July 6, 2019
I hope this finds all of you in the throes of an enjoyable Summer… or whatever the season happens to be in your part of the world.
On that subject, here’s a shout out to 16-year-old Preps fan Daniel A. in Australia, Dimytro, a new reader in the Ukraine and the lovely Francisca down in beautiful Brazil.
Welcome to our newsletter family.
Sadly, what has prompted me to get in touch this time is the passing of yet another cherished friend and show business colleague.
I hope I can do justice to his memory and our friendship.
“Arte Johnson… A Little Giant”
In the early ’70s, while I was directing a series of Chevrolet commercials at NBC’s Burbank Studios, the network brass offered me a position as a Senior programming executive.
It sounded interesting and the next thing I knew, I had a parking place just a few feet from Johnny Carson’s, a plush office and a whiz-bang, battle-tested secretary who helped educate me in the mysterious ways of network politics.
My first project was developing a game show for a new host from Canada named Alex Trebec.
I remember how heated the discussion became amongst some of us about whether or not he should shave off his mustache, because some idiot in the research department insisted that his polling indicated the game show audience which consisted mostly of women at the time, would never relate to or trust a host with a mustache.
Fortunately, my side prevailed and Trebec kept his upper lip adornment.
Unfortunately, Alex’s first show “Wizard of Odds” (co-produced by sitcom star to be Alan Thicke) lasted just a little less than a year.
Nonetheless, Trebec was an immediate hit and you all know the rest of his story.
My next undertaking was the development of a new show idea Merv Griffin had pitched to me called “Wheel of Fortune,” as well as overseeing “Hollywood Squares” (a show that provided a book’s worth of hilarious stories of its own).
Before long, I was regarded as some sort of game show maven, which was really not deserved.
I just knew enough to not screw up a good idea when it came across my desk.
Then I became involved in the production of “Name That Tune” for the network and before long, its producer TV impresario Ralph Edwards lured me away with an offer to head up his company REP, one of the oldest and most respected production entities in Hollywood.
In an effort to keep me on board, NBC offered me a Vice Presidency “down the line,” but I had already grown impatient with a lot of the network idiocies and declined in order to work the other side of the desk and become a full-fledged Producer rather than just another network “suit.”
It would prove to be the right decision and I took over the helm on “Name That Tune,” “Truth or Consequences,” and “Cross-Wits,” a pet show of mine involving Guest celebrities like Tony Randall, William Shatner and Phyllis Diller playing crossword puzzles loaded with puns and wordplay.
I would eventually become responsible for over 1,000 hours of TV entertainment.
By now, I had grown increasingly disenchanted with the typical game show hosts… good-looking, used car salesmen types with deep sonorous voices and slick patter.
I felt audiences just might be ready for a more whimsical and low-key host with a light comedic touch and began searching about for such a personality.
Agents bombarded me with offbeat suggestions and I did run through sessions with performers like Joey Bishop (one of the keenest wits I ever worked with), and Broadway star Robert Morse.
But no one demonstrated the light, affable touch I was searching for… until someone suggested Laugh-In stalwart Arte Johnson, who had recently left that show—which would spawn the careers of performers like Goldie Hawn and Lily Tomlin—over a billing dispute.
And so, one day my secretary ushered Arte into my office and within minutes, we had developed a delightful rapport that boded well for what I had in mind.
Arte would prove to be an absolute delight to work with.
At first, I had understandable reservations about trying to direct a veteran like him and coach him in the intricacies of game show protocol… some of which are pretty arcane.
But he was always wide open and receptive to my suggestions and we began to develop a warm and spirited relationship.
Arte had an elfin personality and proved to be an all-around good sport during long and sometimes arduous work sessions.
Our company offices at the time were at the corner of Hollywood and Highland, where the gigantic Kodak theater now hosts the Oscars.
At lunchtime, we always strolled down Hollywood Boulevard to get a bite at my second home… Musso & Frank Grill.
On the way, Arte was invariably approached by fans and never failed to ingratiate himself with small talk and pose for photos from effusive—and sometimes intrusive admirers.
Ralph Edwards had bequeathed his coveted corner booth at Musso’s to me, and Arte and I spend long lunches tucked away there laughing, trading one-liners and generally enjoying each other’s company.
It was turning into a real “bromance” and his company was always a real pick me up for me who was working 16 hours a day.
The show Arte was to host was called “Knockout” and our demo run-through for NBC went swimmingly.
The next day, I got a phone call from the network ordering us to go ahead and make a pilot for a possible on-air slot.
What an irony, since I had once been the Network guy to make such a call.
Arte was over the moon as was his beautiful and vivacious wife Gisela, a tall, statuesque German-born beauty who adored Arte and supported whatever challenge he chose to tackle.
Now, with a pilot to make, we dug in and polished every nuance of the show, sometimes resulting in long and exhausting work sessions late into the night.
Arte never complained. In fact, he became the cheerleader and morale officer for our hard-working, sometimes overworked support staff.
Someone with his buoyant energy and playful attitude can make all the difference in the spirit of underlings busting their butts to contribute to our efforts.
By pilot time, we were a cohesive and smoothly functioning crew united by this delightful man who never once showed a condescending attitude or star-like temperament.
I had grown to love him mightily and had great fun kidding him about the fact that at 5’7”, I was taller than his diminutive 5’4”.
We shot the pilot, with me taking time between each take to offer him advice and encouragement which he absorbed like a sponge.
NBC loved the pilot and we were soon assigned a slot on the network special.
Arte took a well-deserved break and embarked on a celebratory European trek with Gisela.
Spirits were high as we began to shoot our opening season.
But, would the TV audience respond to my offbeat choice of an MC and the unprecedented game show opening with Arte in close up delivering a light as air monologue before introducing the contestants and launching into the competitive portion of the show?
Or was I on a suicide mission trying to re-invent the wheel?
Arte gave it his best shot, show after show, never wavering in his professionalism and high spirits.
We slogged through the first 13 weeks with only mediocre ratings, but managed to eke out a second 13-week renewal.
Fully aware that our hold on the timeslot was tenuous, I spent long hours trying to come up with some fresh element to re-invigorate the show.
I’ve always kept a note pad and pen on my nightstand for ideas that spring into my head in the dead of night.
My notes grew more and more plentiful… and desperate.
Nothing seemed to work and we were canceled after a 26-week run.
But good luck trying to figure out the vagaries of network television.
Was it the time slot, the game itself or my unorthodox choice of a host?
Should we have made the questions easier? Maybe used more female contestants… or spiced up the bonus round?
I’ll never know the answer. I gave up long ago trying to understand the TV audience out there.
But what I do know is that Arte Johnson was a total pro, and a blithe spirit who would become a lifelong friend.
He recently passed away at the age of ninety with his beloved Gisela at his side.
We had developed a real simpatico and I will forever cherish the laughs, the labor and the luxury of a friendship with Arte Johnson… a little giant of a man with a huge heart, an enormous talent, and an indomitable spirit.
RIP old pal.
All for now… book coming soon.
Take good care of yourselves and each other.
All the best,