Monday, January 16, 2017

Reaching for the Stars

"In 1940 our armed forces weren't among the 12 most formidable in the world, but obviously we were going to fight a big war. And Roosevelt said the U.S. would produce 50,000 planes in the next four years. Everyone thought it was a joke — and it was 'cause we produced 100,000 planes. Gave our armed forces an armada that would block out the sun."

Sam (Rob Lowe)

I always enjoyed the West Wing, in large part because it usually managed to educate as it entertained, especially in its first three or four seasons. People who watched the West Wing regularly — in the third season, during which "100,000 Airplanes" premiered on this night in 2002, the show ranked #10 — were frequently exposed to things that most people don't know.

Often that knowledge focused on American history, how things are done and why they are done that way, but the information didn't come exclusively from history or politics. For example, when the time came for the president (Martin Sheen) to acknowledge that he had multiple sclerosis, many viewers learned things about that medical condition that they did not know.

But on this night in 2002, "100,000 Airplanes" stayed on topic, you might say. It gave viewers some insight into the annual rite of creating the president's state of the union address — with a dollop of history on top.

Basically the episode took place on the night of the president's state of the union address, framed by his recent congressional censure for his handling of his medical condition and his upcoming campaign for re–election. The viewers watched Sam (Rob Lowe), one of the president's speechwriters, as he observed what was happening and reflected on the process of creating the speech for a Vanity Fair reporter who had been assigned to cover him that night. The reporter (Traylor Howard) happened to be a young woman with whom Sam had once been engaged.

To say it was an awkward evening at times is being charitable.

But it gave Sam the chance to talk about a tidbit from the original speech that didn't make the cut — a call to cure cancer within 10 years. The president seemed sincere in his desire to challenge his fellow Americans to commit themselves to that goal — but the West Wing staff almost unanimously believed that it was an attempt to deflect attention from the president's problems and would be perceived that way by the voters.

All except Sam. He told the president that he thought it was a good idea for several reasons, among them that government "should be optimistic," that it should be about more than entitlement checks and budgets.

And that is a worthy concept — that government's priority should be to serve the people, not itself. If you look at the 2016 election results, from the presidential race on down, I think you will see that the majority of Americans agree.

But ultimately the idea was scrapped because the administration couldn't provide a realistic monetary figure that would be necessary to fund such an endeavor. In fact, they really couldn't answer many questions at all.

Oh, that dollop of history I mentioned earlier was the comment Sam made about FDR that you can find at the top of this post.

An example of executive overreach that paid off.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Taking Responsibility

I often hear it said that the members of today's generation — known informally as Millennials — are a generation of narcissists. It is equally fashionable to attribute that to poor parenting.

That isn't true in every case, of course. Not all of the Millennials are self–absorbed, and not all of their parents failed in their duty to raise responsible members of society. But it is true in many cases. Those parents would have done well to study the episodes of the Andy Griffith Show whenever issues came up.

I have long thought that Andy Griffith was TV's best father. The episodes of the Andy Griffith Show that focused on the challenges he faced as a single parent were some of the best ever made — and should be required viewing for every parent with or without a partner.

Andy was a smart man, and his wisdom benefited older folks as well as his boy Opie (Ron Howard).

For example — the episode that first aired on this night in 1962, "Bailey's Bad Boy," guest–starring Bill Bixby, who went on to starring roles in My Favorite Martian, The Courtship of Eddie's Father and The Incredible Hulk.

Bixby was 27 when he made this episode, playing the spoiled 19–year–old son of an apparently wealthy man. Bixby's character sideswiped a farmer and got hauled in to the Mayberry jail by Andy (Andy Griffith) and Barney (Don Knotts).

The young man was a snob who looked down upon country folks like the ones in Mayberry — he saw them as rubes and hayseeds — and his time there was loaded with all kinds of encounters with small–town types, like the time that town drunk Otis (Hal Smith) came in and started raising hell because Bixby was in his cell.

Otis wouldn't be a politically correct character now, but he was always good for some comic relief back in the day — and that is essentially what Otis provided in this episode, diverting attention — but only momentarily — from the serious issue at hand.

If the term affluenza had been in vogue in 1962, Bixby's character could have been its poster child. He clearly had been deprived of parental involvement in his childhood — and he was just as clearly influenced by what he observed in Andy and Opie's relationship.

It wasn't so much the things Andy said as it was the things he did to keep Opie going in the right direction that impressed Bixby. When Opie confessed that he had broken a window, Andy told him he wouldn't receive an allowance until the window had been replaced. (That struck a chord for me because I, too, broke a window when I was a child, and my father didn't give me my allowance until it had been replaced.)

"Why don't you bail the little fellow out?" Bixby asked Andy, observing that it was "just a window."

Andy replied that if he did that, Opie would come to him every time he had a problem, expecting Andy to fix it for him. He wanted Opie to be a responsible adult, to "stand on his own two legs." (Maybe that is what my father wanted as well.)

The wealthy and privileged have their own ways of doing things — and that frequently involves the use of their fortunes as substitutes for direct personal involvement. And so it was that before long Bixby's father sent his attorney to Mayberry to "bail out" Bixby. But Andy wouldn't release him. He said he would hold Bixby until the judge could be there for the trial.

So the attorney tried a different technique, bringing in the farmer who had been involved in the original offense. He had been bribed to change his story and say the accident had been his fault.

That was enough for Andy. He gave in and was about to release Bixby.

But Bixby objected. That wasn't what happened, he said. The exasperated attorney said he didn't know what he would tell Bixby's father.

Andy, who had figured out everything, answered for Bixby. "Why don't you tell Mr. Bailey the boy busted a winder," Andy said in his slow Southern drawl, "and wants to stand on his own two legs?"

It wasn't the best episode of the Andy Griffith Show, but it was a pretty good example of the positive influence Andy could be. Television — and young people — could use more examples like that today.

Ask Me No Questions

Archie (Carroll O'Connor): Don't bother the U.S.A. government with the Constitution.

Mike (Rob Reiner): Why? Afraid they're gonna read it?

In my experience, most people will express a fierce sense of loyalty to at least one person — a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend — but that sense of loyalty often disappears when the chips are down.

It's one of the basic instincts of human nature, I suppose — to look out for No. 1 — and that is precisely what Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) did in the episode of All in the Family that first aired on this night in 1972, "Archie and the FBI." But it backfired on him.

The episode began as a quiet evening around the Bunker household. Gloria (Sally Struthers) was helping Mike (Rob Reiner) with his Spanish exercises — I presumed he was taking Spanish in college although I don't recall whether that was ever mentioned. Not that that was important. I don't think Spanish was ever mentioned again — or that any Spanish words were used in the episode.

Archie was observing — and cracking jokes — when there came a knock at the door.

It was an investigator asking questions about a friend, co–worker and neighbor from across the street.

And the flag–waving Archie, overtaken by panic–induced paranoia, gave the investigator answers that sounded like he hardly knew the man — when, in fact, Mike and Gloria kept saying that the neighbor was one of Archie's best friends.

Archie assumed the investigator was from the FBI — I suppose it was a natural assumption as the man told Archie he was from the government — but the questions he asked were not the sort of questions one would expect in a legitimate investigation. He wanted to know what sort of books Archie's friend read, what his drinking habits were, the organizations to which he belonged, that kind of thing.

That made Archie understandably nervous — and more inclined to distance himself from his friend, who just happened to be in the kitchen while Archie spoke with the investigator. Edith (Jean Stapleton) summoned Archie to the kitchen, where the friend insisted on being told what was being said (and asked) about him.

Archie soothed his friend with a promise that everything he said was positive and assured him that they were "best buddies." Archie's friend didn't seem to be convinced, but he left. After the investigator (who had a creepy, kind of robotic smile that he flashed frequently) finished interviewing Archie, he left, too.

Not long after, Archie got a phone call from another neighbor, who said the investigator was at his house asking questions.

Archie asked the neighbor why the investigator was asking questions about the other neighbor — and was told that the investigator was asking questions about Archie.

That was the first half of the show.

When All in the Family returned from its commercial break, paranoia had Archie fully in its grip. He was convinced that he was suspected of being a subversive so he flew his American flag at night. Then Mike planted the idea in Archie's mind that the house might be bugged — so Archie went around peeking under cushions and talking into objects.

Lionel (Mike Evans) came over after the investigator finished asking questions at his house. When Archie asked him what Lionel's family had said, Lionel replied, "We know what you are, and we told him."

Then the first neighbor — the one about whom the investigator interrogated Archie — came by in his American Legion uniform, which he claimed to be wearing for bugle practice, and the two argued about which of them was a subversive.

The friendship was careening off the cliff when the phone rang. It was Archie's shop steward with the information that the investigation was not being conducted by the FBI. It was the Air Force, and the investigation was connected to a defense contract that had been completed months earlier.

When that had been brought to the FBI's attention, the investigation had been dropped.

Edith was elated. That meant the two could go back to being friends again.

Not so fast.

It isn't always easy to go back to the way things were when other things have happened — and when the episode ended, it was unclear whether Archie and his friend would be able to patch things up.

"All that best buddies stuff," Archie said, "it's all for kids anyhow."

Saturday, January 14, 2017

It's a Sin to Tell a Lie ...

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): I hope you remembered to tell him I was an expatriate.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): I told him you're an ex–something.

I know many Frasier fans who didn't care for the episode that first aired on this night 20 years ago — "Liar! Liar!" — but I liked it. It was a perfect reminder of how obsessive Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) could be.

I say "reminder" because viewers who had been watching Frasier for any length of time in the previous 12 or 13 years already knew he could be obsessive about, well, just about anything. After all his years on "Cheers!" it was a given that Frasier was obsessive. It was an element of his personality, and it was a running joke in his own sitcom.

It was a quality the writers gleefully exploited. In the history of TV broadcasting, few character quirks have been mined as successfully and as long as Frasier's obsessiveness.

In "Liar! Liar!" the episode began with something of an examination of the old question, are there good lies? In the course of the conversation, it was revealed that, to get out of a dreaded physical fitness exam, Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Frasier had triggered a fire alarm — and a classmate had been falsely blamed for it. Frasier learned that the classmate had been expelled from prep school as a result.

Frasier felt bad, but Niles didn't. He had bad memories of being tormented by that classmate, who apparently had been an overbearing bully in his youth.

Frasier wanted to make amends and tried to contact the classmate — only to learn he was serving time in prison.

That was a terrible burden for Frasier. Had he been responsible for the classmate's downward spiral? He had to know.

So he went to visit the classmate in prison.

Their meeting began with some amiable chitchat. The classmate asked what Niles was doing. Niles had specifically told Frasier to tell the classmate that he was in Italy so Frasier said, "He's abroad now."

"Really?" the classmate asked. "That must have hurt."

"No, I mean ..." Frasier began, then he said, "Yes, I suppose it did."

Frasier told the classmate he was doing a study on men in prison and how they ended up there. In the course of their discussion, the classmate realized that being expelled as a teenager had put him on the wrong path.

Frasier decided he might be able to compensate by helping the classmate resolve some marital problems he had been having so he went to see the classmate's wife (Carlene Watkins). They had a conversation in which the wife confessed to a sexual fetish — she could only be aroused when there was an element of risk, primarily of being caught in the act.

That was when she jumped into Frasier's lap and told him that her husband had been released from prison and could walk in on them at any time. While funny, I thought that part was a bit contrived. After all, it was the first mention that the classmate was being released. Surely, if he had been granted parole or was about to be released because he had served his sentence, he would have said something when he met with Frasier.

But nothing was said until the last minutes of the episode.

The rest of the episode was slapstick comedy in which Frasier and the ex–classmate barely avoided crossing paths.

You would have thought that such a narrow escape would have taught Frasier not to be so obsessive.

But obviously it didn't. The series remained on the air for another seven years.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Taking a Ride to the Top

"Discouraging premarital sex is against my religion."

Barney (Neil Patrick Harris)

When it comes to losing one's virginity, it is possible to make sweeping generalizations about the attitudes of both genders and be certain that they are mostly true — allowing for the relatively few exceptions.

Most girls want their first time to be with someone special, someone with whom they could see spending the rest of their lives — even if they won't, and most of them don't. Most guys just want to do it.

That, essentially, was the heart of the episode of How I Met Your Mother that premiered on this night in 2007 — "First Time in New York." Native Canadian Robin (Cobie Smulders) was excited about a visit from her younger sister Katie (Lucy Hale) — until Robin and Lily (Alyson Hannigan) saw her passionately kissing a young man as they got off the airplane. Katie explained to Robin that she and the young man had been dating for a couple of months and had decided to sleep together while they were in New York (he was there to visit a cousin).

It was to be Katie's first time. I don't recall if it was ever said whether it was to be her boyfriend's first time. Robin was against the idea and tried to enlist the help of her friends in preventing the tryst. They agreed to help, but the males showed a decided lack of enthusiasm. Marshall (Jason Segel) and Ted (Josh Radnor) had no prepared remarks for talking a girl out of having sex, and Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) argued that it was against his faith to discourage premarital sex.

Thus, the stage was set for the regular cast to get nostalgic about their first times.

Lily and Marshall, for example, had wanted to make their first time special, but they ended up having sex in Marshall's dorm room minutes after agreeing to wait — with Ted sleeping in the upper bunk. Marshall had been under the impression that he and Lily had only slept with each other, but in the conversation it was strongly suggested that Lily had slept with someone else — by implication her high school boyfriend Scooter.

And that created something of a crisis for Marshall — even though Lily insisted that it didn't count because they fooled around but never went all the way. As this conversation was taking place in the lobby of the Empire State Building, Lily used it as an example. She told Katie that she had wanted to come to the Empire State Building for a long time, but she had chosen to wait until she could do so with the right person.

For her part, Robin couldn't stop seeing her sister as the child she had once been, which made it hard for her to talk about other aspects of sex — especially since she was having trouble saying "I love you" to Ted.

That was something Robin had never told a boyfriend before. None of her previous relationships had lasted that long; there was always a deal breaker. Consequently, her relationship with Ted was taking her into uncharted territory.

But her sister thought it was hypocritical of Robin to not want her to lose her virginity at the age of 17 when Robin had lost hers at the age of 16.

Robin said she had just barely had sex — her boyfriend decided that night that he was gay — but it still counted. When asked what she meant by just barely, Robin replied, "He didn't dive all the way into the pool, but he splashed around in the shallow end."

Lily said that didn't count, and that is when it was suggested (and more or less confirmed by Lily's silence) that Lily had been with someone else before she was with Marshall. It bothered Marshall because, in his words, "it rewrites our history."

Lily didn't agree. "Have you been in the Empire State Building?" she asked. "You've only been in the lobby. People don't buy tickets to get in the lobby. They buy tickets to get to the top. Scooter only got in the lobby, and the lobby doesn't count."

Marshall's lawyeresque response was to ask a passerby where they were. He was told the Empire State Building.

As things turned out Katie decided not to lose her virginity to Kyle. Robin told Ted that he had been the one to persuade her with a little conversation they had. Ted told Katie about his first time. "I told her I loved her, but I just wanted to have sex," Ted said. "I would've said anything to make that happen, and that's exactly what I did."

Then he said perhaps the truest thing ever said in a TV sitcom. "I'm not telling you what to do. I'm just telling you what all 17–year–old boys are like — even the nice ones."

So Katie chose not to take a ride to the top with Kyle.

Robin was so grateful that she, perhaps impulsively, told Ted she loved him. She said it felt right.

"You lost your I–love–you–ginity," he told her.

"I was just waiting for the right guy," Robin replied.

Be Careful What You Wish For

Karl (Eric Braeden): What you're watching at this very moment is a classic example of what's wrong with television in this town. It is the pursuit of personality at the expense of competence.

Ted (Ted Knight): I'm not sure I understand.

Karl: I'm sure you don't.

The episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show that first aired on this night 40 years ago, "The Critic," began innocuously enough — Mr. Grant (Ed Asner) was trying to put together a softball team to play WJM's crosstown rival.

But Mr. Grant and the rest of the staff had to leave the newsroom to attend the station manager's reception for Professor Karl Heller (Eric Braeden), a well–known critic who was going to be teaching some classes at the University of Minnesota. He also happened to be a friend of the station manager (David Ogden Stiers, in a pre–M*A*S*H recurring role), who had decided to hire him as an on–air critic at WJM one night a week.

The station manager said the news had become stale and predictable; he wanted controversy because controversy builds ratings.

As the staffers tried to make conversations with him, mentioning plays and movies that they had liked, it dawned on them that the professor was negative about everything.

Murray (Gavin MacLeod), for example, told the professor that he loved watching movies on TV. "That's where they belong," the professor replied.

"Come on, you must like some movies," Murray said.

"Well, at best, which it seldom is," the professor conceded, "a film can be powerful. There was one absolutely first–rate Ukrainian film at the last festival. It was called 'Blood On A Dog's Face.' It was about deformity. But somehow the subtitles missed all the whimsy."

When he left the professor, Murray walked over to Mr. Grant. "You want to know something?" Murray asked. "That guy's a pain in the neck."

"I have an even lower opinion of him," Mr. Grant replied.

In his first appearance on WJM, the professor pledged to spend the coming weeks evaluating the people of Minneapolis and trying to determine "why no first–rate art has ever been created in this vacant — but intellectually famished — arid and sterile city."

If the station manager wanted controversy, he got it. "That is the cruelest man I have ever seen," the perpetually amorous Sue Ann (Betty White) told her colleagues in the newsroom. "I think I am in love!"

The professor's commentary about Minneapolis had the phones ringing off their hooks. And it persuaded the station manager that one night a week wasn't enough. He wanted the critic to be on the air every night.

Things cut a little too close to the bone, though, when the professor turned his spotlight on WJM.

And he got told off by, of all people, normally timid Mary.

After she finished, Mr. Grant and Murray were about to throw some punches at the professor when he pointed out that they would not do so because he had stated an honest opinion, and people in the news business don't attack people for that.

Sue Ann came in carrying a pie. She was angry about what the professor had said about her show in his critique, but he used the same rationale to mollify her. "You're sensible, rational people," he said, "and sensible, rational people do not throw either pies or punches at someone's face for simply stating an honest opinion. Only a fool would vent his frustration in those ways."

At that moment, Ted walked into the newsroom and pushed Sue Ann's hand that was holding the pie into the professor's face.

It was unanimous.

Change of Life

"After 23 years of stifles, the dingbat turns on me."

Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor)

Sometimes I can't help but marvel at the frankness of the modern culture.

For example, when I was growing up, certain things still were not said in public — and rarely in private. Sex — the act itself or anything that was exclusively masculine or especially feminine — was seldom brought up in the movies — and never on television. In person–to–person interaction, sex and bodily functions were topics only with one's closest peers.

These days I keep up with my goddaughter on Facebook. I love her dearly, but I am often astonished by the language she so casually uses in her conversations with her friends and family. Words that, when I was younger, I would have been embarrassed to use even with my best friends — and never around my parents or anyone from their generation. It's a different world, I remind myself. There were walls in those days. Many walls.

But All in the Family started breaking down those walls in the early 1970s.

Women like my goddaughter probably will never know the debt they owe to women like Jean Stapleton, who played Edith on All in the Family and was at the center of an episode that aired on this night in 1972 — "Edith's Problem" — that focused on one of those gender–oriented topics of which people never spoke at the time.


I've seen many women in my life who were pioneers in their fields. I've even had the honor of knowing a few personally. And perhaps they all would have been pioneers eventually even without the inspirational women who went ahead and did the heavy lifting. But it would have taken them longer.

Jean Stapleton was one of those trailblazers. As Edith Bunker, she was able to articulate things in a way that women of her generation could understand — and her relationship with her daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers) allowed her to reach across the aisle.

It was a unique position, and Edith always used it well. The early '70s was a tumultuous time in America, and Edith led both the acceptance of the new ways and the assault on the old.

And so much of it came down to what people thought — and that meant language. George Carlin observed that we do think in language, and the language that we use (or don't use) says a lot.

Menopause was not a word that was used very much in those days, at least not openly. It isn't an obscene word. It describes a condition that most people in those days preferred to ignore, perhaps because it was associated with aging — and no one likes to get old.

But in "Edith's Problem," viewers learned that menopause could happen to a woman any time after she turns 40. And that certainly isn't old.

Gloria told Edith that, and Edith articulated the frustration that many women must have felt over the years. She was incredulous that her daughter had to be the one to tell her what was happening.

"When I was a young girl," Edith lamented, "I didn't know what every young girl should know. Now I'm going to be an old lady, and I don't know what every old lady should know!"

On this night in 1972, however, Edith was completely bewildered by what was happening around her and within her.

So was Archie (Carroll O'Connor) who was bending over backward trying to be nice. Edith, though, took it the wrong way.

"He ain't talking to me," she told Gloria. "He's talking to some old lady."

Archie was trying to be patient and understanding, but he was pushed beyond his breaking point when Edith announced that she didn't want to go to Disney World, which had been their original destination. Instead, she wanted to visit her cousin and her cousin's family in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Archie went ballistic. "The only way you're going to get me to go to Scranton is if some screwball hijacks the airplane," he told her. "I know all about your woman's troubles there, Edith, but when I had the hernia that time I didn't make you wear the truss."

And then he delivered what may have been Archie's best lines of the series. "If you're going to have a change of life, you've got to do it right now. I'm going to give you just 30 seconds. Now come on, change!"

What I found refreshing about this episode was its realistic treatment of its subject. TV programs have long been criticized for making problems appear to be more easily resolved than they really are, but this episode ended with no real resolution — a concession, perhaps, to the reality that menopause cannot be dispensed with overnight like a 24–hour virus. It takes a lot of work, and some couples can't give it that kind of commitment.

The only thing that was clear when "Edith's Problem" ended was that more work remained to be done.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Many Faces of Death

"An old woman living in a nightmare; an old woman who has fought a thousand battles with death and always won. Now she's faced with a grim decision — whether or not to open a door. And in some strange and frightening way, she knows that this seemingly ordinary door leads to the Twilight Zone."

Opening narration

No subject fascinates people so much as the topic of death. For centuries, man has been asking the same questions and is really no closer to definitively answering them today than ever.

We may think we know what happens when we die, but no one who is living can can say for sure what happens — and none who have died have returned to tell us what lies beyond. There is a lot of speculation, but there is no real evidence. Well, nothing that would hold up in court.

On this night in 1962, Twilight Zone presented one of its philosophically themed episodes, "Nothing in the Dark," that sought to make a profound statement on the subject. It starred Gladys Cooper, in the first of her three Twilight Zone appearances, as an elderly woman who had been on the alert for Mr. Death all her life.

She was living in a condemned building when a young man (Robert Redford in one of his early television roles) was shot in front of her door and was laying in the snow, bleeding. Cooper's character believed he was Mr. Death, but he persuaded her that he was not; she reluctantly opened her door and helped him inside.

She cared for him as best she could, but he kept telling her that he needed a doctor. She said she couldn't call anyone because she had no telephone, and she couldn't let anyone in for fear she might be letting Mr. Death enter her home.

They talked, and she told him how she had been on the alert for Mr. Death all her life, ever since seeing him sit down next to a woman on a bus, then getting up and exiting the bus. Not long after, it was discovered that the woman was dead. She had seen him frequently since.

But, Redford protested, if she knew what he looked like, she had the advantage on him. She rejected that. Mr. Death was always changing his appearance, she said. She could trust no one. Lately she had been tormented by people who came to her door claiming to be from the city, telling her the building was condemned and she would have to move. She was certain they had been Mr. Death.

"Oh, he's clever," she told Redford.

She wondered why she could always spot him, but no one else could. She concluded that it was because the end of her life was approaching. Even when, as a child, I saw this episode for the first time, I thought that was kind of a whimsical, poetic way of looking at it — and not likely to be the way it really was or could be. I have known many people who have died, and none mentioned (to me, anyway) seeing ominous figures hanging around.

When a contractor from the city came by to try to get her to vacate her apartment before the wrecking crew arrived and the woman realized he wasn't Mr. Death after all, she soon concluded that Redford was Mr. Death. He had tricked her.

He conceded the fact, but he told her that he had to make her understand that death wasn't such a terrible thing.

Transitions are difficult things sometimes — most of the time, in fact, even if they turn out to be good things in the long run — and death is the biggest transition humans face because everything about it is unknown. That was what bothered Gladys Cooper's character the most.

But Redford reassured her that it was not what she had feared, and he led her from her apartment, presumably guiding her in the direction of her destination.

Death was a subject the Twilight Zone explored on many occasions, and it reached many conclusions. Sometimes they contradicted each other. But an element of the episode that first aired on this night 55 years ago may ultimately prove to be correct. Redford was one of many actors who played Death — or some offshoot thereof. As in Gladys Cooper's experience, they were all different — old, young, male, female, you name it.

Sometimes in the Twilight Zone Death was the devil. That opens up an entirely different conversation, but that concept fits neatly with the general premise of this episode — that Mr. Death changed his appearance — and writings about death and the devil that have been part of the culture for hundreds of years.

After all, William Shakespeare wrote that "the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape." Gladys Cooper didn't necessarily find any of Mr. Death's shapes pleasing, but perhaps that is the subject for another conversation as well.

This episode is generally highly regarded by most devoted Twilight Zone fans. I guess I'm the exception. Maybe it is because of my thoughts on the premise of the episode, but I never really cared for it much.

And I consider myself a devoted Twilight Zone fan.

Sunday, January 01, 2017

Monty Woolley's Defining Role

"Is there a man in the world who suffers as I do from the gross inadequacies of the human race?"

Sheridan Whiteside (Monty Woolley)

There are some actors and actresses who become typecast for spot–on portrayals in large — and not–so–large — roles. Carroll O'Connor as Archie Bunker comes to mind. So does Max Baer Jr. as Jethro Bodine.

Monty Woolley almost surely fit that description for audiences of an earlier generation with his portrayal of Sheridan Whiteside in "The Man Who Came to Dinner," a movie that premiered 75 years ago today but was based on a play in which Whiteside starred on Broadway a few years earlier.

Sometimes people who become typecast in the public's imagination as certain characters embrace them, and Whiteside could be put in that category. After hundreds of stage appearances and a big–screen performance of the same role, he went on to be Sheridan Whiteside on TV, too. He didn't just embrace the role, he embraced the emerging technology of his day.

There probably was no one more qualified to play Whiteside on the big screen than Woolley, who gave nearly 800 stage performances as the sharp–tongued radio curmudgeon who slipped on some ice and injured his leg when visiting the home of a prominent Ohio family (the matriarch was Billie Burke, perhaps better known as Glinda the Good With of the North from "The Wizard of Oz") during the Christmas season.

Whiteside was told he had to stay where he was until he healed so the wheels were set in motion. Do you think millenials are self–centered? They are amateurs compared to Sheridan Whiteside. If you look up the word narcissist in the dictionary, you'll probably find a picture of Sheridan Whiteside next to the definition.

The conniving Whiteside soon came to dominate the household and all who came in contact with it.

As this guest who would not leave, he began to wreak all sorts of havoc — all under the guise of being seriously injured. You see, Whiteside — and the audience — learned fairly early on that he wasn't as seriously injured as previously thought. Still he faked his injury and sought to impose his will on everyone else.

He lavished insults on everyone, ran up huge phone bills, entertained a parade of unsavory visitors and monopolized the time and energy of the house staff. He told the patriarch's children to follow their dreams, which was very much against their father's wishes (not to mention the societal norms of the times). He tried to sabotage his assistant (Bette Davis) in her budding romance with a local newspaperman using Ann Sheridan. Then when his plan backfired he tried to get Ann Sheridan out of the way with the help of his buddy, played by Jimmy Durante.

Woolley wasn't the only original Broadway cast member to appear in the movie. Making her big–screen debut was Mary Wickes, who returned as Nurse Preen. She became a familiar face but was known more as a character type, not a specific character.

Woolley, with his trademark whiskers, was the embodiment of his character type, and that character type was synonymous with his elitist–sounding name — Sheridan Whiteside.

I guess Woolley had every right to be proud of his performance. Both Charles Laughton and Orson Welles were considered for the role even though Woolley had been in all those Broadway productions. Welles did eventually play Sheridan Whiteside — in a TV adaptation.

Shopping for a Spouse

When most people think of Alan Hale Jr., they probably think of his role as the Skipper on Gilligan's Island. To be sure, that is the role with which he was most associated during his life. Long after Gilligan's Island went off the air, Hale was still recognized on the street as the Skipper. He embraced that role, wearing his Skipper's hat in public and responding in character when people called out to him.

But Hale had a lengthy career apart from Gilligan's Island. He appeared in several movies and made guest appearances on numerous TV shows, such as the one he made on the Andy Griffith Show on this night in 1962. It was an episode called "The Farmer Takes a Wife,"

Hale played a farmer named Jeff who came to town looking for a wife. He had everything else he needed — a farm on a plot of land in the country. He also had a country girlfriend but decided he wanted a city girl instead so he came to town looking for one. Why did he do that? Well, his country girlfriend was great as a farmhand, but Jeff believed that "for marryin', a fellah wants a ... a female type, you know, kinda soft and squishylike." His plan was to look over the single women in Mayberry, pick out a bride and take her back to his farm in a couple of days.

Clearly Jeff didn't have much experience with women, especially city women — if Mayberry could, in any way, be regarded as a city — and Andy (Andy Griffith) was skeptical that Jeff could find a wife in two days.

"I'm good–lookin', ain't I?" Jeff asked Andy.

"Well, yeah," Andy reluctantly replied.

"I'm strong enough to protect a woman, ain't I?" Jeff insisted.

"Well, sure," Andy answered.

"Got one of the best farms in the county, ain't I?" Jeff demanded.

"Well, yeah," Andy said.

"Well, then," Jeff said, "shouldn't take more'n two days."

Jeff didn't understand that you don't select a mate the way you select livestock. Well, most folks don't, and the folks in Mayberry, while few in number, were pretty particular about the traditional approach to courtship. It wasn't acceptable, for example, for Jeff to stand on a street corner and lift up each girl who walked by, then set her down and say, "Excuse me, ma'am. Just checking your weight."

Barney (Don Knotts) decided he wanted to help Jeff out (sort of streamline the process, you might say), and Barney remembered that his girlfriend, Thelma Lou (Betty Lynn), would be having a gathering of single women at her place. They could casually drop by, Barney said, and that would give Jeff an opportunity to check out many of the town's most eligible bachelorettes at once.

So that is what they did.

Unfortunately, though, Barney's plan backfired. Jeff set his sights on Thelma Lou.

He thought Thelma Lou was "juicier'n a barrel full of corn squeezin's," and he told her so.

Barney thought he had laid down the law for Jeff, but then he saw Jeff and Thelma Lou walking on the street together, and Andy took it upon himself to work up a plan to discourage Jeff. He told Jeff he would need to meet Thelma Lou's requirements for a husband, which included moving into town and getting a job in a store. He also needed to wear a suit.

It was all too much for Jeff, who stormed out of Thelma Lou's house after trying to jump through the hoops Andy and Thelma Lou had set for him. I don't believe Jeff was ever seen in Mayberry again.

A couple of years later, Hale became the Skipper. But there was an element of the Andy Griffith Show episode that aired on this night in 1962 that foreshadowed Gilligan's Island. Hale kept calling Barney his "little buddy," which was, of course, what the Skipper called Gilligan.