Richard Benjamin & Paula Prentiss Remember HE & SHE

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! Last month, I had the honor of connecting with great actors and real-life marrieds, Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss, who graciously agreed to a phone interview about their classic ’60s sitcom, He & She (1967-1968, CBS). They were very generous with their time and happy to discuss their work on this beloved short-lived series, which we’ve spotlighted several times before on this blog — most recently for the show’s 50th anniversary in September 2017. (Revisit our critical editorial/history of the show here.)

Now, regular readers know just how much I think of this pair and their short-lived gem of a series, so this interview was a privilege — and I just had to share it with you this week as we continue celebrating our sixth anniversary. I can’t think of a better way to thank you all!

 

Leonard Stern had been working on this show since 1964. It was initially He, She & It — ‘It’ being their apartment building. Right from the start, Paula Prentiss was on his list for “She.” When did you first hear of the project, and how did it come to you?

Dick: It came to us because CBS, as you say, wanted to make a show with Paula. Perry Lafferty, who was an executive at CBS, called her. “You should go see Leonard Stern, he’s got something that might be good for you.” Then Paula, understanding what the show was about, said, “I only wanna do this with my husband.” By that time, 1966, I had done theatre, and I had toured in Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple. So, we went to meet Leonard and he pulled out from his drawer this script, and he said, “I hope you like this, and I hope you wanna do this.” We read it, I think, in the parking lot at CBS over there in Studio City. We liked it immediately, and almost instantly agreed, “Yeah, we wanna do this.” So, he made the deal for us.

Meanwhile, I was doing The Star-Spangled Girl on Broadway, so the deal was that I would do the pilot with Paula before [the play] opened in New York, and before I went and started rehearsals on Star-Spangled Girl; and if the pilot sold, they would let me out of the play. Then, just before we started shooting, Leonard got a call from CBS. They said, “You’ve already made the deal with her husband?” “Yeah,” he replied. They said, “Is he an actor?” They didn’t have any idea who I was. “I hope so.” And they came back with, “Well, we’ll find out in about a week.”

Paula: Then we made the pilot. They said, “You can’t call the show He, She & It anymore because Jack is in it.”

Dick: The audience would think the ‘It’ is Jack because of how fabulously outrageous he was. So that’s how the ‘It’ got dropped and it became just He & She.

The pilot was shot in front of a live audience — in the multi-camera format, like the rest of the series. Not a lot of sitcoms were doing that in 1967. Whose decision was that? 

Dick: That’s what Leonard wanted, and what we wanted, because we had been trained in the theatre, and as you know, they’re like little plays. We always wanted a live audience with real laughs, because if you’ve got laughs, you got ’em; if you don’t, you don’t… And nothing was ever added or ever so-called sweetened. We wanted it to be legitimate.

Paula: And a lot of the crew had come from Lucy. Jay Sandrich…

Dick: He was great. He was a great calming person, and a wonderful collaborator. He was just… Very, very skilled, but also very gentle and appreciative, and all positive. Paula actually used to go and watch Lucy work out her bits, these bits of meticulous business. We tried to do the same thing — we’d time these physical bits, and work them out, like Lucy… Before we started, I didn’t wanna have anything to do with television because in those days, I thought, there were TV people, and there were movie people, and there were theatre people, and they didn’t cross over. Of course, that’s completely the opposite today. I had this snobby feeling about doing television, but once we started, I hoped it would never end.

Did you have a lot of creative input on the material?

Paula: I think we just let them write it. They were so funny. In rehearsal, before shooting an episode, we would sometimes question if something would work, and one of the writers would say, “I’m telling you, this is a laugh, this is a big, big laugh.”

Dick: We would argue about jokes and bet on them, and the writers, like Arne Sultan — they don’t smile when they talk to you, they don’t laugh. They look like nuclear physicists, they’re like scientists of jokes… [He would say] about a particular joke, “I guarantee it.” I said, “What do you mean you guarantee it? Are you writing this down or something?” He said, “That’s a big laugh, I guarantee it.” Saying all this without smiling, or anything. “But you have to do it. If you bet against this joke, and you try to kill it because you think I’m wrong, that’ll kill it.”

I said, “No, we’re gonna give it every shot, but it’s not gonna work, it’s just gonna be dead air.” He said, “No, it won’t.” So, we would do whatever it was, and you can see on the show when we do something that we thought was never gonna work and the laugh is huge, that we’re shocked. I’m looking in the camera and trying to find him, Arne, like “how did this work?”

Paula: We had great writers though.

Dick: Allan Burns and Chris Hayward and Arnold Margolin and Arne [Sultan] and Jim Parker. They alternated in writing the shows. Chris and Allan were fabulous, they all were, but the genius was Leonard. We would get the new script every Sunday. We would look over it, and I would call Jay at night and say, “I don’t think this works.” Paula never questioned, but I did. I’d call Jay at night, and he’d say, “It’s all gonna be all right, you’ll see. It will all be all right.”

He’d calm me down. “Don’t worry, Leonard will fix it.” And he always did. It was amazing what Leonard could do. We had a run-through on Wednesday, and then Thursday morning for the camera blocking, we’d have a brand new script, or not a whole new script, but new pages with fixes. Like Santa’s elves were working during the night, and he was Santa. It was amazing.

You also had an outstanding supporting cast, including, of course, Jack Cassidy. What comes to mind when you think of him?

Paula: The fire. [laughs]

Dick: Rarely were there any kind of heated arguments or anything. But there was a thing one time where Kenny [Mars], who always defended his fireman character, had something to say about a piece of art that we had. They gave Kenny some kind of joke, I don’t remember what the joke was, but it was about the piece of art. It may have been, this isn’t very good but, “What’s that supposed to be, a pizza?” You know what I mean? And he said, “Wait a minute, you’re assuming that this blue-collar fireman doesn’t know anything about art. Why can’t he be much more educated about art and about things like that? It’s a cliché to think that this person should be given jokes about him not knowing anything about art.”

This got into a heated discussion where people were yelling. At one point, Paula yelled out something like, “You’re a liar!” Then Jack came on stage just at that time, and he said, “Fire!? There’s a fire?!” We said, “No, there’s no fire, there’s a liar.” He screamed, “Who’s the liar? Somebody is lying about a fire!” Then it all got calmed down, and the writers changed the lines. They gave Kenny, I believe, much more intelligent things to say about art. He was great.

Paula: The only heated things that ever happened were people defending their characters. There was never any drama in any other way.

You talked about Jack Cassidy and Kenneth Mars. What about Hamilton Camp?

Dick: First of all, Hamilton was a riot, but I didn’t know that he had this enormous following in terms of folk music — beloved. He never really said anything about it. He was just doing the jokes, which were so much fun with him… We also had Harold Gould a few times.

Paula: I went to a woman’s college for two years before I went to Northwestern, and Harold Gould was my teacher at Randolph-Macon. It was an all-girls school, so a friend and I played Demetrius and Lysander. Harold Gould was the director. We played it outside at a park. It was really pretty. So, it was so wonderful to reunite with him on He & She.

Dick: It was like a wonderful comedy family. As I said, in the beginning, I never wanted to do it, and at the end, I hoped it would never go away.

The show premiered in September 1967. Do you remember the response?

Dick: The reviews, I remember, were really, really good. I was excited because coming from the theatre, I thought, “Good reviews, that means business,” and all that. But Perry Lafferty said, “There’s only one review, and that’s the ratings.” And honestly, before that, when I saw our lead-in was going to be Green Acres, I said to Paula, “You know what, I have a feeling that all those people who love that talking, dancing pig may not be our audience.” And that is kind of what happened because [our] ratings did fall off after Green Acres. In television, you’re at the mercy of the numbers, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Paula: We’re just trying to go out there and play, but there’s a whole other business thing.

When did you start to realize that you might not be renewed for a second season? 

Dick: After the first 13 episodes, we had a break and we went on vacation, and during the vacation, we got a call that they picked [us] up for the next 13. Then there was some talk of us doing commercials, I think, for JELL-O. General Foods was one of our sponsors and they started to approach us to do commercials, and I thought in my head, “If we lock into the commercials, that’s a good thing, that’s a positive thing.” But when we never quite heard any more about us doing that, I began to think that there was a problem.

You shot the last episode in January 1968. In March, after the show failed to make CBS’s fall schedule, Variety reported that additional He & She scripts were ordered for a second season, and that the cast was told to stick together because you might be slotted in next year as a mid-season replacement. Do you have any memory of that?

Dick: We got a call from Mike Dann, who’s head of programming there, and he tells us we’re canceled. We were renting a place out here in LA, and so we said, “Okay, that’s that.” And we got in our car and drove across the country back to New York, stopping first in Tulsa to see Paula’s folks. We’re there at her folks’ house, and then we get a call from Leonard, who says, “Where are you?” I told him, “We’re in Tulsa, Oklahoma.” “Don’t go any further east.” I was confused. “Why? What’s going on?” He said, “You may have to turn around and come back.” “What?” “Yeah, they’re thinking about picking it up again. Don’t do anything.” Well, that was nice for about an hour. Then, “Nah, keep going, you can go home.”

Then, the show won an Emmy [for writing], but it was too late — He & She wasn’t heard from again until 1970, when new CBS network president Bob Wood decided to air reruns during the summer in advance of his new schedule of “relevant” programming. Now everyone was talking about what a lost gem this was, and how it never should have been canceled. Did it feel good to get some belated validation?  

Dick: Yeah, I hate living inside a lost gem. I’d rather be on there for years and years. [chuckle] We didn’t think of it that way, we were just sad that it was cancelled and went on.

It was a wonderful thing though because television was kind of instantaneous. You can go out in the street the day before your show is on the air, and nobody gives you a second look, and then all of a sudden, the next day, people are yelling from cars, “Hi, Dick and Paula.” It’s an amazing, amazing, amazing thing, but we didn’t think of it as some kind of breakthrough or classic or anything, until that started to come around way later.

Paula: But it’s amazing. When you see these things later, and you remember that’s what you did, that’s who we were, and it’s a part of who we are. It’s amazing.

 

I couldn’t thank these two enough for their time, but I did my best. I sent them copies of episodes that they hadn’t seen in over 50 years! (They couldn’t wait to show their kids and grandkids.) I hope it brings back wonderful memories. They’ve certainly given great ones to us. 

 

 

Come back next week for another Wildcard post! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Sitcom fun!

17 thoughts on “Richard Benjamin & Paula Prentiss Remember HE & SHE

  1. Thanks for getting that interview. It’s great that they’re still well & together after more than 50 years of marriage.

    The thought that GREEN ACRES actually hurt HE & SHE is funny considering that 5 years earlier, a very unsophisticated sitcom, THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, was believed to be the savior of the more sophisticated DICK VAN DYKE SHOW. Did audiences change that much in 5 years?

    • Hi, Jon! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      I agree; it’s a little easy to blame the lead-in for HE & SHE’s ratings disappointment. The series had exactly the same slot as THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW during its final season. In fact, the whole line-up was the same, except for the lead-out… and the competition.

      As discussed a bit in our 50th anniversary piece, I think the show was simply too vulnerable to the competition from ABC’s Wednesday Night Movie (to an extent that GREEN ACRES, also opposite the movies, wasn’t) and it didn’t have a strong lead-out (DUNDEE AND THE CULHANE) to encourage people to stick out the rest of the evening with CBS, either.

      And I believe that’s because people expected the show to be better than it was early on, and when it wasn’t, they tuned out indefinitely. (If only they had come back and realized sooner that it had improved and indeed become as modern as it was initially touted!)

    • The list of possible “SHE”s is fascinating. Paula was obviously the best choice, but there are some good possibilities there. Some strange ones too. Do you have the list of “HE”s under consideration?

      • Hi, Jimmy! Thanks for reading and commenting.

        Yes, I do. All recognizable names — the check-marked ones being Orson Bean, Larry Hagman, and Pat Boone. More interesting, however, is that much of the early casting correspondence revolved around the idea of using a real-life couple: Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy.

        Benjamin and Prentiss were shocked and delighted by that tidbit when I shared it with them.

    • Hi, deepdishdrama! Thanks for reading and commenting.

      They’re great — kind and generous and exactly like their counterparts on the show!

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