By CHUCK HARTER.
Bear Manor Media
Just recently I was contacted by Mr. Harter concerning his forthcoming book on a television show I wasn’t at all familiar with. Rather surprising considering it starred James Franciscus. An actor I have featured here a number of times and one who will always be a favorite thanks to his leading roles in films like Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Valley of Gwangi. Movies that young boys take to heart and never outgrow as the years pass them by.
There’s a pretty good reason I’m not familiar with this series that also saw Dean Jagger joining in on a weekly basis. It’s never really been in syndication other than a brief run on TNT in the late 1980’s. A station we didn’t get here in Canada. So in essence, it’s never really been seen since it’s initial run in 1963 through 65.
It’s a high school backdrop that sees Franciscus as the handsome teacher and Jagger as the school principle, a man with the wisdom of his years. Thankfully there’s some biographical data on both actors included within the printed pages as neither seem to have their name surface in the majority of film books and biographies I find myself reading and using for study on film history.
Thankfully Mr. Harter has meticulously researched periodicals of the era to bring the stories to life and also found the cooperation of countless actors who appeared on the show and in the Jefferson High classrooms under the tutelage of Franciscus’ Mr. Novak who have graciously shared their memories from the set and stories concerning the two leading actors. People like Beau Bridges, Tony Dow, Frankie Avalon, Kim Darby and Walter Koenig who also chimes in with an amusing afterword. The late Martin Landau also appeared on the show and was quite excited about this project from Harter, contributing a nice foreword to begin this book while director Richard Donner pitches in with an intro.
Based on the interviews, Oscar winner Jagger appears to be an actor everyone had great respect for and handled his duties with the utmost professionalism. An actor the youngsters on set could look up to. From a fan’s perspective, I should think so. Films like Twelve O’Clock High and Bad Day at Black Rock are just two among his many fine credits.
Growing up on the Apes films, I had no idea that at one time, Franciscus was a popular topic when it came to Teen Magazine. Not surprisingly he was a leading man who frequently caught the ladies eyes on set. I did come away from this book thinking James didn’t suffer fools gladly and had he been a popular young actor in today’s Hollywood, he’d be at war with the paparazzi. He was not a fan of the star making machine and preferred to keep is personal life separate from his TV personality. Not an easy thing to do based on his interaction with fans and real life teachers who came into his life during the series run.
During the second season, illness forced Dean Jagger to bow out only to be replaced by another fine character actor, Burgess Meredith. The show was by this time popular enough that even Mad Magazine parodied it under the title Mr. Nudnik. Upon it’s cancellation at the end of season two there seemed to be a large group of disenchanted viewers who tuned in weekly to see the dramatic episodes with topics ranging from racism to suicide to drugs. Apparently the subject of venereal disease was something just a little to controversial to take on at the time though scripts were prepared but vetoed.
Included in the latter half of the book are essays on what the actors and producers went on to in their careers and I was reminded at this point of another series I’ve never seen with Franciscus though I do recall reading up on it titled Longstreet. An episode guide takes up a good majority of the final pages that includes a synopsis of each one, the cast, the crew and the date of it’s original airing.
With the amount of information gathered by Harter, this book is a solid addition to any television historian’s library of source books. One that’s most welcome on my shelf for both the data on actors I’ve always liked yet know little of as well introducing me to a series that seemed to be well respected in it’s day yet has slipped though the cracks to the point of almost disappearing. Apparently the show’s first season may soon be surfacing in the near future. This book would be all the more welcome to follow along behind the scenes as each episode unfolds. Lastly I’d like to thank the author for including an index. Something I always find useful when sourcing out some information at a later date.
Recommended and might some other great sourcebooks on movies or television be forthcoming from Mr. Harter? Let’s hope.