News from the Archive

The Archive Celebrates Black History Month

February 8th, 2017

The Archive celebrates Black History Month with our latest Google Cultural Institute exhibit. Check it out below!

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Mom Always Liked You Best: "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" Turns 50!

February 5th, 2017
Dick and Tom Smothers

Tom and Dick. Tea with Goldie. Pete Seeger. These are just a few associations one makes at the mention of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Some others: controversy, cancellation, law suit.

The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour first premiered on CBS on February 5, 1967 with brothers Tom and Dick Smothers as hosts. The variety show lasted three seasons and seventy-two episodes and attracted a young, anti-establishment audience. The program featured hip, up and coming musicians like Seeger, who in 1967 famously performed "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy"on the show. The song told the story of a Louisiana platoon on a practice patrol in 1942 and was a not-so-subtle satire of President Johnson's views on the Vietnam War. CBS executives found the song to be too political and Standards and Practices censored the performance from the broadcast. The Who, known for destroying their instruments at the end of a set, had a particularly explosive finish to their performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour - pyrotechnics overloaded by the band resulted in drummer Keith Moon getting hit by cymbal shrapnel and guitarist Pete Townshend's hair getting singed. The music on the program was not exactly standard Ed Sullivan or Lawrence Welk fare.

In addition to lively musical acts, the program consisted of a stand-up routine with the brothers (during which goofy Tommy would often utter his signature line, "Mom liked you best" to straight man Dick), and sketches that regularly tested the censors' boundaries. Leigh French played the recurring character "Goldie O'Keefe" whose "Share a Little Tea with Goldie" parodied a typical advice show for ladies. Standards and Practices was unaware that tea was slang for marijuana, so Goldie often got away with dialogue like "Hi(gh)--and glad of it!"

The young brothers' frequent anti-war and pro-Civil Rights guests, along with their overall counter-culture sensibilities, conflicted with those of CBS and the program was abruptly cancelled on April 4, 1969, after CBS President Bob Wood stated the Smothers Brothers had failed to submit the upcoming episode for review at the scheduled time. The brothers were fired and in turn, sued CBS.

We sat down with Tom and Dick Smothers in 2000 and they discussed the cancellation of the show:

CBS Executive Mike Dann brought The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to CBS, and believes the show's cancellation was a travesty:

Despite the cancellation, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour won the 1969 Emmy for Best Comedy Writing, thanks to staff writers like Rob Reiner, Steve Martin, Bob Einstein ("Super Dave"), and Pat Paulsen. Reiner recalled his time on the program fondly, stating that he learned much about the art of comedy from the brothers:

Though the program aired for only three seasons, it garnered a loyal following and many see it as the forerunner of current programs like The Daily Show and Full Frontal with Samantha Bee. The brothers entered the headlines again in 2011 when George Clooney's production company, Smokehouse Pictures, announced it will develop a movie about The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in an adaptation of David Bianculli’s book, Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. (Can't wait to see that!) A dedicated fan base, clear convictions to which they remain true, and a movie based on their TV show? Mom's got lots of reasons to be plenty proud of both her sons.

Visit our Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour show page for more about the program.

- by Adrienne Faillace

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Remembering Mary Tyler Moore

January 25th, 2017
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We’re so sad to learn that beloved actress Mary Tyler Moore has passed away at the age of 80. Moore was born in Brooklyn and later moved to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career. After appearances on various early television shows, her career took off when Carl Reiner cast her as “Laura Petrie” on The Dick Van Dyke Show. In 1969, she and Grant Tinker formed MTM Enterprises, which produced Moore’s next show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Moore starred as “Mary Richards” for seven seasons. She went on to be nominated for an Academy Award for her role in “Ordinary People” and was International Chairman of JRDF (formerly the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation).

Below are some selections from her 1997 interview:

On being cast on The Dick Van Dyke Show:

On The Mary Tyler Moore Show finale:

On her role in “Ordinary People”:

Watch Mary Tyler Moore’s full Archive interview and read her obituary in The Hollywood Reporter.

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The Story Behind Roots

January 23rd, 2017
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On January 23, 1977, Roots debuted on ABC. The first installment gave ABC ratings unlike any had that been seen before, and the miniseries went on to shatter viewership records night after night for its eight-day run. 

But the success of this miniseries, indeed the fact that it even made it to the small screen, was anything but preordained. 

It all started, of course, with Alex Haley, the author of Roots, who had been the original Playboy interviewer and the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. But the project’s first step toward the small screen happened in Moscow, before the book, Roots had even been written, when actress/civil rights activist Ruby Dee met producer David L. Wolper

Dee and her husband Ossie Davis had been introduced to Alex Haley before this trip to Moscow, and heard the story of his research into his family’s history, which Haley was planning to turn in to a book. So, when Dee met Wolper, as Davis describes it, “David Wolper talking to Ruby Dee, trying to find out what some of the things she would like to see television tackle. Ruby mentioned this particular author [Haley].” Months later, Wolper called Dee to get a phone number for Haley, and that’s how she earned the nickname, “the godmother of Roots.” 

Wolper purchased the rights to Roots from Haley, and, on the strength of Haley’s storytelling, sold the idea to ABC executive Brandon Stoddard. Roots, the book, had not yet been written. Stoddard describes a conversation he had with fellow executive Lou Rudolph following a lunch with Wolper and Haley where they agreed to buy the book, “I said, ‘You know, Lou, I just think we bought a book that doesn’t exist…. Oh my god, I hope this thing’s going to work.’”

Haley went on to write that book, and, simultaneously, screenwriters including William Blinn and Ernest Kinoy penned the scripts for the miniseries. Blinn says, “We were writing the script in such a way that there were some stuff [Haley] would incorporate into the book from the script.” 

Once the scripts had been written, the attention turned to casting. Executive producer Wolper recommended casting “comfortable” white actors for the roles of slave owners and slave traders, which included Edward Asner, Lorne Greene, and Ralph Waite. Other notable actors cast in the show included Leslie Uggams, John Amos, Richard Roundtree, Louis Gossett, Jr., Cicely Tyson, and Ben Vereen, among many others.

An unknown named LeVar Burton was cast as a young Kunta Kinte. He was discovered while a student at USC, though the decision to cast him did not happen overnight. In fact, his screen tests were shuttled back and forth from the ABC offices on the West coast to the East, because, as Burton says, “None of the executives on either coast wanted to go on record as being the one who pulled the trigger on giving the kid with no previous professional experience the lead in this multi-hour television experiment, which was what Roots really was at the time.“ Finally, just a few weeks before shooting was set to begin, they made the final decision and cast Burton, who would become an overnight star when Roots aired. 

But before Roots could air, it had to be fit into ABC’s schedule, and the president of the network, Fred Silverman, was nervous. “I just didn't know how the audience would respond to the subject matter.” He decided to air it for eight nights straight, a decision which writer William Blinn says could be attributed to the desire to, “bathe this country in this story that we all needed to see,” or else it was to, “get rid of this goddamn thing, it's going to kill the network, just get rid of it as soon as you can.” Blinn says he believes the second explanation more than the first.  And Quincy Jones, who composed for Roots, tends to agree, “The last night it played was on a Sunday night, and Sweeps Week started the next night. So, they were actually trying to sweep Roots under the rug.”

Whatever the reasons, Roots aired in this unusual manner, and it picked up steam, gathering huge audiences night after night, culminating in the final episode, which was the highest rated single episode of a television show up to that time. Roots mania swept the nation. As Roots composer Gerald Fried describes, “At about 8:30 the restaurants would clear out. Everybody was going home to watch Roots at 9:00." And Leslie Uggams shares this experience, “I was in Vegas rehearsing Guys and Dolls and Ann-Margret called me up and she said, ‘We’ve changed the time of our show because nobody’s coming to see it. Everybody’s watching Roots.’”

Some people, including Fred Silverman attributed the success of the program to the fact that the East Coast was experiencing heavy winter storms throughout that week. But David L. Wolper disputes this characterization, as he says sarcastically, “It was very inclement here in California. I think it was 80 degrees and we had a 71 share, too…I guess we didn't want to go out here, it was too nice out in California. So that's why we stayed home.”

Whether because of the weather or the subject matter or the compelling family drama, Roots was a massive success. And its impact went well beyond entertainment value. Ossie Davis says that the miniseries, “helped supply America with a truer definition of who black people are than any other work that had come before.” 

Many Americans came to understand for the first time, what slavery truly looked like and felt like, and its cost to our nation. As writer Ernest Kinoy says, “the interesting thing was that it was extremely popular, not just for the black public, but very, very popular with the white public. I have seen studies that indicated that there was a shift in attitude in and around that time, which was attributed to Roots.” But John Amos, who played the older Kunta Kinte fears that the lessons learned from Roots were short-lived, “America did take Roots to heart for a while and I would think that the cause of true integration and what the Constitution really stands for was brought to light. And then, as time went by…the impact that it had was dissipated appreciably, so we’re back now to Ferguson."

In speaking of Roots during his Archive interview, LeVar Burton says, “I genuinely believe that race is, in this country and this culture, one of the few things that you can trace back to the heart of everything that happens here…And unless we can, in some way, come to some kind of terms with the legacy of slavery, it's impossible for us to live fully in the present and it makes no sense to try and forge a future.” 

Roots stands as a landmark moment when the story of slavery came into our living rooms, and we welcomed it, acknowledging the pain it caused and the scars that still remain. And, forty years later, the legacy of Roots itself still lives on. In 2016, the History Channel aired its reboot of the miniseries, and those that watched the original in 1977 can still recall the impact of sharing that particular story of that particular American family night after night with so many of their countrymen.

Hear more of the stories behind Roots, from its development and casting to its success and legacy in the playlist below. And watch interviews with more of Roots cast and creators on our Roots page

- by Jenna Hymes

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Leslie Uggams: Breaking Barriers

January 19th, 2017
Leslie Uggams
Whenever one of us is on, "Oh my God, quick turn on the television." With me being on [Sing Along with] Mitch every day, it gave my people a chance to see somebody that looked like them. Because back then there weren’t even commercials that you could see us in.

She was one of the first African-American women to be a regular on a hit music show (the aforementioned Sing Along with Mitch.) She was THE first African-American woman to host her own network variety show. And she was one of the stars of Roots, the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries based on Alex Haley’s book of the same title. She’s Leslie Uggams: actress, singer, host, and pioneer. 

Leslie started her television career early, appearing on Beulah in 1950 as the lead character’s niece. Two years later, in 1952, Leslie began her winning streak on the talent show TV Teen Club, consistently singing her way into the top spot. But weeks of placing first soon ended with sabotage:

Before I was on, there had been another African-American boy tap dancing who had won the contest. So the sponsors decided that they did not want to give a car to another African-American kid. It was me and a trumpet player and the trumpet player won, but I watched from the stage - they had the [applause] meters where they put the hands up and they had tied the clock when it was my turn so the clock couldn’t move.

(Image of applause meter from J. Fred MacDonald's "AV Highlights Leslie Uggams" from Blacks and White TV.)

In 1961, Leslie became a regular on the popular music program Sing Along with Mitch. She stayed with the show for three years, much to the chagrin of certain sponsors and network executives - controversy Leslie was unaware of at the time: 

I didn’t know until years later that the sponsors and the network were trying to get rid of me, because the show wasn’t being shown in the South. They had blacked it out, no pun intended. Naturally, they wanted it to be a nationwide show, so they would come to him [Mitch] every week with a different scenario, "Well, maybe if you put her in her own thing and then we could do like they did with Lena in the movies." They would cut her out in the South, and then mix it. And Mitch said, "No." Then they would come up with, "Well okay, so do the sing along but do you have to touch her?" Because we did some great numbers together. And he said, "We’re a family." They kept saying this and finally he said, “If there’s no me [Leslie], there’s no show.”

In 1969, Leslie hosted a variety series bearing her name, The Leslie Uggams Show. The program lasted only ten episodes. Why just ten? According to Leslie, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour played a role in her show’s short-lived run:

Then in 1977, Leslie starred in the ABC miniseries Roots, delivering a powerful performance as the only daughter of Kunta Kinte. It was love at first script for Leslie Uggams and Kizzy Reynolds: 

In her Archive interview Leslie also tells us about her many stage performances (she sang at the Apollo when she was little and won a Tony Award in 1968 for her role in “Hallelujah, Baby!”), discusses her run as co-host of the game show Fantasy, and talks of her appearances on the hit show Empire. Prepare yourself for an in-depth conversation with a woman who paved the way for those who came after, gave us some of television’s most memorable moments (the Roots wagon scene AND Kizzy and Missy Anne’s late-in-life reunion!), and has one of the most beautiful voices in the business. She can croon like no other, and history's proven that she's done a whole lot more than just sing with that voice.

Watch Leslie Uggams’ full Archive interview.

 

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