Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Arnold the Pig, Method Actor

Green Acres started out as a sitcom with a plot-line stolen from the play George Washington Slept Here and then turned into something much cleverer. Well-off New York lawyer Oliver Wendell Douglas decided to give up New York City apartment living and buy a farm house. As well as coping with the run-down property, they had to deal with a dullard farmhand, a shyster County Agent and some off-beat local characters. But as the show developed, the situations moved from odd to surreal with a sly satirical sub-text.

Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor were ostensibly the stars of the show, but they really weren’t. Producer Jay Sommers admitted early in the first year of the show that “Arnold the pig is our biggest drawing card.” Indeed, Arnold found a place in wire service obituaries for both Albert (2005) and Gabor (1995).

The fascination over a pig that acted like a human because he was treated like one resulted in all kinds of newspaper feature columns about him. Let’s give you a couple of them. The first appeared in papers around January 3, 1967, half-way through the second season.
Well, It’s Happened: A Pig Named Ziffle Is a TV ‘Star’
By HARVEY PACK

TV Key, Inc.
New York—One of the more curious developments of this curious television season is the stardom of Arnold Ziffle [sic]. A complete unknown 18 months ago, Arnold now has his own fan clubs scattered across the country and receives more mail than some veteran TV personalties.
Recently, in fact, the students at a midwestern high school named him their "Man of the Year" and broke out in a rash of Arnold Ziffle sweatshirts.
This would not be such an odd success story, save for one fact. Arnold Ziffle is a pig. Specifically, he's the scenery chewing porker who appears with Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor on CBS' "Green Acres."
What is the source of the Ziffle cult? How has a 350 pound slab of bacon on the hoof taken to stardom? In short, what is Arnold Ziffle really like?
To answer these questions, we cornered Jay Sommers, the moon-faced ex-farm boy who produces and writes Green Acres. The following is the conversation which took place:
Q—How did you discover Arnold Ziffle?
A—I wrote a script about a farm couple, the Ziffles, who had no children — but who treated their pig like a son. Lots of people do the same thing with dogs and cats. Why not a pig? Now, I needed an actor to play the role, and put in a call to Frank Inn, one of Hollywood's best animal trainers. We screen tested ten of 12 pigs until we found one with the right combination of talent and personality. Some pigs have it, and others don't. Arnold had it.
Q—Has stardom changed Arnold?
A—Yes, for the better. He's a much more professional actor now, although I think he always had a lot of ham in him. No pun intended. He comes on the set prepared. He knows his lines. He waits quietly at the other end of the studio when he's not in a scene.
Q—Does Arnold have any unusual talents?
A—Yes. He can turn on a television set with his nose ... I mean his snout. Not many pigs can do that.
Q—How does he get along with the other actors in the show.
A—We have several animals on Green Acres and I'm proud to say they're like one big happy family. There is no professional jealousy in our stock company, if you'll pardon the expression.
Q—Who are some of the others?
A—Let's see ... we have a piano playing chicken. And we once used a tap-dancing horse. Then there's Eleanor, the cow, who doesn't really do any tricks but has a terrific personality.
Q—What about Eva Gabor and Eddie Albert?
A—They don't do any tricks, either, but they have terrific personalities.
Q—I meant how does Arnold get along with them?
A—He respects them as fellow professionals. There was only one bad moment—when Eva played her first scene with Arnold. She cried out, "Darling, you don't mean it. I'm not co-starring with an . . . ugh . . . pig! ! ! Arnold's feelings were hurt, but they're great pals now. Q—Would you say that Arnold is a born actor?
A—Yes. He follows the Stanislavasky [sic] "method," which, stated simply, means playing a role naturally, drawing on one's feelings. His characterization never falters. He always comes across as a pig.
Q—Is it difficult to write for Arnold?
A—In writing for any animal, I follow one simple rule. I t[r]eat them as I would human characters, giving each one a definite point of view. Otherwise, there's no humor. The script may say, "Arnold grunts in disappointment" or "Arnold registers surprise," but never just "Arnold grunts." The director and the other actors have to know what Arnold is grunting about, so they can play against him.
Q—Can you sum up your feelings about Arnold?
A—To the rest of the world, Arnold may be just, a pig. To me, he's a focal character, in a television series. I just hope that, despite all this attention, he stays the same sweet, wonderful pig he is today.
The Associated Press caught up with Sommers after the third season. This column appeared in papers on August 21, 1968.
Pig In ‘Green Acres’ Gets A Fatter Status
By CYNTHIA LOWRY

HOLLYWOOD (AP) — Arnold Ziffel, a cast regular in "Green Acres" for the past four seasons, has finally achieved featured-player rank in the series. Now the show's producer and the CBS television network plan to spin Arnold off to star in his own series.
This is not exactly unprecedented in television: The only thing that makes it unusual is that Arnold is a young pig.
Arnold—or rather Arnold and Baby, his stand-in—were working Tuesday at the studio with the trainer. Neither seemed interested in anything but a bit of dog food, rewards for learning, on command, to trot up to a mail box, open it, remove a letter and return to Glen Gamer, their drama coach.
Jay Sommers, "Green Acres" producer, slipped Arnold into the show for off-beat comedy value early in its run. The pig was treated like a child by the Ziffel family. Then Frank Inn, who specializes in training what he calls "picture" animals—from assorted critters of the "Beverly Hillbillies" to the performing cats of "Rhubarb"—taught the original Arnold and his twin so many unusual tricks that the role became stronger and stronger. Arnold learned to turn on and off a television set—he likes only Westerns. Arnold learned to pull a little cart, so one story was built around the porker and his newspaper route. It built and built.
Arnold suddenly started getting lots of fan mail, kids all over the country wrote in asking for autographed pictures and official permission to start Arnold Ziffel fan clubs. Eva Gabor, never one to be upstaged by a human, much less a pig, trotted Arnold out on Joey Bishop's stage one night and the hammy actor, in jeweled collar and leash, stopped the show. He is now besieged with requests for personal appearances.
Sommers said he has a network deal to develop a show called "Arnold," perhaps for next season, and plans to base the story line on having Arnold inherit $80 million—in trust, of course—and leave the Ziffels to go to New York. Among other things, he'll buy a hotel when it won't admit a pig; buy a stockyard to liberate fellow porkers.
Sommers is intrigued and amused with the idea—and also very aware of the popular and financial success of such shows as "Lassie," "Flipper" and now, "Gentle Ben."
"I think you can do even more with a pig—in comedy anyway —than with a bear," he said. "We can also insert some oblique social commentary.
In next season's opening “Green Acres” show, Arnold will win an all-expense trip to Hawaii, but in the climactic scene, turn it down when he finds that he will be guest of honor at a luau—the Hawaiian feast which centers around a roast pig.
The series’ ratings dropped in the final two seasons, though it didn’t make much difference. CBS was determined to get rid of any show with a rural tinge, and swept Green Acres off the air in 1971, ignoring the fact it had become a social satire as much as anything else (perhaps because it was not as heavy-handed at it as All in the Family, the network’s new darling). To engage in the kind of egregious pun Sommers liked to spout in interviews, no longer did Arnold bring home the bacon.

6 comments:

  1. Somebody posted Season 2 of Petticoat Junction to YouTube a couple of months ago. It's since been taken down, but that was the season Jay Sommers was named producer, and also received writing credits on a number of the shows, and you could see the surrealism foundations for "Green Acres" being put into place, right down to Fred Ziffel's talking about Arnold as just another member of the family.

    Fred telling those stories at his front door while Arnold's walking around Billie Joe Bradley didn't have the same comic impact as Fred telling those things to Oliver and Lisa a couple of years later. But you could see the concept of Arnold supposedly acting like just another person pre-dated Sommers stint as producer of "Green Acres"

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  2. You do know that GREEN ACRES was an adaption of an earlier radio series titled GRANBY'S GREEN ACRES, about an ill- tempered banker (Gale Gordon) and his slightly daffy wife (Beach Benadaret) who buy a run-down farm, complete with a seemingly dim-witted farm hand named Eb(Parley Baer) and a scatter rained general store proprietor named Mr. Kimball (Howard McNair). Jay Sommers created this version, too, which was a short-lived summer replacement for MY FAVORITE WIFE. Sommers also wrote a few scripts for the AMOST 'N' ANDY tv show.

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    1. No surprise that Sommers wrote for "Amos 'n Andy." Mr. Haney comes off like the Kingfish at times.

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  3. Green Acres was certainly one of the most "meta" American sitcoms, perhaps only outdone by The Monkees and The Simpsons (Moonlighting, which could almost be classified a sitcom, deserves a mention).

    Also, as GA debuted in 1965, your first article would actually have appeared during the second season.

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  4. Most of the Green Acres episodes were written by Jay Sommers and Dick Chevillat. Dick Chevillat was also the principal writer, with Ray Singer, of radio's The Phil Harris Alice Faye Show, which was not only one of the funniest radio shows ever but every bit as surreal as Green Acres. One of the great comedy writers.

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    1. And many episodes were directed by Richard Bare, who created the Joe McDoakes shorts - which had their own surreal moments.

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