Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Not Terrific

The mid-1960s were a time of painfully unfunny comedies. I should know. I watched most of them when they first aired. They all seemed to have the same loud laugh track that guffawed at anything, trying to convince you it was uproaringly humorous instead of trite or obvious. They’re not so-bad-it’s-good. They’re just bad.

One of them was Mr. Terrific.

The concept, critics said, owed something to the great Batman series. To be honest, it owed a lot more to the 1956 Warner Bros. cartoon Stupor Duck. Mild-mannered Daffy Duck took pills that let him zoom through the air and perform all kinds of daring and stupendous deeds while completely screwing up along the way, thanks to his own incompetence. Daffy was funny. Mr. Terrific was a dud.

Adam West had the right idea about Batman. He realised it was a fad so he didn’t take it all that seriously. Not the star of Mr. Terrific, who quickly rose from obscurity when he landed the role and fell back into said obscurity after 17 episodes. Stephen Strimpell treated it much differently. Co-star Dick Gautier told one author (I can’t find the source now) that Strimpell approached it in dead seriousness and earnestness like an Ibsen play.

You’ll get that impression reading a couple of newspaper interviews with Strimpell when he was shooting the series. The first one below was published February 12, 1967.
FROM THE BAR TO THE BAR TO MR. TERRIFIC
By Mimi Mead

Bell-McClure Syndicate
STEPHEN STRIMPELL is a wiry, articulate actor with red-brown hair freckles. He has had a season with the American Shakespeare and festival, played on Broadway, appeared in a movie, been on tour several times and played off Broadway in four productions. One of the shows won him Variety’s vote as one of the year’s outstanding performers. He also teaches acting. Now he is playing the title role in CBS’s new super-hero series, “Mr. Terrific.”
Well, you say, most actors who star on television have had a pretty fair amount of experience. They’ve all been working at it since they were youngsters, haven’t they?
Stephen Strimpell has been working at it just four and one-half years.
In 1961 he was a full-fledged lawyer with a degree from Columbia Law school. He was admitted to the New York state bar the same year.
It may seem an extraordinary thing for a young man to go all the way through college and law school, be admitted to the bar, and then not practice at all. Stephen Strimpell doesn’t think so.
“It all happened because I took an I.Q. test as a child back in Brooklyn. It said I was very smart or something, and I got into Brooklyn Ethical Culture Academy as a result. I kept being skipped to the next class, and as a result of being advanced in school and getting scholarships I became very introverted and bookish. I wasn’t really an oddball, but I only had one or two friends, you know.
“Then I went on to college, again on a scholarship, and after only three years they sent me on to law school. Well, I went along with it and sat like a birth moulting and growing, and the same with the army (he served six months, with the judge advocate general’s corps, which is the closest he came to practicing law). So when I was finished I decision to what I wanted for once.
“I even went into summer sock under an assumed name—you see? My final year in law school and I still couldn’t say it was me. I called myself Frank Milk because I had a theory that all the great stars’ last names ended in ‘o’: Valentino, Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and so on.”
Strimpell’s diffidence did not last long. He got a role in the play, “All You Need Is One Good Break,” which was a prophetic title, since it started his career rolling. One thing led to another, and here he is as Mr. Terrific. He also has a great many fairly deep theories about Mr. Terrific, which seems pretty typical of Stephen Strimpell.
“This is not a spoof,” he said earnestly. “You can’t do 13 weeks of spoof. It may have begun with that in mind, but it ended up as a real adventure story. “There are three kinds of comedy in the show: The comedy of the genuineness of each of us as a character; the comedy of the writer in the situation, the lines, and the comedy of effect, or the gimmicks we use. But Stanley Beamish is not essentially a comic character. (Stanley is the gentle service station attendant who becomes Mr. Terrific when he takes a potent pill).
“Stanley is not Caspar Milquetoast, he is Walter Mitty. He is not afraid; he is just na├»ve, unknowing. He has a fantasy mind. He does not resent being Mr. Terrific, nor is he afraid of flying. In his fantasy mind it is only natural that these wonderful opportunities should come to him. He simply doesn’t do it very well.
“Stanley had the kind of mind which makes it impossible for him to recognize evil and deal with it. He is always being kindly to the arch villains. The comedy comes in because the premise of the show is as if fate entered into the picture to defeat science. Stanley is sent out to solve problems that cannot be solved in any other way but by superhuman methods, but Stanley is unable to see the obvious dangers. He is not idiotic, he is just unknowing. “I believe what Stanley believes,” Strimpell commented cryptically.
This Associated Press story is from January 31, 1967. The writer had already panned the show in her regular column but did a feature piece nonetheless.
Despite Critics, Mr. Terrific Says It's Terrific
By Cynthia Lowry

NEW YORK (AP) — It was the morning after the premiere of CBS's "Mr. Terrific" series, a comedy-fantasy in the mode if not the mood of "Batman." The reviews, still coming in, were decidedly on the grim side.
Stephen Strimpell, the 26-year old actor who plays the title role walked smilingly into a restaurant. No heads turned. He ordered a cup of black coffee and launched into a convincing explanation of why it was really a good show.
"Mr. Terrific," it should be noted, is a series about a young secret agent who becomes a super-hero able to fly after taking a certain pill.
"I just don't see this comparison to 'Superman' and 'Batman'," said Strimpell, his eyes ashine with evangelical zeal. "I see in the character something of a Pimpernel, or a Mark of Zorro, or even of Achilles. All that we have done is to add the power of science. It is science in collision with fate.
"Take it like this: The power pill doesn't work on everybody, just on one extremely unlikely human being, Stanley Beamish. He is a total innocent, without any sense of evil, born not to recognize villains. It is the struggle of a very little man against the world."
Strimpell insists that the part he is playing is more a Walter Mitty dream than "spoof and negation." The young actor, in defense of what started out as a pretty sorry half hour of television was giving a convincing demonstration of skills in the role for which he trained: the law. He is a graduate of Columbia Law School and has passed his New York State bar examination.
Should his career falter he can always go into practice. He is also a court stenographer.
Strimpell is no converted stand-up comedian or graduate of burlesque. Before he started flapping around like an under muscled Superman, he worked with the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Conn., and taught acting for four years in a dramatic school run by Uta Hagen.
The pilot film for "Mr. Terrific" was made 18 months ago with Alan Young, of "Mr. Ed" note, playing the Beamish part. It caused little excitement.
Strimpell had moved onto parts in several off-Broadway shows and attracted the attention of a visiting CBS casting director from Hollywood. After that, he went to California for a two-months holiday. He was scarcely unpacked when he was called for a remake of the "Mr Terrific" pilot. The CBS man had passed his name along to the studio.
Whether the show is a winner or a loser, Stephen Strimpell will have had 13 weeks or more of exposure, which will stand him in good stead.
Strimpell got more than 13 weeks. He got 17.

Gautier went back to Get Smart. Co-star John McGiver went back to character acting (admitting Mr. Terrific wasn’t terrific for his career). Strimpell, well, I don’t recall ever seeing him on TV again. He returned to New York and became, by all reports, a respected acting teacher. I went on to watch other sitcoms. Next fall, it was Accidental Family. “Painfully unfunny” had been renewed for another season.

4 comments:

  1. Dare I ask if Li'l Yowp thought Captain Nice nice?

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  2. I only saw a few episodes. I don't think I ever saw one the whole way through. I found it boring. I did like the routine of the father only talking when he was behind a newspaper at the kitchen table. I remember Alice Ghostley being on it.
    I checked the local newspaper listings to see what aired opposite it. Lucy was on the two CBS affiliates so no doubt that's what I was watching, if anything.
    The day's highlight was cartoons from 4 to 5:30 p.m. KVOS had the AAP packages, so we got Bugs, Daffy and the Fleischer Popeyes. (And the King Feature Popeyes, so you got the good with the not-so-good).

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  3. The show had a decent theme song. But ABC's Batman was already pretty tongue-in-cheek to begin with. It didn't take itself very seriously, so doing a pure comedy (Strimpell's opinion notwithstanding) in the wake of it wasn't the same as, say Gautier's other show, where "Get Smart" lampooned the extremely-serious Connery-era Bond films along with NBC's own "Man from U.N.C.L.E."

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  4. Of course, Underdog and the Golden Age comics hero Hourman also owed their superpowers to a pill.
    There was a Golden Age hero called Mr. Terrific (his uniform had the words "Fair Play" across his stomach) - the TV character had little to do with him, though.

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