Saturday, August 20, 2011

Forbidden Lear Not Coming to a DVD Near You.

As the three followers of my blog know, I am a huge fan of Norman Lear. I can say, there is no need to rehash his famous works for you, but the other day my twenty one year old co-worker had no idea who Archie Bunker was. But he's not reading my blog. My previous Lear post goes into more detail about his major works. In this blog, I'm going to revisit some of his not-so-well-known output.

In a nutshell, His CBS sitcoms groundbreakingly covered the gamut of controversial issues. The Lear Genesis started in partnership with Bud Yorkin and goes something like this: All in the Family (bigotry, politics, rape, Vietnam, transexualism) begat The Jeffersons (elitism, interracial relationships) and Maude (liberal hypocrisy, alcoholism, abortion, infidelity) which begat Good Times (racial strife, poverty, child abuse). Also with Yorkin, there was Sanford and Son (fake heart attacks) on NBC. Lear and Yorkin split around 1974. Yorkin later created TOY productions. Lear created TAT, starting with One Day at a Time (teenage suicides, drug abuse, runaways, divorce) and the soap parody Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (depression, sexual dysfunction, waxy floor buildup). Lear's company continued into the eighties on NBC with Diff'rent Strokes (class structure, ethnic dilemmas, predators) which begat Facts of Life (losing virginity, self-esteem issues, physical disabilities). All these issues were handled with laughs and some really bad dramatic staging. They are quaint by today's standards but due to political correctness you could not CREATE these shows today (even though the message was clearly one of tolerance and open-mindedness as opposed to the mean-spirited Comedy Central variety of satire.)

The above-mentioned programs were all ratings hits during the seventies. But Lear struck out quite a few times. You will never see these shows on DVD. Some lasted only a few episodes. But the concepts and casts are incredible. I'll start with Lear's shows and move into Yorkin's output.

HOT L BALTIMORE (1975): Lear's first non-hit. This mid-season replacement on ABC started with dire warnings of adult content much like All in the Family in 1971.
Based on Lanford Wilson's long running Broadway play about run-down hotel filled with prostitutes, gays, junkies, momma's boys it boasted a cast of future Lear players and movie stars: James Cromwell ("Babe"), Charlotte Rae (Mrs. Garrett from "Facts of Life"), Richard Masur, Conchata Ferrell ("Two and a Half Men") and Al Freeman Jr.

THE DUMPLINGS (1976). James Coco and Geraldine Brooks played an overweight couple in love running a diner in NY. I guess by this time, Lear had tackled all issues so he moved into body types. A midseason replacement on NBC, it is amazing that this new hit on CBS, "Mike and Mallory", could call this show its forerunner. I remember watching this show, and it had a huge Broadway feel. Lear drew most of his actors from the stage and it showed here.

ALL'S FAIR (1976). On the CBS Fall Lineup, this one actually made it a year. And how this doesn't get pulled out of the vaults today I'll never know. It is all about the red/blue political divide we are seeing today. Richard Crenna played a conservative political columnist in DC and Bernadette Peters was a liberal news photographer. Despite the age difference, they develop a relationship. I think we are all familiar with the arguments they must have had. Was this how Matalin and Carville got started? Interesting casting note: This was Michael Keaton's first TV job, playing Manny Wolf, the President's joke writer. I'm not making that up.

NANCY WALKER SHOW (1976). Part of Nancy Walker's long journey to find her own show on ABC. She ended up back on Rhoda on CBS. Here she played a Hollywood talent agenct and her military husband comes back home and cramps her lifestyle or something like that. I remember the catchy theme song and the set recycled from Hot L Baltimore.
Can't find a damn thing on this show on the webs. She immediately went to work for Garry Marshall on an extremely ill-conceived Happy Days spinoff before rejoining the MTM stable.

ALL THAT GLITTERS (1977). Mimicking the format of Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, this syndicated series was broadcast nightly in serialized fashion. The plot involved a corporation where sexual roles were reversed and women ruled the roost. It had an impressive cast but men didn't watch and feminists thought it was vapid.

FERNWOOD 2-NITE (1977). Running nightly in syndication to replace Mary Hartman during the summer, this hilarious talk show spoof is plastered on Youtube. Taking place in the same town as Mrs. Hartman, this local access show had Martin Mull and Fred Willard hosting in hilarious scripted or improvised interviews. Extremely irreverent for it's time. The issues were put aside here for just wacked out funny stuff. The following summer the show expanded to a national level and was renamed AMERICA 2-NITE.

A YEAR AT THE TOP (1977). More weirdness. Are you ready? Aspiring rock musicians Paul Schaffer and Greg Evigan decide to sell there soul to the devil (Second City's legendary Gabe Dell) to make it big in this CBS summer replacement series. Yes, THAT Paul Schaffer. And to make it stranger, Mickey Rooney was in the pilot.

FOREVER FERNWOOD (1978). After Louise Lasser left Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman, they kept the show going briefly with the remaining cast members under this title. Not necessarily Forever.

IN THE BEGINNING (1978). This failed fall CBS premiere was part of McLean Stevenson's long post-MASH journey for acceptance. He played a conservative priest at odds with a young, you guessed it, liberal nun. This wasn't even on long enough for controversy to erupt.

APPLE PIE (1978). Fall of 1978 wasn't a good year for Lear. After Maude left the air, future Golden Girl Rue McLanahan starred with Dabney Coleman in the Depression era sitcom (it was bound to happen) on ABC featuring Lear's first blind character (played by Jack Gilford). Based on the play "Nourish the Beast", she basically assembles a family in 1933 Kansas City. She didn't outlast McLean though with only two episodes.

HANGING IN (1979). You can read the story of this one here. Reading that will take as long as watching the few episodes that were aired. Maude was supposed to continue as a congresswoman in DC. She didn't do it. So CBS kept the premise in a couple of different versions. It somehow ended up set in an elite college with Bill Macy (NOT playing Maude's husband here) playing the dean. Don't ask.

THE BAXTERS (1979). Lasting for two seasons on syndication, this program's first half was a sitcom about an average middle-class family and the second half involved questions and answers and discussion from the studio audience about the controversial topic tackled in that episode. Was this a precursor for reality TV?

HELLO, LARRY (1979). A sort-of spinoff of Diff'rent Strokes. Although this new attempt at a McLean Stevenson vehicle lasted two seasons, it is considered one of the worst shows in TV history. (It may turn up on DVD after all!). He's a radio talk show DJ with two daughters to raise. To give you an idea of how bad this show was, the quality improved the second season with a recasting of one daughter and the addition of Meadowlark Lemon PLAYING HIMSELF. I'm not making this up.

ARCHIE BUNKER'S PLACE (1979). This one is actually on DVD. After Mike and Gloria left All in the Family, Carroll O' Conner took over control of the franchise and this four-year program continued as a hit. It was more silly and Archie became the "lovable bigot" dealing with all ethnicities in his new bar. He took away the live audience (they watched a video feed instead for reaction) and the show was last breaths of a dying format. The first couple of seasons involved Martin Balsam as Archie's Jewish partner and that same year Edith Bunker "died." The quality had already died.

JOE'S WORLD (1980). I don't even remember this summer replacement show on NBC. It was about a blue collar worker and his family. Struggling in hard times is my guess.

PALMERSTOWN USA (1980). This was Lear's only non-sitcom. This critically acclaimed drama on CBS co-created with Alex Hailey (Roots) revolved around a black family and a white family in the 1930's south. Sort of a Walton's with a social mission. A young Michael J. Fox was featured the first short season.

CHECKING IN (1981). Florence, the sassy maid on "The Jeffersons" was spun off on this show where she runs the staff at a ritzy hotel. Actress Marla Gibbs wisely returned to her previous series which stayed on the air way too long but resulted in a few Emmy nominations for her before 227 (distantly produced by Lear's company) came along.

GLORIA (1982). Sally Struthers returns in the role that made her famous on the CBS fall premiere. She has left Mike and works for a country vet. At this point, nobody cared about the Bunkers anymore.

AKA PABLO (1984). Lear finally entered the world of Latinos in this series. James Komack's Chico and the Man stole the thunder in this area in the seventies. A young Paul Rodriguez starred in the few episodes aired midseason on ABC. A la Seinfeld, he played a stand up comic who offended his tradional parents. Seems the Latino audience was also offended and stayed away.

SUNDAY DINNER (1991). Lear returned after a long absence with this one on CBS. Religion was the topic here as older widower Robert Loggia has a relationship with young Catholic environmental lawyer Teri Hatcher. Needless to say their families clashed over Sunday Dinner. Hatcher's character would talk to directly to God. I think Lear caught heat from evangelicals for casting God in a supporting role here.

THE POWERS THAT BE (1992). Lear returned to political satire in this hilarious show on NBC. John Forsythe played a daffy senator on this farce. The cast was amazing: Holland Taylor (Two and a Half Men, also to play Ann Richards on stage), David Hyde Pierce (Frasier), Peter Macnicol (Ally McBeal) and others. This show was as wacked out and daring as some of Parker and Stone's output in later years, like "That's My Bush."(Lear consulted with the South Park guys in later years).

704 HOUSER STREET (1994). Lear literally returned to his roots here. In Archie Bunker's house, there now lives a died in the wool African American Democrat (played by John Amos of Good Times) arguing politics with his conservative son who was dating a nice white Jewish girl (played by future star Maura Tierney). I wonder where Archie was at this point? In a strange way, Lear came full circle with this one, inspired by Rush Limbaugh, and it was his last.

Switching gears, Lear's early partner Bud Yorkin, created his own company, TOY Productions. His biggest hit was What's Happening!!. His short time series were:

GRADY (1976). The first Sanford and Son spinoff where the lovable Grady moves in with his family.

SANFORD ARMS (1977). When Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson called it quits on the original Sanford and Son, Yorkin produced this failed attempt at keeping the franchise going. The fall 1977 series featured a new owner of the junkyard/hotel with appearances by Aunt Esther and Bubba and Grady.

CARTER COUNTRY (1977). Actually lasting two season on ABC, this one played on race relations in a small Georgia town with Victor French as the sheriff with a new black deputy.

13 QUEENS BLVD. (1979). This summer replacement series on ABC featured Eileen Brennan and Jerry Van Dyke. It was about tenants in an urban apartment complex. I think.

ONE IN A MILLION (1980). Shirley Hemphill's character in What's Happening wins the lottery and leaves her waitressing job in this ABC midseason replacement.

SANFORD (1980). After Redd Foxx's failed journey into variety series on ABC, he returned to NBC as Fred Sanford in two different attempts to revive interest in another previously popular franchise. He wasn't quite as successful as Carrol O'Conner, as both formats failed to generate interest in Sanford without his Son. Keeping Rollo around didn't help the fact that Lamont was "replaced" by a white fat redneck guy.

ONE OF THE BOYS (1981). Mickey Rooney again? What? In this midseason NBC show, Rooney plays a grandad going back to college with his grandson and his best friend. Ouch. Who played the two boys? Dana Carvey and Nathan Lane. I wonder how they look back at that experience.
How you go to the most groundbreaking and controversial program in TV history to Mickey Rooney is still a mystery, but I've done it somehow.

Oh, one final note: Schneider, the nosy maintenance man on "One Day at a Time" was supposed to be spun off in his own series. It would be called "Schneider." It would never air. Sorry.