Wednesday, September 12, 2012
Television, like life, is a fast-moving target, and only the young really have the mental flexibility to move along with it without balking a little and wishing, like
Lot’s wife, to take
a peek backwards. (Some shows, like Lucy, are lauded for their durability
and near-universality when the truth is that, like the clock on the old town
hall, they’ve simply never stopped running long enough for anyone to decide
whether or not they should be replaced.)
I haven’t yet completely digested the idea of the “reality” show, and
the concept is already twenty years old or more, and in its third or fourth avatar,
having picked up, since the days of the lost-on-a-desert-island concept, things
as disparate as dysfunctional Hollywood families, deep-sea fishing, auctioning
the contents of storage units, dealing with deeply neurotic hoarders, and creating
elegant meals out of a variety of absurd ingredients. Every time I turn around they’re riffing on
this idea in a new way. I’m convinced
that it will come full circle, turning around on itself until the subject of a
reality show is a bunch of people engaged in the creation of a fictional one,
after which the creative process will drop from view and only the show will
On the subject of television, I read in the local paper a week or two ago an obituary for a guy named Steve Franken, the actor who played Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. on the Dobie Gillis show back in the late 50s and early 60s. I must pay my respects to him, as much because of the show as because of his part in it.
One of the advantages of living in this area is that the Los Angeles Times has a tendency to feature the obituaries of such comparatively minor TV and movie actors as Steve Franken in detail, partly because out here entertainment is the major local industry. I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m sure the half page on the guy who played Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. and supporting characters in a bunch of other schlock movies and TV shows is somewhat akin to the kind of coverage the
Free Press might give to the dying of
a lesser light in the automotive industry.
Maybe, anyway, if anyone in Detroit
cares about that. And for all I know the
Cleveland Plain Dealer gave old Steve Franken a
big write-up, too. I use the term “old”
advisedly, as one of my favorite professors at U of M used to say, since Steve
Franken had attained the age of 80, something to give all of us pause when we
remember how short a time ago it was that we were school kids sitting on the
floor in front of our TV sets watching the likes of Dobie and Chatsworth and the
bearded Maynard G. Krebs. It’s a little
bit of a comfort to remember that they were using actors in their twenties and thirties
to play high school students in that and other programs, as they still often do (I mean, look at the photo of the guy--he's already going bald),
and that Tuesday Weld, the teenage dish in that show, was indeed only 16 during
the single season she was on it.
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, as it was officially titled, was probably my favorite TV show of all time until Seinfeld appeared years later. It ran for four seasons, from 1959 to 1963, and then no doubt in reruns. I say it was my favorite knowing it’s in competition, for me, with Leave It To Beaver, The Beverly Hillbillies, 77 Sunset Strip, and several others. But no other show brought me so regularly to the set as did the Dobie Gillis show, or intrigued me so much. Part of that was the good writing of its creator, Max Schulman, and the dependable characters in it, silly sometimes, but not possessing the complete buffoonery of many of the stars in the sitcom galaxy. They were writ rather large, but weren’t completely absurd, and were, most importantly, never downright stupid. It was a completely dialogue-driven show, lacking for the most part the signature physical comedic touches of, say, Lucille Ball or Jackie Gleason, or the situational twists and turns that beset poor Beaver Cleaver and his pals. The central theme was always the same—Dobie was in love with some girl he couldn’t quite obtain, and was pursuing her. The lines were almost always delivered, by whichever character, in a sort of rapid-fire rote way, emphasizing the prettiness of the words rather than of the people themselves.
These characters included Dobie, a lovesick high school swain played by Dwayne Hickman; Maynard G. Krebs, his beatnik friend, played by Bob Denver (a better and wittier character than Gilligan by far); Dobie’s harried and exasperated grocer father Herbert T. Gillis, portrayed by the veteran B movie actor Frank Faylen; and several others, including Dobie’s longsuffering mom Winnie (Florida Friebus); his schoolmate and pursuer Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James); and Dobie’s femme fatale Thalia Menninger, always slightly beyond his reach because she was the original material girl, played as a cross between Marilyn Monroe and Lolita by Tuesday Weld. Dobie’s nemesis was this rich, polo-playing cad named Chatsworth Osborne, Jr., who was always winning Thalia and other girls away from him by virtue of his wealthy insouciance. That was the late Steve Franken, who replaced, after the first few episodes, another rich guy character named Milton Armitage, played by none other than Warren Beatty, who decided he could do better than TV, and indeed did. Beatty’s departure from the show was a blessing in disguise for the Dobie Gillis people, since as between him and Steve Franken, the latter was by far the better choice to play a completely vapid spoiled millionaire, whose mother (whom he called “Mumsy”), a busty, dignified matron, was fond of frequently saying of her son that he was “a nasty boy,” just like his father, the late Chatsworth, Sr.
In asserting the quality of these characters compared to some of their dopey comedic successors and predecessors, I do not mean to say they were necessarily more realistic or entertaining to the majority of viewers. Rather, they were endowed by their creator with a certain literateness singularly lacking in such personages as Jethro Bodine or Darren Stevens or Archie Bunker. This was due largely to the writing, but also reflected the times, when television was coming out of a period during which it had to some extent been envisioned as the successor to the movies, and many of its writers—Rod Serling and Dobie’s own Max Schulman, for instance—came from a James Jones and Nelson Algren-influenced era when hard biting social commentary was prized, and when comedy was thought to be better when it contained a little witty repartee, rather than just slapstick. That was before it became overwhelmingly obvious that as a medium television’s dramatic and comedic scope, like its screen, was to be much smaller. Max Schulman as a writer/creator was sort of slumming here, and was later superseded by the somewhat more hacky but durable likes of Sidney Sheldon and Sol Saks, and later (unfortunately) Norman Lear, none of whom had Schulman’s flair for writing.
At any rate, I became a devotee of Dobie Gillis and his friends, family, and many loves. To this day I have a two-foot bronze-colored plaster version of Auguste Rodin’s Thinker, which isn’t in homage to the great French sculptor but rather to the replica of that work in the fictional park where, under its shadow, Dobie began and ended each episode with a little monologue directed at the camera and the viewers. (This bit of self-conscious narration was, arguably, the predecessor of the voiceover breaking-of-character line, “Now, I know what you’re thinking,” employed frequently some years later by Tom Selleck’s character in Magnum P.I.) It was also from watching Dobie Gillis that I learned the word “propinquity,” which Zelda Gilroy said was the reason she and Dobie were destined to be together, since her last name followed his alphabetically, and thus ensured that they would always sit near each other in school. Now you tell me, did you ever learn a word like that from another situation comedy?
But I wish to take pains to assure the reader that I’m not wallowing in nostalgia here, like some Republican, pining for the good old days of television. Back then, as now, there were lots of repetitious cop and doctor shows, as well as “professional” wrestling. In addition, there were endless cowboy programs and absurd variety shows featuring people juggling Indian clubs and balancing multiple pie plates on the ends of multiple bamboo sticks. Not to mention Topo Gigio, the puppet mouse, which for some reason (maybe a secret deal with the
Vatican?) Ed Sullivan featured practically
every other week. Scratch the surface of
any diatribe against modernity and what you’ll invariably find is that the
golden age of whatever is being inveighed against was when the inveigher was
about 12 years old, which tells you not that things were better then, but
simply that the person wishes to be 12 again.
And that’s about the age I was when The
Many Loves of Dobie Gillis aired.
And I’m aware that if I were to watch the show today I might be
disappointed—that its greatness is in my head somewhere, not on the celluloid.
Which brings us to nostalgia as it applies to politics. But that’s for another posting.