Archive for the Sit Coms Category

The Many Roles of Melvin Allan, I Mean, Allan Melvin

Posted in Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , on February 18, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of tv character actor and voice-over artist Allan Melvin (1923-2008). Don’t shout out just yet where you know him from — the odds are quite good that you know him from more than you are remembering where you know him from.

After attending Columbia University and fighting in World War Two, Melvin won first place on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts (he was skilled at impressions, among other things.) His break was a role in the original Broadway production of Stalag 17 (1951-1952), which lead to his getting cast as Henshaw on Sgt. Bilko (1955-1959) with Phil Silvers:

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Then he was the voice of Sgt. Snorkle on the short-lived 1963 Beetle Bailey cartoon show (and wrote two episodes!):

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He provided the voice of Magilla Gorilla on various Hanna-Barbera cartoon shows from 1963 through 1994. Can you match the voice with the visage?

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Then he found himself back on another service comedy, as a semi-regular on Gomer Pyle USMC (1964-1969), playing Charlie Hacker, Sgt. Carter’s rival:

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In 1969 he provided the voice of Drooper (the lion) on The Banana Splits:

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Next he was Sam the Butcher on The Brady Bunch (1969-1974), which I’ll just bet is his best known character nowadays:

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And also he was Barney Hefner on All in the Family (1971-1979) and Archie Bunker’s Place (1979-1983).

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This must be some kind of record for being a series regular, right? (I ask rhetorically, I’m uninterested in learning the factual truth about who the record holder might be). And we haven’t even gotten to all the shows on which he (or his voice) did frequent guest shots (The Flintstones, The Andy Griffith Show, Love American Style), and dozens more. And all the tv commericials.

He just had the perfect face and voice — “ordinary” is what they used to call it, but that’s wrong, because actually his persona was far more memorable than so many so-called “leading man” types.  If you’re bland and forgettable, isn’t that ordinary? Anyway, you know his face and voice. You should know his name: Melvin Allan — I mean, Allan Melvin.

Keeping Up Appearances: The Comic Genius of Patricia Routledge

Posted in Comedy, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , on February 17, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the brilliant British comic actress Dame Patricia Routledge (b. 1929). What a testament to the importance of luck in the creation of performance magic is Routledge’s career. Her resume is stuffed with substantial credits: a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, winner of an Olivier Award and a Tony. I’d previously seen her in films many a time without particularly noting her.  She’s in To Sir With Love (1967), Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River (1968) and If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium (1969). Her list of credits is much much longer than this, and she is much better known to British audiences to American ones, through tv, film and theatre.

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But talent and experience are only part of what makes for greatness. Sometimes the right actor gets the right part at the right time and alchemy occurs. Such is the case with Routledge’s role as the ever-striving (upward) housewife Hyacinth Bucket (“It’s pronounced “Bouquet’!”) on Keeping Up Appearances (1990-1995). I was instantly smitten with this comic creation the first time I saw it. Hyacinth is a middle class provincial woman  who makes life hell for everyone around her with her insufferable pretensions.

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Meanwhile, reality is always giving the lie to her schemes. Her origins are in the lower classes. Her crass relatives are always showing up to her embarrass her. She’s always being appalled, chagrined, exasperated.  And she herself is never quite up to what she attempts. She mispronounces words. Her attempts at a posh accent and manners are transparently silly. Her efforts to claim her modest home and surroundings are somehow grand are at once heroic, sad, and obvious. In her denial of the world around her, she is definitely a spiritual heiress to Don Quixote. And Routledge has the prodigious talent, skill and intelligence to play it that way. She has the range to give us the pretentious elocution and rolled “R”s, but at the same time she’ll go for broke and rob the character of ALL dignity, and just go into utter slapstick in her desperate attempts to keep her subterfuges going. She pulls funny faces, and falls into the mud. She’s constantly peeking from behind things to see how her plans are playing out — and not liking what she sees.

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Along for the ride is her long suffering husband Richard (Clive Swift), a minor local official whom she is forever trying to turn into a big shot. If Hyacinth is Quixote, Richard is less like her Sancho than her Rocinante, the pathetic, elderly horse who passively accepts his miserable lot in life. He grumbles but he doesn’t fight Hyacinth’s plots and schemes. He just does what she tells him, always with full knowledge of impending disaster. Her constant cycle of failure gives the show a poignancy, and elevates Hyacinth to one of the great modern comic creations.

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Credit must be given to the show’s writer/creator Roy Clarke (obviously not the country singer) who conceived and built this perfect comic engine. Not only does it contain everything Routledge needed to give full-on broadly comical performances, but there’s something inherently, timeless, eloquently English about the theme of class-jumping and the clash between reality and fantasy in Hyacinth’s head. She wants to be “somebody”. She is not to content to be herself. The theme is also modern and universal, which is why Keeping Up Appearances has proven to be the BBC’s biggest export. It certainly resonates here in America. It struck an enormous chord with this correspondent.

A few months ago, the BBC launched a prequel series called Young Hyacinth, without Routledge’s participation. She’s 87 today; she’s earned a rest. Happy birthday Dame Patricia. How glad Hyacinth would be to know that she’s being portrayed by one of the nobility!

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Stuart Erwin: Lummox, Lover and Bumpkin

Posted in Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , , , on February 14, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of actor Stuart Erwin (1903-1967). Originally from Squaw Valley, California, Erwin had a little stage experience before being cast in a small role in his feature feature film, Fox’s first talkie Mother Knows Best (1928). His second film was a Hal Roach comedy short A Pair of Tights (1929) with Anita Garvin, Marion “Peanuts” Byron, and Edgar Kennedy. Throughout the 30s he was frequently cast a goofy juvenile or romantic lead in comedies, usually with a kind of wide-eyed naif quality. He appeared in the original Big Broadcast film (1932), co-starred with Susan Fleming in He Learned About Women (1932), was in the ensemble of International House (1933), and stars in Judy Garland’s first film Pigskin Parade (1936), for which he was Oscar nominated for Best Supporting Actor. He continued to appear in pictures throughout the 1940s, in films like Our Town (1940) and Blondie for Victory (1942). Then he launched his television show The Stu Erwin Show a.k.a Trouble with Father (1950-55), on which his wife, actress June Collyer also appeared (they had married in 1931.) In later years he appeared in Disney films such as Son of Flubber (1963).

For more on comedy film history please see my book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,  released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

The Ubiquitous John Fiedler

Posted in Hollywood (History), Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , on February 3, 2017 by travsd
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“Star Trek” (“Wolf in the Fold” episode, 1967

Today is the birthday of the once ubiquitous character actor John Fielder (1925-2005). Few know the name but most everyone of a certain age knows the face and the voice! A diminutive man with a capacious bald head, his physiognomy always reminded me a little of the comic strip character “Henry”:

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His high-pitched, mild-mannered voice allowed the Wisconsin native to work in radio after his World War Two Service. He broke into Broadway and television in the 1950s. His small size and tiny voice were usually employed in one of two manners: 1) timid, scared little characters; or 2) the opposite: officious, bullies who tried to compensate for the small size by self-assertion and bullying. He was ordinarily employed in comedies or for comic purposes.

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Just a handful of notable film and tv appearances (out of hundreds): the movie version of Twelve Angry Men (1957), The Twilight Zone (1960 and 1962), Star Trek (“Wolf in the Fold” episode, 1967), The Odd Couple (the Broadway play, 1965-1967, as well as the film, 1968, and tv show, 1972 and 1974), Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh (various animated films & tv specials, as the voice of Piglet, 1968-2005), Kolchak: The Night Stalker (as Gordy the coroner, 1974-75), The Bob Newhart Show (as Mr. Peterson, 1972-1978), and guest shots on practically every show ever broadcast.  He kept working right on until his death in 2005.

Sweating bullets as Vinnie in the movie version of "The Odd Couple" (1968)

Sweating bullets as Vinnie in the movie version of “The Odd Couple” (1968)

R.I.P. Mary Tyler Moore

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Dance, OBITS, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd

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We would certainly be remiss if we didn’t lay down a few words in honor of the late Mary Tyler Moore.

As I tweeted yesterday, she influenced many of us not just as a comedienne but as an example and a role model. I’m a white working class male, and she influenced my world outlook immensely. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran during highly impressionable years of my life (1971 through 1977, and thereafter in syndication). I knew it was seminal only in retrospect. Growing up watching her, I always took it for granted that it was the most natural thing in the world that a single woman should choose to pursue a career and that she should be respected in the workplace. Unlike Marlo Thomas in That Girl (1966-1971), there was no fiance constantly waiting the wings and her career goals weren’t pie in the sky. She dated men, and sometimes it was even hinted that they stayed the night.  But her career seemed to be her priority. She later backtracked some on this takeaway, but really that is the message her show sent.

Of course, that message is what most people celebrated yesterday, but now I want to talk about her as a comedian. She was a great one. I seem to recall her saying that her teacher in playing comic scenes was her old co-star Dick Van Dyke, and I started to watch her performances with that in mind, and you can see it. (Apart from her crying routines — the debt there is probably to Lucille Ball. And I have to say, of the two, I vastly prefer MTM’s more subtle and true comic performances over Lucy’s. Lucy only had a sledgehammer in her arsenal, Mary had a full tool kit.)

Recently, when watching 30 Rock I had the revelation that Tina Fey’s show is kind of a mash-up The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. On the one hand, it’s set behind the scenes at a tv comedy show; on the other hand it’s about a single, female tv producer. 30 Rock is way more absurd and surreal, but the core of the situation echoes those pioneering shows, and I would imagine it’s not accidental. Fey is a formidable comic architect, and quite encyclopedic in her knowledge of comedy.

Like Van Dyke, Moore was an incredible dancer; it’s kind of her jumping off point as a performer. It informs both their comedy — and it’s fairly insane that, apart from some variety show appearances, they didn’t co-star in a LOT of musicals. With their array of talents that could potentially have been amazing. But something interesting happened to Moore — and it happens to a lot of actors and comedians when they get very big. Moore wasn’t just a comedian, she became a producer. And with her husband Grant Tinker, she was responsible for a large number of hit tv shows: Phyllis, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere. When you are powerful, you acquire dignity and self-assurance. She was no longer young or fresh or goofy by the 1980s. She had gravitas and was even (as she was in Ordinary People) intimidating and scary. She tried many later tv series: The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979), Mary (1985-86), Annie McGuire (1988), New York News (1995). None flew, I think partially because you see the show business titan beneath the performer. It’s not uncommon — think of Bob Hope’s last movies.

She’d gone conservative in recent years, I hear. I wonder what she thought of the millions who attended the Women’s March on Sunday, so many of whom she influenced. She’s leaving us at another time of change, when even the mild gains women have made are under serious threat. I already get melancholy and nostalgic when I watch tv. Now there’ll be some added bittersweetness when I see this and think of more innocent times:

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R.I.P. Dick Gautier

Posted in Comedy, OBITS, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd

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Okay, they’re officially dropping faster than I can pump these out. My normal rule is I only bother with a tribute if I have things to say, but I may have to amend that.

At any rate, I have plenty to say about comic actor Dick Gautier, who passed away yesterday at age 85. (People always want to know how. Who cares how he died? He’s 85, that’s how!) I am precisely the right age to be among what I imagine is the pretty small group of Dick Gautier fans. The primary credit that put him on my radar was of course When Things Were Rotten (1975), the Mel Brooks produced Robin Hood sit com which I blogged about here. Of course, Gautier had worked with Brooks earlier as the robot Hymie in Get Smart, which I watched in re-runs (and need to watch some more, I still have not quite gotten my fill of Get Smart). But mostly where you saw him in the ’70s was in guest shots on other people’s shows. I quite clearly remember him from a 1978 episode of The Love Boat, and he was also on Love American Style, Banacek, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He was in the 1977 movie Fun with Dick and Jane which I loved. (I am curious to know why he wasn’t in the 1980 Get Smart movie The Nude Bomb). This is just the tip of the iceberg. He was everywhere in the 70s. He was on all the game shows as well. And he seemed to work pretty steadily through the ’90s.

But he never cracked beyond a certain level. Never became a movie star, never was the star of his own hit series (When Things Were Rotten was not a hit in tv terms). Though he was the original Conrad Birdie in the Broadway production of Bye, Bye Birdie, in the movie the role went to Jesse Pearson. But he worked constantly. He was a truly interesting type, and that’s why I’m inspired to write about him today. He came pretty close to good looking, but with a certain exaggeration of the features that added up to being a parody of conventional good looks, almost like those caricatures of movie stars who made appearances on The Flintstones. In the ’70s he grew his hair out to John Davidson proportions, this great puffy, blowdried and combed pillow of hair. And so he would often be cast as jerky boyfriends, blind dates, and that sort of thing, a kind of second tier George Hamilton. He also had a kind of smirking expression on his face and good delivery on comic lines, which made him natural for light comedy. I feel like his casting as Robin Hood in When Things Were Rotten is roughly the same comic idea as Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa in Space Balls, although I can’t exactly say why. Parody of an ingenue, I guess.

Bon Voyage, M. Gautier.

Forgotten Shows of My Nonage #94: The New Odd Couple

Posted in African American Interest, Comedy, Forgotten Shows of My Nonage, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , on November 27, 2016 by travsd

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I’ve touched on this subject once before, and had originally intended to do more two weeks ago (November 13) for all sorts of reasons. In fact, I probably would have hit it in two posts. November 13 is “Odd Couple Day” (the date was mentioned in the opening narration for the original television program as the date Felix Ungar’s wife throws him out). The original Odd Couple tv show was hugely influential on me, so please know that a post on that show is forthcoming! Also (not coincidentally, I’m sure) November 13th was the late Garry Marshall’s birthday. He passed away a few months ago, and it occurred to me at the time that, love him or hate him, Marshall was a comic auteur, and deserving of a blogpost about his legacy, which I had also intended for November 13.

Unfortunately, this year that date fell five days after Black Tuesday. I was still in a serious funk and in no mood to write about frivolous things like situation comedies and the pop geniuses who write them. So look for those planned posts about Marshall and the original Odd Couple series next November 13.

My spirits have now revived somewhat, and I find that I have space in my brain BOTH for helping save the country, and my usual pursuits. And we write about The New Odd Couple today because we learned that Ron Glass passed away a couple of days ago.

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So! This potentially promising, but ultimately ill-conceived and indifferently executed experiment aired during my senior year in high school. As I’ve already more than hinted, I was an enormous fan of the original series starring Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, which ran from 1970 to 1975. The original series closed out just in time to focus on Marshall’s new project, the smash hit Happy Days, which then spawned Laverne and Shirley and Mork and Mindy.  So Marshall seemed like a veritable television Midas long about 1982. And you know what happened to Midas — he got too greedy.

Wearing a producer hat, you can identify all sorts of reasons why The New Odd Couple (1982-1983) ought be successful in theory.  1) It was already a proven property with Garry Marshall’s now gold-minting name attached to it. 2) African American sit-coms (mostly from the Norman Lear factory) were very popular at the time (Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons, That’s My Mama, What’s Happenin’ et al). and 3) It showcased two popular black sit com stars, Demond Wilson from Sanford and Son as Oscar; and Ron Glass of Barney Miller as Felix. And those two gents seemed pretty well cast. After all, Wilson’s previous character Lamont Sanford worked in a junkyard, a fitting association for Oscar. And Glass’s Barney Miller character Harris was kind of dapper and prissy, which would make him natural to step into Felix. And they were both funny guys.

This is totally the same kitchen

This is totally the same kitchen

Hence I tuned into this show with high hopes. But….the resulting product was too lazy. Even as a teenager, I could easily identify why I was dissatisfied with the show. The whole enterprise was transparently cynical. Yes, they cast black actors, but they didn’t rethink them as black characters. They just took old Odd Couple scripts, tweaked some of the lines, and filmed them with a new cast. They even used the same theme song, with a funkier arrangement. They hadn’t even bothered to give the show its own name. The irony is, the thing they were attempting was not unprecedented and it had been done with great success. It wasn’t even far away. Sanford and Son had been based on a British sitcom called Steptoe and Son. But, other than the basic situation, the entire set-up had been completely reimagined as a vehicle for Redd Foxx from the ground up. The writers weren’t black but Foxx had enough juice to inject his show with authentic touches. In The New Odd Couple the actors even seem to be wearing leftover costumes. And are asked to give the same line readings. On the same set. With the same inserts of an exterior of their apartment building. Check it out for yourself. There are some episodes on Youtube. (16 episodes were filmed; it ran for only one season),

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Sorry this is not the best way to remember Ron Glass! He was excellent on Barney Miller! And also on the cult sci-fi western mash-up Firefly! And for the record, I am not a fan of the current Odd Couple reboot either, though it also stars two top notch comic actors. The best Marshall-produced Odd Couple reboot is of course Laverne and Shirley. The best overall? Perhaps, Perfect Strangers (1986-1993). Who cares about sloppy vs. neat? Why is that a necessary component? The true essential element is two mismatched friends with terrific chemistry.

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