It’s been a curious but fairly regular occurrence on television throughout its history: A popular star or co-star of a hit and/or award-winning show finds a new TV opportunity when that show comes to an end — either right away, or some years later — and looks forward to the new series, with a wide base of established fans eager to see that star again. But the show flops, sometimes getting canceled after a single season, sometimes after just a handful of episodes. The causes may vary — a poor timeslot with unbeatable competition, not enough publicity to make viewers aware, or just bad creative decisions on the part of the team behind the scenes.
But its surprising how many stars, riding high with popularity from their signature program, found their next effort to be so quickly rejected by the public. While we could blame any number of extenuating circumstances, such as those above, actors who revel in the praise and credit for their hits have also borne at least some responsibility for their subsequent failures (although they’ve rarely, if ever, blamed themselves).
By the way, no need to feel too sorry for them — for the most part, even the flops brought them healthy paychecks for as long as their programs survived.
Let’s take a look at some of them (but certainly not all), in somewhat chronological order…
Eve Arden — a popular comic actress whose career began in the 1930s (she’s featured prominently in the Marx Brothers 1939 film At the Circus) scored a big success on TV in 1952 with the sitcom Our Miss Brooks, in which she played a wisecracking English teacher. Following the end of that show in 1956, she followed-up with The Eve Arden Show in September of 1957, which lasted only until March of ’58. She did return a decade later with the slapstick sitcom The Mothers-in-Law with Kaye Ballard.
George Burns — George Burns and his wife Gracie formed their vaudeville team in 1922, and married in ‘26. Their long, successful career included their sitcom The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which premiered in 1950 and ran until Gracie’s retirement due to health reasons in 1958. In October of that year, George decided to try The George Burns Show, in which he played a talent agent, keeping the cast of the previous show intact. The series produced 25 episodes until its cancellation in April of 1959. Despite the glitch, Burns enjoyed a long and successful career in TV and films (Gracie died in 1964), and lived to celebrate his 100th birthday in 1996.
Groucho Marx — The Marx Brothers have been regarded as comedy legends for nearly a century; Groucho began the radio version of the quiz show You Bet Your Life in 1947. It became a TV favorite in 1950, running until 1961.
The following year, he attempted to continue that success with Tell It To Groucho, basically a chat show but without the quiz element (yet the guests curiously still had to stand behind their microphones while Groucho sat behind a small desk). It debuted in January of 1962, and lasted only until that May.
Ted Bessell — The name might not ring a bell right away, but to many TV viewers, Bessell — as Don Hollinger on That Girl — was the perfect TV boyfriend, patiently providing a sense of humor (and just plain sense) to Marlo Thomas’ somewhat tightly-wound Ann Marie. Bessell had a natural manner that made him a joy to watch (even his line readings included bits of brief stammering and other tics that real people unconciously include in their everyday speech). That Girl ended a five-year run in 1971.
By January of ’72, Bessell was back as the star of Me and the Chimp (created by Garry Marshall, co-starring Anita Gillette) — the premise of which a chimp could guess, by the title alone. Bessell played a family man whose kids one day brought home a chimp they had found in the park (!). Hijinx ensued, but not for long. The show lasted 13 episodes.
Wayne Rogers — After three seasons as Trapper John on M*A*S*H, Rogers left the series in 1975 in a dispute with the producers. The following season, he debuted as the star as a 1930s L.A. detective in City of Angels. The show premiered in February of 1976, and was canceled that August. Rogers had somewhat better success co-starring in House Calls with Lynn Redgrave from 1979–82.
McLean Stevenson — Another M*A*S*H cast member to get itchy for his own show after a few seasons on the hit, Stevenson is perhaps the most extreme example of a star making multiple attempts to extend his high profile beyond the program that made him well-known in the first place. His popularity on M*A*S*H as Col. Henry Blake prompted him to decide, during the 1974–75 season, that he was worthy of having his own show, and informed M*A*S*H producers of his intention to leave the series. They gave his character an emotional send-off (with Blake’s discharge from the army) but also delivered a sucker-punch to viewers by having the character’s airplane shot down before he could make his trip home to the States.
Henry Blake died only once, but Stevenson died repeatedly as a sitcom star many times after that, attempting no fewer than four sitcoms between 1976 and 1983: The McLean Stevenson Show (Dec. ‘76-March ’77), In The Beginning (Sept-Oct. ‘78), Condo (Feb. ‘83-June ’83) and Hello, Larry (Jan. 79-April ’80). He may have indeed been an amiable, funny guy, but for the networks to expend so much energy and money on him ultimately proved to be a wasteful exercise, and not really worth the effort. He was relegated mostly to guest appearances on sitcoms and game shows throughout the 1980s. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1990, “I made the mistake of believing that people were enamored of McLean Stevenson when the person they were enamored of was Henry Blake. So if you go and do The McLean Stevenson Show, nobody cares about McLean Stevenson.”
Oh, hell, while we’re at it, we may as well throw in the other former M*A*S*H actors who appeared in AfterMASH. It debuted in September, 1983, and starred Harry Morgan, Jamie Farr, and William Christopher as their M*A*S*H characters adapting to life back home from the war, and all working at a V. A. hospital in Missouri. The show received a tepid response from critics and viewers, and was canceled halfway through its second season.
Raymond Burr — He will forever be remembered primarily as the title character in Perry Mason, a role he played for nine seasons. Within a year after that series ended, he began a new series, Ironside, which ran for an additional eight seasons. An impressive record to be sure, but we can’t count Kingston Confidential as a third success for Burr. That series, with him starring as a powerful media magnate who solves crimes in his spare time, premiered in March of 1977, and aired its final episode in August of the same year.
In the 1980s, he returned as Perry Mason in a series of TV movies.
Mary Tyler Moore — After five years co-starring on The Dick van Dyke Show as the appealing Laura Petrie, Moore appeared in a few movies before returning to TV in 1970, with The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It enjoyed its status as a viewer favorite for eight seasons, with its highly-rated finale airing in March of 1977. In September of ‘78, Moore reappeared as host of the comedy-variety show Mary, with a supporting ensemble cast including Dick Shawn, David Letterman, Swoosie Kurtz, and Michael Keaton. Viewers obviously weren’t interested in seeing Moore out of her familiar, fictional Mary Richards character, and the show was canceled after only three episodes.
In December of 1985, Moore returned to the sitcom format in a show titled — surprisingly enough — Mary, placing her at a Chicago newspaper. That series, unlike the first Mary, managed to stay on the air for a few months, from December of 1985 to April of ‘86.
Ted Knight — After receiving two Emmys as Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Knight’s first attempt in a starring sitcom role came with The Ted Knight Show, with Knight as the owner of an escort service. The show lasted only five weeks, in April and May of 1978.
Knight did have better luck with Too Close For Comfort, which debuted in November of 1980, and ran to September of ‘83.
David Cassidy — Singing/acting teen heartthrob Cassidy (son of actor Jack Cassidy, stepson of Shirley Jones), made a splash with young females across the country in The Partridge Family (1970–74), but attempted a change in image as an undercover L.A. cop in the drama David Cassidy, Man Undercover (another brilliant show title). The series premiered in November of 1978 and left the air in August of ’79. Who knew?
Sally Struthers —As one of the main characters in the landmark sitcom All in the Family (January, ’71 — April, ‘79, before it morphed into Archie Bunker’s Place), Struthers won two Emmy Awards as Gloria Stivic. In 1978, she and Rob Reiner left the show, and few years later Struthers reappeared in prime time with Gloria, continuing her character but in a totally new setting, as a veterinarian assistant (Burgess Meredith played her boss). The show premiered in September of 1982, but lasted a single season. Struthers later reappeared as supporting character Babette in Gilmore Girls.
Suzanne Pleshette — Fans of The Bob Newhart Show (1972–78) loved Pleshette as Newhart’s wife Emily, but that love didn’t translate into ratings for her first starring role in a series, with the godawful title Suzanne Pleshette Is Maggie Briggs (did the creators of the show honestly think viewers would ask each other “Hey, did you watch Suzanne Pleshette is Maggie Briggs last night?”) The series, in which she played a newspaper columnist, premiered on March 4 1984, and disappeared forever just five weeks later, on April 15.
Five years later, she returned in the drama Nightingales, in which she played a supervisor of student nurses. The program didn’t prove any more successful, premiering in January of 1989 and lasting only until April. In another return to comedy in 1994, Pleshette co-starred with former Barney Miller star Hal Linden for The Boys are Back, which hit the airwaves in September of ’94 and got the axe a few months later, in January of ‘95.
Robert Wagner — After a three-year run on Switch (with co-star Eddie Albert) in the late ‘70s, and an even more successful stint on Hart To Hart (with Stephanie Powers) from 1979-’84, Wagner returned for Lime Street in September of ’85, in which he played a suave, wealthy (what else?) international insurance investigator (whatever that is). Lime Street was off the air by the end of the following month.
Flip Wilson — A genuinely funny and amiable comedian, Wilson broke a number of barriers in his day as host of The Flip Wilson Show from 1970–74, a quality variety show offering clever comedy sketches and top musical guests each week. The program attracted the A-list of show biz celebrities of the time. More than a decade after that program left the air, he returned in September of 1985 with the family sitcom Charley & Co. Despite Wilson’s personal appeal and that of fellow cast members Gladys Knight, Della Reese, and a pre-Urkle Jaleel White, the show lasted a single season.
Valerie Bertinelli —Often given the “America’s Sweetheart” label by fans of the Normal Lear sitcom One Day at a Time, Bertinelli endeared herself to TV viewers who watched her blossom throughout show’s the nine-year run, which ended in 1984. In March of 1990, she attempted a starring role as a private detective in Sydney (with then-unknown Matthew Perry). The series left the air that August.
In September of 1993, she returned with another sitcom effort, Café Americain, playing an American cafe waitress in France, dealing with the wacky regular customers.
That series ran for 18 episodes, from September, to February, 1994. Bertinelli did rebound with TV Land’s original sitcom Hot in Cleveland in 2010, which proved quite popular, running for six seasons.
Delta Burke — Designing Women, premiering in 1986, quickly became a hit and made the stars household names, but Burke, due in part to the scene-stealing nature of her character’s cringe worthy pronouncements, received extra attention. By 1990, she had begun to publicly complain about the producers and her deteriorating relationship with them. The conflict culminated with her firing at the end of the fifth season in 1991. In September of 1992, she starred as an aspiring country singer in the sitcom Delta. The series lasted a single season.
Valerie Harper — Yes, Harper did successfully transfer her Rhoda character from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to her own spinoff, Rhoda, which ran from 1974–’78. In 1986, she returned with the starring role in the sitcom Valerie, but later clashed with producers, culminating in her exit from the series, which continued without her under the title The Hogan Family. Harper was replaced by Sandy Duncan. In January of 1990, Harper gave sitcoms another shot, with City, in which her character worked at the Department of City Services in an unnamed metropolis. That series lasted only until June of that year.
Bob Newhart — A successful career as a stand-up comedian (specializing in imaginary, one-sided phone conversations) led to The Bob Newhart Show, which became part of a winning Saturday night line-up on CBS in 1972 (including All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Carol Burnett Show, etc.) and ran six seasons, ending in 1978. He returned in 1982 as a Vermont innkeeper in Newhart, which ran even longer — a total of eight seasons. But the third time was not the charm. In 1992, Newhart returned to television with a series called Bob, in which he played a cartoonist. The show was heavily revamped for its second season but to no avail, and was canceled shortly thereafter.
Newhart gave it one last try in September of 1997 with George and Leo, co-starring Judd Hirsch, but that sitcom was canceled in March of ‘98.
Paul Reiser — With two successful sitcoms behind him, My Two Dads in the ’80s, followed by Mad About You in the ’90s, it seemed a good bet that Reiser would once again successfully translate his sense of comedy to a third series. Alas, upon the premiere of The Paul Reiser Show in April, 2011 — with virtually no advance promotion by NBC — the first episode received poor ratings, and the second fared even worse. The show was quickly canceled with five completed episodes going unaired. After the debacle, Reiser noted that the first two episodes weren’t even broadcast in the proper order, so viewers — as few there may have been— could not benefit from a proper introduction to the characters and setting. As a guest on The Tonight Show a week after the cancellation, he hilariously explained what happened.
In 2019, Reiser and former Mad About You co-star Helen Hunt revived that series, produced by SONY, for a 12-episode run on the Spectrum subscription TV channel.
Zach Braff — After nearly a decade starring as the neurotic young Dr. John (J.D.) Dorian on the hilarious Scrubs, Braff took a break before returning to weekly TV — but his return lasted only ten weeks. His new series, Alex, Inc., in which he played the founder and head of a new podcast company, first aired in March, 2018, but was gone by the end of May.
Full episodes of many of the above examples are available to view on YouTube — if you’re among those who care to spend time watching forgotten episodes of failed TV series. If not, well, that’s what you have me for.
P.S. — If you decide to leave a comment, please don’t tell me which actor/program I “forgot” to include on this list. There are many more I could have listed, but did not. It’s called editing.
Until next time…
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“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
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