Everybody’s second act

Do you sometimes wonder whether you’re watching a TV show, or financing an actor’s therapy?

In a review of “Carol’s Second Act,” The Hollywood Reporter informs us, “CBS’ workplace sitcom stars Patricia Heaton as a plucky retiree entering the medical field in middle age.” Remove all the words from “retiree” through “field,” and you could use the rest to play “Mad Libs” with Patricia Heaton’s career.

“Everybody Loves Raymond” co-starred Heaton (in what remains her best role) as a plucky housewife trying to deal with her clueless husband and zany in-laws in middle age. (Well, it got to be middle age by the end of the series, anyway.) “The Middle” starred Heaton as a plucky housewife (again) negotiating a crazy family and harsh American economics in middle age.

There’s not a lot in “Act” to differentiate between Heaton’s characterizations in this show and “The Middle.” She’s diminutive yet feisty, occasionally dropping her smile and lifting her head above the morass to shout, “Hey! I’m down here and I’m not finished yet!” The one element they did remove from her role as Ray Romano’s wife was her hostility. The Nice Ones on TV often seemed fearful of acknowledging their dark side, but on “Raymond,” Heaton was never afraid to let it rip. In one great scene, she uncovers another of her mother-in-law’s subtle plans to undermine her. Ray doesn’t believe it was a plan until she uncovers it — at which point she wags a threatening finger at Ray and emotes, William Shatner style, “Well, who’s the crazy one now, Ray? WHO’S…the CRAZY one…NOW??”

You can argue that an actor has to make a living like everyone else, except it’s well-known that the cast of “Everybody Loves Raymond” made millions from its success. So wouldn’t you think that well-off actors could and would be a little choosier about their follow-up roles?

It’s a question I’ve pondered for decades, and the TV graveyard is littered with examples. As wonderful as he is, Dick Van Dyke tops my list. He still does interviews where he raves about the virtues of “Diagnosis Murder,” a sluggish whodunit where Van Dyke played a wily doctor who solved murders on the side. It wasn’t enough that the show covered murder-mystery territory that had already been well raked over by “Murder She Wrote.” Here’s the real acid test: If you were trapped on that storied desert island, and you could choose only one TV program to entertain you, would you rather watch “Diagnosis Murder” or “The Dick Van Dyke Show” for the rest of your life?

And those are just the well-known examples. I still remember a period in the 1990’s when Valerie Bertinelli, the perky (there’s that word again) teenage daughter on “One Day at a Time,” was getting shoved down our throats in TV execs’ vain attempts to convince us she was a sitcom star. “Sydney” and “Café Americain” were short-lived, practically back-to-back attempts to demonstrate Bertinelli’s supposed comedy chops. (As with “One Day at a Time,” she later had better luck as part of an ensemble cast, in “Hot in Cleveland.”)

And let’s not even get into America’s decade-long job as Jennifer Aniston’s self-appointed babysitter.

Part of this is television’s usual ploy to score new hits with familiar faces. Why go for fresh talent when you have proven ratings-getters waiting in the wings? (They’ll probably never quit coming up with shows for Matt LeBlanc.)

Every actor has a right to make a living, of course. But before these veterans snag their umpteenth sitcom, they might be well advised to remember: (a) no matter whom you star in a new show, it doesn’t turn New Show B into Classic Show A; and (b) when the show’s lead role is a put-upon Everyperson, don’t fill the role with someone who just returned from the bank after counting their millions.

Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball – Together on TV in 1965

The following is my second of two contributions to The Fifth Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon, being hosted by the lovely Lea at Silent-ology on Feb. 18 & 19, 2019. Click on the above image, and read bloggers’ takes on the life and career of this silent-film comedy master!

(Above is one of several lovely paintings that artist Julia Hutchinson has contributed to this blogathon. Check out more of her colorful artwork at www.juliahut.com.)

As is well-documented elsewhere, Buster Keaton, who had been a huge money-maker for M-G-M studios in the early 1930’s, had his personal life upended through various circumstances. By the 1940’s, he was back at M-G-M, but only as a generic gag writer at $100 a week.

Between gag-writing calls, Keaton holed up in the office of Edward Sedgwick (above, far right), Keaton’s former M-G-M director who was now similarly regarded as “incurably old-fashioned.” Joining them was supporting actress and ingenue Lucille Ball, whom the studio regarded as “washed up” at the time.

Under Keaton’s mechanical guidance, the trio created elaborate, Rube Goldberg-like contraptions to perform simple activities. Their most notorious creation was a machine to raise the window blinds in Sedgwick’s office. Not only did it raise the blinds, but at the end of its mission, it played “Hail to the Chief” while a photo of M-G-M head Louis B. Mayer shot up from behind the sofa. The humorless Mayer finally came to see the machine in action and then ordered it dismantled the next day.

Two decades later, things had changed immensely. By then, Ball had achieved TV immortality with “I Love Lucy” and was in the midst of starring in its top-10-rated follow-up, “The Lucy Show.” Sedgwick had died in 1953 after only a few sparse directorial jobs (one of them being an episode of “I Love Lucy” shortly before his passing). But by this time, Keaton’s career had a memorable third act; he had found voluminous TV and movie work, and his silent film classics had been reissued, to the joy of a new generation of fans.

When Keaton’s friend and comedy peer Stan Laurel died in February of 1965, another friend of Laurel’s, a professional photographer named Gene Lester, got the idea of presenting a TV tribute to Laurel. When Dick Van Dyke — yet another friend of Laurel’s who, like Ball, was currently starring in a legendary sitcom — agreed to host the show, the idea took off — and then eventually crashed, for all of America to see.

CBS aired “A Salute to Stan Laurel” on Nov. 23, 1965. Unfortunately, by the time it got to the airwaves, Lester’s modestly intended tribute to Laurel & Hardy fans had transmogrified to an all-star variety special that had slightly less to do with Stan Laurel than I did. A great number of celebrities were commandeered into performing on the show (much to the later regret of many of them). Two of those stars were Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball.

The entire special is available for viewing elsewhere on the Internet, but if you can make it through the whole thing, you have a stronger constitution than I have. Happily, Keaton and Ball’s sketch, on its own terms, is an enjoyable little gem of pantomime.

The sketch appears to be a version of a routine that Buster performed with his wife Eleanor on previous TV appearances. (Brief clips of Eleanor doing the sketch with Buster can be found in the marvelous documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow.)

Some other trivia regarding the sketch: Harvey Korman, famed second banana for Danny Kaye, Carol Burnett, and Mel Brooks, plays the irate cop. And the unfolding-newspaper gag is taken from the first solo movie that Keaton ever filmed, The High Sign (1921).

Here is the sketch for you to enjoy (introduced by Van Dyke).

Sources:

Keaton (book), Rudi Blesh. 1967, Secker & Warburg, London.

News from ME (blog), Mark Evanier. 2017, https://www.newsfromme.com/2017/06/26/todays-video-link-2510/

(If you enjoyed this blogathon entry, click here to read my first entry, my review of Keaton’s feature film Seven Chances.)