There’s a holdup in the Bronx
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
In the fall of 1960, the ABC crime drama Naked City — after a year’s hiatus, having been canceled officially after one season in 1959 — returned to TV screens Wednesday nights for an additional three-season stint as a gritty, realistic police procedural that also doubled as a dramatic anthology show, telling the stories of various disparate characters who came into contact with members of New York’s finest played by Paul Burke (as Detective Adam Flint), Horace McMahon (Lt. Mike Parker) and Harry Bellaver (Sgt. Frank Arcaro). The tagline to every episode of the critically-acclaimed drama — and a phrase that soon was adopted into the American vernacular — was that “there are eight million stories in the Naked City…this has been one of them.”
A year later, another TV series dealing with crime in the Big Apple premiered to TV audiences…and it demonstrated that of those eight million stories, some of them could be side-splittingly hilarious. The main characters of this show were simple uniformed patrolmen, but they served a purpose every bit as important as their Naked City brethren because as the lyrics in the show’s opening told us: “There’s a traffic jam in Harlem that’s backed up to Jackson Heights.” Fifty years ago on this very date, NBC presented us a different breed of cop in a situation comedy whose original run may have been brief but would soon to go on to be beloved by adoring fans as a genuine cult classic: Car 54, Where Are You?
Officer Gunther J. Toody (Joe E. Ross) was a short-and-squat chatterbox whose gravelly voice and constant exclamation of “Ooh! Ooh!” would get on the nerves of anyone after a fashion…with the exception of his best friend and longtime partner, Officer Francis A. Muldoon (Fred Gwynne), a tall, somber individual who was college-educated and had a bit more Moxie on the ball than his dimwitted pal. However, their precinct captain, Paul Block (Paul Reed), bemoaned the day he had partnered the two men because in the hopes that some of Francis would rub off on Gunther the end result was “two Toodys.” The two friends worked out of the mythical 53rd Precinct in the Bronx, and in fact had been partners practically from the day they joined the force. In one of Car 54's archetypal episodes, “Change Your Partner,” a police department researcher decides to split the two men up and pair them with different patrolmen because their lengthy association completely flies in the face of normality (most partnerships last only 16 months). This grand experiment doesn’t last long, however — no one is able to endure Toody’s garrulousness or Muldoon’s stony silences and so the two chums are reunited by the episode’s end.
Toody was the married one of the duo, happily-ever-after manacled to domineering Lucille (Beatrice Pons)…and though Lucille remained devoted to Gunther he constantly drove her to distraction with both his inattentiveness and idiocy, prompting her to frequently open the window of their apartment at various times and scream to the neighbors: “Listen up, America! My husband, Gunther Toody, is a nut!” Muldoon was a confirmed bachelor who lived with his mother (Ruth Masters) and two sisters (Nancy Donohue, Helene Parker) and did so because he was painfully shy around women (Toody once observed that his partner would run from the door if a Girl Scout was selling cookies)…not that Lucille didn’t make numerous attempts to fix him up with “some nice girl.” Toody and Muldoon’s beloved 53rd precinct was in turn populated with a motley crew of law enforcement misfits — the best remembered of which was the constantly kvetching Leo Schnauser (who looked just like his namesake), played by Al Lewis (Lewis’ character wasn’t introduced until the 13th episode, “Put It in the Bank” but he had guest-starred previously on the show in two episodes playing character roles) and his partner, muscle-bound Ed Nicholson (Hank Garrett)…who could usually be found admiring his physique in a mirror or making a date with some hot new prospect (Nicholson’s romantic conquests bugged Leo to the point where he would call his partner a “bum”). Presiding over the 53rd’s “thin blue line” was Captain Block, who was constantly frustrated by Toody and Muldoon’s unmatched talent for getting into trouble…though it was directed more toward Gunther than Francis because as Block once ordered Muldoon, “I want you to come into my office, too…you’re his interpreter.”
The comic concoction known as Car 54, Where are You? was created by television legend Nat Hiken — a name that might be unfamiliar to many today, but in an era when the concept of a Hollywood “hyphenate” (writer-director-producer) is quite commonplace nowadays, Hiken was one of the first and best of the lot. Nat got his big break in show business (after working previously in radio on the West Coast) in a job that I personally would have given my left earlobe for — he was the head writer on Fred Allen’s radio show, a position that had to be fraught with frustration because it was generally believed by the public that Allen wrote all of his own material. After additional radio assignments working on Milton Berle’s show and an underrated sitcom entitled The Magnificent Montague, Hiken moved into the new medium of television as the head writer of TV’s All Star Revue. He experienced a momentary setback when his name turned up in the infamous Red Channels pamphlet (Hiken had to take out an ad in Variety denouncing any Communist beliefs) but rebounded to write and direct Martha Raye’s popular comedy-variety hour in 1954, a program on which Nat also toiled with one of his future collaborators, Billy Friedberg.
The fall of 1955 saw the debut of Hiken’s most popular and lasting contribution to television: The Phil Silvers Show (aka You’ll Never Get Rich or as it is often referred to by fans, Sgt. Bilko). Silvers starred in this uproarious sitcom as Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko, a U.S. Army lifer who had developed a reputation in the service as a smooth-talking con man with an eye out to make a fast buck. The Phil Silvers Show became a huge favorite with audiences and Nat’s industry peers, so much so that he, Silvers and the show’s writers carted home several Emmy Awards for their achievements throughout the four-year-run of the series. But working 18-hour days on Bilko to make it the best that it was began to take a physical toll on Hiken, and he left the series after its second season, limiting himself afterward to hour-long specials (he also attempted to revive the Montague series for TV in 1958, but CBS lost interest in the idea). By 1961, Nat was ready to tackle a second sitcom (that would be handled through his own production company), based on an idea that he had had for several years that would satirize the then popular slew of TV crime shows with a pair of New York City cops and comic situations focusing on their day-to-day work routine and their lives outside the precinct.
The two actors originally considered for the lead roles were Mickey Shaughnessy (as Toody) and Jack Warden (Muldoon) — but when Hiken couldn’t come to terms with the two men he decided to poach a pair of thespians with whom he’d worked with on the Silvers show in the past. Joe E. Ross had been a third-rate burlesque and nightclub comic when Nat, liking Ross’ sandpaper voice and less-than-Hollywood-handsome looks, used him to replace Harry Clark (who played mess sergeant Stanley Sowici on Bilko, and who had passed away after the first season), casting Joe as Fort Baxter’s new mess sergeant, Rupert Ritzik. Ross’ Ritzik would prove to be the perfect comic foil for Silvers’ Bilko, often cast as the patsy in Bilko’s latest get-rich-quick scheme…and on occasions when Rupert’s shrewish better-half Emma figured in the plots, Hiken sent for Beatrice Pons — Pons’ stock-in-trade was sloppy bathrobe-and-curlers housewife roles, which Nat remembered when casting her as Mrs. Toody in Car 54.
Hiken had also used Fred Gwynne on Bilko on two occasions, memorably assigning to the actor the part of a gaunt soldier who habitually went on eating binges when depressed and who is enlisted by Bilko to use that expertise in an eating contest in the classic episode “The Stomach.” Hiken’s creation of Car 54’s Francis Muldoon was actually not too far a departure from Gwynne in real life; Muldoon was a cerebral and erudite college graduate, and Gwynne had attended Harvard, where he performed in both its amateur theatrical productions and a cappella singing groups (he was even president of the Harvard Lampoon, on which he worked as a cartoonist). Other former Bilko performers who turned up on Car 54 included Jimmy Little (who was Sgt, Grover on Bilko…and amusingly enough, often played desk sergeants on Naked City while simultaneously manning the 53rd’s desk as Sgt. McBride), Jack Healy (Private Mullen on Bilko, Patrolman Rodriguez on 54), Billy Sands, Maurice Brenner, John Gibson and Charlotte Rae…who made a memorable appearance on Bilko as the woman constantly adjusting her wardrobe in the classic episode “The Twitch” but who enjoyed a more prominent showcase on Car 54 as the high-strung Sylvia Schnauzer, wife of patrolman Leo. (Rae was tabbed for the part of Sylvia after a previous one-shot 54 appearance as a shell-shocked bank teller; the combustible relationship between the Schnausers — he called her “pussycat,” her nickname for him was “Daddy bear” — were often the highlights in some of the most memorable outings in the series.)
Other actors who appeared on Car 54 included Albert Henderson (O’Hara), Jim Gormley (Nelson), Bruce Kirby (Kissel), Joe Warren (Steinmetz), Mickey Deems (Fleischer) and Patricia Bright (who played Mrs. Captain Block). The disparate ethnic makeup of the 53rd Precinct reflected the diversity of the neighborhood they patrolled, and like he had previously done on Bilko, Hiken cast black actors in pivotal roles without calling attention to them — Frederick O’Neal and Nipsey Russell appeared on occasion as (respectively) Officers Wallace and Anderson, and other African-American members of the 53rd included at various times Ossie Davis, Mel Stewart and Godfrey Cambridge. Nat also favored casting unusual and offbeat guest stars; among the familiar faces to grace Car 54 episodes: Molly Picon (in three episodes as kindly Rachel Bronson), Jake La Motta, Jan Murray, Maureen Stapleton, Carl Ballantine, Tom Bosley, Wally Cox, Gene Baylos, Larry Storch, Alice Ghostley, Jules Munshin, Shari Lewis, Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano (whom Hiken had miraculously transformed into a hilarious sidekick for Martha Raye on her variety series).
New York City, once the heart of television production, had acceded responsibility to Hollywood and the West Coast with each passing year so Car 54 was unusual in that it was one of the few TV series still being shot in the Big Apple (other series included The Defenders and Naked City) by the 1960s. The show was filmed at the Biograph Studios (where director D.W. Griffith got his start), and though some believe the show used canned laughter Hiken actually employed a technique from his days on Bilko in which he showed each finished episode of Car 54 to a live audience and recorded their laughter on the soundtrack. Whenever they had to shoot outside the studio in the Bronx, the patrol cars were painted red and black (which would go unnoticed when filmed in black-and-white) to distinguish them from the regulation green-and-white cars in use at the time (an apocryphal story goes that the switch was made after someone tried to flag down one of the faux patrol cars while filming, believing it to be the real deal). When the show premiered, Hiken was wearing many of the hats himself (writing, directing, and producing) but a number of outside factors gradually influenced him to start delegating those jobs to his collaborators (among the co-writers on Car 54 were Terry Ryan, Tony Webster, Gary Belkin, Art Baer and Ben Joelson).
Nat’s stormy relationship with actor Ross played a large role in his turning over the directorial reins of each episode to another former Bilko crony, Al De Caprio (and later Stanley Prager); while Ross’ participation on Car 54 had made him a household name, the actor started to develop delusions of grandeur, believing that he and he alone was responsible for the series’ success. He refused to learn his lines, squabbled with and belittled both crew members and his fellow actors and in short, became impossible to deal with — Ross’ unprofessional behavior finally reached its zenith where had the show been renewed for a third season Hiken would have fired Joe and re-focused the series on Gwynne and Lewis. The pressure of being Car 54’s “auteur” was simply too much for Hiken; he had a falling-out with Billy Friedman (and ended up firing him as a result) and NBC was also not doing Nat any favors by insisting the show both switch to color and ditch the live laughter track. Actor Hank Garrett says that what prevented Hiken from tackling a third season was NBC’s insistence that they own 50 percent of the show; other sources state that the man considered by many to be a “comic genius” had simply burned himself out.
Hiken, who created what I feel is one of the unsung situation comedies of all time (I really, really revere Car 54 for its deceptively simple plots that would explode without warning into Kafkaesque nightmares) busied himself with a few projects after pulling the plug on Car 54 (his last notable credit was as writer and director of the 1969 theatrical film The Love God, one of Don Knotts’ few box office flops) but years of trying to do it all finally did Nat in…he died at the age of 54 (there’s irony for you) in 1968 from a massive heart attack. The cast and crew of the series would of course go on to further triumphs: Fred Gwynne eventually did get the opportunity to collaborate with Al Lewis when the two actors starred in the CBS sitcom The Munsters (and Gwynne later distinguished himself with first-rate turns in such films as Simon, The Cotton Club and My Cousin Vinny). As for Joe E. Ross, whom one TV critic observed “has the air of an animal that has been stuffed into clothing and taught how to speak short bursts of dialogue,” his starring role as a prehistoric caveman in the short-lived It’s About Time was very appropriate; he later reprised the role of Toody in animated form in an episode of Hanna-Barbera’s Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (Ross had by that time started working for Bill and Joe, providing voices on such shows as Help!...It’s the Hair Bear Bunch and Hong Kong Phooey). For many years after its network run, Car 54 was kept alive through reruns and memories of its staunchly loyal fans; it experienced a brief reemergence in the late '80s when it was showcased on the once-proud Nick at Nite from 1987 to 1990 (it also turned up on Comedy Central for a short time afterward); the only cable outlet that I know of that’s showing it now is Me-TV, which runs an hour of repeats on Saturday nights. Fortunately for Car 54 aficionados, Shanachie Entertainment released the first season of the show to DVD in April 2011 and has promised the second season will follow soon.
I learned to my dismay sometime back that Car 54, Where are You? is for many people an acquired taste (some people will just sit through the show stone-faced — and I’ve observed that not coincidentally they are the same folks who never quite embraced the humor of Seinfeld)…and that only seems fitting because Hiken wrote for Fred Allen in his show business salad days, a humorist whose once bright star has lost its luster to a new generation who cannot grasp his topical humor. (I also attribute people’s dislike for the show with their associating it with the abysmal 1994 film based on the series…which despite having alums Nipsey Russell and Al Lewis in the cast should have been cut up and used for banjo picks.) But without realizing it, Hiken created out of a fitfully funny situation comedy an important social document of the 1960s; unlike the celebrated Mad Men, which more often than not plays more like a pastiche of that era, there’s an authenticity to Car 54 in its Bronx locations and people despite its tendency toward broad and often surrealistic burlesque. As TV critic Robert Lloyd comments: “…it comes out of the world it portrays, and though it favors the old ways — those early 20th-century ways of talking, walking, doing business — you can feel them giving way to new. There is a lot of small and careful detail dressing the laughs.” Ooh! Ooh! I couldn’t agree more.