollywood is notoriously indifferent to child stars who’ve outgrown their youthful usefulness. This former Our Gang star remained in the Los Angeles area, and was persistent in looking for acting jobs. He did manage to find quite a few, but most of them were in bit roles, often uncredited.  Somehow, unlike most actors in his situation, he found it easier to get film roles than television work. But he did get to appear with the stars of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (5:11, “George Gets a Call from an Unknown Victor,” December 1954). It’s a thankless little role, but it represents one final connection to classic comedy, bringing his professional life full circle. It also marks the beginning of the end of that profession. At the time of his shooting death in January 1959, he was primarily working as a trainer and provider of hunting dogs; he’d had only one known acting role in the previous three years. Meanwhile, his childhood was on view all over America, because the old Our Gang shorts had been sold to television. (Because “Our Gang” was a trademark owned by M-G-M, the kids were presented on TV as “The Little Rascals.”)

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04.24.16 - Beverly HillbilliesSharon Tate – The final tragedy of Sharon Tate’s life is that she’s better remembered today for her horrifying murder than for anything else. But she’d been a promising actress for much of the 1960s, slowly climbing the ladder to bigger roles, and at the time of her death in August 1969 she was on the verge of real stardom. She’d nearly reached it much earlier— she was all set to be one of the original Bradley girls on Petticoat Junction before being replaced at the last minute by Jeannine Riley. However, Petticoat producer Paul Henning gave her a few small roles on his other show, The Beverly Hillbillies, like this one (2:11, “The Garden Party,” December 1963), with Max Baer Jr. Better things would come her way in the future. Unfortunately, so would the Manson Family.

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Posted by on April 24, 2016 in Personalities

 

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Ten Pleasant Surprises

As a companion piece to last week’s post, here are ten shows I liked. They’re not the greatest shows. They’re not even necessarily among my top favorites. But each of them turned out to be a lot better than I expected.

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04.17.16 - Bat MastersonBat Masterson (1958-1961) – A surprisingly slick-looking western from Ziv, with far better-looking costumes and sets than you’ll find in the typical TV oater, Bat Masterson is a real standout. As played by Gene Barry, Bat is an unusual western hero. He’s a cultured gentleman in the William Powell tradition, roaming the West and finding adventure everywhere. He’d rather dispatch the villain with one swing of his silver-tipped walking cane than with a six-shooter, and he’d rather beat a crook at his own game than simply call for the sheriff to arrest him. Barry plays nearly every scene with a twinkle in his eye, and although I tend to prefer two-fisted westerns, Bat Masterson is an unexpected delight, thanks largely to the finesse of his confident, genial performance. It’s the ideal western for people who normally don’t care for westerns (which seems to be nearly everybody these days), and for western fans who are ready for a fresh approach.

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04.17.16 - I Led 3 LivesI Led 3 Lives (1953-1956) – What circulates of this show is sold under the counter from collector/dealers, and the image quality isn’t as good as I’d like. But it’s strangely compelling, presenting the adventures of “Comrade Herb” Philbrick and his dealings with communist subversives in Eisenhower’s Middle America. Our traitor is actually working for the FBI, gathering information and passing it along so the bad guys can be rounded up (typically just as they’re on the verge of discovering his identity and killing him). The show was produced by Ziv right alongside Highway Patrol, which instantly became a durable favorite in syndication. But I Lived 3 Lives collapsed into obscurity, as anti-communism gradually became something most Americans snickered at. Maybe the show got silly later on, but the episodes I’ve seen are surprisingly suspenseful, and vastly more interesting than the avalanche of “secret agent” shows that came along a decade later. I Led 3 Lives was based on a book by the real-life Herbert Philbrick, who really was an undercover operative for the FBI and really did help bring down enemy agents, and those realities keep the show (however barely) from descending into camp self-parody. It’s easy to be amused today, watching Joe Friday lecture hippies on Dragnet about the dangers of marijuana, but the historical reality behind I Led 3 Lives insulates it from the same condescension… somewhat.

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04.17.16 - Jake and the FatmanJake and the Fatman (1987-1992) – Admittedly I’ve only seen the earliest episodes, but you can’t blame me for that; CBS DVD released only the first two seasons (a scant 32 episodes combined) before giving up and locking the vault. The majority of the show’s episodes are out of view, and even the bootleggers don’t seem to have them. I began watching the first season on the hunch that it’d be worth a try. After all, I already loved William Conrad from Cannon and radio’s Gunsmoke, so I knew he wouldn’t disappoint as a cranky prosecutor in Jake and the Fatman— and he doesn’t. The really pleasant surprises are Joe Penny as his suave investigative cohort, and the brisk, witty scripts. Wisely, the producers leave all the legwork to Penny; half of the corpulent Conrad’s scenes are delivered while sitting down or leaning against the witness stand. He could be fairly spry back in his Cannon days, but by this point he’s very heavy, and I bet he waddles across a courtroom pretty slowly in these final seasons. During its original run, Jake and the Fatman was regularly paddled in the ratings by the likes of Night Court and Doogie Howser, M.D.; it also underwent a second-season change of locale, and some turbulence in the producers’ office. In spite of all that, what I’ve seen has been very, very good, and now I love William Conrad more than ever.

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04.17.16 - Make Room for DaddyMake Room for Daddy (1953-1956) – The syndication package and official DVDs of The Danny Thomas Show begin with the show’s fourth season (1956-1957). I’d never seen anything of it until fairly recently, but I enjoyed it, and it got me curious about those missing three seasons. During that period, it was known as Make Room for Daddy, a sitcom about a nightclub singer, his homemaker wife and their two small children. You have to dig a little to find episodes of Daddy, but those I’ve seen are terrific. The most obvious difference between Daddy and the Thomas Show is the presence of Jean Hagen as Danny’s wife. Hagen and Thomas didn’t get along, and as soon as her three-year contract was up, she was gone like spit on a skillet. Surprisingly, she really doesn’t make a very vivid impression in those episodes of Daddy (maybe that’s why she was so unhappy, I don’t know). What does distinguish them are the performances of the children, Sherry Jackson and especially Rusty Hamer. In the first season, Hamer is so tiny that you’d hardly expect him to know his lines, but in fact his comic timing and delivery are outstanding, and he regularly gets bigger laughs than the star. In later seasons, he’s less compelling as he gets older, less cute and less precocious (and as the show truly becomes The Danny Thomas Show in every sense) But the talent is undeniably there, which makes his 1990 suicide all the more tragic. He’s hardly the only thing that’s appealing about Make Room for Daddy, which benefits from some sharp writing as well as Sheldon Leonard’s flair for sitcom production. But he’s definitely the most memorable.

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04.17.16 - Racket SquadRacket Squad (1951-1953) – Hal Roach Studios had a wonderful twenty-year golden age from roughly 1918 to 1938, producing some of the most beloved comedies in film history. But the studio limped into the 1950s as a hub for some very low-rent television production, much of it pretty bad (watch any episode of The Trouble with Father to see how painful 1950s TV could be). Racket Squad was one of its few successes, and ironically the dim lighting and skimpy sets helped rather than hurt it. The show looks so cheap that you pity the people participating in it, but the rock-bottom budget creates a noirish look that’s just perfect for Racket Squad’s shadowy underworld of scam artists and the bunko schemes they run in the bad part of town. The con games are patiently dramatized in full detail, and are sometimes elaborate. Unlike almost every other crime show, Racket Squad is more about the workings of a criminal operation than about the process of gathering evidence and catching bad guys. In fact, the “squad” consists of one officer, “Captain Braddock” (Reed Hadley), who mainly just narrates each episode before stepping in during the final scene to nab the con man. Hadley delivers his lines as if he’s doing a radio drama, clearly enunciating every syllable in a rich velvety voice, and while some will snicker at the old-timey style of his performance, he’s one of my favorite things about the show. You kind of need to be in the mood for Racket Squad. But I don’t think I’ve seen a bad episode yet.

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04.17.16 - Real McCoys, TheThe Real McCoys (1957-1963) – TV history is crowded with situation comedies that never make you laugh, but which are beloved anyway for the characters in them. I usually hate those shows: I might be the only TV buff in America who can’t stand I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Munsters, Hogan’s Heroes and the rest of those contrived, heavily laugh-tracked sitcoms. To me, they’re just not funny, and the only interesting character in the lot runs a concentration camp. Maybe I’m just cold on that whole era, because there are sitcoms of the Eisenhower years that aren’t laugh riots either, yet I have far more patience with them (Bachelor Father and The Donna Reed Show, for example). The Real McCoys is usually good for a smile, at least, and I really love the characters in it. In fact, I guess I love The Real McCoys the way everyone else loves The Andy Griffith Show. Americana, country people and rural values all appeal to me. The McCoys are a family of West Virginians who’ve inherited a farm in California’s San Fernando Valley, which was largely agricultural back then. Walter Brennan is his crotchety best as family patriarch Amos McCoy, but regular viewers soon discover that the character is confined by sitcom conventions. You’ll see irascible Amos, headstrong Amos, contrite Amos and reflective Amos, roughly in that order and seldom in any other varieties, but he’s very endearing. Even more lovable is Kathy Nolan as the young wife of the family, and her departure after the fifth season thrust a pitchfork through the heart of the show. Unforgivably, her character’s absence would go basically unexplained in the sixth and final season— not that anyone was paying attention by then, as the show had been moved into a timeslot against Bonanza, which destroyed it in the ratings. But really, the producers’ indifference had killed it already. In its early seasons, The Real McCoys is a pretty good little sitcom, with the potential to be much more. Yes, the scripts are usually boilerplate and it’s lumbered with a laugh track it doesn’t need, but there’s also a sweetness that’s missing from most of TV’s funnier and better-remembered comedies.

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04.17.16 - Simon and SimonSimon and Simon (1981-1989) – I only started watching this show when I learned that it was set in my old home town of San Diego. After being spoiled by the fabulous wall-to-wall location shooting of The Streets of San Francisco, I was disappointed to find very little of San Diego in Simon and Simon’s first season (despite what Wikipedia says). I also found the show to be pretty unfocused in its early episodes. But then it began to grow on me. The two leads are likable and have a good rapport with each other; Gerald McRaney is particularly good. I don’t usually care much for detective shows, but this one takes itself lightly, it has a sense of humor, and it avoids going overboard with gunplay and socks to the jaw. It’s about a pair of brothers who run a small detective agency. Like Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files, Simon & Simon always get their man but you have to wonder if they’ll be able to make the next car payment. Come to think of it, this is a great detective show for female viewers; not because the two leads are pretty-boys (they aren’t), but because the show is more interested in the relationship between them than in high-speed chases and exploding sports cars. That’s not to say that this is the thirtysomething of detective shows, only that neither of these guys is another Mike Hammer— nor do they need to be. I only watch Simon and Simon about once a month, but I always look forward to another hour with Rick and A.J. Just skip the first nine or ten episodes.

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04.17.16 - SpartacusSpartacus (2010-2013) – I don’t watch super-hero movies. I get bored with the endless cartoony fight scenes, thudding soundtracks and oversaturated special effects.  That’s why I was surprised by how well I liked Starz’ Spartacus series. It’s got all of the above, with lots of gratuitous sex and brutality besides. Maybe what saved the show for me was that it’s rooted in history rather than in comic books. I’d found HBO’s expensive series Rome to be lugubrious and uninvolving, but Spartacus has you empathizing with the characters, while doing a better job of explaining the social dynamics of the Roman Empire than you’d expect. But make no mistake: this is anything but dry and intellectual material. You’re seldom more than ten minutes away from the next bloody gladiator sword fight, and you’ll get plenty of naked slave girls, back-stabbing palace intrigue and savage arena battles, all with just enough variation to keep the material fresh. (There are way too many shots of blood spurting out of guys’ mouths in sloooooooow motion, though.) The first season (Spartacus: Blood and Sand) is the best, thanks largely to Andy Whitfield in the leading role. Tragically, unbelievably, Whitfield developed lymphoma before the first season was even off the air, and died a year or so later. He was replaced in the second and third seasons by Liam McIntyre, who’s good but not quite up to Whitfield’s standard. Several of the other actors (notably Peter Mensah) are superb. The final (third) season is almost a re-tooling of the show, in which Spartacus and his gladiator friends lead a slave revolt across Italy, climaxing in a showdown with the army of Julius Caesar. If you know your ancient history, you know how the story ends. That ultimate confrontation is as good as anything in the whole series, but that final season suffers from the absence of some key characters who’d been killed off in earlier seasons. Perhaps to make up for their loss, a lot of attention is lavished on the young Caesar, so much so that I hoped the series would go marching along as a showcase for his adventures, but alas, no.

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04.17.16 - Starsky and HutchStarsky and Hutch (1975-1979) – This show’s whole premise eventually became a cliché: a pair of snarky undercover cops in a fast car bust some heads and bring down the bad guys, week after week. Worse, you really have to work overtime suspending disbelief when watching this show. Starsky and Hutch never have to fill out reports, their car always looks pristine, and most of their investigative work consists of asking their Skid Row pal Huggy Bear what the word on the street is. But in the hands of producers Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg, this wheezy material becomes a lot of fun. The stars have good chemistry, the plots are just involved enough to keep you engaged, and there are car chases and fist fights galore. I’m fascinated by all the location shots in the most wretched areas of 1970s downtown Los Angeles, and I love Lalo Schifrin’s rumbling, ominous theme music and how the stories race along from start to finish. Better yet, the show is a goldmine for appearances by future stars on the rise (Suzanne Somers, Jeff Goldblum, John Ritter) and past stars on the way down (Lola Albright, Joan Blondell, Jose Ferrer, Sylvia Sidney). It’s the television equivalent of a greasy burger and fries, but hey… sometimes that’s what you’re hungry for.

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04.17.16 - Texan, TheThe Texan (1958-1960) – Taciturn western heroes were all over the dial during the Eisenhower/Kennedy era. Most of them failed to really stand out, but one who does is Rory Calhoun of The Texan. He’s got a penetrating stare and when he barks a command, people jump. In the very next scene, he can project warmth and a calm sort of amiability. He’s got a lot of star power, and I don’t know why he isn’t regarded more highly today. Maybe he needed to be a couple of inches taller and twenty pounds heavier, I don’t know. But he carries himself as if he could mop the floor with Steve McQueen of Wanted: Dead or Alive, and I bet he could do it. Calhoun co-produced The Texan himself and it’s a first-class show, with very solid scripts and good performances. I hear it began fraying at the seams in the second season (as audiences flipped the dial to ABC for Cheyenne). But I sure like what I’ve seen. You probably already need to like TV westerns to get into The Texan. But if you do, you may have already seen your share of shows that never got very compelling because they lacked a rugged, dynamic star (I’d put Bronco, Destry, Tate and Cimarron City in that category). Calhoun really owns every scene in which he appears— he’s right up there with Richard Boone of Have Gun Will Travel in that regard— and that kind of power makes The Texan a true standout.

 

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Ten Bitter Disappointments

I have to admit right off that I haven’t watched more than a season’s worth of any of these. If the episodes I haven’t seen are markedly better than what I have seen, then I owe an apology to fans of the following:

I thought Jessica Lange was a fine actress until I saw her in this

I thought Jessica Lange was a fine actress until…

American Horror Story (2011-present) – I love horror shows, and I don’t require them to be scary. But I do need to find myself involved in the story, to identify with the characters, and to feel some tension as things unfold. I really wanted to like the acclaimed American Horror Story, and the opening episode was promising. But I really couldn’t get into this show. It wasn’t just a matter of finding the characters cold and annoying. The horror being attempted was of the dark foreboding variety, which works a lot better in a Lovecraft short story than it does on television. The filmmakers’ attempts to jazz things up with random bursts of gory shock violence just muddied the waters. Not only did I not watch the later seasons, I couldn’t bring myself to sit through more than the first four or five episodes before bailing on it. The show has such a devoted following that there’s got to be something there, but I couldn’t see it. Maybe it’s my own fault for not being patient enough to let things unfold, but when the journey is this tedious, I can’t expect the destination to be any different.

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Baretta goes undercover as a gay man (couldn't you tell?)

Baretta goes undercover as a gay man (couldn’t you tell?)

Baretta (1975-1978) – The tough, gritty crime genre was a perfect fit for the downbeat malaise of the 1970s, and Stephen J. Cannell knew how to put a compelling show together. Baretta has all the right ingredients, and I was eager to dive in. It’s tough and gritty all right— and frequently violent, bleak and ugly besides. Baretta is the kind of show where street hookers get beaten up and babies are born addicted to heroin. It’s compelling and it’s got the “social relevancy” that ‘70s producers were so eager to cultivate. But is it entertaining? No, not really, except when police detective Baretta dons one of his many disguises, such as an Hispanic, a black man or a gay man. These performances are so wildly stereotyped that you’ll either find them hilarious or hideously offensive. That might explain why Universal issued just the first season on DVD (a measly twelve episodes at that), and then abandoned the project. A good number of later episodes are on the black market, but I’ve heard that the entire fourth (and final) season has vanished from the face of the earth, possibly a casualty of the big vault fire at Universal Studios in 2008. Anyway, I was quite disappointed to find Baretta isn’t nearly as appealing as I expected, but Robert Blake is so dynamic in it that I’ll probably revisit the show sometime. I’ll probably even find it compelling, and that’s the name of that tune.

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Billy Barty hits a guy in the crotch. Now THAT'S comedy

Billy Barty hits a guy in the crotch. Now THAT’S comedy

Bizarre (1980-1986) – Like Fridays and Mad TV, Bizarre was an ensemble sketch comedy series created in the wake of Saturday Night Live’s success. It had a competitive edge, being a Canadian production (also airing on cable’s Showtime) which happily presented material that would never get past the Standards and Practices desk of an American network. And I don’t mean just a boob or a bad word here and there, but some really weird humor worthy of the show’s title. You never know what’s going to happen next on Bizarre. That and the talent of its appealing lead comedian, John Byner, are the show’s real strengths. You get the exploits of Super Dave Osborne too, but once you’ve seen his same basic joke five or six times, it begins to get stale. The show was shot on a very tight budget, and the evidence is everywhere— the only music consists of about a half-dozen recorded bits, which are re-used endlessly; the sets are tiny and skimpy. For much of its history, the show had only two credited writers. The cast and crew would bang out 24 episodes in 10 weeks every summer, to be aired throughout the year. Under circumstances like that, it’s no wonder that the show is often disappointing. Still, the only deadly weakness of Bizarre is the same as that of all the other sketch comedy shows: not enough funny material with which to fill all that air time. What keeps the show from being forgettable is that when it’s good, it’s really very good. It’s just not that good very often. Had it been given the resources it needed in order to really succeed, it would be legendary today, and I include it among these Ten Bitter Disappointments only because it had the potential to be so much better than it is. (Ten volumes were released on DVD; Volume One is Bizarre at its best, but I’d say the others are for aficionados only.)

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04.09.16 - CheckmateCheckmate (1960-1962) – From the production company of Jack Benny (of all people!) came Checkmate, an offbeat crime show in which three investigators spend the whole program preventing the crime from happening in the first place. And that’s what’s wrong with the show. The most interesting thing that might happen… never does. What’s left are lots and lots of dialogue scenes. The cast is very good (particularly Sebastian Cabot) and the guest stars are truly exceptional, but I kept waiting for it to get fun.

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04.09.16 - Dead Man's GunDead Man’s Gun (1997-1999) – Very few western shows get made anymore, and I’m not sure whether that’s because the audience just isn’t there, or because the current generation of filmmakers doesn’t know how to make them very well. Deadwood gets by on the strength of the acting alone, but the others (Hell on Wheels, The Adventures of Brisco County etc.) tend to offer good action sequences but little more than that. Those shows at least had interesting continuing characters, something necessarily lacking in Dead Man’s Gun, a Canadian-made anthology series. The premise has a lot of potential: a cursed, hand-crafted gun passes from one owner to another, bringing tragedy and death. In the next episode, somebody else has acquired it and the curse continues. The show was filmed at beautiful, lush locations— no western series ever had such green landscapes— and the acting is pretty good, with everyone from Ed Asner to Michael Moriarty popping up. The trouble is that the stories aren’t very interesting. The scripts are so tame that they could’ve passed muster on The Loretta Young Show, and frankly they’d have worked a lot better in a tidy half-hour format rather than the sixty long minutes allotted to them here. It’s not a terrible show. I’d rather watch all 44 episodes back-to-back than sit through another episode of Californication. But it falls so short of its dynamite premise that it ranks as a real disappointment. I do envy whoever ended up with that beautiful prop gun, though.

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04.09.16 - Death Valley DaysDeath Valley Days (1952-1970) – I was eager to sample this show when beautifully restored episodes began airing on Encore Westerns. And to be honest, a couple of them weren’t bad at all. But the others were pretty tedious. Plenty of TV dramas feel draggy in a one-hour format, but this show is only half that length, and the budgets are too skimpy to do the material justice. Worse, none of them were set anywhere near Death Valley, perhaps an unreasonable expectation on my part. Like most of the shows in this list, it’s not a terrible program. I just found it disappointing. Also disappointing: the package airing on Encore Westerns begins with the episodes from 1963 or 1964 onward, because the surviving elements on the earlier seasons weren’t in good enough condition to be used.

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04.09.16 - DynastyDynasty (1981-1989) – I feel guilty about including Dynasty here, because I’m aware that the show was revamped after the first season, and that’s as far as I could get. Well, I did stick around for the second season’s debut, but I still didn’t care for it. The first season presents two families: a blue-collar family of tedious people moaning about their problems, and a wealthy extended family of ugly people who sleep around on each other when they aren’t shouting at each other. After that season, the blue-collar folks mostly go away and Joan Collins comes on board. I promise I’ll revisit this show, and give it an honest try. After all, Dynasty was the most successful of Dallas’ many illegitimate offspring, and I love Dallas. J.R. Ewing does awful things, but he’s such a charming rogue that his misdeeds make him fascinating. From what I’ve seen of Dynasty, the show is packed with people who do just as much scheming and back-stabbing as J.R., but nobody does it with a twinkle in his eye. This show really needs that twinkle.

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Eat this cast!

Eat this cast!

Fear the Walking Dead (2015-present) – I’m a big fan of The Walking Dead. Occasionally it suffers from flagging energy, and its meandering narrative needs a sense of direction. But it’s been such a great show overall that I had high expectations for its pseudo-spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, especially with the same creative mind, Robert Kirkman, on board. The premise of the show is ideal, exploring how the zombie apocalypse got started in the first place. But things go seriously wrong almost immediately. The origins of the zombie invasion never do get spelled out (most of it unfolds in occasional vignettes in the background), and after just a couple of episodes we’re already past the tipping point and the zombies have taken over. Now what we’ve got is basically The Walking Dead with a different locale and a different set of people. Okay. I’d still be fine with that. But what ruins Fear the Walking Dead are the thoroughly unlikable characters and the things they do. The Walking Dead at least has a moral center which keeps us rooting for its characters. But people on Fear do things like torture a young National Guardsman. They do things like herd thousands of zombies into a National Guard camp in hopes of killing everyone in it. When people do this sort of thing on The Walking Dead, they’re the villains and we hate them for it. But with Fear, the protagonists do them, and we’re expected to cheer them on. And it’s not just what they do, it’s who they are that annoys me. Apart from the vicious Hispanic barber, you’ve got the usual family clichés of contemporary TV: the dad’s a dim bulb, the mom is an impossibly smart, resourceful, sensitive Superwoman and their pain-in-the-ass kids are snarky narcissists (the boy’s a junkie as well). By the end of the first season, I was honestly rooting for the zombies to overcome and devour the entire cast. If ever a show needed a major re-tooling, it’s this one.

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Not quite the font to use for a show set in the Old West

I even hated the main title’s font

Laredo (1965-1967) – A bunch of guys have wild times in the Wild West, in a show that veers from comedy to drama and back again, without ever seeming to know what it is and what it’s trying to do. For me it was jarring to get involved in a western drama and have it abruptly turn into slapstick. I didn’t like any of the characters (even the late Peter Brown’s, although I love his earlier show Lawman) and I didn’t like getting the impression that everyone involved is half-drunk and just goofing around while the cameras are rolling. It’s fine for a show to take itself lightly, but it’s still got to take itself seriously. Grab a Bonanza script and an F Troop script and shuffle the pages together, and you’ve got an annoying mess called Laredo.

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Mr. Lucky (1959-1960) – I love Blake Edwards’ Peter Gunn, and knowing that he more or less stepped away from that show to develop this one, I had high hopes. The first episode was all right and the second was better, but then it went into a downward spiral (at least for me). A guy has a boat and is visited by crooks. That’s every episode in a nutshell. I even found Mr. Lucky’s renowned theme music completely forgettable. John Vivyan doesn’t have the charisma to carry the show, and how many times can you watch someone get conked in the back of the head with a pistol before it gets stale? I guess I owe it to the show’s reputation to return to it at some point. But it won’t be anytime soon.04.09.16 - Mr. Lucky

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Of these ten, I’m probably being the most unfair to Mr. Lucky. The one I’m most likely to watch again is Baretta, maybe Bizarre. Next week: Ten Delightful Surprises.

 

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