After recently posting the previous article on this topic, a realization came of the many more famed TV actors who have failed in their follow-ups to their first hit series. It’s only fair then, in the interest of inclusion, to extend the list to acknowledge more of our TV favorites and their failures.
And, while the pursuit of this particular category of entertainment history — i.e. wealthy, pampered celebrities laying an egg in a new TV series — may seem a tad mean-spirited, it isn’t meant to be (well, maybe a little), but rather is for the purposes of review, and even enlightenment.
Here, then, are more examples of TV stars who went from hits to flops:
Milton Berle — This first example isn’t quite as straightforward as the others on this list; “Uncle Miltie” really did spark the national craze for television with the debut of his vaudeville-style variety program, Texaco Star Theater, in 1948. Viewers loved his slapstick, outlandish costumes, and unpredictability (although he was in fact a perfectionist and strict taskmaster at rehearsals).
After the first four seasons, changes in format and sponsorship became more frequent. In 1953, the program, now named the Buick-Berle Show, continued an evolution that did not serve the host well. Berle’s broad, boisterous style of slapstick had been losing favor with TV audiences, with over-saturation, competition, and changing tastes beginning to nudge him out of the spotlight. He attempted the new format with a toned-down image, favoring conservative business suits over his clownish costumes. He soon regretted it.
“I had violated one of my basic rules of work,” he confessed. “For years I had told new young comics that they had to decide on their own personal image before they worked, and that they must never violate that image in the public’s mind. But when I turned the aggressive, pushy ‘Milton Berle’ into a passive straight man for the Buick format, I had broken my image and hurt myself, even when the ratings went up.”
Jackie Gleason — When it comes to the history of crash & burn TV disasters, the game show You’re in the Picture is often at or near the top of the list. Jackie Gleason, who had enjoyed tremendous success with his variety/sketch show and The Honeymooners, saw his hour-long variety show end in 1957.
The following autumn, he returned with a modified, half-hour program, without his original cast, but with new second-banana, Buddy Hackett. The two did not have much on-camera chemistry, and this new version of The Jackie Gleason Show lasted only three months.
In 1961, he took on the role as host of You’re in the Picture, in which celebrity contestants would stand behind large murals with cut-out faces, like those in amusement parks, and asked questions to help them guess the nature of the image in which they were posing. The results of the first episode were so disastrous, Gleason returned the following week to sit on the stage and deliver his legendary — and hilarious — half-hour apology, assuring his audience that You’re in the Picture would not return.
He later closed the program by promising, “This isn’t a requiem for a heavyweight. I’m coming back next week. I don’t know what we’re gonna do, but take my word for it, tune in for the next chapter because this might be the greatest soap-less opera you’ve ever seen!”
The time-slot was then given to Gleason to host in a talk show format. The following season, he resumed his popular comedy/variety series.
George Burns — After his long-running sitcom with wife Gracie Allen ended with her retirement in 1958, Burns attempted to continue as a regular presence on TV, launching The George Burns Show — with the cast from the original Burns & Allen show intact — but that series lasted a single season.
In 1964, Burns returned weekly television in the sitcom Wendy and Me. His role, as the owner of an apartment house, was more supportive of the show’s star, Connie Stevens, who played a young, ditzy wife of an airline pilot. Burns narrated portions of the story on-camera, as he did in his original series, and interacted with the characters in each episode to some degree. Wendy and Me lasted only for the 1964–65 season.
Full episodes are available to view on YouTube.
Larry Hagman — After a five-year run co-starring with Barbara Eden on I Dream of Jeannie ended in 1970, Hagman chose to return to TV the following year with a new sitcom, The Good Life, co-starring Donna Mills. They played a couple who decided to make a drastic change in their lifestyle by quitting their jobs and finding new employment as the live-in butler and cook of a millionaire industrialist (David Wayne).
The series lasted fifteen episodes.
In 1973, Hagman gave sitcoms another try, with Here We Go Again. Despite an impressive cast including Dick Gautier, Nita Talbot, and Diane Baker, (playing two divorced couples), the show lasted a mere thirteen episodes, ranking last out of 75 network programs before its cancellation.
There would be light at the end of the tunnel, however; Hagman hit pay dirt in 1978 with his legendary role of J.R. Ewing in the prime time blockbuster soap Dallas.
Don Adams — Fans of classic TV comedy will know Adams primarily as the bumbling secret agent on Get Smart. The hit sitcom helped ingrain his image as a cool, confident, but barely competent agent (with a catalogue of catch-phrases) into the minds of viewers, where it remains nearly sixty years later. Adams was nominated for Emmys four seasons in a row, from 1966 to 1969, for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series. He won the award three times, but the show was canceled in 1970 after 138 episodes. Once Get Smart ended its run in 1970, Adams began to see how his trademark character could be both a blessing and a curse, as it would typecast him for years to come.
In The Partners, premiering in September of 1971, he played somewhat inept police detective Lennie Crooke (much in the Maxwell Smart style), partnered with Det. George Robinson (Rupert Crosse).
When NBC decided to air the series opposite the #1 show at the time, All in the Family, its own fate was as good as sealed. By January, after airing fifteen episodes, the network pulled the show (along with The Good Life) from the schedule. A remaining five episodes were burned off that summer.
In 1975, he returned with Don Adams’ Screen Test, a syndicated game show in which non-actors would attempt to recreate classic scenes from Hollywood films with the hope of winning a small part in a real production. The series lasted 26 episodes.
After several attempts to successfully revive Get Smart, Adams starred in a Canadian sitcom Check It Out!, in which he played a supermarket manager. It was taped in front of a studio audience and aired on Canadian TV and on the USA network from 1985–88, producing a respectable total of 66 episodes.
In addition to doing voice work for cartoons (Inspector Gadget), he attempted one last revival of Get Smart for Fox in 1995, but the program was canceled after only seven episodes.
Danny Thomas — One of the more popular sitcoms of the 1950s, Make Room For Daddy (later renamed The Danny Thomas Show), brought long-time actor/comedian/singer Thomas to true stardom. The series, in which he played successful nightclub entertainer Danny Williams at the fictional Copa club (based on the real-life Copacabana in New York), ran from 1953 to 1957 on ABC. Several cast changes throughout the run-including Marjorie Lord replacing original wife Jean Hagen-didn’t seem to hurt the series’ popularity, in fact it grew its audience over time. Upon its surprising cancellation by ABC, it was quickly picked up by CBS in 1957 as a replacement for the departing I Love Lucy, where it ran until 1964.
A CBS reunion special, Make Room for Granddaddy, aired in 1969. The special did so well that it was picked up as a series by CBS, but Thomas objected to the time slot and pulled the show before it aired.
However, ABC brought back Make Room for Granddaddy on a weekly basis the following year. In addition to Lord, youngsters Rusty Hamer and Angela Cartwright, the only other returning regulars were Sid Melton as Charley Halper, and Hans Conried as Uncle Tonoose. Rosie Grier was added to the cast as well.
However, the revival of the show lasted only one year, producing 24 episodes — due to a number of obstacles, both on-camera and off.
Thomas attempted two more returns to prime time sitcoms, first with The Practice, in which he played a grumpy-but-kindhearted, old-school doctor in New York. The show ran from January of 1976 to January of ’77.
I’m a Big Girl Now premiered in October of 1980 as a starring vehicle for the appealing Diana Canova as a newly-divorced mother who moves back home to live with her dentist father (Thomas). The series lasted a single season.
Thomas achieved greater TV success behind the scenes as producer or executive producer — often partnered with Sheldon Leonard, Aaron Spelling, and others — of successful programs including The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show, That Girl, and The Mod Squad.
Sally Field — No, we’re not talking about The Flying Nun, which closely followed Field’s first TV series, Gidget. It may come as a surprise that the charming Gidget lasted only a single season, while The Flying Nun, with its preposterous premise (Field herself hated it), stayed on the air for a full three seasons, ending in September, 1970.
Three years later, Field was back, in The Girl With Something Extra, co-starring singer John Davidson. The story of a newly-married young couple was given the added twist of Field’s character having ESP, enabling her to read the mind of her husband, and others.
Before long, however, that particular gimmick was used less often over time, and nearly disposed of entirely. Despite the surprisingly serious, even emotional conflicts between the newlyweds in the early episodes (stemming from Sally’s gift of reading John’s mind), viewers were left with a fairly standard sitcom with so-so plots and a few rather annoying supporting characters. It ran for a single season, until May of 1974. Of course, Field would rise to the stratosphere of film acting in the late ’70s and ’80s, winning two Academy Awards and a boatload of others, and triumphed on TV again in roles for TV movies and in guest appearances on popular series such as ER.
Full episodes of The Girl with Something Extra are available on YouTube.
Bob Crane — As the star of Hogan’s Heroes, which enjoyed a six-season run between 1965–’71, Crane had a tough time finding steady TV work after the program aired its final episode. Aside from occasional guest spots on weekly dramas, sitcoms, and game shows, he turned his attention mostly to dinner theatre.
In 1975, he attempted a return as sitcom star with The Bob Crane Show, in which he played an insurance salesman in his forties who quits his job to return to medical school, bringing his family with him. The series was produced by MTM Productions, premiering in March of ’75, but it lasted only thirteen weeks.
In 1978, Crane was the victim of an unsolved murder (the investigation of which revealed his rather sordid personal life).
Lindsay Wagner — While she will probably be forever remembered as the Bionic Woman, a role for which she won an Emmy in 1977, Wagner has acquired a long list of impressive acting roles in the decades since starring in that sci-fi series.
Following the cancellation of The Bionic Woman in 1978, she starred mostly in TV films and miniseries, including the highly rated miniseries Scruples in 1980. She also starred in made-for-TV Bionic reunion movies with Lee Majors, which proved popular.
But her 1984 weekly drama series Jessie did not fare as well, with Wagner portraying a police psychiatrist, counseling department employees and crime victims. Of course, car chases and other action sequences somehow worked their way into each story. Only eleven episodes aired out of 15 produced.
In 1989, Wagner returned to weekly TV in A Peaceable Kingdom, playing the managing director of a Los Angeles Zoo (and a widow with three kids). The show co-starred former Dukes of Hazzard star Tom Wopat. Stiff competition from the other networks prompted CBS to cancel the series after airing only seven episodes (five more completed episodes were later aired in syndication).
Marilu Henner — After the successful run on the hit sitcom Taxi ended in 1983, Henner appeared in several feature films, and hoped to return to sitcom TV in 1988 as the star of Channel 99. Playing a former TV executive who had just been released from a mental institution, her character returns to her hometown of Elmira, New York, and somehow takes the reigns of the pitiful local TV station.
Technically, Channel 99 was even more of a flop than all of the series examined above, due to the fact that the pilot episode, intended to kickoff the show for the 1988 season, was rejected by NBC. The pilot did air — once, that August, before the official TV season began (with the series producer, Ron Howard, making a cameo appearance)— but the series itself never got off the ground.
Brief clips of the pilot can be found if you look hard enough at various stops on the Internet, but, honestly, it’s not really worth the trouble.
So concludes this second look at celebrated TV actors who went from hits to flops. There have been countless more stars throughout television’s 75-year history who suffered such this particular humiliation on the small screen, but perhaps next time we’ll focus on a creative success, genuinely worthy of remembering and celebrating.
Until next time…
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Other television-related articles of mine that might be of interest to you:
“Television Stars Who Went From Hits to Flops” (pt.1): https://medium.com/@garryberman/television-stars-who-went-from-hits-to-flops-c21205caa1bd
“Retro Review: Pan Am” https://medium.com/@garryberman/retro-review-pan-am-2afc7af35905
“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525
“A Mother’s Day Tribute to our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://medium.com/@garryberman/a-mothers-day-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-68f9122538a8
“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://medium.com/@garryberman/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0
“Comedy to Die For: When Death Rears it’s Head in Sitcoms” https://medium.com/@garryberman/comedy-to-die-for-when-death-rears-its-head-in-sitcoms-7a51cb0acc32
“Saying Goodbye to ‘Modern Family’” https://medium.com/@garryberman/saying-good-bye-to-modern-family-73897235416d
“No Laughs, Please: Our Greatest Comedians as Dramatic Actors” https://medium.com/@garryberman/no-laughs-please-37fdf614e85a
“Fifty Years of ‘The Odd Couple’ on TV” https://medium.com/@garryberman/fifty-years-of-the-odd-couple-on-tv-part-i-62a0eac93520
“My Funny Valentine: Comedy’s Real-life Married Couples” https://medium.com/@garryberman/my-funny-valentine-comedys-real-life-married-couples-1f0605e2caca
“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor?” https://medium.com/@garryberman/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://medium.com/@garryberman/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
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