Ted Bessell is “Me”, in “Me and the Chimp”

Sometimes I worry that I have too much competition in the vintage show biz blogging field. On the other hand I am quite confident that I will be the only person on the internet celebrating the birth of Ted Bessell today (1935-1996).

Bessell was a great light comic actor, rightly best remembered for his role as Marlo Thomas’s boyfriend Donald Hollinger on the sitcom That Girl (1965-71). But that is not the end of the Ted Bessell story by a long shot. Bessell was born in Flushing, Queens and grew up in Manhassett, Long Island (not far from where I currently reside, as it happens!) He was a child prodigy musician who played piano at Carnegie Hall when he was 12 years old. After college he studied acting with Sanford Meisner, appeared in some off-Broadway theatre productions, then went west with a production of Look Homeward, Angel. This led immediately to film and TV roles. He was a regular on the short-lived series It’s a Man’s World (1962-63). In 1966 he had a recurring role on Gomer Pyle, USMC. He was also in such movies as McHale’s Navy Joins the Air Force (1966) and Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water (1969).

But that’s not what you came here for. The name of this post is “Me and the Chimp” and, by golly, that’s what I’m gonna give ya. It’s fortuitous that the post goes up today, when our previous post had to do with the star of Bedtime for Bonzo. Me and the Chimp (1972) was Bessell’s first starring sitcom after That Girl went off the air in 1972. It was created and produced by Garry Marshall, during the pocket between the launch of his hits The Odd Couple (1970) and Happy Days (1974). Me and the Chimp, however…was not a hit. Bessell played a dad who took in a chimpanzee at the request of his kids. Bessell’s wife was played by Broadway star Anita Gillette. While in tone it is not like family shows like Family Affair or The Brady Bunch, it is also in that small-subgenre of shows with animal stars that also include Flipper, Lassie and Mr. Ed. And of course Lancelot Link. And the chimp on The Today Show, J. Fred Muggs. And BJ and the Bear. I could go on, but I think I won’t.

Me and the Chimp was of course produced a few decades before a pet chimpanzee made headlines by ripping off a woman’s face in Connecticut. (Good Lord! His name was “Travis”!) That chimp escapade was not so wacky and zany. But the episodes on Me and the Chimp were. Why, who knew that chimps could get up to so much mischief? I mean, apart from the lady who lost her face. There are several episodes of Me and the Chimp up on Youtube right now. I know you will enjoy them as much as I did. (I didn’t say how much that was).

As you have probably anticipated, Me and the Chimp was shortlived. Just one season. Next came The Ted Bessell Show (1973) which didn’t get past the pilot, and two other short-lived sitcoms, Good Time Harry (1980) and Hail to the Chief (1985), both of which only lasted 7 episodes. So weird! I distinctly remember the latter show, which starred Patty Duke as America’s first female President. It certainly made an impression on me during the two months it was on, if on no one else! I have also seen the TV movie Scream, Pretty Peggy (1973) a horror film in which Bessell does some stuff even more objectionable than keeping a chimp in his house that could potentially rip his children’s faces off. After this, Bessell became a director, notably for 51 episodes of The Tracey Ullman Show (1987-1990). That’s some hardcore comedy street cred right there. His last credit was directing a 1995 episode of The Naked Truth. Bessell was taken by an aortic aneurysm at the young age of 61 the following year.