Dead Folks 2010: Television
Tom Bosley (83)
Actor Tom Bosley, best known as the patriarch of the Cunningham clan on television’s “Happy Days” beginning in 1974 and as the title character in “The Father Dowling Mysteries,” was a portly fellow with a warm stage persona. A Chicago native, in 1950 he opted for the stages of New York City instead of going to Los Angeles to launch his acting career, because he feared he was too short and fat to make it on the big screen. His first major role was on Broadway as populist New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia in the production Fiorello! He also appeared in dozens of popular television shows, including “Get Smart,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Bonanza,” and “Bewitched.” In 2004, Bosley made the Top Ten on TV Guide’s list of the most popular television fathers. In an interview with the publication, he recalled a hilarious anecdote from his earliest days on stage. He had a small role in a play that included Shelley Berman and Geraldine Page, and was busy going over his lines backstage on opening night when he became confused and walked on stage too soon. Page turned to Bosley and said, “Do you mind? We’re doing a play here.”—Ed Reynolds
Stephen J. Cannell (69)
His last name rhymes with “channel,” which is appropriate, because it would have been difficult, from the early 1970s until the mid-1990s, to scan cable or broadcast television without running across a crime drama produced, created, or written by Cannell. His output is daunting: 450 full scripts, production of 1,500 episodes, and about 40 TV series creations or co-creations. He formed his own production company in 1979; in 1986 the prolific writer and producer boasted six shows in prime time on two different networks that year. “The Rockford Files” was the gold standard for smart dialogue and superb ensemble casting. “The A Team” was that mystifying phenomenon in which a stunningly bad, cheaply executed carnival attraction becomes a prime-time success.
Working for Universal and NBC during the 1970s, Cannell knocked out scripts for “Adam-12,” “Ironside, “Baretta,” and “Columbo,” for which he was paid the minimum Writers Guild fee. Thanks to a stipulation in his contract with Universal, however, Cannell could earn a small fortune writing pilot episodes for new series. Along with being a lucrative arrangement, his work in scripting pilots had him consistently thinking in terms of “the new.” Very soon he was simply creating shows from the ground up. “The Rockford Files”, “Wiseguy,” “Silk Stalkings,” “21 Jump Street,” and “The A Team” were among his most successful endeavors.
Although his colleagues (“Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law” creator Steven Bochco; “The Sopranos” creator David Chase) reference Cannell’s clever dialogue and prolificity, the most truly remarkable aspect of his career is that he suffered from a serious case of dyslexia. Indeed, Cannell’s personal history was the payoff to one of Paul Harvey’s “The Rest of the Story” entries; television’s most prolific and gifted crime-drama writer struggled daily to spell and read. He was obviously more befuddled than troubled by his condition; that’s him with a twinkle in his eye at the conclusion of each of his shows, tearing a sheet from his old IBM typewriter and tossing it into the air just before the page morphs into a logo for Stephen J. Cannell Productions.—David Pelfrey
Dixie Carter (70)
A former daytime soap opera actress and stage and cabaret performer, Dixie Carter achieved prominence as one of the four stars of hit TV series “Designing Women.” Her character on the show was an outspoken liberal, offering monologues from that point of view. In real life, however, Carter was a conservative who disagreed with her character’s commentaries. As a result, she made a deal with the producers that she would be allowed to sing a song in a future episode for each liberal diatribe she was forced to deliver. As have several other celebrities, Carter confessed to maintaining an appearance that belied her age by using human growth hormone, known for its anti-aging properties, as well as plastic surgery.—ER
Gary Coleman (42)
A diminutive fellow with a perpetually childlike face that made it difficult for him to find acting jobs later in life, Gary Coleman’s adult life was the typical nightmare that many child stars endure. He suffered from congenital kidney disease, which stunted his height at four feet, eight inches. He underwent two unsuccessful kidney transplants by age 14 and was forced to undergo daily dialysis for the rest of his life.
He was 10 when he landed the role of Arnold Jackson on the TV sit-com “Diff’rent Strokes” in 1978 after having been spotted in TV commercials as a 7-year-old by a talent scout for TV producer Norman Lear. Coleman costarred with troubled child actors Todd Bridges and Dana Plato on the show. (Bridges later served time on drug and weapons charges, and reportedly physically bullied Coleman on the set. Plato died of a drug overdose at age 34 in 1999.) The show was about two black brothers adopted by a white Manhattan millionaire after their mother, employed as a housekeeper by the millionaire, passed away. Plato played their adopted white sister. Coleman’s famous catchphrase was repeatedly asking his TV brother, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” The show was so popular that former First Lady Nancy Reagan appeared in a cameo to make an antidrug pitch. “Diff’rent Strokes” was canceled in 1986. At that time, Coleman was 18 and reportedly worth $18 million. He soon discovered that he had been cheated out of millions and successfully sued his parents and business advisor in 1989 for mishandling his finances when he was earning $100,000 per episode. He was awarded $1.3 million. By 1999 he filed for bankruptcy, and his life further unraveled as he became increasingly bitter.
Desperate for money, Coleman appeared on a celebrity dating show, worked as a corporate pitchman, and wrote an online advice column. He was eventually forced to take menial jobs. In 1999, he was working at a Los Angeles mall as a security guard. A woman asked for his autograph, whereupon Coleman became outraged and struck her. He pleaded no contest to battery. In 2003, he sought the office of governor of California, finishing eighth, just behind Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. In a frantic grab for a quick payday, Coleman sought public resolution of his 2007 marriage on the TV show “Divorce Court” a year later.—ER
Robert Culp (79)
During the film and TV spy-thriller craze of the 1960s, the James Bond franchise filled theaters, and programs such as “The Avengers,” “Get Smart,” and “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” dominated television. A familiar face among television’s international men of mystery was Culp’s character Kelly Robinson, a secret agent masquerading as a tennis player, resolving matters of espionage with his partner, Alexander Scott, who posed as his trainer. Scott was played by Bill Cosby, which made “I Spy” the first American TV series starring a black actor. When Culp learned that Cosby was to be cast as his co-star, he balked at the notion—not because Cosby was black (Culp was a civil rights activist, after all) but because he wondered how audiences would respond to a nightclub comedian playing a spy. Because both actors at the time exuded a kind of debonair cool, it was never an issue.
With a glint in his eye and barely smirking, square-jawed features, Culp was a natural as the charming, smarter-than-average playboy, whether on screen in the 1969 sexual mores comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, or in real life at the Playboy Mansion’s poker tables, where Culp held court with his own carefully chosen league of distinguished cads and close friend Hugh Hefner.
In spite of his naturally appealing demeanor (or maybe because of it), Culp often cleverly chose roles in which he could reveal—and revel in—the dark side of the charm offensive. As a corrupt city official, conniving murderer, or all-around jerk, he displayed a casual air of superiority, privilege, and calm exasperation with the fools he was forced to suffer, most notably in three different roles as a suspect in the TV series “Columbo.”—DP
Phil Gordon (94)
Who got the hicks sounding so authentic on “Green Acres”? Give some credit to Alabama’s own Phil Gordon, who—in addition to acting in several episodes—was also the show’s occasional dialogue coach. The Mississippi native was also a recurring presence on “Petticoat Junction” and “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The latter show had Gordon appearing as traveling salesman Jazzbo Depew, who became the first character in TV history to invoke the mythical name of Hooterville. All this was in the aftermath of the jazz musican’s frequent work with TV pioneer Jack Webb, who cast Gordon in both -30- and The Last Time I Saw Archie—both truly classic films that remain unavailable on DVD. CBS later decided to purge itself of all its popular cornpone comedies, and Gordon left Los Angeles for Mobile—where he passed away in June.—JR Taylor
Edward Kean (85)
He had a brief showbiz career, with his main writing and production credit beginning in 1947 with the pioneering TV kiddie hit “The Howdy Doody Show.” That was also when Kean began his career as a songwriter. First, he used the popular tune “Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom-Dee-Ay” for the theme song of “It’s Howdy Doody Time.” People of a certain age can still recite the lyrics by heart, and he lived to see the song used on the big screen for both 2008′s Revolutionary Road and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Kean managed a few more important milestones while writing more than 2,000 episodes of the daily TV show. Howdy Doody, for example, became the first TV character to campaign to become president of the United States. More enduringly, Kean came up with the character of Chief Thunderthud, whose greeting to the kiddies was originally spelled as “kowabunga.” The phrase is now commonly spelled “cowabunga,” of course, and has gone from surfer rallying cry to part of the American language—freshly renewed in the 1980s by both Bart Simpson and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.—JRT
Art Linkletter (97) was a fixture of daytime television during the 1950s and ’60s, having pioneered unrehearsed audience-participation talk shows on radio and at the dawn of television. The most popular incarnation of this spontaneous format was “House Party” (1952–70), an anything-goes (but resolutely family friendly) program for which there were no scripts. During the “Kids Say the Darndest Things” segment of his show, Linkletter interviewed school-age children, eliciting candid responses (read: unvarnished truth about Mom and Dad) and consequently mining a rich vein of TV gold. The segment quickly emerged as a Linkletter trademark, fostering a series of best-selling books and decades later providing a forum for Bill Cosby. Linkletter was generally associated with kids, having invested in the Hula Hoop, acting as the spokesman for Milton Bradley (that’s Linkletter’s face on The Game of Life’s $100,000 bill), and famously hosting the grand opening of Disneyland in 1955.—DP