Monday, December 28, 2015

Mister Leonard

Auteur, indeed.

Sheldon Leonard was producer/sometime director/always chief creative boss of The Danny Thomas Show (1957-64), The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), I Spy (1965-68), Gomer Pyle (1964-69) (one of the funniest shows of the 60s, Vietnam be damned, thanks to the professionalism of Jim Nabors and the comic greatness of Frank Sutton), plus the one season (1969-70) of the Emmy-sweeping My World and Welcome To It. No creative force dominated American TV culture as widely, as humanly, and with as much variety as did Leonard's product during the transition from Eisenhower to Nixon.

The jewel in the crown -- the best show of its time (and perhaps ever) -- was of course The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66). While it was Carl Reiner who drove the DVD car, Sheldon Leonard provided the road map, and what a map it was . . . kind, gracious, graceful, elegant, brilliantly funny, modest, super smart, humane -- with (like the time of the show itself) always the good speaking. The variety of Leonard's genius can best be felt by comparing DVD with Danny Thomas. The two shows overlap across four seasons, an overlap set within the entertainment world of early-60s New York City. Yet Thomas drifts with the Sweet Smell of Success: nightclubs, bars, agents, penthouses, taxicabs, tuxedos, and at times an almost hysterical aggressiveness. Van Dyke is quiet and gentle: it exists in back offices, suburban living rooms and bedrooms and kitchens, in a neighbor's dental chair. Throw in a small Southern town contained inside a bell jar, the black-and-white world of international intrigue, a military barracks, and the fantasy-filled study of a Thurberesque writer. . . amazing. Even more amazing: all of it good-hearted.

One of the funniest Van Dyke episodes (and the only one with a nightclub setting), stars the man himself: "Big Max Calvada" from November 20, 1963, on the cusp of the Unspeakable.