Old King Cole

TAPED April 1970

I don’t think there can be any confusion about where Jack Hanrahan, writer of the teleplay, went for the inspiration for this project  — that British nursery rhyme…

Old King Cole was a merry old soul
And a merry old soul was he;
He called for his pipe, and he called for his bowl
And he called for his fiddlers three.
Every fiddler he had a fiddle,
And a very fine fiddle had he;
Oh there’s none so rare, as can compare
With King Cole and his fiddlers three.

…or what influenced us in casting the role of Mr. Cole.


I think it was casting director Jane Murray who came up with the inspired suggestion of Billy Barty as Mickey, the bartender.

Playwrights seemed to have loved using a barroom as a stage setting. William Saroyan did it with THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE and won both a New York Drama Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Philip Barry did it with HERE COME THE CLOWNS, and Anita Loos did it with HAPPY BIRTHDAY. Hanrahan set his story in a bar similar in both setting and assemblage of characters to Eugene O’Neill’s monumental THE ICEMAN COMETH. My approach to this project was greatly affected by the fact I had directed a production of THE ICEMAN COMETH a dozen years before and later co-directed with John Houseman a second production of the play. Because of the similarities of OLD KING COLE to the O’Neill drama, I wondered then and wonder now how familiar Jack Hanrahan had been with THE ICEMAN COMETH.

It was just a little short of two years since I had worked with Nichelle Nichols on my last STAR TREK, THE THOLIAN WEB, that infamous incident in my life. According to the Internet Movie Data Base, OLD KING COLE was Nichelle’s first film assignment after STAR TREK was cancelled. Nichelle’s has been a remarkable career, beginning in her mid-teens when she sang with Duke Ellington. Her major success and fame came as a result of her performance as communications officer Lieutenant Uhura on STAR TREK, The Original Series. That character was groundbreaking in U.S. society at the time. What is not widely known is that for personal reasons Nichelle was going to leave the show at the end of the first season, but when she met Martin Luther King, Jr., he said he was a fan of the show, it was the only show on television he and his wife allowed his children to stay up and watch. When he learned of her intent to leave, he said, “You can’t do that. Don’t you understand that for the first time, we are seen as we should be seen. You don’t have a black role. You have an equal role.” Nichelle changed her plans and stayed. And here I want to make a personal observation. STAR TREK certainly brought her the success and fame that is the goal of all actors. But I think her playing of the role of Uhura made such a strong impression on both producers and audience, as did the role of Spock for Leonard Nimoy, that it might have limited the perception of the range of her talent. I see the earthiness of Dorothy Dandridge in Nichelle’s Ellie!

Did you hear Dee Dee’s line about Joey’s “cockamamie pipe dreams”? Although that’s what this teleplay is all about – the pipe dreams of Dee Dee and Joey, of Ellie and Billy and Mickey and of their reliance on Mr. Cole to fulfill them — that is the only time the term “pipe dream” is heard. It was uttered many, many more times in THE ICEMAN COMETH. The owner of that bar, Harry Hope, and the fifteen alcoholics seeking oblivion in booze and each other’s company — they all had their individual pipe dreams, and each of them was very vocal in expressing his (or her) delusional plans for the future. The arrival of Hickey, a hardware salesman, for one of his semi-annual visits, which this time was to celebrate Harry Hope’s birthday, but changed when on his arrival Hickey announces that he is sober. Unlike Mr. Cole who comes prepared to help each of the group attain the fulfillment of their pipe dream (although at a cost), Hickey throws the group into turmoil when he announces that he wants his friends in the bar to abandon their delusions, to give up their pipe dreams and embrace the hopelessness of their fates.

The year before I had directed twelve-year old Lisa Gerritsen (Anita, the young blind girl,) in THE LIBRARY CARD, an episode of THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. Do you know that I didn’t know until I was composing this post that Lisa was the granddaughter of True Boardman, one of my close friends in Los Angeles. I met True when I directed GIRL IN THE NIGHT, an episode he wrote for SUSPENSE THEATRE. True was also an actor as had been his father, who had been an action-adventure star in silent films. True was proud to say that as a child he had worked in films with both Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford. My friendship with True resumed when I moved to Carmel. He had moved to this area earlier, and our friendship continued until his death in 2003. Lisa came from true acting stock.

Forty-four years later I am seeing an error I should have caught before taping. Did you catch it? It’s Anita’s exit line, “Mr. Cole… Come on out with me. It’s not so bad out here.” But Mr. Cole is not one who is afraid to leave the bar – remember he entered at the top of the show. According to the script he only arrives at the bar one night a week. He must function in that world outside of Cole’s bar in order to make the arrangements he has made.

OLD KING COLE ends differently than THE ICEMAN COMETH. In the O’Neill play Hickey delivers a forty-five minute tale to the now-despondent group, recounting how he murdered his wife, wanting to free her from the torment she has endured by always forgiving him for his whore-mongering. As he is escorted away by two policemen, the group realizes Hickey is insane; they reject his attempt to reform them as they give up their sobriety and joyously resume their pipe dreaming.

INSIGHT’S drama, as always, is less cynical, more hopeful.

The journey continues

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10 Responses to Old King Cole

  1. Scott Weaber says:

    It was interesting to read about True Boardman and Nichelle’s background. You sure worked on some fulfilling projects around this time and then out it goes to this – then young – viewer, who watched and listened. It stayed.
    Thanks again for sharing Ralph. It means a lot.

  2. John Nelson says:

    Ralph, great episode of Insight…how about a word or two about the great Robert Emhardt ?

  3. Les says:

    This is a fantatisc series! What can we do to bring it out for DVD release? Who can I persuade? Thanks for sharing Ralph…

  4. Phil says:

    Ralph, I assume you meant to say that “Girl in the Night” was an ‘Ironside’ episode, not ‘Suspense Theatre’.

    Loved Nichelle here and in ‘Star Trek’. I wish she had done a round of guest star shots on the top ’60s & ’70s TV shows.

  5. Bill McDonnell says:

    Jack Hanrahan was my father’s cousin. I wish that I had met him.

  6. Bill says:

    My favorite episodes of Insight (and, in my opinion, the best ones) were the allegorical ones, the ones that make their point figuratively rather than literally, through the use of symbolism and surreal images. Old King Cole was one of the best of this type of episode. Thanks for posting. As I look through my Paulist Productions episode guide, I notice that only one of the episodes you directed does not appear on this site – The Whole (blank) Human Race and One More. Any chance of posting that one on here, Ralph?

    • Ralph says:

      The last time I checked with Paulist Productions (and that was some time ago when I was posting about the series) THE WHOLD DAMN HUMAN RACE was not available on DVD. I’ll check again.

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