Sunday, 2 June 2013

Mr. Harris, Your Contract is Up

Would you accept a $50,000-a-year contract for ten years? And then barely have to work during that time?

That’s what Phil Harris did. At least, that was the sum being bandied about by columnists.

NBC decided to sew up its remaining big comedy talent in 1949 when Bill Paley opened his Jack Benny-sized vault and attracted Benny and other stars over to CBS. Harris and wife Alice Faye inked a new NBC contract (the New York Times reported on December 25, 1948 a deal with CBS had fallen through). And then a couple of years later he signed a long-term deal, with the network no doubt thinking it could transfer his radio show to television. But it never happened, despite continued rumblings. Harris told United Press in 1953 that Faye would rather stay home with the kids and TV was too hectic. Philsie seemed to agree after a bit and spent more of his time golfing, fishing and relaxing in Palm Springs than anywhere near a TV studio.

Slowly but surely, his nice little contract ran out. And that brings us to this story from UPI that appeared in newspapers around August 25, 1962. The columnist didn’t even broach the subject of an eventual weekly series featuring Phil and Alice, let alone bringing back their old sitcom. Or maybe he did and Phil’s answer wasn’t printable. But it’s more than likely that idea was in their distant past, much like radio itself was considered something of an era long departed.

Phil Harris Is Free To Work With Pals

HOLLYWOOD (UPI)—Phil Harris, a comedian who sings at racehorse speed about things like blackeyed peas and fried chicken, is available for work with such old pals as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Jack Benny and Red Skelton.
That wasn’t always so. For the past 10 years, NBC-TV has had a contract with Harris which restricted the personable star to the network’s shows.
On NBC, Harris worked mostly with Bob Hope and Perry Como, but the opportunity to appear with other performers of such stature was rare. Many of them were on CBS or ABC.
However, Harris’ NBC pact is running out and the taboo against other webs bidding for his services will also end.
Harris’ first non-NBC appearance will be with Red Skelton, a long time CBS favorite.
Harris, Skelton Rehearse
The two funnymen swapped jokes in a rehearsal hall at that network’s television city in Hollywood when they got together for their first show.
During a rehearsal break, Harris said: “I’m getting a kick out of this. Red and I have been friends for years and never worked together before.
“I have always been a great admirer of Red. We were born within 30 miles of each other. He was born in Vincennes, Indiana, and I was born in Linton. There were about 4,000 people there when the Ringling Bros. Circus came to town.”
Harris recalled that an uncle occasionally look him to Skelton's home town “to get a catfish sandwich.”
Harris, who worked for 16 years with Jack Benny, has been with NBC 32 years on radio and television. The only time he performed on another network was when NBC allowed him to be a guest at Benny’s CBS birthday party.
NBC Restricts Comedian
“Under my contract with NBC, I was to do five guest appearances a year during the first five years,” Harris said. “In the second five years I was to do two appearances a year. And I couldn’t do anything on television or radio other than NBC.
“It was a wonderful contract and I’m very grateful for it. I’m not complaining, but it kept me from working with Bing on ABC, Benny and several of my other friends who are top notch performers. They all wanted me but couldn’t get me.
“I’d give anything in the world to work with Bing. I’ve never been on a radio or television show with Bing or Sinatra.”
Harris, married to actress Alice Faye, didn’t waste time lining up television appearances with other networks once he became his own boss. He’s set for another Skelton program, this time with Miss Faye, and a Pat Boone show.

The story isn’t altogether correct. Harris appeared on a CBS TV special with Jackie Gleason called “The Big Sell Revue” in 1960. Judging by at least one review, it was likely best forgotten, though I suspect anyone remotely familiar with either gentleman can picture the booze jokes that were likely in the script.

It’s not a surprise Harris didn’t guest star with several big names back in the radio days. For one thing, he was still pretty much considered an adjunct of the Benny show until he and Faye got their own starring programme. For another, he was still leading a band at the Wiltshire Bowl for a period of time which precluded extra-curricular radio activity. And Sinatra pretty much stuck to himself on his 15-minute shows. Harris did drop in to visit Eddie Cantor, Dinah Shore, Fred Allen and Al Jolson over the years on radio, and he and Alice starred in an episode of “Suspense” in 1951 (produced by Elliott Lewis, who appeared on his show as Frank Remley).

The end of his NBC contact did allow him to make a few appearances he might not have otherwise—a 1964 guest host role on “The Hollywood Palace” for one. But it likely didn’t make much of a difference. It doesn’t seem Phil Harris needed the money, and television with its commuting and rehearsals took away time from his real interests, like swinging a 9-iron or hooking a trout. Not a bad life. Even if you’re not getting $50,000 a year for it.


  1. Having been burnt by the 1948 talent raid NBC seemed content to do these long term deals that made sure that even if a person was no longer useful to their network, Bill Paley or Leonard Goldenson weren't going to be able to use them, either. Harris' contract was still a bargain compared to the one NBC handed out to Milton Berle (and while Phil would never help ABC, he did of course help the network's future owner when Disney decided to start using him as a cartoon voice just prior to Walt's death).

  2. Well, the Berle situation was a bit different as Uncle Miltie had proven himself to be a monster hit-maker on TV. The trouble was, NBC didn't realise he had nothing left.
    I don't know if NBC felt Harris was no longer useful, but it sure didn't force him into a sitcom or some other kind of programming after signing him. He did one variety special and one review I read wasn't cheering about it.

  3. Phil somehow did appear as a guest on the Jack Benny television show in 1957.