PBS assembled Jimmie Walker, George Takei, Bob Newhart, Ray Romano, and Leslie Uggams for a panel on the network’s “Pioneers of Television” — a medium that might have been very different without them.
The five changed TV in ways great and small. Newhart’s changes, like his comedy, were nuanced and quiet. Takei skewered notions of bad Asian drivers, among others. Uggams added to diversity behind the camera. Walker helped set a model for sitcoms and comedians alike. And Romano finally got New Yorkers their due. (Okay, his contribution is a little more complicated than that.)
Here are our five takeways from each of the panelists.
1. Jimmie Walker anchored TV’s first African-American family sitcom.
The standup-turned-TV star proved a show about a black family could be a hit. But “Good Times” also dismantled barriers in other ways, because executive producer Norman Lear continued his knack for handling difficult issues. “He attacked every subject you know, from rape to abortion to mental illness,” Walker said Tuesday at the panel, during the Television Critics Association winter press tour.
The show was also one of the prototypes for translating a comic’s onstage persona to television. Walker doesn’t think it happens as much anymore, in part because late night shows highlight fewer comedians.
“You need that base so somebody at a network can say, ‘This is my justification for giving this guy a show,’ because guys who are in programming, they’ve got houses in Malibu,” Walker said. “And they don’t want to lose those. You keep giving guys shows and they don’t make it, you will now be living in Hollywood on Hollywood Boulevard.”
2. Bob Newhart mastered the slow build.
With “The Bob Newhart Show” in the 1970s, Newhart introduced one of television’s first gay characters, Craig Plager (Howard Hesseman). But that was only one of the show’s breakthroughs. Newhart also showed how dry, patient comedy could pay off.
Newhart believes CBS was patient with him as well with his second sitcom, “Newhart,” in the ’80s. He said he didn’t believe the show hit its stride until its third season. What saved the show, he said, was the audience’s fondness for his past work and the show’s breakout characters — three taciturn brothers, two of whom had the same name.
“We were given two years by the audience for, really, something that was not really that good a show. I think what kept us on was, maybe, a loyalty to me and Larry, Darryl, and Darryl,” Newhart said.
3. With “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Ray Romano stood up for nontraditional casting.
“The only tension in our show with the network happened in the very beginning with casting,” Romano said. “And they immediately wanted to take it out of New York and not have it take place in New York because they wanted it to appeal to Middle America. They thought it would be too ethnic. … We all thought well, first of all, I have to be from New York. And second of all, ‘Seinfeld’ was the most popular show on the air at that moment, which you couldn’t get more ethnic than that or New York than that. So they we agreed to do Long Island. We kind of compromised.”
“And then the casting, the big casting fight was for Patty Heaton because they wanted this actress, this more Middle America-looking actress, I remember,” Romano said. “And the network heads, then Les Moonves, they said that Les wants her, and we all thought they were going to force us to take her. … And to Les’s credit, when we all said, ‘We think this one woman is not right,’ he said, ‘Okay.’ He let us go, you know. And he did tell us, ‘Peter Boyle is going to be the father’ and we were not going to argue with that. We said, ‘Okay.'”
4. George Takei took down Asian-American stereotypes.
The U.S.S. Enterprise on “Star Trek” was supposed to represent the entire planet Earth, Takei said — though thanks to the presence of William Shatner and James Doohan, Canadians were slightly overrepresented, Takei joked. He was particularly interested in representations of Asian-Americans.
“One of the most touching things I was told was B.D. Wong, who is a very fine actor, said to me, ‘I decided to become an actor because I saw you on television,’ because, until then… all we saw were either comic buffoons or silent servants or cold-hearted, evil villains usually playing the Japanese soldier, that sort of stereotype,” Takei said. “And, here, they saw me on ‘Star Trek’ as a full member of the leadership team, the best helmsman in the galaxies. And at that time, there was this stereotype about Asian drivers. Well, I saw that that was put to rest.”
Later, Takei came out, and took on stereotypes about gays. His new musical about the internment of Japanse-Americans in World War II, “Allegiance,” comes to Broadway this year. It aims to show the resilience of the imprisoned.
“There were happy moments within those barbed wire fences,” he said.
5. Leslie Uggams’ show lasted 10 weeks, but still broke ground.
Uggams was surprised to learn CBS was giving her her own musical series, “The Leslie Uggams Show,” to replaced the Smothers Brothers after they were, as she put it, “taken off the air because they were too political.”
She sensed CBS was trying to score political correctness points. “Of course, the undertone was ‘What better way to replace the Smothers Brothers than to have an African-American star on the television?'” Uggams said. “It takes the heat off of what had been done.” But the network, she said, secretly had another show on the backburner, which replaced hers after ten weeks.
She still made progress in that short time back in 1969. “I made sure that we had black cameramen, which was unheard of at CBS at the time,” she said. “Also, we had Donald McKayle as a choreographer, which was groundbreaking. The cast was a mixture of Latino, black, white. That hadn’t been done before on a television show. So it was a lot of groundbreaking things that were happening. We had a wonderful diversity of guest stars that had been on the show. And I was also the first one to bring on people like Sly & the Family Stone. CBS didn’t know what had happened.”
“Pioneers of Television” returns for its fourth season April 15 on PBS.