Screen Couples

We all know them: the Stoneses, the Andersons or the Stephenses. For some, they may be a guilty pleasure, for others a mere necessity to get a story told. For me, they are the cherry on top of any tale: fictional couples and their personal stories. On the fringes of drama, comedy and mayhem, romantic innuendo has always been my favorite treat. From Date with the Angels and Family Ties to Murder She Wrote or Babylon 5, I have a weakness for double entendre paired with a healthy sense of humor, smarts and mutual respect.

Della and Perry1) Perry Mason and Della Street, for example, have been my favorite couple for more years than I care to admit. On paper, radio and screen, the lawyer and his secretary know how to put a smile on my face. Committed to their work as much as to each other, the true nature of their relationship has always remained a mystery. For some fans, they are the best of friends while others suspect some hanky-panky behind closed doors. For me, they have long been married, the epitomized working couple who combines independence with traditional values. And that’s the beauty of those characters and their story. They ignite your imagination and tease you to the point of sizzling frustration with a simple look, remark or smitten smile. It is a tradition Erle Stanley Gardner himself started in The Velvet Claws in 1933 and lasted until 1994 when the last Perry Mason TV movie aired on NBC. Perfected by its signature cast, Raymond Burr and Barbara Hale, Perry and Della have since lived on in the hearts of many fans, the flame of their romance burning more and more brightly towards the series’ end.

Jennifer&Jonathan2) The second couple I have loved for as long as I can remember are Jennifer and Jonathan Hart. Sophisticated, rich and charming, the Harts had everything including a mutually executed interest in solving mysteries. Following in the footsteps of TV’s Mr. and Mrs. North, they dug up trouble where it’s usually hard to find but their love for each other made their cases stand out from others. Together, they were invincible and (much like Della and Perry) have stood the test of time. A mere decade after Hart to Hart was canceled on ABC, the couple returned to television in 1993, matured, refined, and every bit as committed to each other as they had always been. Today, the Harts are still a dream couple for their fans, a twosome who showed their audience the ingredients of true love and how it beautiful life can be even if you are denied to have your desired offspring.

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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.

Valerie aka The Hogan Family

TV classics: Valerie’s Family: The Hogans

USA 1986-91, six seasons, 110 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, NBC and CBS, color. Cast: Valerie Harper, Jason Bateman, Jeremy Licht, Luis Danial Ponce, Josh Taylor, Edie McClurg, Sandy Duncan.

Plot summary: Valerie Hogan is a mother of three boys who know how to keep her on her toes, especially in the absence of her husband, an airplane pilot.

valeriecast-1Review: A couple of days ago, I read (like many of you I presume)  about Valerie Harper’s current struggle with brain cancer. Upon processing these sad news, I immediately remembered the shows I saw with her as I was growing up: The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Rhoda and, predominantly, Valerie. Starting in 1986, the actress starred in the now famous family show as Valerie Hogan, a mother of three boys whose idiosyncrasies seemed to increase as soon as their pilot father (Josh Taylor) had taken off to yet another international destination. Never shy of parental advice, witty comebacks and organizing skills, Valerie managed her boys with a mix of independence and charm. She was not exactly a housewife but later worked from home in order to better meet her family’s needs. David (Jason Bateman), her oldest son, always challenged her patience while Mark and Willie (Jeremy Licht and Danny Ponce) added trouble of their own to their mother’s daily tasks and duties.

Although a family program, Valerie (as the title may suggest) originally focused on the mother of the Hogan family, her life and struggles. Within the first two seasons, however, the show slowly shifted into a more adolescent direction and had a closer look at the three teenage brothers. Simultaneously, the comedy writers adopted a more realistic tone and thus paved the way for unexpected changes that occurred in season three when the female lead was axed from her own show. As a result of revenue issues, Valerie Harper’s character was killed off in a car accident and left her screen family in a state of shock. With Michael Hogan (Josh Taylor) stepping up to take care of his children, eagerly supported by his sister (Sandy Duncan) or their quirky neighbor Mrs. Poole (Edie McClurg), the show was aptly renamed Valerie’s Family: The Hogans. While the show found a successful way to cope with the sudden loss of their named star, Valerie Harper herself sued the network and production company for breach of contract. In response to the ongoing dispute behind the scenes, the actress’ name was completely dropped from the title by the end of season three and for its remaining seasons, the program was simply called The Hogan Family.

Although slowly declining in the audience’s favor after the transition from Valerie Harper to Sandy Duncan as the female head of the family, the show also broke ground by touching topics such as safe sex and AIDS. Unfortunately, however, the Hogans did not recover from switching networks from NBC to CBS in 1990 and was thus finally canceled in 1991 without a proper series finale. Today, selected episodes are available on Youtube and in occasional reruns. A DVD release has not yet been announced but fans of the show don’t give up hope for their childhood classic to finally be made available. Even though The Hogan Family took the path of many of its peers and went downhill towards the end of its run, the show still brings back good memories of a time when family entertainment was still a pivotal part of evening programming. With its iconic theme song and wonderful cast, the series has stood the test of time with old fans and new ones alike. Enjoy the pilot here and judge for yourselves. If you liked the show as a child, I’m sure you’ll fall in love with it again. Thank you, Valerie Harper, for bringing back the memories despite the sad circumstances. It’s shows like these that will keep you alive and healthy in our hearts forever.

The Dick Van Dyke Show

TV classics: The Dick Van Dyke Show

USA 1961-66, five seasons, 158 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Cast: Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Rose Marie, Morey Amsterdam, Larry Matthews, Richard Deacon.

Plot summary: Rob is the writer of a successful TV show. At home, he is the loving husband of Laura and their son Ritchie. Together, they master the adventures and challenges of everyday life with warm hearts and a healthy sense of humor.

The-Dick-Van-Dyke-ShowReview: In 1960, Carl Reiner created a TV show based on his experiences as a writer in Hollywood. Called Head of the Family, the show featured Reiner himself in the leading role as Rob Petrie and Mr. and Mrs. North alumn Barbara Britton as his television wife. Despite the lovely casting choice for Mrs. Petrie, the show failed to meet the necessary enthusiasm to be picked up for a complete season and found its way back to Carl Reiner’s writing desk. Re-imagined and re-cast with Dick van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, the show made a comeback one year later. Named after the new leading man, The Dick Van Dyke Show found a home on CBS for its first season and was renewed for four more due to Procter & Gamble’s commercial influence on the network.

Rewarded with 15 Emmy Awards (out of 25 nominations), the show offered a look behind the scenes of a fictional variety program, The Alan Brady Show, as well as a glimpse into the Petrie household. Although using the quirks of Hollywood as a setting was nothing new by 1961, The Dick Van Dyke Show managed to find a balance between the ballyhoo of entertainment and the everyday chaos of family life. Blessed with the comedic talents of the two leading actors as well as their natural chemistry, the show was lighthearted, smart and funny. Shaped in quality and style by writer/creator Carl Reiner (who also appeared as fictional TV star Alan Brady), the show remained top notch from beginning to end and is still popular in reruns today. Available on DVD and Blu-ray, the entire series can also be revisited by old fans and new ones alike – a worthwhile endeavor for anyone who appreciates classy comedy and a wholesome but quirky style.

Remember the show or need a reminder? Watch the pilot here.

America in Primetime

In 2011, PBS presented America in Primetime, a documentary in four parts about the history of television. Focusing on the evolution of the Independent Woman, the Man of the House, the Misfit and Crusader, each episodes offered a look back at the beginning of mainstream television in the 1950s until today. Blessed with a great variety of popular interviewees, America in Primetime was an ambitious project with names such as Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Ron Howard, David Lynch and Shonda Rhimes attached to it. Unfortunately however, the series did not live up to its potential and rarely offered controversy about contemporary perception. For years, it’s been in vogue to bash the 50s and idealize the 1960 and 70s, for example, but from the announcement of this PBS production I had expected otherwise.

It’s always easy to look at a bygone era with modern eyes without looking underneath the surface. But no matter how much I am personally tickled by Lucille Ball, the 1950s had more to offer than just I Love Lucy, The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. I was surprised, to say the least, when I didn’t hear a mention of Betty White and her already flourishing career and bewildered, like so often, when Mary Richards was called the first single working girl on television. Whatever happened to Connie Brooks and Della Street? After all, not every female character (despite their feminine appeal) was “just” a housewife, a job many (post-)feminists still seem to wrestle with.

Male characters of that era weren’t appraised more adequately either. I mean, Ralph Kramden may have been a prototype for characters like Fred Flintstone or Homer Simpson, but he was already a caricature back in his time and not just a regular guy. Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, as another popular example, was also more flawed than critics often depict him today. His wholesome attitude and simple answers may have fostered the image of the omnipotent father, but only on the surface – he was wrong too often with his fatherly assessments to call him a picture perfect patriarch.

But America in Primetime doesn’t like to dig deeper and rather creates an odd summary of female liberation (and correlated emasculation of male role models) on TV. Murphy Brown, Sex and the City and Grey’s Anatomy serve as notable examples along with The Good Wife‘s Kalinda Sharma. Positive role models such as The Cosby Show‘s Clair Huxtable, Maggie Seaver from Growing Pains, Designing Women or The Golden Girls don’t even get a mention and I wonder if it’s their grace and domesticity or their love for men that interferes with the desired image of women who favor their careers over everything else.

All in all, America in Primetime – like other documentaries before – celebrates the evolution of television from the simple, archaic days of the 1950s to a supposed golden age of the 2000s (predominantly on pay TV). By celebrating the creation of broken and disturbed characters whose complexity supports the audience’s alleged desire for drama and realism, the program may appeal to anyone who enjoys shows like Nurse Jackie, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. For anyone who prefers dignity, subtlety and moderation in storytelling, the documentary may draw the wrong conclusions about a bygone era and leave a taste of bias in your mouth. Personally, I was dissatisfied with the fragmented glimpse into TV history and the overwhelming number of present-day TV makers as a primary interview source. But with my fondness for vintage that may not come as a surprise.

Interview Treats

Many of you may already be familiar with these, but for those of you who are not, I am happy to introduce you to the Archive of American Television*. They offer a variety of in depth interviews with legendary faces behind and in front of the camera back in the earlier days of television. If you ask me about my dream job, this would be it: initiating serious, easeful conversations with the people who created my favorite screen memories.

Below you can find a selection of my favorite interviews, but there are many more for you to enjoy. If you’re like me, you’ll end up spending an entire weekend exploring the archive and listening to your favorite people. Just grab a cup of tea, some cookies and a blanket, then cuddle up on the couch with your laptop nearby and embrace the stories and memories of your childhood heroes. It’s a real treat!

Alan Alda, Julie Andrews, Bea Arthur, Tom Bosley, Carol Burnett, Tyne Daly, James Garner, Sharon Gless, Katherine Helmond, Shirley Jones, Eartha Kitt, Angela Lansbury, Jack Lemmon, Rue McClanahan, Mary Tyler Moore, Diana Muldaur, Phylicia Rashad, Della Reese, Marion Ross, Jean Stapleton, Gale Storm, Loretta Swit, Dick Van Dyke, Betty White, Jane Wyman and many others…

* The Archive of American Television is also on Youtube. You can find their TV Legends channel here.

Pantomime Quiz

TV classics: Pantomime Quiz

USA 1947-59, aka Stump the Stars 1962-63, irregular seasons, episodes approximately 25 minutes each, KTLA, CBS, DuMont, NBC and ABC, black & white. Hosted by Mike Stokey. Celebrity guests: Lucie Arnaz, Carol Burnett, Raymond Burr, Beverly Garland, Barbara Hale, William Hopper, Eartha Kitt, Michael Landon, Nancy Sinatra, William Talman, Dick Van Dyke et al.

Game summary: Based on the popular game Charades, two groups of celebrity contestants compete against each other to find out who’s faster at miming the titles and sentences contributed by the audience.

Review: Pantomime Quiz is one of those shows I miss a lot these days: pure entertainment for the entire family. These game shows are great fun to watch at any age and apparently brought a lot of joy to the contestants as well back in the days. Beverly Garland was one of the regular contestants on Pantomime Quiz, Sebastian Cabot and Ross Martin. Always supported by an incoming celebrity guest, the ever-changing teams of contestants did their best to explain as many terms, names or phrases as possible. The faster a contestant managed to show his or her given term without using a single word, the more points their team got. If they didn’t stay under two minutes, no points were added to their account and thus lowered their chances to prevail in the end.

Originally airing on KTLA as early as in 1947, Pantomime Quiz survived a successful twelve non-consecutive season run on four different networks. Presented by Mike Stokey, the show won an Emmy for “Most Popular Television Program” at the first Emmy Awards ceremony. Discontinued on ABC in 1959, the show was revived on CBS in 1962 under a new title, Stump the Stars. Pat Harrington Jr. hosted the re-imagined show until veteran emcee Stokey returned to the format and welcomed celebrity guests such as the cast of the Dick Van Dyke Show and Perry Mason.

Today, selected clips are available online and on DVD to enjoy with your (grand)parents and kids. Complete episodes are a real treat, my personal favorite being an episode from 1963 featuring Raymond Burr, Barbara Hale, William Hopper and William Talman (displayed on the 5oth Anniversary of Perry Mason box set). I always root for each one of them to find the right clues and gestures, no matter how often I watch them play. You can have a look a full sample episode here on youtube and see for yourselves or click the links above to share my joy about the Perry Mason gang and their familiar quips and quirks. But be prepared, if you’re into game shows, Pantomime Quiz or Stump the Stars may awaken your inner Charades Queen (or King) who feels the urge to convert everyone around you to play along.