We are the dumbest people ever. Okay, maybe not the dumbest. But certainly the most vapid, empty-headed, insipid, trite people ever. We are. And I have proof.
But first, let’s step back a few decades, and visit primetime television circa 1964. Remember actor Dick York? From 1964 to 1969, in a grand total of 156 episodes, he portrayed Darrin Stephens, the agitated but devoted husband of one beautiful witch, Samantha, on the primetime comedy, Bewitched. Lovely. In 1968, Dick York disappeared from the cast, almost by magic, and was replaced by another actor, Dick Sargent.
Here’s how CBS and the producers of the show explained the change in the cast to viewers. “Samantha” addressed him as “Darrin” the first time we saw him on screen and he responded. It took the audience, including me at the tender age of 9 years old I might add, about three seconds to process the following (challenging) bit of information:
The other guy: out.
This guy: in.
No one had to tell us what happened to the other Darrin. No one had to write a script explaining how Darrin #1 had been killed in a tragic accident and how Samantha found new love in yet another man who, interestingly enough, worked in advertising at McMahon and Tate, and was also named Darrin Stephens.
I’m leaving aside the fact that in this same series at least two actresses portrayed neighbor Gladys Kravitz and two actresses played Louise Tate. Admittedly, neither role was a lead in the show but still; no one was ever confused or concerned about the changes.
Then again, you have your “Bonanza” cast changes from the ‘60s and ‘70s. Pernell Roberts chose to leave the show and his character, Adam, was conveniently relocated to Australia. Actor Dan Blocker died unexpectedly after surgery as the last season was about to begin and the producers responded by killing his character, “Hoss,” instead of hiring another actor for the role.
This notion of the viewing public having the intelligence God gave a flea started to get some additional traction in the 1970s and 1980s.
Who could forget M*A*S*H*? Instead of replacing Wayne Rogers in the role of “Trapper” John McIntyre, M.D. (a character and role resurrected in an entirely different series by the previously noted Pernell Roberts) the show sent McIntyre home and introduced Dr. B.J. Hunnicutt, played by Mike Farrell. And as the saying goes, war is hell. When McLean Stephenson (“Lt. Henry Blake”) left the show, the creators killed Henry.
Then there’s Cheers. Nicholas Colasanto, playing the beloved “Coach,” died and the bartender who took his place was a younger man with the same sweet disposition, Woody Harrelson playing Woody Boyd. (Please note the actor name matching the character name. This will come up again later.)
My favorite ridiculous story about stars and characters and our seeming unwillingness to suspend disbelief is from the sitcom, “Valerie.” Or should I say, “Valerie’s Family.” Or should I say, “The Hogan Family.” Remember this?
Valerie Harper started on her road to television sitcom fame playing the best friend, Rhoda Morganstern, on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, where Mary Tyler Moore played “Mary.” Harper eventually leaped to her own spinoff, “Rhoda,” playing the lead this time.
Like MTM, she somehow moved beyond a character name and in 1986, she starred in “Valerie,” playing Valerie Hogan, the mother of three sons. When she quit the show after just one year over her contract, she was replaced by the ever-perky and ever-popular Sandy Duncan, playing a close Hogan family relative who joined the household after Valerie “died.”
Let’s take a moment here to pose a question: one season? Are you kidding me? After one season we were all so connected to and fond of Valerie Hogan that we just couldn’t give her up? Why not hire Sandy Duncan, call her Valerie and be done with it?
I don’t know. But I guess I shouldn’t be all that amazed that CBS may in fact be killing off Charlie Sheen’s character, Charlie Harper, on Two and a Half Men. Was the character that nuanced? That deep? So complex that in the hands of a lesser thespian, viewers would have suffered in dismay as they watched a new “bad guy” on the show?
What I can’t figure out is why more producers don’t take their cue from Bewitched and just replace the actor / actress who is not available for whatever reason and move on with someone new playing the same character.
I can hear the outcry already. Impossible! There could never be another Hoss. Or another Coach. Or another Henry Blake. Or another Charlie Harper.
Nonsense. Of course there could be. But producers and creators seem to buy into their own fantasies to the point where they get delusional. According to IMDB, Jean Stapleton was the only realist on All in the Family: When the show was ending its run, Norman Lear spoke with Jean Stapleton (who was growing weary of playing Edith Bunker) about how they would respectfully have Edith die. She said, "Just have her die off, she's only fiction." Lear paused, then said, "Not to me, she isn't."
And there it is.
Look, I love characters and stories and I love feeling like the people we love in stories or on television or on film are real. But they’re not and never will be. And we all have our favorite portrayals and favorite characters. Firth = Darcy. Stallone = Rocky. Gable = Butler. Garland = Dorothy.
But then again: Connery – Lazenbi - Moore –Dalton - Brosnan – Craig = Bond. Then again (again), a tuxedo and a martini can work miracles.