Saturday, 26 May 2012

Television Made Them: Iconic Performers of A Bygone Era

This is a post devoted to my favourite performers who became known for their roles in successful television series of the 60s and 70s. Even today, though they may have been working steadily for years after their shows were cancelled, the roles in these particular shows are still what they may be best known for. (But this is not always the case.)  Some were so  famous, it was difficult to avoid typecasting,  they may have wondered if fame was a double-edged sword for their careers. But. we loved them, and sat riveted in our living rooms, as if this one-sided love affair would never end. 

The ratings wars were treacherous and if  shows didn't make money for their American advertisers they faced the axe and our favourites would have to look for employment elsewhere. As far as I'm concerned, even after all this time, John Travolta is still Vinnie Barbarino; and Farrah Fawcett will always be one of the Angels. They had their ups and downs but will always be remembered for the shows that gave them, if not a start, then at least their requisite ten minutes of fame in the spotlight. 

Mary Tyler Moore  played Laura Petrie in the comedy series that originally aired  from 1961-1966. I was just a slip of a girl, but was enchanted by the graceful Mary and her more er, angular partner Dick Van Dyke as they manouvered their way around their new suburban house, and the post-war opportunities offered them by a booming American economy. Like the Beatles, it was a class act that made everybody happy. A running gag I've never forgotten is how in the opening sequence in the first series, Dick opens the front door, walks into the couple's living room and promptly trips over a foot couch that he doesn't see and falls over. The self-referential gag in later series is that Dick walks through the door and sees the foot couch. He laughs, and promptly walks around it without tripping. It's really very funny. When I saw Mary Tyler Moore playing a dramatic part in 'Ordinary People', I was lost. She played a woman who was cold, ungiving and thoughtless, and she did it perfectly. But to me, she'll always be Laura.


Barbara Feldon played the part of '99' --  partner of bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart (Don Adams) in the comedy series "Get Smart" which was first aired 1965-1970. After being cancelled, the show had numerous re-runs and I remember it best when it was shown in Sydney in an afternoon time slot, so I could see it between coming home from school and having my dinner where I had to be at the table and not in front of a television set. Agent 99 is level headed, attractive and competent at her job, while Max is a failure and entirely out of his depth as a secret agent. Everyone is in on the joke, but 99 protects Max from the consequences of his own silliness in a way that is supportive and obviously the cause of 99 being in love with Max. Max, however, fails to notice 99, at least for the first couple of series. 99 plays it straight but Max mugs a lot. They work perfectly together, and looking back on it, I didn't realise that the Cold War was as funny as this.



This show is the dark horse of the group. "The Invaders" was beaten in the ratings by "Mission Impossible" and only lasted two seasons before being cancelled by its network. It never received a subsequent re-screening in the United States, but has achieved cult status in many other countries such as France, where it was shown on cable television for many years. I first came across "The Invaders" as an inquisitive little girl but was not allowed to watch much of it because of a scheduling difficulty with the elders of my household who wanted to watch something else. I got to see all of the first series and the second series is just waiting for me, so I guess all is forgiven. 

This show is so intelligently written and its concept was so original at the time, that after retirement, writer/producer Alan Armer was awarded a university post in English at a southern California university for his trouble. I don't really know if the show had anything to do with it. But the  concept of an alien invasion  is adhered to in one episode after another, and  it builds audience interest as the concept becomes the cornerstone of the show itself. Roy Thinnes is wonderful, as a man on the run with forbidden information only he possesses. A virtual swag of well-know guest stars are in the offing, as David Vincent attempts to alert the world that aliens have arrived in secret and are making their plans to take us over. If only we will believe him! I did. Long before X-Files. I did. 

Does anybody believe me? Paranoia, as David Vincent sees no way of escaping "The Invaders".

And's sock-it-to-me time! But Goldie didn't say that...

While our parents were getting a nightly dose of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war on the six o'clock news, we were watching this hilarious TV show that was scheduled after the news, and that mirrored the anarchy and liberalism of the sixties counter-culture which those events spawned. Rowan and Martin's Laugh In was phenomenally popular for no particular reason, other than it was funny. Goldie Hawn got her start on this show and became an overnight sensation. She fluffed her lines all the time and made everyone laugh, but somehow we also detected a brain that was only trying to fool us into thinking she was silly. Not long after, Goldie won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress in "Cactus Flower' but no one remembers that much. Goldie Hawn will always be remembered instead, for "Laugh In".


"I find that highly illogical, Captain". So sayeth Mr Spock, in the original 'Star Trek' that captured our imaginations as the Starship Enterprise made its way across the universe. With his pointy ears and inscrutable demeanour, Mr Spock was always a good foil for other members of the Enterprise crew, if they became too fanciful in their celestial imaginings. Spock was the voice of reason, as the Enterprise was venturing where no man had gone before and therefore celestial imaginings became a necessity if they were to understand the different beings and planets that crossed  their path. The subsequent big-screen movies lost my interest, as well as the later series. I missed the original members of the crew like Scotty and Mr Sulu, and didn't fancy following them into old age. Leonard Nimoy remained active after Mr Spock, but I've never seen him in anything else, which may not sound like I'm the greatest fan, but I wouldn't want it any other way. 


It's a terrible thing to have to admit, but girls do notice other girls' hair-dos. And when I was growing up, my friends and I wanted to have a hair flip just like Farrah Fawcett in 'Charlie's Angels'.. Charlie's Angels made Farrah famous, the kind of 'famous' where we thought we knew her personally, by nature of the fact that we were watching her in our living rooms. After a few lacklustre movies like 'Sunburn' and 'Saturn 3',  Farrah eventually won the respect of her peers with parts in excellent television movies like 'The Burning Bed' and 'Small Sacrifices.'  She recently passed on, but will always be remembered.


I recently had a neighbour who shared my interest in 'Columbo' and she generously lent me some discs to watch of later series which I hadn't been aware of. They were surprisingly good, and when she moved I was kind of ashamed to admit that I was sad because now I wouldn't have her available if I wanted to re-watch the episodes. The loveable guy in the trenchcoat who, incidentally, has a mind like a steel trap, made us all think twice about venturing into a life of crime. With marvellous writing, and many interesting guest stars, 'Columbo' still keeps me on the edge of my seat no matter how many times I watch it. 

Actually my favourite episode is 'A Stitch in Crime' which features Leonard Nimoy in a prominent guest role as a very crafty doctor who has committed a crime. But his even tempered demeanour  infuriates Columbo because he knows that the doctor is too smart to slip up and be discovered. It says everything about Peter Falk's expert characterisation which made him a household name in the seventies, after acting on the stage in New York and adding some films to his list of credits. Columbo is unfailingly courteous, a bit of a slob, but has a mind that doesn't miss a thing in his quest to catch a criminal. There's also a very strong class element in the show, with most of the perpetrators being rich, cunning and deserving of punishment. Which is probably why so many people liked it. 


'Welcome Back Kotter' was our introduction to John Travolta in the mid seventies. A series about an idealistic teacher (Gabriel Kaplan) who returns to his native borough in New York, attempting to educate a foursome of misfits and keep his marriage together, this was a reasonably droll comedy that catapulted Travolta to fame, as well as his three friends played by Robert Hegyes, Laurence-Hilton Jacobs and Ron Palillo. The show captured a working class New York milieu, and whilst the humour was not that easily  translatable, Travolta was a magnetic presence who held the show together and made it the success that it was, of course with help from the supporting players and the writing. He had an initial splash on the big screen with 'Grease' and 'Saturday Night Fever' but fell into a decline until he was rediscovered by Tarantino for 'Pulp Fiction' and has been going strong ever since. I guess you just can't hold a good talent down. 

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