Thursday, November 08, 2007


What's fun about watching old reruns is consistently being surprised by a familiar-looking actor early in his or her career, before he or she became famous. I've been watching weekly airings of LOU GRANT on the American Life network, which is basically what TV Land used to be back when it was fresh and exciting. Except American Life isn't fresh or exciting. What it is, however, is a terrific showcase of good old television series, such as COMBAT!, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, LOST IN SPACE, THE RAT PATROL, I SPY, THE FBI, 77 SUNSET STRIP, 12 O'CLOCK HIGH, BATMAN, THE GREEN HORNET, THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, THE BOB NEWHART SHOW, MAVERICK, CHEYENNE, CHINA BEACH, LAWMAN, CHICO AND THE MAN and several others. Not all of the shows I just mentioned are presently on American Life's schedule, but they have been. The network is clearly aimed at codgers--the constant commercials for life insurance, vitamins, scooters and hearing aids being the best clue--but it far outpaces other cable networks in terms of providing a home for classic television.

At any rate, LOU GRANT was a very successful CBS series that debuted in 1977, and was a spinoff of the recently canceled MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW. The concept was that the Lou Grant character (Edward Asner), who was fired in the MTM finale, moved to Los Angeles to become the city editor of the Tribune newspaper. I think it's the only time in network TV history that a sitcom character spun off into a serious hour drama. While it had humor, LOU GRANT was essentially a drama that used its journalism setting to explore social and human interest issues of the era. It was nominated for an astonishing 56 Emmy Awards in its five seasons and won thirteen of them, as well as Peabody Awards, Humanitas Awards and pretty much anything else you can imagine. I wouldn't be surprised if it won a blue ribbon at a 4-H fair.

I have done a helluva lotta rambling, just to tell you that a LOU GRANT I saw recently, "Nazi," featured Peter Weller and Brian Dennehy as guest stars. By 1977, neither actor was known at all by audiences, though each had done some supporting parts in series and TV-movies. Weller had a great guest role--the kind you don't see a lot in today's glut of cop shows with large ensemble casts--as Stryker, the leader of an L.A. neo-Nazi group that breaks up a Jewish ceremony in a public part. While researching a news story about the organization, reporter Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) discovers that Stryker's real name is Sturner...and that he's Jewish. Dennehy plays Stryker's number-two in a nuanced performance that suggests his character's essential loneliness; you can tell--without being told--that he was the fat kid in school who was picked on and joined the Nazi party to find acceptance.

It is obvious from "Nazi" that both young actors had the stuff to become successful actors, particularly Weller, who is very convincing playing a range of emotions. Casting agents must have noticed, because both men worked steadily in TV and films from then on. And still do.

1 comment:

Vince said...

My cable service dropped the American Life network just as I started tuning in. I miss it.