Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Stephen Sondheim -- TV sitcom writer

 In 1953 a new sitcom premiered called TOPPER.  It was based on the movie TOPPER (which was based on a book) about a stuffy buttoned-down banker haunted by two carefree ghosts.  Cary Grant and Constance Bennett played the ghostly couple.   On TV the hot couple was played by Anne Jeffreys & Robert Sterling, and Leo G. Carroll (Mr. Waverly from THE MAN FROM UNCLE) played Cosmo Topper.  

One of the writers was a 23 year-old kid named Stephen Sondheim.  

He showed a lot of promise.  Wrote eleven episodes.  And they're among the best. But he gave up comedy writing to go into song writing.  Pity.  He could have had a very successful career. 

But seriously, how does Stephen Sondheim wind up in Los Angeles writing for TOPPER?   His mentor, Oscar Hammerstein II introduced him to George Oppenheimer, a playwright and screenwriter.  Oppenheimer had been hired to write TOPPER and wanted someone to help him shoulder the load.  

Sondheim got the job although he had never written a professional script.  He moved out to LA and was paid $300 a week.  Once he had saved enough money to rent an apartment in New York he left.  

The rest of course is history.  But for one brief moment Sondheim was slumming as a sitcom writer.  He went on to become one of the greatest Broadway composers of all-time.  And me, I'm singing, "I'm still here."  



23 comments :

AndrewJ said...

The summer after writing for TOPPER, Sondheim apparently went to Italy and the filming of the John Huston/Humphrey Bogart film BEAT THE DEVIL (one of Sondheim's college friends being a production assistant). Sondheim wound up playing chess with Bogart every morning, and was even allowed to hold the clapper board ("And... action!") before one or two scenes.

15-Seconds said...

Best part of Topper was the St Bernard (Neil) who was also a ghost. Neil had a drinking problem. For trivia fans -- Neil was actually played by a dog named Buck.

Daniel said...

I'm not a huge musical theatre fan, but I LOVE Stephen Sondheim's songwriting. The fact that he hasn't won a Nobel Prize for Literature is a crime.

Tangentially, have you read the original "Topper" novel by Thorne Smith? It's actually quite good. A little dated and not really laugh out loud funny, it's still very charming and entertaining. Modern Library did a reprint of it in the last 20 years or so and I think it's still in print. Recommended.

VP81955 said...

Thorne Smith is one of my favorite fiction writers. He created all sorts of ribald fantasies, including "Topper," "Topper Takes A Trip," "The Passionate Witch" (converted into the film script "I Married A Witch"), "Night Life Of The Gods" and so many more.

Wm. Adams said...

My wife and I were on the Universal Studios tour in 1992 and got pulled out of the crowd for a test screening of a TV remake of Topper starring Tim Curry. I don't think it ever made it on the air. Hope it wasn't something I said.

Anonymous said...

Babe Ruth had a promising career as a pitcher.
Jim Brown was a pretty decent lacrosse player.
Someone said Ronald Reagan was once an actor.

Grover said...

Haven't read any of Thorne Smith's fiction, but I loved her on Melrose Place!

VP81955 said...

The first ghost canine in a "Topper" film was "Mr. Atlas," played by the Asta dog in "Topper Takes A Trip." The movie tends to be overlooked because Cary Grant wasn't in it aside from flashbacks, but Constance Bennett makes for one sexy ghost and Roland Young is a terrific Topper in both films. (Billie Burke plays his wife.)

Troy McClure said...

Wishing everyone a very Happy Impeachment Day!

Earl Boebert said...

Second the motion on VP81955's assessment of the Thorne Smith. Everything he wrote is a hoot. Don't miss "Turnabout" or "The Glorious Pool."

Buttermilk Sky said...

Sondheim and Anthony Perkins wrote the screenplay for THE LAST OF SHEILA (1973). He wasn't working on anything else at the time except COMPANY, FOLLIES and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.

blinky said...

Off topic, but did you see that the studio is going to do a push to get Wonder Woman 1984 a Best Picture Oscar? Charmingly hilarious.
I suppose in our Bizzaro World if Trump can be president I guess WW84 can be best picture.

iamr4man said...

I remember watching Topper when I was a child. I remember liking the show a lot although not exactly understanding what was going on. My favorite was the dog, of course. Based on this post I checked out some you tube videos and found this 4 minute clip, the non commercial portions written by Sondheim. The Camel commercials are amazing. How nice of them to send cigarettes to hospitals!
https://youtu.be/wq6zLsr27zE

Bradley said...

Reminds me of Woody Allen slumming as a sitcom writer on the truly awful Buddy Hackett/Carol Burnett series "Stanley." Somehow it has been preserved and for whatever reason is available on Amazon Prime, for those who enjoy gawking at car accidents.

Michael said...

On You Tube is a video from a salute to Cameron MacIntosh, the great producer, where Sondheim introduces an old friend of his from summer camp, Tom Lehrer, who then says, "I had wondered whatever became of him."

Sondheim is also a puzzle nut (I say it of myself), but a better one than I am, and there are all kinds of stories of things he's done on the side.

thirteen said...

The TV series Topper wasn't a success, but it was in reruns on weekday morning for many years because it was popular with boomer kids. Must have been the camera tricks and the dog. These days, I'm in awe of the bar.

I saw Topper in reruns in L.A. as recently as 2001 and noticed that a) Sondheim had a writing credit (I even mentioned it here once) and b) they ran the same end credits for every episode they were showing, even unto the guest actors. I suppose they didn't feel like restoring all those end credits.

craigm said...

So Sondheim left Oppenheimer because his dream was to work on a Manhattan project.

Tony DeSena said...

Did you ever see Joseph Heller's episode of "McHale's Navy"?

VP81955 said...

WABC-TV in New York ran "Topper" in late night for years, well past the turn of the century.

SummitCityScribe said...

The one Sondheim TV project I've always wanted to see was Evening Primrose. I tried watching the version on YouTube but the quality of the video was so bad I got a headache. Anyone seen the Paley print?

David said...

Pity he didn't get the Emmy for writing it... that's all he needs for an EGOT.

Diane KH said...

"I'm Still Here" is the song I respond with whenever anybody asks about great songs. Its theme of survival gets to the heart of the human condition; and as much as I wish I could say it got me through the last four years, I fear, for me, "Losing My Mind" has been closer to the truth.

Anonymous said...

I love “Topper Returns” - still makes me laugh (found it on you tube!) Great lines, a quick story, and Joan Blondell