Thursday, January 7, 2021

Guest Who: Front and "Center!"

One of my small Christmas presents to myself this year was the first season of Medical Center on DVD. I had vague recollections of it from my childhood (the opening used to scare me to death, with heartbeats and monitors going), but had not seen much of it in ages. It's among the more pricey vintage shows (versus many which have become heavily discounted in recent years. Sometimes you can get several seasons or a whole series in its entirety for $15 or less!) I could hardly wait to nestle in and observe the parade of 1969 guest stars which, thus far, have been a lot of fun to see. This post, however, is just about the introductory episode. (I should note that this was not the "pilot." There was a 1969 TV-movie called Operation Heartbeat which served that purpose though the role of Dr. Joe Gannon was played there by Richard Bradford and not the humpy Chad Everett.) The show would ultimately run for 7 seasons.

This episode received a lot of press. It was touted as the television acting debut of recent Heisman Trophy winning football hero O.J. Simpson, soon to begin an illustrious career with the Buffalo Bills (and later to achieve chilling notoriety for other reasons!) In truth, Simpson had been popping up as an extra or in un-billed bit parts for a little while. We sniffed one of them out six years ago while watching Ironside and had it added to his resume!

The episode begins with Simpson (cast as, imagine this, a college football star on the verge of achieving professional success!) coming into the E/R with a teammate who is banged up. 

The erstwhile Everett begins to cut off the jersey of the injured man, who may have some fractured ribs thanks to a run-in with Simpson.

I am convinced that the teammate in question was cast with a person who strongly resembled New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath. In a startling moment by today's sensibilities, Everett asks the player what happened and he replies that "the big n-----r" ran him over! It must be said that this is relayed without malice and even affectionately - far different era, but I wouldn't hold my breath to see this aired on TV without tweaking, especially in light of the fact that I was recently confronted with an episode of Bonanza, one of the most humane and morally upright shows of all time, being bleeped by a cable network.
Simpson's smile here is after his teammate's remark (and his only retort is to refer to the guy as "white boy," which is scarcely as eyebrow-raising.) If you thought I was kidding about the Joe Namath resemblance, take a look at the inset of the real Namath!

Anyway, it turns out that Simpson's coach had called ahead and asked Everett to also check out his own health and well-being. Simpson has been experiencing nosebleeds, dizziness and a propensity for bleeding injuries which he starts to deny until Everett raises his jersey and points out some blood...

Later, Everett is filling in as the university team's doctor and watches practice from the sidelines. Yes, that's Ed Asner, soon to become a TV icon as Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show the following year, as Simpson's coach.

They witness Simpson catching a pass, then colliding with the goal post, which sends him careening to the ground.

Although riddled with denial, Simpson cannot shake off the effects of this incident and Everett demands that he come to the medical center for some tests (tests he previously declined to take.) It means missing practice the next day, and possibly an upcoming game, which angers Simpson no end.

It would hardly do with a show called Medical Center for there to be nothing wrong with young Simpson. It turns out that he has a tumor on his adrenal gland and must have surgery. With the prospect of being drafted and making big money as a pro, he is beside himself with despair.

Eventually, there just isn't any choice in the matter, so he must go under Everett's skilled knife.

Now you don't really think that the entire point of this post was to feature and/or glorify O.J. Simpson, a person who disappointed more people with his behavior than practically any other celebrity. He went from a hero to millions to an international object of venom for his alleged part in the murder of his wife and her acquaintance. The real meat of this post concerns another character who is close to him throughout the episode. It was something of an eye-opener for me so I wanted to share it with you, but also keep it as a mystery (unless you happen to already be aware of who it is.) That makes this post not only a "Guest Who" but a "Guess Who?" Simpson's college senior character is married and we see her in her nurses aide get-up as well as in other fun late-'60s clothing throughout. Take a look at these obscured shots and see if you can hazard a guess as to who she is.

Knowing that it's nearly impossible to tell who she is from these examples, I'm now going to offer you a few possible suggestions as to who she could be. You may settle on one of these seven gals or perhaps go rogue and decide that it's someone else entirely!

Could it be queen of the variety show, Miss Leslie Uggams? Having totally conquered nearly every notable entertainment program (and even helming her own variety series for a while that year), she was branching into acting with The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy. Soon enough, she'd be popping up in big screen fare like Skyjacked (1972) and winning heavy acclaim for her featured role in Roots. (Even now, she's making her mark in the Deadpool films!) Needless to say, she also left an indelible mark on the song "June is Bustin' Out All Over."

Or how about Teresa Graves? The sexy young thing was featured on the hot comedy sketch series Laugh-In in 1969. She proceeded to win parts in low-budget movies and then landed a highly-touted role on a show all her own called Get Christie Love! Trouble was, she also got religion and began refusing to do anything that went against her Biblical teachings. Her supposed tough-ass undercover cop role was prevented from doing anything sexy, violent, or even lying - hard to avoid when trying to fool criminals undercover! She soon exited the biz and, sadly, died in a house fire at only age 54.

Then there was the omnipresent acting songbird Barbara McNair. Another variety show staple, she was wondrously glamorous and could really "SANG." Having also done time on I Spy as well as Hogan's Heroes, she later segued to big screen roles including Change of Habit (1969) and They Call Me Mister Tibbs! (1970), as Sidney Poitier's wife. Later, she returned to episodic TV on shows such as Police Woman and Vega$. Throat cancer claimed her at age 72.

And let's not rule out one Miss Cicely Tyson, who'd been acting on TV since the 1950s and costarred on the mid-1960s show East Side/West Side. (She also popped up on I Spy, naturally, as many ladies did in order to play against Bill Cosby.) She later proceeded to an Oscar nomination for Sounder (1972) -Liza Minnelli won for Cabaret - and won several Emmys along with a dozen further nominations. Staggeringly, Tyson is still working regularly to this day at age 96! (Yes, 96!)

What about Mary Wilson? Before you scoff, remember that she and her fellow Supremes had appeared on Tarzan with Ron Ely the year prior to this, so she may well have been eager to flex her acting muscles and forge a back-up plan should the group ever split up (perish the thought!) Mary is 76 today.

Who says the actress is black? Star Trek had presented television's first interracial kiss nearly a year prior. If networks were skittish about repeating such a thing, one could hardly go wrong with Miss Diane Baker in the part. Baker was beneath reproach after having costarred in many 1960s movies with never a whiff of scandal or controversy about her. She'd appeared in a recurring role on Dr. Kildare and worked on The Fugitive and The F.B.I. around this time. Now 82, she's been retired from the screen since 2013 and was a valued acting teacher to boot.

Lastly, can we rule out the then-new starlet Jacqueline Bisset? She'd been building a career in lesser known movies along with more high-profile ones like The Detective (1968) and Bullitt (1968.) The year after this, she would not only costar in the biggest movie of its year, Airport (1970), but also star in the little-known drama The Grasshopper (1970), in which her character beds down with another football player turned actor, Jim Brown. And one certainly can't discount the similarity in build and hairstyling. There's much more about Miss Bisset, who is now 76, right here.

So who is it?? I will now reveal. And I was gobsmacked, to be honest, because I just don't associate these two people together.

Yep! It's Miss Cicely Tyson!

Tyson's gentle, appealing, sensitive performance in the episode was very well-received by TV critics. It's a little bit unsettling nonetheless to see her as the victim of Simpson's delirious brutality, knowing how things went later on down the road where he's concerned.

At this time, however, it was all just meaty playacting with no one having even the slightest notion that in real life O.J. could turn nasty.

Did you guess correctly? I must tell you that all through the episode, that wig (very uncharacteristic for her at that time, though in later years she wore a similar style) reminded me of one thing and one thing alone, especially the way she let it droop and flail from one side to the other...

...If it's not the same wig Jackie wore in Airport (and I tend to doubt that it is), there must have been a "Buy two, get four free" sale on them at some supplier out in La La Land! I mean, the style is dead on. For the record, Bisset didn't act on TV until 1985 (Anna Karenina) and didn't appear as a guest on a series until 2001 (Ally McBeal!)
I wonder if Miss Tyson has ever registered her experience in working with O.J. Simpson in what was basically his very first role. It would be interesting to hear. With her two stints on I Spy opposite Bill Cosby, she has the rare distinction of having worked with two of America's most beloved and acclaimed celebrities who later fell to the lowest lows fathomable.
In case it has crossed your mind, it's true that Miss Tyson was (and remains) TWENTY-THREE years older than Simpson when she played his young college-age bride! Somehow they made it work out well enough, but my goodness that is quite an expanse, especially when it's usually the male who is paired with a younger partner. Both performers are members of my Disaster Movie Club; Simpson for The Towering Inferno (1974) and The Cassandra Crossing (1976) and Tyson for The Concorde: Airport '79 (1979), though O.J.'s membership is currently suspended.

We will doubtlessly be returning to this show in the future. Not only are the 1969 clothes and hairstyles fun, but Everett (who was strangely shiny in this installment, something that was soon corrected) is so damned handsome that it bugs my eyes out every so often! He needs more attention than this early, very brief, tribute offered.


Dan said...

Silly me - I thought it was Geraldine Jones! I suppose Killer made her turn down the part.

Funny how small OJ looks compared to football players today.

J-Dub said...

O.J. Simpson "goes under the knife." Oh, the irony... said...

Fascinating Fun, Poseidon!
When you were posting all the possible nominees, the first picture you posted of Cicely looked like Michelle Obama!
Not only was Chad Everett a damn handsome man, so was O.J.!
Another early O.J. gig was his walk on in "Name of the Game" episode as a gas chamber guard escorting Jessica Walter to her doom!
Cheers, Rick

d-g-p said...

This is just one of the many instances where Lily Tomlin is brilliant.

BrianB said...

I never missed watching Medical Center and crushing on Dr. Gannon. So when you finally did the reveal of OJ's nurse wife I had a real reaction because of how she looked in that blue and white uniform. It was a faint remembrance of Cicely and most likely the first time I'd ever seen her in anything. There was something different about her that made her a lot more interesting than a lot of actresses at that time. It's funny about the memory, an image from so long ago brings back that time and you think why would I remember that?

And on the other hand I remember wanting to run my hands all through Chad Everett's hair!


Poseidon3 said...

Dan....! Ha ha ha!!!! That's a hoot. I don't know if OJ bulked up a little more once he hit the NFL (college players usually tend to be leaner, I think.) So many wide receivers (the position he was) tend to be short and strong these days. He and Chad were only a half inch difference in height, but Chad seems to loom over him in this ep!

J-Dub...! Oh Lort...!

Rick, though I certainly never counted OJ as a strong actor, he had a definite amiability (and I thought it was neat, too, that he was willing to be silly and appear thick in those "Naked Gun" movies with Leslie Nielsen.) His strong likeability factor is what makes his story so stunning. ("He always seemed like such a nice fellow.")

BrianB, Chad took some time to get his hair that smooth! Leave it along! Ha ha! He later, as I'm sure you know, adopted a drier, longer look that was equally good looking on him. I think I prefer this cleaner style, but I dig his later funky duds. I am still even now reeling that Cicely Tyson is closing in on a hundred AND still acting! God love 'er!

Gingerguy said...

That was a really fun start to my morning. Before we segued into wig guessing, lol, I was focused on the adorable haircut on the Joe Namath lookalike and the safari Jacket on Chad. I guessed it was Cicely because she has worn those kind of angular Sassoon hairdos. But it sure was Diane Baker's hair! Kind of unbelievable that the age difference doesn't register, certainly Hollywood is chock ful (chick full?) of young women. They clearly wanted someone who could act. I saw Cicely at the theater one night about a year ago (she was behind me, talk about a neck ache) and she still looks younger than 90 or whatever she is now. Fun post!