Tuesday, February 08, 2022

A Television Idiocy Story

A recent Friday Questions reminded me an amusing incident.  It was the question about FRASIER’S policy on bringing back characters from CHEERS.  They did it very sparingly because they wanted the show to live on its own.  

Way back in 1983 when David Isaacs and I were doing the iconic AfterMASH with Larry Gelbart we too wanted to build an ensemble that was not dependent on former MASH cast members.  

And that was fine except we started plunging in the ratings.  All of a sudden the network and studio wanted ALL MASH characters brought back… and HURRY!  

Well Alan Alda and Mike Ferrell were not remotely interested.  Neither was David Ogden Stiers.  We did manage to get Gary Burghoff to do an episode (which turned out to be one of our better episodes).  

But we were sitting in a meeting with 20th Century Fox executives.  (The show was produced by 20th Century Fox.)  One suit suggested we get Hot Lips back (like we hadn’t thought of that).  We said we had approached Loretta Swit and she wasn’t interested.  And then this honest-to-God exchange:

SUIT: Well, why does it have to be Loretta Swit?

ME: Excuse me?

SUIT:  Just get another actress and say it’s Hot Lips.

ME:  Are you serious?

SUIT:  Yeah, why not?   

ME: Uh… Loretta Swit IS Hot Lips.

SUIT:  Shows substitute actors all the time.  

ME:  But then it wouldn’t be a big event if we use another actress.

SUIT: Sure it would.  Hot Lips is back.  That’s all you gotta say.

ME:  So we could get Diana Ross and say she’s Hot Lips?

SUIT:  Say… that’s kinda interesting.

This is the kind of idiocy we have to deal with, and ya know what?  It’s way worse now.  Oh.. for the record — we did not approach Diana Ross.  Or any of the Supremes. 


Tom said...

Was there ever any thought of trying to get Larry Linville or Wayne Rogers as guest stars?

Pizzagod said...

Diana Ross? Why be timid? Wasn't Moms Mabley available?

Little Farm said...

In today's installment of how to kill your credibility (and show) in 1 easy step.......

Yeah, if I tuned in to see Hot Lips, and another actress was playing her, I'd never tune in again.

But that's just me.

Dave Dahl said...

Yeah, this isn't Fake Jan we're talking about ...

Lemuel said...

Could have used Geri Reischl to sub for Loretta.

Kosmo13 said...

That would be ridiculous, like, oh say, bringing back Trapper John, but having him played by Pernell Roberts.

N. Zakharenko said...

Sally Kellerman and the Academy Awards may not agree with you
that Loretta Swit "IS" Hot Lips.

However the casting of Diane Ladd (Oscar winner as Flo in the movie) on "Alice" following Polly Holliday's departure did not work out too well.

normadesmond said...

Say black is white.
Say it over and over.
It works!

Gee, where have I heard that recently?

Mike Barer said...

I thought the "Hot Lips" moniker had been dropped as the series had concluded.

maxdebryn said...

As per usual, we have comments choosing to disagree with you, Ken. Of course Margaret was no longer called "Hot Lips" as the series progressed, and most also are aware that Sally Kellerman originated the character of Major Margaret J "Hot Lips" Houlihan in the original film. Loretta Swit played the character for eleven seasons, so there is really nothing wrong with stating that she IS "Hot Lips" is there ? Why is there a need to pick apart the original post ?

Masked Scheduler said...

I'll see your story and raise you this one. 1991 pilot season at NBC we screened "Reasonable Doubts' starring Mark Harmon and Marlee Matlin. One of our senior execs after the screening: "I thought it was great but does she have to be deaf?" This same dude created the phrase "You scratched the surface deeply" There's a million of them.

Michael said...

George Burns told the story that the actor playing his next-door neighbor wanted a big pay raise and he said no, so the guy left. Starting the next season, there's a scene where the husband is supposed to enter and Burns stops everything--remember they always broke the 4th wall on that show--and explained to the audience that they had a new cast member. He introduced him, he came in, they all chatted, then the new guy went back out, and came in to start the scene.

But Burns also said that after a few years, he refused to let the network see scripts before the show went on. And he said three things made that possible: ratings, ratings, and ratings.

cd1515 said...

Crazy Ex-Girlfriend did that, just plugging in another actor for one who left, and “explaining” it as ‘this is who he always was, the main character’s memory is just bad.’
Dumb idea for an otherwise smart show.

Craig Gustafson said...

"we did not approach Diana Ross. Or any of the Supremes."

What about Sacheen Littlefeather?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I got to reading about McLean Stevenson one time, and he talked about how he was dangling from a thread of hope in that M*A*S*H would bring him back, and even go so far as to go with this elaborate story that Henry Blake had actually survived the plane crash, washed ashore in Japan, suffered from amnesia, eventually leaves and somehow wanders all the way back to the 4077th, even if to serve as more of an orderly than the commanding officer (since they had Potter by that point) . . . yeah, turns out he regretted leaving the show that much.

On a somewhat related note, THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW got a little clever in their efforts to bring Don Knotts back after he left by doing annual episodes where either Barney Fife returned to Mayberry for a visit, or Andy would travel to Raleigh to visit him.

VincentS said...

That reminds me of the story William Goldman related about the guy who called Rob Reiner with who he said was the perfect choice to play Buttercup in PRINCESS BRIDE. After sufficiently stringing Rob Reiner along to the point of peaking Reiner's curiosity the guy revealed his dead-serious suggestion: Whoopie Goldberg.

Bob Paris said...

You couldn't have gotten Diana Ross anyway. At the time, she was in discussions to return as Dr Joe Gannon on Medical Center

tavm said...

Why not? It worked so well with Dick York and Sargent on "Bewitched"! (Now I'm thinking of Mike Myers' "Sargent York" joke in the first Wayne's World movie!)

Chris Bernard said...

Ken, do people in show business think it's ridiculous the adulation actors receive? Do they find it strange people don't separate the actor from the character?

Gary said...

This post reminded me of the strange case of Wayne Rogers playing Major Nelson in the I Dream of Jeannie reunion movie, when Larry Hagman refused (or was unavailable) to appear. The producers should've just dropped the whole idea without Hagman, and it's surprising Rogers agreed to do it.

Randy Ford said...

It happens in the music industry, too.
'The story spread rapidly on Music Row: Pat Quigley, a transplanted Northerner, the new president/CEO of Capitol Nashville, was brainstorming with his department heads about how to boost their acts. Quigley suggested that singer John Berry record a duet with Patsy Cline.

“That’s just not going to happen,” said one of the staffers, noting that MCA Nashville, which owns the Cline masters, probably wouldn’t allow the coupling. In all seriousness, Quigley responded, “Then why don’t we just call her directly?” The staffer was dumbfounded. “Well, it may be a little hard,” he said, “since she’s been dead 30 years.”'


Kevin FitzMaurice said...

Steve Allen said he used the illogical reasoning of network executives as an example when he lectured on critical thinking.

Mike McCann said...

That Hot Lips conversation with 20th underscores the widely held belief that beancounters should never try to be creative people. And creative people shouldn't waste their time being beancounters.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

VincentS: You left out the punchline. When Reiner demurred, the agent said, "What, is it the black thing?"

Masked Scheduler: I remember REASONABLE DOUBTS. I've been trying to find episodes of it, because all I ever saw was the pilot and one or two more.


Saburo said...

That reminded me of the story of the movie exec who pitched a great movie idea:

"Let's do THE WIZ... but white!"

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Gary Tell me about it . . . it was like watching Jeannie suddenly being married to an older Trapper John.

Philly Cinephile said...

You could have brought back McLean Stevenson as the ghost of Col. Blake, or perhaps as a vampirized Col. Blake. It worked for DARK SHADOWS...

Katana said...


"as per usual we have comments choosing to disagree with you Ken" This sounds like something Larry Tate would say on Bewitched when sucking up to an account executive. Ken is actually one of the most open minded bloggers around when it comes to making an opposing point to his. Well, I'm off to watch all ten Oscar nominated movies in one sitting. I miss Siskel and Ebert.

maxdebryn said...

Katana - You're right, I'm a suck-up. If you read the post, what I was getting at, perhaps unsuccessfully, was that Ken is often contradicted. Enjoy DRIVE MY CAR.

Brian said...

Surprised they didn't want Henry Blake back. Like the other commenter said - that would take some explaining!

whynot said...

Hot Lips wasn't as iconic a character as Lucy, Archie Bunker, or even Maude. She most certainly could've been played by another actress.

Rob Greenberg said...

I think Shirley Hemphill would have been good

M Kaplan said...

Mike McCann2/08/2022 10:26 AM
“And creative people shouldn't waste their time being beancounters.”

But the greatest, and — not necessarily the same thing — the most successful, creators quickly had to become their own beancounters, at least until they were able to hire their own. e.g. Chaplin Fairbanks Pickford Keaton Lloyd deMille Ford Hitchcock Ball-Arnaz M T Moore and innumerable radio and TV writers who all wound up having their own units or studios.

Mike Bloodworth said...

And let's not forget Sandy Duncan.


DBenson said...

My mind goes to how shows remove a character. On Cheers, Diane COULD have just run back to her Ivy League existence. Instead, it was an emotional moment where Sam encouraged her to seize the opportunity to realize her dream. Yes, it left the door open. But there was a poignant sense of Sam and Diane realizing it was over. Wayne Rogers didn't have an on-camera farewell as Trapper John, but there was Hawkeye's frantic effort to catch up and say goodbye. The character and his importance were recognized and saluted.

Our host has written about being ordered to lose the love interest on Almost Perfect -- a character and actor they really liked -- and working to make the best of the situation.

Charlie Sheen's expulsion from Two and a Half Men wasn't just a slammed door, but a very public declaration that the show's creators wanted to kick him (via his character) on the way out. Two events that felt similar: On Cheers, Eddie got a mock-heroic offscreen demise, but was exposed as a jerk when an extra wife turned up. On Veronica's Closet, the star playing Kirstie Alley's love interest and comic foil left the show. They had his character abruptly and implausibly elope with a young bimbo and die.

Mork and Mindy briefly had Georgia Engel playing the sweet wife of the loud Exedor. One day Exidor casually mentioned that his wife left him and that was it. Mindy's father also had a charming bride who promptly disappeared. There it felt more like the writers couldn't make the new characters fit the format and understandably didn't want to do episodes about divorce or death. So both ladies went the way of Richie Cunningham's big brother.

Anyway, a sort of question: What dictates how a character is written out or replaced, once an actor wants out or a suit decrees it? Do you try to keep (or make) a departing character sympathetic out of regard for the actor? Were you ever tempted to give an unpleasant actor a parting kick by making his/her character a jerk, or even by including physically uncomfortable action ("And then we dump the simulated bat guano ..."). Is there a case for or against making a character's departure a big event?

Harry Morton said...

Michael said... “George Burns told the story ....”

The Harry Mortons
(career ruined by quiz show scandal)
(career ruined by blacklist)

The ep. where Keating is introduced mid-scene as the 4th Harry Morton
(with Burns falsely saying Clark had left the series for Broadway):

Buttermilk Sky said...

Then there was ROSEANNE with its two Beckies -- but by then it was meant to be ironic, wink-wink.

Had everyone else said yes, a reboot of MASH might have worked with a new chief nurse character. Not with a whole new cast though.

Mike Doran said...

I don't know if this exactly counts under this topic, but let's see:

In 1938, George Burns and Gracie Allen were trying to make a hit in movies; they mainly appeared in support of other stars, but wanted to carry a movie of their own.

"S.S. Van Dine" (Willard H. Wright), who wrote the Philo Vance mysteries, was engaged to put George and Gracie in a Vance book; Van Dine, who was in a bit of a financial slump at the time, agreed to write The Gracie Allen Murder Case, which Paramount promptly slated for production.

But then the Paramount brass got to "thinking": some of them were very high on Gracie, but thought that she'd really hit it big if only she had a handsome young straight man, instead of the older, gruffer George (the Ethnic Consideration might also have factored into the studio "reasoning", but that's an open question ...).

Van Dine's book came out, and George Burns is in it (I know this because I've got a copy); when the movie was made, George was gone, and a white-bread leading man was beside her.

Followup: a year or so later, MGM bought the rights to Mr. And Mrs. North, with the stated intent of using George and Gracie as Jerry and Pam; this, however, was met the same "ideation" at Metro as at Paramount: Gracie needs a young handsome Harry next to her instead of growly old George - and so the deed was done again.

After Strike Two, Gracie and George moved into radio and later TV, where they could be their own married selves - and you know the rest.

ScarletNumber said...


Rob Reiner told that story himself on a podcast, either WTF with Marc Maron or Kevin Pollak's Chat Show.


Shelley Fabares' husband is Mike Farrell.

DyHrdMET said...

I happened to see the pilot episode of FRASIER on TV tonight, and I thought of this. Would FRASIER on its own merit have been picked up as a series after the pilot (and even become a big hit) if it had no connection to CHEERS, and Frasier Crane as written was a brand new character with the same backstory? I kind of think it would be, even though being a CHEERS spinoff gave it some instant credibility. Aside from the character's name and actor, everything else was brand new, and the character was definitely more well rounded and even a little bit different than he was on CHEERS. And it was all funny in setting up the basic premise of the new show and all that followed.

Katana said...

Do you guys think a show's popularity is effected not by replacing a character but by a change in the setting of the show. The Ricardos moving to California, Mary moving to a new apartment in the MTM show, Gloria and Meathead moving next door, the Cleavers moving to a new house in Beaver, My Three Sons moving to a new house. All these moves were done in the middle of the series run. Why? No idea. Well, I'm off to watch all ten.......no I'm not.

Mike Barer said...

As I remember, MTM spin offs didn't use character from the original shows. How would Ted Baxter have fit in on Lou Grant?

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@DBenson Actually, Wayne Rogers did have an on-screen farewell as Trapper . . . just not when he actually left the show between Seasons 3 and 4. That actually happened much earlier in the episode "Check-up," where they're under the impression that Trapper could be sent home because of his ulcer: not only does he and Hawkeye have a brief little moment between themselves in the Swamp, but the entire camp throws him a big farewell bash in the Officer's Club . . . honestly, it'd seem kind of redundant to do it all over again when his real discharge happened, when you think about it.

Bruce P. said...

You could have got Sharron Gless. She subbed for Loretta in Cagney and Lacey, she could do it again.

Joyce Melton said...

George sort of did try to replace Gracie who retired and then rather suddenly died of a heart attack. (As I remember it, I may be wrong.) A year or so after her death he had a show with Connie Stevens called Wendy and Me. George was George, wise-cracking and breaking the fourth wall and Connie tried to create a Gracie-type character. It worked but it didn't work.

Connie's ditziness was too obviously scripted and not organically growing out of Gracie's own style of comedy. She made a workmanlike effort but the show did not last long enough for her to develop the character. Perhaps I'm being too kind, but I liked the show and all of the players in it. The scripts weren't great but it was nice to see George working.

Mike Doran said...

Wendy And Me went into production in 1964, just before Gracie Allen's death - which was completely unexpected.
On the first day of shooting, Gracie came to the set to wish everybody good luck and said that she would visit whenever she felt up to it; her death was a few weeks or so after this.
By this time, ABC's fall campaigning was underway, and that was that.

Mickey Rooney had a sitcom that same year which had a similar upset when Sammee Tong, who was to be Mickey's main comic foil, took his own life several weeks into production (but that's another story ...)

Fred said...

Mike Doran 2/08/2022
1. "...Paramount brass had a handsome young straight man, instead of the older, gruffer George (the Ethnic Consideration might also have factored into the studio ‘reasoning’...)”

• Gracie — her birth year was publicly given as 1902 — was actually born a half year before older gruffer George
• Speaking of replacements, Gracie was George’s second show biz spouse, after Hannah Siegel (see https://books.google.com/books?id=brMYEAAAQBAJ&pg=PT83&dq= )
• George’s radio persona wasn’t particularly Jewish — studios instead may have felt he’d’ve been one straight man too many in mysteries where their screen detectives already served that function

2. “Van Dine's book came out, and George Burns is in it (I know this because I've got a copy)”

• Only in this blog would more than one commenter own a copy, and have the poor taste to brag his (I.e. my) copy was signed by Burns

3. “Gracie and George moved into radio and later TV, where they could be their own married selves”

• You perhaps meant to say they’d starred in radio since the early 1930s, but only started playing themselves as spouses in the 1940s

Joseph Scarbrough 2/08/2022
“in the episode "Check-up," where they're under the impression that Trapper could be sent home because of his ulcer...”

• Don’t share Trapper John’s lunch!
One of the small pleasures in encountering ulcer-afflicted characters in vintage entertainment is the modern era realization that
—Bacterium is responsible for up to 90 percent of intestinal ulcers and up to 80 percent of stomach ulcers
—The disease is primarily acquired/transmitted via vomit and excrement due to the poor sanitation of the victims

Mike McCann said...

@Mike Barer / As I remember, MTM spin offs didn't use character from the original shows. How would Ted Baxter have fit in on Lou Grant?

Ted would have been a fish out of water on LOU GRANT. Back when the gang worked at WJM, TV news was light and fluffy -- at least when compared to the serious work of big city papers like Minneapolis' Star-Tribune or the LA Times.

Hate to say this, but there was no logical reason to have Ted interact with the "Trib" staff. Maybe -- and this is a stretch -- if Baxter had been vacationing in LA and become a crime victim (someone broke into his hotel room, stole his rental car, been in a bad car wreck) or another plot idea that would make him the subject of a Trib story.

But a 1981 reunion of Lou and Ted didn't fit where the series had found its sweet spot.

Gary said...

Fred, I guess that explains why Oscar Madison always had ulcers...

Spike de Beauvoir said...

In the early 30s, Burns and Allen were one of three couples in the Leo McCarey-directed comedy Six of a Kind. (The other couples are Charlie Ruggles/Mary Boland and Alison Skipworth/W. C. Fields.) Burns and Allen are obnoxious and funny as the upstart ridesharers and Gracie is relentless. Gracie also sparkles (mostly on her own, Burns has a small role) in Honolulu with Eleanor Powell.

Robin the Frog said...

@DBenson and Joseph Scarbrough: My understanding was that Wayne Rogers was not expected to leave "M*A*S*H," and they even tried to hold him to his contract -- until he pointed out that he had never actually signed it. An abrupt departure without a (second) sendoff makes sense.

Fred said...

Gary said... 2/09/2022 11:17 AM
“Fred, I guess that explains why Oscar Madison always had ulcers...”

Yes, Gary. You are entirely right. The Odd Couple poker games turned out to be super-spreader events, mainly because science-denier Officer Murray Greshler (Al Molinaro) kept refusing to wash his hands. Molinaro, the Typhoid Mary of character actors, later wound up giving half his Happy Days cast-mates a bad case of the squirts. This is why so many of the Fonz’s scenes were shot in a fully-functioning men’s room, and Mork’s spacesuit had a back flap.