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Mr. TV: Name Dropping

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Two episodes in, I’m optimistic about new TNT crime solver Rizzoli & Isles, which reminds me a lot of TV classic Cagney & Lacey.  

Whenever I think of Tyne Daly and Sharon Gless fighting crime in the set streets of New York (watch closely and you are likely to see a palm tree or two pop up), it brings to mind two of my  important TV-related milestones.

Initially airing as a two-hour movie, Cagney & Lacey was upgraded to a six-episode order with Daly as Mary Beth Lacey and Meg Foster in place of Loretta Swit, who played the role of Christine Cagney in the movie and who could not get out of her M*A*S*H contract to continue. When the series was renewed for a second season, Gless took over the role of Cagney, but the ratings were middling and the network swung the ax in the spring of 1983. After the public cried foul, CBS had a change of heart and brought back the series for midseason.

Shortly after hearing the news, I happened to spot Martin Kove, who played Det. Victor Isbecki on the show, walking with a group of people on the real streets of real Manhattan, so I decided to congratulate him. “What, are you kidding me?” he screeched. “I have to call my agent! Woo hoo!” I suddenly knew what an agent felt like, only without the commission.

Several months later as I was buried at my desk as a research analyst at Katz Communications (a good starter job, by the way), one of my co-workers came rushing into my office to tell me they were filming a scene from Cagney & Lacey downstairs. I ran to the elevator, zipped outside, pushed my way through a barricade and ended up in a scene with Daly and Gless as they were crossing the street with a group of extras. I’m still waiting for my residuals.

Let’s now go way back to 1974 when my friend Paul and I decided to take the subway to Manhattan. As we were walking up 5th Avenue, we spotted Tony Randall. “Felix! That's Felix!” I said to Paul. Several hours later at a completely different spot in the city, there he was again…Tony Randall. It was like Felix was stalking us; maybe I had mustard on my shirt or something.

Decades later when I happened to see Randall in the flesh again at TV Land’s fifth anniversary party, I toned down my excitement and tried to converse with him. Sadly he seemed to have morphed into fussy Felix (only without the honking). He would barely say a word to me.

I got my first taste of celebrity circa 1972. I was sitting at Lancaster, Pennsylvania’s historic family style Plain & Fancy Restaurant, where hoards of tourists sat cramped at oversized picnic tables apparently trying to see who could eat the most of the shared food. As I tried to digest my meal while being jabbed by elbows and wheezing through the smoke (everyone lit up back then), in came Arthur Hill, who was then starring in legal drama Owen Marshall, Counselor at Law.

“Oh, no kid will know who he is,” I recall someone at the table saying in between bites. Little did that person know they were sitting with Mr. TV junior.

As a teenager growing up in New York, I got my share of celeb sightings when I used to trek to Rockefeller Center to see tapings of game shows like Concentration, The $10,000 Pyramid and To Tell the Truth. And when I moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s, I got my small-screen star fix sitting in the audience of sitcoms like The Facts of Life, Happy Days, One Day at a Time, The Jeffersons and Three’s Company.

Although the years have jaded me a bit, I am still looking forward to the cavalcade of stars I expect to see at the Television Critics Association Press Tour, which begins tomorrow. In an arena where some of the biggest names in Hollywood make an appearance (Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg and Al Pacino, to name a few), a highlight for me at last year’s TCA was my elevator ride with Jim Nabors.

As big as Hanks, Spielberg and Pacino are, there is only one Gomer Pyle. Shazam!.