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KING OF THE MINI-SERIES

20 Feb

64 years ago today, on Thursday, February 20, 1947 actor Peter Strauss, the king of the mini-series, was born in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.                        

Strauss’s earliest TV appearances were in the early 1970s in episodes of shows like “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and “Medical Center.” It was the groundbreaking mini-series “Rich Man, Poor Man” which premiered February 1, 1976 on ABC that catapulted Strauss to stardom. It did the same for another young actor named Nick Nolte.

An autographed photo of Peter Strauss, from the 1970s.

What made “Rich Man, Poor Man” unique was that it aired weekly for just 7 weeks with just 9 episodes. It was the first time any series was scheduled this way and it turned out to be a blockbuster.

That led to a sequel called “Rich Man, Poor Man Book II“ which premiered as a regular weekly series in September 1976. It ran for just one season. Strauss then became the “go-to” guy for starring roles in mini-series, including “Masada,” “Tender Is the Night,” and one of my all-time favorites, “Kane & Abel.” (Really, ANY film with an almost shirtless Ed Asner would be one of my all-time favorites).

Peter Strauss has also starred in many TV movies like “Young Joe, the Forgotten Kennedy,” “Angel on My Shoulder,” and “The Jericho Mile” which won him an Emmy Award as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Special.

A close-up of Peter Strauss's autograph on the above photo.

Strauss may also be known by some who love the outdoors. A ranch he once sold to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy is now part of the National Park Service. “Peter Strauss Ranch” is located in Cornell, California.

Peter Strauss will be appearing in the play “Divine Rivalry” at Hartford Stage in Connecticut starting this Thursday, February 24th.

WHAT A TORK!

13 Feb

69 years ago, on Friday, February 13, 1942 future Monkee Peter Thorkelson was born in Washington, DC. You, of course, would get to know him as Peter Tork.

Publicity photo sent to fans of “The Monkees” during the shows run on NBC.

Although it is well-known that “The Monkees” TV series (which premiered in September 1966) was created by casting actors in the roles of musicians, it is less well-known that some of the actors already had previous musical training. Such was the case for Peter Tork who could play piano, guitar, and banjo.

It was Tork’s friend Stephen Stills who first auditioned for “The Monkees” and recommended Tork. But the series was, at first, ruled by its music director Don Kirshner who had the final say on which songs were recorded. In fact, Mike Nesmith, Micky Dolenz, Davy Jones, and Peter Tork weren’t allowed to play on early Monkees hits.

After arguments with Kirshner he left the show and the actors flexed their musical prowess. For two months in the summer of 1967, The Monkees toured the United States and abroad (London).

Post-Concert tour booklet produced by Tiger Beat Magazine.

I was lucky enough to see The Monkees play during that tour at the Forest Hills Tennis Stadium in New York City on July 14, 1967. My most vivid memory of that night is of waiting for The Monkees to finally take the stage. My recollection, as a 6-year old, was that they spent an inordinate amount of time tuning the guitars. What I found out years later is that the opening act for The Monkees on that tour was Mr. Jimi Hendrix!

At the age of six I saw one of rock’s greatest guitarists play live… and I didn’t know it for another decade. I once told this story to rock promoter Sid Bernstein who loved the way my young memory locked-in on Hendrix as a guitar tuner.

Photos of Peter Tork on tour, from the Tiger Beat Photo Album.

By the end of 1968 The Monkees were finished; not only as a TV series, but as a rock band… and Peter Tork was the first to leave the group. There have been reunions over the years and semi-reunions as well, some of which Tork took part in, but you never forget your first real Beatles-inspired band.

Happy Birthday Peter.

FAMILIAR FRIENDLY FACE

6 Feb

72 years ago today, on Monday, February 6, 1939 actor Mike Farrell was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota. But Farrell grew up in Hollywood and graduated from Hollywood High School. It’s also where he would make his mark in television.

After serving in the U.S. Marines he began his acting career in soap operas like “Days of Our Lives.” While he was a working actor, and a recognizable face to many, it wasn’t until he joined the cast of CBS‘s M*A*S*H in 1975 that Mike Farrell became a household name.

Mike Farrell autograph signed in the lobby of 30 Rock on January 8, 1977.

Farrell portrayed Captain B.J. Hunnicut, a character added to M*A*S*H when actor Wayne Rogers (and his Trapper John) didn’t return for the show’s 4th season. Farrell (and Hunnicut) stayed with the series for the rest of its run; eight more seasons.

His next series was “Providence,” a mid-season replacement that premiered on NBC in January 1999. Farrell played veterinarian Jim Hansen, the father of main character Sydney Hansen. The show ran for just 5 seasons (4 really).

Mike Farrell has been married to actress Shelley Fabares for more than 26 years… and today he turns 72. Happy Birthday Mike.

SITTING IN FOR JOHNNY…

4 Feb

75 years ago today, on Tuesday, February 4, 1936 comedian David Brenner was born in Philadelphia.

After a first career as a writer and producer of TV documentaries, and already in his 30s, Brenner left his job and gave himself one year to make it as a standup comedian. Just as that year was coming to a close David Brenner made an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” in 1971. From that day on he has had a career in comedy and he gives “The Tonight Show” all the credit.

In fact, according to Brenner, he appeared on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show” 158 times, which Brenner says is the record for most appearances by any guest on the show. He also guest-hosted for Johnny more than 50 times.

Publicity photo for David Brenner in “Snip,” an NBC sitcom that never made it to the air.

Although Brenner made hundreds, perhaps thousands, of appearances on TV in the 1970s he has only had his own program once… almost twice. The photo above was from a David Brenner sitcom that was never broadcast. “Snip,” produced by James Komack, was on NBC’s fall schedule and set to premiere in September 1976, but it was abruptly canceled before a single episode aired.

Because “Snip” had an openly gay character, which would have been a first on TV, NBC apparently was concerned and decided not to break that barrier. One year later that distinction went to the character of Jodie Dallas (played by Billy Crystal) on ABC’s “Soap.”

If God Wanted us to Travel by David Brenner

David Brenner finally starred in his own program from September 1986 to May 1987, when he hosted a late night syndicated talk show. “Nightlife” was a 30-minute program with Billy Preston as musical director, but it could not find a niche and lasted just eight months.

David Brenner’s autograph inside If God Wanted us to Travel signed in 1990.

Brenner stopped touring for many years due to a custody battle involving his oldest son, but he is now back on the road.

Happy 75th David… I wish you many more. You made the 1970s a laugh riot for me and my friends.

SONUVAGUN

3 Feb

93 years ago today, on Sunday, February 3, 1918 Joseph Gottlieb was born in The Bronx, New York… but after growing up poor in South Philadelphia, he eventually became comedian Joey Bishop.

Perhaps best-known as a member of Frank Sinatra’s “Rat Pack” Bishop was first and foremost a nightclub comedian. After paying his dues in many cities he started making appearances on that new thing called television. 

Still photo, taken off my television in the 1970s, of Joey Bishop guest-hosting” The Tonight Show”

Joey Bishop could be seen on talk shows, game shows, variety shows and by the 1960s he was a fixture on television. He starred in one sitcom called “The Joey Bishop Show” from 1961 to 1965 on NBC and then CBS, but he then had another program, also called “The Joey Bishop Show.”

Joey Bishop is one of the many stars who took on Johnny Carson in the late night wars. From April 1967 to December 1969 his talk show, “The Joey Bishop Show” ran on ABC with Regis Philbin as his sidekick, and Johnny Mann as musical director. The show aired directly opposite Carson and never picked up steam, lasting just 2 ½ years.

Both before and after he competed against Johnny Carson he served as Johnny’s guest-host on “The Tonight Show” many times. In fact, by some accounts he guest-hosted more than 175 times (which some say is the record for any non-regular guest-host).

 Bishop also starred in many films, including the original “Ocean’s Eleven” with his “Rat Pack” pals.

He died in Oct 2007 at age 89… but on this date in TV history, February 3, 1918, Joey Bishop was born.

Thanks for the laughs you sonuvagun.

A TRUE NEWSMAN

3 Feb

71 years ago today, on Saturday, February 3, 1940 TV journalist Jim Hartz was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Hartz is best known for his work on NBC’s “Today Show” and then on PBS. But Jim Hartz started his career, in his hometown of Tulsa, in 1962 as a reporter for CBS affiliate KOTV. Hartz anchored the station’s “Sun Up” program, which was perhaps good training for the early morning hours of “Today.

Autographed photo of Jim Hartz from the 1970s.

Within two years Jim Hartz was named news director at KOTV, but he left a short time later for the big time in New York City. Hartz joined WNBC in 1964 where he remained a news anchor for ten years.

In April 1974 Hartz was picked to replace Frank McGee as co-host of “The Today Show” on the NBC network. He co-hosted with Barbara Walters, but when she left in 1976 to co-anchor “ABC Evening News” with Harry Reasoner, NBC replaced them both with Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley.

 Jim Hartz spent the next three years as an anchor at NBC’s WRC in Washington, DC before moving on to public television. On PBS Jim Hartz hosted shows like “Over Easy,” “Innovation” and “Asia Now.”

Hartz earned five Emmy Awards and two Ace Awards for excellence in cable television. He has also been inducted into the University of Tulsa Communication Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Hall of Fame, the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters Hall of Fame, and the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame.

Jim Hartz turns 71 today, February 3, 2011.

GOODNIGHT, SWEET PRINZE

29 Jan

NBC publicity photo of Freddie Prinze, circa 1975.

34 years ago today, on Saturday, January 29, 1977 actor, comedian Freddie Prinze died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. The young star of NBC’s “Chico and the Man” was just 22 years old.

The death certificate of Freddie Prinze.

It wasn’t supposed to end this way… or this soon. Three and a half years earlier Freddie Prinze was an unknown teenager working the comedy clubs of New York City. Then came an appearance on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.” Producer James Komack was watching that night and asked Prinze to audition for a new sit-com called “Chico and the Man.”

Script for “Chico and the Man” episode that was taped on January 21, 1975. Once Prinze was cast as mechanic Chico Rodriguez he became a star – even before a single episode had been broadcast. Freddie Prinze moved to Los Angeles and, with veteran actor Jack Albertson, made “Chico and the ManNBC’s newest hit. The show premiered on Friday, September 13, 1974.

Freddie’s first L.A. apartment was in this building on N. Laurel Ave. Photo taken in 1989.

Over the next few years, as Freddie Prinze grew in popularity, he recorded a comedy album, starred in a TV movie, headlined in Las Vegas, and guest hosted “The Tonight Show.” But Prinze had a drug problem… and his marriage was on the rocks. In fact, as January 1977 rolled around Prinze was living apart from his wife at the Beverly Comstock Hotel.

Freddie’s last apartment was at the Beverly Comstock Hotel, where he shot himself. Photo taken in June 1979.

On January 20th Prinze performed at the Inaugural Gala for new President Jimmy Carter, but a week later his world came crashing down. While under the influence of narcotics and reportedly despondent, Freddie Prinze shot himself in the head on January 28, 1977 at 3:30am. He was taken to the UCLA Medical Center where he lingered for more than 33 hours.

At 1:00pm on Saturday, January 29, 1977 Freddie Prinze died from his injuries. He was 22 years old.

Freddie is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills.

Freddie Prinze’s death was ruled a suicide. Several years later his mother, Maria Pruetzel, went to court to argue that Prinze was not responsible for his actions due to the influence of narcotics. She was honest in admitting that part of her reason for doing so was that she needed the money from his life insurance policy. Prinze’s death was ruled accidental and Pruetzel was able to collect the money.

This writer paying his respects to Freddie Prinze in 1989.

From the day of Prinze’s first “Tonight Show” appearance to the day he died just 3 years and 2 months had passed. But, in that short time, the talented, lovable actor and comedian entertained us and, when he left us, millions grieved for him and pledged to remember him always. Freddie Prinze was just 22 years old.

FAREWELL DON KIRSHNER

18 Jan

Rock impresario Don Kirshner died of heart failure yesterday, January 17, in Boca Raton, Florida. He was 76.

Although many will think of Kirshner as strictly a music legend, some forget that his reach extended to television. His best-known series was “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert” which ran in syndication from 1973 to 1981 and featured performances by some of rock & roll’s top acts. Kirshner’s wooden and nasally on-camera introductions were almost as entertaining as the bands. But did you know that Kirshner was also involved with the NBC series “The Monkees”?

“The Monkees” which ran from 1966-1968 on NBC.

He served as the original Music Supervisor for “The Monkees” and was responsible for several of their early hit records. But as the show grew in popularity the four actors who played the fake band pushed for songs that were more to their own liking. Eventually Kirshner stepped aside.

Another series that Kirshner produced, with Norman Lear, was the 1977 CBS sitcom “A Year at the Top” which starred Paul Shaffer (yes, THAT Paul Shaffer) and Greg Evigan. They played a music duo who sells their souls to the son of the devil (Gabriel Dell) in exchange for “a year at the top” of the charts. The show ran for 5 weeks, but both Shaffer and Evigan would find better partners to work with. Shaffer as musical director for David Letterman since 1982, and Evigan as the straight man to a chimp named Bear on NBC’s “B.J. and the Bear” from 1979 to 1981.

Don Kirshner was a New York City native born in the Bronx on April 17, 1934.

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