With television programming available these days on demand via the likes of Netflix, Hulu and Disney+, it may be hard for many people born after 1980 to picture the nature of TV viewing in the 1950s and ‘60s. VCRs and cable TV were not widespread – so programs had to be viewed when the national networks or local TV stations aired them or not at all. Worse yet, most families had only one TV set (if they had one at all) so the family had to agree on which program among those available (generally those of the Big Three networks of CBS, NBC and ABC) the family would view at any given hour. It was brutally competitive for TV performers, but those who succeeded were huge celebrities, seen each week by a third or more of all Americans. It’s these superstars of 1950s and 1960s television that are profiled in Conversations with Legendary Television Stars by James Bawden and Ron Miller.
We read in the book’s dust jacket and throughout the book that Bawden was a TV columnist for the Toronto Star and Miller the TV editor of the San Jose Mercury News as well as a syndicated columnist for Knight-Ridder Newspapers. In the course of their work, they interviewed hundreds of TV performers, and 39 selections from their archives have been compiled for this book.
Boomers will remember these superstars of mid-20th Century television
The best known of these actors and TV hosts are likely Lucille Ball, George Burns, and The Golden Girls’ Bea Arthur, but most of the subjects were TV stars of shows that are little seen today and will likely be remembered mainly by readers of boomer age or older. Readers who remember 1950s TV will enjoy revisiting the careers of Eve Arden (Our Miss Brooks), Danny Thomas (Make Room for Daddy), Noel Neill (Superman’ s Lois Lane), Ann Sothern (Private Secretary), and Robert Cummings (The Bob Cummings Show). Some of the actors interviewed spanned two decades or more. Donna Reed starred in her eponymous family comedy series The Donna Reed Show from 1958 to 1966 and returned in the 1980s for a season as Miss Ellie in Dallas., while James Arness starred in Gunsmoke for a full 20 seasons from 1955 to 1975. Raymond Burr played Perry Mason from 1957 to 1966 and starred in the hugely successful Ironside from 1967 to 1975. John Forsythe was the Bachelor Father from 1957 to 1962 but had hits in Charlie’s Angels during the ‘70s and Dynasty in the ‘80s.
Those readers whose TV watching experience included the 1960s and 1970s will recognize the likes of Eddie Albert (Green Acres), William Conrad (Cannon), Mike Connors (Mannix), and Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.). Two of the actresses interviewed - Mary Martin and Julie Harris - are more appropriately termed stage legends than TV legends, but Martin made TV history in the 1955 live telecast of Peter Pan and Harris earned a TV following with Knot’s Landing in the ‘80s.
CONVERSATIONS WITH LEGENDARY TELEVISION STARS offers candid reflections on their careers
These 39 short profiles all follow the same structure. They open with a brief bio of the subject and a description of the circumstances of the writers’ interview, follow with a Q & A-style interview with the subject, and conclude with an Afterword that brings the story up to the end of the subject’s life (all 39 have passed away). The interviews are generally a reflection on the subjects’ career – how they got into show business and what led them to their signature roles on TV. Bawden and Miller show an easy rapport with their subjects that seems to have encouraged the TV stars to open up candidly with the interviewers. It may also be true that at the time of these interviews, the interviewees were late in their careers and felt free to be themselves and give honest answers.
These performers came to work in the then-new medium of TV mostly from radio and movies. Their reflections coincidentally provide a picture of a show business in transition from the widespread popularity of those earlier media to the mass appeal of television as it grew from the late 1940s through the 1970s. They also provide a picture of the television business of these decades – when success depended as much on a program’s time slot and competition at that hour as it did on a program’s merit.
The appeal of this book, at least for this reviewer, depends largely on the degree to which each of the subjects is fondly remembered. The interviews are arranged alphabetically and at an average length of 8 pages per interview, the book is structured for browsing and reading in short bursts of time, letting the reader go to the subject of greatest interest to them.
CONVERSATIONS WITH LEGENDARY TELEVISION STARS: Interviews from the First Fifty Years
James Bawden and Ron Miller
University Press of Kentucky
Images courtesy of University Press of Kentucky
Find more information search the book listings for CONVERSATIONS WITH LEGENDARY TELEVISION STARS on the University Press of Kentucky website, and shop the University Press of Kentucky warehouse sale to obtain a copy.
About the Author:
John Olson is an arts carnivore who is particularly a love of music, theatre and film. He studied piano, trombone and string bass into his college years, performing in bands and orchestras in high school and college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While working as an advertising agency account manager, he began a second career as an arts journalist and is now principal of John Olson Communications, a marketing and public relations business serving arts and entertainment clients.