Wednesday, 6 January 2016

How to Cancel John McGiver

Watching John McGiver on countless TV shows in the ‘60s, he struck me as a high school English teacher more than anything. There’s a good reason for that. McGiver taught English at Christopher Columbus High School in the Bronx before going into acting in the 1950s.

McGiver was typecast pretty early. Jack O’Brian of the International News Service wrote on May 19, 1955 about a role on The Elgin Hour:
Orson Bean and Polly Bergen were starred, but John McGiver gave us more sustained giggles as the elegant fussbudget full of classical quotes and quibs.
And Burton Rascoe of the Long Island Star-Journal wrote on July 19th of that year about a performance on Studio One:
...McGiver made his Scotland Yard detective the epitome of plodding, undeflecting, unimaginative thoroughness. ...the sort of man who sees nothing funny about anything; and to whom all jokes, however wittily contrived, are repulsive.
That pretty much sums up every comic role that McGiver ever played.

Much to my surprise, McGiver was born in Brooklyn. I thought by his demeanour that he was an Englishman; certainly his roles had a certain upper middle-class English breeding to them. He was almost a male Margaret Dumont. He lent a certain bearing juxtaposed against the incompetence or strangeness going on around him.

McGiver was a devout Catholic. He even lived in a church. The church in West Fulton, New York was next to an antiques and crafts store which he owned and continued to operate while his acting career carried on blissfully.

He was a writer before he was an actor, penning scripts in 1950 for the Ave Maria Hour, a transcribed religious programme that aired, at one point, on 146 stations in 45 of the 48 states. He appeared in stage plays in the early ‘50s and seems to have made his first television appearance on January 30, 1955 on the Du Mont network religious show Lamp Unto My Feet (he also wrote the story). Rascoe’s story says talent agents MCA signed him as a client “after catching him in a minor role in a play put on by a semi-pro group off Broadway, a role he said he had taken as a lark.” It was “The Ascent of F6” (the Studio One role was his fifth-ever TV appearance).

Television became more Los Angeles-centric as the ‘50s became the ‘60s and McGiver ended up heading to Hollywood when he landed the starring role in a short-lived and CBS forgotten sitcom. The Albany Times-Union was excited for the local boy, and published this column on August 3, 1964.
John McGiver: An Area Star

Schoharie County's John McGiver (rhymes with diver) has a face and more emphatically a voice that many televiewers instantly recognize, but his name is familiar to few.
This situation may change if one of the coming season's crop of weekly situation comedies clicks. It's "Many Happy Returns," a CBS entry for Mondays at 9:30 p. m., to bow Sept. 21 on Channel 10.
McGiver has enjoyed frequent exposure of late, particularly on those wacky DuPont Show of the Week comedies. He's also been seen to advantage in a recent Hollywood bomb that played the Strand: "Man's Favorite Sport," in which Rock Hudson laid an egg.
When not emoting in Hollywood or Manhattan, John lives with his wife Ruth and their 10 children in a converted Baptist church in the hilltop village of West Fulton. The youngest child was one last Friday. The oldest is 16. Those of sufficient years attend the Middleburg Central School.
Ruth tells us that John the busy breadwinner is out in Hollywood filming segments of "Many Happy Returns."
She and the kids will join him for a few weeks before school resumes, and live in a rented house in Santa Monica.
John's role in "Returns" is tailor-made to his talents. "He plays an irascible, bombastic, but heart-of-gold complaint department manager for a department store. With his peculiar meticulous elocution and oddly-pitched voice, he will no doubt get the better of a long line of complaining customers.
Supporting players will be Elinor Donahue, late of the Father Knows Best series; Mark Goddard, a regular on Robert Taylor's Detectives, and Elena Verdugo of the new Phil Silvers Show.
The plot has the sharp-tongued McGiver as a widower residing with his daughter and her family, when not on the department store warpath.
Ruth McGiver said John did some playwriting and acting while a Fordham undergraduate, later was active in high school dramatics as a faculty member and took more drama courses at Columbia. A native New Yorker, he taught high school after graduating from Fordham, took time out to rise to the rank of captain while with Patton's Third Army in Europe in World War 2, returned to teach in Bronx high schools for more than 10 years after shedding his uniform.
"He got into television," Ruth said, "when a friend asked him if he would fill in for him in a minor role. He did; this led to an offer from MCA, a job on Studio One, lots of roles on the old Kraft Theater, and oh, lots more."
McGiver, now 50, has been a full-time actor for about eight years now. In 1958, he appeared at the Spa Playhouse in Saratoga Springs in "The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker."
He's talked about show business pleasures and pitfalls before Rotary and Exchange clubs in Middleburg and Cobleskill, has started a combination antique, gift, and handicraft shop near his family's church-home in West Fulton, and still hopes to hit Broadway with one of his own playwriting efforts.
Many Happy Returns was put in a package and returned to creator Parke Levy after 26 episodes. Levy, a radio writer who became a TV mogul with the packaging of the Spring Byington/Verna Felton sitcom December Bride, was livid. For one thing, CBS didn’t like McGiver and someone at the network basically accused his character of being a paedophile. Syndicated columnist Hal Humphrey got to the bottom of things in a feature story published January 30, 1965:
Network Meddling Charged
By Hal Humphrey

HOLLYWOOD—Parke Levy should be invited by the Federal Communications Commissioners to record how his Many Happy Returns TV series is being pressured off the air by CBS—that is, if the commissioners are really interested in monopolistic control of TV by networks.
General Foods and its agency Benton & Bowles bought Parke's show this season but from its first airing last September a running battle began between producer – owner Parke and CBS over how Many Happy Returns should be written and done.
"I knew CBS had creative control of all shows on its schedule, regardless of who owns them. There is a clause in every contract which says so. But I thought we had a tacit understanding from our past association," says Parke, in recapping his unhappy experience.
The illusion of a "tacit understanding" on Parke's part sprang from the fact he was his own boss with two other series on CBS—December Bride and Pete and Gladys.
THIS TIME, however, Parke says every script was being criticized by one vice president or another at the network, along with orders to change the lead character as played by John McGiver.
"They said they saw him as an ultra-sophisticate, a sort of Mr. Belvedere, if you remember Clifton Webb in 'Sitting Pretty,' but I considered this too one-dimensional. And after all I created the character in Many Happy Returns, so either I created wrong or right, but time had to tell that, didn't It?" Parke laments.
So ludicrous was some of the CBS nitpicking at Parke's scripts that in one episode he had to add a scene in which Mickey Manners kept reiterating "He's a nice man" in referring to McGiver, who was about to take two young boys camping to prevent their returning newly bought tents.
Some CBS moralist feared McGiver's intentions toward the boys might be misconstrued. When another CBS executive later saw the added, "He's a nice man" scene and was told why it was there, he was even more astounded than Parke.
A FINAL INSULT to Parke's 32-year career as a comedy writer, he says, came in the form of another CBS expert sent to "work with Parke" in an effort to bring him into focus with CBS thinking.
"I remembered this guy as one who used to be my assistant on the old radio show Duffy's Tavern, and now I was supposed to listen to him tell me about creating comedy," Parke snaps.
"Can you see a producer telling the late George Kaufman or Moss Hart, 'We must have creative control,' or putting Tennessee Williams under such a contract?" Parke asks, rhetorically. "And what has CBS got to be so proud about? One half of its program schedule goes down the drain."
CBS first made a pass at trying to solve the differences between Parke and itself, he says, by an indirect offer to buy out Parke from the series. He refused to enter such negotiations. So now CBS is preparing to cancel the series after its contracted 26-week run.
Bad ratings can hardly be used as an alibi by the network, because Many Happy Returns has outdated half of the CBS programs en the Nielsen rating charts.
"The show is being canceled because I refused to give them creative control," Parke flatly states.
In this case Parke happens to be a millionaire, and that buys a lot of independence for a man or a comedy writer or anybody. Most writer-producers in TV face the choice of losing creative control or seeing the mortgage on their Bel-Air home foreclosed.
With a stiff upper lip, McGiver carried on with his acting career, being cast in a co-starring role in the CBS sitcom Mr. Terrific. Terrific, the show wasn’t. It lasted 17 episodes in 1967. Afterward, McGiver told syndicated entertainment reporter Harvey Pack “Nobody wants to hire you after a series. They must want your image cleansed first.” Despite that, Broadway beckoned and more TV followed.

The man dubbed by columnist Dick Kleiner “the American Churchill” made a comfortable enough living that allowed him to go to New York (he stayed in a room at the Lambs Club) or Los Angeles for roles, then return to his family and little church home in West Fulton. That’s where he died after a heart attack on September 9, 1975. He was only 61.


  1. To me, McGiver sounded rather like Milton Cross, the longtime Metropolitan Opera announcer.

  2. Worth mentioning also is the 1971-72 Jimmy Stewart show on NBC where McGiver played Stewart's friend and teaching colleague.

    1. I remember that, where he was billed in the opening credits as appearing "very often."

  3. Wonder if Cecil the weather beetle helped him predict all the harsh meteorological conditions across the country this week? (Bonus points if you get the reference). which flock Hudson laid an egg.
    Don't know if that's an intentional pun or a typo, but, damn, that's a funny line.

  4. Interesting that McGiver's stint as Martin Lane's boss on The Patty Duke Show was sort of like a double return home -- the show was set in Brooklyn Heights, and while it wasn't filmed there, for the first two seasons it was shot across the river in Manhattan.

    Levy and McGiver also must have gotten some satisfaction a month after that second story was published (along with Jack Benny and others) when CBS boss William Paley fired network president James Aubrey. Even if it wasn't Aubrey doing the meddling, he apparently had everyone at the network walking on eggshells with his actions.

    1. Yup, Aubrey was known around Black Rock as "The Smiling Cobra."

  5. Tim, I completely forgot about that one. I don't think I've seen it since it aired.
    TCJ, the Gilligan role may be his best remembered one. And thanks for catching an OCR error I missed.

    1. No,I was referring to his part on a Beverly Hillbillies episode."Granny Versus the Weather Bureau" (1964).

      And you're welcome.

    2. That one I don't remember. It's been so long since I've seen the show. I do remember he was a butterfly collector on Gilligan.

  6. Wow, remember that show well! But when I think of McGiver I always picture him holding that leaking milk carton in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.