Tag Archives: Sit-com

THE BIRTH OF THE BUNKERS

12 Jan

41 years ago tonight, on Tuesday, January 12, 1971 TV changed forever when “All in the Family” premiered on CBS.

Oh it was different. It was a sitcom that starred an unlikeable character. Well… he was likeable… but it was hidden underneath all that bigotry. He loved his wife. He loved his daughter. We figured out eventually that he even loved Meathead. But Archie Bunker was one of a kind (in TV land). The world was full of real “Archie Bunkers.”

And that’s one way “All in the Family” made its mark. It made “Archie Bunker” a common phrase that meant bigot… more specifically a “lovable” bigot. There’s one in almost every family. It also brought several other words into the American lexicon: Dingbat, Meathead, stifle. It even gave us the first toilet flush in sitcom history.

What many people didn’t realize at first is that “All in the Family” wasn’t saluting bigots, it wasn’t praising them. It was holding them up to ridicule.

Publicity still sent to fans in 1975

I remember a wonderful story the show’s producer Norman Lear wrote about on the “All in the Family” album cover. It was about the first fan letter he received for the show. It was from a single mother who said she watched the first episode with her adult child. She wrote that, after the episode, she turned to her child and said – You always wanted to know what your father was like. Now you know!

All in the Family” was that rare breed of show that combined great writing, great casting, great acting – you name it. When I watch it today I am blown away by the talent of Carroll O’Connor. The way he made Archie Bunker a believable, 3-dimensional character is astounding. The man had skills! Chops.

Let’s not forget Jean Stapleton as Edith Bunker. Until I saw her on a talk show several years later I thought the actress spoke in the same strident voice as Edith. Sally Struthers as Gloria and Rob Reiner as Mike/Meathead rounded out the fine cast.

Brilliant TV.

DO YOU LOVE LUCY?

6 Aug

100 years ago today, on Sunday, August 6, 1911 one of TV’s most gifted comic actresses was born in Jamestown, New York; Lucille Ball.

Although Lucille Ball would find success as a model and then as an actress on film, stage and radio, it was her work in TV that made her an American treasure and icon.

She turned to TV when CBS asked her to develop her radio hit “My Favorite Husband” for the new medium. She agreed with one stipulation; that her real-life husband, Desi Arnaz, star alongside her. But CBS executives didn’t think America would accept Ball with a Cuban husband, so Lucy & Desi toured the country with a vaudeville act. The success of that tour led to CBS picking up “I Love Lucy.”

Your blogger, sitting in for Fred Mertz, during the “I Love Lucy” 50th Anniversary Tour in 2001.

America had a love affair with “I Love Lucy” and the sitcom ran for seven seasons and 180 episodes. After some changes the show became “The Lucy–Desi Comedy Hour” and ran for 3 more seasons.

Lucy & Desi divorced in 1960 and Lucille Ball returned to sitcoms with “The Lucy Show” in 1962. Vivian Vance returned as Lucy’s “partner in crime” and veteran actor Gale Gordon became the male foil for Lucy’s wacky hijinks. It ran on CBS for six seasons (1962-1968) before giving way to “Here’s Lucy” which also co-starred Gale Gordon and Ball’s children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr.Here’s Lucy” also ran on CBS for six seasons (1968-1974).

In 1986, at the age of 75, Lucille Ball was lured back to TV for an ABC sitcom called “Life with Lucy.” Unfortunately, even with former co-star Gale Gordon in the cast, the old magic wasn’t there and only eight episodes were broadcast. “Life with Lucy” was Lucille Ball’s only failure on TV but it’s not how she’ll be remembered.

Lucille Ball was a comedic genius who we welcomed her into our homes from 1951 to 1974 (except for two years off). There have been other talented and exceptional comedic actresses on TV but Lucille Ball stands alone as the first and arguably the best.

She also became the first woman to run a Hollywood studio when she bought Desi’s share of Desilu following their divorce.

Today she is also remembered by The Lucy-Desi Center in her hometown of Jamestown, New York which manages two facilities: The Lucy-Desi Museum and The Desilu Playhouse. The center’s premiere event is The Lucille Ball Festival of Comedy, held each August. This year, in honor of Lucy’s 100th birthday, there were performances by Joan Rivers and Paula Poundstone. Lucy Fest continues through Sunday (August 7th).

Lucille Ball died in April 1989 at the age of 77, but she left her mark on several generations, who will always love Lucy.

Happy 100th birthday Lucy.

MARCIA, MARCIA, MARCIA

5 Aug

55 years ago today, on Sunday, August 5, 1956 actress Maureen McCormick was born in Los Angeles, California. 

Your blogger with Maureen McCormick, circa 1994.

Maureen’s TV career began in 1965 with appearances on “The Farmer’s Daughter,” “Honey West” and “Bewitched.” That was followed by roles on “Camp Runamuck,” “I Dream of Jeannie” and “My Three Sons.” Then in 1969 she landed the role of Marcia Brady in “The Brady Bunch.”

What can we say about “The Brady Bunch” that hasn’t already been said? I remember my older sister suggesting we watch this new show that she heard was supposed to be good, and I never stopped watching.

Although the sitcom ran for only 5 seasons it launched a brand that kept returning in several genres and is still remembered fondly. Is there anyone between ages 45 and 60 who doesn’t know all the words to the theme song?

Maureen McCormick would appear in most of the Brady “spin-offs” including “The Brady Bunch Hour” – a variety show that ran in the 1976-77 season and “The Brady Brides” – a sitcom that ran in 1981 for less than a season. She did not appear in the 1990 dramatic series “The Bradys.”

McCormick also starred in the TV movie, “Get to the Heart: The Barbara Mandrell Story” in 1997, as country singer Barbara Mandrell.

More recently she appeared on VH1’s “Celebrity Fit Club” in 2007.

In 1994 Maureen –played the role of Rizzo in the Broadway revival of Grease. That’s when I met and interviewed her.  I can’t lie. It was “groovy” meeting “Marcia Brady.”

Happy Birthday Maureen.

SIGNED, EPSTEIN’S MOTHER

7 May

60 years ago, on Monday, May 7, 1951, actor Robert Hegyes was born in Perth Amboy, New Jersey… and like another 1970s sitcom actor, Hegyes is half-Hungarian. Freddie Prinze called himself a Hunga-Rican. Perhaps we can call Robert Hegyes a Hungi-Talian.

After graduating from Glassboro State College with a degree in theater Robert Hegyes joined up with several acting troupes in New York City. Just a few years later he was cast as Juan Epstein in “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

Robert Hegyes 8x10 sent in response to a fan letter in the 1970s.

Juan Epstein, of course, was one of the “sweathogs” (remedial high school students) on the sitcom, who were taught by Mr. Kotter, himself a former “sweathog.” During the time “Welcome Back, Kotter” was a hit show, I was attending a real high school in Brooklyn. Believe me, “Welcome Back, Kotter” was the talk of the school the day after every episode.

When I wrote to Robert Hegyes at the time I was surprised to get the letter, shown below, in return. Most often I would receive a form letter. This one actually appears to be typed and looks less than perfect. For that reason I have always believed that this was a personal response, actually signed by Hegyes. That’s what makes it an even more appreciated and cherished part of my collection.

Letter from Robert Hegyes written on “Welcome Back, Kotter” stationery.

Welcome Back, Kotter” premiered in September 1975 on ABC and ran for 4 seasons. Hegyes also directed a few episodes. After “Kotter” he appeared in episodes of shows such as, “Diagnosis Murder,” “The Drew Carey Show,” and “NewsRadio.” In the 1980s he had a recurring role as Detective Manny Esposito in the police drama, “Cagney & Lacey”.

Just last month Robert Hegyes joined most of his “Welcome Back, Kotter” colleagues for a reunion at the TV Land Awards.

Happy 60th Birthday Bobby, I wish you all the best. Thanks for making going to high school in Brooklyn in the 70s kinda cool!

UP YOUR NOSE WITH A RUBBER HOSE

31 Mar

66 years ago, on Saturday, March 31, 1945, Gabriel Kaplan was born in Brooklyn. Since then he has been a stand-up comedian, a financial investor, and a champion poker player… but most people know him as the creator and star of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

From the letterhead used by “Welcome Back, Kotter” in the 1970s.

The sitcom about a man who becomes a teacher in his old high school premiered in September 1975 on ABC and ran for 4 seasons. It also made stars out of Gabe Kaplan and John Travolta.

Kaplan started doing stand-up in the late 1960s and by the early 70s got the break every comic dreamed of – a spot on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” More TV appearances followed and then Kaplan recorded a comedy album called, Holes and Mellow Rolls. As he explained in his routine, a mellow roll was a kind of ice pop. The album’s title referred to the insults or “ranks” he and his friends used to say to each other in high school. “Up your hole with a mellow roll,” “in your ear with a can of beer,” “up your nose with a rubber hose.”

It was that part of his stand-up act that drew the most attention and allowed Gabe Kaplan (along with Alan Sacks) to create a sitcom based on his high school experiences. The premise had Gabe Kotter (once a remedial student or “sweathog”) return to teach the current “sweathogs” at his old high school. And it became a hit.

Card with pre-printed autograph, sent to fans of “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

During the time “Welcome Back, Kotter” was a hit show, I was attending a real high school in Brooklyn. And since Gabe Kaplan was actually from Brooklyn a friend and I decided we should interview his parents for our school newspaper. We looked in the phone book and found a listing for Kaplan in the correct neighborhood. My friend called and did the talking. Gabe Kaplan’s mother agreed to let us come to their home to interview them. She asked us to call back the following week to set a date.

When we called again Mrs. Kaplan said Gabe never heard of our high school and didn’t think it was a real school. So he told her not to do the interview, and that was the end of it.

Months, maybe years, later I saw Gabe Kaplan on a talk show discussing fame. He said that when “Welcome Back, Kotter” became a hit people would call his parents pretending to be from phony high schools just to score an interview. I always wondered if he meant us.

For the record, we were real, our high school was real, and the interview request was real. Our school — Edward R. Murrow High School — was brand new and in just its second year of existence. That may be why Kaplan (out in Hollywood) had never heard of it. And I suppose “Edward R. Murrow” would’ve been a great name to use for a made-up school.

Gabriel Kaplan autograph signed outside the Ed Sullivan Theater on October 18, 1975.

After “Welcome Back, Kotter” Kaplan starred in several films and gave sitcoms one more try with “Lewis & Clark” (1981-82). His next act led him to the financial markets and then professional poker.

Since the late 1970s Gabe Kaplan has been a champion poker player participating in the World Poker Tour, the World Series of Poker, and winning the Super Bowl of Poker Main Event in 1980. Kaplan has earned more than $1-million playing poker professionally.

He has also been a poker TV commentator, most notably for 6 seasons on “High Stakes Poker” on GSN.

Close-up of Gabriel Kaplan’s autograph.

The cast of “Welcome Back, Kotter” will be honored at this year’s TV Land Awards in April. All the living former cast members: Gabe Kaplan, Marcia Strassman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs (aka Lawrence-Hilton Jacobs), Ron Palillo, Robert Hegyes, and even John Travolta are planning to attend. And if anybody’s a no-show? “Up your hole with a mellow roll.”

Oh… and Happy Birthday Gabe.

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.

DY-NO-MITE!

8 Feb

37 years ago tonight, on Friday, February 8, 1974 “Good Times,” a spin-off from “Maude” premiered on CBS.

The show starred Esther Rolle as Florida Evans, the role she had been playing on “Maude.” But while “Maude” was set in the New York City suburbs, “Good Times” took place in a Chicago housing project. The original premise of the series was to follow the trials and tribulations of a loving family that was struggling to make ends meet. But, as so often happens in television, one character stood out and, when fans responded, that character was given a larger presence in the show.

Jimmie Walker photo sent to fans in the 1970s.

The character was 17-year old J.J. (for James Junior), the Evans’ family’s oldest son… and the actor portraying him was 26-year old standup comedian Jimmie Walker. So although the cast was headed by experienced actors Esther Rolle and John Amos, it was Walker who stole the show. And a lot of that had to do with dynamite. I mean, “DY-NO-MITE!

The word “DY-NO-MITE!” became a huge catchphrase across America as Jimmie Walker’s popularity surged, as did the ratings for “Good Times.” In its first full season (1974-1975) “Good Times” received its highest ratings and was ranked as the #7 show in the country, ahead of even “Maude.”

Good Times” also starred Bern Nadette Stanis as daughter Thelma and Ralph Carter as Michael, the family’s youngest child. Interestingly, his character “Michael Evans” was given the same name as one of the show’s creators; actor, writer Mike Evans, best known for playing Lionel Jefferson on “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons.”

After 6 seasons (really 5 ½) and many cast changes, audiences had seen enough. The good times ended for “Good Times” in August 1979.

By the way… coincidentally, Jimmie Walker opens tomorrow night (Wednesday, February 9th) at The Comedy Zone in Port Charlotte, Florida. Why not catch the show and wish him a Happy Anniversary for “Good Times.” He’ll be performing through Saturday night. Don’t forget to tip your waitresses.

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