Friday, February 18, 2011

The Candy Man Cometh

Tomorrow is an anniversary of sorts.

I say "of sorts" because, unlike most of the anniversaries of which I write, this is not a milestone anniversary. But it is an anniversary — a 39th anniversary. On Feb. 19, 1972, Sammy Davis Jr. made his memorable appearance on All in the Family.

February always seemed to be a high point for All in the Family. Maybe the writers saved some of their best stories for February, which was (and continues to be) "sweeps month" for the all–important Nielsen ratings. Perhaps they were making their case for high ratings every February and brought out their best stuff.

If that was the strategy, it must have worked. All in the Family dominated the ratings for five consecutive years — a record unmatched by any other scripted series. Nearly three decades after the show went off the air, most of the episodes that are rated the series' best by visitors to were aired in February.

And #1 on the list, from the series' second season (and its first full season, having been a midseason replacement in 1971), was Sammy Davis' visit to the Bunker household.

Davis apparently lobbied for several months to be included in an episode of the series. He'd been making guest appearances on TV shows for nearly 20 years, going back to the 1960s so TV was nothing new to him. Usually, he played himself crossing paths with the regulars in a series, but occasionally he played fictional characters and gave audiences a chance to see skills he unveiled all too infrequently.

The story was simplicity itself. Davis had been a passenger in the cab Archie was driving to make some extra money and had left a briefcase in the vehicle. Archie arranged with the cab company for Davis to come to his home to pick it up.

There were a lot of inside jokes in that episode that, frankly, were over my head. I was still rather young at the time.

Davis, who had been the subject of controversial public white–black celebrity kissing in recent years, took a little ribbing for that while he had to wait in the Bunker household for his briefcase, then, before he left, posed for a picture with Archie, kissing him on the cheek a split second before the picture was taken.

The laugh that followed was so long that it had to be edited so that Carroll O'Connor could deliver his final line. In syndication, that line is usually dropped.

But you can see it in the attached clip.