“This is not a docu-comedy, you know. It’s not a story about news or a story about Boston. It’s a story about people. Goodnight Beantown is just a medium to bring together two adult people and try to do adult stories. And I don’t mean X-rated adult. I mean intelligent adult, where people get together and talk and spar with each other.”
–Bill Bixby, talking about fellow star Mariette Hartley and Goodnight Beantown
Chemistry on a television show cannot be overrrated. It’s that mysterious quality characters (and actors) have that keeps audiences coming back for more, even when sometimes plots or situations aren’t quite perfect. When a show doesn’t have it, even the best premise can die quickly. Find people you like in roles that show off that rarity, and suddenly a viewer becomes a fan of most anything they do.
Casting directors crave that valuable chemistry, searching for the right person to be both believable in a part and still let their own qualities shine through. They hope to hire the stars that may have previously built up that fan base and will bring viewers to a show. It’s true in drama, comedy, and even in local newsrooms, where many anchor pairings have either reached new lows or new heights depending upon how well they got along. Sometimes, it’s saying hello to disaster. Sometimes, it’s waving Goodnight Beantown.
The gentle romantic comedy Goodnight Beantown premiered on CBS in 1983. The title comes from the sign-off line used by long-time Boston anchor Matt Cassidy (Bill Bixby), the respected star of WYN-TV’s nightly newscast. But local broadcasting was changing in the ’80’s, and “hard” news was quickly being replaced by a “softer” approach. Those in charge brought in a new co-anchor, Jennifer Barnes (Mariette Hartley) to join Cassidy as on-air host and bring a new perspective to the presentation. Needless to say, Matt did NOT approve of the idea of him needing help, to the point of deliberately reducing her sign-off to a little wave goodnight.
A professional rivalry ensues, with her stealing his catch-phrase the next night. After some escalating one-upmanship, a rather prickly professional relationship is born, as they both learn to respect each other’s work.
A personal relationship might also be in the news, although they don’t know it right away. As he leaves for work on the first day of this new arrangement, Matt helps the 13-year old Susan moving in across the hall of his duplex. Susan convinces Matt that her mom would be a terrific blind date for him, and later convinces mom that the cute guy across the across the hall is interested. When the professional rivals discover they’ve been set up as potential love interests for each other, a push-pull relationship is born. With a gentle nudge from Susan, they could probably fall in love, if only they didn’t have to work together.
Back at work, other changes would soon occur at WYN-TV. Valerie Wood (Stephanie Faracy) was a “Features” reporter on “lifestyle” stories. Valerie’s overly sensitive heart may have been in the right place, but her brain was occasionally on vacation. Sports reporter Frank Fletcher (Jim Staahl) was always on his game… and when he wasn’t chasing after other skirts, he had an unrequited crush on Valerie, who was oblivious to both his interest and his supposed charm. This crew was watched over by news director Albert Addleson (G.W. Bailey). He did his best to control these various personalities in his newsroom, at least for the 30 minutes they were on the air.
“How come my opinions are always opinions and yours are always facts?.”
–Jennifer Barnes to Matt Cassidy, debating as usual
Before the nightly cameras rolled, the fur flew at work. Matt was very much a traditionalist, not chauvinistic per se, but rather set in his ideas about how news should be gathered and presented. Jennifer was probably a bit more aggressive in her pursuit of stories (if only to prove herself), and more willing to use unusual methods to cover them (like when she investigated “ladies of the evening” in Boston… and Matt got arrested when he “propositioned” her to stop.) Yes, the relationship was sometimes adversarial, but it was surprisingly smart. It didn’t resort to immaturity, and was a welcome change portraying two reasonable adults with opposite points of view who ultimately could get along (and even fall in love despite their differences).
“Mariette is so much fun to play with. The kind of verbal tennis we play on the show is the same way we do in our personal lives. We start in makeup in the morning and one of us throws a verbal challenge at the other.”
–Bill Bixby, again talking about Mariette Hartley
Real adult relationships (the kind that don’t constantly rely on sexual tension) are tricky to portray on television, because if that mysterious thing called chemistry isn’t present, then those portrayals don’t stand a chance. Fortunately, both Bixby and Hartley had built up plenty of goodwill over their individual careers among the viewing audience, and they made a pretty good romantic-comedy team. They had actually played husband-and-wife previously, with Hartley earning an Emmy for her dramatic performance as the doomed wife of Bixby’s David Banner on the second season premiere of The Incredible Hulk.
“I know I am associated with television and I can’t seem to break that. It seems to be my lot. You could do worse. I could be not working at all!”
While some thought her award was more due to her spectacularly well-received series of Polaroid commercials with James Garner (of Maverick and The Rockford Files fame), Hartley had been a well-known and popular actress for many years. Memorable roles in everything from the original Star Trek to prime-time soap Peyton Place and numerous guest star television roles had given her significant recognition. Her performance in Goodnight Beantown was enough to earn her a second Emmy nomination, this time for Best Actress in a Comedy Series. She’s such a television favorite that she’s one of the few women who have received Best Actress nominations in Comedy (Beantown), Drama (Hulk and Rockford Files), and Limited Series categories (M.A.D.D., Mothers Against Drunk Driving).
“I have even more rapport with Bill than with Jimmy. Bill is quicker–he’s like a terrier while Garner is more of a sheepdog.”
–Mariette Hartley on working with Bixby and Garner
Bixby had already been beloved by television viewers for many years. His previous series included My Favorite Martian, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, The Magician, and The Incredible Hulk. That’s over 280 episodes and eleven and a half seasons of being welcomed into people’s living rooms prior to Goodnight Beantown. Here was a man who had earned not only viewers’ respect, but their loyalty.
Bixby was also a producer and occasional director on Goodnight Beantown, so he was particularly concerned with the portrayals of all the characters, even if some others wanted him to be the “star” attraction. He was more than willing to share the limelight with his fellow actors, knowing it was the relationships between them that would ultimately sell the show to viewers. This sometimes meant his Matt was the one to be “wrong” in some way, in order for Hartley’s Jennifer to be an equal foil. Bixby was secure enough as an actor to be shown in a less than flattering light. His fan base liked him so much he didn’t always have to be “right” as long as he wasn’t a complete villain.
Between them, Hartley and Bixby had that mysterious chemistry. The two were great real-life friends, and brought their underlying respect and camaraderie to the onscreen relationship for all the world to see. Goodnight Beantown premiered as a mid-season replacement (starring Bixby, Hartley, and Gold with different supporting players) in the Spring of 1983, and although only five episodes were produced and aired at the time, the promising tryout of the show earned it a Fall slot on the CBS schedule. But that Fall slot might not be all it was cracked up to be.
“We’re doing fine in the ratings. We’re number 26 right now and that is exactly where I want to be. I never wanted to be number one—ever. This year is getting off to the same kind of start as ‘Eddie’s Father’ did on its first year. I think we have a good basic sound following audience which is still finding us. And that is what every show needs. We’ve had everything you can imagine thrown at us by other networks. They’re stunting with heavy-duty movies. But we know they’re going to run out of movies sooner or later.”
–Bixby on the beginning of the Fall season
CBS knew the Fall was going to be difficult, even with the promise Goodnight Beantown showed. The Sunday night time slot for the show was the most competitive on television that year, and Beantown was the newest show of the bunch. In the hopes of gaining even more of an audience, changes were made.
G.W. Bailey’s Addleson was added to the show at this time. The show’s previous news director (played by George Coe) was deemed too similar to the point of view of Bixby’s Matt. Addleson was more comical, and more middle-of-the-road between Matt and Jennifer. The new season also brought the addition of Valerie and Frank, giving the two news anchors other people to bounce their personalities off of (and not be quite so directly confrontational with each other).
The net result of these changes made for a better show from a dramatic and scripting point of view, but the power of the Hartley and Bixby chemistry together was diluted in some ways. The tone and the comedy were a bit softer and more intelligent than the prevailing shows it aired with, so when push came to shove it was the odd show out. The stars sharing their screen time with others to that degree plus the added competition for the series in the Fall led to a final sign-off (and a little wave goodnight) for Goodnight Beantown.
BILL BIXBY (Matt Cassidy) hosted the kids’ series Once Upon a Classic, featuring dramatizations of many favorites of literature. He was also a prolific television director in addition to his previously mentioned work. He directed 3 episodes of Goodnight Beantown, as well as helming duties on Sledge Hammer!, two of the three sequel Incredible Hulk TV-moves, and Wizards and Warriors. He was a regular director on the sitcom Blossom, his last assignment finishing just six days before he succumbed to a battle with cancer in 1993.
MARIETTE HARTLEY (Jennifer Barnes) has performed in many issue-oriented TV-movies, and she’s passionate about those causes because she’s had to deal with many of them in her own personal life. Her family history includes alcoholism, suicide, and depression, and her own diagnosis with bi-polar disorder. Her best-selling memoir Breaking the Silence was published in 1990 detailing her life and struggles. She is a co-founder of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
TRACEY GOLD (Susan Barnes) had quite a career just as a teen actress, playing daughter in various series to Shirley Jones (Shirley), Nell Carter (the original pilot for Gimmie a Break!), and Alan Thicke (Growing Pains, her most famous role). She later had her own personal battles with anorexia nervosa, detailed in her book Room to Grow: An Appetite for Life.
G.W. BAILEY (Albert Addleson) is best known for his role as Rizzo in the M*A*S*H television series. He also appeared as a regular on St. Elsewhere, The Jeff Foxworthy Show, and the Police Academy series of movies. Currently he can be seen on The Closer on TNT. For the last 10 years he has been the executive director of the Sunshine Kids Foundation, providing transportation and events to kids suffering from cancer.
STEPHANIE FARACY (Valerie Wood) was a featured actress in the landmark mini-series The Thorn Birds, and later became a regular on His and Hers and True Colors. She’s a working guest actress, having recently appeared on Castle, How I Met Your Mother, and Desperate Housewives; and Get Him to the Greek on the big screen.
JIM STAAHL (Frank Fletcher) has segued from comedic actor to comedic writer, having written for numerous adult and kids shows like Sledge Hammer!, Bobby’s World, and Dragon Tales. His acting career included regular appearances on Mork and Mindy and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He also teaches comedy writing for the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program.
“I’m disappointed only in the sense that we were trying to aspire to something a little softer and not quite so hard-hitting… and communicating between two male and female adults. And we did it.”
Goodnight Beantown isn’t available on DVD, but two episodes are on YouTube for streaming in chunks. There are great fan sites devoted to both Bill Bixby and Mariette Hartley (and I’m grateful to both sites for many of the individual quotes used in this article). Much more information about their legacy on television and in life can be found there. These sites are two more examples of the devotion these stars engender in their viewers even today. And just for fun, here’s a YouTube link to one of the Hartley/Garner Polaroid commercials from 1981.
Very few actors and actresses like Bixby and Hartley become so welcome on our TV sets and in our living rooms. Even more rarely do they come together in the same vehicle for our enjoyment. Despite the changes that were made in order to supposedly “help” the show, nothing anyone altered could replace the basic idea of chemistry. It is what makes the best characters work, the best relationships work, and the best television shows work. Mess with that magic and you invite peril. But there will always be a place in our hearts and on our screens for those we love.
18 episodes — none unaired
First aired episode: April 2, 1983
Last aired episode: January 18, 1984
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central? No, the most competitive slot that year was Sunday nights. The show aired at 8/7, then 9:30/8:30, then 8:30/7:30 for a set of reruns late in the ’84 season.
Comments and suggestions welcomed as always.