Re-post: A look back at the 1981 NFC Championship Game and other top-rated conference title games

(Reveal Shot presents a re-post of one of our first entries: a look back at the 1981 NFC title game and why it remains the highest-rated conference championship match-up.)

(Originally published Jan. 21, 2013)


Now that the San Francisco 49ers have made it to a sixth Super Bowl, there will be memories of the victory that set up its chance at that first ring, the 1981 NFC Championship Game.

That 28-27 win over the Dallas Cowboys, played on Jan. 10, 1982, set the gold standard for television viewership for a semifinal-round playoff game, generating a 42.9 rating and a 62 share, according to Nielsen data. It was seen by an average of 68.7 million viewers, at a time when there were roughly 77 million TV households in the U.S.

The game was followed two weeks later by Super Bowl XVI, which still ranks as the highest-rated Super Bowl in television history with a 49.1 rating and 73 share. (A ratings point equals 1% of the total TV households in the country; share is the percentage of sets in use tuned to a specific program.)

As great a game as the ’81 NFC Championship was, it is unclear at first glance just how it galvanized a larger portion of the audience than had ever watched before. After all, there were many great teams — the Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, the Cowboys, the Minnesota Vikings, etc., who played compelling postseason games.

I went back and looked at ratings and shares for every conference title game from the time the NFL-AFL merger was consummated in 1970 through the 1980-81 season.

CBS graphic 1-3-71NFCThe title games on Jan. 3, 1971 weren’t bad; NBC’s AFC battle between the Baltimore Colts and Oakland Raiders was a three-point game in the fourth quarter before the Colts pulled away to the 27-17 final, and CBS had a 49ers-Cowboys game that went to Dallas 17-10. That NFC game, airing from San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium at 4:00 Eastern, got the better rating that day, with a very solid 31.0 and 52 share, while NBC earned a 29.7 and 62 share.

1972’s AFC Championship game featured the 15-0 Dolphins against the upstart Steelers, who had finally won their first playoff game after nearly 40 years of existence — the “Immaculate Reception” game. Now, a week later against the Dolphins, the Steelers cut a 21-10 deficit to 21-17 with plenty of time left, but Terry Bradshaw threw two interceptions to put the game away for Miami. A fascinating storyline and matchup produced a 27.1/64, but that was down from the previous year’s far less interesting Dolphins-Colts game.

Two years later, Minnesota held on for a 14-10 win against a Los Angeles Rams team that always seemed snake-bitten in the postseason. Two controversial calls seemed to turn the tide against them this time, and enough viewers tuned in to give CBS a 31.0/66.

Before the ’81 game, the best rating for an NFC Championship came in 1979, on the road to Super Bowl XIII. CBS got a 36.7 and 57 share. However, this was no thriller; Dallas crushed the Rams 28-0.

What, then, shall we make of the surge in viewership for the ’81 postseason? (The AFC championship, a 27-7 win for the Cincinnati Bengals over the San Diego Chargers, also did very well, grabbing a 35.0 rating and 61 share, setting a pleateau for an AFC title game hasn’t been topped.)

One factor, as Saint Xavier University communication professor James Walker pointed out in an October interview, was that this was “the absolute height” of network television, a point at which the Big Three universe had their greatest number of viewers, with not even a huge number of independent stations to contend with, let alone the kind of juggernaut cable would become.

Several other TV ratings records were set around this time, across sports and other genres, though they have been surpassed in terms of total viewers because there are so many more TV households than there were 30 years ago (now more than 112 million).

The highest-rated World Series telecast occurred less than two years earlier — Game 6 of the 1980 Fall Classic between the Philadelphia Phillies and Kansas City Royals (40.0, 60 share). “Dallas’s” “Who Shot J.R.?” cliffhanger, which ended the series’ third season, hit the airwaves in 1980 (53.3, 76). The final episode of “M*A*S*H*,” still the top-rated U.S. program of all time, aired in 1983 (60.2, 77 share).

Secondly, the ’81 game probably is the best pure game of any conference matchup from 1970-81.

And finally, though the NFL surpassed Major League Baseball as the national pastime in the late ’60s, and the Super Bowl became the ultimate hype machine, there was a lull period during the mid-1970s that had to be overcome.1974 NFC

A New York Times article dated July 23, 1974 suggested that so many sports on television were leading to a kind of saturation, and ratings were starting to decline as a result. “Viewer interest … has dropped significantly, according to the Nielsen numbers, in such prestige sports as professional football, college football, pro basketball and hockey.”

CBS’s NFL telecasts had declined from an average rating of 16.4 in 1971, Nielsen said, to 15.0 in 1972, to 14.2 in 1973. Over the same span, NBC’s games had slipped from 13.9 to 13.3.

The only explanation that makes any sense is the ascendancy of the Dolphins, who relied on a grind-it-out running attack keyed by Larry Csonka and Jim Kiick. Friends of mine who were in their teens at the time say games throughout the league became boring, as teams tried to imitate the champions.

The rise of the Steelers, Cowboys and Raiders, all of whom had formidable passing games, brought back excitement for many fans, a perception that was reflected in late ’70s ratings and helped lead to the euphoric reaction of the early ’80s.

— David B. Wilkerson

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Network television covers the March on Washington – Aug. 28, 1963 (Part II) (UPDATED)

(UPDATE: This post now includes the beginning of CBS News’ continuous coverage of the march, starting at 1:30 p.m. Eastern time  on that Aug. 28, as well as the very end, at about 4:30 p.m.)

Reveal Shot presents Part II of its look at Big Three network coverage of the March On Washington, 50 years ago next Wednesday. In this installment, two of the most fascinating broadcast elements that survive — the start of CBS’ continuous coverage of the march at 1:30 Eastern time, and the first half-hour of NBC’s 4:30 summary of the day’s events.

Read Part I here.

The Aug. 25, 1963 telecast of  NBC’s “Meet The Press” made plain the conventional fears many white Americans had about the March On Washington For Jobs and Freedom, coming up in three days. NAACP Executive Secretary Roy Wilkins and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. were the guests that Sunday evening, and “Meet The Press” co-creator Lawrence Spivak began the questioning.


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Two things strike me about this excerpt from the beginning of the program.

1) Spivak’s reference to “10,000 militant negroes” and whether or not they could come together without rioting. Aside from the low estimate of a crowd that ended up exceeding 250,000, the notion that the entire contingent would be militant, and that it might be incapable of civilized behavior, is one that would be just as likely to be brought up today, especially on outlets like Fox News.

2) Wilkins, who is clearly aggravated by Spivak’s repeated questions about the “great risks” the march’s organizers are taking, makes it clear that he’s bemused by the turnout estimate, saying he doesn’t know if it’ll be “110,000, 145,000 or 190,000.” I’m sure he knew the number would be closer to the actual total.

The entire program,which was re-aired on many NBC stations on Sunday, is worth seeing, even if only to see how these distinguished black leaders control their anger when reporters question the wisdom of the march and the entire direction of The Movement. King is asked about the Communist ties of Bayard Rustin, deputy director of the March, forcing him into the uncomfortable position of  either having to speculate about Rustin’s affiliations or deflecting the question by pointing out its irrelevance. NBC News reporter Robert MacNeil, later the co-founder of the “MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour,”  irritates Wilkins by pressing him on the possibility of violence, as does Spivak when his turn comes up again. King is asked, inevitably, if it isn’t a better idea to proceed more slowly in the pursuit of civil rights for African Americans. 1

CBS, NBC and ABC present a special report: The March On Washington

The networks readied themselves for the events of Aug. 28, as the march, originally planned as a demand for better jobs and economic opportunity for African Americans, had evolved into a demonstration in support of the civil rights bill President Kennedy had proposed in June, legislation that ultimately became the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Variety described it as, “logistically … a Cape Canaveral moon shot, an Inauguration Day and an Election Night bundled into one and topped off by a total measure of unpredictability.” 2

Read More


The original Ironside (Part VII): Cy Chermak remembers (conclusion)

Cy Chermak.

Reveal Shot presents the conclusion of a multi-part interview with Cy Chermak, the executive producer of “Ironside” from 1968-1974. Here, he discusses his final years with the series, and offers his views on the upcoming NBC remake starring Blair Underwood, debuting Oct. 2.

Read the first installment here.
Read the second installment here.
Read the third installment here.

Ironside” sailed through Season 3 (1969-70) as the No. 15-ranked show of the year according to the Nielsen ratings, finally topping time-period nemesis “Bewitched,” before jumping all the way to No. 4 in its fourth season (1970-71), with a 25.7 rating and 39 share, bolstered by its new lead-in, “The Flip Wilson Show,” the second-most watched program on the air (trailing only ABC’s “Marcus Welby, M.D.“)

Barbara Anderson decided to leave the show after Season 4. In Season 5 (1971-72), NBC moved “Ironside” to Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. Eastern against ABC’s “The Mod Squad” and “The Glen Campbell Show” on CBS. In “Ironside’s” fifth new episode, “The Gambling Game,” which aired Oct. 5,  Elizabeth Baur was introduced  as Officer Fran Belding, who helped Ironside’s team to nail the gamblers who murdered her father — a cop accused of having worked with the gang. Baur would remain with the series for its remaining three seasons.

The main cast of “Ironside” from Seasons 5-8 (clockwise from left): Don Galloway, Raymond Burr, Don Mitchell, Elizabeth Baur.

Chermak recalls:  I loved Elizabeth, but Ironside used to beat her up a little on the screen. I finally had to take her aside and coach her on how she should react to his sarcasm and intimidation. I did it in two sentences. What I said remains between the two of us. You might ask her. 3

During this period, Chermak was also the executive producer of “The New Doctors” segment of “The Bold Ones,” starring E.G. Marshall, John Saxon and David Hartman. To begin Season 6 of “Ironside,” he produced a two-part crossover episode called “Five Days In the Death of Sergeant Brown.” In Part 1 (aired Sept. 14, 1972), Ed Brown (Don Galloway) is shot in the back by a sniper, naturally triggering painful memories and special concerns for Ironside. Part 2 aired Sept. 19 as a “Bold Ones” episode, with the doctors debating the merits of a dangerous operation that could either save or kill Ed. (For some reason, although Hulu generally only makes the first three seasons of “Ironside” available, it offers both parts of “Five Days In the Death Of Sergeant Brown” — but it calls them “Ironside Pilot, Parts 1 and 2.” Since Seasons 5-8 are not available on DVD in North America (at least as Region 1 releases), it’s a nice, if odd, video opportunity for fans of the show, at least until someone at Hulu realizes the error.)4

Chermak’s schedule became even more hectic when he took on the development of a third show, “Amy Prentiss,” a spin-off from “Ironside” created by his wife, Francine Carroll, who had written scripts for a number of shows including “Ironside.”

The unsold two-hour pilot, “Amy Prentiss, AKA The Chief,” from a story by Carroll and teleplay writers William Gordon and James Doherty, aired during “Ironside’s” seventh season, on May 23, 1974. Jessica Walter guest starred as Prentiss, a police investigator who becomes chief of detectives in the San Francisco police department by having the highest score on a test. Boris Sagal directed. The episode got a very positive review in Variety, which said Walter was “ideally cast,” and that the script provided a “fine showcase” for her talents. It also generated a solid 22.3 rating and 39 share, encouraging NBC to add it to the “NBC Mystery Movie” wheel for the 1974-75 season.

Season 7 would be Chermak’s last on “Ironside.” 5

He recalls: By then Raymond and I had pretty much burned out our relationship, and Frank [Price, head of Universal Television] had a wildfire burning on another stage by the name of “Kolchak, The Night Stalker.” The turmoil on that show has been pretty well documented.6

Joel Rogosin returned to the series as executive producer for the eighth and final season (1974-75).

I had forgotten this when I asked Chermak for his reaction when the show was canceled, abruptly, by NBC in November 1974. The last episode aired on Jan. 16, 1975. Three additional episodes were completed but did not air until the show entered syndication.

Chermak: I was off the show at the time, and this is the first I heard that there were three unaired episodes. I wouldn’t have known because I never saw even one of the episodes [in that final season]. All I ever heard about them was that they didn’t have “my touch.” Which gives me an opportunity to allow my narcissism and egotism to get in a little pitch. On several occasions in my career, I had such a well-oiled machinery going that some untrained executives thought the man at the top didn’t matter. They thought if the machinery is that well-oiled, and running that smoothly, that anyone could do it. Especially someone who thought they knew me well. Surprise!

Reveal Shot: What are your thoughts on the upcoming remake of “Ironside?”
Chermak: I have no problems with them re-making the show, or the star [Blair Underwood]. Based on what I have seen recently, I think it will be more of a shoot-em-up than a cerebral family hour. Remember that the role has [essentially] been played at least once in a feature with Denzel [Washington, who played quadriplegic police forensics expert Lincoln Rhyme in Universal’s “The Bone Collector” in 1999] . Now it will be coming back to TV.

I will leave you with the story that Borden Chase’s son Frank used to love to tell.

Borden’s fame came as the writer of “Red River,” and he freely acknowledged that it was a rip-off of “Mutiny On The Bounty.” The fun started when some people tried to rip-off “Red River” and to get as far away from the cattle drive as possible they set the scene at sea! Then, even though the people doing the second generation rip-off were copying “Red River,” they were sued by the people who controlled “Mutiny on The Bounty.”

 — David B. Wilkerson   

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The original Ironside (Part VI): Cy Chermak remembers

Cy Chermak

Presenting the third installment of a Reveal Shot exclusive: an interview with former “Ironside” Executive Producer Cy Chermak. Through e-mail correspondence, Chermak offered his fascinating recollections of working on the show, and the ups and downs of being a television producer during the 1960s and ’70s.

Read the first part of the interview here.
See the second installment here.

Other outstanding Season 2 episodes included:
An Obvious Case of Guilt,” (aired Nov. 14, 1968) by Brad Radnitz and directed by Abner Biberman, in which Anne Baxter plays one of Ironside’s old flames, who is accused of killing her husband. Throughout most of the episode, Ironside uses his powers of deduction to find reasons to exonerate her, while Ed, Eve, Mark, and the D.A. (Warren Stevens) insist that she’s guilty, and that she’s using Ironside as a shield. Radnitz throws us a curve at the finale, which has fascinating dialogue.

Puzzlelock,” (aired March 13, 1969) by B.W. Sandefur and directed by Allen Reisner, Simon Oakland plays a former cop who kills his wife and creates an alibi so foolproof that Ironside, who knows he did it, cannot prove his guilt. By all appearances, Oakland was having dinner with Ironside at the time of the murder. Ironside must use any means — fair or foul — to trap him.

“Reprise,” (aired Nov. 21, 1968), by Albert Aley and directed by Don McDougall.  Eve is shot, and everyone reminisces about their early encounters with her. It’s a nice reference to what Eve describes in the pilot, about Ironside noticing her powers of observation when she’s a witness to a robbery. We also see, not for the last time, Ed Brown’s mean streak, when he seeks cold-blooded revenge (at least at first) for Eve’s shooting. Douglas Benton produced.

Mark and Ed get spotlight episodes, as well.

In “Rundown On a Bum Rap” (aired Jan. 30, 1969), directed by Allen Reisner from a Sy Salkowitz script, law student Mark takes a real-life dilemma to his class when he tries to prove this former boxing coach is innocent of a murder he is alleged to have committed, and has to overcome the resistance of his attractive African American professor (Janet McLachlan).

Ed isn’t sure what to believe when he tries to exonerate a cop buddy (Linden Chiles) accused of involvement in a drug ring and murder, in “Moonlight Means Money” (aired Feb. 27, 1969), written by Sy Salkowitz and directed by directed by Don Weis.

Reveal Shot: What were the pros and cons of using freelance writers?
Chermak: There are no cons to using freelance writers. I used them exclusively. They are some of the best we have. The main reason freelancing died was because young writers were made low paid producers and either wanted the writing money for themselves, or the studios / networks mistakenly thought or insisted the new Writer/ Producer could do it all.

Additionally, no one is willing to walk into the boss’ office and tell him that his script stinks.  It just doesn’t happen. So the new producer shoots his first draft. And good scripts aren’t written, they are re-written.  But it takes a real pro to be able to re-write himself, and to understand how to get the best out of another writer and still protect the concept of the show.

I think I mentioned earlier that if you didn’t ride close herd on the writers and directors they would unconsciously think of their episode as if it were an entity of its own, standing alone, without a thought of keeping the show on Frank Price’s tracks.

Actors hated me because they spent time learning their lines only to come to the set at 6:00 AM and find new pages with new thoughts and new words. I felt we had to work to improve the script right up until the director said “action.”

Without Frank or me or the others maintaining eternal vigilance the show would not have lasted half a season. That having been said, if I had a show today I would still use that vast store of talent that is going to waste. Not knowing how to use the writing talent available is the great disgrace of the current crop of execs.

Reveal Shot: Can you discuss some of the ways you worked to keep Ed Brown and Eve Whitfield interesting when their story arcs were not as inherently dramatic as those of Robert Ironside and Mark Sanger?

Chermak: Not really. Frankly, all three characters were second bananas.  We tried to dramatize their roles every once in a while, and Ray was the star, so he got most of the good stuff.

Reveal Shot: You had the Academy Award-winning cinematographer Lionel Lindon working on the show. What were the advantages of having someone of that caliber handling those duties? (Also, I understand he was kind of a character. Are there any amusing anecdotes that come to mind?)

Chermak: Curly Lindon and Bud Thackery were both characters, but they knew their business. Lindon hated working with inexperienced directors, and Bud hated working with everyone. I remember once that Bud shot a close-up of a beautiful actress and there was a black triangular shadow on her cheek. I took a clip down to the set and I told him I would like it re-shot. Bud looked and the clip, looked at me, and said there was nothing wrong with that shot. (He didn’t add “sonny-boy” but his tone implied it.)

“Don’t you see the black triangular shadow on her cheek?” I asked. Very patiently, he explained that the source was coming from her profile, and the shadow was of her nose. A perfectly acceptable shot. I asked if he could do a shot with the light coming from the same source, but without the shadow. “Oh well,” he sighed. “Now you are asking for feature film photography. I can do it but you won’t like the time it will take.” “Re-shoot it,” I said. “I’ll give you the extra time to make my stars beautiful and give you back the time somewhere else.” He said we had a deal. Right then was the beginning of our relationship.


Ironside (TV series)

Here is an interesting UPI wire story from Nov. 5, 1968 about the atmosphere on the set during the second season.

Season 2 brought improvement for “Ironside” in the Nielsen ratings. The series ranked No. 16 for the 1968-69 season, with a 22.3 rating and 34 share. ABC’s “Bewitched,” airing opposite the Raymond Burr show in the 8:30 time slot, finished 13th — but “Ironside” was the clear winner among network programs during its second half hour, starting at 9:00, outgunning the CBS movie. 789

Early in Season 3, “Ironside” presented another two-hour episode, “Goodbye To Yesterday,” (aired Sept. 25, 1969) by Sy Salkowitz and directed by Barry Shear. In the first season, Vera Miles, had guested as Barbara Jones, a former love interest of Ironside’s who turns out to be an amnesia victim who has forgotten her husband (Phillip Carey) and children, but finally reconnects with them.

In “Goodbye to Yesterday,” Barbara’s daughter is kidnapped, and she calls on Ironside for help.

Chermak remembers: Wasn’t “Goodbye To Yesterday” a great title?

You know, rumors were always swirling around Raymond’s sexual orientation so I thought it was a good idea to have him involved with a woman whenever possible. I thought he played that role to the hilt.

It was like the rumors that started swirling about him really being paralyzed. People looked me in the eye and told me that they knew for sure that he was paralyzed. So I did an episode [the aforementioned “Reprise”] in which his thoughts flashed back to days when he could walk, and we showed him walking. You know what? That didn’t even help to squelch the rumors.

Barry Shear was one of my favorites. His work on live TV with Ernie Kovacs remains classic.

Next: The final installment in Reveal Shot’s interview with Cy Chermak.

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The original ‘Ironside’ (Part V): More of Executive Producer Cy Chermak’s recollections

Cy Chermak

Presenting the second installment of a Reveal Shot exclusive: an interview with former “Ironside” Executive Producer Cy Chermak. Through e-mail correspondence, Chermak offered his fascinating recollections of working on the show, and the ups and downs of being a television producer during the 1960s and ’70s.

Read the first part of the interview here.

“Ironside’s” second season began in September 1968 with a new executive producer, Cy Chermak.


Reveal Shot: When you were promoted to executive producer in the summer of 1968, what were some of the goals you had for the series now that you had a stronger voice?

Chermak: When I became exec … my only goal [was to] keep the show on track, and if that meant holding the studio off with one hand and the network off with the other, that is what I did. It also meant holding the star off with one hand and his entourage off with the other.

Raymond Burr opted to make extensive use of teleprompters on the “Ironside” set, rather than have to memorize the large number of lines he had in almost every episode. Some directors found this problematic because the machines had to be strategically placed out of camera range in various places where the actor could see them. Others complained that the job of directing was complicated by Burr’s refusal to work on location, because they had to match shots of a stand-in with shots taken of Burr on the Universal lot.

According to Michael Seth Starr’s controversial biography, “Hiding In Plain Sight,” Burr complained of eye trouble because, from a wheelchair, he almost always had to look up at his fellow actors, which forced him to look directly into the blinding studio lights.

Reveal Shot: I have heard different things about how his mood was affected by this. It was said that he never became extremely close to the cast and crew, though he had been on “Perry Mason.” For now, let me just ask, how was he on the set during that first year that you were exec?

Chermak: I don’t remember Raymond developing eye trouble. I remember him arriving with complaints about light sensitivity and location work. Of course, my memory might, after all these years, have become self-serving. I don’t think he was close to anyone in the cast but Don Galloway , although he was always very protective of Don Mitchell.

On the set he was the consummate pro, except for his refusal to stand behind the camera and read lines for other actors’ close-ups. You have asked what logistic problems Ray’s use of teleprompters created for me. The quick answer is “none.” I simply told the unit managers and the directors that I wanted every accommodation made to Raymond’s needs. I never had to ask twice.

From left to right: Don Mitchell, Barbara Anderson, Don Galloway, Raymond Burr, of “Ironside.”

The first few episodes shown during Season 2 were still credited to the previous exec, Frank Price. One of them was the two-hour “Split Second To An Epitaph,” (100 minutes minus commercials, it aired Sept. 26, 1968, the second new show of the season) in which Ironside may have a chance to walk again if he has a risky operation. In the meantime, because he is the only witness to a murder, the detective is targeted by the killer while he awaits surgery in the hospital.

It has been speculated that the network and Universal Television were toying with the idea of restoring Ironside’s ability to walk (presumably to take away limitations that had to be imposed on the scripts), and that “Split Second” was to be the episode that revealed the miracle.

Chermak: Malarkey. These speculations were written by people who did their research by reading other articles that were also badly researched. Unless these conversations took place outside of my knowledge, there is no truth to them at all. “Split Second” was a TV drama that underwent some dramatic changes. That is all, folks.

The extended episode finished the week ended Sept. 29 as the No. 22 show according to Nielsen’s 30-city survey, with a 20.4 rating — beating out rival “Bewitched” that Thursday night and outpacing the first half hour of the (black-and-white) CBS movie, “The Night Of The Iguana” (1964), starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. In the New York market, “Ironside” was the highest-rated show of the evening, with a 27.4 rating.10

The fourth episode in airdate order, and the first to be shown that listed Chermak as the top producer, was “Robert Phillips Vs. The Man,” (aired Oct. 10, 1968) written by frequent contributor Sy Salkowitz and starring Paul Winfield as a black militant who is falsely accused of murder. Commissioner Randall (Gene Lyons), sensitive to the possibility of accusations by the black community that Phillips is being railroaded by racist cops, assigns Ironside to the case to make sure the truth is uncovered.

This was a period during which several shows — “The FBI,” “The Mod Squad,” “Dragnet 1968,” and others — featured episodes that depicted the militant wing of the African-American civil-rights movement.

Mark’s part is modulated while we are in the familiar enclave of Ironside’s office; he never explicitly tells Ironside what bothers him about the situation. “It’s getting to me,” is the closest he comes to discussing it with his white colleagues. Mostly, the script is content to let Don Mitchell express his feelings with facial expressions and other body language during his scenes with them.

However, when some of Phillips’ friends accuse Mark of being an Uncle Tom for pushing Ironside around (and working with the police in general), he bristles, briefly coming to blows with his most bellicose opponent (Arnold Williams).

Again, other than Bill Cosby’s Alexander Scott on “I Spy” (which had left the air weeks earlier) and, starting in this same 1968-69 season, “Mod Squad’s” Linc Hayes (Clarence Williams III), it is hard to think of another black male regular on television during this era who could display genuine anger. Not that there were very many, in any case. 11

*** SPOILER ***

Phillips is exonerated, and has to admit, in spite of his trepidations about him, that Ironside has proven to be a man of honor. It is, of course, a gratifying moment for Mark, as well.

Reveal Shot: You [and the show] won an NAACP Image Award (1968) for the way that the Mark Sanger character was portrayed. How closely did you collaborate with Don Mitchell to keep Mark grounded in reality as an angry young black man during a time when race relations in America were so strained? 

Mark ends up being kind of torn in the episode, between the values of the militant wing of the civil rights movement and the things he’s learning as an aide to the police. This goes to my query about how you kept Mark authentic, as well as his interactions with other black people on the show. Winfield learns something at the end when he is exonerated …


Chermak: Your comment about the Paul Winfield character learning something at the end goes to one of the aspects of the show of which I am most proud. While staying true to Frank’s concept of the show, I made sure that in every episode, every single one, there was at least one character who was better off because of his interaction with Ironside …

How did we keep Mark authentic? …  At that time the Hollywood Chapter of the NAACP gave me a complimentary membership. And I spent a great deal of my “off duty” time in the African-American environment. I socialized with Don and his friends, and many of them became my friends. So I was somewhat in touch with the community’s feelings.

There was no collaboration [with Don on scripts], but there was a lot of socializing. I listened and learned. Some of what I learned ended up on the screen.

Director Don Weis (1922-2000), who directed 58 episodes of “Ironside.” Cy Chermak remembers him as the perfect television director.

Chermak knew the value of using people he could regularly count upon to do solid work. One example was Don Weis, who directed 58 episodes of “Ironside.”

Chermak: Don Weis was the perfect TV director. He came prepared, he did his job, he never complained. He understood what I wanted and he gave it to me.

He was also the epitome of the old joke in which the director says to the actor, “If you don’t tell me how to direct, I wont tell you how to act.”  He knew I didn’t want the audience dazzled or bedeviled by artistic angles and flashy camera moves. I wanted him to tell them a story and he set up his cameras and let the actors work. A lesson that should be taught in film school.

Among writers, a favorite, as alluded to earlier, was Sy Salkowitz, who penned 35 episodes of the series.

Chermak: Sy Salkowitz was used more than any other writer on the show because he was a different version of Don Weis. Sy was always prepared, and he always understood what I wanted. I could talk to him in shorthand and he always got it. If I got in trouble I would call Sy. If I needed it on Monday he would take it home on Friday and bring it back on Monday. There were times when he wrote an entire script from scratch for me over the weekend.

Sometimes I would have the director and staff prepare a script I didn’t have, based on a spitball idea. They always assumed it would be a disaster, but Sy always brought the script in when he was supposed to.

And he required the least rewriting of any of the other writers because he knew, without asking, what I wanted and what I would throw out if he wrote it. In the early days I needed network approval of a story before I put it into work, but on several occasions I spit-balled the idea to the network and sent Sy right to work on the teleplay without an outline. I can’t explain how dangerous that was, but Sy always came through. There was many a time when Sy made me a hero.

Chermak’s Season 2 producing staff included Paul Mason, Douglas Benton and Jeannot Szwarc. Szwarc is credited as an associate producer  for some shows, and as producer on others.

Reveal Shot: How did you distribute the work among yourself and producers Joel Rogosin, Douglas Benton, Albert Aley and others? Were they each assigned a certain kind of story to supervise?

Chermak: The assignment of episodes was sort of catch as catch can. Sometimes a producer would bring me a writer and his story, and if we went with it, I would try to save that script for the producer who originated it.

That didn’t always work. A producer prepped for six days, shot for six days, and did what post-production he could before it was his turn again. Like a detective at the working desk he caught whatever script was ready to shoot. If there was more than one script ready I would let the producer and/or the director make the choice.

I can only remember one instance in which a producer refused to do a script I assigned him. That was Albert Aley, and I believe it was the last script I ever offered him.

One of the high-profile shows of the 1968-69 season was “I, The People” (aired Oct. 31, 1968). Comedian Milton Berle, who shared a writing credit with Stephen Lord, plays an obnoxious talk show host (perhaps modeled on then well-known host Joe Pyne) who is supposedly receiving death threats. Meanwhile, he has an icy relationship with his alcoholic wife (Julie Adams), who wants a divorce. Barry Shear directed.

Chermak: [Berle] was a personal friend of Stephen Lord, and no one will ever know if Milton actually did any writing on the script, but since Stephen wanted to share a credit with his friend, I didn’t see why I should object. I did the same thing for Sy and his wife some years later.

The thing about Milton Berle that was so interesting was his intelligence. He could converse with you on any subject, as long as it was one-on-one and there were only two people in the room. But the minute a third person arrived, he had an audience — and the show was on.

In the next part of Reveal Shot’s interview with “Ironside” Executive Producer Cy Chermak: More on Season 2; working with two great cinematographers; the use of freelance writers; trying to give Ed Brown and Eve Whitfield something to do, and more.

— David B. Wilkerson


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The original Ironside (Part IV): An interview with former executive producer Cy Chermak

Cy Chermak

I’m pleased to announce a Reveal Shot exclusive: an interview with former “IronsideExecutive Producer Cy Chermak. Through e-mail correspondence, Chermak offered his fascinating recollections of working on the show, and the ups and downs of being a television producer during the 1960s and ’70s.

After working in the business as an actor and writer, Chermak joined Universal Studios in 1963. Universal was the last of the majors to maintain the old system, in which actors, writers, directors, producers and crew members were under contract to the studio.

When he became a story editor on Universal’s 90-minute Western series “The Virginian,” Chermak reported to Frank Price, that show’s executive producer. He soon became one of Price’s producers on “The Virginian,” as well as the short-lived 1965 World War II drama “Convoy,” one of the last shows to air on NBC in black-and-white.

Lionel Lindon, A.S.C.

Lionel “Curly” Lindon, A.S.C. (1905-1971), who won an Academy Award for his work on “Around The World In Eighty Days.” (1956) He worked on many Universal productions during the 1960s, including “Ironside.”

Chermak on learning production at Universal, writing Westerns as a kid from Brooklyn, and working with Frank  Price: When I came out from New York I had nary a thought about writing or producing a Western. The real reason it took me so long to make a mark in Hollywood was that the people in charge saw me as a hot young writer from Brooklyn who didn’t know anything about Westerns, which were the TV rage. I was a New York writer.

Well, I broke in with a few Warner Bros. Westerns, and then went to “The Virginian.” After a short time, I was a Western writer, and people wondered if I could do a straight drama.

Story about how I got into production: Frank Price was looking for a story editor — sometimes known as a rewrite man. He called a colleague, Anthony Spinner, for whom I had just written an episode of “The Dakotas.” Spinner told Price that he had this new writer who just got finished doing a brilliant re-write on a “Whitey” Parsons script. Frank asked his name, but Tony Spinner wouldn’t tell him He said he had this writer chained to a desk in the basement, and no one will ever know who he is. So Frank hung up. And what did he do? He called “Whitey” Parsons and asked “How are things going?”

” Terrible, “Whitey” said. “I just had my script butchered by some kid from new York named Cy Chermak.”

Frank called me the next day and offered me a job.

… I don’t think [the studio system] meant much to writers, except to confuse them every once in a while about who is talking to them. It was great for young writers the studio wanted to turn into low-paid producers. I found myself in a highly protected learning environment. They caught my mistakes and helped me correct them. Production experts like [“Virginian” producer] George Santoro and [unit manager] Abby Singer helped me to understand budgeting. Then it became my job to make sure that the money we spent was going to show up on the screen.

(Once Abby Singer, famous for ” just this shot and one more,” warned me that we were about to go into Golden Time. I said “Abby, just what is Golden Time?” He said “I don’t know, but it’s terrible.”)

Department heads like Richard Belding in Editorial ran interference between myself and more experienced editors, and so it went all the way down the line…through the music department, sound, wardrobe. These department heads knew their workers knew more than I did, but they also realized their job was to help me understand the process so that I could fully utilize my own talents. [Cinematographers Lionel] “Curly” Lindon and Bud Thackery could have ignored me but they didn’t. If I asked for things they just couldn’t do in the time we had to make a show, they were patient and generous with their time. In that regard, the studio system was great. That’s why sports franchises have farm teams. You can’t learn the business in film school.

The major drawback was that it engendered split loyalties. The A.D. is not really the director’s assistant. He works for, and reports to, the production department. That’s true of every crew member and department head. In my first year as a producer, I asked a hell of a lot more questions than I gave orders. But when my crew realized my ideas were sound and my intentions were only to make the show better, the split loyalties became a “non factor.”

How would I characterize Frank Price as an exec? Quite simply the best. I don’t know about others under his aegis, but he allowed me a great deal of latitude, and he had the best story mind I had ever seen.

A cute example concerned a writer who shall remain nameless … who was late bringing us a story for “The Virginian” when I was the story editor. [He] said the story got lost when he had to make a wheels up landing in his Beechcraft Bonanza. We all knew [this writer] was fudging the truth a bit, and that he had nothing on paper, or even in his head.

Frank called in his secretary, myself, and Joel Rogosin who was slated to produce the episode. Frank then led [the writer-pilot] and the rest of us through the story from the opening to the ending. The secretary transcribed the story and [the writer] went home and wrote the script.

The cuteness was when I (also a pilot) asked him how he could have made a wheels-up landing. Didn’t he have a warning horn on the plane that told him his gear was not down? [He] said “Yeah, but the damned thing was making so much noise I couldn’t concentrate.”

With the successful “Ironside” TV movie in Nielsen’s ratings books as a hit, Universal Television ordered work on the first six regular episodes. On Thursday Sept. 14, 1967, the first series installment Americans saw was “A Message From Beyond,” which was seventh in production order. NBC slotted the series at 8:30 Eastern time, opposite the popular ABC sitcom “Bewitched” and the final half hour of CBS’s Western drama “Cimarron Strip.” The new show would also face the first half hour, at 9:00, of “The CBS Thursday Night Movies.”

NBC was less than thrilled with the first batch of shows, and creator and executive producer Collier Young took the  blame.

When Young was fired six shows into the first season’s production schedule, he was replaced by Frank Price.  Price brought Chermak over from “The Virginian” as one of his producers.

Chermak: Frank didn’t tell me what he wanted [when I came to “Ironside.” ] He knew that I knew. He wanted it honest. He wanted it truthful. It is the same thing he brought to “The Virginian.”

Let us be very clear about one thing. I ran “Ironside” [after being promoted to executive producer in July 1968]. But the genius behind the Stanislavsky-esque concept of honesty and truth belonged to Frank. He changed “The Virginian” from a musical Western like “Oklahoma” into something that became copied. No black hats. No bad guys simply for the needs of the script. People behave like decent human beings with sincere differences. You bump into a guy, you don’t go for your gun. You say excuse me and move on.

He did the same thing for “Ironside.” I think it interesting that Robert Butler acknowledged that dressing Vince Gardenia up like a “Batman” villain 12 made a viewer have to suspend his disbelief. Frank knew it instinctively. He didn’t want Ironside to become a comic strip.

I did it his way for many years because he was the boss. Then I started doing it his way because I realized Frank was right. He brought Stanislavsky to television writing. And yes, perhaps Frank did tell me what he wanted of me. Honesty and Truth. I think I gave it to him.

Later in the season, Chermak’s colleague Paul Mason produced “All In A Day’s Work,” [airdate Feb. 15, 1968] written by storied crime novelist Ed McBain (Evan Hunter), best known for his 87th Precinct police procedurals. In this episode, Eve has to kill an armed robber who turns out to have been a teenager, and is plagued by guilt.

Chermak: Here is a story you won’t believe. Ed McBain/Evan was probably my favorite fiction writer at the time — excepting only Norman Corwin — and I can’t for the life of me figure out why he chose to do a television episode … I believe the show was written for Raymond. He said he was tired and needed a rest and we should give it to Ed Brown (Don Galloway). We re-did it for Barbara instead. And yes, it was the episode I submitted to the Emmys on her behalf. And yes, she did win.

Sometimes, a very good writer might only work on the show once. This proved to be the case with Luther Davis,  a highly respected TV writer who penned the script for Season 1’s “A Very Cool Hot Car” (aired Nov. 30, 1967), with Chermak producing.

There are a couple of situations that are handled with some finesse. An embittered ex-cop played by Jay C. Flippen  has been forced into retirement after failing to solve one case, the burglary ring of the plot. When he talks to Ironside about it, he can’t help but refer to the black man who replaced him on the case (Bernie Hamilton) as a “college boy from Africa.” The point isn’t dwelt upon, aside from a look of general disdain from Ironside. It’s just a realistic aside that someone his age at that time, in that situation, might have said.

Also, although Mark is concerned that Hamilton is being unfairly maligned — for racial reasons — by the police department for not stopping the burglaries, Hamilton treats Mark as an outsider until he happens to prove himself in the heat of battle. Other shows might have shown portrayed the two of them as fast friends, doing “soul shakes” and the like.

Chermak: I remember the Luther Davis script very well. I don’t believe I was the exec at that time, but I was thrilled to have a writer of Luther Davis’ caliber on the show. Sadly, Luther didn’t like being re-written, even to the smallest extent, so he gracefully and graciously bowed out of future commitments.

“Ironside” finished its first season as the No. 26 program on the air in 1967-68, according to Nielsen, with a 20.5 household rating, a very strong showing considering its formidable competition. “Bewitched” ended the year at No. 11 with a 23.5 rating. Though “Cimarron Strip” finished out of the top 30, and was not renewed, “The CBS Thursday Night Movies” finished No. 23, with a rating of 21.1.

In July 1968, Frank Price was promoted, becoming the head of current programming at Universal, reporting to Sid Sheinberg, then senior vice-president in charge of television production. Chermak became the executive producer of “Ironside.”

Chermak: It was Sid who announced to me that he was making the choice, and I’m sure it was tough for him because he and Paul [Mason] were close personal friends. But I’m sure Frank made the suggestion. Why? You would have to ask him.

But I had been his story editor and then his producer on “The Virginian.”  Then when he went to “Convoy” he took me with him. I am guessing that he had seen enough of my work to think I would stick closest to his framework and give him the least trouble. He was only right about the first part of that sentence. I know that Sid had to, or chose to, run it by Raymond before firming up the decision.

One Thursday after shooting, Raymond asked me to his dressing room for a drink. We sat on opposite sides of a coffee table and Ray opened a bottle of Courvoisier, dramatically threw the cork over his shoulder, put the bottle in the middle of the table and sat down. I looked at the bottle, then at Ray and said, “That is all very well and good, but what are you going to drink?”

“Oho,” responded Raymond. He got up, took a fresh bottle, threw that cork over his shoulder, and placed the bottle in front of himself. Now we each had our own bottle, and we rolled out of the studio at about three in the morning.

The next night Sid called me and told me I was the new exec on “Ironside.”

In the next Reveal Shot post, Chermak remembers the two-hour “Split Second To An Epitaph” and other Season 2 episodes; the series’ 1968 NAACP Image Award, and speaks more broadly about how producers were assigned to each show, which writers could be counted upon when the chips were down, and working with Milton Berle on a dramatic role.

— David B. Wilkerson

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The original ‘Ironside’ — Part II of a Reveal Shot series (NBC Tuesday Night at The Movies, March 28, 1967)

[With the Blair Underwood remake officially slated for NBC’s 2013-14 lineup, Reveal Shot continues with Part II of a series on the original “Ironside” with more on the two-hour made-for-TV movie that served as the pilot, as well as a wrap-up of the 1966-67 network ratings race. SPOILERS are present in this installment.]

Read A look back at NBC’s original ‘Ironside’ — the pilot (NBC Tuesday Night At The Movies, March 28, 1967) —  Part I.

With Ironside’s three assistants Ed Brown (Don Galloway), Eve Whitfield (Barbara Anderson) and Mark Sanger (Don Mitchell) established as characters, Don Mankiewicz‘s teleplay gets to the nuts and bolts of the investigation.

Ironside goes back to Commissioner Randall’s farm, where he was shot. It seems that the shell casings used in firing six rifle shots were never recovered. When the detective notes that six acorns have been spotted in the immediate vicinity, he deduces that a pack rat must have taken the shells and replaced them with the acorns. (Sigh.) In a rather lengthy sequence involving Wally Cox as the head of a Boy Scout troop, the rat’s lair is found — along with the casings. Apparently someone suggested that comedy relief was needed here, and alas, Mankiewicz ends up hanging one of the main plot threads on this development.

The shell casings are traced to a troubled Metropolitan Military Academy student named Tony Emmons (naturally, an expert marksman) who threatened to kill Ironside for arresting him after he fired a rifle shot into the window of a moving train. He was placed into a psychiatric hospital for juvenile offenders, but was released just days before Ironside was shot, by doctors who assumed he had been cured. Here, it seems, is our villain.

Throughout the pilot, director James Goldstone uses frequent, rapid-fire cuts. As the heroes look at slides of Tony’s mug shots projected onto a screen, Goldstone keeps cutting back to them, from the front, from the side, every time Ironside gets to a crucial part of the boy’s story.

Ironside finds out that Tony has a girlfriend, another former patient at the hospital named Ellen Wells (Kim Darby). He was very close to an art instructor at the academy, an attractive woman more than 10 years his senior, Honor Thompson (Geraldine Brooks).

The increasingly irritable detective is most anxious to speak to Ellen, but Ed has a hard time locating her. Ironside rides him about it until Ed, in Don Galloway’s most important scene in the film, has had enough. Read More


A look back at NBC’s original ‘Ironside’ — the pilot (‘NBC Tuesday Night At The Movies,’ March 28, 1967) Part I

[With the Blair Underwood remake officially slated for NBC’s 2013-14 lineup, Reveal Shot begins a series on the original “Ironside” with a look at the network landscape as it existed when the pilot aired, and examines the two-hour made-for-TV movie itself. No spoilers in this entry.]

In March of 1967, NBC, for the 12th year in a row, as network affiliates gathered for their annual meeting, was trying to figure out a way to catch CBS, the perennial ratings leader. It almost happened, partly on the strength of made-for-TV movies such as “Ironside.”

NBC President Don Durgin told the station owners that NBC was the only network to have increased its audience in each of the last five years13.

He unveiled a 1967-68 schedule that Broadcasting magazine found remarkable in its relative lack of half-hour situation comedies — and 30-minute shows in general. “There are only six half -hours of any kind on next season’s [NBC] schedule, compared to 16 hour series, two two-hour movie nights and one 90- minute program [‘The Virginian’],” the magazine reported14.

By the time of the affiliate meeting, NBC had aired 18 of the top 40 movies shown in primetime that season, including four that had been made for television by partner Universal. “Doomsday Flight,” the story of a plane in jeopardy written by Rod Serling, got the best ratings among the TV flicks, with a 27.5 rating and 48 share, followed by “Fame Is The Name of The Game” — which later morphed into the series “The Name Of The Game — at 26.7 and 4415.

At midseason, the network found a new hit in a revival of Jack Webb’s “Dragnet,” made distinct from the ’50s original by its color photography, a new partner for Joe Friday in Frank Gannon (Harry Morgan) and the decision to place the year in the title as “Dragnet 1967.”

‘Ironside’ debuts

Just over a week after the Broadcasting item appeared, on March 28, 1967, “NBC Tuesday Night At The Movies” featured the made-for-TV “Ironside.” The network hoped that viewers would be intrigued to see Raymond Burr, who had just completed a nine-year run as Perry Mason, in a different role.

San Francisco Chief of Detectives Robert T. Ironside (Burr) is vacationing at Commissioner Randall’s remote farm. We see him in the opening scene, complaining about some bothersome chickens. “I don’t even like eggs,” he says. As he prepares a stiff drink for himself, shots ring out, hitting Ironside, who drops out of camera range. As the credits roll, Ironside is on his way to the hospital in an ambulance, as Quincy Jones’ rather hysterical first version of his famous theme blares. The trumpeters on the track seem to be using their tongues to get a kind of trilling effect.

Gradually we get reactions from co-workers and others, who have been led to believe that the chief is probably going to die from his wounds. Sgt. Ed Brown (Don Galloway) is seen in a police locker room, chatting with a colleague. “You know what he told me? He said the only excuse for a policeman taking a day off is death — his own,” Ed says, slamming his locker. Read More


‘Good Times’ movie is bad idea, but could be cathartic for series co-creator Eric Monte

When people ask me why I spend so much time watching old movies, I point to things like the news this week that Sony Pictures intends to do a feature film version of the 1970s CBS sitcom “Good Times.”

I suppose it’s possible that the project could provide some kind of catharsis for series co-creator Eric Monte, who had to deal with so many frustrations when the show aired. Maybe he’ll be the one factor that can give it some credibility, since he could theoretically bring to the movie concepts and situations not possible on network television in the ’70s. My inclination is to be doubtful.

Whatever happens, the announcement is just the latest reminder that Hollywood’s obsession with franchises has sapped much of its creativity.

Thinking how it all looks hand-me down16

Monte’s co-creator on “Good Times” was Mike Evans, best known for his role as Lionel Jefferson on “All In The Family.” Evans was in a position to think that the show could be something special — an honest depiction of a black family. By 1973, he had been a regular on the medium’s most groundbreaking series in decades, a true classic that told many truths, and did so within a solid comedy framework even as it shocked American viewers. If any company at the time was capable of doing justice to Monte and Evans’ idea, it was surely Norman Lear’s Tandem Productions.

Spinoffs were proving to be quite lucrative. Having spun off “Maude” from “All In The Family,” Tandem encouraged Monte and Evans to base their sitcom on the character of Florida Evans (Esther Rolle), the maid on “Maude,” who would move from Tuckahoe, N.Y. to Chicago with her family. On “Maude,” Florida’s husband, then called Henry (John Amos), was a firefighter. In “Good Times,” Henry became James Evans.

The show debuted on Friday, Feb. 8, 1974 at 8:30 Eastern time, opposite the one-season Dom DeLuise sitcom “Lotsa Luck” on NBC and ABC’s “The Six Million Dollar Man,” then in its debut season.

Ironically, “Good Times” was a mid-season replacement for another black-oriented sitcom — “Roll Out,” a show about African-American servicemen during World War II from “M*A*S*H*” TV series co-creators Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds. Garrett Morris, a regular on “Roll Out,” tells a very interesting story in a 2012 Archive of American Television interview about its origin and a barroom incident involving lead actor Stu Gilliam that scuttled the series. He refers to Gilliam as a “dodohead.” Watch that interview here.

At the end of its first season, “Good Times” was a success, finishing No. 17 in Nielsen’s ranking of the Top 20 programs for 1973-74 with a 21.4 rating. CBS had enough confidence in the show to use it as the 8:00 anchor for its Tuesday night lineup that fall.

“Good Times” dominated the time slot against NBC’s fading police drama “Adam-12,” then in its last season, and ABC’s second-year sitcom “Happy Days.” It completed its first full season at No. 7 in the Nielsens, with a 25.8 rating.

Audiences were responding to such Season 2 episodes as “The Gang,” a two-parter which implausibly positioned skinny, silly J.J. (Jimmie Walker) as a recruitment target for a gang led by a vicious kid named Mad Dog (Oscar DeGruy). When J.J. gets shot at the end of Part 1, John Amos, ferocious as James even under normal circumstances, turns in a memorable demonstration of a father’s fury, vowing revenge. Part 2 careers into a maudlin brick wall, however, when James ends up feeling sorry for Mad Dog, who has obviously been harmed by the absence of a father, and has now been abandoned by his exasperated mother (Lynn Hamilton, “Sanford & Son’s” Donna).

The critical reaction to the show was mixed, but whatever praise it received was usually reserved for Amos and Rolle, who clearly gave the series whatever heart and integrity it possessed. But the two leads had become concerned over the increasing emphasis on J.J., whose inane catchphrases (not just the constant “DY-NO-MITE!” but others like “Well, you know — what can I saaay”) and general stupidity (“Algebra? What am I — an Algerian?”) represented a reversion to the worst black stereotypes of decades before. J.J. was shown as having some talent as an artist, which might have been taken in some interesting directions, but Executive Producer Alan Manings, who was white, seemed oblivious to the problem.

In a July 1974 Variety article, Manings said “Good Times” wanted to avoid clichés, but, tellingly, he was referring to time-honored sitcom conventions — “the forgotten anniversary, the surprise birthday party” — not racial stereotypes.17

Monte’s and Evans’ hopes for the series were dashed for good when the situation imploded in the show’s third season.

The program’s tapings for Season 3 were delayed by a week when Amos had a contract dispute with Tandem, Ebony magazine reported in its September 1975 edition. Though Amos declined comment for the story, an unnamed source said the conflict also involved “the way black men have been portrayed in this country all along.”18

Esther Rolle was blunt about her concerns in the same article, saying of the J.J. character: “He can’t read and write. He doesn’t work. The show didn’t start out to be like that … Little by little — with the help of the artist, I suppose, because they couldn’t do that to me — they have made him more stupid and enlarged the role.”19

Walker, a young actor on the make who had found sudden stardom, was in the awkward position of either continuing to do what had brought him that fame or risking it to gain the approval of his older colleagues. “I don’t think anybody 20 years from now is going to remember what I said [as J.J.],” he was quoted as saying in the Ebony piece. “… I don’t think any TV show can put out an image to save people. My advice is to not follow me. I don’t want to be a follower or a leader … just a doer.”20

Manings’ quotes in the story amounted to a shrug. He said, honestly enough, that the J.J. character had “taken off,” and that the showrunners would do “whatever functions for the purpose of the show.”21

But during the 1975-76 season, “Happy Days” had started to win the 8:00 time period on Tuesday nights, part of a larger pattern that increasingly disturbed CBS President Bob Wussler and Programming Vice President Bud Grant.

CBS had won the ratings battle among the Big Three networks every year since 1956, but the momentum was shifting toward ABC. ABC had dominated the season’s second half, thanks to its Tuesday comedy block — which now included “Laverne and Shirley”;  the miniseries “Rich Man, Poor Man”; and its spinoff of “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “The Bionic Woman.” Though CBS did win again in the 1975-76 season, with a 19.5 rating to ABC’s 18.922, many advertising executives predicted that ABC would be on top by the end of the following season.23

Against that backdrop, the last thing the execs wanted to hear was that John Amos was being “temperamental” on the “Good Times” set.  The actor said he got a phone call in April 1976 from Norman Lear, who told him his option for Season 4 would not be picked up. “That’s the same as being fired,” he told Jet for a story that ran in the pocket-sized publication’s May 27 issue.24

“Good Times” ended the 1975-76 season as the 24th most-watched show on TV, with a 21.0 rating.

In Season 4, CBS moved the series to Wednesday nights at 8, where an ABC show again controlled the time slot: “The Bionic Woman.” Even with the time shift and the death of James Evans in the two-part premiere, “Good Times” finished the year at No. 26 in the Nielsen rankings.

The combination of even more J.J. idiocy and the related walkout of Esther Rolle obliterated Season 5. By the end of 1977-78, the show ranked 53rd among regular series, and Rolle’s return for the sixth and last year was just anticlimactic, as “Good Times” limped to a 14.4 rating for the year, good enough for No. 83 on the Nielsen list.

The shame of it is that like other shows from the Lear stable, “Good Times” examined issues worth exploring, including teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency, suicide, racial discrimination and the problems of public housing. With a more nuanced approach closer to what Monte and Evans envisioned, the show could have been a masterpiece.

Of course, there would still be no valid reason for Hollywood to consider making a movie out of it in 2013.

— David B. Wilkerson

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Patience is key to an NBC revival, TV historian Tim Brooks says

nbc_proud_as_a_peacockNBC’s precipitous drop to a historic low among the broadcast networks in 2012-13 after it won 13 of the first 15 weeks of the season reflects deep-rooted scheduling problems that can’t be fixed quickly.

Even in an era when attention spans seem to be shrinking by the minute, NBC’s corporate parent, Comcast Corp., will simply have to be patient as the network tries to straighten out its development process, according to Tim Brooks, a veteran researcher in the TV industry and co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows 1946-Present.”

“The ratings are a cruel taskmaster,” Brooks said in an interview with Reveal Shot. “You get a report card every morning when you come in, and there’s not much you can do about it in the short term.

“The networks that have been successful over the years — including NBC — have had management teams that will give them some time, as Grant Tinker gave Brandon Tartikoff some time — painfully, in fact, from the time he took over in 1981 until 1984, when they finally ignited.”

In comes Fred Silverman

From the mid-1950s through the mid-’70s, NBC was usually a solid, if frustrating, second in the battle among the Big Three networks, behind CBS. Sometimes it would get off to a promising start, only to be eclipsed in the second half of the season by the gang at Black Rock. (One example was the 1972-73 season.)

When ABC, the perennial last-place finisher, moved to the top of the food chain in the 1976-77 season with hits like “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “Three’s Company,” proud CBS finally dropped into second and NBC found itself in last place, though only by 0.6%. In a sure sign that the production cupboard was getting bare, the network had surged in the first half of the season after loading up on specials, but faltered badly down the stretch. 25

After another third-place debacle in 1977-78, NBC parent RCA was ready for change. In June 1978, the Peacock network ousted President and CEO Herb Schlosser and replaced him with the man who had turned ABC around, Fred Silverman.

Despite the fact that Silverman didn’t arrive in time to put his stamp on shows developed for the fall season, another disastrous finish in 1978-79 led to “persistent rumors that Mr. Silverman’s tenure at the network would be short-lived,” the New York Times said in its May 2, 1979 edition. RCA Chief Executive Edgar Griffiths gave Silverman his full backing, though he ominously stated that the difference between NBC and its rivals was “only two or three hit shows.”26

The misfires continued, however. Silverman famously made a terrible bet on “Supertrain,” a sort of “Love Boat” on rails, which premiered in the second half of the 1978-79 season and immediately flopped, though it limped on through the summer. He also rolled out splashy variety shows and miniseries, trying to catch lightning in a bottle somewhere, somehow.

Disasters during the 1979-80 season included a big made-for-TV miniseries version of “From Here To Eternity,” starring William Devane and Natalie Wood; a variety show called “Pink Lady and Jeff“; and even a sitcom from the highly respected Larry Gelbart, “United States.” NBC finished last yet again, winning the weekly Nielsen race just twice during the 31-week period.

This was the era when NBC’s promotional campaign, “Proud As A Peacock,” tried to whip up enthusiasm for shows that were frequently awful, combining reminders of its distinguished past with cheesy shots of people who play baseball, do gymnastics and other activities with only NBC on their minds:


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