Friday, September 22, 2017

Him "Novak"

Every so often in The Underworld, I'm approached by a writer who is either seeking information about a biographical subject that he or she is writing about or who wants to acknowledge a well-liked post I've done on a particular performer. (A long-in-coming book about Grant Williams comes to mind, in which I was able to connect the author with one of the acting students who Williams taught in his later years.) Recently, a visitor to Poseidon's Underworld enjoyed reading a tribute I did long ago on Mr. James Franciscus and thought I might like an advance copy of a book he'd written.

The book, "Mr. Novak, An Acclaimed Television Series" by Chuck Harter, is an extremely in-depth account of a black & white show that ran for two seasons on NBC from 1963-1965. Focusing on an idealistic, at times imperfect, young educator, it starred blond Franciscus as the title character and veteran Oscar-winning actor Dean Jagger as a wise, mentoring school principal.

While some of us may have heard of Mr. Novak, few of us have ever actually seen it! The series got off to a good start and was almost immediately heralded by teachers while also being accepted and adored by many young viewers. (Girls, in particular, were mesmerized by the handsome face and gently heroic nature of the show's star.) As it went along, some cast shake-ups and behind-the-scenes wrangling helped to lessen its strength, though even when it was cancelled it was pulling in a 31.7 share! (To help compare, The Cosby Show, at its highest height, was at 34.9, Seinfeld never got above 20.6 on the year and Friends' highest share was 15!) The year Novak was canned, top dog Bonanza was pulling in 36.3. After some reruns in the summer of 1965, the show dipped into oblivion.

1965 was the year that color really began to saturate the television airwaves, making black and white shows, especially dramas, less likely to be syndicated. It didn't help matters that with 60 episodes produced, the series fell short of the standard 100 episode benchmark for syndication. Tastes had also shifted towards the wacky and the fantasy-oriented (though Novak's replacement, My Mother the Car, is legendary for its true awfulness!) In the early-1980s, TNT began running some episodes overnight (Ted Turner had acquired the show in his purchase of MGM and its library.) Still, unless one was specifically looking for the show, one was unlikely to ever see it.

I myself have never once seen even one episode of the show. Nevertheless, those who watched it during its initial airing (or who were fortunate enough to catch the 1980s overnight eps) have almost universally praised the show for being literate, captivating and ahead of its time. The show won a Writers Guild Award, a Peabody Award and its stars received acting nominations (Franciscus a Golden Globe, which went to Gene Barry of Burke's Law, and Jagger two Emmys, which went to Dick Van Dyke in those early days before separating comedy from drama.)

As a high school-set drama, the series attracted the talents of many fledgling actors and actresses along with known adolescent performers such as Robert Crawford, Tony Dow and Johnny Crawford, seen here in a mock United Nations storyline.

Franciscus was a staple of fan and teen magazines, lauded for his tan, toothy good looks as well as his performance, yet he bristled at the ridiculous headlines and fabricated stories. This situation eventually led to him being "awarded" the Sour Apple from entertainment journalists when he proved to be least cooperative with them after a time (and after having been burned once too often.)
Rumors of a feud between Franciscus and Jagger also dogged the show. The basic truth was that Franciscus was obsessive about studying his role and learning his lines while Jagger was suffering from serious ulcers that would ultimately lead to his premature departure from the show. Burgess Meredith was brought in to replace him, though the careful chemistry created by the original stars wasn't recreated in the second pairing.

It would be hard to imagine a more exhaustively researched and detailed book than this one about Mr. Novak. Even for those who never saw a single frame of the series it is examining should be reasonably enthralled with the behind-the-scenes machinations it reveals, along with the recollections of many cast members and guest stars. The book is liberally illustrated with many rare photos, promotional advertisements and artwork that aren't likely to have been seen much, if ever, since the series' demise.

Mr. Harter was able to score an introduction by the late Martin Landau and an afterward by cult icon Walter Koenig of Star Trek, two notable actors who appeared as guests on the show more than once. Koenig's turn as a Russian student undoubtedly helped lead to his life-changing role as Ensign Chekov. Many other lesser-known (to those who don't revel in show biz trivia) performers lent their memories to the book as well. It's a lovingly crafted, positively inclusive work that even includes information on a script that was nixed by network censors, transcripts of speeches given by the characters and even a detailed depiction of the board game issued as a tie-in to the show. I couldn't help but notice 6 or 8 typos/misspellings along the way and it would have been great to hear from guest and romantic interest Kathryn Hays among the interview subjects, but these are quibbles in the face of what had to be a monumental undertaking.

The book is being published by Bear Media, a haven for off-beat publications that appeal to the classic TV and movie fan in all of us. (I was heartened to see the aforementioned Grant Williams book listed on site as "Coming Soon!") The book - offered in hard and softback editions - can be found here. It's a fascinating glimpse into the world of this obscure, yet very well-regarded and fondly-remembered, series.

Franciscus, of course, is a hero of ours in The Underworld for his starring role in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, in which he wore the skimpiest of loincloths, and for his nasty turn as a corrupt developer in When Time Ran Out.


Unknown said...

Thank you Jon for the great review FYI I have been informed by a VP at Warner Home Video that they WILL be releasing the entire first season (30 episodes) of Mr. Novak. Apparently the prints will come from the original 35mm camera negatives and will be pristine.I do not have a release date yetr but could very well be next Summer. MR. NOVAK RETURNS! Chuck Harter

Gingerguy said...

I love James Franciscus. What a handsome guy, he also had a really decent quality to him (that tv mag cover oddly doesn't look like him but clearly is). This seems like the kind of show I would give a try. Like Dr Kildare for teachers. I love these kind of books, this one sounds like a treasure trove of trivia. Funny title by the way. I will look out for this book.

Poseidon3 said...

Chuck, glad to hear that this series is FINALLY making itself available to fans and to the curious. Best of luck to you with the book!

Gingerguy, I didn't go into it in this post, but James Franciscus was actually first choice to play Dr. Kildare and his connection to that show, to Richard Chamberlain and the similarity between it and "Mr. Novak" is explored in the book.

I'm desperately trying to get a new post together, but life just won't quit interfering... Soon.