TV Time: Before They Were Legends

One of the great joys of watching vintage television is spotting the familiar faces who populate a given episode of just about any show that was around for any length of time. Serious fans enjoy the character actors who crop up again and again, but you can often see young actors who would go on to become superstars. Sometimes you even encounter in their earliest roles those who would not just be greats, but those who would become legends. This month, TV Time looks at four such appearances.

Marilyn Monroe, The Jack Benny Program, Honolulu Trip: I'm cheating a bit because Monroe was already one of Fox's top actresses by this 1953 season opener. While on board a cruise ship on his way home from Hawaii, Benny daydreams about Monroe and mentions her recent hit How to Marry a Millionaire. Monroe hadn't quite achieved legend status yet, I wanted to include a female superstar in this piece, and, hey, can you blame me for finding an excuse to talk about The Jack Benny Program?

"Honolulu Trip" is hilarious, with Benny enduring typical indignities. If Marilyn Monroe isn't enough to impress you, maybe you'll be thrilled to know that longtime foil Frank Nelson makes an appearance, as does Artie Auerbach as Mr, Kitzel, also a recurring player on the radio and TV versions of Benny's show. Veteran character actor and future Mr. Wilson Joseph Kearns also has a scene.

Those are welcome cameos but Marilyn runs away with the episode. As Benny falls asleep on the ship, he dreams Monroe has fallen in love with him. In real life the woman in the deck chair beside him is a bit larger and clearly intended to be a dowdy contrast to the bombshell movie actress. As Jack wakes up pleading for his companion to stay with him, he sees it isn't Monroe and tells the woman, "Hey, you're not Marilyn Monroe," to which she replies, "And you ain't Errol Flynn!"

Monroe is gorgeous and magnetic. At the end of show she joins Benny onstage to wrap things up, and while she appears nervous and flubs a line (but quickly recovers) at one point...who cares? Jack thanks her for making her first television appearance on his show, she plugs her next movie, and then she runs off. The thing is, we kind of miss her. It's a shame Marilyn didn't make more guest shots on the small screen. In "Honolulu Trip," her star power shines in a simple role and even in decades-old kineoscopes.

Jack Nicholson, Mr. Lucky,"Operation Fortuna": The iconic actor, rogue, and Lakers fan has led a charmed life, at least in the public eye, and could himself be Mr. Lucky. However, before Jack Nicholson became JACK, he played a lot of schlubs -- regular guys far removed from the A-list persona that eventually overwhelmed his immense talent.

Mr. Lucky is in fact the single-season (1959-1960) CBS half-hour series of light adventure created by Blake Edwards and very loosely based on the Cary Grant motion picture of the same name. In this incarnation, John Vivyan (no Cary Grant, but then, who is?) runs a floating casino on board the Fortuna with the help of his pal Andamo (Ross Martin). Midway through the season, skittish sponsors uncomfortable with being associated with the premise -- they were shocked, shocked to find that gambling was going on -- prompted the Fortuna to change to a floating restaurant, which is considerably less interesting.

At any rate, the series remains an underrated delight throughout its short run, and "Operation Fortuna" is a fun episode enlivened by its cast. In addition to Jack (it's just too difficult to call him Nicholson), we get guest shots by Richard Chamberlain plus era screen stalwarts Ann Helm and Buzz Martin. If you come only for Jack, though, you don't get cheated; the then 22-year-old starts the episode pleading for his job to Mr. Lucky. He's a horrible waiter being let go for incompetence, but his folks are coming to town soon and he can't bear to tell them he's out of a job. (Note: It is interesting to note that Chamberlain would soon star in Dr. Kildare, which changed format in its fifth season and featured a story arc which guest-starred William Shatner and...Jack Nicholson!)

Lucky agrees to let him finish out the week, but he is clearly unimpressed by young Martin, who he calls clumsy and incompetent. Jack looks callow and thin, but his distinctive delivery is already in full force, and we still kind of want to see him slap around Vivyan a bit.

We learn that Chamberlain and his friends plan to rob the Fortuna with Martin as their inside man. They execute a heist at gunpoint that yields jewelry, cash, and other valuables from the passengers. Martin plays a key role, but the funny thing is his clumsiness is not part of the ruse. He's just a klutz. Granted, it is nearly 50 years later, but it's still striking to see Jack playing this kind of sad sack.

Being a half-hour program, Mr. Lucky moves fast, and this episode puts Lucky and Andamo on shore where they track down the thieves and, rather than wait for authorities, make their way into their rental place and beat them up in a fantastic over-the-top fight sequence. Lucky himself gets in the best moves, such as a totally unnecessary diving human spear attack on Chamberlain, and a back body drop that sends Martin's character flying. Finally, to add insult to injury and to remind us how far Jack is from becoming JACK, Mr. Lucky dispatches Martin with a judo chop to the back that makes the waiter tumble down a flight of stairs into a stack of cardboard boxes which fall on top of him in an ignominious cascade of defeat.

Paul Newman, Tales of Tomorrow, Ice from Space: Ever notice how even the most mundane object, concept, or condition sounds so much more intriguing when it is said to come from space? The producers of ABC's 1951-1953 half-hour anthology Tales of Tomorrow sure did. Several months before "Ice from Space," there was "Plague from Space." The premiere episode is titled "Verdict from Space."

So, yes, it may look like this episode revolves around and generates its dramatic tension from a big block of ice, but bear in mind it is no ordinary block of ice; it is ice from space.

Actually, no one knows just what the substance is, but when it arrives attached to an experimental American rocket ship that spent a mysterious amount of time in space before returning, it turns miles of arid desert into a frozen wasteland, forcing the military to quarantine a 500-mile radius around it! Major Dozier must find a way to deal with this cosmic menace while also butting heads with a congressman (Raymond Bailey, later Mr. Drysdale on The Beverly Hillbillies) who is on his back about appropriations and also constantly reminding him how great Dozier's father was and how HE would have handled things.

Newman, 27 years old during this live telecast, has a small role but gets billing and several lines of dialogue; much of it expresses astonishment, as in, "He's frozen solid!" or "I can't believe it!" and similar sentiments. He doesn't get to chew much scenery as the relatively nondescript Sgt. Wilson, but he does get to chew gum in his first scene.

It's probably an insignificant detail, but maybe not. Newman does some little things with his hands, clutching them to show how tense his character is, and I would like to think the gum chewing is a deliberate choice he made to convey something. Who knows, maybe in his mind, it was gum from space. It's hard to notice Newman's famous baby blues in the black and white Tales of Tomorrow, but he makes a decent showing, and while I won't say he has "future legend" written over him in this, he is still Paul Newman, so this is a must-see for his fans.

Considering it's a live broadcast in 1952, the whole episode is much better than it has a right to be. There isn't much action outside of some stock rocket ship footage, but despite its obvious limitations, "Ice from Space" uses music and intense performances to create a relatively convincing atmosphere of danger. The interaction between the major and the congressman is hokey at times, but it's fascinating to go back in time when Congress actually butted heads with the military over clandestine budgets, and it's an interesting glimpse into how the role of oversight was balanced with the desire for national security in Post-WWII America. Ultimately, it's well done, but it is a story about ice from space.

Robert Redford, Tate, "Comanche Scalps": There are many underrated single-season Westerns from the 1950s and 1960s, but even among those, NBC's Tate (summer 1960) stands out. The titular bounty hunter, played by David McLean (one of the Marlboro Men), is a Civil War vet who roams the west after losing his his left arm in battle.

"Comanche Scalps" features Robert Redford, just weeks shy of his 24th birthday, but you have to wait a while to get him. First, Tate is running around with Frank Overton (who gets the Special Guest Star billing) as embittered Amos Dundee, who has pursued his brother's killer for years to get revenge.

After finding his vengeance, he sees a "Dear Amos" letter from his sweetheart informing him she is now in love with another man. It isn't just any man, though, but his other brother, youngest Dundee sibling Tad. Naturally Amos heads home to kill his surviving brother. I don't know about you, but I think Amos Dundee would benefit from a more sedate hobby, like maybe stamp collecting.

Speaking of collecting, Amos and Tate (who is tagging along trying to stop Amos from committing more bloodshed) encounter a group of Comanche scalp collectors led by a young Leonard Nimoy. In many adult Westerns of the day, the Native Americans are given nuanced treatment, but not in this episode, which establishes that these particular Comanches are bad dudes who have already slaughtered and are willing to do it again.

Nimoy makes a strong impression as a grinning, devious Indian leader, and his group's initial confrontation with Tate and Amos is the episode's tense highlight until (arguably even after) Redford's appearance. He asks for tobacco, which Tate tosses him, and then does the old, "Hey, can I see your neat gun?" trick. Tate kills any levity of the moment by declaring he has vowed never to take it out of the holster unless it's to kill. Nimoy decides the guns make a strategic retreat the best option but makes an ominous threat, leaving Amos to concentrate on the real business at hand: murdering his brother.

Amos' ex-squeeze Lucy (Anne Whitfield) tells him she fell in love with Tad partly because he resembled his brother so much. That's in question when Tad finally appears and it's Robert Redford. Nothing against Frank Overton, but I think Jack Benny is more Errol Flynn that Frank Overton is Robert Redford. Amos tries to get Tad to defend himself, then winds up lashing him with a whip before Tate intervenes. Before it can get more awkward, Nimoy and the Comanches return, kill Amos, and grab Lucy.

As with Mr. Lucky, things happen quickly in the half-hour Tate, and this one is no exception. Tad tells Tate he'll pull the arrow out of his back (I didn't have time to mention that happened), then go get Lucy. He lives up to his word, but this all happens off-screen, and the episode closes with Tad posting a string of Comanche scalps (sadly, no pointy ears) atop his brother's grave. Grim faced and with palpable malice in his voice, he tells Tate, "They took his life away from me. I took theirs away from them." Tate can only respond with a sober nod as the youngster rides away.

Redford looks like the Golden Boy he would be known as, but there's no lightness in his portrayal. It's fitting, though, in this somber meditation on revenge and frontier justice. Redford's delivery of his final line, with his head tilted and a distinct air of smugness and self-satisfaction, is jarring and by itself makes the episode worthwhile. It's a compelling glimpse into the superstar charisma he would go on to display on the big screen and another reminder of the hidden treasures one can find diving into the rich history of classic television.

Rick Brooks is the proprietor of Cultureshark, a blog in which he uses an often irreverent approach to express his reverence for the classics and the un-classics.