Posted by gregferrara on August 28, 2013
Last week, I wrote about the marriage between stage and screen and this week, with Shirley Jones having her day on TCM, I’m thinking about the uneasy marriage between tv and screen. When tv was young, very young, it was all about big, bold expressions in comedy. Folks like Jackie Gleason, Milton Berle and, of course, Lucille Ball, dominated the airwaves. And right from the start, actors who enjoyed mild to big success on the stage and screen were pulled in to headline. Eventually, some of the biggest and best actors in Hollywood had their own shows, while still enjoying success on the screen, a trend that continues to this day, but it was a long and bumpy ride getting there.
As the fifties expanded the television landscape greatly, with dramas, family shows, and news programs, more and more talents turned to the medium. In the sixties and seventies, great character actors from the movies were showcasing their talents on television, moving from comedy to drama with ease. By the the late seventies and eighties onward, going the other way around (moving from tv to movies) became easy, with actors like John Travolta leading the way, doing a silly sitcom character one minute (Barbarino in Welcome Back, Kotter), getting nominated for Best Actor (for Saturday Night Fever) the next. But for me, still, it’s those character actors who left the movies for television in the sixties and seventies that stand atop the pyramid. Actors like Peter Falk, Shirley Jones, Dennis Weaver, Cicely Tyson, Jack Klugman and a host of others, who would transform acting on television during their tenure.
Shirley Jones was the queen of the big, stage musical to screen adaptations. Early in her career, she was put under contract by the famous team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and when the movie adaptation of Oklahoma! was in the works, she got the lead. What followed was an illustrious career of musicals and light comedies like Carousel, The Music Man and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father but, as is often the case with Hollywood, it was playing against type, as a revenge-seeking prostitute in Elmer Gantry, that won her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress of 1960. Later, when television came calling, in the form of The Brady Bunch where she was asked to play Carol Brady, she turned it down. By 1971, she had second thoughts and accepted the lead role in The Partridge Family, a hit show that also starred her stepson, David Cassidy, son of Shirley’s husband at the time, Jack Cassidy. The show made Jones a household name on a much higher level than any of her film work and, along with the other actors mentioned in this piece, helped legitimize television as a place where real talents performed.
And speaking of real talents, I’d be remiss if I left the just mentioned Jack Cassidy off this list. He did a lot of tv (Oscar North/Jetman in He & She) and only a few movies but his talent was immense. Frankly, I’ve rarely enjoyed an actor more than Jack Cassidy in his three appearances on Columbo with Peter Falk (more about which in a minute). Cassidy was one of the last of the big-time performers, chewing up scenery all around him until he started chewing the scenery from other people’s sets. The man knew how play the rake, the charlatan, and the scoundrel with astonishing aplomb (he was a natural to play John Barrymore in W.C. Fields and Me from 1976). When I see Cassidy, who died tragically early at the age of 49, in those roles, my heart just sings.
Cicely Tyson went back and forth from film to tv with such ease and regularity it’s hard to know whether she should be called a film star or a tv star. If you look her up on IMDB, you’ll find her credits for tv and film are completely intermixed from year to year. From starring in the early, progressive urban drama East Side/West Side with George C. Scott (another great talent that did tv in the sixties, although with much less regularity) to an Oscar nomination for Sounder to an Emmy Award for The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman and to a Tony Award for A Trip to Bountiful, Cicely Tyson was surely the most respected, talented and successful person who ever did a guest spot on Emergency. As well as… well, just look at her entry here and be amazed at the utter diversity and quantity of her film, television and theater career.
Jack Klugman was another actor from the fifties and sixties that got regular movies roles, like those in 12 Angry Men and Days of Wine and Roses, interspersed with consistent tv work. When he finally settled down to a starring role as Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple (with another great film to tv talent, Tony Randall), television got one of its best actors ever. I honestly never understood why Klugman didn’t become a more successful actor in movies. He had a great presence on screen and a fantastic talent for drama. Quincy, his later television series, in which he played a coroner, was only an average medical thriller by most standards yet his performance from episode to episode made it so much more. And it proved, after The Odd Couple, that he was adept at both comedy and drama.
Diahann Carroll had an amazing career from start to finish. Appearing in Carmen Jones and Porgy and Bess, she went on to become the first black actress to take home a Tony Award for No Strings in 1962 and later was nominated for Best Actress for Claudine in 1974. In between, she conquered television with Julia, a show that in 1968 starred a black woman whose race was of no concern to the show, working as a nurse and raising her son alone after her husband was killed in Vietnam. And it was a sitcom that didn’t use a laugh track (one was later added for syndication). In short, it was trailblazing although at the time some folks took a different view (see here). Diahann Carroll became just the latest mega-talented person to move back and forth from movies to tv with ease.
One actor, though, stood out above all for me in this period: Peter Falk. Falk enjoyed success in film for years before becoming a sensation on television. He was nominated for two Oscars and an Emmy all within two years (1960, 1961) and was set to become one of the great Hollywood character actors. Instead, after taking on the role of Columbo and working with directors like John Cassavetes and William Friedkin, became one of the most interesting and adventurous actors in the business. By the time he played himself as a fallen angel in Wings of Desire, all I could think was, “sure, I can totally see this being the case.” He was an amazing actor skilled at just about every type of character out there. And his work on television only enhanced his image, never detracting from it. His portrayal of Detective Columbo has to stand as one of the greatest long-form performances on record.
Television of the sixties and seventies had so many great talents that went back and forth from film to television with ease that it’s hard to name them all. Dennis Weaver, Isabel Sanford, Bill Bixby, Sammy Davis, Jr and so many others went from film to tv and back again in the sixties and seventies that it feels like the Golden Age for both. After them, it became easier for others because they broke the traditions so firmly in place, that the two mediums must be kept separate. Instead, the best and the brightest got to show off their talents and the rest of us are still reaping the rewards.
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