To the average person the life of a television star seems like a glamorous occupation. But many actors signed to long term contracts feel more imprisoned than privileged. Johnny Depp was so miserable on 21 Jump Street (1987-1992) he actually tried to get fired, pulling stunts like lighting his underwear on fire on the set. Speaking years later about finally getting off the detective show, he said,” I was like Mandela, man.”
A similar reaction came from Mrs. Howell herself, Natalie Schaefer. Like many actors who do television pilots, when she performed in the initial Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967) episode she wanted to do one show, get paid, that’s it. No way she figured would CBS pick up such a ridiculous,stupid show. A few weeks later Natalie was throwing a party at her home on Rodeo Drive. She excused herself when the phone rang, returned a few minutes later and burst into tears. Her friends rushed to comfort the normally happy hostess. “Natalie darling, what is it? Did you lose a part?” “No much worse. I got it.”
James Garner became a popular TV star because of the Warner Bros. Western Maverick (1957-1962). But to the Oklahoma born actor and Korean War veteran, the show was often purgatory. The studio refused him permission to earn extra money on weekends making personal appearances, and turned down his requests for a raise. He finally got out of the show through a breech of contract suit, and stated bitterly “If you have any pride in your work you don’t go into TV.” When he returned to TV after 11 years of films to The Rockford Files (1974-1980) he again quickly became unhappy with working conditions and staged a successful sit down strike in his dressing room to get what he wanted.
Sometimes a seeming big break can turn into a nightmare. Stage actress Vivian Vance was thrilled to get the role of Ethel on I Love Lucy(1951-1957). Vance who was a good looking woman, even acceded to Lucille Ball’s demand that she be twenty pounds overweight. Each summer she would get an irritating phone call from Ball,” Viv, we start shooting in a couple of weeks, start eating.” But playing a frumpy, second banana weighed on her. One day sitting in her make-up chair she complained for all to hear,” Can you believe they have me married to that old coot, William Frawley? He should be play my father. Every morning when I get my script I say please God, don’t let me have any kissing scenes with the old coot.” During her diatribe the old coot was standing right behind her which started a long and famous feud. Later when Desi Arnaz proposed creating a spin-off show called The Mertzes which could of made them both rich, Frawley jumped at it, but Vance killed the idea stating,”Six years is long enough to be married to the old coot.”
Still not everyone is unhappy in television. Don Adams was offered a choice of deals by the producers of Get Smart (1965-1970). He could get paid a good salary or he could own one third of the show. The catch was his piece of the pie only kicked in if the show was sold into syndication which meant it had to last for five years. He swallowed hard, took the gamble and it paid off. When he became rich Adams was able to afford traveling throughout the world with his seven children. Once when questioned about his large brood the former stand up comic replied,” I don’t what the big deal is. It only took me seven minutes.”
About the author
Stephen Schochet is the author and narrator of the audiobooks Fascinating Walt Disney and Tales Of Hollywood. The Saint Louis Post Dispatch says,” these two elaborate productions are exceptionally entertaining.” Hear realaudio samples of these great, unique gifts at http://www.hollywoodstories.com.