Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Car 54, Where Are You? (1961)



It's impossible to tell the story of Car 54, Where Are You? without telling the story of Nat Hiken (recounted in great detail at the televisionheaven.co.uk web site), who created, wrote, directed, produced, and even co-authored the theme song for the series. The fondly remembered sit-com about two bumbling New York City policemen was Hiken's television swan song in a comedy career that stretched back to the 1930s. Born in Chicago, Hiken grew up in Milwaukee before attending the University of Wisconsin where he authored a column in the school paper called The Griper's Club, which he was able to turn into a successful radio program called The Grouch Club after relocating to Hollywood. The radio show caught the attention of comedy icon and faux Jack Benny foil Fred Allen, and after Hiken had left Grouch Club to work for Warner Brothers, Allen hired Hiken to write for his radio program, which prompted a move to New York. After serving in the Air Force during World War II, Hiken wrote for Milton Berle's radio program before developing another of his own, The Magnificent Montague about a trained Shakespearean actor forced to work in radio drama. It was a theme he would come back to throughout the rest of his career. Around the same time he ventured into television writing, first for All Star Revue, where he would first work with Martha Raye in a 1953 episode that he also directed and cast boxer Rocky Graziano. As he would continue to do for the rest of his career, Hiken would invariably hire people from previous endeavors when he embarked on a new venture, and he had a penchant for including untrained, rough-hewn characters like Graziano. He then spun the Martha Raye character from an episode of All Star Revue into The Martha Raye Show and brought along Graziano. 

When a CBS executive wanted to create a vehicle for Phil Silvers after seeing him perform in 1954, Hiken was hired to create, write, and produce a new TV series, originally titled You'll Never Get Rich and later called The Phil Silvers Show, which became an immediate hit with Silvers in the title role as scheming U.S. Army motor pool Sgt. Ernest Bilko. Instead of bringing Graziano along, this time Hiken found Maurice Gosfield to play the platoon slob, a role that didn't stray very far from Gosfield's off-screen persona. The show was an almost immediate success, garnering 5 Emmys its first season, but that success also created problems for Hiken. One was that Gosfield became increasingly hard to work with since he now considered himself a star. The other problem for Hiken came from within--he became increasingly stressed at the burden of having to come up with stellar material each week. The fear of failure drove him to work around the clock until his health began to suffer. Recognizing that this pattern was not sustainable, Hiken tried to lighten his load by hiring other writers but could not help himself from rewriting their scripts until he felt they passed muster. Eventually Hiken had to bail out after the second season and 2 more Emmys. The show continued for 2 more seasons, finishing in 1959, but the magic was gone. During his tenure on The Phil Silvers Show, Hiken hired burlesque nightclub comic Joe E. Ross to replace the deceased Harry Clark as the platoon's mess sergeant, and Beatrice Pons was cast as his nagging wife. Also passing through the Bilko portal in guest roles were many of the stand-up comedians and New York theatrical performers who would fill out the cast of Car 54, Where Are You?

But once out of the pressure cooker he had created for himself, Hiken tried to jump right back in, first by resurrecting his The Magnificent Montague radio program, which failed to find sponsor or network interest. He then worked on several TV specials, including two with Phil Silvers and one that served as the prototype for The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts many years later. But, as recounted in Martin Grams, Jr.'s book Car 54, Where Are You?, after visiting a New York police precinct house and noticing what a communal feel it had, unlike any of the depictions of police on television, Hiken came up with the idea for a police-themed situation comedy. He continued to do research by spending weeks in a precinct squad room during late 1960, getting a feel for how the officers talked and interacted amongst each other, members of the community, and even repeat offenders, who were often treated more like family than threats. Hiken enlisted the support of Eupolis Productions and then pitched the idea to Proctor & Gamble, who agreed to finance a pilot. With the pilot complete, they shopped it to the networks with NBC agreeing to launch the series in the fall of 1961. Originally Hiken had named the series  The Snow Whites, referring to the slang used for New York city two-tone police cars with white roofs, but since the series was going to follow Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color on Sunday evenings, the titled had to be changed to avoid confusion with the popular Disney animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

According to Kliph Nesteroff in the definitive account of Joe E. Ross' tawdry life off-screen, "King of Slobs:The Life of Joe E. Ross", Hiken originally wanted to cast Jack Weston in the role of Gunther Toody (televisionheaven.co.uk says it was Jack Warden) and Mickey Shaughnessy as Francis Muldoon, but contract negotiations broke down with both, so he turned to Ross and Fred Gwynne as suitable replacements, though in Ross' case he later regretted it. As the biography section below (sourced in large part from car54.homestead.com) documents, many of the rest of the cast also appeared at one time or another on The Phil Silvers Show. The episode intended to be shown as the pilot, "Something Nice for Sol" (September 24, 1961) was actually shown second in sequence because, as Grams, Jr. notes, the laugh track, recorded from a live audience that was shown the completed film, had to be toned down so that the dialogue could actually be heard. Shown in its place as the debut was "Who's for Swordfish?" (September 17, 1961), which begins with a painfully corny scene of Toody trying to sneak out of the house early one morning to go fishing with Muldoon without waking his wife Lucille. This episode is generally considered inferior to the intended pilot, and the initial reviews were decidedly mixed. As might be expected, there were a number of critics and members of the police force who found the comical antics of Toody and Muldoon an insult to the reputation of policemen everywhere, but there were others who appreciated Hiken's treatment of them as regular human beings rather than unrealistic knights in shining armor.

Even so, Hiken's history has a strong subversive streak to it. What The Phil Silvers Show did to the Army, Car 54  did to the police, bringing a much-admired institution down off its pedestal. Toody and Muldoon stumble into solving one crime during the 1961 episodes in "The Paint Job" (October 29, 1961) merely by chance--choosing the same body shop being used by an auto theft ring when they need to repair their own patrol car after a fender-bender, rather than sending it to the official police repair shop where it will be tied up for weeks. Otherwise, they are usually getting in the way of law and order rather than keeping it. In "Catch Me on the Paar Show" (November 26, 1961) they use their status as policemen for personal gain when they waylay a speeding Hugh Downs, playing himself, so that Toody can bring over Officer Fleischman, whom he considers a great comic, to audition for Downs. In "Put It in the Bank" (December 10, 1961) they nearly ruin a well-respected corporation by investing in it and then repeatedly showing up at the CEO's office, causing observers to suspect that the company is in deep financial trouble. And in "Get Well, Officer Schnauser" (December 17, 1961) they unintentionally and unknowingly hold up a bank while at the same time foiling an attempt by the FBI to track down wanted bank robber No Face. But probably the worst offense is in "Thirty Days Notice" (November 19, 1961) in which Toody tries to take advantage of repeat offender Al Cooper being sent to prison by subletting his nice apartment after losing his own in a dispute with his landlord. Things are made right by episode's end when Cooper's wife shows up at their apartment after the Toodys have already moved in and supports her husband's alibi, thereby forcing Toody to get Cooper exonerated and move back to his old apartment. However, Toody is also shown to have a heart of gold in "Home Sweet Sing Sing" (October 1, 1961) when he and Lucille try to rehabilitate incorrigible thief Backdoor Benny by letting him stay in their home, which they rearrange to be more like a prison to make him feel comfortable, though Benny can never get used to freedom and has to return to the only world he can really understand.

They also show a compassionate side in "I Won't Go" (October 15, 1961) when they are assigned to remove an old widow, Mrs. Rachel Bronson,  from an apartment building where she is the last tenant blocking the construction of a new highway expansion. Rather than forcing her out, they spend enough time with her to learn that her only reason for staying is that she is waiting for her dog to return from a 3-month sabbatical he seems to take every year. However, Mrs. Bronson voices what surely was Hiken's feelings on bureaucracy and politics. She flaunts the numerous notices and orders she has received from the city, merely filing them in different parts of apartment but never responding to or obeying them. And she levels with Toody and Muldoon that she knows she has leverage because a city election is coming up and no one wants to be known as the official who threw an old lady out into the street.

In "Muldoon's Star" (October 22, 1961) Hiken takes a jab at society's celebrity obsession when Hollywood bombshell Tessie the Torso runs away from her oppressive west coast existence to hide out in New York. An early newscast sequence has a serious discussion of Russo-American relations constantly interrupted by the latest rumor of Tessie's whereabouts. In this episode it is Muldoon who is the buffoon in his worship of Tessie, but he eventually recognizes that she belongs back in Hollywood doing exactly the sort of exploitative films for which she is known, rather than trying to be a serious actress, when she incognito portrays herself before Muldoon's sister's drama group and the instructor says that she has perfectly captured Hollywood's phoniness. Muldoon is again foiled by the false allure of Hollywood in "Love Finds Muldoon" (November 5, 1961) when Lucille sets him up on a date with her former classmate Bonita Kalsheim, who never married despite being the class queen because no man could ever measure up to her Hollywood heart-throb Ramon Navarro. Though she throws herself at Muldoon and initially he resists, when she tries the opposite approach he suddenly misses and wants her but is ultimately rejected because he stands up for her in a bar, inviting a comparison with the now loathed Ramon Navarro. Hiken would revisit the theme of celebrity hype in his last work, the 1970 feature film The Love God? in which bird-watcher Abner Peacock (played by Don Knotts) is transformed into a Hugh Hefner-like sex symbol when all he really wants is to marry the minister's daughter back in his midwestern home town.

But while many of Hiken's scripts ridicule the establishment, the status quo is restored by episode's end, true to the conventional sit-com form. Tessie the Torso returns to Hollywood, Bonita Kalsheim and Muldoon remain single, the Toodys wind up back in their old apartment, and Backdoor Benny goes back to prison. In "Change Your Partner" (October 8, 1961) police personnel manager R.D. Bradley discovers that Toody and Muldoon have been partners much longer than the average, so he has the duo broken up, only nobody else can stand being with either of them because Toody is a chatterbox and Muldoon is as silent as the tomb. In "The Taming of Lucille" (December 3, 1961) Toody decides he has had enough of Lucille's domineering treatment of him after seeing his brother Al Henderson ordering Lucille's sister Rose around and watching a performance of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. Meanwhile Lucille watches a TV movie in which a man leaves his wife because she nags him too much, prompting her to do an about-face. But after asserting his independence and staying out late every night, even after everyone else has gone home, leaving him to kill time on his own, Toody decides he wants the old Lucille back and enlists Muldoon's help in making her jealous and kicking in her natural instinct as a woman scorned. Thus, while a series like Car 54 is often considered edgy for its time given its untraditional treatment of police officers, the plot structures are every bit as conformist as Leave It to Beaver.

 Unfortunately, Hiken's personal life was as unchanging as the status quo in his creations. Despite the success of Car 54, which placed 20th in the ratings for 1961-62, he soon began to feel overwhelmed with his responsibilities, just as he did on The Phil Silvers Show. Some of his long-time directors and writers going back to the Bilko days quit or were fired. Various reasons have been offered about why the show was dropped after two successful seasons. In Grams, Jr.'s book, he quotes Gwynne as saying that Hiken was stressed out and decided not to pursue a renewal with the network. The televisionheaven.co.uk Hiken biography says that NBC wanted to used a canned laugh track and start producing the series in color, prompting Hiken to "pull the plug." But actor Hank Garrett, in a 2005 interview on the web site retrocrush.com, claims that NBC wanted 50% of the show, which Hiken refused and then tried to find another network to pick it up, though by this point schedules for the next season were already set. In any case, the Hiken narrative played out similar to The Phil Silvers Show. And yet, with nothing scheduled for 1963-64, Hiken again trotted out The Magnificent Montague and filmed another pilot for it but again failed to generate interest. This was followed by ideas for an Al Lewis series and The Alan King Show, neither of which found any takers. After producing a Carol Burnett TV special, he began working on The Love God? but also ran into problems there when he couldn't get Phil Silvers to agree to play smut peddler Osborn Tremain and the studio insisted on filling the spot with Edmond O'Brien against Hiken's protests. Once again unable to control the high-pressure situation into which he had put himself, Hiken, a chain smoker, had a heart attack at his home on December 7, 1968, dead at the age of 54. He left behind some of TV's best comedies, but his own life played out like a Greek tragedy.

The theme music for Car 54, Where Are You? was composed by Nat Hiken and John Strauss, who had also collaborated with Hiken on the theme song for The Phil Silvers Show and The Magnificent Montague TV pilot. Strauss was married from 1951 to 1976 to actress Charlotte Rae, who would eventually become a regular cast member on Car 54 as Officer Leo Schnauser's wife Sylvia after playing a bank teller in "Put It in the Bank" (December 10, 1961). John Leonard Strauss was born in New York City and served in the U.S. Army during World War II, after which he studied musical composition at Yale University. After teaching at New York's School of Performing Arts, he was hired by Hiken to work on The Phil Silvers Show and continued with him on Car 54. His one-woman opera The Accused was broadcast on CBS in 1961. After his work on Car 54 Strauss worked as a music editor on numerous feature films, including Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run, Bananas, and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask). He also worked on Hair, The Blues Brothers, Zoot Suit, and Ragtime. In 1978 he shared a primetime Emmy for his work on the TV movie The Amazing Howard Hughes, and in 1984 he served as music coordinator and briefly appeared as a conductor in Amadeus, for which he won a Grammy as producer of the soundtrack album. He also served as music editor on the TV series Cop Rock, L.A. Law, and Wild Palms. Later in life he suffered from Parkinson's Disease and died February 14, 2011 at the age of 90.

Both seasons have been released on DVD by Shanachie Entertainment.

The Actors

Joe E. Ross

Joseph Roszawikz was born to Russian immigrant parents in New York City. He dropped out of high school at age 16 when he was hired as a singing waiter at the Van Cortlandt Inn in the Bronx, eventually moving up to announcer for the hotel's song and dance acts, which allowed him to add jokes to his routine, effectively launching his career as a stand-up comic. After a stint at the Queens Terrace in 1938, Ross moved to Chicago and made the rounds as a burlesque comic until World War II broke out, during which he served in the Army Air Corps. After the war he relocated to Hollywood, appearing as an announcer and comic at Billy Gray's Band Box. His first appearance on film came in an uncredited role as a nightclub entertainer in the 1950 feature The Sound of Fury. A few more low-profile film and TV appearances followed until he was spotted by Phil Silvers and Nat Hiken performing stand-up in a Miami nightclub in 1955. Hiken had a fondness for rough-hewn, untrained characters and cast Ross as mess sergeant Rupert Ritzik on The Phil Silvers Show after the death of Harry Clark. As mentioned above, Ross was not Hiken's first choice to play Toody, but Hiken's penchant for using people he knew made Ross an acceptable Plan B. However, the success of the program seemed to go to Ross' head, causing him to complain about other cast members and engage in offensive language and behavior in front of visitors to the set. Fellow cast member Hank Garrett suggested that Ross' behavior contributed to Hiken's declining health during production of the series and his eventual heart attack.

When the series ended in 1963 Ross was not offered any new roles in television or on film and thus returned to his stand-up career, though he exploited his fame as Toody by recording an album of novelty numbers in 1964 titled Love Songs From a Cop. In 1966 he returned to TV in Sherwood Schwartz's ill-fated time-travel farce It's About Time, with Ross playing a cave man and Imogene Coca playing his wife. When the program was canceled after one season, Ross teamed up with comedic straight man Steve Rossi, who had just ended a largely successful 5-year run teamed with Marty Allen, but when Ross and Rossi appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in December 1968, they bombed, and in early 1969 Ross claimed that poor health was forcing him to break up the act. He managed to get occasional bit parts in films such as The Love Bug and The Boatniks, ironic given his seedy lifestyle and penchant for off-color humor. In the 1970s he found voicework on animated children's shows such as Help!...It's the Hair Bear Bunch, Hong Kong Phooey, and CB Bears. He also had occasional roles in exploitation fare such as How to Seduce a Woman, Linda Lovelace for President, and Gas Pump Girls. The story of his death is considered apocryphal by some: he was hired for $100 to do a stand-up routine at the housing complex where he and his eighth wife were living. While on stage August 13, 1982 he felt ill, sat down on the edge of the stage, and died of a heart attack at the age of 68. When his widow went to collect his fee, the owners of the complex paid her only $50, saying that he didn't finish the show.


Fred Gwynne

In wanting to feature a Mutt and Jeff duo as the stars of Car 54, creator Nat Hiken couldn't have picked a more perfect opposite to Joe E. Ross than the tall, gangly Frederick Hubbard Gwynne (a point driven home in the October 21, 1961 cover story of TV Guide), who like Ross was not Hiken's first choice for the role. Also born in New York City, Gwynne's father was a stockbroker who died when Gwynne was 6 years old. His mother was a former cartoonist and the young Gwynne followed in her footsteps first by studying to be a portrait painter. He attended the prestigious Groton prep school, where he made his acting debut in Shakespeare's Henry V but was told by a drama teacher that he was too tall, at 6'5", to be an actor. During World War II he served in the U.S. Navy as a radio operator on a submarine-chasing ship, and after the war attended the New York Phoenix School of Design. He then matriculated to Harvard University, where he drew cartoons for and eventually became president of The Harvard Lampoon while also appearing in theatrical productions of the Hasty Pudding Club. Upon graduating from Harvard, he joined the Brattle Theater Repertory Company in Cambridge. He married Jean "Foxie" Reynard in 1951, and the couple moved to New York, where he made his Broadway debut in a supporting role in Mrs. McThing starring Helen Hayes. While he pursued his acting career by night he worked by day for an advertising agency, one of whose clients was the Ford Motor Company, for whom Gwynne created the slogan "the world's most beautifully proportioned car." He made his TV debut in 1952 in an episode of The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse. He played Davy Crockett in two episodes of You Are There the following year before making his feature film debut in an uncredited part in Marlon Brando's On the Waterfront. Gwynne first came across Nat Hiken's radar when he appeared in two episodes of The Phil Silvers Show in 1955-56. Silvers had been impressed with his comedic skills after seeing him in Mrs. McThing. While appearing in his first major Broadway role in the musical Irma La Douce Gwynne developed an idea for a TV show and tried to arrange a meeting with Hiken to present it to him. When he first contacted Hiken, the producer didn't even remember who he was, but Gwynne persisted in trying to set up a meeting, finally succeeding after 7 weeks of solicitations. Hiken thought Gwynne's idea might work as a sketch but did not seem overly impressed. However, Gwynne credits this lunch meeting with Hiken in his being hired 3 weeks later to play Officer Francis Muldoon on Car 54, Where Are You? During this time period Gwynne published the first of several children's books The Best in Show, and he appeared as puppet Lamb Chop's doctor on The Shari Lewis Show.

The year after Car 54 ended its two-year run, Gwynne was cast in the role that would follow him the rest of his life, the Frankenstein-monster-inspired Herman Munster on The Munsters, which, like Car 54, was initially very popular but ran only two seasons. New York Times critic Jack Gould claimed at the time that Gwynne made up as Herman "is the whole show," but as Adam West also found out after playing Batman, producers and casting directors could not see him thereafter as anything else. Fortunately, Gwynne was able to fall back on his theatrical career, and by the end of the 1960s he began to reappear in a string of TV movies, most notably Arsenic and Old Lace (1969), The Littlest Angel (1969), and Harvey (1972). The 1970s were a particularly fruitful era for Gwynne's theatrical work, drawing praise for his role as Big Daddy in the 1974 Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for his role as a Ku Klux Klansman in 1977's Texas Trilogy, and winning an Obie Award for the Off-Broadway production of Grand Magic during the 1978-79 season. The 1980s saw a number of memorable supporting roles in feature films, including The Cotton Club, Ironweed, Pet Sematery, and My Cousin Vinny. During this time he also appeared in 79 episodes of The CBS Radio Mystery Theatre. Gwynne divorced his first wife Foxie in 1980 and remarried the following year to Deborah Flater, who convinced him to reprise his role as Herman Munster in the 1981 TV movie The Munsters' Revenge. The couple lived away from the spotlight in rural Taneytown, Maryland, where Gwynne died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 66 on July 2, 1993.

Beatrice Pons

Another New York City native, Beatrice Pons began her professional career as an elementary school teacher in New Jersey, though during her studies she had acted in a school production at the College Little Theatre and was offered a leading role in summer stock but turned it down. However, by January 1934 she had changed her mind and made her Broadway debut in a production of Mahogany Hall. In 1935 she had a part in the chorus in the musical production Panic whose cast also included a young Orson Welles. In the mid-1930s she began appearing in radio theater, including long stints on The Goldbergs and Dick Tracy.  She also developed a nightclub act doing impressions of famous actresses under the title Your Face Is Familiar. During this time she met and began dating radio host and announcer David Ross. After she had a rough exchange with a heckler during one performance, Ross gave her an ultimatum--marry him or continue the show. She chose marriage and put her acting career on hold after the birth of their son Jonathan, but once Jonathan was in kindergarten, Ross gave her the OK to resume her acting career. In 1951 she made her television debut in the live broadcast series The Big Town. With her connections to Gertrude Berg, star of The Goldbergs, she scored a couple of guest appearances on that series after it moved to TV. Then in 1955, after Harry Clark, the original mess sergeant on The Phil Silvers Show, passed away and was replaced by Joe E. Ross, Pons was cast as his nagging wife who disapproved of any scheme Sgt. Bilko tried to embroil her husband in. The series ran until 1959, and when Nat Hiken was casting for his next series, he chose to reprise the chemistry between Ross and Pons from their Bilko days by casting them as husband and wife Gunther and Lucille Toody in Car 54, Where Are You?

The year after Car 54 exited, Pons made her feature film debut in Diary of a Bachelor. That year she also made her last television appearance in an episode of The Doctors and the Nurses. She had a supporting role in the Oscar-nominated 1968 feature Rachel, Rachel starring Joanne Woodward and directed by Paul Newman, then didn't appear in another film for 12 years but filled her time with a slew of theatrical productions including a touring version of Fiddler on the Roof in which she played the matchmaker Yente. But one of her most memorable roles on film, for better or worse, was playing the titular role in the 1980 cult horror flick Mother's Day, in which she was credited as Rose Ross. She made her last appearance in a brief role as a fortune teller in 1987's Forever Lulu, which also include Deborah Harry and the first screen appearance by Alec Baldwin. She died on June 17, 1991 at the age of 85.

Paul Reed

Born Sidney Kahn in Highland Falls, New York, Paul Reed was orphaned at age 4 because his family was too poor to support its seven children. At age 9 he began selling chewing gum in and around vaudeville houses, and during one night's performance he was pulled up on stage by one of the performers to make his stage debut. Reed also possessed a fine singing voice and worked two jobs to afford singing lessons from a coach who worked at Carnegie Hall as well as a music publisher and encouraged his ambitions. Eventually he landed a job singing live on WOR Radio, which led to having his own show and backing orchestra. From there he moved into musical theater in 1940, appearing in a series of Gilbert & Sullivan productions as well as operettas and other musical fare. In 1950 he appeared as Lt. Brannigan in the Broadway production of Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls. In 1955 he made the move to both television and feature films, becoming a regular foil for Sid Caesar on Caesar's Hour and playing a policeman in an uncredited part in The Phenix City Story. In 1957 he was cast as salesman Charlie Cowell in the Majestic Theatre's long-running production of The Music Man. The next year he appeared in two episodes of The Phil Silvers Show, bringing him to the attention of Nat Hiken, who would then cast him as the constantly frustrated precinct chief Capt. Paul Block on Car 54, Where Are You?  During the show's 2-year run, Reed continued his theatrical roles by night while filming Car 54 by day. Hiken and crew would sometimes have to work around his schedule.

After Car 54 went off the air, Reed did not want for work. He had a recurring role as Damon Burkhardt on the short-lived Cara Williams Show, then popped up in guest appearances on The Donna Reed Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, and, with former Car 54 castmates Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis on The Munsters. He also appeared in theatrical productions of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Here's Love, and Promises, Promises. He also managed to squeeze in feature film appearances in Ride to Hangman's Tree, Fitzwilly (with Dick Van Dyke), and Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (with Phyllis Diller, Bob Denver, and Joe Flynn), his last appearance on film. In the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, he appeared in and voiced TV commercials for products such as Chesterfield 101 cigarettes and Alpo dog food. He passed away April 2, 2007 at age 97.

Al Lewis

Albert Meister was born in New York City, where his mother, from whom he inherited his indomitable spirit and political activism, worked in the garment industry and was a member of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. His father was killed when Albert was 6 years old, prompting him to drop out of high school at age 16 and take whatever work he could find, including as a carnival roustabout, peanut vendor at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and traveling elixir huckster. In World War II he served in the Merchant Marine and survived having his ship torpedoed twice--once getting picked up while floating in the Atlantic Ocean by a British Corvette and the second time by a Russian trawler. After the war, he went to work as a waiter at the Grossinger Hotel in the Catskills, where he got his first taste of show business in an amateur play put on by the staff. In 1949 he returned to New York and attended the Paul Mann Acting Studio, working several jobs to afford the tuition. He made his television debut in a 1953 episode of The Big Story but would not be cast in another TV role for another 6 years. Meanwhile, he talked his way into a role in the Off-Broadway Circle in the Square Theater production of The Iceman Cometh in 1956. Two years later he made it to Broadway in a production of Night Circus and by 1960 appeared in several more productions, including Do Re Mi, which starred Phil Silvers. But by this point he had already crossed Silvers' and Nat Hiken's paths with three appearances on The Phil Silvers Show in 1959. When Hiken was putting together Car 54, he called Lewis for a couple of guest spots on the show, first as construction manager Spencer in the episode "I Won't Go" (October 15, 1961) and then as body shop co-owner Al in "The Paint Job" (October 29, 1961). The ad agency handling sponsor Proctor & Gamble's account liked Lewis so much that Hiken offered him a permanent role as Officer Leo Schnauser. At one point Hiken was planning to fire Joe E. Ross, who had become too much to handle, and make Lewis the co-star until Ross pitifully pleaded with Hiken to spare him. Still, Lewis' role continued to expand, and Charlotte Rae was brought on permanently to play his wife. Like Paul Reed, Lewis continued to appear on Broadway while filming Car 54.

Like Fred Gwynne, Lewis was not off the small screen for long after Car 54 finished, being cast the next year to play Grandpa Munster on The Munsters. But unlike Gwynne, Lewis refused to let his iconic role curtail his opportunities after the show ended. Besides occasional appearances on Lost in Space and Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C,. as well as supporting roles in feature films such as They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Boatniks, and They Might Be Giants, Lewis appeared as Grandpa Munster at the Universal Studios amusement park, opened a restaurant named Grampa Bella Gente Italian Restaurant in Greenwich Village, and in the late 1980s appeared in Grandpa costume as the host of the Turner Broadcasting cable network's Super Scary Saturday. He continued to find work in bit parts in feature films such as Death Wish, Used Cars, and Married to the Mob, as well as the critically panned feature length version of Car 54, Where Are You? in 1994. But besides his frequent film work and occasional theatrical performances, Lewis stayed active in political circles, protesting the Vietnam War in 1968, marching with the Black Panthers to protest racial injustice, and running for Mayor of New York as a member of the Green Party. He was a well-respected basketball scout, whose advice was sought out by Seton Hall University basketball coach Honey Russell and was well known by Red Auerbach and Jerry Tarkanian. He also opened and ran his own comedy club on Staten Island was a frequent guest on Howard Stern's radio show. After a 2003 hospitalization that resulted in amputating his right leg below the knee and all his left toes, he died from natural causes three years later at the age of 82 on February 3, 2006.

Nipsey Russell

Born in Atlanta, Georgia, Julius Russell began his show business career at the age of 3 tap dancing with a revue named The Ragamuffins of Rhythm. He later recalled that at the age of 9 or 10 he was impressed by a clip he saw of dancer Jack Wiggins, who told jokes between dance numbers, and decided to emulate him. As a teenage carhop, he delivered jokes with his customers' meals to increase his tips. After graduating from high school, he attended the University of Cincinnati hoping to become a teacher. Though Russell himself claims to have graduated, other accounts say he attended for only a semester before dropping out. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II as a medic, finishing his service with a rank of second lieutenant. After spending a couple of years in Montreal, he moved to New York where in 1949 he became a regular on the TV series The Show Goes On. He also performed at Harlem's Club Baby Grand, where he was known as Harlem's Son of Fun. From this routine he made a series of party albums comprised of his stand-up material. In the mid-1950s he teamed up with Mantan Moreland with whom he appeared in the films Rhythm and Blues Review and Rock and Roll Revue. In the late 1950s he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and Jack Paar's Tonight Show, which brought him to the attention of Nat Hiken and led to his being cast as switchboard operator Sgt. Dave Anderson on Car 54, Where Are You?

After Car 54's demise, he continued appearing on The Tonight Show after Johnny Carson took the helm, which led to becoming a regular on the game show Missing Links, hosted by Carson sidekick Ed McMahon. At the end of one 1964 episode McMahon turned to Russell and asked if he had a poem, which Russell composed and delivered on the spot, thereby creating what would become his trademark, short, witty poems for all occasions. Missing Links also led to his becoming a regular on a number of other game shows throughout the 1960s and 70s including Match Game, To Tell the Truth, Password, Hollywood Squares, and The $10,000 Pyramid. He even hosted a daytime game show called Your Number's Up. Besides continued frequent appearances on The Tonight Show, he was a regular guest on The Jackie Gleason Show, The Dean Martin Show, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and The Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. Much later in his career he made several appearances on Late Night With Conan O'Brien. In 1970 he had a recurring role as Honey Robinson in the short-lived TV series Barefoot in the Park, and while his feature film career was not prolific, he did play the Tin Man in The Wiz and reprised his role as now Capt. Dave Anderson in the feature version of Car 54, Where Are You?  After appearing as himself on a 1999 episode of Spin City and on a 2001 episode of 100 Centre Street, Russell died from stomach cancer on October 2, 2005. His age was reported as being anywhere between 81 and 87.

Hank Garrett

Born Henry Greenberg Cohen Sandler Weinblatt in New York City, Garrett grew up in a tough part of Harlem, which prompted him to take up powerlifting, bodybuilding, and karate to defend himself. He began studying martial arts in 1952, got his black belt at the Chinatown Dojo, and years later was inducted into the Karate Hall of Fame. In 1949 he won the New York City Powerlifting Championship. For five years he was a professional wrestler, performing under the name The Minnesota Farm Boy before deciding to try his hand at stand-up comedy. The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame gave him the Senator Hugh Farley Award in 2009. After taking pointers from Larry Storch, Garrett worked as a comedian in the Catskills and was the first white comic to appear at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem. One of the other comedians he met in the Catskills was Mickey Deems, whose wife was Nat Hiken's secretary and who arranged a meeting with Hiken, who immediately hired him to play Officer Ed Nicholson.

Even after his Car 54 days he continued performing comedy, serving as Tony Bennett's opening act in Vegas for 4 years and then opened for Jerry Vale. He made only a couple of TV appearances after Car 54's end but began finding parts in feature films, beginning with an uncredited part in the original Mel Brooks production of The Producers in 1967. Given his physique, he was often cast as a heavy, with his breakout role coming when he played Malone in Al Pacino's 1973 classic Serpico. He then appeared in Charles Bronson's Death Wish followed by his most memorable role as a murderous "mailman" in Three Days of the Condor, which won him a New York Film Critics Award in 1975. He rounded out the 1970s appearing in The Sentinel, The Exorcist II, and The Amityville Horror. In 1979 he was cast opposite James Earl Jones in the police drama Paris, which was originally getting good reviews until the network changed its time slot to compete with Hart to Hart, thereby killing it. The 1980s included occasional TV guest spots on Three's Company, Knots Landing, and The Dukes of Hazzard along with supporting roles in feature films such as The Boys Next Door with Charlie Sheen and Bad Guys. In 1986 he provided the voice of Dial Tone in the animated G.I. Joe series, played a police captain on Santa Barbara, and played the character Ashwell on Max Headroom. The 1990s featured a steady stream of work both on TV and in features, perhaps most notably a 1994 episode of Columbo. According to an article on the Southeastern Antiquing and Collecting Magazine web site, Garrett currently lives in Santa Rosa, California and stays active doing stand-up comedy, voicework, and autograph shows.

Frederick O'Neal

Named for black journalist and statesman Frederick Douglass, Frederick O'Neal was born in Brooksville, Mississippi, where he first developed his love of the stage acting in local amateur productions. After his father died in 1919 the family moved to St. Louis, where he first acted professionally in 1927. That same year he co-founded his first black theater group, the Ira Aldridge Players, named after the first black to play Othello. In 1935 he moved to New York and studied at the New Theatre School, the American Theatre Wing, and under Theodore Komisarjevsky and Lem Ward. In 1940 he co-founded the American Negro Theater, whose alumni would include Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, and Sidney Poitier. The group's 1944 production of Anna Lucasta eventually moved to Broadway and garnered O'Neal the Clarence Derwent Award as most promising newcomer, a New York Drama Critics' Award for best supporting performance, and the Donaldson Award. O'Neal would reprise his role as the comic bully Frank in the 1958 feature film version. After also helping found the British Negro Theater in 1948 in London, O'Neal made his feature film debut in Pinky in 1949. He won acclaim for his portrayal of Lem Scott in the 1953 production of Take a Giant Step, which he would later play in the 1959 film version. But it was two 1957 appearances on The Phil Silvers Show that led to his being cast as Officer Wallace on Car 54, Where Are You?

While O'Neal's TV and feature film resume was not particularly long after leaving Car 54, he stayed active in theatrical productions and in 1964 became the first African-American president of the Actors Equity Association, which he held until 1973. In 1970 he was elected president of the Associated Actors and Artistes, which he held until his retirement from the position in 1988. He was also vice president of the AFL-CIO and served on its executive council and received an honorary doctorate from St. John's University in 1981. After a long illness he died on August 25, 1992 at the age of 86.

 

 

Notable Guest Stars

Season 1, Episode 2, "Something Nice for Sol": Bernard West (wrote 31 episodes of All in the Family and co-created The Jeffersons, Three's Company, and The Ropers) plays clothes thief Harry the Haberdasher. Mildred Clinton (appeared in Serpico, Alice Sweet Alice, and Crooklyn and played Judge Sussman on The Edge of Night) plays Sgt. Sol Abrams' wife Sandra. Gerald Hiken (shown on the left, cousin of Nat Hiken, appeared in Uncle Vanya, The Goddess, Invitation to a Gunfighter, and Reds, and later played Katz the Butcher on Car 54, Where Are You?) plays shoe-maker Webster. Mark Dawson (Ted Brent on All My Children) plays police Lt. Corbett.

Season 1, Episode 3, "Home Sweet Sing Sing": Gene Baylos (long-time New York comic known as The Court Jester of the Friar's Club who once accused Jerry Lewis of stealing his style)plays lifetime criminal Back Door Benny Hopper. Michael Vale (Fred the Baker in Dunkin' Donuts commercials) plays clothier Klein. Bruce Kirby (father of Bruno Kirby, played Sgt. Al Vine on Kojak, Capt. Harry Sedford on Holmes and Yo-Yo, Al Brennan on Turnabout, Sgt. George Kramer on Columbo, Det. George Schmidt on Shannon, Chief Edward Stanmore on Hunter, and D.A. Bruce Rogoff on L.A. Law) plays an arresting officer.

Season 1, Episode 4, "Change Your Partner": Dan Frazer (Capt. Frank McNeil on Kojak and Lt. McCloskey on As the World Turns) plays Personnel Chief R.D. Bradley. Arthur Anderson (the voice of Lucky the Leprechaun in Lucky Charms cereal commercials and Eustace Bagge on Courage the Cowardly Dog) plays his clerk Logan. Bruce Kirby (see "Home Sweet Sing Sing" above) plays Officer Hamilton. Bruce Glover (appeared in Diamonds Are Forever, Walking Tall, Chinatown, and Ghost World) plays Officer Reilly.

Season 1, Episode 5, "I Won't Go": Molly Picon (shown on the right, legendary Yiddish actress appeared in Come Blow Your Horn, Fiddler on the Roof, The Cannonball Run, and Cannonball Run II) plays unmovable tenant Mrs. Rachel Bronson. 

Season 1, Episode 6, "Muldoon's Star": Nancy Donohue (Nancy Bennet on The Doctors) plays Muldoon's sister Cathy.

Season 1, Episode 7, "The Paint Job": Billy Sands (Pvt. Dino Papparelli on The Phil Silvers Show, Harrison "Tinker" Bell on McHale's Navy, Monte "Bang Bang" Valentine on Big Eddie, and Harry on Webster) plays body shop co-owner Lou. Al Nesor (appeared in Li'l Abner, Santa Clause Conquers the Martians, and Andy) plays car thief Lefty. 

Season 1, Episode 8, "Love Finds Muldoon": Alice Ghostley (shown on the left, appeared in To Kill a Mockingbird, The Graduate, With Six You Get Eggroll, Viva Max, and Grease and played Agnes on Jackie Gleason: American Scene Magazine, Mrs. Nash on Captain Nice, Cousin Alice Cooper on Mayberry R.F.D., Esmeralda on Bewitched, Edwina Moffitt on The New Temperatures Rising Show, Bernice Clifton on Designing Women, and Irna Wallingsford on Evening Shade) plays Lucille's former classmate Bonita Kalsheim.

Season 1, Episode 9, "The Gypsy Curse": Maureen Stapleton (shown on the right, Oscar-, Tony-, and Emmy-winning actress starred in Lonelyhearts, Bye Bye Birdie, Airport, Interiors, and Reds) plays gypsy scam artist Anna Lupesko. Maurice Brenner (Pvt. Irving Fleischman on The Phil Silvers Show) plays her victim Kramer. Martha Greenhouse (appeared in Up the Down Staircase, Bananas, and The Stepford Wives) plays Lucille's sister Rose Henderson.

Season 1, Episode 10, "Thirty Days Notice": Michael Vale (see "Home Sweet Sing Sing" above) plays repeat offender Al Cooper. Dort Clark (appeared in Bells Are Ringing, The Loved One, and Skin Game and played Sgt. Klauber on Mickey) plays the district attorney. John Alexander (appeared in Arsenic and Old Lace, Summer Holiday, and Winchester '73) plays a judge.

Season 1, Episode 11, "Catch Me on the Paar Show": Hugh Downs (shown on the left, announcer on the Jack Paar Tonight Show and long-time news host on Over Easy, 20/20, Live From Lincoln Center, and Today) plays himself. John Gibson (Ethelbert on Crime Photographer, the chaplain on The Phil Silvers Show, and Joe Pollock on The Edge of Night) plays priest Father Flanagan. Shelley Berman (legendary Grammy-winning comedian, appeared in The Best Man, Divorce American Style, Teen Witch, and Meet The Fockers and played Ben Flicker on L.A. Law, Judge Robert Sanders on Boston Legal, and Nat David on Curb Your Enthusiasm) plays Rabbi Eisenberg.

Season 1, Episode 12, "The Taming of Lucille": Carl Ballantine (shown on the right, played Lester Gruber on McHale's Navy and Max Kellerman on One in a Million) plays Lucille's brother-in-law Al Henderson. Martha Greenhouse (see "The Gypsy Curse" above) returns as Rose Henderson. Martin E. Brooks (Deputy D.A. Chapman on McMillan and Wife, Dr. Rudy Wells on The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman, Dr. Arthur Bradshaw on General Hospital, Edgar Randolph on Dallas, and Mike Snow on Hunter) plays an actor portraying Petruchio in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew

Season 1, Episode 13, "Put It in the Bank": John Alexander (see "Thirty Days Notice" above) plays CEO C.F. Cartwright. James Dukas (Roger Blough on Kennedy) plays former criminal Fink Foster. Gilbert Mack (the voice of Johnny Jupiter, B-12, and Major Domo on Johnny Jupiter and Dick Strong on Gigantor) plays former shoeshiner Tony. John C. Becher (appeared in Up the Sandbox, Gremlins, and Murphy's Romance) plays investment counselor Mr. Clark.

Season 1, Episode 14, "Get Well, Officer Schnauser": Dick O'Neill (Judge Proctor Hardcastle on Rosetti and Ryan, Malloy on Kaz, Arthur Broderick on Empire (1984), Harry Clooney on Better Days, Charlie Fitzgerald Cagney on Cagney & Lacey, Fred Wilkinson on Falcon Crest, Arnold "Moon" Willis on Dark Justice, and Commissioner Geiss on Family Matters) plays a bank security guard. Charlotte Rae (shown on the left, later played Sylvia Schnauser on Car 54, Where Are You?, Molly the Mail Lady on Sesame Street, Mrs. Bellotti on Hot L Baltimore, Edna Garrett on Diff'rent Strokes, Hello, Larry, and The Facts of Life, and Roxanne Gaines on ER) plays bank teller Miss Berger. Frank Marth (Lt. Phil Parker on The Young and the Restless and Major General Worth on The Dirty Dozen: The Series) plays FBI Agent Cunningham. Billy Sands (see "The Paint Job" above) plays a thief being booked at the station. Bruce Kirby (see "Home Sweet Sing Sing" above) plays Officer Kissell.

Season 1, Episode 15, "Christmas at the 53rd": Alice Ghostley (see "Love Finds Muldoon" above) returns as Bonita Kalsheim. Carl Ballantine (see "The Taming of Lucille" above) returns as Al Henderson. Martha Greenhouse (see "The Gypsy Curse" above) returns as Rose Henderson. Billie Allen (WAC Billie on The Phil Silvers Show and Ada Chandler on The Edge of Night) appears as Mrs. Dave Anderson, Officer Anderson's wife.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this Car 54 info bonanza! My favorite Season 1 episode is probably "Boom Boom Boom," in which a barbershop quartet competition sends Jan Murray to the loony bin. What a hoot.

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    1. I accidentally deleted your comment, which said that I had said Fred Gwynne died at age 97. If you go back and recheck the post, you'll see that I said Gwynne died at age 66 and that Paul Reed was the one who died at 97. Thanks for keeping me on my toes!

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