My TV Book Addiction, Part II

Temple HoustonI love Bear Manor Media. They publish TV books that no publisher in their right mind ever would. Who else but Bear Manor would publish books about the western Temple Houston and the sitcom Good Morning World, two shows that barely survived for a single season each back in the 1960s? You could probably fit all the potential readers of those two books comfortably in a motor home for a dinner party. I’ve never seen either one of those two shows, but I still bought the books… another illustration of my raging, TV book addiction. Bear Manor Media and, to a lesser degree, McFarland & Co, are my pimps. But enough about me. Let’s talk about the books.

Jeffrey Hunter and Temple Houston: A Story of Network Television by Glenn A. Mosley is a mess of a book (though much better than his book about the TV series The Deputy). As the title suggests, the book isn’t quite sure what it’s about. Is it about Jeffrey Hunter? Is it about Temple Houston? Or is it about network television? Basically, it’s three lengthy magazine articles — one on the very short-lived Temple Houston, one on aborted The Robert Taylor Show, and one on actor Jeffrey Hunter’s disappointing career, stitched together into a thin, and yet very padded, book. But the stories of  Temple Houston, and the never-aired Robert Taylor Show are fascinating and well-worth the time, and the $14.95 purchase price of this book, for any student of the television history.

The apt title for the book might have been A Perfect Storm of Bad Decisions. It’s the story of how Warner Brothers’ decision to replace the president of their TV division with actor/director Jack Webb, and NBC’s decision to cancel the drama The Robert Taylor Show four episodes into production without ever airing an episode, and the network’s decision to rush Warner Brothers & Four Stars’ Temple Houston into production to fill the void, doomed them all.  Mosley sums it up in his introduction.

In making the decision in the manner that it did, NBC effectively sealed the fate of two television franchises. The Robert Taylor Show would never see the light of day and, in the end, Temple Houston hardly stood a chance. NBC, Warner Brothers, and even Four Star would all end up in weaker positions as a result […] Temple Houston has most often been dismissed as simply a failed, one-season western on television. Fair enough– so it was. But the story of Temple Houston is more than that; it is also the story of the intersection points betwen careers, Hollywood Studios, and network television.

And it’s a great untold story, one that neither NBC, nor Warner Brothers nor any other network or studio learned from… and were doomed to repeat many times over. Good Morning World

The first 44 pages of this 121 page book (not counting the bibliography and index) chronicle the story behind the development and production Temple Houston, and its great stuff. I ate it up. Another ten pages later in the book cover the story of the never-aired Robert Taylor Show in more detail…and it’s also great stuff, maybe even more interesting than the Temple Houston story. Everything else in the book — the biography of Jeffrey Hunter, the episode guide to Temple Houston, the pointless rehash of  Temple Houston episodes — is filler that doesn’t really convey much and often repeats material mentioned by the author before. But on the strength of the Temple Houston and Robert Taylor Show stories alone, I recommend this book for your TV reference book library.

Sadly, I can’t say the same for Good Morning World by Tim Colliver, who wrote this very thin, heavily padded book because the short-lived 1967 sitcom about a radio station inspired him to become a DJ. The problem is, the show just wasn’t very good and there wasn’t anything remotely interesting about it on any other level. As both Joby Baker, the long-forgotten star of the show, and the author of the book put it:

[Baker] also thought the scripts could have been better… a lot better.

“The reason I had trouble memorizig the lines is that they were horrible fucking lines.”[…]Throughout the course of the series, Baker thought the scripts were “corny” and the show “not really funny at times.” In all fairness, in looking back on the episodes now that they are on DVD, he was on to something.

Which begs the question, why write a book about a lousy show? Or better yet, why read one? My answer to both questions is: Don’t.

 Note: I bought both of these books. They were not provided to me for review. 

 

A Feast for TV History Buffs

Roy HugginsTwo new books from McFarland & Co. are a feast for TV history buffs.

Roy Huggins by Paul Green explores in great detail the TV career of writer/producer Roy Huggins, creator (or co-creator) of such classic shows as Maverick, The Fugitive, 77 Sunset Strip, Toma, Baretta, The Rockford Files, The Bold Ones: The Lawyers, and Run For Your Life, as well as the driving force behind the creation of the “TV movie.” He also produced many other series, including The Virginian, Cheyenne, Hunter, Kraft Suspense Theater, and Alias Smith and Jones, to name a few. The book is based on dozens of personal interviews, Huggins’ own unpublished memoirs, newspaper & magazine articles, as well as my own, six-hour video interview with Huggins for The Archive of American Television.

It’s a great book, exploring all of the creative issues, production details, political machinations (studio and network), and personnel matters  (his relationships with actors, writers, producers etc), that shaped the weekly series, TV movies, pilots and mini-series that Huggins made as a producer, studio chief, and later as a hired gun. It’s exactly the kind of book that I wish somebody would write about Stephen J. Cannell, Glen A. Larson, Fred Silverman, Steven Bochco, Bruce Geller, Goff & Roberts, Levinson & Link, and so many other TV producers.

Green clearly admires Huggins, but is not so enamored of his subject that he ignores the producer’s faults, mistakes and failures. This is a serious, well-researched, information-packed reference work that is nonetheless an easy and engaging read. You don’t have to be familiar with Huggins’ shows to find the behind-the-scenes stories both fascinating and informative. This book isn’t just for fans of Roy Huggins or his shows — it’s a must-read for students of TV history and anyone interested in a career as a TV series show runner. It’s hands-down one of the best books ever written about a TV producer…or being one.

Everyone knows about George Burns the actor and comic, but few people these days are aware of his influence as a TV producer and head of a successful production company. Much like Desi Arnaz, another major actor/producer/studio chief of the 1950s and 1960s, Burns did ground-breaking work that is still influencing TV writers and producers today. That’s why Richard Irvin’s George Burns Television Productions: The Series and Pilots 1950-1981 is a much overdue and necessary piece of TV scholarship.

George BurnsBurns famously broke the fourth wall with his Burns & Allen Show, about a showbiz couple with a TV show playing a showbiz couple with a TV show. He also produced such series as The Bob Cummings Show and Mr. Ed, and many of the writers, directors and producers that he worked with and supported went on to create huge hit series (like Paul Henning, who went on to create The Beverly Hillbillies and Green Acres).  Burns and his company refined the art of using episodes as spin-off pilots, though none of the ones he did on Burns and Allen, or on Mr. Ed or The Bob Cummings Show, ever took off.

Irvin’s fine book delves extensively into every business and creative aspect of the Burns & Allen Show, the Bob Cummings Show, and The People’s Choice, as well as every single project that Burns’ production company ever produced…every series, every pilot, and even the stuff that never got made. It’s one of the few books about the history of a TV production company and its a strong one…and for that reason alone, Irvin and McFarland & Co are to be commended. This is clearly a labor of love for author and publisher…because outside of a few diehard TV historians, and TV geeks like me, I can’t imagine there’s much, if any, market for a book with such a narrow focus. Unlike Roy Huggins, this is not a book that is a must-read for scholars or wanna-be TV show runners. You’d have to already be interested in the shows that George Burns produced, or in unsold pilots in general, or in 1950s and 60s TV history, to find this book worthwhile. For me, it was a home run. I loved it.

A note on my biases/possible conflicts of interest: I bought my copy of Roy Huggins, because I have a strong interest in his work. I’ve admired Huggins since I was a kid. I interviewed Huggins many times during my career as a journalist. In fact, I went into this expecting to be disappointed, to find very little “meat,” lots of errors, and to learn little that I didn’t already know. I was very pleased to be wrong. I’ve also worked with Jo Swerling Jr., who is quoted frequently in the book, during my time as a writer/producer at Stephen J. Cannell Productions. And, finally,  I was a writer on Hunter, but several seasons after Huggins produced the show.

I received a review copy of George Burns Television Productions from McFarland & Co, which published my reference books Unsold Television Pilots, Television Series Revivals, and Science Fiction Filmmaking in the 1980s over twenty years ago.