Wednesday 10 October 2012

How $weet It Is

“When you’re hot, you’re hot,” sang Jerry Reed. And he ought to know. His Smokey and the Bandit buddy Jackie Gleason could have told him.

There was a time that TV networks would sew up stars, and then wonder what to do with them while the contract slowly ticked away. Gleason wasn’t the only one.

Leslie Lieber was the television editor for “This Week,” one of many magazine supplements available to newspapers that wanted to pay for it instead of compiling their own Sunday edition feature section. He crunched some numbers and reported back on June 7, 1961.

The blue-ribbon entertainment stars on this page are members in good standing of an exclusive TV brotherhood: they’ve all been paid fabulous sums of money, upwards of $25,000,000, by TV networks for doing absolutely nothing.
The Columbia Broadcasting System, for instance, has been legally bound to pay Jackie Gleason $100,000 for each of the past five years and will hand out a million more to their roly-poly sponsor-magnet by 1970, even if the great man takes it into his head to pull in his professional horns and spend the next decade snorkling off the Bahamas.
In 1951 the equally-charitable National Broadcasting Company contracted to pay $60,000 a for 30 years to Milton Berle, alternately revered at that time as Mr. Television and Mr. Tuesday Night.
Although both Berle and Gleason have been fantastic money-earners for their respective employers, the fiscal folly which endows them for life is not purely a gesture of sentimental gratitude. They, and other big-time beneficiaries on this page, are known in television as “hot properties.”
Early in the fat fifties, whenever a TV network’s delicate thermostatic gauges indicated that a performer was “getting hot,” the reaction was almost automatic — the network signed the star to an exclusive high-salaried guarantee and then no rival network could ever get their mitts on him!
The talent panic-button had been pushed loud and clear back in 1947 [sic] in what will always be remembered as “Paley’s Midnight Raid.” In that year showbiz history was made when a posse from CBS spirited Jack Benny away from NBC, where he had mistakenly been thought to be securely tethered. CBS signed NBC’s top sponsor-bait to radio’s first million-dollar contract amidst a blaze of photographers’ flash-guns. Over the years Benny’s desertion lost NBC untold millions in sponsor money and alerted all the nation’s networks to clasp “hot properties” to their bosom with hoops of gold.
Ten years ago, for instance, when money still grew on TV antennas and the network’s talent cupboards were frighteningly bare, NBC made sure their gilt-edged Phil Harris would never leave them. They guaranteed him better than $50,000 a year over a period of years. Unfortunately Phil Harris never even got a program of his own and has made only guest appearances singing expensive versions of “That’s What I Like About The South.”
We tried to reach Mr. Harris by phone to ask him if he was unhappy to be artistically stymied by his fabulous contract. We were told he was out on the Thunderbird golf course adjacent to his Palm Springs estate the first time we called, and fishing for Columbia River salmon with Bing Crosby the second time.
Wally Cox, the erstwhile “Mr. Peepers” of a few years back, seems very content, however, to bury himself with a luscious long-term NBC contract, the kind some of his confreres might consider a trap. Wally has been getting $50,000 a year on an eight-year contract since Peepers closed in ‘55. He's obligated to pay NBC off by appearing on programs mutually agreed upon. But so far that’s only meant one other series plus a couple of guest shots on the Hope and Paar shows.
The happy country boy
“Security is very nice. I have no series but I’m very happy with the NBC arrangement,” says Wally Cox, a country-boy at heart, as he serenely surveys the cattle roaming over his 100-acre farm.
In the early ‘50’s Red Buttons was the biggest thing in television. At the end of the 1955 season, however, he was dropped. To be on the safe side, the National Broadcasting Company signed him up for a year at $75,000 to “do three spectaculars.” But Red was never called on to deliver.
NBC paid Shirley MacLaine $300,000 for her services through the 1958-59 TV season. But there just weren’t enough spots to use her, and Shirley wound up collecting some $30,000 for each of her appearances. “NBC must be hard up for talent,” shrugged Shirley nonchalantly.
It isn’t often that either network meets a star who, no matter how much he or she loathes being artistically fenced-in, will let the corporation off scot-free. Such a doll was Imogene Coca — and NBC could kiss her for being so nice. In 1954, shortly after the demise of the Sid Caesar show, NBC prudently signed Imogene Coca to a million-dollar contract which guaranteed her $100,000 annually for ten years. A year later, Miss Coca offered to walk away from the contract at no cost to NBC in order to enjoy more artistic freedom.
Her offer was gratefully accepted.
Big deal for budget beavers
What being released from such a disbursement means to network budget beavers may be gleaned from the following statistics: a TV chain seldom makes more than five per cent on its gross. If you guarantee a performer $100,000 a year and then can’t put him to work you have to sell $2 million worth of business just to pay him his salary. (Or maybe it’s those deadhead salaries that keep the profit margin down.)
NBC undoubtedly used Coca’s unexpected $900,000 moratorium to meet the guarantees of other life-in-clover payrollees such as Jimmy Durante, Jerry Lewis, Jerry Lester, Martha Raye, the late Fred Allen and Robert Montgomery — some of whom paid off handsomely on NBC’s investment while others either begged off or were bought off their contracts.
Although many network investments fizzled, some paid off dazzlingly. When Phil Silvers wowed Broadway audiences in “Top Banana,” CBS bigwigs sniffed paydirt. After the show finally closed they gave Silvers a lucrative guarantee, shut him up in a creative hot-house with another high-priced risk talent — writer Nat Hiken — and gave them six months and $150,000.
But out of that whopping down-payment in faith and hard cash came one of TV’s most lovable, profitable, and indestructible “hot” properties — Sergeant Bilko, alias Phil Silvers.
Are the long-term, pay-if-you-work, pay-if-you-don’t contractees unhappy and frustrated at receiving so much unearned increment?
“They're about as unhappy, restless, and unfulfilled as any man can get with $100,000 a year flowing into his bank account,” says a former high CBS official.
We've just made another telephone call to Phil Harris’s house in Palm Springs to ask him point-blank how unhappy he is about his NBC yoke. This time Mr. Harris was back from fishing, but he still wasn’t home. He’d gone to the Santa Anita track. So we still don’t have any idea how unhappy he is. –The End

After the story was written, Gleason made a comeback with a Miami Beach-based variety series. Cox went on to voice “Underdog” and warm the upper-left hand seat on “Hollywood Squares.” Harris voiced a couple of popular animated Disney features in between rounds of golf. Shirley MacLaine and Jerry Lewis had huge success in film and likely didn’t look back on their TV careers. Imogene Coca co-starred in “It’s About Time.” Okay, so not all of them were raving successes. But it’s interesting to note that many of the stars who had been handed a paid semi-retirement were still in demand when they decided to go back to work. It just proves they were really stars all along.

1 comment:

  1. CBS definitely got their moneysworth out of Gleason, to the point they paid to ship his whole operation south from New York to Miami and to ship Johnny Olson there weekly to do the announcing, as a break from his game-show duties in New York (Gleason's operation was somewhat following in the footsteps of the Fleischer Studio 25 years earlier, which moved its operations from New York to Miami, but still had to have people commuting back-and-forth between the two cities to deal with music and voice soundtracks).

    NBC, on the other hand, had less luck getting much extra out of their contract with Berle after his show was torpedoed by Sgt. Bilko. NBC was no doubt glad to get out of the contract early, in 1966, so Uncle Miltie could do his unsuccessful ABC show (though I do remember enjoying the segments when 'audience member' Sidney Shpritzer heckled Berle).