Posted by Greg Ferrara on June 13, 2012
When I was a kid, syndication was everything. If you wanted to watch an old television show, you had to see it in syndication. If it was too old, or unpopular, you wouldn’t get the chance. Shows usually ran in syndication from the previous ten to twenty years with notable exceptions: I Love Lucy ran in syndication for decades after its initial run and still gets shown on local stations around the country. But for the most part, after about ten years the next crop of shows came up for syndication and rotated through. Many of the shows that were popular were on the silly side. Things like Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, The Munsters and I Dream of Jeannie weren’t exactly high-art and I never thought twice about them when I was a kid. But now, I don’t need syndication anymore. I can go onto my Netflix Instant account, or my Amazon Video on Demand or any other streaming or DVD service, and watch season after season of television shows unknown to kids today but never forgotten by anyone who grew up with them. What’s changed is this: Years ago, I wrote most of them off, probably thanks to Newton Minow’s famous remarks about the vast wasteland of television. But now, watching them all again with my wife and youngest daughter, it really hits home just how immensely talented so many of the people on those shows were and how unfortunate that they got pigeonholed as “tv actors” and never got the proper recogntion.
One of the great shows we recently started watching again was The Andy Griffith Show. I remembered it as one of the better sitcoms on tv with some fine talent. I didn’t realize until recently just how much I was underestimating the show. More importantly, the actors, one and all, are great. Both Andy Griffith and Don Knotts had mild success on stage and screen before moving to television but watching them on the small screen makes you wonder why Hollywood could never get its act together long enough to use them on the big screen for something more than obvious crossover vehicles. Don Knotts wasn’t given a lot of great scripts outside of tv and that’s a shame because he had a talent like no other. Sure, he got plenty of film roles thanks to The Andy Griffith Show but not the cream of the crop. He won five consecutive Emmys for playing Deputy Barney Fife and that’s still the record. He deserves to keep that record ad infinitum. And Andy Griffith, as exhibited in both No Time for Sergeants (stage and screen) and A Face in the Crowd, was a superb actor who could’ve done a whole lot more in film than he did.
But back in the fifties and sixties, being in a tv sitcom was the kiss of death. It meant you were no longer a movie actor. Either that’s where you retired (Agnes Moorehead, Bewitched; Donna Reed, The Donna Reed Show, Shirley Jones, The Partridge Family) or that’s where you spent your entire career (Bob Denver, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Gilligan’s Island). Once you were there, that’s where you stayed. You would get a movie, sure, but it would be an extension of what you played on tv, hence the Barney Fife type roles that Don Knotts continued to land or the Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz excursion, The Long, Long Trailer.
By the seventies, that started to change. John Travolta played a clownish dunce in Welcome Back, Kotter but when he went to the movies, he played against that role in the gritty Saturday Night Fever and got nominated for Best Actor while still playing a Sweathog on tv. Other sitcoms like M*A*S*H and Mary Tyler Moore were serious enough that crossovers for their stars Alan Alda and Mary Tyler Moore didn’t seem odd at all. Both eventually received Oscar nominations (with Judd Hirsch from another sitcom, Taxi, also receiving a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in Ordinary People for which Moore received her Best Actress nomination).
Nevertheless, before the seventies, being in a sitcom set you in stone as an actor not to be taken seriously. And yet, when I watch these very sitcoms now, I see talent so immense I wish there was something more important than an Emmy we could hand out to let them know how much we appreciated their talents. Let’s run down a list to make this easier.
Paul Lynde – He did plenty of broad comedy in the movies (Bye, Bye Birdie and The Glass Bottom Boat – he’s hilarious in that one) but it was tv where he was really known. From guesting on every sitcom available, from I Dream of Jeannie to The Beverly Hillbillies to regular appearances on Bewitched and The Hollywood Squares, he showed a gift for comedy unmatched by many in the biz today.
Fred Gwynne – Man, I wish he had a film career to match his television one. Even in such throwaway roles as the judge in My Cousin Vinny, you can see a talent so big it could’ve played a thousand character parts and more than a few intriguing leads. But none of that takes away how almost divinely perfect he was as Herman Munster in The Munsters, his second big sitcom (Car 54, Where are You being the first).
Carolyn Jones – Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for The Bachelor Party in 1958 (for the year 1957), Hollywood promptly threw up its collective hands and asked, “Now what do we do with her?!” Television was the answer and Morticia Addams was the character in the ghoulish sitcom, The Addams Family. Speaking of which, that show had a truckload of other immense talents, not the least of which being John Astin, pitch perfect as Gomez.
Or how about the entire cast of Bewitched – Seriously, this show had talent overflowing at the edges. From the obviously brilliant Agnes Moorehead to the aforementioned Paul Lynde, my personal favorites were Dick York, amazing as the first, flustered Darrin (Dick Sergeant was good too but his Darrin was far too confident and unflappable for my taste), Marion Lorne as Aunt Clara and both actresses who played Gladys Kravitz, Alice Pearce and Sandra Gould.
Buddy Ebson - He had some movie work, of course (most notably Breakfast at Tiffany’s and his ill-fated turn as The Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz before allergic reactions to makeup took him out of the picture) but as mountaineer Jed Clampett, he was supremely good.
Alan Hale and Bob Denver – These two starred in one of the most derided sitcoms of all time, Gilligan’s Island. And being in a show derided as silly, stupid and poorly written all-around never stopped them once from turning in exceptional work week after week. A good actor takes all work seriously.
Larry Hagman, Barbara Eden and Bill Daily – This triumvirate of talent made the perfect trio in the by-the-numbers sitcom I Dream of Jeannie. Hagman was a great talent and Eden had some early success in film but Bill Daily has to rank as among the greatest sitcom character actors ever. His role here as Major Healey and on The Bob Newhart Show as Howard Borden mark two of the greatest comedic supporting performances in tv history.
There are so many more to name, stretching into even the seventies when things started to loosen up. Aside from Travolta, actors like John Ritter – excuse me, that should read “the extremely talented John Ritter” – finally wound up in film (His dept store manager in Bad Santa is as funny as anything in the movie. His scenes with the equally great Bernie Mac are reason alone to see it.) but still had careers in derided sitcoms that hampered their film careers for years. It’s too bad, really. Sixties television produced shows that caused a lot of people to claim (or believe one way or another) that television really was that vast wasteland of low-rent writing, lazy plots and cliched characters. But the actors in so many of those shows proved something else. They proved that you can be in a piece of entertainment that no one would ever claim is insightful, superb or uplifting and turn in a performance that shames any dismissive critic in the land. They proved that they were seasoned veterans, professionals who knew what they had to do and did it, even if it meant spending a few years on a bamboo hut island set waiting for a better show to come along. Mostly, they proved just because you’re in ground floor entertainment doesn’t mean you can’t have penthouse level talent.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
Popular terms3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Fan Edits Film Composers Film Criticism film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs Guest Programmers HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Leadership Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Magazines Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Russian Film Industry Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Spaghetti Westerns Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival Tearjerkers Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood The Russians in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies