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.

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And Baby Makes Three

Talkie of the Week: And Baby Makes Three

USA 1949, 84 minutes, black & white, Columbia Pictures. Director: Henry Levin, Written by Lou Breslow and Joseph Hoffman. Cast: Robert Young, Barbara Hale, Robert Hutton, Janis Carter, Billie Burke, Nicholas Joy, Lloyd Corrigan, Howland Chamberlain, Melville Cooper

Plot summary: Vern and Jackie are recently divorced and not exactly on speaking terms until Jackie wants to get married again and learns that she is pregnant with Vern’s baby.

Review: Reuniting Barbara Hale and Robert Young in yet another romantic comedy after their decent success with Lady Luck at RKO in 1947, Columbia Pictures presented And Baby Makes Three on December 2, 1949 to movie theaters across the country. Diverting and hilarious in best screwball tradition, the film told the story of Jackie and Verne, two recent divorcées who are brought back together on Jackie’s wedding day. Engaged to Herbie Fletcher, a man of considerable wealth, she is walking down the aisle as his bride when she suddenly swoons and has to lie down to get examined by her uncle, Dr. Bill Parnell. Overwhelming her with the news of being pregnant with her ex-husband’s child, Jackie is forced to deal with an excited Verne, a dumbfounded Herbie and his unamused family. As the story progresses, Jackie and Verne find it easy to fall back into their old patterns and fight, laugh and love as much as they used to before they ended their marriage.

Using well-proven twists and turns, And Baby Makes Three managed to tell a silly story in a fast-paced, amusing way. Blessed with the talents of two charming leads, the film benefited from the chemistry between Barbara Hale and Robert Young, as well as from the often witty dialog. Although predictable like most other written romances, the movie is a delightful eighty-four minutes of good-natured drama, absurdity and laughter. It may not have reached other top notch comedies of its time in quality, but And Baby Makes Three continues to be one of those films you may all too easily fall in love with and it is unfortunate that it hasn’t yet been released on DVD*. I am hopeful, however, that the film will get a second chance – after all, “Barb” Hale and “Bob” Young worked so well together as a team, in Lady Luck (1946), And Baby Makes Three (1949), on Marcus Welby M.D. (1974) or at the Emmy’s in 1959 when Robert Young presented the award for Best Actress to his dear colleague Barbara Hale.

And Baby Makes Three theatrical trailer

*Edit: The film will be released on DVD on September 4, 2012.

Lady Luck

Talkie of the Week: Lady Luck

USA 1946, 97 minutes, black & white, RKO Radio Pictures. Director: Edwin L. Marin, Written by Herbert Clyde Lewis, Frank Fenton and Lynn Root. Cast: Robert Young, Barbara Hale, Frank Morgan, James Gleason, Don Rice, Harry Davenport, Lloyd Corrigan, Teddy Hart, Joseph Vitale, Douglas Morrow, Robert Clarke

Plot summary: Mary comes from a long line of gamblers and distastes gambling accordingly. When she falls in love with Larry and marries him, she has a hard time accepting with his favorite pastime but learns to deal with it in her very own way.

Review: Lady Luck was one of Barbara Hale’s first A picture deals at RKO, a movie that put her in the spotlight next to studio heartthrob Robert Young. Blessed with congenial on-screen chemistry, the two leads did their best to turn this film into a decent hit, something that wasn’t particularly easy in the post-war world of entertainment.As Mary Audrey and Larry Scott, Ms. Hale and Bob Young created a romantic atmosphere with screwball wit by using their charm to make the plot convincing.

Written as a diverting romantic comedy, the film picked up on a serious topic that was dealt with in an amusing way and thus found the hearts of movie goers back in 1946. Presented on The Hedda Hopper Show – This Is Hollywood one year later, a thirty minute adaptation of the movie was broadcast with its original stars on radio, tying in with the film’s good success. However, although entertaining and hilarious at times, the movie was not shown in endless television reruns in later years and is still not available on DVD. It would be unfortunate if this film just faded in the minds of those who appreciated it for the excellent cast and funny writing. Frank Morgan’s performance as William Audrey, Mary’s grandfather, was such a wonderful addition to Barbara Hale’s delightful acting and her screen husband’s equally attractive talents, it is worth being passed on to future generations.

So if you come across the film on TV or find a copy elsewhere, do make the time to enjoy this bubbly film about the unlikely impact of gambling on a beautiful romance. Watch TV’s Marcus Welby M.D. and Perry Mason‘s Della Street fall in love on screen – they did it so beautifully. So beautifully, indeed, that Columbia Pictures teamed them up again for And Baby Makes Three in 1949, another lovely comedy for a rainy summer day, and a film I will introduce you to next week.

Happy Birthday, Barbara Hale!

Today, the lovely Barbara Hale celebrates her 90th birthday and this post is my way of wishing her well. So please feel invited to walk down memory lane with me through her career on screen and her public life which started in the funny papers when she was modeling for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill and ended when she retired from acting in 1994 to fully commit herself to her beloved family.

Born on April 18th, 1922*, in DeKalb, Barbara Hale grew up as the second of two daughters of Ezra and Willa Hale in Rockford, Illinois. Interested in art early on, Barbara was encouraged by her mother to pursue her goal of becoming a commercial artist. Working after school to show her dedication to her craft, her father gave his consent for her to attend the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts after her high school graduation. Living at the YWCA where she shared a room with a friend, Barbara was soon asked to model for fellow students and finally landed a job posing for a comic strip called Ramblin’ Bill. She was a fashion model when a talent scout spotted her and offered her a chance for a trial contract with RKO in Hollywood. Young, ambitious and thrilled about acting, Barbara hopped on the train out West and landed her first job as the replacement of a sick extra in Gildersleeve’s Bad Day on her day of arrival in 1943.

Getting her education on the studio lot, Barbara immersed herself in her new profession, eagerly embracing singing, horseback riding, voice and dance lessons while continuing to work as a model for a variety of products. Prone to being sociable and charming, it didn’t take her long to meet fellow contract player Bill Williams with whom she fell in love on studio grounds. Working together on West of the Pecos in 1944, her first big part after debuting on Higher and Higher alongside Frank Sinatra, she soon knew she wanted to marry her “Ramblin’ Bill”. Although committed to founding a family while missing her own, Barbara kept working hard for her career and landed strong parts in First Yank into Tokyo and Lady Luck.

In 1946, Barbara and Bill got married and started working on A Likely Story. In 1947, a little more than a year after taking their vows, their first child was born, daughter Jody. Two more children followed in 1951 and 1953, son Billy and another daughter, Juanita. While being a dedicated mother and wife, Barbara kept working on movies such as The Boy with Green Hair, The Clay Pigeon and The Window until she left RKO when her contract ended with the studio. She started working for Columbia and secured herself a part in Jolson Sings Again, then also worked for other studios before tackling television. The Jackpot with Jimmy Stewart, Lorna Doone, A Lion is in the Streets with James Cagney and The Houston Story were some of her memorable films, as well as a number of Westerns such as The Oklahoman with Joel McCrea.

In 1956, Barbara was approached by Gail Patrick Jackson who urged her to join the cast of a new show called Perry Mason. Skeptical at first due to the young age of her three children, Barbara finally accepted the promising offer and became TV’s most famous secretary when the show went on the air in 1957. Rewarded with a congenial atmosphere on set, lasting friendships, two Emmy nominations and one win, Barbara soon had a reputation of being everyone’s favorite cast member. Adored by fans and press alike, coverage on the Perry Mason family and “Della Street” in her private life returned to an old-time high. Although strenuous at times, being on set six days a week (even when she didn’t have any lines) and leading a rich family life, Barbara embraced her part with full abandon and was grateful for the steady work.

In 1966, after nine years of television fame, Perry Mason was discontinued and Barbara took a well-deserved break from acting to unwind and enjoy more time with her family – her husband and their three children, then nineteen, fifteen and thirteen. In 1967, Barbara made her big screen comeback in a Western called Buckskin, continuing the family tradition of working with her husband on the same film. More common projects followed, including guest stints on Insight and Adam-12, as well as movies such as The Giant Spider Invasion and The Flight of the Grey Wolf.

After numerous guest stints on popular shows like Ironside, The Doris Day Show and Marcus Welby M.D. and supporting parts on movies such as Airport in 1970, Barbara also returned to making a living with commercials when she became the Amana spokesperson for Radar Range microwave ovens in the 70s. She also starred in two of her son Billy Katt’s projects, Big Wednesday and The Greatest American Hero before he joined her on the reprise of her career’s biggest success. In 1985, Barbara was asked to reunite with her longtime co-star and friend Raymond Burr for Perry Mason Returns, a TV movie that launched another ten years of steady work. After the death of her husband of forty-six years in 1992 and the passing of Raymond Burr only one year later, Barbara Hale continued her performance as Della Street in another four Perry Mason Mysteries before she retired from acting in 1994 for personal reasons. She has led a private life with her family in the Los Angeles area  since but given occasional interviews. Some of her latest interviews are available on the 50th Anniversary of Perry Mason DVD which was released in 2008.

After this sketchy introduction to a very rich life and a darling lady what else is left to say but this: Bless your heart, dear Barbara Hale, for being such an inspiration, and best of wishes on your special day.

* Author’s note: There’s some confusion about Barbara Hale’s actual birthday. While most sources list April 18, 1922 as her day of birth, others say she was already born in 1921. I decided to stick with the most commonly used date. Should that be wrong, I’ll gladly make the necessary changes here on Talking Classics.

Marcus Welby M.D.

TV classics: Marcus Welby M.D.

USA 1969-76, 7 seasons, 169 episodes, 48 minutes each, ABC. Cast: Robert Young, James Broslin, Elena Verdugo, Recurring cast: Anne Baxter, Christine Belford, Anne Schedeen, Sharon Gless, Gavin Brendan, Pamela Hensley

Plot summary: After living through a heart attack, Marcus Welby shares his practice a young doctor called Steven Kiley. As a general practitioner, Dr. Welby has a lot to teach to his young associate whose medical skills are as formidable as his methods are modern.

Review: Marcus Welby M.D. premiered on ABC with a two hour movie of the week in September 1969. It introduced the lead character Dr. Welby and his young associate Dr. Steven Kiley, as well as some supporting regulars such as Elena Verdugo as Consuelo Lopez, the doctors faithful nurse and secretary. Serving as a pilot episode to the following TV show, the plot focused on the characters’ background, as well as on the essentials of medical drama: emergency patients and the duality of professional opinions.

Throughout its seven years on the air, Marcus Welby M.D. stuck to its successful ingredients of featuring two generations of doctors who did their best to cure their patients. Robert Young played Dr. Welby, a general practitioner who cared for his patients as more than just customers who paid their bills. James Brolin was Dr. Kiley, his young and ambitious associate who brought a whole set of modern ideas to the Welby practice as well as an eagerness to learn his mentor’s well-tried techniques. They were supported by a hands-on secretary and a variety of regular guest stars such as Anne Baxter, Christine Belford, Sharon Gless or Anne Schedeen.

Introducing new cases every week, Marcus Welby M.D. touched a lot of medical issues otherwise not commonly addressed on television. The show also reunited Robert Young with his longtime Father Knows Best co-star Jane Wyatt, and his two time RKO co-star Barbara Hale who guest starred for an episode each.

After hitting a respectable high in ratings in its second season and a nod at the Emmys, the show declined in the mid 70s and was ultimately taken off the air in 1976 after a total run of 169 episodes. Today, the show is slowly being released on DVD to be savored by its many fans who loved the show back in the days or grew up with it in reruns. What was entertaining then is blissfully diverting now – Marcus Welby M.D. with its high quality scripts and top notch actors is a true gem.

Seasons one and two available on DVD.

Marcus Welby M.D. pilot episode, “A Matter of Humanities”

What’s My Line?

TV classics: What’s My Line?

USA 1950-67, 17 seasons,  876 episodes, 25 minutes each, CBS, black & white. Presented by John Charles Daly. Panelists: Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen, Bennett Cerf, Louis Untermeyer, Hal Block, Steve Allen, Fred Allen, Mystery celebrity guests: Julie Andrews, Eve Arden, Desi Arnaz, Fred Astaire, Lauren Bacall, Lucille Ball, Candice Bergen, Polly Bergen, Carol Burnett, James Cagney, Claudette Colbert, Sean Connery, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, Errol Flynn, Joan Fontaine, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, James Garner, Bob Hope, Grace Kelley, Gene Kelly, Deborah Kerr, Hedy Lamarr, Angela Lansbury, Jack Lemmon, Sophia Loren, Myrna Loy, Allen Ludden, Paul Newman, Debbie Reynolds, Ginger Rogers, Mickey Rooney, Jane Russell, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Ann Sothern, Jimmy Stewart, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Gene Tierney, Lana Turner, Robert Wagner, Betty White, Joanne Woodward, Jane Wyman, Robert Young et al.

Game summary: Four panelists are trying to guess the occupation of their guests and the identity of the mystery celebrity of the week.

Review: What’s My Line? was one of the longest running and most popular game shows on American TV. Launched as early as in 1950, the show was broadcast weekly on CBS for seventeen successful seasons until it was continued on a daily basis in syndication. Transferred to radio as well as to audiences worldwide, the format was a big success and didn’t go off the air until 1975. In its history, What’s My Line? featured a lot of famous mystery celebrity guests such as Lucille Ball, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Elizabeth Taylor or Robert Young, some of whom appeared more than once.

With its easy format, the game show was an entertaining half hour of guessing what the weekly guests were doing for a living, for the panelists as much as for the TV audience. Broadcast live in the beginning, What’s My Line? lived of the chemistry between its regular panelists and their host John Charles Daly. Arlene Francis, Dorothy Kilgallen and Bennett Cerf stayed with the show the longest while the fourth spot on the panel was usually given to a famous incoming guest. The thrill of the show lay in the variety of professions the panelists had to guess by asking funny as well as witty “yes-and-no only” questions. The mystery celebrity guest was always the cherry on top of each episode when the blindfolded panel of four queried its way to revealing who was sitting next to their host.

Like so many of the classic game shows, What’s My Line? is a lot of fun to watch these days. The panelists, guests and celebrities are entertaining and hilarious at times. The program is innocent for today’s standards, classy and polite. The game is harmless and relaxing, a perfect show to watch at the end of a hectic day.

Selected clips available on youtube (see links above).

Father Knows Best

TV classics: Father Knows Best

USA 1954-60, 6 seasons,  203 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, CBS and NBC, black & white, Created by: Ed James. Cast: Robert Young, Jane Wyatt, Elinor Donahue, Billy Gray, Lauren Chapin

Plot summary: Jim is the head of the Anderson family, including his wife Margaret and their three children Betty, Bud and Kathy. Together they master their everyday life with a good sense of humor and lots of love.

Review: In 1949, Father Knows Best had its radio debut before it moved on to continue its success on television five years later. Circling around the everyday joys and troubles of the Anderson family, the show was targeting an audience of all ages. Jim Anderson, his wife Margaret and their three children epitomized the American family: Jim as the working father who advises his brood in times of trouble, Margaret, housewife and mother, the voice of reason in the family, and their three well-bred children.

What is sometimes perceived as a cliche today was a magnet for entire families then, a program to watch every week with entertaining storylines of educational value. It would be wrong to assume that every family worked as perfectly back in the 50s as the program suggests – after all, how much do contemporary programs reflect our lives today? But like in the 2000s, there was a grain of truth behind the concept. Father Knows Best reflected the aspirations of an entire generation of Americans and influenced their children as they grew up.

Regrettably, both Jim and Margaret Anderson seem outdated with their commitment to family and harmony these days, compared to most shows that now dominate TV. They are gaining momentum again however, online and on DVD. Like so many of their contemporaries, the show is well perceived, once more, by an audience of all ages – some of them old enough to remember the 1950s with great fondness while others wish to have experienced those times for real. There seems to be a craving for authentic programs and storylines far away from sex, drugs and mayhem. For shows that present reliable values and happy faces. Father Knows Best sure is one of those desired products, led by a charming cast of actors including the unforgettable Robert Young and the equally memorable Jane Wyatt as Mr. and Mrs. Anderson.

Available on DVD. Father Knows Best sample episodes

Father Knows Best website