Sunday, February 25, 2018

Still Henry after all these years

When I was a kid, Sunday mornings were a sacred time.

A time when my siblings and I would gather around the most venerated object in our house.

Our TV set.

And at 9 a.m. we would watch the Sunday morning movie on Channel 3.

And we would watch it until our parents almost forcibly pulled us away so we could attend this thing called Sunday Mass.

But it didn’t matter much because we knew that Abbott and Costello, Ma and Pa Kettle and Francis the Talking Mule would prove triumphant and things would turn out all right for whatever young couple they were trying to help. (Of course, the Universal contract players who played these couples would go on to have fairly undistinguished careers before fading out completely, but Bud and Lou could do only so much.)

Although I enjoyed all these folks, there was one other component of the Sunday movie rotation who meant more to me.

A guy whose movies always began with his mom calling to him in a voice that was one-tenth mother love and nine-tenths Armageddon:


Henry, played by a young actor named James Lydon, was Charlie Brown years before Charlie Brown was Charlie Brown.

Henry was the world’s most incompetent high school student. There was nothing he couldn’t screw up.

And although I was much younger, I could identify with that. Sure, I was somehow able to read at a very early age, but ask me to tie my shoes? Or ride a bike? No sir. I was all thumbs. (I was probably all toes too, but no one ever asked me to do anything with them.)

So I sympathized and empathized as Henry, always a well-meaning sort with the purest of intentions, would get into a bit of trouble, then a dollop of trouble, then a tractor-trailer load of trouble, until he would finally, somehow, and unlike me, emerge victorious in the end.

Only Henry Aldrich would form his own band, then manage to run afoul of crooks and gamblers. Or swallow a serum that somehow caused him to enter a supposedly haunted house, where he surprisingly didn’t run into Bud and Lou or Red Skelton, who at the time were plowing similar cinematic turf.

Then there was the time that Henry, as editor of his school paper, was suspected of setting a series of arson fires that he himself was covering. The real pyromaniac was caught, but the real mystery — how a high school kid was allowed to cover real crime news — was never solved.

I thought about Henry a few weeks ago while I was watching an episode of “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” the vintage western that catapulted Steve McQueen to fame. In this episode, a woman hires bounty hunter Josh Randall, played by McQueen, to find her husband, who has fled after being falsely accused of murder.

Randall eventually finds the guy, brings him in, and justice prevails.

The guy was played by James Lydon — Henry Aldrich! Still getting into trouble!

Just a few days later, I watched an episode of “Trackdown,” the vintage western that catapulted Robert Culp to fame. In this episode, Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman, played by Culp, is confronted by a woman who says she can provide an alibi for her boyfriend, who is in the town jail, accused of murder.

It turns out that the woman is lying, but the real killer, who heard about her story but doesn’t know she’s lying, tries to kill her, muffs it and gets gunned down by Hoby.

So the boyfriend goes free. And he’s played by — all together, now — James Lydon, Henry Aldrich!

The show (which, surprise surprise, was produced by the same company as “Wanted: Dead or Alive”) never goes into the question of what happened to James/Henry’s wife from “Wanted.” Did she die? Or, more likely, did she finally get fed up and divorce him?

Perhaps we’ll never know. But I am happy to say that, as of this writing, Mr. Lydon, who also had a distinguished career behind the camera (he was one of the people behind TV’s “M*A*S*H”), is still with us at the age of 94.

I hope that he is well and that finally, after all these years, he is keeping out of mischief.

But I’m not uncrossing my fingers.

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