Monthly Archives: July 2011

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.

Spending a few seasons with a cozy little community theatre, I performed a number of plays with many of the “regulars” there, taking on different roles each show but interacting with the same actors.  On a larger scale, it’s no mystery why this week’s show had success with the same idea. 

Five quotes: 

“So, it was in a pretty good place to begin with… and now it’s just become more comfortable.”

…femmes fatales, mostly innocent ingenues, and times when actions (and fists) speak louder than words.

“You know, I’ve taken great pleasure in lying to you in the past.”

The concept also allows for the traditional “gather everyone into a room” ending…

“They have an opportunity to morph into completely different characters every week.”

A wonderfully literary series from a decade ago, with a mystery legacy dating back much further.  Come take part (or parts) in a delightful period piece with style, flair, and comfort, this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central. 

–Tim R.

%d bloggers like this: