Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! Today we’re looking at a forgotten two-season sitcom, produced by MTM and filmed with multiple cameras before a live studio audience, called The Tony Randall Show. Created by Tom Pachett and Jay Tarses, the series aired for a season (1976-1977) on ABC, and then moved to CBS for its second season (1977-1978), after which it was canceled. Tony Randall played a widower judge, Walter O. Franklin, raising his two children in Philadelphia, teenaged daughter (Devon Scott) and preteen son (Brad Savage), alongside his spunky British housekeeper Mrs. McClellan (Rachel Roberts). At work, Walter hung out with a court reporter (Barney Martin) and his uptight secretary, Miss Reubner (Allyn Ann McLerie), while causally romancing a fellow judge (Diana Muldaur). Zane Lasky recurred as annoying young lawyer Mario Lanza.
The show did well on ABC, but the ’76-’77 begat a major change in television tastes. The MTM style of class and sophistication was out of favor; sillier shows gained popularity, as audiences flocked to simple-minded, but laugh heavy shows like Three’s Company (1977-1984, ABC), which premiered during Tony Randall‘s first season, and all of Garry Marshall’s late ’70s oeuvre. Fred Silverman, who had moved from CBS to ABC the year prior, gave the series a 13-episode second season. But Grant Tinker, believing the show needed another full season to prove itself, took the show to CBS, home of all of MTM’s past hits, where it got a FULL pick-up. The network, however, requested that Scott be replaced with someone more conventionally attractive, Penny Peyser. Hans Conried also joined the cast as Randall’s father. When the series failed to deliver once again, the producers tried to slightly re-tool the format, producing two episodes in which Walter teaches a night school class for a group of misfit wannabe lawyers — one of whom was a pimp.
But the series was simply several years too late. It was an early ’70s CBS show trying to make it on ABC in the late ’70s. And then when it came back to CBS, the network, whose sitcoms were not as strong as they’d been in recent years (stay tuned for something next week), was forced to make it more like the popular ABC shows. Neither format was destined for success, and the show was canceled by the Spring of ’78. Having seen 42 of the 44 episodes (I’m missing “Case: Terwilliger Vs. Himself,” a first season episode revolving around Martin’s home life, and “Case: The Philadelphia Triangle,” about Mario believing that Walter’s girlfriend is in love with him — if anyone has those two episodes, please let me know), I am of the opinion that the show was well cast. All of the adult regulars were unique and amusing; furthermore, the kids were fresh and uncloying. The problem is the writing, which was neither as sharp nor as funny as MTM’s earlier successes. Many episodes, from both seasons, are forgettable. The series’ strongest moments occur between Randall and McLerie, but even that’s not enough to completely redeem this intermittently enjoyable sitcom.
However, it is an MTM show, and so many of the writers went on to have noteworthy careers. In addition to Patchett and Tarses, episodes were written by David Lloyd (MTM veteran), Hugh Wilson (creator of WKRP In Cincinnati), Gary David Goldberg (creator of Family Ties), Earl Pomerantz (MTM veteran), Blake Hunter (creator of Who’s The Boss?) and Ken Levine and David Issacs (regular writers on Cheers). So the show is definitely worth noticing, and I have picked my favorite episodes — from both seasons — as a reference for those seeking out the show. As usual, they’ll be listed in airing order. But first, I must note that every single episode guide I’ve found online for the second season is off, both in episode titles and air dates. I have verified my selections based on copyrights and vintage newspaper listings. I believe it is the most correct data you’ll find on this series.
SEASON ONE (1976-1977, ABC)
01) Episode 5: “Case: The Snow White Affair” (Aired: 10/28/76)
Walter upholds a theatre’s right to show a porno, but sings a different tune when it comes to his kids.
Written by Lloyd Garver | Directed by Michael Zinberg
Given MTM’s aforementioned reputation for mature and sophisticated storytelling, it’s always doubly funny when one of their series tackles a topical or slightly taboo story. In this case, there’s a porno film about Snow White that Walter has ruled to keep open, despite his refusal to let his kids see it. (It’s perfectly understandable.) But the jokes about the kinky film are frequent and riotous, making for a funny show. If I were to choose an MVE, this would be a candidate.
02) Episode 10: “Case: Franklin In Love” (Aired: 12/16/76)
Walter proposes to Eleanor, who wavers back and forth between answers.
Written by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses | Directed by Harvey Medlinsky
The story itself, of Walter proposing to his girlfriend, Diana Muldaur, and her saying yes, only to change her mind, isn’t very funny. But it’s full of great character moments, allowing for a script that’s perhaps the most consistently funny of the entire series. Every single person in the ensemble is given a moment to shine. Reubner’s reading of Eleanor’s hot poem to Walter is a highlight. If I were to choose an MVE, this would be another candidate.
03) Episode 15: “Case: Whatever Happened To Mary Jane?” (Aired: 01/20/77)
Walter takes the fall when marijuana is found in his office.
Written by Tom Patchett & Jay Tarses | Directed by John C. Chulay
Again, the principal draw of this episode, written by executive producers and series creators Tom Patchett and Jay Tarses (fresh off of The Bob Newhart Show), is the topicality. Almost every late ’70s series has to do an episode about marijuana, and not even The Tony Randall Show is exempt. It’s a moderately funny show, albeit a bit predictable, but a clear departure from most of this season’s tame routinized fare.
04) Episode 17: “Case: May Vs. December” (Aired: 02/03/77)
Walter finds himself attracted to his son’s young teacher.
Written by Gary David Goldberg | Directed by Harvey Medlinsky
While May-December romances have long been fodder for the situation comedy, Goldberg, the future creator of Family Ties, makes the stale premise fresh with his witty script — and more importantly, Tony Randall gives a great performance, making the story work for his character. Annette O’Toole plays the young teacher, and she’ll be back next season for an episode, but it’s not as funny as this, her first appearance.
05) Episode 20: “Case: Democracy Vs. Tyranny” (Aired: 02/24/77)
Mrs. McClellan and the kids put their father on mock trial for being tyrannical.
Written by Gary David Goldberg | Directed by Tony Mordente
Although this series’ work stories are generally better than the home stories, it must be said that Roberts’ character and the two kids are perfectly capable of getting laughs, as evidenced in this episode. Walter is put on trial by the trio after he’s accused of being a tyrant for refusing to let his daughter move into a tiny apartment with a friend. It’s a fun premise with a matching execution. (Look out for guest appearances by Nedra Volz and Joyce DeWitt!)
06) Episode 22: “Case: The People Speak” (Aired: 03/10/77)
Walter runs against the incumbent in the election for Superior Court judge.
Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs | Directed by Michael Zinberg
Co-written by Ken Levine, who writes a great blog on television and his experiences in the industry, this episode wins points for its truly original premise. Walter decides to run in an election, only to have his opponent, the incumbent, die just before the election. Yet, even with the man’s demise, Walter still manages to lose the popular vote — a truly embarrassing, albeit, hilarious defeat. Although not truly hysterical until the end, the episode is most memorable.
SEASON TWO (1977-1978, CBS)
07) Episode 27: “Case: Love Vs. Excitement” (Aired: 10/22/77)
Walter worries about Jack after he separates from his wife.
Written by Gary David Goldberg | Directed by Michael Zinberg
This episode throws a lot to the always dependable Barney Martin (Jerry’s dad on Seinfeld, and the original Amos in 1975’s Chicago). By now, the repartee between Martin, McLerie and Randall is stellar, and the episode climaxes with a wonderful scene in a hotel room in which Jack and Miss Reubner are caught in a compromising (or in Reubner’s case, uncompromising) position. Very funny — one of this series’ best.
08) Episode 31: “Case: Franklin Vs. Casanova” (Aired: 11/26/77)
Walter worries when Miss Reubner begins dating a womanizer.
Written by Kathy Donnell & Madeline Di Maggio | Directed by Harvey Medlinsky
Robert Alda guest stars as a sweet talking lothario who woos Miss Reubner, much to Walter’s chagrin. Again, the episode makes the list because of an amusing climax, when Walter and Reubner’s mother (whom he’s riled up) burst in on the pair’s date. Also, this episode poses the question of whether Walter is attracted to Reubner. (Although they have the funniest and, in an odd way, most intimate interactions, I personally don’t see romance.)
09) Episode 34: “Case: The Sylvia Needleman Experience” (Aired: 12/24/77)
Walter begins seeing an aggressive real estate agent who wants to sell his house.
Written by Jay Tarses | Directed by Harvey Medlinsky
Beverly Garland plays an overbearing real estate agent, and, as a result, her character is rendered completely unlikable. Thus, this isn’t exactly a pleasant episode to watch. However, it’s one of the most laugh-out-loud funniest, particularly in the reactions that the other characters have to hers, and her blossoming relationship to a harried and then bemused Walter. (Tarses wrote this one without Patchett!)
10) Episode 35: “Case: Kids’ Rights” (Aired: 01/07/78)
Mario’s over his head defending a young girl who’s suing her father.
Written by William Allen Dial | Directed by Tony Mordente
What makes this episode most remarkable is that it’s probably the series’ best stab at paralleling a story in Walter’s work life with the goings on at home. The broad subject is child rearing, as Mario Lanza defends a girl who’s suing her emotionally absent father. Lanza, a character to whom it took me a while to warm, is wonderful here, and Miss Reubner gets an absolutely hysterical moment where she recounts a past liaison. If I were to choose an MVE, this would be another contender.
11) Episode 37: “Case: I Live To Dance” (Aired: 01/21/78)
Jack and Miss Reubner enter a ballroom dancing competition.
Written by Hugh Wilson | Directed by Tony Mordente
This silly installment is predicated on a dance contest that Jack enters with Miss Reubner. (Both of these talented performers are known for musical comedy, so it’s no surprise that they would shine in an episode such as this.) The show isn’t hysterical; in fact, it’s nothing more than enjoyable. However, the installment works and is a nice change of pace. And because I’m fond of the cast, I’m fond of this episode.
12) Episode 43: “Case: The Way It Was” (Aired: 03/11/78)
Walter, Jack, and Miss Reubner all have different accounts of the judge’s first day.
Written by Blake Hunter | Directed by Asaad Kelada
Here we have an easy sitcom premise: Rashomon. That is, every character remembers a particular event differently. Although it’s an unoriginal format from which to wring laughs, episodes like these usually deliver, because the comedy comes from characters and our understanding of their individual perceptions. Not surprisingly, this episode, which tells things from the point-of-view of Walter and the show’s two best characters, Jack and Miss Reubner, is laugh-heavy.
Other notable episodes that missed making the list above include: “Case: McClellan Vs. Immigration,” in which Mrs. McClellan searches for a husband in the newspaper to avoid deportation, and “Case: Bobby And Brian,” in which Bobby dates a gangster — to her father’s chagrin.
November 13, 2015 UPDATE: Thanks to a friend, I have now seen and am in possession of one of the episodes I was missing when this post was initially published, “Case: Terwilliger Vs. Himself.” So now that I have 43 of the 44 episodes, I am only missing one, “Case: The Philadelphia Triangle,” about Mario’s mistaken belief that Eleanor is in love with him. Please, please, please, let me know if you have this episode or know where I can find it!
Come back next Wednesday for another Wildcard post! And tune in tomorrow for more Xena!