The Silly Seasons 1960's

updated 05/04/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/04/1989 01:00AM

No decade this century has quite confounded America like the '60s, that tumultuous, bloody, soaring, goofy, threatening, liberating, clownish time that seemed about to change the world. Nobody knew quite what was going on, and television was no exception. Slow to catch the chills and fevers of the age—and worried about the consequences if it did—TV eventually sought to follow the burgeoning youthquake, but it always fell a step behind, a beat too late. When it tried to be hip...squaresville. When it tried to be young...creak. But '60s television never stopped trying to appeal to youth, creating scores of shows commonly marked by a stupefyingly adolescent mindlessness.

Typical was The Beverly Hillbillies, which premiered on CBS in 1962 to some of the worst reviews ever. Everyone agreed the show was awful—except the viewers. Hillbillies went to No. 1 faster than I Love Lucy and stayed in the Top 10 for the rest of the decade. Imitators (Petticoat Junction, Green Acres) followed. With the supremely silly Mr. Ed and the gentle comedy of The Andy Griffith Show, it's no wonder pundits started calling TV the "rube tube."

Those sitcoms that weren't rural usually were puerile—gimmicky exercises in fantasy and escape. A virgin took to the skies (The Flying Nun), a genie popped out of a bottle and pampered her master (I Dream of Jeannie), a housewife/witch worked magic with a twitch of her nose (Bewitched), a reporter adopted an extraterrestrial (My Favorite Martian), and entire families of weirdos lived together and did their own thing (The Munsters, The Addams Family). Is it mere coincidence that TV production had shifted in the late '50s from New York to Los Angeles, world capital of escapism?

There was plenty from which to escape, of course, and that made TV in the '60s as schizophrenic as it's ever likely to be. From the moment John F. Kennedy swept the first televised presidential debate in 1960, TV created Camelot. But with Kennedy's assassination, the news became grimmer and seemed to accelerate out of control. Urban riots, the march on Washington, the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., the steadily escalating Vietnam war, strident antiwar protests at home—TV news brought us closer to events than ever before.

Prime time reflected the growing cynicism of the young only in goofball shows that tweaked adult institutions. McHale's Navy, F Troop and Hogan's Heroes burlesqued the military. Car 54, Where Are You? portrayed the cops as cretins. Bob Denver and the castaways of Gilligan's Island built a new society on nuttiness. People turned on, tuned in and dropped out.

TV made some attempts at social relevance. The Defenders seemed to mirror the ACLU at its best, leading to a moot courtful of lesser lawyer programs (The Trials of O'Brien). A young comic named Bill Cosby became the first black leading man to succeed in a prime-time series, teaming with Robert Culp to make I Spy the best of TV's post-James Bond secret-agent genre (successfully spoofed by Don Adams's Get Smart). Toward the decade's end, the youth culture had become unavoidable, and TV created The Monkees, an ersatz rock group, to attract its attention. CBS offered social and political satire on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour but got cold feet and yanked it. And then there was Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In on NBC, 1968's innovative sensation. The show made it seem that TV was finding new heart to laugh at reality, even to sock it to Richard Nixon.

Not really. Laugh-In burned out early in the next decade, and for a while its quick-cuts and blackout sketches survived only on Hee Haw, its rural doppelganger. Way back in 1961, Federal Communications Commission chairman Newton Minow had characterized television as a "vast wasteland." The medium did little in the '60s to prove him wrong, but TV's silly seasons would live on as syndicated nostalgia. Like the artifacts and attitudes of the youthquake itself, '60s TV wound up as fodder for Trivial Pursuit.

Fort Courage was home to F Troop, whose wildly inept cavalrymen included (from left) Ken Berry, Forrest Tucker an Larry Storch. Luckily, they were up against such equally bungling Indians as Milton Berle (pictured, playing Wise Owl) and Don Rickles (Bald Eagle) and made it through two seasons.

On The Untouchables, Robert Stack got tough with gang bigs like Frank Nitti (Bruce Gordon) and Al Capone (Neville Brand). The show was charged with undue violence. Capone's estate sued. Frank Sinatra objected to crooks with Italian names. Despite the protests, the T-men served four years.

Among L.A.'s loonies, The Beverly Hillbillies fit right in, sort of. Ancient mother-in-law Irene Ryan, muscle-bound nephew Max Baer Jr., tomboyish daughter Donna Douglas and ol pappy Buddy Ebsen had a purely Midas common touch. Their Nielsen gusher even brought in President Nixon, who said, "Anytime we get a chance to look at it, we do." Didn't you?

Jim Nabors (with Margaret Ann Peterson) went from the quiet of Andy Griffith's May-berry to six years in the Marines, making Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C one of the early spinoffs. His cast eventually moved on too: Allan Melvin to All in the Family, Ted Bessell and Ronnie Schell to That Girl, William Christopher to M*A*S*H and Frank Sutton to The Jim Nabors Hour.

Room was made for Mario when Danny Thomas's girl became That Girl in 1966. Hard to believe, but it was the first successful series to show a liberated woman on her own. Daddy had mixed feelings: "If she were a boy, I'd be jumping up and down.... We're old-fashioned—what I wish she'd do is get married and have another Mario."

On Beverly Hillbillies, producer Paul Henning sent hicks to the city. It worked. On Green Acres he sent city slickers Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor to the sticks of Hooterville, site of his Petticoat Junction. Worked again. Acres lasted six years, Petticoat seven. Biggest miracle: making Eva elegant on a clothing budget of $500 a show.

The lanky star of Bye Bye Birdie beat out Johnny Carson for the lead. Vets Rose Marie and Morey Amsterdam became the wisecracking co-stars. The Dick Van Dyke Show cast was completed by newcomer Mary Tyler Moore, who got the job, producer Carl Reiner explained, because "she said Hello' like a real person.' He was right.

Hogan's Heroes was a farce about GIs (led by Bob Crane) in a POW camp run by an inept Nazi (Werner Klemperer, right) and his bumbling aide (John Banner). It angered Jews as well as the American Nazi Party, but it lasted six years, longer than World War II, which wasn't nearly so funny.

Mission: Impossible mild-mannered star was Peter Graves (bottom, left), who took Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, hunk Peter Lupus and Greg Morris on dazzling, daunting espionage jobs. After three seasons, married couple Landau and Bain left in 1969, over a contract dispute. The show continued until 1973 without them.

When The Munsters appeared, CBS head Bill Paley worried that bucket-jawed Fred Gwynne (shaking with quaking Paul Lynde), witchy Yvonne DeCarlo and Grandpa Al Lewis would "disgrace the network, but they only made it lovable. Hadn't Paley seen the rest of the schedule?

Fast, furious, slick, sly and the liveliest show of the decade, Laugh-In borrowed shamelessly from comic acts through the ages and slapped TV right out of its '60s doldrums. The show launched catch phrases ("Sock it to me"; "You bet your bippy"; "The fickle finger of fate") and a skyful of stars: Lily Tomlin, as one-ringy-dingy operator Ernestine; hair-netted Ruth Buzzi, who walloped ancient Arte Johnson ("Verrry inter-esting...but stupid") with her handbag; and Goldie Hawn, the dippy blond in the tattooed bod. Guests ran the gamut from presidential-candidate Richard Nixon ("Sock it to me?") to John Wayne (pictured, with hosts Dan Rowan and Dick Martin), who tried to chicken out of the bunny suit.

Bonanza was the first Western in color and the first to focus on family, not gunplay. Everyone had a favorite among the Ponderosa's tough, kind Cartwright clan (from left, Pernell Roberts, Michael London, Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker), and the three half-brothers followed daddy Ben to Nielsen's No. 1 spot three years straight. The ratings dropped badly only after Blocker's 1972 death.

Sincere intern (later resident) Dr. Kildare (Richard Chamberlain, examining patient Suzanne Pleshette) got three times more fan mail than surly rival Ben Casey, but both helped cut into TV's frivolous image.

The population of Mayberry, setting of The Andy Griffith Show, kept shrinking, even though the show was a smash. First the gas-pump jockey became Gomer Pyle. Then bumbling deputy Barney Fife (Don Knotts, with Griffith) went on to star in The Don Knotts Show. Then Andy's son, Opie, grew up to be Ron Howard of Happy Days. Most of the rest moved over to Mayberry R.F.D.

It was a kids show like no other. Soupy Sales dished out pies, puns, pratfalls and odd puppet characters (Marilyn Monwolf) for the little ones, often crossing the bounds of both taste and censorship. His most infamous moment was a 1966 ad-lib. To fill a minute, Soupy asked his fans to fish money out of moms purse and mail it to their dear friend. Briefly suspended, he returned more popular than ever.

Pretty Elizabeth Montgomery was daughter to the host of NBC's esteemed drama series Robert Montgomery Presents. He became Ike's TV adviser. She Bewitched just by wiggling her nose. Dick York, left, was her hubby (later Dick Sargent) and Agnes Moorehead her mum. Who played her warlock father? The late Shakespearean actor Maurice Evans.

The Avengers was one of TV's first successful imports, arriving from Britain after a five-year run. As Mrs. Peel, Honor Blackman (Coldfinger's Pussy Galore) was replaced by less hard-edged Diana Rigg (on track) in the James Bondian series. Patrick Macnee stayed as suave secret agent Jonathan Steed, he of the dapper duds and dry wit, but one Steed-Peel mystery never was solved: Did they or didn't they?

Way before glasnost, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., united U.S. agent Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn, right) and Russian agent Illya Kuryakin (David McCallum) in farfetched plots to save the world. A bit player in the pilot, McCallum became an equal after teen girls swooned for him on a promo tour.

Before Dallas there was steamy Peyton Place, New England (pop: over 100 cast members), with Ryan O'Neal, Mia Farrow and Barbara Parkins. Also in town from time to time: Mariette Hartley, Leslie Nielsen and Leigh Taylor-Young, now a Dallas resident.

As always, Fred MacMurray looked right at home with his TV family: clockwise from left, Don Grady, William Frawley as Grandpa Bub (later William Demarest as Uncle Charlie), Tim Considine, Stanley Livingston. Fred agreed to My Three Sons only if he could film a whole season of his scenes in 13 weeks.

Lawrence Welk (with three Lennon Sisters) had an accent like bratwurst, but his "champagne music"—by bandmen like clarinetist Pete Fountain—was pure bubbly to fans for 27 years. The "Uh-one, uh-two" maestro was beloved for his bloopers (he called one of Duke Ellington's classics Take A Train). Welk's popular fellow accordionist? Myron Floren.

Dean Martin (center dryer, with Jimmy Stewart, left, and Orson Welles) tossed viewers TV's most laid-back variety show—an hour of song, dance, laughs and pretty girls (the Gold-diggers, later the Ding-a-Ling Sisters). His comics—Dom DeLuise, Nipsey Russell, Rodney Danger-field—wove around Dino's crooning-and-boozing patter, with a besotted Foster Brooks often on-and-out-of-hand. In 1966 Martin spun off a summer show featuring Rowan and Martin pre-Laugh-In.

East Side/West Side tried to be different and succeeded too well. George C. Scott played a New York social worker struggling with child abuse, drugs and crime. The acting and writing were first-rate, the actors (Cicely Tyson was the first black woman regular on a dramatic series) exceptional, but '60s viewers found it all too downbeat. The show was canceled after one season opposite Sing Along with Mitch, but its run remains a brief, shining example of TV courage and art.

Batman didn't last, but—Holy Marshmallows!—what a ride. Silly and stilted, the Dynamic Duo (Burt Ward, left, and Adam West) battled the spaced-out Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the all-out Joker (Cesar Romero) and the sexed-out Catwoman (variously Julie Newmar, Eartha Kitt and Lee Meriwether) and pitched camp for two seasons.

Even before The Flying Nun lifted off, Johnny Carson was making fun of it—he suggested NBC counterprogram with Space Rabbi. For sheer weightlessness Nun was top of the line, even though during part of the three-year flight Sally Field was pregnant under her habit.

Can you dig it? In the streets, disaffected youth railed against "pig" cops. On the tube, three once-disaffected youths (Clarence Williams III, Peggy Lipton and Michael Cole) become L.A. cops on The Mod Squad in 1968. The unlikely source: a real cop's experience.

"Book 'em, Danno" was the tag line as Jack Lord and his Hawaii Five-O team chase the dangerous and deadly, catching all but Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh). After 12 hit years, they got him in the end.

The longest-running animated series in prime time, Hanna-Barbera's The Flintstones took a rocky resemblance to The Honeymooners and ran with it from 1960 to 1966, presenting cavepersons with a mod outlook. Fred, Wilma, little Pebbles and pet Dino have stuck together since, airing Saturday mornings on all three networks, with only occasional vacations.

Congressman Morley (William Windom) fell madly in love with beautiful blond Katy Holstrum (Inger Stevens), and when they got married on The Farmer's Daughter in 1965, real Washington hostess Perle Mesta threw a real party for 300 in the real capital. What's not real? Check the prop tray Inger held on set. The wedding didn't help; the show was canceled.

Share this story:

Your reaction:

advertisement

From Our Partners

From Our Partners