Well, there were slim pickings in this year’s Super Bowl commercial race. Mercedes Benz featured The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote, Stella Artois gave us the return of The Dude, and that Bud Light/Game of Thrones mash-up was pretty cool. But the ad that had everyone at the Super Bowl I attended roaring with laughter was this one starring Craig Robinson:
Yeah I know, it’s sophomoric, but also funny as hell!!
I’ve always said if Ken Berry had been born a bit earlier, he would have taken up the mantle of song-and-dance masters Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in films. But Berry, who died this past weekend at age 85, came up at a time when Hollywood musicals were, if not dying, definitely on life support. Berry had his greatest success in the world of TV sitcoms, though he did find opportunities to display his dancing skills in variety shows of the era.
Moline, IL born Ken won a talent contest at age 15 and toured with popular Big Band leader Horace Heidt’s Youth Opportunity Program. Joining the Army after high school, he was assigned to Special Services to entertain the troops. His sergeant encouraged Ken to head to Hollywood after his hitch was over. The sergeant’s name: Leonard Nimoy ! Ken begun his professional show biz career as a Universal contract player, though he didn’t get in any films. Instead, he wound up working in Vegas as part of Abbott & Costello’s revue. Small television parts followed: a stint as Woody the bellhop on THE ANN SOUTHERN SHOW, comic relief Dr. Kapish on DR. KILDARE. A pair of episodes on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW as choreographer Tony Daniels allowed Ken to show off those song-and-dance skills, but it looked like he’d be forever relegated to second string before a fateful call in 1965 changed his life.
That call was for the role of Captain Wilton Parmenter on F TROOP (1965-67), casting Ken as the bumbling, klutzy, accidental Medal of Honor winner who’s sent to command Fort Courage in the wild and wooly West. Berry’s dance training came in handy as Parmenter, who was forever stumbling about – he could take a pratfall with the best of ’em! F TROOP is slapstick farce at it’s best, definitely not politically correct, and still one of my favorite sitcoms. Veterans Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch costarred as Sgt. O’Rourke and Cpl. Agarn, a pair of hustlers grateful to have the clueless Captain around so they can continue their money-generating O’Rourke Enterprises. 16-year-old (at the time) Melody Patterson played Berry’s love interest, the feisty cowgirl Wrangler Jane, who was definitely the aggressor in their relationship. Frank De Kova was Chief Wild Eagle, leader of the friendly Hewkawi tribe (as in “Where the Heck Are We”), co-conspirator in O’Rourke’s schemes.
The spoofs ran wild and the series featured a host of familiar TV guests: Milton Berle , Jack Elam , Bernard Fox, Harvey Korman , Paul Lynde, Julie Newmar, Don Rickles (as Wild Eagle’s renegade son, Bald Eagle!). Even Vincent Price showed up as an ersatz bloodsucker in the horror lampoon “V is for Vampire”! Ken Berry more than held his own amid all the anachronistic jokes (a rock band in the Wild West?), catchphrases, sight gags, loony supporting cast (including Western vet Bob Steele as Trooper Duffy, last survivor of the Alamo!), and the manic antics of Storch as the dimwitted Agarn. His Captain Parmenter was the Krazy Glue that held the whole thing together.
Next up , Ken moved from the Wild West to a much more sedate setting: Mayberry. Berry’s character, widowed farmer Sam Jones, had been introduced in the final season of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , and was poised to star in the spinoff, MAYBERRY RFD. Griffith had tired of the weekly sitcom grind after eight years, but didn’t want to give up his cash cow completely. In contrast to the bumbling Parmenter, Sam Jones was the moral center of this new show. Mayberry denizens Jack Dodson (Howard), George Lindsey (Goober), and Paul Hartman (Emmett) provided continuity, as did Frances Bavier’s Aunt Bee for the first season, replaced by Alice Ghostley as Sam’s Cousin Alice. MAYBERRY RFD ran three seasons and was still in the ratings Top 20 when it was cancelled along with several other ‘country’-themed programs ( THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, GREEN ACRES, HEE HAW ) in 1971 during CBS’s “rural purge”, as the network sought a younger, more urban demographic.
Ken survived the “purge” and became a frequent guest on variety shows, even hosting his own brief summer replacement series THE KEN BERRY WOW SHOW in 1972 (featuring a young comic named Steve Martin). He made nineteen appearances on Carol Burnett’s hit series, and made the rounds of THE LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND. He returned to weekly TV in Burnett’s own spinoff show MAMA’S FAMILY (1983-4; 86-90), based on the popular skits about the Bible-belt Harper family. Vicki Lawrence reprised her role as sassy matriarch Thelma Harper, and Ken was cast as her somewhat dopey son Vinton, whose “tramp” wife Naomi (Dorothy Lyman) was the constant butt of Mama’s wrath. The series ran for a year on NBC, then was revived in syndication, where it achieved it’s greatest popularity.
Berry never made the leap to feature film star, though he did headline a pair of 70’s Disney family comedies, HERBIE RIDES AGAIN and THE CAT FROM OUTER SPACE. While never achieving superstar status, Ken Berry was a reliable performer, a likeable presence who always gave his all in whatever the part called for. Even though his first true show biz love was as a song-and-dance man, starring in three hit sitcoms over three decades is certainly nothing to sneeze at! F TROOP alone would have cemented his legacy among sitcom aficionados. Thanks for the laughs and Godspeed, Captain Parmenter.
I was a Larry Cohen fan before I even knew there was a Larry Cohen! Before IT’S ALIVE! , before BLACK CAESAR , I was watching the following Cohen Creations on my parents big, bulky TV console:
BRANDED (ABC 1965) – Cohen’s first series as creator debuted as a midseason replacement for Bill Dana’s failed sitcom. THE RIFLEMAN’s Chuck Connors returned to TV as Jason McCord, a disgraced Cavalry officer court martialed and drummed out of the service after being falsely accused of cowardice. McCord then wanders the West getting involved in a new adventure every week while trying to clear his name. Viewers welcomed Connors back to the small screen, and the half-hour black and white Western was renewed for a full season – this time “in living color”! The show featured a memorable opening theme song by Dominic Frontiere and Alan Arch…
… unfortunately, Jason McCord never did get to clear his name, as the show was sent scampering away by ratings juggernauts THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW and THE FBI. BRANDED can be viewed Saturday afternoons on the INSP Network’s Western lineup, and still holds up well today!
BLUE LIGHT (ABC 1966) – Spies were the “in” thing, and this half-hour World War II drama cast deep-voiced singer Robert Goulet as David March, a traitorous American journalist now working for the Nazi propaganda machine – only he’s really a double agent working for the Allies undercover in a project called “Code: Blue Light”! All his fellow spies have been discovered and assassinated, and now March is pretty much on his own, trying to maintain his cover and do what he must without getting killed himself. French actress Christine Carere costarred as French underground agent Suzanne Duchard, under deep cover as a member of the Gestapo. and one of only a handful of people who know David’s true identity. Larry co-created the series with film director Walter Grauman (LADY IN A CAGE), and BLUE LIGHT was noted for being one of TV’s most violent at the time (are you surprised, with Cohen and Grauman at the helm?). The show was a midseason replacement for Sally Field’s GIDGET, who moved into THE DONNA REED SHOW’s old time slot, and from what I can remember was pretty darn good, but didn’t catch on and lasted just 17 episodes.
THE LEGEND OF CUSTER (ABC 1967) – Or “Counter-Culture Custer”, in this series “suggested by Larry Cohen”. Young Wayne Maunder, with his long golden locks, starred as young Lt. Col. Custer, in charge of a bunch of misfits and reprobates known as the 7th Cavalry. Custer’s methods were always at odds with his commanding officer General Terry (Robert F. Simon), representing the establishment. Western vet Slim Pickens was cast as scout California Joe to give the series some sagebrush cred, but after 17 episodes CUSTER was defeated, not by the Sioux at Little Big Horn, but by another establishment figure – James Drury’s ratings monster THE VIRGINIAN. As for Maunder, he survived to costar on the Western LANCER for two seasons, the short-lived Jack Webb/Stephen J. Cannell crime drama CHASE, and the Russ Meyer film THE SEVEN MINUTES. Maunder recently passed away on November 11 at age 82.
CORONET BLUE (CBS 1967) – Cohen switched from ABC to CBS for this summer replacement series, which only lasted 13 episodes. The pilot found Frank Converse as a man attacked, drugged, tossed in the river, and left for dead… but lives, and the only thing he remembers is the phrase “Coronet Blue”! The now-amnesiac man assumes the name ‘Michael Alden’ and wanders about seeking to uncover clues to his true identity while trying not to get killed by assassins. This was a good premise, one I really enjoyed, and apparently CBS did too, wanting to renew CORONET BLUE for another season. However, they waited too long, and star Converse had already accepted a part in ABC’s new crime drama NYPD, alongside Jack Warden and Robert Hooks (which as I recall was also pretty damn good!). Oh well, I guess we’ll never find out who ‘Alden’ really was, or who was out to kill him.
THE INVADERS (ABC 1967-69) – This was Larry Cohen at his best, a paranoia-filled science-fiction extravaganza, and one of my favorite shows of the era. Aliens have infiltrated Earth bent on conquering the human race, and architect David Vincent (actor Roy Thinnes) runs around America trying to expose them (they can only be identified by their crooked pinky fingers and a tendency to turn red and disintegrate when killed!), while warning everyone he comes across of impending doom! Yep, it’s another 60’s Cold War allegory, substituting spacemen for Commies, and it clicked with viewers young and old (my Dad loved it!) for different reasons. The kids dug the sci-fi stuff, and THE INVADERS proved a marketing cash cow, with comic books, paperback novels, and even an Aurora plastic model spaceship (just don’t sniff the glue, kiddies!). The series debuted as a midseason replacement for another show Cohen was associated with – THE FUGITIVE, which concluded it’s run when David Janssen finally caught up with that One-Armed Man (Larry had written a couple of early episodes).
Larry Cohen soon moved to feature films, and his singular, somewhat loopy vision has kept fans like me happy for decades. But don’t discount his TV efforts, many of which are available on YouTube and DVD collections. Catch them when you can, they’re a blast!
Last week, I did an overview of producer Irwin Allen’s first two sci-fi shows, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA and LOST IN SPACE. Today, Allen’s final shows in the quartet, THE TIME TUNNEL and LAND OF THE GIANTS!
Where Allen’s LOST IN SPACE was juvenile fantasy, his next series THE TIME TUNNEL (ABC, 1966-67) took a more serious tone. Scientists Dr. Doug Phillips (Robert Colbert ) and Dr. Tony Newman (James Darren), working on the top-secret government Project Tic-Toc, become “lost in the swirling maze of past and future ages… (and) tumble helplessly toward a new fantastic adventure, somewhere along the infinite corridors of time” (at least according to the opening narration!). Project director Lt. Gen. Kirk (Whit Bissell ), ‘electrobiologist’ Dr. Ann McGregor (Lee Meriwether), and electronic genius Dr. Raymond Swain (John Zaremba) track the pair through those “infinite corridors” and try to assist in navigating them home safely.
The handsome Colbert was the more level-headed of the two, but teen idol James Darren, with his cool green turtleneck sweater, was the one that set young audience’s hearts a-flutter. Darren, who played Moondoggie in the GIDGET films and scored a few hit records in the early 60’s (“Goodbye, Cruel World”, “Her Royal Majesty”), was the hot-head who got them trapped in time in the first place, impulsively trying to prove to a visiting senator (guest star Gary Merrill) the project was successful in the series’ first episode. While Colbert never quite made star status (though he later had a long run on the soap THE YOUNG AND THE RESTLESS), Darren went on to a long career, appearing in Jess Franco’s erotic nightmare VENUS IN FURS, as Jim Corrigan opposite William Shatner’s TJ HOOKER, the hologram lounge singer Vic Fontaine on STAR TREK: DEEP SPACE NINE, and as a director in episodic TV.
Doug and Tony’s travels through time took them to famous dates in history like the sinking of the Titanic (with guest Michael Rennie as the ship’s captain), Pearl Harbor, the War of 1812 (Carroll O’Connor plays a dual role), Custer’s Last Stand, the French Revolution, the battle of the Alamo (DALLAS patriarch Jim Davis as Jim Bowie), an encounter with Billy the Kid (Robert Walker Jr), and plenty of stock footage from the 20th Century-Fox vaults. They also moved forward in time on a mission to Mars, the year 8433, and smack dab in then middle of the great alien invasion of 1978! THE TIME TUNNEL was a hit, and scheduled for a second season, until a regime change at ABC caused it to be cancelled in favor of THE LEGEND OF CUSTER – a series that barely made it through half a season!
Allen bounced back with LAND OF THE GIANTS (ABC, 1968-70), a fantasy adventure that found the sub-orbital spacecraft Spindrift caught in a space warp and transported to a planet where everything is twelve times the size of Earth! The stranded crew featured Gary Conway (of I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN fame) as Captain Steve Burton, with Don Matheson, Deanna Lund, Heather Young, and Don Marshall, the first black male actor to costar in a sci-fi series. Also on board were Stefan Arngrim as young Barry (with his faithful canine companion Chipper), and “Special Guest Star” Kurt Kasznar as on the lam bank robber Alexander Fitzhugh. Kasznar’s character was modeled somewhat on Jonathan Harris’s Dr. Smith of LOST IN SPACE, right down to the relationship between Fitzhugh and Barry.
This was Allen’s most expensive series, but there was still lots of stock footage between all those giant-sized props. The Liliputian members of the Spindrift encountered perils around every corner, as well as a slew of Familiar Faces: Jack Albertson, Richard Anderson , Michael Ansara, John Carradine , Broderick Crawford , Bruce Dern , Sam Elliott, Paul Fix, Ronny Howard , John Marley, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson, and William Schallert . Robert Colbert and Lee Meriwether from THE TIME TUNNEL showed up in different episodes (and as different characters), as did Jonathan Harris. Kevin Hagen appeared from time to time as Inspector Kobick of the Special Investigations Department, hunting down our pint-sized heroes.
After LAND OF THE GIANTS was cancelled, Irwin Allen returned to the big screen and became The Master of Disaster Movies , but for six years he ruled the airwaves with his sci-fi/fantasy shows. Since then, LOST IN SPACE has been rebooted as a feature film and a Netflix series, but neither captures the charm of Allen’s goofy original. All his 60’s sci-fi series are sterling examples of what can be accomplished with a small TV budget, solid acting, and a whole lot of chutzpah!
Irwin Allen (1916-1991) wore many different hats during his long career: magazine editor, gossip columnist, documentarian, producer, director. He helped usher in the Age of the Disaster Movie with such 70’s hits as THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE TOWERING INFERNO, but before that he was best known as the producer of a quartet of sci-fi series from the Swingin’ 60’s. From 1964 to 1970 he had at least one sci-fi show airing in prime time… during the 1966-67 season, he had three, all complete with cheezy-looking monsters, campy humor, stock footage, guest stars (some on their way up… some down!), special effects by Oscar winner L.B. Abbott, and music by John Williams (who later scored a little thing called STAR WARS )! Here’s a look at the Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Irwin Allen:
Allen’s first foray into sci-fi TV was VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA (ABC, 1964-68), based on his hit 1961 film. Richard Basehart starred as Admiral Nelson, head of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research, in charge of the nuclear-powered sub Seaview, with David Hedison as Commander Crane. The first season was more a straightforward adventure series, filmed in black and white, with Nelson and his crew up against many Cold War threats. From the second season on, now in color, the Seaview began battling more outre’ enemies: aliens, giant sea monsters, even werewolves became the norm!
The series started to introduce futuristic gadgets like the Flying Sub, compete with laser beam, to confront these new monsters-of-the-week. The 1966 debut of BATMAN ramped up the camp quotient a few notches, as the plots got more and more out there. Among the many guest stars featured in the course of the series were Nick Adams , Eddie Albert , Edgar Bergen (without Charlie McCarthy), James Brolin (pre-stardom and Streisand), John Cassavetes, Michael Dunn (diminutive Dr. Loveless of THE WILD WILD WEST), Jill Ireland, Leslie Neilsen, and Vincent Price as a mad puppeteer out to take over the Seaview!
Next up for Allen was LOST IN SPACE (CBS, 1965-68), a take on Swiss Family Robinson set in outer space. The Jupiter-2, due in large part to sabotage by stowaway foreign agent Dr. Zachary Smith, hits a meteor storm and veers off course from its destination Alpha Centauri, causing the Robinson family and crew to become hopelessly lost in space (hence the series title). The cast consisted of TV veterans Guy Williams as Prof. John Robinson (ZORRO), June Lockhart as wife Maureen (LASSIE), Mark Goodard as pilot Maj. Don West (THE DETECTIVES), Angela Cartwright as youngest daughter Penny (MAKE ROOM FOR DADDY), and Billy Mumy as ten-year-old Will (practically every TV show made calling for a precocious kid!). Marta Kristen (Lorelei the mermaid in BEACH BLANKET BINGO ) played eldest child Judy, who served as Major West’s love interest.
Jonathan Harris (the TV version of THE THIRD MAN) received “Special Guest Star” billing as the nefarious Dr. Smith, and at first played him as a straight villain. The character was not originally intended to last the entire series run, but Harris, with Allen’s blessings, began to tweak the role, rewriting his dialog to turn Smith into something completely different than originally intended, a comically cowardly character who managed to create chaos wherever he went. Dr. Smith became pals with young Will, though their roles were reversed, as the boy was much more mature than the older doctor!
Dr. Smith was constantly at odds with The Robot (Bob May inside the suit, Dick Tufeld providing the voice), another popular character on the show (“Warning! Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!”), berating the mechanical marvel with sobriquets like “You blithering booby” and “You cackling cacophony”. Harris’s portrayal, relationships with Will and The Robot, and catch phrases (“Oh, the pain!”, “IN-deed!”), helped turned the show from straight sci-fi to high-camp fantasy, with the plots getting more and more ridiculous during the series’ three year run. The Robinson family, thanks to Smith’s blundering, encountered space pirates, circuses, cowboys, and Vikings, an intergalactic collector (Michael Rennie of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL in a two-parter), a “devilish” alien (Gerald Mohr), a cosmic toymaker (Walter Burke), a band of far-out hippies (twice!), and sentient vegetables!
Plots from films and fables past were recycled and adapted for the show: the legend of King Arthur, Sleeping Beauty, THE THIEF OF BAGDAD , FANTASTIC VOYAGE, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, GULLIVER’S TRAVELS. My favorite episode was a unique original titled “Visit to a Hostile Planet”, where the Jupiter-2 gets trapped in a time/space warp and returns to Earth – but it’s the Earth of 1947, and the small town population they land near thinks they’re being invaded by aliens! LOST IN SPACE enjoyed a long run in syndication after being cancelled by CBS, making it Allen’s most popular (and profitable!) space series.
Next week, part 2 of The Amazing Sci-Fi Worlds of Irwin Allen, spotlighting THE TIME TUNNEL and LAND OF THE GIANTS!
TV impresario Ed Sullivan hosted an Irish-themed “really big shew” on St. Patrick’s Day in 1957. Among his guests were actor Robert Mitchum (promoting his new Calypso record!!) and musical quartet The Ames Brothers, who joined sleepy-eyed Bob for a rendition of “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral”:
Now you can begin your St. Patrick’s Day festivities… and remember, drink that green beer in moderation!
Before Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and The Grinch, nearsighted cartoon star Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus ) headlined the first animated Christmas special, MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL. First broadcast on NBC-TV in 1962, the special is presented as a Broadway musical, with Magoo as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Directed by Chuck Jones acolyte Abe Levitow , it features songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (FUNNY GIRL), and a voice cast that includes Morey Amsterdam , Jack Cassidy , Royal Dano, Paul Frees (of course!) , Jane Kean, and Les Tremayne. And yes, that is Magoo’s fellow UPA cartoon stablemate Gerald McBoing-Boing as Tiny Tim! Besides 1938’s Reginald Owen version , this may very well be my favorite adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas classic! So here’s my Christmas gift to you all, MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL in its entirety!: