Reality TV, now a staple of the medium for better or worse, has been with us since the dawn of television, albeit it came to us in muted and piecemeal forms prior to exploding into its own widespread format. It was a beast that awaited the advent of cable, with its relentless hunger for content, as well as advances in video technology, and relaxed standards (not just in quality but, frankly, in propriety). One of the transitional shows, produced in the old school manner, but helping to create a demand for more (whatever that turned out to be) was That’s Incredible, which ran from on ABC 1980 through 1984.
That’s Incredible was quite a grab-bag in terms of content, but had a fairly formal presentational “magazine” format, anchored by a triumvirate of chipper hosts: former NFL football star and color commentator Fran Tarkenton, former tennis star and the original Wonder Woman (even before Lynda Carter) Cathy Lee Crosby, and flamboyant whatsis John Davidson (b. 1941). It’s the latter’s birthday today, and he is the more interesting of the three from a show biz perspective, so we bear down on him a little before returning to the show.
Most who know John Davidson at all from television will be apt to associate him with appearances on talk, game and variety shows, but early on he had a wider and marginally more serious orientation. The son of Baptist ministers, his first major credits were in 1964, when he appeared in the Broadway show Foxy with Bert Lahr, as well as a TV version of The Fantasticks, and was a regular on a CBS Variety Show called The Entertainers, along with Carol Burnett, Bob Newhart, Dom Deluise, Ruth Buzzi, Italian singer Caterina Valente, and others. He hosted Kraft Music Hall dozens of times beginning in 1966. His clean-cut image served him well into two Disney movies: The Happiest Millionaire (1967) and The One and Only, Genuine, original Family Band (1968). In 1969, came a TV version of the musical Roberta and his own variety show. Check this out:
Many other TV credits followed: a TV version of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A., and guest shots on shows like Daniel Boone, The F.B.I., Love American Style, and The Streets of San Francisco. In 1973 and 1974 he co-starred in a sitcom with Sally Field called The Girl with Something Extra. In 1979, he was one of the many stars of the final movie in the Airport disaster film franchise The Concorde…Airport ’79.
I bring all of this up to point out that Davidson didn’t just come out of nowhere, as he seemed to in the ’80s. At the time, to a young person, he simply seemed like one of the zombie horde of inexplicable “celebrities”, people with no history, who choked the airwaves. We can now see that he had a decent track record as an actor and performer, but there was no way for the ordinary viewer to research a performer back then, if you hadn’t already caught what they’d done. If a hard core movie star showed up, you knew who they were. You’d seen their movies, even if they were old ones, because they played them on TV. But i your credits were a little lighter and largely ephemeral, your appearance on TV was a sort of unjustified mystery. Here’s about all I knew. I knew that Davidson had a good head of hair that grew increasingly puffy and preposterous as time wore on. He had a broad smile full of white teeth and dimples. He was too wholesome and earnest (apart from a grating over-cheerfulness) to be a proper male sex symbol except among older women, I should think. And he could sing in that legit sort of way that was a real turnoff to most young people in 1980. For some context, Blondie’s “Call Me” was the number one song that year in Billboard’s Top 100.
At any rate, in 1980 Davidson showed up, along with Tarkenton and Crosby, as the anchors of That’s Incredible. It was a sort of tabloid omnibus program not unlike Ripley’s Believe it Or Not, or NBC’s Real People (which had debuted the previous year), but the show was most consciously modeled on Art Baker’s You Asked for It, which had run from 1950 through 1959, which is one of the reasons I say something like reality television went back to its earliest days. That’s Incredible offered a hodgepodge of the outre, from people who could do strange or dangerous skills and tricks, to paranormal anecdotes (normally presented in re-enactments), stories about “near misses”, new developments in science and technology, and the like. This ad from the period is a wonderful illustration of the contents of the program:
The original show ran through 1984. Originally an hour long, it was then edited to a half hour version and syndicated. Davidson and others returned for reunion, and then a new version in 1988, and then again in 2002 and 2003. After the original show folded, Davidson appeared on shows like The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, and then reinvented himself as a game show host, helming things like New Hollywood Squares (1986-89), The $10,000 Pyramid and $25,000 Pyramid (1991). Since the ’90s, he has mostly been a live performer. And you know what? “That’s Incredible“.