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Unforgettable Memories of TV Legends Off the Small Screen
January 25, 2020  | By Ed Bark  | 2 comments
 


Forty-plus years of covering television have yielded countless close encounters with stars of the first magnitude.

Many are now deceased, but their bodies of work still breathe.

So rather than relegate these experiences to the dustbin, I'm periodically going to bring some of them back alive. For me they're gifts that keep on giving. These back pages begin with Lucille Ball and Red Skelton.

Back in November of 1985, Lucille Ball made the unfortunate decision, at the age of 74, to take on her first dramatic role for TV. She played a homeless New Yorker named Florabelle in the CBS movie "Stone Pillow." The reviews were not good.

Ball earlier tried to explain herself at a press event in New York City. "I thought of it as a character that I could get my teeth into, and I wanted to work with Mr. (George) Schaefer)," she said, referring to the film's well-regarded producer-director.

Clad in a black suit and a white ruffled blouse, she still looked wan and frail five months after shooting had ended. The role earlier had put her in a hospital after Ball was required to wear a heavy winter coat during an unusually warm New York spring. She lost 23 pounds, became dehydrated and snapped a tendon in her arm during a fight scene that ended up being cut from the movie.

"She's been exhausted ever since," Schaefer said a little too cheerily.

Ball hadn't acted on television since the last of her successful sitcoms, "Here's Lucy," left CBS in 1974.

"I'm not trying to top anything that I ever did in comedy," she said. "My pals are gone, and my arena is closed and I had a great, sensational 25 years. Gale (Gordon) and I just can't go on screaming at each other forever. We love to work together, but my Vivian (I Love Lucy co-star Vivian Vance) is gone and I wouldn't hardly try to top that."

At the mention of Vance, who played Ethel Mertz opposite her Lucy Ricardo, Ball's voice broke and she dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. It was no act.

Like many stars from TV's so-called "Golden Age," Ball decried the comedy scripts still coming her way as "dirty, almost porn." Even so, she declared herself a fan of Three's CompanyCheersThe Cosby Show and The Golden Girls, of which she said, "Wow, that's terrific!"

Alas, she succumbed to another comedy series the following fall, starring with Gordon in ABC's "Life with Lucy" as a widowed grandma who had inherited her husband's half-interest in a Pasadena, CA hardware store. ABC aired just eight episodes before pulling the plug.

I panned the show and wrote that Ball had become too old to recycle some of her old physical slapstick routines. A receptionist at The Dallas Morning News later took a call from Ball, who objected. I was out to lunch (literally) and missed a final chance to speak with her. It was probably just as well. Ball died less than three years later at the age of 77.

**********

Red Skelton, whose long-running CBS variety show regaled me as a kid, visited Dallas in 1984 to both perform with the Dallas Pops Orchestra and hold an exhibit of his clown paintings, of which he sold $300,000 worth in just this one stop.

I interviewed him in a downtown Dallas hotel restaurant. He was friendly and forthcoming. But as with Ball, he turned sour on the subject of contemporary "blue" humor.

Zeroing in on Joan Rivers, whom he called a "ray of off-colors," Skelton contended that "what she does is not humor. It's not even satire. It's just downright sarcasm and it hurts people. No, I don't watch her at all. Whenever she takes over The Tonight Show, I turn it off."

He also lashed a fellow comedy icon of his own vintage. "The reason I haven't gone back on television," Skelton said, "is that they have to sell mediocrity. Even Bob Hope has fallen into that category now, to where his show is blah."

It was kind of sad and all too typical – a faded old comic dismissing most current practitioners as "filthy."

But I'll always choose to remember a simple redeeming act. We were standing in the hotel lobby when a father and his son walked up. Dad politely asked Skelton to sign an autograph for his kid. So he began drawing a clown, which is no small gesture on his part, given the prices his paintings can command.

Skelton had almost finished when he suddenly crumpled up the piece of notepaper he was drawing on. It wasn't good enough, he said. So he started all over, using different colored ink pens this time and then signing his creation. The man and his son then walked away with a true treasure. I hope one of them still has it.

 
 
 
 
 
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2 Comments
 
 
Ed Bark
In the quote, he refers to Hope’s latter day specials as “blah.” I agree with him on that. In fact, my very first column as TV critic for The Dallas Morning News was a 1980 review panning one of Hope’s birthday specials.
Feb 21, 2020   |  Reply
 
 
Neil
Ed, as regards what Skelton said about Bob Hope's show, circa 1984, it might have been sad but the man was right. By '84, Hope's show had become formulaic pablum. Hope could still be a funny man, as his appearances on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show can attest to, but the "specials" he cranked out on his production line were pretty pathetic by then. It doesn't sound like he was complaining about Hope *being* blue (though I might be missing the nuance here), but about how sad it is for someone that old to demean himself with that quality of material. Am I wrong?
Jan 27, 2020   |  Reply
 
 
 
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