Monthly Archives: July 2011

OK, so you’re hurting.  You need a doctor.  But which kind?  Well, it depends.  You may have stomach problems, or heart problems.  You may just want a little superficial nip-and-tuck to make you feel younger.  Or it may be really serious, and a trip to the Emergency Room is in order.  But perhaps, all that’s wrong is an emotional thing, and maybe a therapist is the right one for you.

the Barnes family: Regina, Oliver, Stewart, Lydia, and Ben

In any case, you want to be paging Dr. Barnes… well, at least one of them anyway.  Any of the five will do.  Because they all should provide the best medicine on television:  laughter.

Out of Practice premiered on CBS in the fall of 2005.  It was about the Barnes family, each of whom had gone into the healing arts… and each of whom were comically broken in some way.  Our lead is youngest son Ben (Christopher Gorham), a marriage counselor who fixes relationships, and might be just the thing this busted family needs (if they’d ever give him some respect, instead of treating him as “less” of a doctor because he has a psych degree instead of a biological one).

His parents are divorced, but still tend to their grown children despite their antipathy for each other.  Mother Lydia (Stockard Channing) is a heart specialist with little “heart” of her own, worried more about social-climbing and being a miracle worker than she is about the individuals whose hearts she repairs.  Father Stewart (Henry Winkler) is a gastroenterologist who can’t stomach dealing with the confrontations forced by his family, yet loves them anyway (well, most of them… he and Lydia are still at odds, on principle if for no other reason).

Eldest son Oliver (Ty Burrell) is just as superficial and vain as the women he specializes in “perfecting” with his plastic surgery skills, and would just as soon chase after any of them as work on them; and daughter Regina (Paula Marshall) might beat him in the skirt-chasing, as she’s a lesbian and thrill-seeker who works in the E.R. at the same hospital with her parents.

trying to unite for Ben

Together, there’s a prescription for laughter here that could, with half a chance and a little work, turn out pretty well.  Which means, of course, that it didn’t last all that long.  It wasn’t for lack of trying, though.  The show had an excellent pedigree, with Channing, Winkler, and Marshall being experienced comedy hands in both movies and television.  Gorham and Burrell had great futures waiting after their experience on Out of Practice, showing they also knew what they were doing.  The show was co-created by producer Christopher Lloyd, known on TV for being the comedy mind behind successful series Frasier and Wings.  So, there were definitely people around this show who knew how to land a joke or two.

But those jokes were what needed the doctoring on Out of Practice.  While the actors gave their roles some depth (more than was originally written, really), the actual laugh lines weren’t necessarily fall-down funny.  And that’s being generous.  If you look at modern comedies, and the scripts they use, there had better be a joke on at least every half page (and more near the finish) or the show plays comparatively slowly.  If the jokes aren’t at least good, if not great, the entire thing grinds to an unfortunate halt.

And in Out of Practice, you had five characters who should have had plenty in comedic ammunition, but actually didn’t.  Different styles and practices of medicine may as well be different planets as far as mining laughter, and I would hesitate to hear funny emergency room comments from a plastic surgeon, or marital advice from a gastroenterologist.  Family and professional conflict can create decent drama, and sometimes decent comedy too, but in the case of Out of Practice (at least early on), all it did was kind of grind.

“You work in the ER, dear.  People die there.  You really want that hair to be the last thing they see?”
–Lydia to daughter Regina, with her typical “mom” bluntness

Proud of you (even if you're not a "real" doctor...)

On Out of Practice, it was supposed to be the family creating “the tie that binds”… but it didn’t.  Lydia and Stewart were divorced, a fact which was played up consistently as repeated squabbling (despite the fact that these two people apparently loved each other enough to raise three grown children).  Stewart was trying to have a relationship with his receptionist Crystal (Jennifer Tilly), even though she was the same age as his kids.

Oliver, the plastic surgeon, went through women quickly in both his dating and professional life  (and when you have a character who’s supposed to be shallow, you’re not getting much to dig into).  Daughter Regina wasn’t relating to the family that much either, as she was looking for excitement, both at the ER and in her relationships (and never finding enough).  And that left our central character of Ben who, in the pilot, has his marriage end when his wife leaves him.  While his family tries to rally around to help, we see that it’s really the family that needs him.

But the way the show is presented, the other characters don’t realize this, even if we do.  They’re the broken ones, really, although they think they’re whole.  They’re the individuals who need the tender loving care and help of a doctor the most, and it’s a situation where the idea of “physician, heal thyself” is the one thing these doctors just can’t do.

Now, actors love playing “broken” characters.  Channing was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Lydia on the show.  But while those roles may be excellent drama, audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at a family full of them, especially when the one person who might be able to “fix” them to some degree was the one they gave the least respect to.  The other characters all danced around the fact that they were broken in the first place, and believed Ben wasn’t a “real” doctor anyway… so why would they ever improve?  And if his family didn’t respect Ben, why should we?  It’s hard to root for someone when everyone we see is too preoccupied to listen to him

So, not just the characters, but Out of Practice itself might be in need of medical help.  What to do?

Five different doctors, but we need to heal the show

The concept of a “script doctor” has been around a long time.  These writers’ sole job is, not to plot out stories, but to “punch up” a script, to make it better.  Some are like general doctors,  polishing entire scripts, creating (hopefully) more sparkling dialogue or better transitions and situations.  Others are surgeons, adding humorous lines here and there.  In the specific case of a situation comedy, these “script doctors” are on staff simply to make already plotted stories as funny as possible.

Out of Practice needed a script doctor… stat.

Most modern sitcoms shoot an episode a week, but the finished script for that episode isn’t really “done” until the evening of the shoot… and sometimes, filming is even stopped because a new joke is found on the spot.  Writers go through multiple sets of changes, all in search of better jokes, funnier bits, words and situations that will leap off the page.  Many times, ideas are formed during the rehearsal process, with writers seeing actors on stage and getting a better idea of how things “play” instead of “read”.  Scenes, and sometimes entire scripts, are rewritten to take advantage of these possibilities, and this is where a comedic “script doctor” earns his or her money.  Because they have to be both quick and funny, every time.  These kinds of “script doctors” are rare and valuable people, the ones who can literally be funny on demand, and they get paid a hefty sum to do so… but they’d better produce, or else.  Like a real doctor, they have a show to save, and humor is the medicine used.  And if the patient (show) dies on the table, then lots of people are out of jobs.

"Hello? Give me something funny here!"

Sometimes, a mid-episode rewrite (or multiple rewrites) aren’t enough.  Significant changes have to be made, and shows are taken off the air while producers, writers, and cast all try to hash out possible ways to become funnier, better, more watchable.  This happened in the spring of 2006 with Out of Practice.  But sometimes, despite the best efforts of all, the patient is just not able to be saved.

CBS tried to work with the show.  It ran from September 2005 until March of 2006, when it was replaced (for what was supposed to be only a short time) by The New Adventures of Old Christine, starring Seinfeld veteran Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Old Christine garnered a significant ratings bump compared to Out of Practice, which had been replaced temporarily to try to “fix” some of the perceived problems it had attracting viewers.  After the numbers came in, CBS simply decided to go with the new show rather than try to heal the previous one.  The network pulled the plug, and Out of Practice never returned, leaving eight episodes unaired in its network run.

CHRISTOPHER GORHAM (Ben Barnes) has starred in numerous series, including Popular, Odyssey 5, Jake 2.0, and Harper’s Island.  He played boyfriend Henry to Ugly Betty, and is currently seen on the USA series Covert Affairs.  An incurable romantic, he proposed to his college sweetheart after a picnic outside Tiffany’s on Rodeo Drive, just before going in to pick out rings.

STOCKARD CHANNING (Lydia Barnes) is a veteran of stage and screen, known to a generation as Rizzo in the movie version of Grease.  She played First Lady Abigail Bartlett on The West Wing, as well as starring in two short-lived self-titled situation comedies (The Stockard Channing Show and Stockard Channing in Just Friends).  She’s appeared on Broadway numerous times, in the musicals Pal Joey and They’re Playing Our Song, and dramas The Lion in Winter and Six Degrees of Separation.

HENRY WINKLER (Stewart Barnes) essayed television icon Arthur Fonzarelli, better known as Fonzie, on the classic sitcom Happy Days.  He also did a turn as a lawyer in the cult TV hit Arrested Development.  He branched out into television producing, as one of the creative minds behind the long-running MacGyver.  Diagnosed with dyslexia, he’s co-written children’s books featuring the character Hank Zipzer (also dyslexic), a 4th grader characterized as “the world’s greatest underachiever”.

TY BURRELL (Oliver Barnes) was a regular on Back to You, also created by Christopher Lloyd.  His major claim to fame is on the current smash Modern Family, where he’s garnered Emmy nominations each of the past two years for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy.

PAULA MARSHALL (Regina Barnes) has been featured on this site previously for her work in the original Cupid (1998).  A TV veteran whose closest thing to a hit was the two-season Gary Unmarried, she nonetheless has been a regular actress in half a dozen series and a recurring character in many more.  She may get the chance to try again this fall in a new Fox comedy called Little in Common.

JENNIFER TILLY (Crystal) is a multi-talented star, with an Oscar nomination (for Bullets Over Broadway) and stage credits (The Women, a Broadway show that was taped and later shown on PBS).  She’s lent her voice to numerous projects, including Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. (and its upcoming sequel, Monsters University), the Chucky horror series, and TV’s animated Family Guy.  She’s an accomplished poker player, having earned a silver bracelet for winning an open event at the World Series of Poker, beating out 600 players there.

The show is available on Netflix for viewing online, and numerous episodes are posted on YouTube.  Although there were places where the series was lacking, you can see possibilities along the way, and how the show grew with time.  The performance of Stockard Channing is worthy of her nomination, even if some of the early scripts weren’t the best possible vehicles for her and the rest of the cast.  Given the setup, and some of the later tinkering, the show actually ended up pretty good…

the family that laughs together

… but it was just too late.  Audiences just really didn’t tune into Out of Practice.  The show lost a pretty good size of the audience from its lead-in series, although it did finish second in its time slot (only behind ABC’s farewell season of Monday Night Football).  Perhaps the reason it didn’t continue really was the “doctor” process after all.  When Out of Practice took a break to “heal”, The New Adventures of Old Christine gained a million viewers more than Out of Practice had produced in the time slot.  CBS simply went with a show that apparently was more popular… leaving another to fade away.

But things like that happen all the time in television.  Shows are saved through heroic measures (ask any Chuck fan about Subway sandwiches and you’ll see what I mean).  Shows also die for the most absurd reasons (be it petulant actors or just whims of the powers-that-be).  It’s kind of like life, in that you really can’t predict with any certainty whether a show will die quickly or run forever… but with the right doctor in your corner, the odds get a little bit better.

Vital Stats

14 aired episodes — 8 unaired — all available online
CBS Network
First aired episode:  September 19, 2005
Final aired episode:  March 29, 2006
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Mondays at 9:30/8:30, between Two and a Half Men and CSI: Miami.  Both of these shows were in the top 20 that year, Out of Practice didn’t make the top 30.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Sometimes, even with the best of intentions, shows don’t quite work.  Something’s wrong, something that only the best Hollywood has to offer can fix.  But even then, the idea of “Physician, heal thyself” doesn’t always work.  Especially when there are five of them….

Five quotes:

Because they all have the best medicine on television:  laughter.

So there were definitely people around this show who knew how to land a joke or two.

…it’s up to the family to be the tie that binds… but it didn’t.

…shows are taken off the air while producers, writers, and cast all try to hash out possible ways to become funnier, better, more watchable.

…you really can’t predict with any certainty whether a show will die quickly or run forever…

This week, a show with a stellar pedigree, award-winning cast and crew… and a series that died despite having doctors galore.  Come read about a modern comedy that ended its life sooner than anyone expected, on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“Do you see that?  Now, it’s started.  The cycle has begun… and it can’t be stopped now.  Look, I’m not crazy… well, maybe I am.  It is sort of a madness.  It just seems to well up in me as it gets closer.  That’s why I know I have to stop it, end it, before it controls me more than it already does.  (…)  A doctor can’t help me, nothing can cure me… except dying.  That’s the only way… that’s the only way I know. ”
–Ted, pleading with his friend Eric to kill him, in the pilot of Werewolf

The world changes.  Sometimes, the change is small, sometimes large.  Sometimes the differences can be as great as day and night, as sun and moon.  But the real lessons learned are how individuals accept and adapt to that change, or how they ultimately fail to do so.  That’s where the drama comes from, in television and in life.

John J. York as Eric Cord

College is a time of change, but student Eric Cord (John J. York) never believed his college years would change his life this much.  It wasn’t school and the broadening of his mind at issue, but a strange encounter with his family friend and roommate Ted, who encourages Eric to kill him with silver bullets.  Ted has become a werewolf, who would rather die than being forced to kill again, but Eric refuses to believe him… until the transformation occurs.  Eric is ultimately forced to shoot Ted, but is bitten by the transformed Ted before he dies.  Now Eric is part of the bloodline, and acquired the curse of lycanthropy; he’s become a Werewolf.

Bounty hunter Alamo Joe

Eric’s world has just changed, and not for the better.  He’s being pursued by a bounty hunter named Alamo Joe (Lance LeGault), who’s on Eric’s trail after he’s accused of “murdering” Ted.  And according to the red pentagram that starts showing up on his hand, Eric’s about to transform into a potentially out-of-control Werewolf.  The only way he can “undo” the horrible curse (and return to his normal life) is to kill the originator of the bloodline, the mysterious Janos Skorzeny (Chuck Connors).  Eric is now both the chaser, and the chased.

“You’re one of mine, aren’t you?  Tonight, we hunt.  Tonight, we feast.  On all the unsuspecting… together.”
–Janos Skorzeny, meeting Eric for the first time

What ensues is something like a thriller version of the television classic The Fugitive, with Eric trying to clear not only his name, but also insure his return to humanity.  He’s being sought as a criminal for murder, and searching out the vile person who can apparently end his new existence.  Through a 2-hour pilot and 28 half-hour episodes, Eric’s world was turned upside-down as he encountered various innocents, and those that would hurt them (and him) along the way.

Some of the traditional accoutrements of “werewolf” transformations were kept, such as being susceptible to silver bullets and healing powers, but the transformations were now unpredictable, and not tied to the phases of the moon.  This allowed the writers of the series to have Eric’s change into a werewolf happen when necessary for dramatic purposes, instead of tying all changes to a specific time of day.  The series also established a continuing deterioration of the mental and willful control of the human/werewolf, placing a bit of a timer on Eric’s quest, but allowing for him to, at least initially, refrain from attacking innocents.  But it wasn’t the innocents Eric was after.

Eric and Janos

“I see my part as the devil.  I think the kids will like him, because when he’s on the screen it’s much more frightening; the action is more intense.”
–Chuck Connors on his role as Skorzeny

The leader of his bloodline, however, had been around for a while.  Janos Skorzeny was an old fishing captain, whose mind and body had been ravaged by the curse over 100 years.  Playing Skorzeny, Chuck Connors was about as far away from his heroic and iconic role as The Rifleman as he could get.  Sporting an eyepatch and a middle-European accent, he simply oozed villainy in every scene, relishing the chance to play a part totally against his own character.

Unlike The Fugitive, Eric actually catches Skorzeny in the middle of the series, but then change of another kind occurs.  Skorzeny is revealed to be just another in a long line of lycanthropes, and the real “originator” of the bloodline is one Nicholas Remy (Brian Thompson), who’s been alive for more than two thousand years… and more powerful and ruthless than Skorzeny could ever be.  Eric now has an even more malevolent enemy, better able to avoid Eric’s relentless quest.

Although he’s still being chased by bounty hunter Alamo Joe, who suspects his dual existence, Eric now has a new mission, and change continues.  But that’s what this series was all about.

Scare is the operative word.  I did not mind ending up faulted for the concept, but I did not want to be faulted for the execution.”
–Co-producer John Ashley

Werewolf was one of the initial offerings of the FOX Network in 1987.  The network landscape was changing, with the entry of a new player in the network wars and the grouping of formerly independent stations into a larger and hopefully more powerful group.  While others (particularly Paramount in the late ’70’s) had tried to start another network, FOX was the most successful, especially when they only rolled out weekend programming during that first summer season.  Werewolf was initially on Saturday nights, although it was moved to Sundays that fall.

The series was produced by John Ashley and creator Frank Lupo (Lupo, ironically, means “wolf” in Italian).  They had recently come off the hugely successful series The A-Team, and were looking for change as well.  Utilizing the horror/thriller concept married with ideas from The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk, their initial FOX offering was born.  FOX embraced the idea, and utilized then-new marketing concepts such as a “call-in” line, advertised at the end of episodes, for information on lycanthropy and werewolf “sightings” across the country.  It looked, for a time, as if there was a hit in the making… but still more changes were to ensue.

The right villain?

FOX was also after a younger, more advertising-desired demographic.  The 66-year-old television veteran Connors was not exactly suited for their marketing, so storyline changes were made.  Skorzeny (whose character name was actually an inside joke by creator Lupo, homage to the villain in the original The Night Stalker movie) was replaced with new villain Remy, in order to have a younger actor to help promote the show (even though Connors had been enough of a “name” to gain most of the publicity for the series).  Connors and his salary demands for the series also meant frustrations for the producers and the network.  Messing with the mythology of the show, not to mention the chemistry of the actors, did little to help the series, and FOX also showed the impatience of youth in canceling the series after its first season.

Eric Cord never had his ultimate showdown with Remy, and was left with the curse when the show ended.  Some scripts for a potential season two were planned, featuring a further descent into the madness and uncertainty the curse could bring to Eric.  But alas, FOX has other plans for their growth as a network, and they didn’t include a 7-foot tall Werewolf (even when the make-up and transformations were spearheaded by Oscar-winning make-up artist Rick Baker).  Change was mandated… but then, change was what Werewolf had always been about.

JOHN J. YORK (Eric Cord) has been a star player on the soap General Hospital for 20 years, playing the role of Malcolm “Mac” Scorpio.  He spun off the part in 2007 on the short-lived General Hospital:  Night Shift before returning to the main show.

LANCE LeGAULT (Alamo Joe Rogan) got his start in Hollywood as a stunt double for Elvis Presley, but found fame in his role as Colonel Roderick Decker, the Army man assigned with capturing The A-Team.  Known for his exceptionally deep bass, he once was the narrator for guided tours of Graceland, and producer Glen Larson once commented that he had “a voice that was four octaves lower than God’s.”

CHUCK CONNORS (Janos Skorzeny) first had a career as a baseball player, making it briefly to the majors before being “discovered” while playing for an L.A. farm team.  He found television fame in The Rifleman, but also had regular roles in the lawyer series Arrest and Trial, the western Branded, and the psuedo-western Cowboy in Africa.  He had a featured role in the SF movie Soylent Green, and played a more modern cowboy in the TV drama The Yellow Rose.  He died of pneumonia, linked to lung cancer, in 1992.

BRIAN THOMPSON (Nicholas Remy) has been featured on this site before, as the violent Eddie Fiori in Kindred:  the Embraced.  He’s known for tough-guy parts, especially for his role as the Alien Bounty Hunter on multiple episodes of The X-Files.  A veteran of both action movies and SF, he’s been seen with actors from Stallone to Schwarzenegger, and in four different Star Trek incarnations, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, and Hercules: the Legendary Journeys.

Werewolf has never been released on DVD, although it came about as close as a series can come.  The five-disc set had been advertised in trade magazines, given a street date, and cover art had been published, before the title was pulled only two weeks or so before it was to be available.  Apparently, there were music rights issues that were never settled, as the series used many popular rock tracks of the day during its presentation.  There was no “separate” music and dialogue tracks for the show existing, and so the music couldn’t even be “replaced” for DVD, and therefore no release is available.  There is, however, a great fansite with information on the series, screencaps from the various episodes, and lots of information on the cast.  Clips from each of the episodes, plus a couple of interviews, are available on YouTube.  Comic adaptations of the episodes were released a year later by Blackthorne Comics.

“When the world isn’t the same as our minds believe, then we are in a nightmare.  And nothing is worse than a nightmare… except one you can’t wake up from.”
–Alamo Joe

Changes, both small and large, affect everything we do.  Whether the change is personal, such as Eric’s journey, or ultimately affects millions as the rise of the FOX Network did, it is the process of change that makes the difference.  On Werewolf, Eric (at least on what we saw) had some control over his actions along the way, even as his entire self became something completely foreign to his previous existence.  This is the essential lesson that each of us must learn along the way; that we control the change, not that the change controls us.  No matter what the circumstances, our lives are still OUR lives, and even being left with bad choices is better than no choices at all.

Finding our way through the maze of possibilities might seem hopeless, but ultimately the essential nature of a being remains.  Skorzeny was a villain, through and through, and not just because of the curse.  His deterioration was accelerated by his own evil and his own nature.  Like Eric, the best of us may have circumstances to deal with, but it is in the choices we make that show our own interior selves… and I can only hope, like many others, that I make the best of them along the way.

Vital Stats

2-hour pilot and 28 half-hour episodes — none unaired
FOX Network
First aired episode:  July 11, 1987 (Fox’s first night of Saturday programming)
Last aired episode:  May 22, 1988
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  FOX didn’t air anything in that slot yet, as their only programming aired on weekends initially.  Much of its run was on Sunday nights at 8/7 Central, a tough slot for anyone, human or werewolf.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Day ends, night begins.  There’s a new moon, signaling change of the most unique kind.  This week’s show was part of the biggest change in the landscape of television over the last quarter century, which was appropriate.  Because the show was both about changes… and about being scary.

Five quotes:

“The cycle has begun… and it can’t be stopped now.”

What ensues is something like a thriller version of the television classic The Fugitive…

…he simply oozed villainy in every scene, relishing the chance to play a part totally against his own character.

“I did not mind ending up faulted for the concept, but I did not want to be faulted for the execution.”

It looked, for a time, as if there was a hit in the making…

Sit tight, turn off the lights, and make sure the door is bolted.  Not that it will help you, but it may make for a better atmosphere when reading this week’s Friday @ 8/7 Central.  There are those who believe… and those who will.

Tom Chapin and Harry Chapin

“If a man tried
to take his time on earth
and prove before he died
what one man’s life could be worth
well I wonder what would happen to this world….”
–Singer/songwriter Harry Chapin

Ostensibly, this is a site about television gone by, and the memories it brings.  Sometimes, however, it’s not a show, but a person, who triggers the memory (and the celebration thereof).  This is one of those weeks.  The show is Make a Wish, the star is singer/songwriter Tom Chapin, and much of the music for the series was written by Tom and his brother, Harry Chapin.  And Harry Chapin was, quite simply, one of the most incredible human beings who ever lived.

First, the show.  Make a Wish ran a few seasons, more than the typical show found on this site.  But even though it ran from 1971-1976, it was pretty much unnoticed by a mass audience.  Even for a series that ran for many years, there were only 47 half-hours made, roughly a season’s worth of shows for a typical hour-long drama.  Yet Make a Wish was hardly an ordinary show, in any way.  The reasons for this are pretty straightforward, but that didn’t stop the show from winning both an Emmy and a Peabody award.

“Make a wish, have a ball.
Dream a dream, be it all.
If you want it, you can get it.
But to get it, you’ve got to want it.
Anything you want to try
Just let go, fly high!!!!
…and Make a Wish.”
–The opening theme song to Make a Wish

The main audience for Make a Wish was children, and it aired originally on Saturday mornings before being moved to an even less viewed timeslot on Sunday mornings.  The show was produced by the ABC News division, so it wasn’t judged on the number of viewers it achieved.  ABC needed something to point at as a “positive educational experience” for kids and, for a number of years on television, Make a Wish filled the bill.

Tom Chapin

“I was a little cautious when I approached the people at ABC, because all I knew about the program was that it was a children’s program, and I didn’t want to be a Captain Kangaroo.”
–Tom Chapin, on auditioning for Make a Wish

No worries, Tom.  Make a Wish didn’t talk down to kids as much as it tried to raise them up, exploring concepts without the “comedy relief” seen in previous children’s shows.  While it was aimed at young viewers (and therefore still fun), it respected them as well, aiming at their curiosity instead of trying to sneak knowledge past their laughter.

Each segment of Make a Wish (two were featured in every half-hour episode) centered around a single word, like “ice” or “shoe”.  The term for each segment was introduced by Tom Chapin in various locations (such as Stonehenge for “ring”).  Tom would, after the introduction, ask the audience to think about what it would be like to experience the concept, to “Make a Wish”.

Audiences were then treated to a free-association session using the word in many different contexts.  Narrated by Tom, these associations were presented with animated and filmed depictions.  For example, the “bull” segment showed everything from Teddy Roosevelt’s Bull Moose party to the concept of Bull and Bear traders on the stock market in about five minutes!

Along with the animation segments, the words were often used as the centerpiece in musical numbers, created especially for the show by Harry Chapin and sung by Tom.  While the animated segments were sometimes rather fast-moving and almost frantically funny, the music presentations were more thought-provoking in comparison.  Harry Chapin’s traditional concert-ending song “Circle” came from Make a Wish, using the word “circle” as a metaphor for the days of our life, our worlds, and the people we surround ourselves with.

Harry Chapin

“All my life’s a circle,
Sunrise and sundown.
The moon rolls through the nighttime
’til the daybreak rolls around.”

“All my life’s a circle,
but I can’t tell you why…
Seasons spinning ’round again
the years keep rolling by….”

Make a Wish ran for many years, although there weren’t always that many new segments created for each season.  After the first year or so, episodes were packaged with both new and old segments, since children’s television series (especially dating back to the ’70’s) quite often used reruns in large number, especially since most (if not all) of the references were relatively timeless, and the kid audiences were more tolerant of repeats than adults were.

The series was moved to Sunday mornings from the (then) traditional cartoon Saturday morning slot, where it found a home for many years.  The show was rejuvenated somewhat in its final season when ABC News used it as part of the network’s Bicentennial celebration of the United States.  Make a Wish developed something of a patriotic theme, visiting many of the historical landmarks associated with the growth of the country.

Unfortunately, children’s television, especially when made by the News division, isn’t a priority.  After the Bicentennial ABC decided its news budget was better spent elsewhere, even though Make a Wish was a relatively inexpensive show to produce.  The series aired the last of its episodes near the end of the US birthday celebration and, although its never been released on video, it is still remembered by those of us who grew up during those years and were guided by the words and music of Tom and Harry Chapin.

Tom Chapin has remained a champion for children everywhere to this day.  He continues to perform concerts aimed at parents and their families, with music touching the lives of both.  His website has many of his award-winning recordings available as well as lists of touring performances and information about Make a Wish and his other endeavors.

Harry and his young son Josh

Harry Chapin is altogether another story.  Harry is probably the more famous of the two, if only for his huge multi-platinum single “Cat’s in the Cradle”, an anthem for fathers and sons (and now grandfathers, since the song was originally released in the mid-’70’s).  Harry had an amazing career, writing and performing, and was even nominated for an Oscar at one point for filmmaking (a documentary on, of all things, boxing champions).

But on an early tour of Africa, Harry saw the devastation that simple hunger can bring to a child, a family, a community.  He was so moved by the experience that he became a tireless advocate for the hungry all over the world.  He helped form WHY (World Hunger Year), a group devoted to both feeding the hungry and to developing strategies and programs that would help those in need find a way to ultimately help themselves; to make everyone in the world safe from the danger of lack of nourishment.

Carter's Commision on World Hunger, with Harry.

His persistence in fundraising, speaking out, and enjoining each and every person he could to “do something”, led as high as the White House.   (And believe me, Harry could be one of the most persistent people ever created when he felt the need.)   At Harry’s urging, Jimmy Carter started the President’s Commission on World Hunger in 1977.  Harry was the only person who made it to every single meeting, even when Senators and Representatives based in Washington couldn’t make it.  And Harry was performing upwards of 300 shows every year, on the road across the country, trying to spread the word and help the cause.  (There’s even a story about Chapin, forgetting his ID after a quick change at the airport, getting to the White House.  The congressmen had to show IDs… the security knew Chapin and just waved him through!)

Harry wasn’t perfect, by any means.  But he did as much, if not more, for people around the world during his brief life than many others do in decades.  Half of his concerts each year were benefits, and he supported numerous arts organizations in addition to his work on hunger issues.  If there was a charitable cause that Harry thought he could help, then he was likely there, ready to perform.

He influenced others to do the same.  He was great friends with the legendary Harry Belafonte, who helped spearhead the “We Are the World” and “Hands Across America” charity events in the ’80’s, in part to continue Chapin’s legacy.  Harry was instrumental in numerous other realms, from food for the hungry to arts for the soul, always seeking the chance to influence people to help their fellow human beings.  Whether the reason was political, social, or just connecting one-on-one, Harry’s voice and music rang out as a clarion call to everyone who could hear.

“Given this short opportunity we call life, it seems to me that the only sensible way–even if you have pessimistic thoughts about the 99 percent possibility that things are going wrong–is to operate on the one percent chance that our lives mean something.”
–Harry Chapin

July 16, 1981, almost exactly thirty years ago today, we were to learn how short that opportunity would be.  Harry was on his way to perform at another fundraiser, this time at a Long Island venue, when he was involved in an automobile accident.  It’s unknown whether he suffered some type of medical problem before or after the accident, but he was unable to be revived, and the world lost a great talent and a greater human being that day.

Speeches were made mourning Harry, and more than a few tears were shed.  He was later voted a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal for his humanitarian work and his music, one of the highest civilian honors given by our country.  Harry had rubbed elbows with Kings and Presidents, but never, ever forgot that his audience was just regular people, and that’s what made his story-songs ring so true to so many.  Unlike far too many supposedly “great” men and women, he always remembered what life was like for the less-privileged, the hungry, the extraordinary “ordinary” people who make up so much of our world.

"But to get it, you've got to want it"

“Being a rock star is pointless.  It’s garbage.  It’s the most self-indulgent thing I can think of.  I’ve got nothing against selling out.  But let me sell out for something that counts.  Not so Harry Chapin can be No. 1 with a bullet, but so I can leave here thinking I mattered.”
–Harry Chapin, from a Washington Post article the day after his death

If I could simply Make a Wish now, it would be to see what kind of world we would have if Harry had been around a bit longer.  But then, that might have missed the point.  Because Harry, and Tom, and the idea of Make a Wish wasn’t just to dream a dream, it was to be it all.  These are all people who dreamed, yes, but then they went out and did all the things necessary to turn those dreams into reality, and that’s what more people need to be inspired to do today.  That’s the legacy we lost with Harry’s death, and I know that, this weekend, part of me will remember a bit more strongly all those words he sang, and maybe, just maybe, a bit more of those dreams can find life in me.

“The credo of my life is, very simply, when in doubt, do something.  The errors I make are going to be errors of commission, not omission.  I’m out there to live.  I’m not frightened, or when I am, I still push.”
–Harry Chapin

All these years later, Harry Chapin is still one of my favorite artists of all time.  Not just for his music, of course, but for his message of life, and how to care about each other.  If all my life’s a circle… then what we had once, we’ll have again.  But, for now, I just wish Harry was still here.

Vital Stats

47 half-hour episodes aired — none unaired
ABC Network
First aired episode:  September 12, 1971
Final aired episode:  There’s some question about this.  Although the show ran until September of 1976, it’s uncertain when the last actual original segment first debuted, especially when many of them were interspersed with older segments as part of re-edited episodes.
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  Only if you count 8 am instead of 8 pm,  Saturday and Sunday mornings for its run, although at least one source says Friday mornings for a time… which I find odd, but many stations ran the show at a different time than ABC “aired” it, so they could run their own programming in its place.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

If I could make just one wish to come true, it may very well be to see a particular person once more.  He left us many years ago this week, and among his many other accomplishments, he contributed to a particular TV show.  So, this week, an article with something about the show, and something about the person.

Five quotes:

“If you want it, you’ve got to get it.  But to get it, you’ve got to want it.”

…there were only 47 half-hours made, roughly a season’s worth of shows for a typical hour-long drama.

ABC needed something to point at as a “positive educational experience” for kids…

ABC News used it as part of the network’s Bicentennial celebration of the United States.

“The credo of my life is, very simply, when in doubt, do something.”

Come back this week as I remember a man who’s made an indelible impact, not just on my life, but on so very many, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central.

–Tim R.

“When Maury Chaykin and I first started working together, last year, we worked well together from the beginning, from day one.  So, it was in a pretty good place to begin with… and now it’s just become more comfortable.”
–Timothy Hutton, about his co-star Maury Chaykin on A Nero Wolfe Mystery

Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe: A Nero Wolfe Mystery

There’s a certain level of comfort with a well-done mystery.  Whether it’s in traditional book form or a dramatic portrayal on-screen, a particular level of intelligence and style is present, no matter the setting.  It could be Agatha Christie’s well-known Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, or the OCD adventures of Adrian Monk on television, but there are always familiar trappings for the reader/viewer to enjoy and have as touchstones. 

The same could definitely be said about the A&E Network’s  2001-2002 adaptation of A Nero Wolfe Mystery, dramatizing the literary creations of author Rex Stout.  For any unaware of the long-standing characters, Nero Wolfe (Maury Chaykin) was a rather famous and rich recluse who solved mysteries without leaving his own house!  His right-hand man, Archie Goodwin (Timothy Hutton), did the majority of Wolfe’s investigative work, discovering and reporting information to his boss (who then put all the pieces together to solve the crime). 

Nero demands. Fritz provides even better.

Other regular characters included the long-suffering, but loyal, butler/cook Fritz Brenner (Colin Fox), who dealt with Wolfe’s demanding peculiarities.  These included very specific instructions on culinary preferences, down-to-the-minute details on when dinner was served, when to make sure there were no interruptions, and how to intercept and deter almost all visitors to Wolfe’s brownstone.  Fritz knew how to handle Wolfe’s persnickety nature, but was very protective of his boss as well. 

One of the few visitors who was barely (and I do mean barely) tolerated was Police Inspector Cramer (Bill Smitrovitch), whose presence was only allowed because of his official status and the information it gave Wolfe to advance his investigations. 

Cramer, Archie, and Wolfe in the greenhouse

Operating as a 1950’s period piece, A Nero Wolfe Mystery takes place in New York City, complete with some shady gangsters, femmes fatales, mostly innocent ingénues, and times when actions (and fists) speak louder than words.  The “uncivilized” world outside the doors of Wolfe’s townhouse is seldom, if ever, allowed to intrude upon the order and intellect living there, most especially when Wolfe is in his rooftop greenhouse tending (some would say “fussing”) over his beloved orchid collection. 

“You know, I’ve taken great pleasure in lying to you in the past.  And I’m sure I’ll lie to you again.”
–Archie Goodwin, found by the authorities in the wrong place at the wrong time

We therefore see the world (and the crimes) through the eyes of investigator Archie, whose playful attitude, eye for the ladies, and ability to get tough when circumstances demand, allow viewers all the fun of a well-played mystery.  The device of not having the true mastermind on-site provides for dialogue between Archie and the imposing Wolfe, exposing to the audience the information that would normally be an internal thought process for a TV detective.  This, in the best mystery tradition, lets the audience play along with the investigation.  The concept also allows for the traditional “gather everyone into a room” ending of many great mysteries, often the room being the lavish office of Nero Wolfe’s brownstone, where the dénouement of most cases was revealed. 

One of you.... is the murderer!

There’s an entire sub-genre of mysteries in the book world currently known as “cozy” mysteries.  The name comes from the style of description, where grisly descriptions of dead bodies are frowned upon, and style and cleverness are celebrated more than the realistic messiness of homicide; in other words, a “cozy” murder.  In this respect, A Nero Wolfe Mystery fits perfectly, as the crime victims are seldom, if ever, seen as anything other than a dead body on the floor (as if they were sleeping).  The fun of both “cozy” mysteries and Nero Wolfe is in comfortably playing along, trying to figure out “whodunit”, and enjoying the mood and presentation along the way. 

“When we did The Golden Spiders, the first one… nobody was thinking about doing any more.”
–Timothy Hutton, on the original A&E Nero Wolfe movie

In 2001, A&E produced what they believed to be a one-off movie adapting Rex Stout’s The Golden Spiders, featuring Hutton and Chaykin.  Hutton enjoyed his experience tremendously, introducing the world of Archie and Nero to an entirely new audience.  When executives at A&E floated the idea of a continuing series (due to the good reviews and ratings the movie had received), Hutton enthusiastically asked not only to continue his role, but to become both a producer and director on the series in addition to a lead actor.  A&E was more than happy to accommodate an Academy Award winner. 

Hutton not only brought out more of this period style and flair in his presentation, but he also worked with a number of actors who became familiar with the specific type and genre he was trying to present.  Therefore, if only for a level of comfort for both the production and the audience, many of these actors formed a sort of repertory company, and were featured in multiple episodes as widely different characters. 

Kari Matchett portraying three different women in three different episodes

Kari Matchett played Lily Rowan, Archie’s on-again, off-again, love interest in a number of stories.  But she also played almost another dozen characters in different episodes, from nightclub singer to European immigrant.  Occasionally a suspect, occasionally an ingénue, she and Hutton developed a certain special chemistry in their performances.  That relationship continues to this day, as she was requested by Hutton to play his ex-wife, recurring character Maggie, on Hutton’s current show Leverage

James Tolkan, in one of many roles

James Tolkan is another of these recurring actors on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, playing everything from a tough FBI agent to a rather rich, entitled drunk.  While Tolkan has been traditionally cast as a rather rigid authority figure, there are still many shades to that type of character, and Tolkan was able to portray many of them during his stint on the series While his rather distinctive looks (and bald head) made him easy to spot, his superb acting ability allowed him to inhabit various personalities and allowed the viewing audience to enjoy whatever flavor he presented each story. 

“It’s wonderful for them.  They have an opportunity to morph into completely different characters every week.”
–Maury Chaykin, about the repertory company of actors on the series

All in all, 15 different actors (besides the regular cast) appeared in at least half the series episodes, in multiple roles.  And over 60 actors portrayed at least 2 different parts in the series (which is incredible, considering there were only 30 hours filmed in total).  A Nero Wolfe Mystery truly did have its own little world, full of actors who trusted each other and allowed consistent performances from all due to their level of comfort.  That comfort translated to the audience as well, bringing into our homes the familiarity of old friends and new adventures, no matter who they portrayed each week. 

If anyone at home was already familiar with Nero and Archie, the stories were like the gourmand Wolfe’s rather famous meals:  just one more helping of exquisite comfort food.  All 30 hours were taken from the original stories of Rex Stout, lovingly adapted for television in a very faithful manner.  Many of the stories were made into 2-part episodes, allowing time for proper dissemination of the layered plots from the original novels. 

Anyone wishing to immerse themselves into a world gone by, full of action, fun, and mystery, had to look no further than A Nero Wolfe Mystery.  The immersion also involved some unique challenges.  Street and location shooting meant using period automobiles and the removal of what would be anachronistic items like air conditioners and other modern amenities.  Costumes and make-up required specialized application in order to re-create the feel of fashionable ’50’s looks.  Since Hutton was a producer and director in addition to his starring role, he had to make decisions for the look and presentation for the series almost every minute of every day, let alone involve himself in the 12-to-15 hour shooting days as an actor.  And yet, for him, this was also a level of comfort.  This went all the way down to the dialogue of the show, a throwback to movies made half a century before the filming of the series. 

“There’s a style of those movies where the dialogue was very rhythmic.  It wasn’t sentimental.  You know, nobody took these long, realistic, emotional pauses.  There wasn’t a lot of contemplating going on.  It all has to have a certain kind of a rhythm to it, so that it becomes musical, and people don’t get bogged down into naturalism, you know?”
–Timothy Hutton, describing the presentation of the show

Taken together, the elements of A Nero Wolfe Mystery created something about as comfortable and classy as a television show could be.  It involved a familiar cast each week, memorable period presentation, fun characters, and the opportunity for viewers to lose themselves in a clever story, full of twist and turns in great mystery tradition.  What else would you expect from a cozy mystery repertory company? 

TIMOTHY HUTTON (Archie Goodwin) won an Oscar for his performance in the movie Ordinary People.  He has preferred character roles in many independent films, taking parts on the basis of their acting needs rather than their box-office potential.  In addition to his wearing multiple hats (acting, producing, directing) on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, he’s the lead on TNT’s Leverage, where he literally gets to wear multiple hats in various cons and heists (a part he took simply because “he wanted to have fun!”)  Also noted is the family acting legacy, as Hutton’s father Jim played the great American sleuth Ellery Queen in the ’70’s series of the same name, a role Tim paid tribute to in a recent episode of Leverage

MAURY CHAYKIN (Nero Wolfe) is a relatively soft-spoken actor, quite unlike the bombastic Nero Wolfe.  A prolific actor in Canada, he’s best remembered in America (other than his role as Wolfe) as being the commanding officer of Kevin Costner’s character in Dances With Wolves.  He died of kidney failure on his 61st birthday in 2010.

COLIN FOX (Fritz Brenner) is another Canadian actor, having starred in PSI: Chronicles of the Paranormal and guested in numerous series shot north of the border, both for American and Canadian television.  He’s also a stage veteran, and helped design and perform a unique theatre work for pianos, actors, and multimedia. 

BILL SMITROVITCH (Inspector Cramer) played the patriarch on the early ’90’s series Life Goes On, a four-year success for ABC.  He’s also starred in Crime Story, The Practice, Without a Trace, and The Event.  Specializing in tough-guy/military roles, he’s been featured on television shows from Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine to Castle, and movies like Independence Day, Air Force One, and Iron Man

KARI MATCHETT (Lily Rowan and others) is a favorite on this site, and although she’s not yet been a regular on a show covered here, she’s been a featured and recurring character in Wonderfalls, Invasion, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.  Currently, she’s a regular on the USA series Covert Affairs, and hopefully will make a return visit to Leverage in the near future. 

JAMES TOLKAN (FBI Agent Wragg and others) was a notable presence in the Back to the Future trilogy, playing Michael J. Fox’s school principal (and other roles, naturally, in the past and future settings of the sequels).  A regular on the short-lived comedy Mary, he was also a recurring foil for Remington Steele, as an insurance investigator out to prove Steele’s guilt.  Other significant roles were in the feature films Top Gun and WarGames.  In addition to his multiple acting parts on A Nero Wolfe Mystery, he also directed two episodes of the series. 

Nero and Archie, and the orchids

For those sleuths wishing more information on Nero Wolfe, in book form or on television, there are multiple resources available.  The series was released on DVD, and is still available, as are most of the books written by Rex Stout.  The fan website A Nero Wolfe Mystery is an excellent source of information, including links to scripts and notes about scenes filmed but never aired on A&E.  Other adaptations of Nero Wolfe have been tried, most notably a 14 episode NBC series from 1981 starring Lee Horsley as Archie and William Conrad as Nero Wolfe (memtioned here only for completeness — it wasn’t really all that good).  Oddly enough, both shows used the same Rex Stout story, The Golden Spiders, as their pilot episodes. 

“Rex Stout wrote the books over many decades.  We chose to set this series in the early 1950’s because there is such a unique sense of style and flair and fun and color about the period.  The cars look great.  The femme fatales look great.  Archie’s hats are fabulous.  There’s a whole world and sense of style there that is very different from 2001 because it is “period”.  I think it’s going to be very appealing to a contemporary audience, because of the fun and flair of it.”
–A&E executive producer Delia Fine

A&E Network was in the midst of changing from running off-network reruns to original programming in the early parts of the decade, and despite the enthusiasm most had for the project, costs and a limited pocketbook caused the demise of the show after two short seasons and a total of 30 hours, counting the pseudo-pilot film of a year earlier.  While the network was still searching for the right combination of money, time, and program content, A Nero Wolfe Mystery certainly was one element they could point to as successful.  Fondly remembered by those who saw it originally, its style, intelligence, and cleverness are definitely missed on today’s television screens. 

The idea of a repertory cast for a television drama was last used regularly on the live dramatic broadcasts of the 1950’s, so the use of such a group for this show was a unique idea almost 50 years later.  A Nero Wolfe Mystery did it, and did it well, embracing the entire concept with flair, confidence, and comfort seldom found in most modern shows.  There’s more than a little to be said for something that can best be described as “cozy’.  A Nero Wolfe Mystery couldn’t be described as well any other way. 

Vital Stats

2-hour “pilot” TV-movie + 27 episodes aired — none unaired (series premiere also 2 hours)
A&E Network
First aired episode:  TV-movie – March 5, 2000; series debut – April 22, 2001
Final aired episode:  August 18, 2002
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No.  Although cable networks tend to repeat their shows more than broadcast networks, each episode premiered on Sundays at 8/7 Central. 

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

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