Wednesday 7 December 2011

The Star Who Survived Bad TV Spin-Offs

You have to wonder why Harry Morgan agreed to star in the best-forgotten “After M*A*S*H.” He should have known it would be a critical and ratings failure. Why? Because it wasn’t the first time he was thrust into the starring role of a sequel to a hit show that hadn’t a hope of reaching the popularity of the show he had just been on.

While Morgan, who died this week at the age of 96, is best known for the revived ‘60s version of “Dragnet” and his Emmy-winning performances as Colonel Potter on “M*A*S*H,” Morgan’s big television break came in the sitcom “December Bride,” which debuted in 1954. About all he was known for at that point was he was not the same guy as radio satirist Henry Morgan (as it turns out, neither of them used their real names).

For those that haven’t seen it, “December Bride” centred on a widow played by Spring Byington who moved in with her daughter and son-in-law and hoped to land a husband. The comedy was actually in the hands of the wonderful Verna Felton, who played her friend, and Morgan, who played the next-door neighbour grouching about his wife. The gimmick was the wife was never seen on the show.

It’s a television truism that time always eats away at the ratings of top-rated shows. Producers respond by adding babies (“I Love Lucy”) or guest stars (“I Love Lucy”) or going on location (“I Love Lucy”) or new neighbours (you get the gag). In early 1959, “December Bride” (produced at Desilu, which brought the world “I Love Lucy”) was no different.

In Hollywood
HOLLYWOOD, Jan. 24 (NEA)—A change of time or the drop of a few audience points, after a TV show has gone along in spectacular style for five years, can start panic buttons buzzing and cue frantic calls for “Let’s Do Something” conferences.
It happened recently, to “December Bride.”
A new time, the drop of a few audience points did it.
Parke Levy, the little fellow with the big sense of humor who created the show, came up to the conference from his boat moored 40 miles away at Balboa Bay. People from the CBS network and from the agency were there and Levy did the evaulating of all the ideas. There were many — “gimmicks” to boost ratings. “New Look” ideas.
Marriage maybe for Spring Byington?
“No,” Parke said, “too many fans liked her to be free.”
Marriage for Verna Felton, who plays Hilda? Parke dismissed that idea with:
“But what would Hilda and her husband have to talk about?”
No one could answer that question.
“How about Frances Rafferty and Dean Miller becoming parents?” someone suggested. Parke had a big “No” for that idea.
“Then,” he said, “Spring would be a grand-mother and we would have a grand-mother show, which it isn’t. It’s a mother-in-law show.”
A teen age boy as a next door neighbor? Parke didn’t think the teen age influence would mean much to the show’s middle-aged fans. He was really frank about it. He said, “I really don’t know what audiences want next on TV.”
They had one new “December Bride” gimmick going already, Parke reminded everyone Next door neighbor Pete — played by Harry Morgan — and his wife, the never-seen Gladys, were having a baby. The baby, Linda, would be seen for the first time. Jan. 22—
the first cast addition to the show in five years. There will be babysitting routines now, etc.
Parke added that there are plans for Spring Byington & Co. to take a trip to Europe or to the Orient for a change of scenery. Then Parke broke the meeting up by thinking out loud:
“We’ll have Pete’s baby grow up fast, buy her a pony and then we’ll have a western.”
The meeting adjourned then. Everything that could be done was being done for “December Bride.” The meeting couldn’t do much about TV fans suffering from what Parke called, “Double claustrophobia — people in living rooms watching people act in living rooms.”
“December Bride Out West,” is a shuddering thought, at that.
“Well, it was interesting. They say imitation is the sincerest see us doing any imitations of form of flattery, but you’ll never them. For one thing, I don’t think it would fit into our format.”

The Harry Morgan baby idea didn’t work, though it did result in lots of newspaper publicity. By September, Parke Levy had figured out what to do. He’d try to save what was left of “December Bride” by spinning Harry Morgan’s character off into his own show. Of course, that left a small problem. So Levy decided what producers did years later when “Columbo” spawned a “Mrs. Columbo.” They’d destroy the unseen wife illusion and cast a woman to co-star with Morgan. The role was cast the following year.

Harry Morgan With Own Show
UPI Hollywood Correspondent
HOLLYWOOD, Aug. 24 (UPI)—Remember Harry Morgan — the snide little guy on the defunct “December Bride” teleshow who constantly complained about his wife Gladys?
Well, Morgan is returning next season in a new series, “Pete and Gladys,” a star in his own right. As a supporting character in the “Bride” series, Harry, along with Verna Felton, kept viewers laughing for five years. He and the character actress have joined forces in the new venture.
Must Tone Down
There's one other important addition — Gladys.
“On the old show I just complained about Gladys as a battle ax.” Morgan said. “Now that she will be seen I’ll have to tone it down.
“I still have a mother-in-law who doesn’t appear on the show and I continue to blast her pretty well. I think that’s why the character of Pete was so popular, especially with men.
“I spoke for all men with latent hostility to wives and mothers-in-law. Guys used to stop me in the street and congratulate me.
“But the mothers-in-law of the country thought I was an ogre."
Miss Felton, who played busybody Hilda Crocker, will continue to be the target of Pete’s barbs on the CBS-TV entry.
Sample dialogue, Pete to Hilda: “You would have made a wonderful Miss America. . .only they hadn’t discovered it yet. The years have been good to you, yes, but some of the weekends must have been murder.”
Cara Williams Stars
Because shapely, red-haired Cara Williams is playing Gladys, Morgan’s stinging wit will be softened when it comes to defaming his wife.
“She’s frumpy sometimes, and there is still plenty of unpleasantness. And when I’m not around here I still talk a lot more severely than the circumstances warrant.”
Off screen Morgan is quiet and not given to scathing observations about married life. He has been happily married for 21 years and is the father of four teenage sons.
“This is one of the few times a character has been taken from one series to star in another,” Morgan said. “I remember ‘The Great Gildersleeve’ was more of a supporting character in ‘Fibber McGee and Molly,’ and that show turned out to be a big hit.
“I don’t expect to find any hazards by switching to a new show. Matter of fact, I think
‘Pete and Gladys’ will be much funnier than ‘December Bride.’”

Morgan put on a brave face in the interview, but even he must have known the show was doomed from the start. The producers did what producers obsessively do—they go with an idea because it’s wildly popular then completely change it to eliminate everything that was popular to begin with. Having an unseen wife allowed the TV audience, for five years, to build up in their mind what Gladys looked like and behaved like. Suddenly, Cara Williams was sprung on those same viewers. She wasn’t what they pictured. And, just as suddenly, Pete was acting differently toward her. The characters the audience knew were gone. Substituted, instead, were wisecracks against a motherly-looking senior citizen. Oh, and a redhead who did physical comedy (“I Love Lucy”) alongside another supporting actor, Gale Gordon (“The Lucy Show”).

It’s a wonder it didn’t kill his career, but he can partly thank Ben Alexander for that. Alexander wasn’t contractually available to return to “Dragnet” when Jack Webb revived it in the ‘60s, so he picked Morgan. And Morgan supplemented his residuals some years later with his best role, being MacLean Stevenson’s sequel as the commander of the 4077. And then came “After M*A*S*H.”

If you really want a taste of that show, you’ll have to find it yourself. But here’s a taste of “Pete and Gladys.” And we do mean “taste.”

1 comment:

  1. The casting of Cara Williams in "Pete and Gladys" comes across as something then-CBS president James Aubrey would have ordered up, since Jim was notorious for demanding shows cast hot young women with obvious physical attributes.

    While this may have made sense in casting Ellie Mae or the Petticoat Junction girls, Morgan really needed a Doris Roberts type to play off of on this show, since a grouchy guy abusing even an early-middle age hot woman just doesn't go over all that well with audiences, either then or 50 years later - instead of sympathizing with the husband (as with Peter Boyle on "Everybody Loves Raymond"), they're wondering what the heck's his problem acting like that to such a good looking girl.