Mr. TV: Memory Lane

I love classic television, so there is pretty much nothing that’s going to keep me from tuning into NBC’s Law & Order: SVU this week to see Carol Burnett guest starring as a former dancer who gets caught up in the murder of a young couple.

Carol Burnett involved in a murder? While we all, of course, remember this legendary comedienne as host of her long-running variety hour on CBS, she has also amassed an impressive slate of dramatic guest-star appearances, including an Emmy nomination for 1979 made-for movie Friendly Fire. This is a woman who can do it all.

Speaking of Burnett reminds me of the time my wife and I had the opportunity to meet her at the Summer Press Tour a few years ago. And that is what I love best about my job: conversing with larger-than-life personalities from TV history. So this week I want to focus on these classic TV stars that I have had the chance to meet in person or speak with on the phone.

Let’s start with that “very lovely lady,” Florence Henderson from The Brady Bunch. What few people remember about Mrs. Brady is pre-The Brady Bunch one of her gigs was a Today show “girl” (1959-60), and I interviewed her for a story I wrote on the perennial morning franchise.  Just as you would expect, she was terrific. I have also spoken to the “youngest one in curls,” Susan “Cindy” Olsen, on a number of occasions. And I’m planning to interview Susan again for an upcoming column about surviving childhood as a young actor.

Just last year, my wife and I were invited to see Barry “Greg” Williams in his Off-Broadway musical about the 1970s. It was groovy man, out of sight.

Back in 2001, All in the Family celebrated its 30-year anniversary and I remember waiting for a call from Isabel “Weezie” Sanford, who of course spun-off into long-running The Jeffersons. When the phone rang, that incomparable throaty voice greeted me with “Helllllo … this is Isabellll Sanford.” What a blast it was reminiscing about All in the Family. I vividly recall Sanford asking me if I would also be writing a 30-year anniversary story on The Jeffersons.
“We never got the attention we deserved,” she lamented. A few years later, I met TV hubby Sherman Hemsley at a TV Land event. Funny how the two had a 21-year ago difference in real life (guess who was older?), but still seemed so compatible.

About eight years ago, Mediaweek’s then head honcho Bill Gloede had a peculiar notion (no offense, Bill). He said that Mediaweek readers were likely fans of old sitcom Car 54, Where Are You?, and asked me to dig up some of the series’ stars and write a story. So, I got regulars Al Lewis and Charlotte Rae on the phone, and both were thrilled to see this 1961-63 sitcom finally get some recognition. Interestingly, Rae came with a specific request from the publicist not to mention her more famous sitcom, The Facts of Life. “She hates to talk about it,” warned the flack. Well, guess what? Charlotte brought it up and we chatted about it for 45 minutes. “Why did everyone make fun of The Facts of Life?” she asked me. “We tackled a lot of serious issues.”

Then there was the time I spoke to Richard “John Boy” Thomas of The Waltons for a feature on family-friendly programming and he could not understand why dramas of a warm and fuzzy nature do not get recognized by the critics. I also remember speaking to John Ritter, then star of ABC’s 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter, who also had co-starred on The Waltons. I promised I would visit him on the set the next time I was in Los Angeles, but sadly he passed away just a few months later.

One of my favorite memories was a party I went to celebrating TV Land’s five-year anniversary. At the time I was writing a story on what these classic TV stars currently watch on the air, and when I asked Tony Randall of The Odd Couple what he currently liked, his response was a curt: “Nothing. I would not waste my time.” Yup,  Felix was alive and well—at least then. Honk! Honk!

Also at the bash were Felix’s roomie, Jack “Oscar” Klugman, Larry “J.R.” Hagman, Barbara “Jeannie” Eden, Ed “Lou Grant” Asner and the girl who made it after all, Mary Tyler Moore. Now, if I could only get to meet the cast of Charlie’s Angels, life would be really sweet.   

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