TV Diary

         Sunday, February 15.

WOMEN WHO RATE A 10. NBC, Special. 60 minutes. Or, Steve Lewis pigs out. Oink, oink.

         Tuesday, February 17.

THE BLACK HOLE.. Walt Disney/Buena Vista, 1979. Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Robert Forster, Joseph Bottoms, Yvette Mimieux, Ernest Borgnine. Director: Gary Nelson. [Watched on HBO.]

   I watched this with Jonathan, who is six now, and since I explained it all to him during the show (“Why are they doing that, Dad?” “I don’t know, Jon, let’s wait an see.”), I’m not going to repeat myself.

   Actually, to be fair, some of it Jon explained to me. He’s pretty sharp. It’s a fine movie for kids hooked on Star Wars. (You can call this ‘sci-fi’ if you want to.)

   Rated PG, probably for the one or two cuss words, and one rather violent death scene.

MYSTERY! PBS, series. Tonight was the first of the second season run of Rumpole. The title was “Rumpole and the Man of God.” Leo McKern (Horace Rumpole), Rosemary Leach, Derek Farr, Bill Fraser, Peggy Thorpe-Bates (Hilda Rumpole), Moray Watson, Peter Bowles. Writer: John Mortimer. Director: Brian Farnham.

   I didn’t see any of the ones they showed last year. I don’t remember why, and I’m sorry I didn’t.

   Rumpole is sour, full of bombast, and when necessary, resigned to taking his lumps. I quickly tired of his long-suffering attitude toward his wife Hilda (“She who must be obeyed,”), but otherwise I enjoyed the show immensely. British character actors are the best in the world. I thought Derek Farr as the misunderstood, absentminded vicar accused of stealing the three shirts was superb.

   There are five more of these to come. I’m going to try to not miss any of them.

         Saturday, February 14.

  WKRP IN CINCINNATI. “Dr. Fever and Mr. Tide, Parts 1 and 2.” CBS, series. Season 3, episodes 13 and 14. Originally telecast on 07 February 1981. Gary Sandy, Gordon Jump, Loni Anderson , Howard Hesseman, Richard Sanders, Frank Bonner, Tim Reid, Jan Smithers. Guest star: Mary Frann. Director: Rod Daniel.

   If you watch this show regularly, you will have seen this special one-hour episode one week before I did. The local CBS station runs them on tape, delayed week, and a half hour later. To me, it’s like wearing hand-me-down clothes, and I don’t usually watch, and there are two good reasons why that surprises me.

   Tonight Dr. Johnny Fever tackled TV, and he lost. Even though he signed a contract to do a live dance party for a local station, the doctor “does not do disco.” The producer did not rock and roll, and the doctor was the one who wound up wearing the funny clothes.

   The writers of the show had a chance here to say some witty things, about how doing things for television always ends up doing them television’s way. Instead, the story line veered off and became an instant analysis of Johnny’s incipient schizophrenic crisis. It turned out to be not nearly as funny as it must have sounded on the drawing board.

   The result was an hour show, all right, but as far as I was concerned, there was considerably less than a half-hour’s worth of laughs. And I was forcing myself, at that.


         Friday, February 13.

20/20. ABC. [I believe the anchors were Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs.] I watched only the opening segment, concerning a scientific explanation of UFO’s. Well, at least it’s a possible one. It has to do with seismic activity, and a form of luminous electricity generated by quartz-containing material under extreme pressure.

   It’s still a theory, of course, but it does seem to fit a surprising number of cases. It sure makes a lot more sense than visitations by extraterrestrial creatures overcome by fascination for swamps, deserted highways, and isolated mountaintops. I mean, coming all that way and not even stopping off at Times Square?


NERO WOLFE. “Might as Well Be Dead.” NBC, 60m. Season 1, Episode 5. Cast: William Conrad as Nero Wolfe, Lee Horsley as Archie Goodwin, George Voskovec as Fritz Brenner, Robert Coote as Theodore Horstmann, George Wyner as Saul Panzer, Allan Miller as Inspector Cramer. Guest Cast: Gail Youngs, Bruce Gray, A.C. Weary, Michael Currie, Lana Wood, Stephen Elliott. Teleplay: Seeleg Lester, based on Rex Stout’s book of the same title. Director: George McCowan.

   According to tonight’s paper, it looks as though we’re not going to have this show to kick around much longer. Last week it came in 62nd in the ratings. Out of 64 shows. “Friday night’s a bad night,” Judy said. “Yeah,” I replied, “and look what it’s on opposite. Dukes of Hazzard. I don’t know what the attraction is.”

   Seriously, though, if this show flops, justly or not, it’s going to prove all those publishers right who say that detective fiction just doesn’t sell any more.

   Tonight was TV’s version of “Might s Well Be Dead.” When Wolfe discovers the son his client wants found right on the front page of his newspaper, the subject of “synchronicity” comes up. That’s the science of fortuitous coincidence, as you may not have already known. I’ll have to look into it.

   (I have to say it, but I completely failed to recognize Lana Wood when she appeared in a small part in this particular episode. I’m amazed. I don’t believe it.)


   Want to know what kind of joke makes me laugh? Jim Stafford was on Merv Griffin’s show earlier this afternoon, and the TV set happened to be on. He told the story of how, when he was a kid, when all the other kids were out playing football, he was busy practicing with is guitar. Practice, practice, practice. “But it all paid off,” he said, picking up his guitar and displaying it proudly. “I can kick this sucker sixty yards.”

         Thursday, February 12.

THE GANGSTER CHRONICLES. NBC, 13 episode mini-series. Episode 1. “An American Story.” Michael Nouri (Charles ‘Lucky’ Luciano), Joe Penny (Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel), Brian Benben, Kathleen Lloyd, Madeleine Stowe, Chad Redding, Markie Post. Director: Richard C. Sarafian.

   Ten minutes after turning this on I found myself asking “Why am I watching this?” I couldn’t come up with any kind of answer, so I turned it off.


MAGNUM, P.I. CBS. “Lest We Forget.” Season One, Episode Ten. Tom Selleck, John Hillerman, Roger E. Mosley, Larry Manetti. Guest Cast: June Lockhart, Anne Lockhart, Miguel Ferrer, Scatman Crothers, José Ferrer. Writers: Donald P. Bellisario & Glen A. Larson. Director: Lawrence Doheny.

   Tonight’s show was both enhanced and handicapped by flashbacks to Pearl Harbor Day. (I assume you know that the show takes place in Hawaii.) Magnum’s client ts a judge who’s been nominated to the US Supreme Court, but he was once married to a Honolulu hooker, and he’s afraid of blackmail. He hires Magnum to find her.

   Working as a plus was the use of June and Anne Lockhart (mother and daughter) to play the lady, and José and Miguel Ferrer (father and son) to play the judge. But one does tire of stories taking place in Hawaii just before you-know-what happens. (You do, don’t you?)

   And without the advantages of instant replay, I still don’t know how Magnum spotted the killer — the only person to know that both parties in their ill-fated romance were still alive. How’d he know. (Either one of them.)

   The regular characters are solidly done. I especially like John Hillerman as Higgins, whose self-appointed job it is to keep Magnum in line. (Hillerma it also was, of course, who played the irrepressible Simon Brimmer in TV’s most recent version of Ellery Queen.)

   This is getting too long. I just wanted to add that I had a crush on June Lockhart, back 25 years ago when she played Jon Provost’s mommy on Lassie. My, but aren’t men fickle. Ah, Miss Lockhart, but don’t you have a lovely daughter!

         Tuesday, February 10.

DEATH SHIP. AVCO Embassy Pictures, 1980. George Kennedy, Richard Crenna, Nick Mancuso, Sally Ann Howes, Kate Reid. Director: Alvin Rakoff. [Watched on HBO.]

   I’m not too sure why I watched this. It’s not the sort of thing I am usually interested in at all. Maybe it’s because I like to warch George Kennedy in action as an actor.

   He’s in top form in this one. He plays a cruise ship capyain on his last voyage before being forcibly retired. He doesn’t get on at all well with either passengers or crew.

   But then the cruise liner is attacked and sunk by a huge hulk of a ship running circular patterns in the Atlantic totally unmanned — this is the “death ship.” Kennedy, plus his soon-to-be replacement (Richard Crenna) and a few others, including Crenna’s wife and two young children, are rescued, is that’s the word, by the killer ship.

   The movie is scary, all right, but it helps that the new passengers are dumber than you can possibly imagine. Even after two of the party have been killed off, in fairly gruesome fashion, they allow themselves to become separated and even easier prey.

   Eventually they discover that the boat had been a Nazi (of course) interrogation ship, and it is full of torture rooms, corpses, some complete, some not; only pieces of bodies, and lots and lots of cobwebs.

   Kennedy makes a fine Nazi. Why the ship turns against him and allows Crenna and his family to escape is not explained. For that matter, nothing is explained.

   Rated R, and if you don’t know why, you haven’t been paying attention. There is some nudity as well, but if you were to watch this movie and found it sexually stimulating, I would really prefer not to know you.


   Coming up on HBO this month are some more of the same: Humanoids from the Deep, The Legacy, Thirst (about vampires) and Silent Scream. I don’t plan on watching any of them [Nor did I.]

         Saturday, February 7.

CONCRETE COWBOYS. “Pilot.” CBS, 60m. Season 1, Episode 1. Jerry Reed, Geoffrey Scott. Guest Cast: Billy Barty, Michael Fox, Phil Harris, Belinda Montgomery.

   This is the replacement series for Secrets of Midland Heights, and a greater contrast between two shows is hard to imagine. Stars: Jerry Reed, with Geoffrey Scott, who takes the place of Tom Selleck (now of Magnum, P.I.), who had the part in the made-for-TV movie/pilot for the series.

   If you’ve seen Jerry Reed act before, as in Smoky and the Bandit, the example that comes to mind right away, you know what to expect. He and Scott are a couple of happy-go-lucky guitar-pickin’ good-ol-boys (forgive the hyphens) out on the road, looking for a good time, and good con.

   Phil (“That’s What I Like About the South”) Harris plays an old buddy of Jerry Reed’s, and he has 15 minutes in this opening episode before someone Reed has taken $4000 from in a poker game bumps him off. Why isn’t [it] Reed who is killed is hard to say, except of course it Phil Harris is not the star of the series.

   Part two of our two buddies’ revenge will play next week, but as for me, I’m going to miss Jordan Christopher as the poor little rich girl’s evil Uncle Guy in Midland Heights. Now there was somebody you could really hate!

[UPDATE.]   The series was broadcast on CBS from February 7 to March 21, 1981 and cancelled after seven episodes.

         Friday, February 6.

NERO WOLFE. “Wolfe at the Door.” NBC, 60m. Season 1, Episode 4. Cast: William Conrad as Nero Wolfe, Lee Horsley as Archie Goodwin, George Voskovec as Fritz Brenner, Robert Coote as Theodore Horstmann, George Wyner as Saul Panzer, Allan Miller as Inspector Cramer. Guest Cast: Richard Schaal, Mary Frann, Eugene Peterson. Based on characters created by Rex Stout. Teleplay: Lee Sheldon. Director: Herbert Hirschman.

   I’m a little surprised to find myself saying this, but the people chosen to play Rex Stout’s famous characters are starting to grow on me, miscast as much as some of them are. Archie is too young, Wolfe too short, Panzer too silly-looking, and Cramer??

   But Archie has the smirks, Wolfe has the orchids and the yellow pajamas, Panzer is not the wimp he was in the first episode, and Cramer???

   Obviously the show will never appeal to Wolfian purists, nor to those who have never heard of Nero Wolfe, but — there is a lot of middle ground in between, and maybe, just maybe, the show will catch on.

   Last week I thought the third episode [“Before I Die”] had been the best, the most enjoyable so far, and after tonight, I have no reason to change my mind. I don’t recall the story, entitled “Wolfe at the Door,” as being one of Stout’s, but then, I’m not the expert in the crowd [I was right. It wasn’t.]

   It seems that both Archie and Wolfe are being impersonated in order to fool some prospective clients, the purpose being to obtain possession of a certain green lacquer box. Right now I don’t think that any of the rest of the plot made any sense, but it did make for good television, if that makes any sense. (All right, I’ll explain. Don’t ask questions, turn your mind off, and sit back and relax.)

[UPDATE]   There were only 14 episodes in the run, the last being shown on June 2, 1981. About half of them were based on Rex Stout’s novels and short stories. The series is available on DVD. Released as Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe: The Complete Series, it includes all 14 episodes and the 1977 pilot starring Thayer David.

         February 5, continued.

   Since Ronald Reagan was speaking on the nation’s economy tonight, the start of the next program was delayed so that I ended up missing only the first couple of minutes. Thanks, Ronnie.

   Unfortunately, I did miss Magnum, P.I. altogether.


  A LOVE LETTER TO JACK BENNY. NBC Special, 120 minutes. Jack Benny (archival footage), George Burns, Bob Hope, Johnny Carson (all as themselves). Director: Norman Abbot.

   Most of this two-hour special seemed to be taken from Benny’s various farewell specials which he continued to do after he stopped doing a weekly series. (And I’ve just realized why. Wasn’t his weekly series on CBS? Right. Up until 1964, Jack Benny’s entire TV career was on CBS. He switched to NBC for a Friday night series in 1964-65, and from then on only the specials for NBC.)

   I happen to think that Jack Benny very well may have been the funniest person to appear o radio. He was a huge success on television as well, but on TV he depended more on guest stars than he ever did on radio. and this show reflected that perfectly. Besides lengthy clips showing the hosts of this show in action with Jack, we also see Jack with Gregory Peck, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Dean Martin, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan (the second time tonight), and on and on.

   On radio, and early pre-color TV, The Jack Benny Show depended almost entirely on Benny, and particularly on the character of Benny his writers created for him, and on his “family” of regulars: Don Wilson, Rochester, Dennis Day, Phil Harris, and of course, Mary Livingston.

   Obviously on a TV special of this magnitude we can’t really expect to see more than 15 minutes of so of three men sitting around listening to the radio. But I do get the uneasy feeling that someone who had never heard of Jack Benny before tonight might have gone away from watching this show believing that, yeah, he was funny but (without experiencing the close familiarity of Benny’s character, built up over a long period of time on radio and early TV) not that funny.

         February 5.

DEATH WISH. Paramount Pictures, 1974. Charles Bronson, Hope Lange, Vincent Gardenia, Steven Keats, William Redfield, Stuart Margolin, Stephen Elliott, Kathleen Tolan. Based on the book by Brian Garfield. Director: Michael Winner. [Watched on HBO.]

   Since I’ve never read Brian Garfield’s book, I can’t hope to compare the two. It’s my opinion that movies taken from other sources have to stand on their own anyway, and in its fashion, this one definitely does.

   There is one change I know was made. In the book the nae of Charles Bronson’s character is Paul Benjamin, but in the film it’s been changed to something-Polish-sounding-that-starts-with-K [Kersey] (I don’t takes notes, and I’m not going to, so bear with me once in a while.)

   Otherwise the basic outline of the story is the same, although the message is not. A mild-mannered architect loses his wife to a muggers’ attack, and his daughter retreats into a catatonic shell. In retaliation he becomes a deadly sharp-hooting vigilante haunting the streets and subways of New York City. As he does so, he attracts a considerable amount of press coverage, and the police end up not daring to catch and arrest him if they could.

   Incidentally, and this is the only flaw in what otherwise is an ultra-realistic portrayal of a New York City no one knows — simply because they’re all huddled together behind triple-locked doors — I’ve never seen subway trains as clean as they are in this movie.

   The film is excellently done, and I have to say this even though the message rubs me the wrong way intellectually, not emotionally. It’s a movie perfectly tailored for audiences fed up with crime-on-the-streets. The NRA would love it.

   Rated R, of all the obvious reasons.

         February 2.

FOUL PLAY. Series, ABC. Last week’s opening episode was nicely done, and I was looking forward to more of the same. Based on the movie of the same name, of course. Deborah Raffin and Barry Bostwick play the parts that Goldie Hawn and Chevy Chase had. She’s a klutzy librarian, he’s a klutzy cop, and they love each other. She’s not ready for marriage. He is.

   I didn’t see the movie, even though it’s already been on HBO. [My wife] Judy did, and she says the first episode of this new series matched it pretty well. I found it both funny and, well, charming. The plot was mediocre — about some missing plutonium and a kidnapped teenage genius who knows how to put bombs together — but it was the characters who made the show. Raffin was pretty and pert. Bostwick was ingenuously dumb.

   On the talk shows Raffin has been warning people that the first show was not representative of the rest of the series, and that she couldn’t figure out why they were actually going to show it, Lo and behold, she was right. The first show ws Good. Tonight’s show was, to put it mildly, Rotten.

   All of a sudden, Raffin is no longer a librarian. Not enough skullduggery goes on in libraries, I should guess. She now seems to be a local TV personality, doing interviews and such. There was no explanation given for the change.

   The story had to do with a skeleton found in a time capsule. Bostwick falls into a grave trying to dig up, um, clues of some sort. I quit watching after 15 minutes because I hadn’t a clue as to what was going on. There was a lot of shooting happening just before the commercial, though.

   Also, Deborah Raffin’s hair was short, sassy and cute in the first episode. Tonight it was just long.

   Judy says Lou Grant suits her just fine, anyway.

UPDATE.   Only five episodes were ever telecast. There was none the following week, two more the next two weeks after that, then none until August 23rd.

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