The Millionaire

TV classics: aka If You had a Million

USA 1955-60, six seasons, 206 episodes, approximately 30 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Produced by Don Fedderson, Fred Henry. Cast: Marvin Miller, Paul Frees. Guest stars: Phyllis Avery, Carl Betz, Whitney Blake, Angie Dickinson, Barbara Eden, Beverly Garland, Ray Gordon, Barbara Hale, DeForest Kelly, Del Moore, Mary Tyler Moore, Agnes Moorehead, Maudie Prickett, Gloria Talbott, Robert Vaughn, Betty White, Bill Williams, Dick York and many others.

Plot summary: Millionaires are happy people or are they?

millionaireReview: In 1955, anthology programs were as popular on TV as procedurals are today. While most of them featured a different genre on a weekly basis, The Millionaire had a steady concept. John Beresford Tipton, Jr., a man as wealthy as he was generous, made out a check to complete strangers and asked his secretary to deliver them. He gave away one million dollars without any strings attached. Surprised by their sudden fortune, the recipients signed a legal contract to guarantee the anonymity of their unknown sponsor and were then abandoned to their fate. A blessing for some, a curse for others, Tipton’s gift always deeply affected the lives of people who had never dreamed of ever owning so much money.

Popular enough to be parodied on The Jack Benny Program and by Mad Magazine, The Millionaire attracted many guest stars who contributed to the show’s appeal. Although based on a simple idea, the program turned a similar situation into a new story every week and thus kept the original concept interesting for six seasons. Blessed with good scripts and the talents of Marvin Miller as Tipton’s bearer of glad tidings, the show created dramatic, funny and generally entertaining moments with actors such as Dick York, Betty White, Barbara Hale and Bill Williams. Successful for five years on CBS, the show was frequently rerun from 1960 to 1980 and temporarily revived on TV Land in the late 1990s. It is a pity that, today, the program has not yet been made available on DVD. It is a real gem for anyone who loves the Golden Age of television and a cordial invitation to dream of opening the door to Marvin Miller as Michael Anthony.

Happy Birthday, Barbara Hale!

Today, one of my favorite Golden Hollywood Girls is celebrating her 91st birthday. Or her 92nd, depending on the source you believe in. I stick with the younger option because the birth date April 18appearing at the "Hollywood Show", 1922 has such a nice ring to it. Besides, which woman doesn’t like to be younger rather than older?!

In general, 90-something is quite a milestone and (in my humble opinion) deserves a proper celebration – especially if the smile that comes with it is as bubbly and contagious as it always has been. So here’s your party hat, dear Barbara Hale, a big birthday hug and a smooch on your rosy cheeks. I hope you’re having a ball today, are blessed with good health (for many more years to come) and are surrounded by love and cheerful laughter.

Thanks so much for all the joy you have brought to my life as Della Street, on the silver screen and in interviews. Apart from my big love for Perry Mason, I’ve also always relished your on-screen collaborations with your charmingly handsome husband, Bill Williams. So for those of you who haven’t had the chance to see any of those “family projects”, here’s one of my favorite examples, The Clay Pigeon. A classic gem for a joyous day. Enjoy!

Beyond Kit Carson

Remembering the Charm and Talents of Bill Williams

Born in Brooklyn, New York on May 21, 1915* as Hermann Wilhelm Katt, Bill Williams started his career in Vaudeville, touring the US and Europe as an adagio dancer until he joined the army in WWII. Following an honorable medical discharge, he returned to show business, starting out as an extra in Hollywood and playing small, uncredited parts before he finally landed a deal with RKO in the mid 1940s. As a contract player, he was slowly cast as a budding co-star, opposite popular colleagues such as Spencer Tracy in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Robert Young in Those Endearing Young Charms, Robert Mitchum in Till the End of Time and Susan Hayward in Deadline at Dawn while in private life he quietly divorced his first, long estranged wife. In 1946, two years after shooting West of the Pecos, a small Western featuring RKO starlet Barbara Hale whom he had previously been introduced to by acting coach Lillian Albertson, he got married to his former co-star gone studio sweetheart and saw a bright future laid out before him. Considered for a series of pictures following A Likely Story co-starring his young wife, Bill’s stream of luck ended with the sudden death of RKO president Charles Kroener and the structural changes that followed at the studio.

After serving as good-will ambassador from Hollywood to the public in 1946 and 47 for several months, keeping his popularity afloat by touring he country, he was struck down by an old injury that would further interrupt his career while Mrs. Williams was expecting their first child. With A Likely Story under his belt, however, the press didn’t lose interest in him and focused on the private life of the growing Williams family instead, presenting them as happy, lovely and homey. After bowing out of The Window, his second would-be collaboration with wife Barbara, Bill regained his health and starred with her in The Clay Pigeon. Shortly thereafter, the couple faced a new challenge in their conjoined careers when Howard Hughes entered the scene to change the course of RKO by letting all the contract players go. While his wife managed to land a career-breaking part in Jolson Sings Again and a follow-up contract with Columbia Pictures, Bill Williams continued working as a freelance actor, starring in a number of small Westerns and memorable films like The Stratton Story until he got his big break on television in 1951. Landing the title role in The Adventures of Kit Carson, Bill breathed life into a character who soon turned into a kids’ favorite and guaranteed him long hours on set. Successful for four consecutive seasons, the show turned Bill into a household name and Western hero, a good fortune he tried to continue with Date with the Angels in 1957. Starring opposite TV darling Betty White, Bill was seen as a newlywed husband who showed splendid comedic timing. Although promising, entertaining and less strenuous to work on than his predecessor series, the show did not last longer than a season. Instead, his wife Barbara Hale started an unexpectedly long career on television when she agreed to star as Della Street on Perry Mason, a show that would last from 1957 to 66. After years of putting her family first, it was Bill now who spent more time at home with the three children. He did not return to the small screen until 1960 when he starred in Assignment: Underwater, an underwater adventure show modeled after Sea Hunt, a surprise hit Bill Williams himself had turned down in 1958. Following the show’s cancellation, Bill returned to being a working actor and guest starred on a variety of popular programs including his wife’s great success and her co-star Raymond Burr’s follow-up smash Ironside until he retired from acting for good in 1981.

Although originally a city boy with a defining Brooklyn accent, Bill was frequently cast as a handsomely talented cowboy throughout his career. With his boyish grin, tender eyes and natural athleticism, he was the perfect ‘good guy’ when he was young and a credible character actor when he got older. Always deeply committed to his craft, he worked hard at doing most of his own stunts, oozed honesty and earthy charm. Not unlike his darling wife, Bill Williams is now often remembered for his one career-defining role as Kit Carson, but it would be a pity to forget all the other characters he breathed life into, including the many different men he played opposite Mrs. Williams – from their first feature West of the Pecos in 1945 to their last in 1976, Disney’s Flight of the Grey Wolf.

Twenty years ago, on September 21, Bill Williams died in Burbank, California at the age of 77. He left his wife of 46 years, two grown daughters and his son, William Katt, a working actor who continued the tradition of keeping the business in the family by repeatedly working with his mother, Barbara Hale, on the same projects. By his fans, he is still remembered with great fondness, especially by those who grew up loving Westerns.

* Author’s note: Apparently, there’s some confusion about Bill Williams’ date of birth. (Thanks for the mention, Gina!) Wikipedia now lists May 15th as his birthday while imdb still mentions May 21st. As soon as I get confirmation on the validity of one of these dates, you’ll be the first ones to know.

For Your Commercial Interruption…

I don’t know about you, but I’m easily annoyed by commercials. These days I should probably add because I have fond memories of re-enacting the most popular commercials for my family when I was little, giving them all a good laugh at the dinner table. It must’ve looked positively silly though, when I repeated all those slogans I barely understood at five or six. After all, my family has always been utterly unimpressed by all things Hollywood. I, however, have always loved it, for as long as I can remember, and when I grew up I didn’t only practice smoking by buying chewing gum cigarettes and filling my toothpaste cap with ice-cold water to resemble booze and learn how to chug-a-lug (which TV had taught me was something you just had to have down to a tee to become an adult), no, I also loved to watch commercials and learned the slogans and jingles by heart without the use of a VCR.

Today, my fascination is but a mere memory of that time long gone, of an era when classic stars were still regulars on a vast variety of TV programs. Looking further back, I now find great joy in looking at ads and commercials from the 1940s and 50s, when car companies, soap manufacturers and cigarette labels sponsored entire programs: Ford Television Theatre, Lux Radio Theater or General Electric, just to name a popular few. Apart from those anthology series, other shows were also endorsed by companies and products; Date With the Angels, for example, was presented by a single sponsor, the Plymouth Dealers of America, following in the footsteps of many others while Perry Mason was supported by a variety of sponsors in its almost ten production years. Depending on the target audience, brands like Procter & Gamble’s Tide, Palmolive and Lux soap often sponsored afternoon programs on the radio, directly aiming at America’s housewives and their interest in beauty and their homes. Yes, also in the golden days of Hollywood, marketing companies ruled our world of entertainment.

It may be shallow to admit that those classic ads don’t bother but rather appeal to me – on Radio Vintage or Old Time Radio, it doesn’t matter: I love the jingles and the time they used to take to sell their products, time that has gotten more and more expensive over the years. I also like to look at my favorite stars in many ads – their pictures always beautiful in that way commercial art worked back in my favorite era. Just have a look at Barbara Hale (and her husband Bill Williams) below. In her fifty year career, she was not only the video spokesperson for Amana Radar Range in the 70s, she already plugged for Chesterfield cigarettes, Lux, Max Factor, Sunnybank Margarine and Matson back in her RKO, Columbia and Perry Mason years. Aren’t those pictures just darling, the colors vibrant and delicate, the smiles warm and inviting?

I may be in the minority, but apart from being tired of looking at undernourished teenage models these days, those airbrushed faces with their blank expressions also make me feel depressed. I prefer to see happy faces and not someone who is starving herself to look smaller than Twiggy in the 60s. So yes, I admit vintage commercials are my guilty pleasure and this link is meant for anyone who’s with me on this topic. Have fun listening to those jingles or tune in to listen to Radio Vintage like I often do, always getting giddy about those commercial interruptions which bring me back to “the good old days”.

The Art of Film-Making

I just recently had a conversation with my aunt who reminded me, once again, how little people know about the art of film-making. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s nothing essential, but for an industry that lives on creating images and myths, I find it interesting how inadequate a picture it draws of its most crucial bees in the hive. We all know that actors are important, that they put a face to a story and fill it with life, but who would they play without a script, who would they be without a director who guides them through it?

I know, during awards season, certain names are mentioned from time to time – directors more often than producers, editors or cinematographers. Thing is, it’s a process to create a film and takes a village to carry it from that first sparkle of an idea to an actual theater near you. It often takes years to raise the necessary money and many films are never made for many different reasons – from the studio system until today, some things never change.

Generally speaking however, film-making is hard work and requires skill, sweat and imagination. You need enthusiasm, a thick skin and dedication, no matter what position you are working in. From the set runner to assistants or the wardrobe department, if you don’t love your job, it will affect the production. And while that may be true for any job, be sure to know that film people rarely work on a regular schedule and are constantly looking for a new project to sink their teeth into. So if you don’t love what you do, why bother? Why put up with the hassle of possibly never seeing your project come to life?

If you’re working in the creative industry, failure, disappointments and frustration are as common as the flu. If you can’t deal with it, it’ll eat you up. So no matter how, if you want to write, compose or act, direct, produce or design, find your coping mechanism, because success is not easy to come by. Surround yourself with supporters, not with people who like to bathe in the possibility of meeting celebrities. Casting shows and gossip paper articles about actors and their supposed fairytale lives have shaped many people’s perception of an industry that has always relied on reinventing their own achievements and popular faces. Don’t buy into what they tell you and learn by doing what it means to make a film. And if you can spare a minute, sit down and imagine how different your favorite movie would’ve looked like with a different cast, score or coloring – it may give you a perspective of all the jobs that were pivotal to make it. Just look at Perry Mason, at Warren William’s portrayal in the 30s compared to Raymond Burr’s two decades later. The same character performed in such a different style and manner. Both perfectly cast if you ask me, but still so unalike in their delivery.

And while I’m at it, I’ve always thought that Barbara Hale would’ve been a beautiful Mary in It’s a Wonderful Life and I’m convinced that Raymond Burr would’ve tackled Stanley Kowalski in a hauntingly impressive way. Daydreaming aside, I also appreciate the wonderful casting we’ve seen in both projects and give kudos to the casting directors who managed to merge talent with chemistry. The Donna Reed Show is another example of a job well done and so is I Love Lucy, Perry Mason, and Our Miss Brooks. For my dream project, I always cast Bill Williams for the lead in The Adventures of Tintin, a film I would have loved to make had I been alive back in the 40s – a film that was released as an animated feature last year and is a great example for the art of film-making.

Science Fiction Theatre

TV classics: Science Fiction Theatre

USA 1955-57, 2 seasons,  78 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, Syndication, black & white, and color (season 1). Hosted by Truman Bradley. Cast examples: John Archer, Gene Barry, Dick Foran, Beverly Garland, Barbara Hale, DeForest Kelley, Otto Kruger, June Lockhart, William Talman, Bill Williams et al.

Plot summary: Introduced by host Truman Bradley, Science Fiction Theatre presented a case of factual science each week, taken one step further by the show’s writers to tickle the imagination of their audience.

Review: Shot in color in season one despite black and white only TV sets across America, Science Fiction Theatre was the forerunner of genre shows such as The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits. Presented by actor Truman Bradley, the anthology series aired on a weekly basis and offered a creative outlook on present-day science and its possible future.

Always written to entertain and educate, Science Fiction Theatre stimulated the mind of its viewers, young and old, and picked up topics such as telepathy, outer space and evolution. Introduced by the show’s host, each story was linked to a concrete example of the topic it focused on and cast with a decent cast of actors to make the plot believable. Often suspenseful and sometimes funny, each episode offered a new scenario of science in motion. “Mind Machine” with Bill Williams, for example, examined the infinite possibilities of the human mind while “The Hastings Secret”, with Barbara Hale, contemplated the abilities of termites.

Today, fifty-five years after going off the air, Science Fiction Theatre is still a joy to watch for anyone who likes to dive into science fact and fiction before starships and aliens conquered the genre. The episodes were short and crisp, and the actors beautifully chosen. If you get your hands on one of the unofficial boxsets, allow yourself to lean back and enjoy the quiet pace of this classic show. It will do wonders to your imagination, a rare treat on TV these days.

Happy Birthday, Handsome(s).

Today, two of my favorite actors were born – Bill Williams in Brooklyn, New York, in 1915 and Raymond Burr in New Westminster, British Columbia, in 1917. Their career paths, parts and looks were as different as they get, but they were both the leading man in the life of one darling lady, Barbara Hale.

Getting acquainted on the RKO studio lot as fellow contract players gone sweethearts, Bill married Barbara in 1946, had three children with her and frequently co-starred with his wife in the same projects. Raymond met Barbara at RKO a year before she met her husband, but didn’t work with her until they were both cast for the Perry Mason TV show in 1956. As Perry Mason and Della Street, they had nine successful years of companionship on screen and off, a gift they shared with Bill when he came to guest star on the hit show for four non-consecutive episodes. In the late sixties and seventies, after the conclusion of Perry Mason, Bill continued to co-star with his wife in movies and on TV while Raymond invited his former leading lady to join him for an episode of his Ironside series. While Bill resigned from acting in 1981, Raymond stepped back into the shoes of the famous lawyer in Perry Mason Returns in 1985 and talked Barbara into joining him to reprise her own popular alter ego. During the success of the renewed franchise, Bill Williams died on September 21, 1992, after forty-six years of marriage to his wife. One year later, on September 12, 1993, Raymond Burr passed away shortly after finishing his 26th Perry Mason TV movie.

Both equally committed to their craft, Bill Williams and Raymond Burr gave their audience a variety of memorable characters who are every bit as genuine today as they were back in the days. With his stage background, Raymond Burr was a versatile supporting actor and frequent villain before he broke through as a charming leading man on TV. Bill Williams, with his roots in Vaudeville, was one of RKO’s great new hopes and leading talents before he found success as TV’s Kit Carson in the 1950s. Guest starring as a character actor in many contemporary programs towards the end of his career, he seemed to finish on characters Raymond Burr had started on. Both unique in their charm, approach and expression, the two actors will always be remembered for entertaining their audience with talent, quality and good looks. After all, who could resist those two handsome men?

Author’s note: Apparently, there’s some confusion about Bill Williams’ date of birth. Wikipedia now lists May 15th as his birthday while imdb still mentions May 21st. As soon as I get confirmation on the validity of one of these dates, you’ll be the first ones to know.