‘Many Loves of Dobie Gillis’ cast was golden, as seen on new DVD box set (Part II)

Shout Factory’s deluxe DVD box set The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series” (CBS, 1959-1963). The suggested retail price is $118.99, but Amazon has it for $91.99. The 21-disc offering includes bonus episodes from “Love That Bob” and “The Stu Erwin Show.”

Following Shout Factory’s recent release of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” in a complete-series DVD box set, Reveal Shot presents Part II of an interview with television historians Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik, authors of “Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television” (expanded 2nd ed., 2011). Castleman is an attorney at Boston law firm Michienzie & Sawin LLC, while Podrazik is the curator of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

Read the first part of the interview here.

Reveal Shot: I wanted to zero in on Dwayne Hickman, briefly, in terms of what he brought to this role. Certainly it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Dobie Gillis.

Castleman: One of the things I liked about him is that — and again, up to this point, teenagers were usually portrayed as goofy, crazy kids — Dwayne Hickman portrayed Dobie as an intelligent guy. Level-headed, if you will. And I admired that. It gave him some gravitas, in the sense that he made you feel like you would feel in a given situation. You don’t feel like a goofball; you feel like you’re a serious guy who’s trying to make his way.

Podrazik: Everyone likes to find the character that’s an everyman, that’s identifiable. Dwayne Hickman managed to be a very accessible, sensible, believable, sympathetic character. You knew he was never going to win, but he didn’t come across as a mope. He came across as someone who picked himself up, dusted himself off, and would start all over again.

Castleman: And even though he had that burning ambition, to be successful, to be rich, to have the girl, to have the car, it wasn’t over the top. He wasn’t like Thalia Menninger. He was still, at heart, a good guy.

Podrazik: Just the timbre of his voice helped. He was not Walter Denton from “Our Miss Brooks,” with a squeaky voice [imitates Richard Crenna’s high voice as the character] like that. He was someone you’d want to have a conversation with. You mentioned breaking the fourth wall; when he did that, he would be saying, this is what’s on my mind. This is what I’m trying to do, this is my scheme this week to have all my dreams come true. Uh oh, here comes Maynard to puncture my balloon again.

Reveal Shot: Turning to Bob Denver. One of the things I noticed in your reviews of his subsequent roles is that when Denver was in a supporting role, as he is here, it’s fine, but when he had to carry a series, as in “Gilligan’s Island,” he wasn’t as effective. What made him successful in this supporting role?

Castleman: Well, just his great quirkiness. Again, thinking of the time frame, he would’ve appeared far more quirky back then. I always loved how he would literally be allergic to the word “work.” It was really funny, and it certainly went against what would’ve been considered the correct concept of American society. Goodness knows where that specific thing came from — it might’ve been Denver or the writers or some collaboration, but it’s a great thing. He’s a wonderful sidekick, and again I think the analogy to Art Carney/Ed Norton and “The Honeymooners” is apt, and you can say that in effect that Norton is a more interesting character than Ralph Kramden, and Maynard is a more interesting character than Dobie, but could there be an “Ed Norton Show?” I don’t know.

Podrazik: … One of my favorite episodes was the “Time Capsule” episode, in which Maynard was really distressed at the state of the world.1 Why bother with a time capsule when everything’s going to be blown up? Maynard could credibly say what might have been niggling in the back of the minds of more proper folks, like, boy, this really is a scary time. But he would actually say it. And that really worked well in contrast to everyone else.

When Bob Denver turned around and became the lead, in something like “Gilligan’s Island” or some of his other roles — and maybe I’ve softened a little on this as time has gone by — as long as some of the other characters took the lead on a particular story, he was good popping in with his “Gilliganisms,” but if it’s all Gilligan all the time (or if it had been all Maynard, all the time), that could be a bit wearying. And that’s why comic relief characters are such golden opportunities, because you can make so much without having that character carry the whole story.

Reveal Shot: I wanted to talk about Frank Faylen, because years ago, when we discussed “Leave It To Beaver,” you both talked about how, while the kids on the show were pretty realistic, the adults were not. So I wanted to address how good Faylen was here, playing this sarcastic and always exasperated father.

Castleman: I would like to compare him favorably to one of my least favorite characters of the ’50s, which was Chester Riley, at least the William Bendix version. I always hated Bendix’s version, because he seemed like such a bag of hot air.

Frank Faylen played what Chester Riley should have been. He’s a very believable dad, a very believable small business operator, a very believable World War II vet who’s in complete conflict with a new generation that he doesn’t understand and makes no sense to him. He’s exasperated, but he’s able to stay human at the same time.

Podrazik: And the marriage between Herbert and Winnie Gillis (Florida Friebus) is credible. They’re basically running a small business together.  And Faylen was absolutely someone you could see putting in the long hours. There are people who look back at their youth and say, “I walked 27 miles to school.” I believe Herbert really would have. He was the type that would work hard, who had a strong belief in the American ethic — that was the character as written. And Faylen pulled it off so well.

And yes, while you definitely followed the teens on the show, as a viewer you could say, I don’t mind going to the adult subplots here, because they’re really good subplots.

Cover of "Watching TV: Six Decades of Ame...Reveal Shot: What about Sheila James? There was a character (Zelda Gilroy) who could have been really annoying, and yet she seemed to find a way to straddle the line between that and bringing out the more endearing aspects of that character.

Castleman: One of the things I’ve been thinking about her, with all the attention these days on “The Big Bang Theory,” that show has always spotlighted the nerdy guys that we’re familiar with, but it now finally has some nerdy girls, too. They deserve equal time. You’re used to just seeing the gorgeous sexpot, who may be funny, but is going to be gorgeous. But let the other side have a say, too. And I think that’s the case with Sheila James as Zelda.

Zelda Gilroy certainly is a believable type. Yes, certainly it’s bordering on slapstick a little bit, with the mannerisms and so forth, but I always enjoyed her, and found her really interesting to watch.

Podrazik: And, not that they constructed series back then to have these grand story arcs, but you knew that’s who Dobie should be with. Despite all of his illusions, and his pursuit of the most gorgeous girl on campus, it was Zelda that would ground him.2 And also, that was staying within his social class; she was not only who he should be with, but she was also who it was appropriate for him to be with, in the eyes of society. So of course when they did the reunion movie [“Bring Me The Head of Dobie Gillis” (1988)]3, they were married.

Reveal Shot: As far as some of the other supporting actors, I’ll just let you comment on anybody else you like — Tuesday Weld, Stephen Franken, and so on.

Castleman: Well, once you get to that level, you’re talking more about characters that more border on caricature. And that’s okay. I love Stephen Franken. Again, I focused on him far more than Warren Beatty during his brief time there. I thought he was very funny, I loved the way his character made fun of the wealthy — which is certainly a long-standing tradition — but they did it very well. I got a big kick out of it. He and the woman who played his mother, Doris Packer, who was also perfect.

Podrazik: I would underscore that of the rich folks, I very much enjoyed Chatsworth’s mom, because she did have her moments of insight. In one episode, she managed to get the Gillis family into the rich circles, because she wanted to demonstrate [to Chatsworth] that there wasn’t something inherently better about [the Gillises], that if they were exposed to, and had, “oodles and oodles of money,” as Thalia might say, they wouldn’t act all that differently from the way the Osbornes act.4

Reveal Shot: Well, I guess I’ll close with my “what if” question: Given that CBS greenlighted “Dobie Gillis” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” what kind of trajectory do you think their sitcom development would have taken if they hadn’t been sidetracked by the success of the rural shows like “The Beverly Hillbilies,” “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres?”

Castleman: Sure — you look back on it now, and you say, geez: “Dobie Gillis.” “Dick Van Dyke.” What a great string here — if two makes a string.

I mean, look — that stuff was cutting edge, and it takes time to percolate. Obviously tapping into that rural stream, although you look back at “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Petticoat Junction” now and kind of shudder and sigh and say, oh my — that kind of thing was far more mainstream, and it certainly did well for CBS’s bottom line for most of the ’60s. So I can’t really fault them on that level.

Podrazik: I started looking at the schedule grids to see what else was on, and you know, “Dobie Gillis” wasn’t entirely alone on the CBS schedule as a non-rural comedy. They had “The Danny Thomas Show” — hardly rural, and depending on how you want to start characterizing them, there’s “My Favorite Martian” (starting in 1963-64) and others…

And I think the difference, if you’re looking at “Dick Van Dyke” and “Dobie Gillis,” since you’re coupling those two, you have to remember that “Dick Van Dyke” came from Carl Reiner basically sitting down and writing the first season (1961-62)5. So this was something that was very rich, in disciplined text, before they had filmed one moment of the show. And again, “Dobie Gillis” comes from someone [Max Shulman] who was a short story writer, who wrote for feature films, so it had a richer literary pedigree than shows that started out — and shamelessly so — as cartoons.


In its second season, “Dobie Gillis,” squaring off against ABC’s “Wyatt Earp” and “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” on NBC 6, continued to be a solid Tuesday night performer for CBS, and was an easy choice for renewal as the network made plans for 1961-62. That fall, ABC tried its own comedy in the Tuesday 8:30 p.m. time slot — a cartoon version of “Amos n’ Andy” (from that show’s creators, Freeman Gosden and Charles Correll) in the form of a fox and a bear. It flopped, while  “Dobie Gillis” usually finished in a comfortable second place against “Hitchcock.” By March 1962, however, CBS was already reported to be contemplating a revamp that would include moving “Dobie” to Wednesday nights.

For its fourth and final season (1962-63), “Dobie Gillis” was seen on Wednesdays at 8:30, against the last half-hour of “The Virginian” on NBC and ABC’s TV version of the Bing Crosby film “Going My Way,” starring Gene Kelly.7  By this time, “Dobie Gillis” was the only television series being produced by Twentieth Century-Fox, which was still reeling from the millions of dollars that had been swallowed up by its feature film “Cleopatra.”

In February 1963, press reports indicated that the “Dobie” had been marked for cancellation by CBS. Though the ratings had declined to some degree, Chicago Tribune TV critic Larry Wolters also reported in his April 28, 1963 column that a number of half-hour series were axed across all of the networks because “some cost-savings could be effected by replacing them with hour-long entries.” He noted that 12 new shows already slated for 1963-64 were 60 minutes long.8

The show immediately became one of the most prized offerings in syndication, and eventually gained a new legion of fans during a long run as part of Nickelodeon’s Nick At Nite schedule.

— David B. Wilkerson


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‘The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis’: DVD set is reminder of sitcom’s special legacy (Part I)

Shout Factory’s deluxe DVD box set The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis: The Complete Series” (CBS, 1959-1963). The suggested retail price is $118.99, but Amazon has it for $91.99. The 21-disc offering includes bonus episodes from “Love That Bob” and “The Stu Erwin Show.”

Following Shout Factory’s recent release of “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” in a complete-series DVD box set, Reveal Shot presents Part I of an interview with television historians Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik, authors of “Watching TV: Six Decades of American Television” (expanded 2nd ed., 2011). Castleman is an attorney at Boston law firm Michienzie & Sawin LLC, while Podrazik is the curator of the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago.

If you’ve followed this blog (or my work at MarketWatch), you know that Harry and Wally have had a profound influence on the way I view the history of TV. In addition to “Watching TV,” I also find their books “The TV Schedule Book” (1984) and “Harry and Wally’s Favorite TV Shows” (1989) to be invaluable reference resources.

“Dobie Gillis” sprang from the mind of humorist Max Shulman in a series of 1945 short stories. Despite two popular books and a movie based on the character, Shulman told Variety in 1960 that it took him six years to bring the show to television.

“So he fought the TV battle until “Dobie” was finally accepted for network display and became one of last season’s sleepers,” Variety columnist Jack Hellman wrote in the trade magazine’s Aug. 15, 1960 edition. “What made it catch on? Says Shulman, “the point of view, an anti-togetherness approach and the separation of the kids from the parents.” ”

“Dobie Gillis” premiered on Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1959 at 8:30 Eastern time on CBS, opposite the western saga “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp” on ABC and a video version of the long-running radio series “Fibber McGee and Molly” on NBC. By midseason, NBC had given up on “Fibber,” and moved its variety show “Ford Star Time” (which had been getting clobbered by CBS’s “Garry Moore Show at 10)  into the 8:30 slot.9“Dobie Gillis” would battle “Wyatt Earp” for two seasons, never becoming a huge hit in the Nielsens, but was always a solid performer among teenagers and children. Toward the end of its second season, in May 1961, “Dobie’s” TvQ score among teens 12-17 years old was 60, tying it for fourth with NBC’s “Thriller.”10 The show’s TvQ was tied for No. 10, with “My Three Sons” (then on ABC) among children 6-11 years old.11 More on the show’s broadcast history in Part II.

I spoke to Harry Castleman and Wally Podrazik in a telephone interview earlier this month.

Reveal Shot: So, “Dobie Gillis.” What made it stand out in the sitcom universe of that period, aside from Dobie breaking the fourth wall all the time?

Castleman: … Even as we were growing up … we were just consumed with teen culture, and so we just assumed that was the way it always was — that the teenager was always the culture that was always focused upon and doted on.

But that was actually a relatively recent thing, when we were kids watching the reruns in the ’60s. For a convenient point on the timeline, you could choose the rise of Elvis Presley in the mid-’50s as the start of it. Elvis Presley, when he was coming along, admired Dean Martin. When you think of that, you kind of laugh, and say, “‘They were so different.” But that was someone he admired as a great singer, as someone who put a lot of emotion into his songs. Because the focus up to that time was on people who were already out of school, who were “grown-ups.”

…  Dwayne Hickman came over from “Love That Bob.” As a kid, “Love That Bob” never made any sense to me. Why are they focusing on this old geezer, Bob Cummings, who’s running around after pretty girls. He’s much too old! The idea of an older swinger-playboy type seemed incompatible with the teen culture we were used to.

This is a long lead-in to the fact that “Dobie Gillis” is the beginning of that on American television. It’s the first American sitcom to really focus on the teenager. Granted, it comes three years after Elvis had become big, but it takes a while for television to respond to cultural trends. That’s really to be the importance of “Dobie Gillis.”

Cover of "Watching TV: Six Decades of Ame...Podrazik: And just to follow up on that, there had obviously been shows that focused on kids — “Leave It To Beaver,” etc. — and frankly you had shows like “Our Miss Brooks,” in which she taught at a high school. But the title says it all — “Our Miss Brooks.”  The kids were there, but that was not the main focus.

With “Dobie Gillis,” you had this wonderful [premise] in which Dobie did not yet know his place in the world, and he kept trying to figure it out. I don’t want to press the class issue too hard, but he was dreaming of connecting with the rich and powerful, or being  one of the rich and powerful. Having the pretty girl, having the fancy car. And based on what we saw of the Herbert T. Gillis Grocery, that was not what he came from …

And what was fascinating, was that, while you could say, well — all he was doing was thinking about girls — but the show was about what he was doing to reach those marks that society had set up, but society — specifically the girls — kept moving the line.  And so he might accomplish one thing, but then Milton Armitage (Warren Beatty) or Chatsworth Osborne Jr. (Stephen Franken) would just dance in and say, “Yeah, but I have the nice car, and I’ve got the money, and I’ve got the connections, and I’ve got the girl. Goodbye.”

So it was really a chance to consider, what does a teen in this 1950s-1960s world do to grow up, basically? That’s also a set-up for talking about Maynard, too.

Castleman: And of course Maynard, famously, is the first beatnik, or proto-hippie, in American television. You can go on about Maynard for a while, but at first he’s presented as kind of a comic foil. They’re making fun of him, in effect. But as the show progressed, it’s like Maynard becomes a voice of wisdom.

Podrazik: Yeah, in fact, he’s always the one that punctures Dobie’s self-delusion. That doesn’t mean he’s dismissive of his “good buddy” — just the opposite. “I’ve got to tell you — you’re about to do something really dumb.”

Castleman: You can really analogize that as the role Ed Norton serves for Ralph Kramden on “The Honeymooners.”

Podrazik: And when you think about the “Dobie Gillis” setting, which was Doby’s encounters with Chatsworth Osborne and his mom. Everyone likes to reference Warren Beatty as Milton Armitage, because it’s Warren Beatty —

Castleman: But he wasn’t there that long.

Podrazik: But he wasn’t there that long. But, the thing is that because they were in high school together, they had proximity to each other that would never happen again once they left the school environment.

If you will, it’s the template that we see decades later on [“Beverly Hills] 90210.” The poor kids, or the less well-off kids, are in that school environment side by side with the well-heeled side of town …

I want to say one more thing about how working-class [the Gillises] are. We’ve been talking about how the emphasis is on teens. But I loved the authenticity of Mr. G. and Mrs. G.

You walk into that grocery store — and we’re accustomed to the supermarkets, the Safeways of today — but that was a neighborhood grocery store. It felt like a neighborhood grocery store. You just looked at the cans of fruit and vegetables and all, just stacked up there, and said “I know that.” It looked authentic.

Castleman: I can remember, as a kid right around the time that show was airing, going to a similar type of local grocery store, that was still the rule at that time, as supermarkets were beginning to pick up in some places.

Podrazik: I wanted to transition into story arcs. One thing about the show was that — my goodness — Dobie graduated from high school! He didn’t spend six years stuck in high school.

And again, going to the theme of, where does a young man fit in? One of the weirdest [storylines] of the series was when they [Dobie and Maynard, and, later, Chatsworth] joined the military, very briefly. 12 And it feels strange, and you think, what’s he doing? But as someone of that era trying to figure out what to do next, it might occur to someone. And then their thought was, no — that’s not going to work. Let’s go to junior college instead. So there was some believability in that story arc.

Castleman: The Army part always struck me as very weird. Looking back, of course, to that era, that’s a normal thing for a guy that age to be doing. But in terms of constructing a successful TV series, pulling Dobie — and Maynard, of all people [Podrazik laughs] out of the setting where the show originated — high school, teens, romances, parents — and sticking them in the Army, it’s like, hello? It’s completely changing the entire series. It didn’t work, and they, wisely I think, moved on.

Podrazik: And then, in talking about the strength of the high school setting, but also, in general, the character-driven storytelling, you have to make a reference to Max Shulman. Because he comes to this series as the chief writer, having created the character in short stories. Before the series started, he had published two collections of Dobie short stories.13

Castleman: There had been a movie, too, back in ’53.14

Podrazik: Right. And Dwayne Hickman and Tuesday Weld had been in another movie based on another Max Shulman property, “Rally ‘Round the Flag, Boys” (Twentieth Century-Fox, 1958). So the people on the writing side and the people on the performing side came into it kind of primed to do their best work.

Coming up in Part II of Reveal Shot’s look at “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” with “Watching TV” authors Harry Castleman and Walter Podrazik, the television historians consider the show’s main cast members, and where “Dobie”  fit among the situation comedies CBS developed during the late ’50s and early ’60s.


— David B. Wilkerson






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Remembering Jean Stapleton and ‘All In The Family’

Saturday’s news that Jean Stapleton, the actress best known as Edith Bunker on the CBS sitcom “All In The Family,” has died at the age 90, is the latest reminder of what an important show it was, and of a television era that is fading further away from us every day.

I wrote a story and sidebar on “All In The Family” last November, shortly after Shout! Factory released a deluxe, 28-disc DVD box set of the entire series. As I explained, the show still works on three brilliant levels: as an uproarious comedy in the classic sitcom tradition, as a blistering social satire and as a first-rate character study.

“All In the Family’s three levels of brilliance”

The 10 best ‘All In The Family’ episodes”


With so much of the innovative energy of the show going into the characters of Archie Bunker and Mike Stivic, the main protagonists, it must have been difficult to work in some nuance for Edith. The easiest thing was to have her character engage in a sort of Gracie Allen patter with Archie, or run to the kitchen to get his beer while he and Mike went toe-to-toe on some issue of politics, race or culture.

However, “All In The Family’s” writers managed to do much more with Edith. She is, from the beginning, the only person who can readily see the goodness in Archie, which only emerges gradually over the long run of the series. And she is usually the only one who can prevail upon that part of her husband’s nature when he has crossed the line.

My favorite Edith episodes are those in which she stands up to Archie and admonishes him. In “Archie The Gambler,” from Season 4, Archie bets on the horses, even though gambling is the one sin that almost forced Edith to walk out on him years before when Gloria was a child. Jean Stapleton is riveting in the scenes when she finds out about it and slaps Archie. All is well in the end, of course, but not before Archie apologizes (and Edith apologizes for hitting him).

From Season 8, there is the one-hour season premiere “Archie Gets The Business,”  in which he forges Edith’s signature to get the loan he needs to buy Kelcy’s Bar. In that case, not only does Edith shame Archie into an apology and an acknowledgement that she is part-owner of the bar, but she brings up his misdeed in subsequent episodes. Edith was no doormat, and Jean Stapleton’s performance assured that the character would not be one-dimensional.

“All In The Family” ratings history

The show is one of television’s great success stories, finishing No. 1 for five straight seasons. It began as a midseason replacement in January 1971, getting off to a slow start but catching fire during the summer, when people caught up with it in reruns.

In this table, I’ve included, in the last column, the network that had the highest overall ratings that year.

Download (PDF, 15KB)

— David B. Wilkerson

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‘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 down15

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.16

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.”17

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.”18

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.”19

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.”20

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 18.921, many advertising executives predicted that ABC would be on top by the end of the following season.22

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.23

“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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