Saturday, January 25, 2014

A coming attraction

I'm very pleased to announce that the "Over My Dead Body" online mystery magazine has accepted one of my short stories.

When the story is published I'll post a link to it, and you'll be able to read it free.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A not-so-perfect week for second bananas

You’ve probably heard that Russell Johnson and Dave Madden died last week.

Johnson played the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island,” and Madden was most famous for portraying Reuben Kincaid on “The Partridge Family.”

Johnson had played many other roles before landing the part that would make him famous. One Sunday morning when I was a kid, I was surprised to see him playing the villain in a 1950s Universal western. Although he did his customary good job, he seemed out of character. (Then again, is a versatile character actor ever out of character?)

Not long before “Gilligan,” he starred in a “Twilight Zone” episode as a man who goes back in time and tries to avert the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His failure to do so did not inspire much confidence that he would ever figure a way to get off that island.

For the first year of “Gilligan,” the folks in charge of billing didn’t seem to have much respect for Johnson and Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann. During that first season, the song that told the saga of the shipwreck of the Minnow and sang of the castaways mentioned that “Gilligan … the Skipper, too … the millionaire and his wife … the movie star … and the rest … are here on Gilligan’s isle!”

“And the rest”?!

I can’t help thinking that after seeing this opening, Johnson and Wells and their respective agents had what reporters on the diplomacy beat used to call “a spirited discussion.”

Years after the show ended, Johnson seemed good-natured about the fact that he would be best remembered for a part that probably limited his career without making him rich. I would have been honored to meet him.

Dawn Wells (now one of the two last surviving members of the cast, along with Tina Louise, who played Ginger), has always seemed like a good sport about the show. (For years my little sister cherished an autograph “Mary Ann” gave her while appearing in a summer stock play up the street from our house.)

Although Dave Madden was best known for “The Partridge Family,” I remembered him more from the early days of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” But one of the obits for him reminded me of another, long-forgotten show he appeared on:

“Camp Runamuck.”

If you’ve never heard of it, you probably won’t be surprised to know that it was a comedy about a kids’ summer camp. I remember it as being a broad comedy; perhaps it wasn’t all the way over the top, but it was at least seven-eighths of the way there. It might be the only sitcom that ever made “Gilligan” look like Chekhov.

The camp was run by a guy named Wivenhoe, played by Arch Johnson, who otherwise played mostly heavies in shows like “Perry Mason.” I think Madden was one of the counselors, and the cast also included Dave Ketchum (later Agent 13 on “Get Smart”) and a young woman named Nina Wayne, whose sister Carol was for many years Art Fern’s blond “Matinee Lady” on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

Nina was a brunette version of Carol, and “Camp Runamuck” came along at a time when not quite so little old me was beginning to take an interest in the opposite sex.

“Camp Runamuck” should have been a lot better than it was, considering that it was created by David Swift, who was better known as the creator of “Mr. Peepers” and the writer and director of the original “Parent Trap” (starring my first big crush, Hayley Mills).

Perhaps NBC suspected that “Runamuck” wouldn’t be a runaway hit and for that reason decided to stick it on Friday night, which even then seemed to be a TV dumping ground.

I think the show preceded another sitcom, called “Hank,” which was about a guy who badly wanted to go to college but couldn’t afford it and kept attending classes in disguise. I recall that the publicity for the show described Hank as a “drop-in.” (As opposed to “dropout.” Get it? Get it? OK, I’ll stop nudging you now.)

The best thing about “Hank” was that it made “Camp Runamuck” look like Chekhov. (Which, in turn, made “Gilligan” look like Sophocles.) “Hank” starred a guy named Dick Kallman, a graduate of the Keefe Brasselle School of Reverse Charisma.

You don’t remember Keefe Brasselle? Lucky you.

You want to see Keefe Brasselle in action? Go here. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. And if you’ve just had a big meal, wait for at least one hour before jumping into it.

You’ll thank me later.