REVEAL SHOT

A SOPHISTICATED LOOK AT FILM AND TELEVISION

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‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’: still one of the more underrated ‘Peanuts’ specials

My MarketWatch story on “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,” written last year.

” ‘A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving’ defines holiday TV”

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

— David B. Wilkerson

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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. 1

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.)2

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.” 3

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.4

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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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”

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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.

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— 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 down5

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.6

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.”7

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.”8

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.”9

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.”10

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 18.911, many advertising executives predicted that ABC would be on top by the end of the following season.12

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.13

“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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