David Bruce: Television Anecdotes

• Lots of famous movie directors have directed television programs, although doing so can be different from directing a movie. For example, Patty Jenkins, director of Monster, directed the pilot episode of the TV series The Killingand ordered many more takes than a television director, who often must work quickly, would order. David Madden, president of Fox Television Studios, said, “I’d watch her [Ms. Jenkins] go 12, 13, 14 takes. For a line producer, that’s justifiable cause for a heart attack.” In addition, when Antoine Fuqua, director of Training Day, directed a television pilot, he says, “I took the exact same approach as I would with a movie,” meaning that he used many wide shots and crowd scenes rather than television-friendly close-ups. However, he had to learn to keep in mind that television has commercials: “They’d remind me about act breaks for commercials, and I’d go, ‘What’s an act break?’” When Martin Scorsese directed the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire, his reputation as a big-time movie director was so intimidating that people stayed out of his way. Terence Winter, executive producer of Boardwalk Empire, said, “We were laughing because normally you’re on the set and it’s your show. [Instead, we] hung out at craft services.” Mr. Winter did once want to make a suggestion. A 1920s gangster kept his hat on when he entered a room that was filled with women, and Mr. Winter felt that the gangster should take off his hat. He asked the first cameraman how he could give a note to Mr. Scorsese, and the first cameraman said, “I don’t know. No one’s ever given him a note before.”

• The Simpsons live in Springfield, but in what state? Springfield, Ohio? Springfield, Oregon? Springfield, Massachusetts? Springfield, Wherever? In one episode, Marge is talking on the telephone and saying where she lives when Homer walks in: “Springfield, Oh hi ya, Homer.” In the May 2012 issue of Smithsonian MagazineSimpsonscreators Matt Groening talked about the Simpsons’ Springfield: “Springfield was named after Springfield, Oregon. The only reason is that when I was a kid, the TV show Father Knows Besttook place in the town of Springfield, and I was thrilled because I imagined that it was the town next to Portland, my hometown. When I grew up, I realized it was just a fictitious name. I also figured out that Springfield was one of the most common names for a city in the U.S. In anticipation of the success of the show, I thought, ‘This will be cool; everyone will think it’s their Springfield.’ And they do.” Over the years, he has been kind to people who want to believe that Springfield is in their state. He said, “I don’t want to ruin it for people, you know? Whenever people say it’s Springfield, Ohio, or Springfield, Massachusetts, or Springfield, wherever, I always go, ‘Yup, that’s right.’”

• Slydini was a great magician who had been born Quintino Marucci in Italy and whom his friends called Tony. He was a master of close-up magic. For much of his life, he operated a tobacco/newspaper shop, and his customers did not know that he was a gifted magician, but he gained renewed fame when he appeared twice on one of Dick Cavett’s TV interview series, to the delight of many other magicians, including Johnny Carson. Near the end of Slydini’s life, he lived in a nursing home, and he was sad because no one there had ever heard of Slydini. Mr. Cavett visited Slydini occasionally, and he did the great good deed of sending to the nursing home videocassettes of Slydini’s two appearances on his show. The nursing home employees played the videocassettes for the residents, and when Mr. Cavett visited Slydini for what turned out to be the last time, Slydini told him, “Dick, you did it again. I was-a nobody here. Now I’m-a the star.”

• The Big Bang Theory is a popular television show in the United States, and audiences in Belarus started viewing their own knock-off version of the showin 2010. Unfortunately, the knock-off version was unlicensed. Also unfortunately, the TV production company of the unlicensed knockoff was owned by Belarus, and therefore Big Bang Theory

• The Big Bang Theoryis a popular television show in the United States, and audiences in Belarus started viewing their own knock-off version of the showin 2010. Unfortunately, the knock-off version was unlicensed. Also unfortunately, the TV production company of the unlicensed knockoff was owned by Belarus, and therefore Big Bang Theoryco-creator Chuck Lorre could not sue the production company. He did put a title card in the show; the card stated that he hoped that Belarus would “send us some felt hats” as payment for stealing the program. Actually, the actors of the knock-off had believed that they were participating in a legal, licensed television show. When they found out that the show was unlicensed, they quit and the production company was forced to suspend the illegal program.

• In season seven of its nine seasons, Roseanne Barr’s hit TV series Roseannedropped out of the top 10, and suddenly she could no longer get reservations at fancy restaurants. She had her assistant call the Palm restaurant for a reservation that night, but she was told that they were full. Roseanne then had her assistant disguise her voice and call back to ask for a reservation that night for Tom Cruise and his then-wife Nicole Kidman, and — no surprise — the Palm was not full. The assistant made the reservation for 8 p.m., but as ordered by Roseanne she called back at 7:55 p.m. to say that Tom and Nicole would not be dining at the Palm because they had accepted an invitation from Roseanne to dine at a Denny’s.

• Lucille Ball was clearly the star of I Love Lucy, and everybody knew it, including her husband and co-star Desi Arnaz and including Jess Oppenheimer, who came up with the concept of the show. Occasionally, creative differences came up between these three people, and Desi proposed that the differences be decided by majority rule: if Lucy and Desi disagreed with Jess, then Lucy and Desi would get their way, and if Lucy and Jess disagreed with Desi, then Lucy and Jess would get their way. Jess asked what would happen when Desi and Jess agreed. Desi replied, “Like I told you, majority rules. In that case, then Lucy decides.”

• “So, please, oh please, we beg, we pray, go throw your TV set away, and in its place you can install, a lovely bookcase on the wall.” — Roald Dahl


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David Bruce: Television Anecdotes

• Dick Wolf, executive producer of Law & Orderand all of its spinoffs, occasionally has to make tough decisions. NBC’s president of Entertainment Warren Littlefield called him when Law & Orderwas in its fourth season. Mr. Wolf remembers, “Warren called up and said, ‘You’ve got to put women in the show.’ And I said, ‘Well, I just can’t add characters. That means I’d have to make some changes.’ He said, `Exactly.’” Mr. Wolf added S. Epatha Merkerson and Jill Hennessy to the cast, but that meant that he had to fire two male members of the cast. One of those two was Dann Florek. Mr. Wolf called Mr. Florek and told him, “Look, you know, this is a very difficult call. You’re the guy who’s first there every day. You always know your lines. You never bump into the furniture. You’re fired.’ It was terrible. It was the worst call of my professional career.” Fortunately, Mr. Florek later was rehired to play the captain on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.

• Actress Suzanne Pleshette is best known for her role as the TV wife of Bob Hartley, played by comedian Bob Newhart, on the hit sitcom The Bob Newhart Show. As Emily Hartley, she was pretty and sexy and memorable; however, her funniest TV moment may have come at the very end of another series starring Mr. Newhart: the series titled Newhart, in which his character runs a country inn in Vermont. At the end of the series finale, Bob wakes up in bed next to Emily, and the audience learns that the entire series Newhartwas actually a dream caused by Bob Hartley’s eating too much Japanese food before going to bed. This, of course, became a part of pop culture, and the satiric Oniononce ran a 1999 story with the headline “Universe Ends as God Wakes Up Next to Suzanne Pleshette.” Ms. Pleshette was known for her deep, smoky voice. She once said, “Telephone operators have called me ‘sir’ since I was 6.”

• Actor Dule Hill played the personal aide to the President on the TV series The West Wing. After three years of playing the role, he was honored when a full-page photograph of him appeared in a book about the series. He bought a copy of the book and gave it to his grandmother. Of course, she was very happy to receive the book. Looking at the full-page photograph of her grandson, she said, “Look what I lived to see.” Mr. Hill says, “I remember that moment—knowing her journey. She’d worked as a seamstress, walked to the bus in the middle of winter…. It taught me that when you pursue your dreams and sometimes you keep working hard, working hard and you may not get the reward yourself—but for the grace of God, it all works out in the long run. That taught me a lot. You don’t know what you do today how it affects tomorrow.”

• Before interviewing Edythe Eyde for a book about the life experiences of elderly lesbians, Zsa Zsa Gershick noticed she had a TV tuned to a daytime talk show about women with very large breasts. Seeing a woman with a size 44EEE chest, Ms. Gershick asked, “What in the world would anyone do with breasts that size?” Ms. Eyde winked and said, “Well, I don’t know about you, but when I was younger, I would have had a hell of a good time!”

• When major-league hockey player Mario Lemieux was young, he and his young brothers were hockey fans. One day, they were watching Hockey Night in Canadaon television when their babysitter turned the channel to one showing a movie that she wanted to see. This shocked and outraged the boys. They locked their babysitter in the bathroom, and when she shouted at them to let her out, they turned up the volume of the hockey game they were watching.

• Margaret Thatcher was a formidable woman and a formidable politician, and her staff was afraid of her. Once, she held a meeting with her staff—yes-men all—and then they went to a restaurant for lunch. The waiter asked Mrs. Thatcher for her order, and she ordered beef. He then asked her, “And the vegetables?” Mrs. Thatcher replied, “They will have the beef as well.” (Actually, this is a joke from a TV satirical puppet show titled Spitting Image.)

• Oral historian Studs Terkel had a show called Stud’s Placein the early days of television, but he was blacklisted because—always interested in politics and the common man—he had signed many, many leftwing petitions. Someone asked him about the petitions, “Don’t you know communists are behind this?” Mr. Terkel replied, “And if the communists are against cancer does that mean we have to be for cancer?”

• Sarah Michelle Gellar, star of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which she regularly killed vampires with a combination of karate moves and stakes to the heart, really got into the role. She once visited an amusement park where an actor dressed as a vampire jumped out to scare the amusement park visitors—Sarah gave the “vampire” a karate chop.

• Luxury car buffs should love the 1960s tongue-in-cheek TV spy series The Avengers. Among the cars driven by John Steed, played by Patrick Macnee, are a yellow 1923 Rolls Royce Phantom Tourer Mk1, a yellow 1927 Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, a green 1926 Speed Six Bentley, and a green 1926 4 1/2 litre Bentley.

• Children’s fantasy author Tamora Pierce sets herself a quota of pages to write each day. As deadlines grow nearer, she must write more pages. If she doesn’t reach her quota of pages, she won’t allow herself to watch TV that day. (Most evenings, she watches TV.)

• Children’s book author and illustrator Graeme Base, who created Animaliaand The Eleventh Hour: A Curious Mystery, is sometimes asked what advice he would give a young person who wants to create their own books. Mr. Base’s advice is simple: “Sell the TV.”

• A priest who guested on Groucho Marx’s quiz show You Bet Your Lifetold him, “I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve put into the world.” Groucho replied, “And I want to thank you for all the joy you’ve taken out of it.”


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David Bruce: Television Anecdotes

• Comedian Tim Conway served as producer-director of an Ohio TV program titled Ernie’s Place, which featured Ernie Anderson. The program had no budget, and so each week Mr. Conway appeared as a guest on the show. One of the things that he and Mr. Anderson would do was to announce that a local notable such as the Mayor was going to appear on the show and be interviewed, but none of the local notables actually wanted to be on the show. When Mr. Conway and Mr. Anderson would announce that the Mayor was going to be on the show, the Mayor would telephone them and say that there was no way he would be on the show. But Mr. Conway and Mr. Anderson would announce on air that the Mayor had telephoned to say that he was on his way. They would keep teasing the audience like that until they would say that the Mayor had finally arrived, but it was too late to interview him. Because they did this so frequently, Mr. Conway says, “The audience soon got on to us.” By the way, Mr. Conway married his own godmother. In 1958, he converted to Catholicism, and when the priest asked him who would serve as his godmother, Mr. Conway suggested the young woman he was dating. The priest advised against that because perhaps Mr. Conway and the young woman would get married and then Mr. Conway would be marrying his own godmother. So the priest suggested that Mary Anne Dalton, a friend of the couple, should be Mr. Conway’s godmother. This suggestion was accepted, and she became Mr. Conway’s godmother. However, he broke up with his girlfriend and started dating Ms. Dalton, and on May 27, 1961, he married his own godmother.

• Johnny Carson, host of The Tonight Showfor many years, was a quick-witted man who came up with his own jokes — and who delivered expertly the jokes his writers came up with. Joan Embrey of the San Diego Zoo often brought exotic animals on his show, and a marmoset once climbed onto Johnny and sat on Johnny’s head. Johnny looked into the camera and said, “Tell me one other place in this whole world of seven billion people where a man is sitting with a marmoset on his head.” A man once asked him, “What made you a star?” Johnny replied, “I started out in a gaseous state and then I cooled.” Ed McMahon, Johnny’s Tonight Showsidekick and friend, was often the good-natured recipient of Johnny’s jokes about his supposedly excessive intake of alcohol. Once, Johnny said, “Actually, Ed has good control of his drinking. He drinks only in places that have walls.” Of course, funny things sometimes happened to him. Fairly early in his career, he and Mr. McMahon were sitting together in a restaurant when they noticed two elderly ladies looking at them and smiling. One elderly lady told the other, “You go.” The other elderly lady replied, “No, you go.” When they had settled who should go, one elderly lady approached their table. Mr. Carson and Mr. McMahon thought that she was going to ask them for autographs, but the elderly lady said, “If you’re not using the cream, may we have it?”)

• In 1986, Marlo Thomas was nominated for an Emmy for Best Dramatic Actress for her performance in the TV movie Nobody’s Child. In the same year, The Golden Girls, a TV series produced by Tony Thomas, her brother, was nominated for Best Comedy Series. Their parents, comedian Danny Thomas and Rose Marie Thomas, decided not to attend the Emmy Awards that year because they knew that they would be devastated if one of their children won an Emmy and the other lost, so they watched the awards program on TV. A neighbor, Ted Mann, had a satellite dish with a feed from the East Coast, so when he was watching the middle of the Emmy Awards show other people on the West Coast, such as the Thomases, were watching the beginning. Mr. Mann called the Thomases with good news: “Tony just won the Emmy!” This was good news, and the Thomases threw coats over their pajamas and went to Mr. Mann’s house to watch the rest of the Emmy Awards show. More good news: Marlo won the Emmy. The Thomases then got dressed up so they could celebrate that night with Tony and Marlo.

• Sometimes, you need the courage to stand up for your beliefs. When Mel Brooks was a comedy writer for Sid Caesar, Mr. Brooks wrote a sketch featuring Mr. Caesar as a German professor, but Mr. Caesar did not want to do it. As they walked together on the street, Mr. Caesar kept saying, “No,” as Mr. Brooks tried to convince him to do the sketch. Finally, out of frustration, Mr. Brooks, who is a small man, hit Mr. Caesar, who is a big man, in the face. Mr. Caesar looked at Mr. Brooks and said, “I’ll let you live.” However, Mr. Caesar was impressed that Mr. Brooks believed so strongly in the sketch, so he did it on TV and discovered that Mr. Brooks was correct about the funniness of the German professor and the sketch. Thereafter, Mr. Caesar appeared on his TV show as the German professor many times.

• Leonard Nimoy has accomplished much in his long life, but he will be especially remembered for acting the role of Dr. Spock, science officer of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek. Of course, fans identify him with the role—so much so that they think he knows a lot more about science than he actually knows. Once, he visited the California Institute of Technology, where students told him about their extremely sophisticated science projects. Mr. Nimoy says, “They were explaining these things to me. It was not my language. I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, but I nodded very sagely, stroked my chin a little bit, and was very thoughtful. They said, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘You’re on the right track.’”

• “I wish there was a knob on the TV so you could turn up the intelligence.  They got one marked ‘brightness’ but it don’t work, does it?”  — Leo Anthony Gallagher


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