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When TV was Truly Golden

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Most of us now have more than 200 channels on our TVs, whether we have cable or satellite. How many times, however, do you cruise through all those offerings and sigh, “There’s nothing to watch?” Reality shows seem to have taken over, well-written dramas a thing of the past. The recent dust up between NBC, Jay Leno, and Conan O’Brien came about because the Peacock Network was too cheap to spring for a well-made hour-long drama and instead hoped to plug in an hour-long cheap Leno show.

Ah! For better times. Younger viewers may not remember Playhouse 90, United States Steel Hour, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Goodyear Television Playhouse, and Kraft Television Theatre, ninety minutes of truly wonderful writing and acting that was performed live—that’s right, live— and had us glued to our TV sets. And this when we had black and white clinkers that only received three channels. But those years, from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, were truly the Golden Age of Television. If you missed that time, don’t worry. These marvelous programs have been recently released in a set of DVDs appropriately named, The Golden Age of Television.

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You’ve probably seen the movies The Days of Wine and Roses, Marty, Bang the Drum Slowly, and Requiem for a Heavyweight. What you may not know is that these dramas were first seen live on television with different casts. While Ernest Borgnine starred as Marty, the young working class Italian controlled by his domineering mother in the 1955 film, that role was first played on TV by Rod Steiger in a riveting performance. (Makes one wonder why they recast the part for the movie, doesn’t it?) Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick received Oscar nominations for their work in the 1962 film The Days of Wine and Roses. Taking nothing away from those finely wrought performances, Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie are heartbreaking in this TV drama as two alcoholics trying to conquer their addictions.

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The stories behind these TV shows are as interesting as the shows themselves. No Time for Sergeants launched the career of Andy Griffith, an unknown who had only been on television once, not as an actor, but as a cornball comedian. Griffith knew he was perfect to play the lead in No Time for Sergeants and somehow wrangled an audition. Not only did the TV show succeed, but Griffith’s country bumpkin appeal caught on with the public. No Time for Sergeants went on to become a Broadway play where none other than Don Knotts was a member of the supporting cast. Griffith and Knotts soon became a team that would make The Andy Griffith Show, one of the longest running and most popular TV shows ever.

Part of the enjoyment is seeing actors before they became truly famous. There’s a very young Paul Newman, as a baseball player in Bang the Drum Slowly; Jack Palance, Kim Hunter, and both Wynns, Ed and Keenan, in Requiem for a Heavyweight; Mickey Rooney and Kim Hunter, again, in The Comedian; Richard Kiley in Patterns; and Julie Harris in Wind from the South.

While these TV shows have been restored as much as possible, the picture is still grainy black and white and the soundtrack often scratchy. You will be so caught up in what you are seeing on the screen, however, that you won’t miss the color or high definition. You certainly won’t miss reality TV.

Photos, from top:

Joe Mantell (left) and Rod Steiger in Marty
Paul Newman in Bang the Drum Slowly
Andy Griffith in No Time for Sergeants

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