Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Schwartz's Magic

"He had a very good life. It's just too bad it had to come to an end."

Mildred Schwartz

If you were around in the 1960s or 1970s, you were influenced by Sherwood Schwartz, who died Tuesday at the age of 94.

It was unavoidable, really, even if you never watched any of the many TV series he wrote, created and/or produced — and that was practically impossible since, at least once, damn near everybody saw at least one episode of at least one series that bore his stamp in some way.

He wrote for The Red Skelton Show in the 1950s. He supervised scripts for My Favorite Martian. He wrote, created and produced big hits like Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch, shows that are still popular decades later. In fact, I would argue that they have become cultural icons.

It would be easy to assume that Schwartz led a charmed life, that everything he touched turned to gold and stayed that way, but he had his rough patches like anyone else.

There were conflicts with Brady Bunch star Robert Reed over the storylines. Reed was a Shakespearean–trained actor who often felt the Brady Bunch scripts were mindlessly silly and, frankly, beneath him.

Schwartz didn't get along with Skelton; in fact, he had it written into his contract that he would not have to meet face to face with Skelton — a fact that many viewers of the day would have had trouble accepting if they had known about it because Skelton was such a beloved figure.

And, like every other writer in Hollywood, he had scripts and series pilots that were rejected over the years.

He did not have a charmed career — but he was more successful than most.

Not everything was rejected. But even those shows that weren't rejected and managed to be part of the network TV landscape for a season or two did not leave lasting impressions on most viewers.

Schwartz also wrote, created and produced less remembered but equally entertaining series in those years, like It's About Time and Dusty's Trail.

If you watch an episode of either series today — and, frankly, I don't know if either is available on DVD — you'll see clear similarities between those series and Schwartz's big hits. You'll see similar plots. You'll hear similar lines. You'll even see some of the same people (Bob Denver, also known as Gilligan, was in Dusty's Trail in the 1970s.)

So, while people are praising Schwartz's magic touch today, I'm not sure such praise is entirely warranted.

Yes, he was creative. But he often was more creative at recycling stories and lines that hadn't worked in another series but did work in a new one with different characters than he was at creating brand new stories.

That isn't necessarily a bad thing. I mean, Schwartz was a showman. He understood the art of entertainment. And he must have understood the fickle hit–or–miss nature of TV and the role that program placement played (and still plays) in a series' success.

If they had been positioned differently, Gilligan's Island and The Brady Bunch might have lasted a season or less — and It's About Time and Dusty's Trail might have been the ratings hits.

In the early days of television, there was a fine line between success and failure — and, I suspect, it is even moreso now with hundreds of channels available to cable and satellite subscribers.

Schwartz was better at walking that line than many of his contemporaries. And that is why you have probably been influenced by him in some way — even if you weren't around when he enjoyed his greatest successes.