It’s been a long week. In three days, we lost the darling of film, Shirley Temple, one of the greatest TV entertainers of all time, Sid Caesar, and Papa Walton, Ralph Waite. We also lost Richard Bull — Nels Oleson from Little House on the Prairie.
On Monday, waking up to a world without Shirley Temple didn’t seem quite right. But why in a TV column? Easy: that’s how my generation first met her, on that black and white set in the living room. A generation before us, at a time when this country was facing its worst financial upheavals, she was a bright light whose talent made things just a little bit better for everyone. My darling Margaret Whiting always told the story of running into her father’s studio when her lollipop fell on his suit — and that’s how Richard Whiting came to write “On the Good Ship Lollipop.” More than just the little girl with blonde curls whom Adolphe Menjou, her co-star in Little Miss Marker, described as “an Ethel Barrymore at 6,” she was a reminder of all that could be good in this world. At the Academy Awards, when Temple sat with dozens of previous winners, her name was called and I remember the look of surprise on her face when she received thunderous applause, more than any other Oscar winner in the group:
On Sun., March 9, TCM will change its previously scheduled programming in order to honor the late actress, with films ranging from Heidi (1937) to Bright Eyes (1934) to The Little Princess (1939) to the older Shirley Temple in The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947).
By Wednesday, just as I was recovering from Temple’s death, Sid Caesar died at 91. When I was growing up in the 1950s, there were several must-see shows on TV and Caesar’s was among them. Although I was a bit too young for the early days of Your Show of Shows (1950-54, with Imogene Coca), I do remember Caesar’s Hour (1954-57), which paired him with Nanette Fabray, who I had the pleasure of representing when she co-starred with Renee Taylor and Joe Bologna in the latter’s Bermuda Avenue Triangle. And oh, what Fabray learned working with the man she said set “the gold standard for TV sketch comedy.” Just think of all the people who came from “The Writers’ Room”: Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Woody Allen, Larry Gelbart (M*A*S*H), Mel Tolkin (All in the Family) and Carl Reiner, who based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his tenure with Caesar. It’s like a Who’s Who of the top comedy writers of all time. Without Caesar, there would be no Saturday Night Live, no In Living Color. Whether it was Your Show of Shows, Little Me on Broadway or Stanley Kramer’s film It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Caesar left behind a legacy that will inspire comedians for years.
By Thursday, as I was about to post my column, I found myself editing again, as Ralph Waite passed away at 85. I know it was a soppy, weepy show, but something about the warm and fuzzies of The Waltons always made me smile. The patriarch of the Depression-era family, John Walton, Sr., was played by Waite to perfection for nine seasons and six movies. The former Presbyterian minister left the church for a career in theatre (on Broadway in Genet’s The Balcony, Off-Broadway as Claudius in Hamlet at the Public Theater); in films (Cool Hand Luke, Five Easy Pieces); and on TV (Roots). Until recently, Waite had recurring roles on NCIS, Bones and Days of Our Lives, but of course it was The Waltons for which he will be most remembered.
Not to be left out was last week’s star deaths — they’re dropping like flies! — is Richard Bull. Little House on the Prairie was one of those shows that, like The Waltons, was made up of great characters, and Bull, who passed away on Feb. 3 at 89, was one of them as the much-put-upon Nels Oleson, husband to the exasperating Harriet and father to that annoying brat Nellie. Throughout the series, Nels tolerated and loved them both, usually shaking his head and looking skyward for some help. Then, one day, he stood his ground and became twice the man that Harriet was as the mouse devoured the hawk! His acting was always understated, subtle, as he quietly swept out his store and provided the voice of reason for his family and much of the town of Walnut Grove.
Personally, I’d have strangled both Nellie and Harriet, but that’s just me.
In other death news, NBC has canceled The Michael J. Fox Show. Gee, really? Why don’t we get Fox back on TV and then run his show up against, I don’t know – Two and a Half Men and Grey’s Anatomy? Seriously, NBC?
This Week on the Tube…
Look out for the return of Ilene Kristen as Delia Reid Ryan Ryan Coleridge, Ava Jerome’s mother, on General Hospital from Feb. 25 to Feb. 28. Expect the fur to fly as Kristen and Maura West (Ava) go a-bitch-slapping throughout Port Charles. It also reunites Kristen with three of her fellow One Life to Live cast members, Roger Howarth, Kristen Alderson and Michael Easton. GH airs on ABC at 2pm (EST).
Best TV Moment of the Week…
Jimmy Kimmel spending the entire hour with the cast of The Monuments Men was one of the funniest interviews I’ve ever seen on a late-night talk show. His much-publicized feud with Matt Damon, which culminated in Damon tying Kimmel to a chair and holding him hostage on Jimmy Kimmel Sucks last year, resulted in Damon being relegated to a tiny chair on the edge of the set, far away from his Monuments Men castmates. Payback’s a bitch, Matt.