Saturday, February 21, 2009

Silent Night, Unholy Night

Silent Night, Unholy Night
December 15, 1979
Music: Stu Phillips
Writer: Michael Sloan
Director: Vince Edwards

BJ AND THE BEAR's first and only Christmas episode (a Writer's Guild strike pushed back the 1980-81 fall season, so there were no original episodes during Christmas that year) is most notable for its guest-starring role for 31-year-old Ted Danson, less than three years away from beginning CHEERS. Danson had very little television experience at this time, though he was coming off a well-received small part in THE ONION FIELD.

On his way to deliver a load of Christmas turkeys, BJ (Greg Evigan) rescues a pregnant woman from an exploding car and sings "The Christmas Song" for a classroom of little kids. The woman, Allison Spencer (Pamela Susan Shoop), is on the run from another corrupt sheriff, Nathan McCandles (Dana Elcar), who's after the incriminating diary her lawyer husband Tom (Danson) has stashed in her purse.

It's a bizarrely structured episode that starts with the semi-regulars (Janet Louise Johnson, Marc Alaimo, Joshua Shelley, Bert Rosario) trimming a tree at the truck stop, then cuts to a standard crime plot writer Sloan could have borrowed from another series with stops for Evigan to fill time singing or riffing with chimp Bear. BJ is so awesome, he blows up some police cars, evades bullets, mocks archrival Captain Cain (Ed Lauter) in a Santa suit, delivers a baby, drops off the diary to the authorities, and still manages to get the turkeys in on time.

Danson's role is pretty small, as the episode is pretty much a chase with BJ and Allison flirting and avoiding McCandles and his men. The love story between them is surprisingly touching and appropriately downbeat.

Director Vince Edwards was once a major television star, toplining BEN CASEY for five seasons on ABC. By 1979, he was still a working actor, though was just as often found behind the camera as in front of it. His output as a director was almost always decidedly workmanlike. So were his acting performances, for that matter. All of his directing was for television, and I'd love to see his TV-movie MANEATER, in which Ben Gazzara and wife Sheree North are stalked in the forest by nutty Richard Basehart's killer tigers.

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