News from the Archive

John Wells: Master Storyteller

December 15th, 2016
John Wells

Let’s just name a few of the series this man has written for: China Beach, Third Watch, The West Wing, ER, and Shameless. That’s just a sampling of his writing credits. And in addition to writing in general, this man is particularly skilled at the art of the series finale. He wrote the China Beach finale, with that amazing tribute at the Vietnam Memorial. He wrote the ER finale, with its perfect echoes of the pilot episode. And he wrote the West Wing finale, with Santos’ inauguration and that great cameo by creator Aaron Sorkin. He’s John Wells, and he's a true master of his craft. As if his writing talent isn’t impressive enough, John is also a prolific producer and director. I sat down with him for what felt more like a brief chat than a formal interview, and the next three hours flew by.

Some fun factoids from the day:

John didn’t get his first job as a writer until he was 30 years old. Steven Bochco was an early mentor, who encouraged him to keep writing and started him on the path to becoming an employed writer.

John was one of the Executive Producers of The West Wing from the beginning, and when Aaron Sorkin left the show after season four, John took over as showrunner. It turns out a certain actor was a contributing factor to Sorkin's departure.

John also adapted Shameless (originally a British series) for the U.S. and recruited William H. Macy to star in the series. 

These snippets just barely scratch the surface of what John Wells reveals in his interview. He talks about George Clooney leaving ER, discusses Southland's move from NBC to TNT (John executive produced the show), and recounts his time as President of the Writers Guild of America, West. For those of you interested in writing and producing, here’s your chance to learn from one of the greats. And even if you’re not in the industry, you’ll still just love listening to this man talk. I certainly did.

Watch John Wells’ full Archive interview.

- by Adrienne Faillace

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Christmas Episodes: The Tradition Continues

December 9th, 2016
Florence Henderson

With the rapidly changing television landscape, we’re finding that some long-time traditions seem to be remaining in place, for the time being. Each September a spate of new series debut; each October a large number of those are cancelled. The networks still have “sweeps” periods every February, May, and November, when you can count on your local news to do sensationalized stories in the hopes of attracting more eyeballs. And one cherished television tradition that also doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon is the Christmas episode.

The Christmas episode (and for today we’re focusing on sitcoms) has its roots in radio. Programs like “Fibber McGee and Molly,” “Duffy’s Tavern,” and “The Fred Allen Show” would naturally write episodes centered around Christmas and the holidays. Sometimes, these shows would actually air live on Christmas Day, as shows weren’t rerun, and they weren’t off until the summer. Each December on “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” Amos would explain the Lord’s Prayer to his daughter. Jack Benny’s Christmas episode always featured him in a department store shopping, where he would inevitably encounter a rude clerk played by Frank Nelson, who is the basis for The Simpsons' Yeeess? Guy. Jack carried that tradition over to his television show.

Jack Benny’s initial television Christmas outing didn’t air until 1954. The very first Christmas episode, as we know it today, aired on December 21, 1950. It was The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’s “Gracie’s Christmas.” That year, the only other regularly broadcast programs with Christmas-themed episodes were The Perry Como Show, a variety show, and a couple of anthology series, Suspense and Lux Video Theatre. The idea finally caught on in 1953, with Mister Peepers, The Adventures of Ozzie & HarrietThe Danny Thomas Show, Our Miss Brooks, and many others airing Christmas fare.

In 1951 Cavalcade of Stars began what would eventually lead to one of the best-remembered episodes of The Honeymooners. In a “Honeymooners” sketch, Ralph (Jackie Gleason) sells his bowling ball in order to buy Alice (Pert Kelton) a gift. In a variation of “Gift of the Magi,” Alice’s gift to Ralph was a very nice, but no-longer-needed bowling ball bag. In the way that “Amahl and the Night Visitors” was staged several years running for Hallmark Hall of Fame, this “Honeymooners” sketch was subsequently restaged for the next four years on The Jackie Gleason Show, with Audrey Meadows replacing Kelton. When The Honeymooners finally got their own sitcom, the ultimate version of the story, now titled “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” was filmed. In this version, Ralph Kramden delivers a speech at the end that is guaranteed to choke you up, particularly if you grew up in or around New York City.

The Honeymooners and the others notwithstanding, filmed shows were cautious about doing Christmas episodes. There was a fear that those episodes could not be used in the syndicated package because no one would want to watch stories about Christmas in the middle of July. This accounts for the fact that I Love Lucy only did one Christmas episode in their seven-year run, and that episode remained unseen for 33 years after its initial airing. It was withheld from the syndication package, but is now a yearly event on CBS, in a colorized form.

Also initially withheld after its first airing was The Brady Bunch Christmas episode “The Voice of Christmas,” which aired in 1969. It was always skipped over in syndication. Until one December, channel 5 in New York finally got around to airing it! I was so excited! Mrs. Brady agreed to sing in church on Christmas but lost her voice. Of course, in the end, we get to see dear Florence Henderson sing a beautiful rendition of “O Come All Ye Faithful."

A typical Christmas episode will often take a well-worn holiday story, a la The Honeymooners with “Gift of the Magi,” and incorporate it into their episode. The Odd Couple, Family Ties, and countless others did a variation on “A Christmas Carol.” One of the more memorable holiday shows was Happy Days “Guess Who’s Coming to Christmas,” where the Cunningham family saves Fonzie from spending Christmas alone. That episode was so popular that it was re-aired as a flashback with newly filmed wraparounds for a few years. They finally had to stop that practice, as the Cunningham’s oldest son Chuck is featured in the episode, but was never spoken of again after season two.

As he did with many of the conventions of television, Norman Lear turned the idea of the Christmas episode on its head. All in the Family’s five Christmas episodes dealt with themes of draft dodging, race relations, hate crimes, and divorce. The 1973 episode “Edith’s Christmas Story” dealt with a health scare faced by Edith Bunker. Rocky and Irma Kalish told us how they came to write that classic episode.

Seinfeld tried to do away with Christmas altogether. In 1997’s “The Strike,” a fed up Frank Costanza introduces Festivus, a holiday which replaces the singing of carols with the airing of grievances. Festivus is actually celebrated in some circles. Festivus poles sell out each December 23rd. 

But Frank wasn’t quite as successful as he might’ve hoped. In 2015 there were no less than 45 Christmas/holiday-themed episodes across all platforms and genres. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, The Goldbergs, and The Muppets all did one. When we watch, we always hope for those special moments like Jackie Gleason’s speech, Fonzie being accepted by the Cunningham family, or Florence Henderson’s lovely voice. A Christmas episode always has the potential to become a classic.

For more information on holiday-related television of all types, search the collection.

- by John Dalton

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Remembering Grant Tinker

November 30th, 2016
Grant Tinker

We’re so sad to learn that executive/producer and co-founder of the Archive of American Television, Grant Tinker passed away on Monday, November 28 at the age of 90. Tinker began his career in television in 1949 as an intern at NBC. He is perhaps best remembered as the co-founder of MTM Enterprises, a successful production company known for the critically acclaimed programs The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Lou Grant, Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere. In 1981, Tinker left MTM to become CEO and chairman of NBC, helping to resuscitate the network. 

Below are some selections from his 1998 interview:

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show:

On starting MTM:

On how he'd like to be remembered:

Watch Grant Tinker's full Archive interview and read his obituary in The New York Times.

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Remembering Florence Henderson

November 25th, 2016
Florence Henderson

We're so sad to learn that actress Florence Henderson passed away yesterday, November 24, 2016, at the age of 82. Henderson began her acting career on the stage, starring in "Fanny" on Broadway in the 1950's. She soon moved to television, making appearances on The Bell Telephone Hour, The Tex and Jinx Show, and Tonight Starring Jack Paar - eventually becoming the first female guest host of the latter. She was a "Today Girl" on NBC's Today and performed on Jim Henson's The Muppet Show, but is perhaps best known for her role as "Carol Brady" on the hit sitcom, The Brady Bunch. She later appeared in several other Brady made-for-television movies and feature films, had a long-time affiliation with Wesson Oil - you may remember her in Wesson's television commercials - and in recent years was a contestant on Dancing With The Stars

Below are some excerpts from her 1999 Archive interview.

On being a "Today Girl":

On being cast on The Brady Bunch:

On playing "Carol Brady" on The Brady Bunch:

Watch her full Archive interview here and read her obituary in The New York Times.

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Aspects of the JFK Assassination: Our Interviewees Remember

November 22nd, 2016
Robert MacNeil

In its roughly seventy-year history, television has, at its best, served to bring the country together in times of crisis and sadness. Watergate, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, and 9/11 are a few that come to mind. But never more so than on November 22, 1963. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was the first time people looked to television for comfort, while everyone tried to make sense of what had happened and where to go from there. From the first news bulletin on CBS News interrupting As the World Turns, to the solemn state funeral, viewers were automatically and compulsively drawn to the television in a way they’d never been before. 

We’ve covered the topic of the assassination with many of our interviewees, but newsman Robert MacNeil’s account is particularly spellbinding. He was riding on a bus directly behind the motorcade in Dallas and he speaks in such vivid detail, if you close your eyes, it’s almost as if you’re there. It is essential viewing for those who want to know what it was like to be there in Dealey Plaza that morning. In our over eight hundred interviews, this might be the most important remembrance we’ve committed to tape.

There are so many aspects to the story of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. A big piece of the puzzle, of course, was the home movie taken by Abraham Zapruder of the terrible event that day. Life Magazine published still frames of the film in 1963, but the original remained in a vault at Time-Life, unseen by the general public for over a decade. Until, in 1975, Geraldo Rivera’s ABC series Good Night America ran a grainy and blurry version of it. One of the few non-governmental citizens who viewed the film before 1975 was Dan Rather. He recounted that experience for us, and, fascinatingly, what he was told to leave out when reporting on the film.

We’ve got many news people speaking on the assassination, but we also have stories of what happened with television shows that were in production that day, how people found out the news, and the reaction of the television community at large. Judy Garland famously sang a stirring, teary rendition of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on her 1963 variety show The Judy Garland Show in tribute to her fallen president and friend. Skitch Henderson, the then-leader of The Tonight Show band, filled us in on a fact that, but for our interview, may have been lost to history. The evening of the JFK assassination, Johnny Carson did not go on, but NBC had a plan.

We’ve got dozens of interviewees discussing John F. Kennedy, including his presidency, his assassination, and the conspiracy theories it continues to spark to this day. Many knew him and were there, witnesses to history. Among them are Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, Roger Mudd, Bob Schieffer, Ted Koppel, Barbara Walters, and Don Hewitt. It is a treasure trove of information, and an invaluable resource. 

- by John Dalton

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