The Literary Club: Read the Pilot for THE NANCY WALKER SHOW

Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! 100 years ago this week, a wonderful, one-of-a-kind entertainer was born. Broadway babies know her best from Best Foot Forward, On The Town, and Do Re Mi, but most Americans probably discovered her when she came into their living rooms on McMillan & Wife, and most notably for us sitcom fans, on Rhoda (and The Mary Tyler Moore Show). That’s right — we’re celebrating the dynamic Nancy Walker!

I don’t need to recap Walker’s illustrious career to my readers here — she’s one of those performers that this crowd has never forgotten. But she does have a few forgotten (or at least lesser-known) credits to her name, including a sitcom with said name in the title. It’s The Nancy Walker Show (1976-1977, ABC), which some sources cite as having run 13 episodes, but I can confirm from copyright details, newspaper listings, and scripts (I have drafts of 11 different entries — two of which were never shot) that only 12 were taped, with 11 airing in the fall of 1976 and one more getting burned off as a special in July 1977. That was well after the series had not only been cancelled, but its star had also gone on to anchor another short-lived sitcom, the 13-episode turkey Blansky’s Beauties (1977, ABC), which was produced by Garry Marshall’s camp and had also, by then, been unceremoniously axed too, allowing Walker — with two flops in a single season — to return to her duties on Rhoda after a year away. Now, I shared some commentary on Blansky’s Beauties in a Potpourri piece last year — see here — but unfortunately, I don’t yet own any episodes of The Nancy Walker Show. However, as noted above, I have been able to READ the majority of the run, so I want to take this post to share some brief thoughts on the series, before providing access to a draft of its pilot script!

Nancy Walker’s first starring sitcom vehicle was produced by Norman Lear’s company, and created by the big guy himself, along with Maude’s Rod Parker. This was quite the departure for Walker, whose recent success in the sitcom fold came from playing Ida Morgenstern on two of the MTM stable’s biggest hits. But this wasn’t a usual Lear series either — for starters, he was personally less involved, and most importantly, the show was also less sociopolitically inclined and narratively topical than his earlier classics. In fact, aside from the novel and intentionally progressive incorporation of a gay regular — one of the first in this genre, following The Corner Bar’s, and the couple on Lear’s own Hot L Baltimore — this otherwise looked like a simple, now old-fashioned ensemble comedy in the MTM vein, with a work/home duality centered around its titular star. Only… if it was meant to resemble an MTM series in design, with scribes like Arnie Rosen and Gary Belkin, not to mention other writers more affiliated with Lear’s idea-led political efforts, the results ended up vastly different than an MTM series in practice. 

But let me not get ahead of myself… You see, Rod Parker’s premise found Walker playing a talent agent in Los Angeles who’s always hustling for her clients, while on the home front, dealing with the fact that her navy husband Kenneth (the great William Daniels) — he’s been away at sea for at least ten months out of every year — has just retired and will now be with her permanently: the first time in their nearly 30-year marriage where they’ll truly be living together on a regular basis. Others in the cast included their daughter, a mousy hypochondriac played by the very funny Beverly Archer (who’d be scooped up by MTM right after this series’ failure for another short-lived sitcom called We’ve Got Each Other), the daughter’s dweebish hubby (filled out by veteran Lear repertory player James Cromwell), and the oft-discussed gay regular, Terry (Ken Olfson), a struggling actor who lives with Nancy and serves as her assistant in exchange for room and board. William Schallert, another character actor of the time, recurred as Teddy Futterman, a broad lampoon of a network exec, with Sparky Marcus as his obnoxious son.

All of that, on paper, sounds wonderful — the cast, the congregation of characters, and the premise of the relationship between Nancy and her husband, who are essentially “newlyweds” for the first time. The problem, I think, is that, while all of these characters are fairly well-defined and played by great performers, the tendency to indulge the higher-concept trappings of the less relatable “talent representation” business is too much for this collection of writers to avoid, and instead of stories that explore the relationships among the regular players, there’s a lot of deference to typical show biz plots that are jokey, and sometimes satirical, but unoriginal and not the kind of narrative fodder on which this kind of ensemble comedy thrives. To put it another way, these writers give in to their natural idea-driven impulses and are more led by gaudy narrative notions inspired by the premised career — which is a shame, given that this show looks to have strong characters, begging for more focused exploration. As such, this is an MTM-like comedy that, if it was actually written by MTM’s folks, probably would have been significantly better, emphasizing its leads, and with humor more directly attached to them — the elements of the series’ “situation” that are most rewarding, and if well-developed, reliable.

Now, that’s a textual appraisal of the show. In terms of its popularity, I think the premise was not as emotionally identifiable to viewers as the other, actual MTM sitcoms’, especially the series that preceded it in ABC’s Thursday night lineup, The Tony Randall Show, which smartly incorporated the relatable struggles of single parenting into its star’s home life, balancing out the professional judicial fare. What’s more, Nancy’s career as a talent agent never seemed to give her a literal workplace — like the newsroom, the doctor’s office, or the judge’s chambers — that could provide fertile ground for the characters to bounce off one another. And with less physical space binding the leads and the storytelling, plots were then freer to be all-over-the-place and less about the fixed elements of the situation (the characters). Accordingly, while it’s certainly not as ridiculously, campily bad as Blansky’s Beauties, which made no bones about adhering to the Garry Marshall ethos, The Nancy Walker Show is not a series whose lack of success is surprising. And, frankly, I’m not complaining either; I’m glad after forays into both the Norman Lear and Garry Marshall worlds, Walker was able to return home where she belonged — to Rhoda, with the MTM company that, even on a show that had, by that point, devolved into mediocrity, at least showcased her, and her character, better…

As far as giving her funny stuff to do, there was one memorable Nancy Walker Show outing where she and her husband got high on marijuana… only to learn it wasn’t actually marijuana after all; just a regular cigarette. It’s the kind of comic shtick that isn’t associated with Nancy’s career, but nevertheless still reveals this series’ heavy reliance on idea-driven gimmicks, and in this case, it’s not as well-motivated by, or as much a showcase for, “character” as some of the other ganja-related sitcom episodes we’ve discussed (like the segment from The New Dick Van Dyke Show I recently shared, the Roseanne entry highlighted last week, or Barney Miller’s iconic “Hash,” which aired two months after this Nancy Walker). And although every script is basically comedic, with an expected focus around its star — who, as we know from her other work, is electric — the only teleplay that makes sense to share with you is the pilot: “Homecoming,” which was written by Rod Parker, directed by Hal Cooper, and aired on September 30, 1976. It sets up the premise well (warts and all) — despite some inartful exposition — while boasting a few laughs. However, note that there’s mention but no inclusion of the important Beverly Archer character, who was added by the time this episode made it to air, via a hastily inserted scene. (See here.) So, this is not 100% reflective of what was broadcast — but it is close. An excerpt is below, and you can access the full script here. (Password: BlindDate )

 

 

Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Monday for another musical rarity!