Non-Fiction: TV Books A-Go-Go

(Editor’s note: Perhaps not surprisingly, Southern California novelist and screenwriter Lee Goldberg — who’s concocted scripts for such notable television series as Diagnosis: Murder, Spenser: For Hire and Monk, and penned more than a dozen Monk TV tie-in novels — is a big fan of books about television history. Big enough, in fact, that he has penned a trio of his own contributions to that field. Below, Goldberg remarks on five volumes of TV history, written by other people, that he’s recently added to his shelves.)

Sometimes I think Richard Irvin is writing books just for me. It’s almost like I’m holding him prisoner in my basement, feeding him Cheetos and forcing him to write TV reference works on delightfully obscure subjects for my personal amusement. His credits include such gems as Forgotten Laughs: An Episode Guide to 150 Sitcoms You Probably Never Saw (2013), George Burns Television Productions: The Series and Pilots, 1950-1981 (2014) and Spinning Laughter: Profiles of 111 Proposed Comedy Spin-offs and Sequels That Never Became Series (2016). Now this Pennsylvania TV historian is back with two more winners …

The Early Shows: A Reference Guide to Network and Syndicated Primetime Television Series from 1944 to 1949 (BearManor Media). This is an amazing work of TV search and scholarship, tracking shows from the dark ages of television that few people have seen or ever heard of. Irvin is the consummate researcher and goes into astonishing detail on each program. But this is far from a dry, boring reference book. It offers hours of fascinating reading. It’s also a time capsule providing a glimpse into the cultural, historical and technological issues of the day … and an intriguing portent of what was to come in television’s future. It’s full of cool trivia — for example, in the sitcom Mama (1949-1956), Dick Van Patten played the oldest son, but when he had to miss a few episodes James Dean stepped in to play the character in his place. And guest stars in that sitcom included Paul Newman and Jack Lemmon. One of my favorite discoveries in this book is a series called Off the Record, which ran for two episodes in September 1948. It starred Zero Mostel as a millionaire DJ broadcasting a radio show from his lavish Manhattan penthouse. Mostel walked off the show after the producer failed to deliver a promised live audience to fill the theater where the sitcom was filmed. Another intriguing program is the dark drama anthology Mr. Black, which aired for just a few weeks in the fall of 1949, and was scripted entirely by novelist and prolific television writer Bill S. Ballinger. Mr. Black was the Devil’s emissary on earth, and he took particular delight in pitting people against one another and seeing just how much death and misery he could cause. So little is known about the show that there’s some dispute over who actually starred in it. I know I say this a lot, especially about Irvin’s books, but this is a must-have for any TV reference collection. Wait, though, there’s more…

Film Stars’ Television Projects: Pilots and Series of 50+ Movie Greats, 1948-1985 (McFarland). I went into this second Irvin volume thinking there wasn’t going to be anything here of interest to me … after all, I wrote Unsold Television Pilots: 1955-1989. What could he tell me about the pilots by film stars that I didn’t already know? Quite a bit, as it turns out! I loved this book. Irvin gives deep background and detailed synopses of the TV series (and would-be series) projects of some big-screen stars who hoped to revive their careers on the small screen with, in most cases, little success. The stars include Claudette Colbert, George Sanders, Peter Lorre, Zachary Scott, Joan Crawford, Alan Ladd, Orson Welles and Bette Davis. One of Davis’ failed TV projects in the 1950s was a proposed series entitled Morgan & McBride, written by Fay Kanin and produced by Dragnet’s Jack Webb, that would have cast Davis as a lawyer with a younger partner played by William Shatner. It’s a tragedy that it was never shot for the camp value alone. The concept was tried again with Greer Garson and Peter Falk as the leads, and was ultimately filmed in 1972 as Heat of Anger, with Susan Hayward (also profiled in the book) and James Stacy. This is a marvelous little book (only 223 pages long, but it feels like its packed with 500 pages of information) that I strongly recommend. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for this next book …

Mad About Mystery: 100 Wonderful Television Mysteries from the Seventies, by Donna Marie Nowak (BearManor). Mad About Mystery is an appropriate title for this very strange book — the random musings of a mystery fan about mystery television in the 1970s, mixed in with a few interviews and drawings (yes, drawings). There is no real organizing principle beyond author Nowak’s love of ’70s mystery TV (though she stretches “mystery” pretty broadly to include a lot of other stuff, such as Scooby-Doo, Salem’s Lot and Satan’s School for Girls). The introduction by Stefanie Powers isn’t an introduction at all, but rather a rambling, informative Q&A about the actress and her involvement in Hart to Hart, among other shows. As for the rest of this book, the author has selected some “mystery” TV movies and series that I suppose she feels represented the genre in the decade, then offers her personal review and synopsis of each one, along with bits of information that are well-known (and, in some cases, inaccurate. For example, she mentions that the 1979 TV movie Dear Detective, starring Brenda Vaccaro, was an unsold pilot for a series that never happened … but she’s wrong, there was a series, something a simple Google search would have revealed in a less than two seconds). Her list of mystery movies and TV series includes horror, animation and even Wonder Woman, so her criteria for inclusion leave me scratching my head. But at least Nowak knows the programs she writes about well, and her reviews are knowledgeable, though they don’t offer any fresh insights, information or trivia. By far the best part of the book, and the only real reason to read it, is her section of informative interviews with actors, writers and stunt men of the era (from which the Powers interview was presumably pulled and moved to the front of the book as an “introduction”). The exchanges with Sharon Farrell, Diana Muldaur, Thomas B. Sawyer and Peter S. Fischer are especially interesting (though the Q&As with Sawyer and Fischer rely too much on excerpts from their books — in my opinion, anyway, having read both of those works). The author would have been better served scrapping her “reviews” of ’70s TV movies and series, and instead focusing on more interviews.

Since you’ve been such a fine audience up to now, here are two more releases for people — like me — who have a secret (or maybe not so secret) addiction to TV reference books.

Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series, by Chuck Harter (BearManor). Chuck Harter’s Mr. Novak is a terrific study of the making of a short-lived, little-known (because it’s hardly been rerun), but widely-acclaimed (in its time) TV series that starred James Franciscus as a high school English teacher, with Dean Jagger as his principal. Mr. Novak (1963-1965) followed the successful Dr. Kildare template, a series made by the same studio and also developed by E. Jack Neuman, and it was undoubtedly an inspiration for the much more successful Room 222, which came along years later. Harter’s book benefits enormously from his extensive research and numerous interviews with some key players in the show, both those behind the camera and in front of it (some interviews were conducted personally, others gleaned from press reports and other sources). In many ways, Mr. Novak is the story of an opportunity lost — the series was a critical and popular hit during its first season, but was then sabotaged in season 2 by its production studio and broadcast network, NBC, which forced misguided changes in the writing and the loss of key cast members. You don’t have to be a fan of Mr. Novak to enjoy this book — in fact, I’ve never seen a single frame of the program. Nonetheless, I found the book fascinating. It comes with a detailed episode guide and two great bonus features: E. Jack Neuman’s “bible” for writers on the series; and the synopsis of a two-part crossover episode with Dr. Kildare that dealt with venereal disease — and was nixed at the last second by a skittish NBC. (The synopsis is inexplicably titled “a novelization” by Harter, which it most certainly is not.) There are a lot of valuable lessons that current TV professionals — writers, producers and executives — could learn from reading this detailed examination/appreciation/history/postmortem of what might have been a landmark TV series, if not for its death from self-inflicted wounds. (Note: This is a minor quibble, but two errors in Harter’s book jumped out at me. In discussing James Franciscus’ post-Novak career, he says the detective series Longstreet ran for two seasons and that Hunter, an espionage series co-starring Linda Evans, ran for 13 episodes on SyFy. In fact, Longstreet was given only a single season, and Hunter aired on CBS-TV for eight episodes (13 were shot, but five never aired) in 1977 — decades before the SyFy channel even existed.)

Are You in the House Alone?: A TV Movie Compendium, 1964-1999, edited by Amanda Reyes (Headpress). This book is a lot of fun and wonderfully captures the cheesy delight of 1970s teleflicks (the “scary Zuni fetish doll” from the classic movie-of-the-week, Trilogy of Terror, is mentioned four times in the book’s first 16 pages!). However, those movies-of-the-week — or MOWs as they were called — were more than just the TV equivalent of “grindhouse”/exploitation films. They were also vivid reflections of our society at the time. They were often terrific movies, but are now very hard to find, rarely showing up as DVDs or in syndication, and are definitely underappreciated. That’s a shame, because as editor (and Made for TV Mayhem blogger) Amanda Reyes notes, “the seventies are considered the heyday of the made-for-television movie … the phenomenon of the television movie, while fairly well known, still struggles for recognition and remains one of the most overlooked mediums.” MOWs were also, as she observes, “a welcoming place for classic actors hoping to make a fast buck” and for “TV actors to break the mold of a long-running series in which they were often trapped.” Those of us of a certain age still remember the delight of seeing, for instance, wholesome Andy Griffith become a baddie in the classic MOW Pray for the Wildcats (1974), or the spectacle of a faded big-screen star such as Bette Davis wading through the awful Madame Sin (1972). Are You in the House Alone? is essentially a collection of hit-or-miss essays leading into a large section of reviews of memorable TV movies. The most worthwhile essays are those focused on the heyday of MOWs — the 1970s — and some of the thematic issues they tackled. Meanwhile, essays grouped under the headings “World War III in Television Movies” and “The Plight of the Small-Screen Superhero” feel more like blog posts that the authors didn’t bother to flesh out for here; and the section about miniseries (this is a book about TV movies, isn’t it?) and the TV films of Wes Craven read like filler. Perhaps the best portion of this 338-page paperback is devoted to movie reviews, even if some of the choices are rather perplexing. I can see why the editor included critiques of MOWs that were failed pilots for TV series (like Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby, Baffled, and Men of the Dragon), but I don’t get why they bothered adding reviews of films that became series (such as the MOW pilots for Hawaii Five-O, Columbo and Harry O); I would have preferred to see appraisals of more obscure, unjustly forgotten MOWs. My other quibble with the reviews here is that they all list the director and principal cast — but not the screenwriter. That strikes me as a major oversight (though, in some cases, the screenwriter is mentioned in the course of the review). All that said, Are You in the House Alone? remains a giddy delight, a feeling clearly shared by many of the authors who contributed to the work. It’s thought-provoking … and a most welcome bit of nostalgia. Reading this book had the same effect on me as hearing Burt Bacharach’s ABC Movie of the Week theme has on Reyes: “it brings back more than just the movies … it brings back a time, a place, and a moment when your television set turned into a bona fide movie theater and anything was possible.” ◊

(These reviews originally appeared, in slightly different form, in Lee Goldberg’s blog.)

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