The Humanization of Herbert T. Peabody

Filmed July 1970

NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR was the last of the sitcom series that I committed to after being fired on STAR TREK’s THE THOLIAN WEB. Produced by my close friend, Charles FitzSimons, I’m sure I would have directed for the series even without the STAR TREK incident. I directed my first NANNY episode in July, 1970, immediately after directing my first episode of THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY. Upon completion of the NANNY episode I returned to the same company at Columbia Studios that had produced THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY to direct an hour-long episode of their other new series, THE INTERNS. And then a strange sequence of events occurred. Fred Silverman, head of programming for CBS, the network to air THE INTERNS, did not like the script for the show I was to direct. The studio replied they had no other script available to shoot. If they were unable to film the submitted script, they would have to shut down production. Silverman asked what the shutdown would cost. Their answer: $180,000.00. He agreed to pay them that amount, and so the script was scrapped, I was paid for my undelivered services, and THE INTERNS closed down production for a week. When Charles FitzSimons learned that I was free, he immediately offered me a second assignment on NANNY.

The show about a family with a father but without a mother had been a staple of television since the 50’s. To name a few there had been John Forsythe as a BACHELOR FATHER, Fred MacMurray with MY THREE SONS, Lorne Greene in BONANZA, Andy Griffith in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, Brian Keith in FAMILY AFFAIR and Bill Bixby in THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE’S FATHER. But like the three strippers in GYPSY who sang, “You gotta have a gimmick,” something had to be added to the format to make it unique. The creators of NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR found a simple solution: Unite the father and his motherless family with a MARY POPPINS clone.

NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR was only the second time I directed on the west Pico Boulevard 20th Century Fox lot. Therefore I never directed for 20th Century Fox when they had the huge backlot on the adjoining property that became Century City. Deprived of the convenience of an adjacent backlot and with the Fox ranch miles away in the far extremes of the Valley, it was ingenious the way they utilized the space on their main lot. Peabody’s house and the boys’ club house were on a section of the lot called Peyton Wharf, a ‘backlot area’ created on the main lot a half dozen years earlier for their successful series, PEYTON PLACE.

The art directors at the studio had carried their ingenuity even further. This script had a one-page scene set in the parking lot of a supermarket. Since there were no other scenes that would have required our going off the lot, leaving the studio to film a one-page scene at a real supermarket could have taken close to half a day. Years earlier on the exterior wall of stage 19, which faced a parking lot, a large generic windowed entrance had been designed and installed. By adding a ‘supermarket’ sign above, grocery signs promoting specials in the windows and shopping carts to the side, that entrance became our grocery store, and we filmed our scene there without having to leave the lot.

NANNY AND THE PROFESSOR had a four-day shooting schedule. That was not generous; it was sensible. The three children (David, Trent and Kim) were very involved in the weekly plots, and there were rules and restrictions regarding child actors. Their workdays were limited to 8 hours, and 3 of those hours had to be spent in a school classroom. Five years later I was directing episodes of THE FAMILY HOLVAK at Universal. That hour-long show, another series with children heavily involved in the weekly plots, only had a six-day shooting schedule. Midway through the eight episodes they filmed before being cancelled, and when I was directing the second of my assignments, Eddie Dodds, the assistant director, told me he had been summoned to the ‘black tower’. All of the shows had been running into a seventh day and the suits wanted to know why. Eddie explained the restrictions regarding filming with children. He explained that their scripts had the children very heavily involved in the plots and required them to be participants in more scenes than could be filmed in six days. The suits weren’t convinced. Eddie told me he finally said to them, “If Ralph can’t do it in six days, it can’t be done.

I’m sure the inspiration for this episode came from the MGM film, LILI, the charming story of a French gamin and an anti-social puppeteer.

I have to admit, I really liked directing this scene and for several reasons. First I’m sorry this print is so faded. (20th Century Fox, why haven’t you released the three seasons of NANNY on DVD?) Director of photography Fred Gately was a true artist. He painted with light. I remember it took an inordinate amount of time to light the establishing wide shots of the puppeteer’s theatre. I was impressed with the number of spotlights (most of them small instruments) Fred used.

Secondly Juliet and Kim enthusiastically and impressively responded to the puppet show, and Juliet in the final part of the scene became an integral part of the performance. But mostly ventriloquist Paul Winchell! Why is it that the comedians, the clowns, always amaze us when they turn the other cheek, when they bring a tear to the eye of the audience rather than a chuckle from the throat? There have been so many, we shouldn’t be surprised: Jackie Gleason, Fannie Brice, Ed Wynn, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, the multi-talented Paul Winchell! The list is endless.

Another question! Why does a scene like that, because of its sentimentality, elicit scorn today from so many? Although I think I could omit the word ‘today’ from that last line. Do you know that three quarters of a century ago the work of one of our greatest directors elicited that same response? The films of Frank Capra were described by many as Capra corn! Why is there that resistance to emotion, the feeling that to be emotional is to be weak? I can only ask the question. I don’t have the answer.

On the Friday during my prep for this show I returned to Columbia studio to direct the musical sequence for THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY I had directed. The production manager of that show, who was also the production manager for THE INTERNS, told me the week after THE INTERNS shutdown when the series resumed production, the episode they filmed was the one Fred Silverman had turned down. He told me no changes had been made in the script!

The journey continues

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10 Responses to The Humanization of Herbert T. Peabody

  1. John Dayton says:

    A funny Charlie FitzSimons story – I was in San Francisco on business, had just written a story for Charlie which he and AJ Carothers were purchasing for Goodnight, Beantown. I struck up a conversation with a cab driver who had a very heavy Irish accent – in the course of the conversation I mentioned Charlie F. – the driver almost went off the road! He not only knew Charlie from Ireland, he was his neighbor when they were kids – knew all the family including Maureen – and went on and on about how incredibly beautiful (the most beautiful woman in Ireland) Charlie’s mother was. I always wondered if they ever got in touch. (Goodnight, Beantown was cancelled). What I so indelibly recall was how wonderfully warm, witty, and classy Charles FitzSimons was (not your typical Hollywood producer) – I owe that introduction, that acquaintance to you, Ralph. Thank you.

  2. Rebecca Smith says:

    Ralph,did you know that you were the only director on Nanny to shoot from inside the closet? Not once but twice.Yes we need this on DVD. Could you tell us a bit more about the set. Was it on one level- the upstairs and down?
    And also, by the way Juliet Mills does not have an ette on her name. It is Juliet. Not Juliette.

    • Ralph says:

      Thank you for the spelling lesson. It’s corrected. And as I remember the set was on one level. That was the normal way for sets.

  3. Mark Lemon says:

    Hi Mr. Senensky.
    Interesting to see Kim Richards here as a young girl. She is quite a prominent character on The Real Houswives of Beverly Hills these days.
    Also interesting that you’ve directed both Juliet Mills and her husband Maxwell Caulfield as well. Did you mention this to him possibly when making the right regrets?
    Thanks for another interesting and insightful post.

    • Ralph says:

      I didn’t have to mention it to him. Once his manager submitted him to us, we spoke on the phone and I of course also spoke with Juliet. There were plans for her to come up here some time during the shoot, but unfortunately that didn’t happen. However this past spring Maxwell and Juliet were on their way to San Francisco to attend a theatre opening and they stopped off here in Carmel for a spot of tea. That was the first time Juliet and I had gotten together since our last outing on NANNY, and she is just as lovely today as she was then.

  4. Phil says:

    http://www.nannyandtheprofessor.com/

    The above website probably hasn’t been updated in years, but it’s got some good stuff, particularly the Article Index.

    Ralph, I don’t know if the F/X channel deleted the last scene with Mr. Peabody and Mrs. Fowler, or if you chose to drop it for this posting. Hulu.com has the whole episode in higher definition…but, of course, they don’t have your priceless commentary.

    • Ralph says:

      I used a DVD that I purchased that I guess was taken off of an airing. The airing had deleted the final scene to make room for another commercial.

  5. Steve Gennarelli says:

    Thanks Ralph for your memories of this fine show. I have fond memories of watching it live on ABC during its original run although it was rather brief. To me, its best remembered for one of the catchiest theme songs before or since.
    Juliet Mills was both the Nanny every kid would want and not unlike Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha, she brought her own sensuous flair to the role.
    Richard Long was a charming comic actor. He was an interesting lead in the unconventional western series “The Big Valley”. I always wondered where his career would have led him if he hadn’t died at such an early age.
    I remember in the 80’s the show and its syndicated companion “Ghost & Mrs Muir” with Hope Lange and Edward Mulhare returned in reruns to some stations I was able to access from NY and or Boston. Two fun shows that only lasted a couple of seasons but still had seem neat performances and characters.
    As always, Ralph…Thanks for sharing memories of this more gentle time when
    there were neat programs the whole family could watch together without cringing and embarrassment.

    • Ralph says:

      I directed Richard’s last screen appearance: a movie-of-the-week DEATH CRUISE. Not a terribly good film, but a GREAT CAST. Richard was a brilliant actor and just as charming off screen as on.

  6. Rich Ambroson says:

    Great to read about your experiences with this (and so many other) series! I loved this show as a kid, and had a crush on Juliet Mills for sure. I also thought Richard Long’s character was a great character, it’s nice to read that the actor behind the character was also a very good man.

    All the best to you Mr. Senensky!

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