Saturday, June 6, 2020

Captain Nice Days #2: "How Sheik Can You Get?"

Welcome back for another Nice Day. It's only the second episode and we're already on a popular 60s TV plot, the visiting Arab potentate (used on BATMAN and GET SMART). So expect savage Arab stereotyping, uncontrollable urge for wives, and what's generally a hard episode to get through.

Big Town is agog with excitement as Sheik Abdul Bimir arrives for a ceremony at City Hall. Mayor Finney (even wearing one of those cartoony big mayoral badges with ribbon) introduces the dignitary and talks about his country's value in terms of supplying oil (naturally). Our Hero Carter Nash (William Daniels of course) is in the crowd and spots a bedouin-looking gentleman trying to heave a decorative cement sphere loose from it's moorings... and onto the sheik. Carter tries to tell the policeman next to him, but he and everyone else shushes him.

So Captain Nice goes into action, changing in a conveniently open florist's van. He catches the tumbling architecture as it falls. Dumb as a brick Chief Segal (Bill Zuckert) yells to "Get the police!" after the would-be killer (reminded that he *is* the police, "I certainly got here fast.") Carter asks the mayor if he'd mind holding the objet d'art and flies off, while Sgt. Kane explains Captain Nice to the sheik, "He's always around when there's trouble." ("Who isn't?)

Our hero returns having failed to nab the culprit. The sheik threatens vengeance when the perpetrator is caught, including lashes. Captain Nice says he should show mercy. "Mercy for a man who tried to kill me in cold blood not two minutes ago?" Captain Nice's riposte: "I know, but how long are you gonna hold a grudge?"

Credits. This is the first of five episodes co-written by Treva Silverman, who was one of the main people behind THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW but also had credits on shows ranging from THE MONKEES to LANCELOT LINK: SECRET CHIMP (okay, no great leap there). Her co-writer on all five was Peter Meyerson, with whom she wrote on THAT GIRL and HE & SHE. Solo, Meyerson scripted MONKEES as well and went on to a lengthy stint on WELCOME BACK, KOTTER.

Now Sheik Abdul gets down to business in the mayor's office. The sheik is played by Larry D. Mann, who was a familiar TV character face, often in dialects (three different nationalities on HOGAN'S HEROES) and had been on GET SMART the previous year. The Canadian born Mann would be a regular on POLICE SURGEON in the 70s and had guest roles on US fare including GREEN ACRES, COLUMBO, IRONSIDE, BEWITCHED, and MY FAVORITE MARTIAN. In later years he often played judges (recurring on HILL STREET BLUES) but his biggest pop culture contribution was as a voice actor, heard in Rankin/Bass's Toronto-recorded projects including RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (as Yukon Cornelius!) and WILLY McBEAN AND HIS MAGIC MACHINE (Professor Von Rotten). He played multiple roles for Filmation (including several secondary Groovie Ghoulies) and DePatie-Freleng (Crazylegs Crane, Blue Racer, and others).

The sheik is in town for a massive shopping spree, even expressing a desire to buy the whole city ("I can send back what I don't use.") While the mayor telephones local merchants, Sgt. Kane brings a report to the chief and catches the sheik's eye. He in turn tells his chief aide Ibid (James Lanphier) that he wants her, while a weary Ibid says he's up to 119 wives.
Ibid is played by James Lanphier, a familiar character actor who (due to both a facility with dialects and a fairly swarthy complexion) was often cast as various ethnicities, including Middle Eastern, Indian, and European, and when not tied to a nationality, often exuded superiority as manservants or maƮtre d's. He was one of Blake Edwards' favorite players, playing the ethnic speciality in THE PINK PANTHER (as the Princess of Lugash's faithful protector) and DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES (a foreign prince) and his more servile function in THE PERFERCT FURLOUGH (assistant hotel manager), THE PARTY (chief butler), and a regular for the final season of PETER GUNN as restaurateur turned headwaiter Leslie, plus a passel of other Edwards projects (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S, OPERATION PETTICOAT). Outside of Edwards, he played usually untrustworthy, usually spying foreigners on GET SMART (of course), THE WILD WILD WEST, THE GREEN HORNET, and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE.

Ibid follows his sire's wishes by asking for extra police protection, and the sheik chooses Sgt. Kane. As for the assassin, the sheik says to look out for a Dulumba tribesman, "bloodthirsty animals who murder and plunder without conscience." Mayor Finney tuts that they sound dangerous. "Yes, we are."

The rampant stereotyping moves to the crime lab as Sgt. Kane gives the sheik and Ibid a tour and introduces them to Carter Nash. The sheik expresses a healthy interest in scientific technology, but when he asks Carter to simplify how a microscope works, it boils down to "It's magic." (Hoo boy.) Carter demonstrates a lie detector, and the sheik mentions the method they employ: "We chain the suspect to a post in the blistering midday sun, then the entire village gathers round and stones him to death." "But then you never know if he's innocent or guilty!" "We're still ironing out the kinks." These are the "jokes," folks.

Sheik's hotel room. Sgt. Kane goes through an inventory of what the sheik has bought. Then enter a man in a business suit and fez, Yebba, who runs a local Dulumba business. He's played by Jan Arvan, who was a semi-regular in the earliest installments of ZORRO (as Nacho Torres, a local don pursued by the corrupt commandante) and was a regular foil to Red Skelton on TV (often as Clem Kadiddlehopper's paw, as well as various straight roles). He did a GET SMART, of course, and popped up on GREEN ACRES, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, THE MUNSTERS, THE VIRGINIAN, POLICE WOMAN, BEWITCHED, and scores more. In film, he was the ship's doctor in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE.

Yebba brings a gift from himself and the staff ("Some of the guys only chipped in a quarter.") Sgt. Kane checks it with a bomb detector, which goes off. She dunks the package in water, though Yebba claims it's a pair of lovely earmuffs. As the hapless merchant is dragged to a room by Ibid, Sgt. Kane finds the box contained... lovely earmuffs. Then an explosion: the bomb was Yebba himself (!) The sheik is even more enamored now that the sergeant has saved his life and proposes marriage. The sergeant seizes on the excuse that she belongs to another and names Carter Nash.

Cut to the man himself in the mayor's office, pointing out that the sheik is a cruel vicious man, hated by his own people and shunned by civilized nations. The mayor, however, only cares about how much money he'll spend (first really accurate part of the episode). Enter Mrs. Nash (Alice Ghostley) at last, and her first name is revealed as Esther. She's irked that her brother hasn't arranged for her to entertain the visiting sheik. The mayor thinks it's a great idea, and Mrs. Nash would have mentioned it earlier but she was having the invitations printed. (The laugh track responds dutifully. I did not.)

Carter delivers the invitation, and the sheik has his harem greet Carter, hoping he'll "take one of them for your very own" and thus leave Sgt. Kane free. When this fails, the sheik plots with Ibid to poison Carter at Mrs. Nash's luncheon, with rare poison Yopa.

At the luncheon, Mrs. Nash is charmed and doesn't understand why Carter thinks the sheik is cruel. Carter explains they finally found the assassin... in little bits. In the dining room, Ibid injects poison in a roll on Carter's plate (Mrs. Nash's place cards are most helpful).

The sheik calls in his food taster, Fetta (Fred Villani). Villani had mostly bit parts on THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, PETER GUNN, THE WILD WILD WEST, and McMILLAN AND WIFE. Carter feels sympathy for Fetta and offers him his roll, which the hungry taster eagerly consumes (Ibid seems about to stop it but the sheik raises a hand). Fetta drops dead, alarming everyone. Boy, so many chuckles in this outing! Ibid passes it off as a failed attempt on the sheik's life, and the mayor and Chief Segal escort the sheik to his hotel. Carter realizes the poison was meant for him (when he tries to explain to Mom that Sheik Abdul has 119 wives, she says "Every man should have a hobby.")

Hotel room. The mayor and chief fuss over the sheik before leaving... at which point he drops a sack over the sergeant while Ibid threatens to kill her if she makes a sound. We cut back to the mayor and Chief Segal waiting for the elevator. Te chief stakes Sgt. Kane's life that she can handle it, but the mayor is now anxious to be rid of the visitors, especially after the death at lunch. He admits he's starting to believe the tales of the sheik: "He's cruel, vicious, uncivilized, and dangerous." Chief Segal agrees but adds "And yet, there's something about him I don't like." (This is a GET SMART-esque gag, implying the chief is fine with the rest of it, and the closest to an actual funny gag the whole episode.)

The sheik cradles the captive sergeant, claiming she'll learn to love him over the years... and then he'll let her out of the sack. Carter arrives and changes into Captain Nice in a utility closet (after carefully placing his glasses in his suit jacket pocket, which he hangs up). Captain Nice intervenes but Ibid threatens to stab Sgt. Kane. He yields, and the sheik summons burly torturer Sopar.

He's played by Harry Varteresian, a real life strongman and arm wrestler known as Turk who acted occasionally, playing circus strongmen and other tough guys on GET SMART (again), LOST IN SPACE, and THE GIRL FROM UNCLE (later ran a restaurant, later died). Our hero warns Sopar that he doesn't want to hurt him and just lets him break furniture against him (while the sheik and Ibid make a getaway). Captain Nice brushes off the debris, and when Sopar lunges at him, he tumbles out the window... above the sheik. Captain Nice tries to warn the potentate, but he's crushed to death by his heavy minion (nothing shown, but Carter turns away in disgust, also a GET SMART tactic). He flies down, where a crowd gathers around the bodies, and insists Ibid open the sack. Sgt. Kane is finally freed, and she tells Ibid he's under arrest for murder, assault, and attempted kidnapping. ("You arrest people for *that*?") Sgt. Kane is grateful but "doesn't care much for muscle men" (her real passion is for Carter).

Coda. Carter presents the lab findings, while an admiring Sgt. Kane repeats what he says. After some forensic discussion, he wonders if Ibid will be tried by their laws or ours:
when a tribesman lies, they cut off his tongue, and they cut off his hand if he steals. If he murders? They cut off his allowance. (Ha ha ha).

Boy, this one was a chore to get through. And sadly there's at least one more heavily racist episode to come (by the same writers, who also scripted the *best* episode in the series). But the next episode is more promising, a real superhero-style plot, "That Thing." Join us, won't you.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Captain Nice Days #1: "The Man Who Flies Like a Pigeon"

And now, at long last, presenting the exploits of CAPTAIN NICE! The show was one of two superhero sitcoms (along with MR. TERRIFIC) to debut in 1967, in the wake of the huge hit that was 1966's Batman. The shows are often confused with each other: both involved nebbishes who fought crime thanks to a formula induced change, they debuted the same night, both went from Batman's camp to full laugh tracks, and neither lasted beyond one season. In 1967, three superhero shows airing simultaneously was just too much (while now they seem to be everywhere, everywhere I say!)

Captain Nice was created by Buck Henry, co-creator of Get Smart and it shows in sensibility, casting, and even borrowing a catchphrase ("I asked you not to *tell* me that!") It starred William Daniels, an unlikely choice as he was known for his stage work, serious parts on anthology dramas, and humorless character roles in THE GRADUATE and A THOUSAND CLOWNS. Although he did show his funny side in THE PRESIDENT'S ANALYST and years later would return to sitcomdom on BOY MEETS WORLD, with acclaimed turns as a singing founding father (1776), an egotistical surgeon (ST. ELSEWHERE), and a talking car (KNIGHT RIDER) coming inbetween. Still, in the 60s, he always looked like he belonged in thick glasses and a tie, so playing Captain Nice's sometimes testy alter-ego Carter Nash was a pretty good fit.

The second star name in the opening was Alice Ghostley as Mrs. Nash, who as we shall see, pushes her sonny boy into fighting crime. Supporting and guest rosters featured a slew of character greats and up and coming comedians (with subsequent episodes showcasing John Dehner, Bob Newhart, JoAnne Worley, Joe Flynn, Vic Tayback, Simon Oakland, Florence Halop, John Fiedler, and Charles Grodin, several of whom had previously done GET SMART). So now, my aim is to examine the show's fifteen episodes (eventually!) and see what worked, what didn't, and what's aged best.

We begin with the beginning, "The Man Who Flies Like a Pigeon" (written by Buck Henry solo) which is primarily an origin story. Before that however, we get a pre-title sequence narrated in voice-over (by Buck Henry, possibly?) establishing Captain Nice and the milieu of his typically typical crime-ridden burg Big Town. Mark Evanier once surmised that this sequence, disconnected from the rest of the episode, may have been a pitch reel to sell the show, and that makes sense. This also showcases the music of the inimitable Vic Mizzy, who composed the theme song, but this would be the only episode to be entirely scored by Mizzy Music, with lots of the springy, boingy cues familiar from THE ADDAMS FAMILY, Paul Henning's rural sitcoms, and Don Knotts movies to name just a few. (To a large extent, sixties sitcom music *was* Vic Mizzy, or at least as long as he could hold off Frank DeVol with his baton.)

Of the uncredited actors in this sequence, two are recognizable. After an oblivious Carter Nash passes or narrowly misses seeing an assortment of crimes (from armed robbery to kidnapping), he finally stumbles upon a gang of bank robbers. The leader is played by Fabian Dean, who mostly played working types like deliverymen, construction workers, painters, and the like. He was occasionally a hood, including in the second episode of MR. TERRIFIC, where he does get credit, and he'd been in three GET SMART episodes.

One of the crooks doesn't want to rob the 1st National because he has a savings account there. This guy is Charles Dierkop, who with his battered face and nose played a slew of henchmen and heavies, including Flat Nose Curry in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and one of Robert Shaw's bodyguards in THE STING (he also got credit on a MR. TERRIFIC and would be an uncredited henchie on BATMAN in 1968). He's had a busy career, chalking up appearances on STAR TREK, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, BONANZA, LOST IN SPACE, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, MANNIX, THE FALL GUY, ER, and MACGYVER. He had recurring stint on the right side of the law as Detective Royster on POLICE WOMAN but also appeared in assorted B horror or shoot-em-up movies in the eighties and nineties, usually as a psycho (i.e. the killer Santa who kicks off SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT).

Carter Nash (we don't even know his name yet) goes down an open manhole, while the Mizzy music starts to go full GHOST AND MR. CHICKEN. He takes off his suit coat, loosens his tie, and drinks his formula to become... a fully costumed superhero who flies, crashes into an awning, and then faces the fearful crooks. They throw dynamite at him, which he deflects... into a nearby apartment building. The residents marvel reverently at this property destroying hero, who a boy refers to as "Some nut in his underwear. His Irish-accented father corrects him that it's no ordinary nut, "That's Captain Nice," seguing into the title and theme song (where a Dick Beals-voiced lad asks much the same thing). Here, watch the intro.

After the opening credits, our narrator returns to establish this is the story of the day Carter Nash first became Captain Nice, in his sitcom suburban home with Mom and Dad. Mom is the aforementioned Alice Ghostley, known to many for her roles on BEWITCHED and DESIGNING WOMEN. She was always funny, and Paul Lynde acknowledged he stole his voice from her! She was in two GET SMART outings including one of my favorites (made post CAPTAIN NICE), "The Farkas Frakas" where she's married to Tom Bosley as bickering KAOS agents next door because he can't get any other job. Mrs. Nash is the real power not just in the household but in the city, as we shall see.

Mr. Nash is Byron Foulger, and the joke is that he never puts down his omnipresent newspaper long enough to see his face. His distinctive voice is heard, though, saying one line near the end: "Yes, dear." Mrs. Nash serves him coffee or food by telling him "Up!" and then "Down" as the newspaper is lifted just sufficiently. A truly prolific character actor since the 1930s, Foulger was a member of Preston Sturges' stock company, veteran of hundreds of movies and TV appearances, and a go-to for timid little men (and yes, he too chalked up a GET SMART, as a retired CONTROL scientist). Too many credits to enumerate, but his next recurring TV gig would be on the sixth season of PETTICOAT JUNCTION (1968-1969), replacing taking over as the Cannonball's elderly engineer/conductor. Here he is in a publicity pic for his GET SMART turn:

Carter proceeds to Big Town city hall, where he works in the conveniently 60s TV located police lab, ignored by everyone. Mizzy music goes weird (and the sound effects for lab workings are the same used in Rankin/Bass's MAD MONSTER PARTYY?) as we get a montage of Carter performing chemical experiments. Finally, he's done it! One expects maniacal laughter and "They called me mad!" dialogue.

Instead, our milquetoast hero takes the discovery to the mayor's office, where we meet two more regulars: Mayor Finney (Liam Dunn) and Chief Segal (William Zuckert). Liam Dunn plays the mayor as if he's troubled by ulcers. This would be his only regular TV part, following stage work in the forties and TV casting in the fifties. Afterwards, Dunn remained a familiar face from guest rounds on BARNEY MILLER, KOJAK, THE ODD COUPLE, BONANZA, and others, and especially from his turns in 70s film comedies: as Streisand's even more harried judge dad in WHAT'S UP, DOC? and in Mel Brooks' BLAZING SADDLES (Rev. Johnson), YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (the silent demonstration patient), and SILENT MOVIE. He was always welcome.

Chief Segal is so dumb and incompetent he makes BATMAN's Chief O'Hara look like Eliot Ness. Bill Zuckert was a New York radio veteran, often typecast as cops and other uniformed officials, or as grousing working types. He had been an admiral on GET SMART and would play the head prison guard in a BATMAN outing in 1968, plus a semi-regular on THE WACKIEST SHIP IN THE ARMY as a general. He first brushed with superheroes in his radio days, on THE ADVENTURES OF SUPERMAN and was a staple of the sci-fi anthologies DIMENSION X and X-MINUS ONE. TV guest turns included PERRY MASON (four times as a judge), COLUMBO, THE ROCKFORD FILES, NAKED CITY, CRAZY LIKE A FOX, LOU GRANT, MAUDE, GREEN ACRES, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, and David Lynch's ON THE AIR. He kept working into the 90s, with parts in ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE and THE NAKED GUN 33 1/3: THE FINAL INSULT (as a giant old man in "Geriatric Park.")

Carter tries to demonstrate his formula by feeding it to a mouse, who he then lets into a cat's cage. While the city bigwigs think this is sadistic, the mouse proceeds to beat up the cat. Mayor: "You've created the world's most dangerous mouse!" Before Carter can explain the full impact of his formula, Chief Segal gets a phone call that there's been a jailbreak. Mayor: "Don't tell me Omnus has escaped." "Omnus has escaped." Mayor Finney testily responds, "I asked you not to TELL me that!" (recycling a GET SMART catchphrase, which the mayor would use throughout). The assembled officials then rush to the jail which, conveniently, is *also* in city hall. There, the chief and mayor provide an exposition dump on Gregory Omnus, master of disguise.

A key difference between CAPTAIN NICE and either GET SMART or BATMAN was its lack of colorful master criminals. Captain Nice would face bank robbers, thugs, arsonists, crooked businessmen, ethnic stereotypes, and all purpose crooks (not unlike Superman on radio or fifties TV). Omnus is the lone exception, who has been known to disguise himself as anyone or anything... including remaining at the crime scene as a Morris chair. Chief Segal sat in him and the only description he can offer is this: "He's extremely comfortable." Carter continues to pester the mayor about his formula, but his honor further exposits that he hired Carter for two reasons: 1), he's a good chemist and 2.) (keep it quiet) he's Carter's Uncle Fred and is terrified of Mrs. Nash. After finally brushing off Carter, the mayor worries that Omnus is still in the building and could be anything (he grapples with his own chair just to be safe!)

Carter has returned to his police lab, and enter our final regular: Sgt. Candy Kane, played by Ann Prentiss. She did a GET SMART post-NICE and had guest spots on BEWITCHED, BONANZA, HOGAN'S HEROES, and others. She was the sister of Paula Prentiss, and her later life was sad and odd (it can be Googled). The sergeant is usually the only competent police officer in Big Town, but right now she's too busy flirting heavily with Carter. She wonders if Omnus is still in the building and suggests they walk across the park. More flirting, but as they leave, while the Mizzy music does that cymbal "t ts ta ts" sound, a tackling dummy behind them is revealed to be Omnus in disguise.

Omnus, having apparently overheard and seen every aspect of Carter's experiment, has designs on the formula, and while lightning and thunder flash, he does some villainous gloating. He's played by tall, long-faced Kelton Garwood, who was also a henchman in the GET SMART pilot. His most notable TV assignment was on THE TWILIGHT ZONE as the tramp in "Five Characters in Search of an Exit" and he was heavies on many Westerns (THE RIFLEMAN, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, TALES OF WELLS FARGO, WAGON TRAIN). He also appeared on THE MUNSTERS and THE WALTONS. Around 1968, he changed his professional name (perhaps suspecting the unusual first and last name were a hindrance) to Jonathan Harper and then shortened that to John Harper. Under all three names, he recurred on GUNSMOKE as Dodge City undertaker Percy Crump, appearing on and off for eleven years and a total of nine episodes.

At the park, Sgt. Kane and Carter continue to get cozy, or at least the sergeant tries to, not pulling any punches and speaking in husky breaths. She treats Carter, who admits to being vulnerable, like she's drooling over a choice steak. They get near a statue, where Candy Kane says she'll close her eyes, expecting Carter to kiss her. Instead, the statue behind them conks Carter, revealing itself as Omnus. Underneath the statue getup, he's wearing green camouflage to blend in with the park foliage. He summons five henchmen, not in monogrammed turtlenecks like on BATMAN but for some reason attired as if for golfing and camping. They try to steal Carter's briefcase containing the formula and then capture the sergeant.

Faced with a predicament, Carter Nash steels himself and drinks his own formula for the first time. Lightning strikes, his clothes are shredded, and he drops a tree on an approaching henchman. Carter then discovers he has super speed. The henchmen try to take Sgt. Kane out just as an elderly park guard is locking up. Carter arrives and stops them in assorted super ways, less BIFF POW then bouncing them off of playground equipment and sticking his finger in a gun, like so.

Omnus sends off his remaining henchmen, same results. Lightning flashes again and Omnus, hiding in the bushes, slinks off. Nowadays, this would be a deliberate sequel hook, but here, he just escapes and is never heard from again.

Now Carter converses with the amazed park guard. The guard is played by Arthur Malet, a character favorite who played bearded banker Mr. Dawes Sr. in MARY POPPINS and appeared on the shows of Shirley Temple, Alfred Hitchcock, Dick Van Dyke, and Andy Griffith, as well as PERRY MASON, THE FUGITIVE, BEWITCHED, THE MONKEES, and later COLUMBO and BARNEY MILLER. He was a cemetery keeper in HALLOWEEN and enjoyed a bit of a resurgence in the 80s and 90s, with voice roles in animated features THE SECRET OF NIMH and THE BLACK CAULDRON, supporting parts in HOOK, A LITTLE PRINCESS, and TOYS, and TV spots on PICKET FENCES and NED AND STACEY. Our guard assumes Carter is a "super person," due to his strength, "colorful costume," and feats of daring. As police and press approach, Carter tries to leave, but the guard catches sight of his belt buckle CN. Thus the name Captain Nice is coined. Carter flies off, and the guard is pleased at the story he can tell his grandchildren... "assuming I ever get married."

Now we finally get back to Alice Ghostley at the Nash home, talking to a phone friend about the news of a crimefighter. Mr. Nash crosses his legs. Then Carter returns and explains his newfound powers. Mrs. Nash puts two and two together, although she's not big on the name Captain Nice: "Why not Wonder Man or Musclehead or something like that." Carter wants to keep the secret and, worried of the formula falling into the wrong hands, plans to destroy it when the effect wears off. Mrs. Nash won't allow it: he must make a new batch while she makes his costume. Mrs. Nash explains they live in a "typical American town, jam full of crooks and hoodlums and gangsters, and it's up to you to do something about it." Carter agrees.. and smashes the fireplace mantle by accident.

So concludes our first outing. Not bad, really, but so focused on origin that Alice Ghostley is little used. Despite the laugh track, there are only a few chuckles, which for me came mainly at the chair bits. Still a decent effort and the show improves, but a glance at the second episode fills me with mild trepidation: "How Sheik Can You Get?" Well, your obedient servant shall attempt to cover at one of these Captain Nice Days. Join us, won't you?

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Total eclipse of the sun - "Nightfall" on radio

Given the eclipse of the sun which occurred on August 21, 2017, I've been wanting to write about the radio adaptations of Isaac Asimov's short story "Nightfall." It was done first on Dimension-X (September 29, 1951) and then again on successor show X-Minus One. It's the tale of a planet with multiple suns, so night is unknown. Once every 2,0049 years, however, an eclipse occurs. Also every 2,0049 years, the planet's civilization collapses entirely. As the event nears, astronomers have tried to warn people to prepare. Religious zealots welcome it (and with it the arrival of the mysterious "stars"), and a reporter, Theremon somewhat skeptically tries to dig into the story. Both story and radio version consist largely of conversations the reporter has with Aton (the chief astronomer) and the psychologist Sheerin (who explains the very real concern about what the eclipse could do to humanity).

Both shows use the same script, by Ernest Kinoy, but different actors (and a few lines are trimmed for ''X-Minus One''). It sticks closely to the source story, with some changes, mostly minor or necessary for radio. Asimov gave all of his characters a number after the name, which reads fine but basically eats seconds on radio. The character name of a religious cultist is given to a different character, and the high priest (mentioned several times in the story but not actually present) fills his function (strengthening the conflict). Most minor of all, in the story the psychologist remarks that he's too fat to be a suitable survivor (and on radio, he says he's too scrawny!) Incorporated in the shared narration is a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote (about how man would react on first seeing stars) which was the starting point for Asimov.

I heard the X-Minus One version first, so I confess I favor it a tad. But I like to be chronological so first, here's Dimension-X.

Only three of the seven speaking parts are credited: Lyle Sudrow as Theremon, Cameron Prud'Homme as Aton, and John McGovern as Sherrin. "Your host" Norman Rose (voice of the Juan Valdez coffee commercials, Death in Woody Allen's Love and Death, and many more) narrates, with a sort of sardonic authority.

The X-Minus One version is narrated by Floyd Mack (of The Bell Telephone Hour), who lacks the vocal timbre and seems to be working *against* the stronger voices of the cast. On the other hand, the high priest Sor is played by Santos Ortega, who makes him suitably foreboding and adds weight to those scenes.

Wendell Holmes is top-billed, playing chief astronomer Dr. Aton. Holmes was often heard on both Dimension X and X-Minus One, especially effective in "Mars Is Heaven" (all versions) as Captain Black. With a voice perhaps best described as bluff, Holmes played roles on soap operas, usually fatherly physicians for limited arcs of Young Dr. Malone and Exploring the Unknown. In 1949, he starred as the title character on the revival of Scattergood Baines. He was also heard in the final New York Sherlock Holmes season as Dr. Watson (billed under the hoary theatrical pseudonym George Spelvin; apparently someone involved thought a Holmes playing Watson would confuse people). Still, most of his radio toiling was for anthologies, including The Chase, Suspense, Words at War, Gangbusters, and The Mysterious Traveler. On-screen, he played similar establishment types in films like 1949's Lost Boundaries(according to trade magazines, he had more offers after that but turned it down for radio), The Absent-Minded Professor (one of the armed forces heads who respond to the news of Flubber), and Elmer Gantry. TV, he was on Leave It to Beaver several times (nearly always a teacher), Perry Mason (DA in one, doctor in another, stuffy brother-in-law of victim in a third), Bonanza (two different judges), The Twilight Zone (David Wayne's defense attorney in "Escape Clause"), and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

John Larkin (Theremon the reporter) was heard in 13 other X-Minus One installments, and a few for Dimension X) (often in Bradbury tales; he was the lead in "To the Future," a retitling of "A Fox in the Forest" from The Illustrated Man). Larkin's leading man voice quality led to stints as Buck Rogers and Mark Trail, and in soapers like The Right to Happiness. He played Perry Mason on radio from roughly 1947 until the show's end in 1955. He then moved into TV, when radio Perry was reworked as the serial Edge of Night, starring as Mike Karr. He kept busy on the tube, with guest spots on Alfred Hitchcok Presents, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and The Fugitive. His last role was a regular stint on Twelve O'Clock High as supervising General Crowe (a stint ended by his passing).

Santos Ortega (High Priest Sor) played sleuths and villains with equal aplomb. He was the gangster Duke in Robert Block's "Almost Human" (done on both shows) and Arvardan in the Dimension X adaptation of Asimov's Pebble in the Sky." He had stints as Nero Wolfe, Perry Mason (before Larkin), Charlie Chan, Bulldog Drummond, Inspector Queen on Ellery Queen, and Commissioner Weston on The Shadow. He played heavies on Adventures of Superman (notably the political boss Big George Latimer, who cropped up more than once) and similar often menacing types on Suspense. On-camera, he played Grandpa Hughes on As the World Turns.

Mercer McLeod, who plays Sheerin, was heard in five other X-Minus One broadcasts. He starred in a 1947 series produced by NBC syndication called Mercer McLeod - The Man with the Story (as shown above), playing all the male roles in an anthology format (his wife played the females). McLeod played historical roles on You Are There and Cavalcade of America and was heard in the last years of Suspense when the show returned to New York. On Broadway, he was in the original cast of Half a Sixpence, while TV included tube versions of Inner Sanctum and Light's Out.

Heard in smaller roles are Alan Collins (according to J. David Goldin, the same as disc jockey Al "Jazzbo" Collins who starred as himself in the hep episode "Real Gone"; could be, but haven't confirmed it), Roy Fant, and Bob Hastings. Fant worked Broadway on and off, and his radio credits (dating to the thirties) included Norman Corwin's "Odyssey of Runyon Jones" (as the cranky Father Time). Bob Hastings, one of the stalwarts of X-Minus One (only a few leads, but heard in bits almost weekly), plays the somewhat cocky worker interviewed by the reporter. The elderly cult member is played by Roy Fant, Broadway stage veteran whose radio highlights include Norman Corwin's "Odyssey of Runyon Jones" (as the cranky Father Time). Bob Hastings was a stalwart on X-Minus One; heard in over thirty broadcasts; while he only had a few leads ("Early Model," for example), he was a steady utility player, as reporters, workmen, and other crowd types. He had been a child performer on radio and starred as Archie on Archie Andrews (based on the comics). He became a familiar face on TV (notably Lt. Carpenter on McHale's Navy and Tommy Kelsey on All in the Family ) and in films (he was the ballroom emcee in THe Poseidon Adventure). He kept busy with voice work as well, from the raven on The Munsters (replacing Mel Blanc) to Superboy on the Filmation series, and a long stint as Commissioner Gordon in animated Batman projects.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Dryden the Wool: A Centennial Salute to Robert Dryden

100 years ago today, on February 8, 1917, radio actor Robert (Bob) Dryden was born. His surname suited him, as his voice was typically dry, often with a distinctive crackle (even moreso when aged into old men, a specialty). Although he only had a few running roles, Dryden was one of the busiest utility players on the New York airwaves, an in-demand doubler (playing multiple roles per show), from dialects to authority figures to low-key shopkeeps and country sheriffs to NY cabbies. He played Hitler, Satan, Jacob Marley, you name it. His career practically spanned the life of radio: from the golden age of the late 1930s through the waning network era (sticking to CBS for the last run of Suspense) and into the various revival efforts (most notably CBS Radio Mystery Theater, where he was a mainstay for eight years).

Dryden had established himself on the airwaves by at least 1938 (when his name crops up in trade magazines); the same year, he made his Broadway debut in The Hill Between with Mildred Dunnock, which closed after 11 performances. He was heard often on the likes of Columbia Workshop and in the productions of Norman Corwin. His running parts were fairly few, including a stint on Big Town in the 1940s as cabbie Harry the Hack (shown at top) and on Call the Police as the sidekick, Sgt. Maggio. More often, he was the reliable standby heard constantly, especially on Gangbusters (from crooks and cops to many of the "by proxy" real-life police officials or mayors who narrated the tales). Here's a 1967 interview with Richard "Whatever Became Of?" Lamparski, jointly with Don McLaughlin, reminiscing about the series (McLaughlin does more of the talking, but Dryden gets some in).

When I Love a Mystery was revived in New York (1949-1952), Dryden was a staple, particularly well suited to colorful old-timers (notably Jumping Dick in the serial "Bury Your Dead, Arizona"), who often offered comic relief, as well as outright hoods. When series lead Russell Thorson left for the West Coast, Dryden took over as Jack Packard for the remaining months. Take a listen to Jumping Dick in action, trying to interest Doc Long in his daughter:

On Fletcher Markle's Studio One, Dryden was heard almost weekly, from featured supporting roles (Senator Henry in "The Glass Key") to the "also heard" ensemble, filling in all kinds of bits (inevitably including oldtimers in any Western tale). Similarly, on the news drama Big Story (loosely dramatizing scoops by real-life reporters), he played his usual types: sheriffs, judges, cops, and dry storekeepers. He was shady types on Superman, lurked on The Shadow, took the train with The Mysterious Traveler, was part of The Cavalcade of America, and nearly any NY drama you care to name. (Curiously, his X-Minus One appearances were few compared to his fellows, perhaps just because he was kept hopping elsewhere).

When TV entered the picture, Dryden was still active in radio, even when the medium was clearly dying. He participated in several of the NY broadcasts of CBS Radio Workshop (1956-1957, a favorite of mine), including Lucifer in the comedic "Billion Dollar Failure of Figger Fallup" (in which Old Scratch hires a polling agency to estimate how many damned souls he'll need to take in). Late in 1959, CBS moved Suspense to New York (where it had originated in its earliest shows), and would do the same to Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar the following year. Both dramas continued until 1962 and kept Dryden hopping. He played miners, sea captains, old farmers (real or hallucinated), working stiffs, and Adolf Hitler (in the inevitable "Let's kill Hitler" episode "Time on My Hands.")

On Johnny Dollar, Dryden sometimes filled in as leftover continuing characters from the Hollywood era, such as worrywort insurance broker Harry Branson (originally Harry Bartell). He played new insurance contacts, and an assortment of policemen or fire chiefs, and less trustworthy types with names like Touchy or Shorty. He also popped up on the comedy The Couple Next Door, showing off his dialects during an arc where the Couple (and Aunt Effie) visit Europe.

Though 1962 is often marked as the end date for old-time radio, Dryden soldiered on. ABC launched the short-lived revival Theatre Five in 1964, and Dryden was there. Eternal Light kept on NBC as a public affairs program? Dryden was there. And when National Lampoon launched The National Lampoon Radio Hour (1973-1974), Mr. Dryden was one of the OTR pros (including Jackson Beck and Leon Janney) who rubbed vocal chords with the younger comedians such as John Belushi and Christopher Guest. (Dryden later played Belushi's doctor in a single 1977 Saturday Night Live bit). He often played establishment types (yet another judge in the very short "Trial of Al Capone" bit) or commercial spokesmen, as typified by the Monolithic Oil bit:

And then we have The CBS Radio Mystery Theater, which ran from 1974 until 1982, from Himan "Creaking Door" Brown. I (and others) first knew the name and voice of Robert Dryden from his many appearances on the series (with only three to five actors per show, most doubling, it wasn't hard to narrow down). He was heard the entire run, in over 300 episodes (nearly a quarter of the 1300 plus total). He played leads, co-leads, supporting roles, whatever. Hitler and Satan popped up again, he was a slew of old men (kindly or evil), and put that aged voice to especially good use as Jacob Marley in "A Christmas Carol" (first aired in 1975 but repeated annually). Typical of Dryden's usefulness: the episode "Black Widow" (1978), with Hetty Galen as lead, Dryden gets second billing at the start. He plays Galen's elderly husband, killed by labor racketeers in a hit and run near the start... and then returns to the mike as the no-nonsense police lieutenant assigned to the case. When 1977 brought with it an O. Henry week of tales (seven in all), Dryden narrated as O. Henry. Here's an example, "Jimmy Valentine's Gamble."
"Jimmy Valentine's Gamble."

Dryden did much the same on the short-lived juvenile audience spin-off Adventure Theater (Baloo in "Jungle Book" adaptations, Ben Gunn in "Treasure Island," the fox in "Pinocchio," etc.) He also kept his pipes busy beyond radio, including children's records for MGM (the late sixties "Official Adventures" series, including the Shadow with Bret Morrison, as well as Princa Valiant and the Phantom) and for Scholastic and Troll.

He announced commercials for Life Saver candies and others, narrated educational shorts and documentaries, and even did some film dubbing. I became aware of the latter when I revisited Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (dubbed in New York by Titan, the outfit which under the name Titra handled most of the Godzilla films). The famous opening scene features an elderly station manager at the start, and his voice is dubbed by Bob Dryden. Finally, the voice is matched to someone who looks as old as Dryden sounds! He had previously done the same dubbing German actor Joseph Eggar's eccentric oldtimers in the first two entries in the "Dollars" trilogy, and can be heard in smaller roles (such as an older padre at the mission) in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (the latter was mentioned in Dryden's obituary, as if implying he was on-camera in it). Here's the Once Upon a Time in the West opening.

Speaking of on-camera, let's look at our man Dryden on the tube. While his radio and voice work dwarfs everything else, Dryden did his fare share of TV gigs. While never as familiar a face as his radio colleagues Jim Boles or Larry Haines, he did the TV versions of Studio One and Big Story, and other anthology showcases (The Alcoa Hour). There was a stint on the soap opera Edge of Night (so esteemed critics were reluctant to call it a soap). He also appeared twice each on The Phil Sivers Show (aka Sgt. Bilko) and Route 66, as shown below/ From the screengrabbing skills of Ivan Shreve Jr., we have him with Phil Silvers as a producer's yes man (name given is Sampson) in "Bilko in Hollywood" (1966).

As lawyer Metcalf in "The Colonel's Inheritance" (1958)

On Route 66 as fisherman Hollis in "Build Your Houses With Their Backs to the Sea" (1963).

And in "Child of a Night" (1964) as yet another lawyer, named Warren.

Dryden even recurred on The Naked City. After appearing twice in bits in 1959, he appeared at least a dozen times between 1960 and 1961, as the nameless police surgeon. It's a functional role (like court clerks on Perry Mason), spiced up by dry humor and what friend Ivan terms a "lip toupee".
) He was also in a fourth season installment of The Defenders (hurry up, Shout Factory!) As the sixties wore on, he was a utility player on Jackie Gleason's color "Honeymooners" skits on The Jackie Gleason Show (1966-1967).

Later, he'd pop up in occasional public television fare, such as the "American Short Story" broadcast "Paul's Case" (1980) as the school principal. Dryer than ever.

In movies, Dryden made his cinematic debut between mic gigs, in the 1957 film Four Boys with a Gun. It's a melodramatic entry with Frank "Pyle!" Sutton and James Franciscus as two of the title "boys." Dryden has several scenes as a mob boss, with the unprepossessing name of Joe Barton (sounds like a "legitimate businessman" after all) who has Sutton roughed up.

Other film credits included The Happy Hooker and Foreplay. (Hey, a gig's a gig). Though he seemed less active after the eighties in general media, he remained busy as a frequent guest to old-time radio conventions and participating regularly in live recreations. He finally signed off in 2003, at the age of 86.

Here's to the rich catalogue of recorded work available, from the dryest of the Dryden.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

New Year's Eve radio: SUSPENSE "The Old Man" (Dec. 31, 1961)

As we prepare to ring out the old year, it's worth noting that not all old years are ready to go. 2016 feels like one that most people are anxious to have done with, but the sentiment isn't new. Here it illustrated in a late-run installment of Suspense from New York, broadcast over CBS on New Year's Eve, 1961: "The Old Man."

Here we have an atypical late-run installment of Suspense. It's not very suspenseful, *but* it's also one of the better shows from the waning years, when the series returned to New York. The cast (more on them as we go along) is headlined by Leon Janney in the title role, and Reynold Osborne (who did SUSPENSE and YOURS TRULY JOHNNY DOLLAR periodically between 1961-1962, but I can't find anything else about him). The "heard in tonight's story" crowd are a seasoned bunch, in order of billing, Lawson Zerbe, Ivor Francis, Larry Haines, Ralph Camargo, Rita Lloyd, and Guy Repp (in a one-liner as Johnson).


By 1961, radio was an old man itself. To save money in the waning years of network radio, CBS relocated both Suspense and Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar to New York (where the radio soaps were still going), in the fall of 1959. By the end of 1962, the soaps were long gone (or moved to TV) and the theater of thrills and the man with the action packed expense account were both axed. Even by 1959, the heyday of Hollywood stars like Cary Grant or Ida Lupino emoting on Suspense had passed; the last few Hollywood years were dominated by the radio stalwarts (and a few names like Vincent Price who might drop in because they still loved the medium). The NY talent pool (old radio pros, stage veterans, a few early TV folks) was more than capable (some like Ian Martin even worked Suspense from the beginning, *before* the Hollywood move).

The real problem lay with the scripts. The show had run through the classics by this point, and it was so hard to get good writers that often the actors (or even technical staff) would contribute (with results ranging from decent to abysmal). "The Old Man" is better than I expected, a fun fantasy reminiscent of Norman Corwin (especially "The Odyssey of Runyon Jones" or "The Undecided Molecule.") This was writer Bob Corcoran's first of three scripts for Suspense, when he was a staff writer for CBS's Stagestruck (blend of variety and interviews, focused on the theater) and TV variety shows (Patti Page), but also dramatic scripts for radio's Rocky King and Modern Romance.

We open with a radio announcer (Camargo) along Broadway interviewing people on New Year's Eve (and trying to keep them from stepping on his wire). One of the folks he encounters is an inebriated gent identified in the credits as "The Tippler" (played by the great Larry Haines). After interviewing senior cab driver Joe Walston (Zerbe), the announcer shrewdly bundles the drunk into the cab.

Meanwhile, in some sort of celestial bureaucracy (Times Past, Present, and Future), the Director (Osborne) and secretary Miss Fowler (Rita Lloyd) discuss the retirement party for "the old man." He knew it was a short-term job, after all. The pompous director harries his assistant (Ivor Francis) but is aware that he has to answer to... "the Chairman of the Board" (heavily implied to be God).

The old man himself resists the notion and the standard gold watch, since he already has his own timepiece (the big hour glass, no doubt). He makes his way to earth... and explicitly, to the New York street where Walston and his pickled passenger spot him. Assuming he's headed to a New Year's Eve costume party, Walston picks him up, talks about retirement age... and then they find themselves transferred back to those otherworldly offices of time and space (snatched by the assistant, though his director chides him for getting those "other two clowns.") Walston's reaction is priceless, thinking the cab must have cracked up and now, "we're deadsville or something?" The pompous director resents that assumption (and word). "Nutsville?!?"

From here, the Old Man tries to argue that he can still fix the problems of 1961 (and thinks the baby new year 1962 looks rather stupid). Walston, now fully aware of what's going on, points out that a lot of people (including himself) will not be sorry to see Old 1961 go (sound familiar?) and encourages him to let the new year take its place, for good or ill. Will the new year of 1962 commence or not? Will the year chime? What will become of the calendars?? Listen and find out.

The sound on the above link is fuzzy in spots and pitch sounds a trifle off, but it's still a good show (and familiar voices like Ivor Francis and Larry Haines are still recognizable).

Cast notes:
Leon Janney, who does a great cranky old man voice here, was 44 at the time, but he knew all about aging out of a job. He had been a former child actor in the late twenties and early thirties, starring in Penrod and Sam (as Penrod) and he was featured in exactly one "Our Gang" entry, Bear Shooters. In adulthood, he worked heavily on radio (including Number One Son on Charlie Chain, John Cole and other suitors on The Romance of Helen Trent), and by this point was appearing near weekly on Suspense. TV included episodes of Car 54, Where Are You and The Defenders. He was later heard on the revival series CBS Radio Mystery Theatre and on National Lampoon Radio Hour (narrating the "Flash Bazbo" segments)

Lawson Zerbe was one of the busiest voices of NY radio, from at least 1937 onward, from soaps and serials to anthologies. He starred as the title characters on The Adventures of Frank Merriwell and Pepper Young's Family (for a time anyway, preceding Mason Adams). He played photographer Dusty Miller on Big Town and was heard at various times on the soap The Road of Life as Dr. Jim Brent's brother Fred and later as his adopted son Butch. Lots of X-Minus One (along with nearly everyone in this episode), Inner Sanctum, Mutual's mystery anthologies, and more.

Unlike most of the others in "The Old Man," Zerbe didn't do on-camera work or even Broadway. He stayed behind the mic, heard in children's records for MGM from the sixties through the seventies (playing the Gingerbread Man, for example). He continued to be heard on NBC's The Eternal Light (which, under their public affairs division, continued to broadcast, finally ending in the eighties.)

Ivor Francis (as the assistant to the director) is a personal favorite of mine. He was heard all over the New York airwaves, including Studio One, X-Minus One, and others. He was most familiar on-camera, however, with his weary face popping up in character roles, often as gentle but absent-minded professor types, doctors, or clergy. He had a regular role on the not-so-hot "Gilligan in the Old West" series Dusty's Trail (as the wealthy Easterner, the millionaire counterpart), recurred on Room 222 as old-fashioned English teacher Kenneth Dragen, was a frequent arrestee on Barney Miller (as shown above), and had guest turns on The Defenders, Kojak, Quincy, Happy Days, Get Smart (as a Stanislavsky-style acting coach), and countless others.

Larry Haines often played crooks, bartenders, tough guy detectives, or general blue collar types. An obvious New Yorker, he could lend menace or humor to his roles, depending, heard on several prior (and subsequent) Suspense installments, Gangbusters (of course), Treasury Agent (starring as the lead, Joe Lincoln), That Hammer Guy (as Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, who fared better on TV), X-Minus One, CBS Radio Mystery Theater, and hundreds more (including soap stints, such as The Second Mrs. Burton as Lew Archer and on Rosemary as Lefty Higgins, another gangster type, but this one tried to reform). He transitioned well into movies and TV, highlighted by playing poker buddy Speed in The Odd Couple and a long stint on Search for Tomorrowt as Stu Bergen. He also worked Broadway (billed as "A. Larry Haines," for some reason), originating the part of Jason Robards' brother in A Thousand Clowns, as well as the lead in Last of the Red Hot Lovers and Dr. Dreyfus in Promises, Promises.

Ralph Camargo, as the above industry ad indicates, acted, announced (on the Marine Corps recruitment series Marine Story), and narrated (including on the 1959 Suspense version of "The Country of the Blind.") He was a perennial "featured in the cast were" player on X-Minus One and other NY series. ON TV, he sometimes played judges on soaps.

Rita Lloyd worked New York radio (notably the children's series Let's Pretend) but later became a staple of TV soaps, usually as matriarch figures trying to control the lives of their children (usually daughters). Lucille on The Guiding Light was typical of the breed.

So, farewell to the old year, in with the year, even if it does seem like discrimination against the elderly. A better year for anyone reading this, and as the CBS announcer reminds us, "unscheduled stops for many this night of nights will be emergency wards, hospital beds, and the morgue... Be extra careful, extra courteous, and moderate in tonight's celebration." (And don't start a forest fire while you're at it.)