Sunday, October 10, 2010

Happy birthday, Florida Friebus!

When the topic of famous television sitcom moms comes up, the discussion turns to the usual suspects—Harriet Nelson, Margaret Anderson (Jane Wyatt), June Cleaver (Barbara Billingsley), Donna Stone (Donna Reed), Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore), Carol Brady (Florence Henderson), Shirley Partridge (Shirley Jones), etc. But one television matriarch that always seems to get shut out of the conversation is Winifred “Winnie” Gillis, the beloved madre of one of my all-time favorite TV comedies here at TDOY, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

The actress who played Mrs. G., Florida Friebus, was born 91 years ago on this date in Auburndale, MA and before undertaking her best-known television role as the devoted mom to TV’s first real teenager, she worked exclusively on stage and on anthology television shows like The Philco Television Playhouse, Kraft Television Theatre, Goodyear Television Playhouse and the Hallmark Hall of Fame. (She is even credited with writing one particular Hallmark telecast; an adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.”) Sure, she would appear on family comedies like Bachelor Father, Father Knows Best, The Donna Reed Show and The Partridge Family in guest roles, but also made the rounds of series like Perry Mason, My Mother the Car, Ben Casey, Ironside, Peyton Place, Mary Tyler Moore, Room 222, Gunsmoke and Barnaby Jones. In the 1970s, she had a semi-regular gig as Mrs. Lillian Bakerman, one of Dr. Robert “Bob” Hartley’s patients on The Bob Newhart Show…who frequently liked to knit during their sessions.

As Winifred Gillis, Florida created an endearing character that was continually supportive of her son Dobie (Dwayne Hickman) despite the fact that the kid was a bit of a screw-up—defending him to his tyrannical grocer father Herbert T. (Frank Faylen) and occasionally slipping him a few bucks for dates after his tight-fisted dad said no. I always enjoyed the chemistry between Friebus and Faylen, whose mutual affection seemed like that of a real married couple…and I don’t think her character of Winnie ever got the credit she deserved because she kept Mr. G—whose mantra was “I gotta kill that boy…I just gotta!”—from dispatching Dob into an early grave.

Dobie Gillis creator Max Shulman once remarked that had CBS renewed the show for a fifth season (it ran from 1959 to 1963), he had planned for Winifred to have another baby—much to Dobie’s displeasure and revulsion…which I think would have made for some darned interesting TV. But to paraphrase Casablanca—“We’ll always have reruns”—and for Friebus’ first-rate work on one of the boob tube’s most overlooked sitcoms, Thrilling Days of Yesteryear is only too happy to give her today’s birthday shout-out.

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Toby O'B said...

Nice salute, Ivan. I'm enjoying these individual tributes you've been running, giving some character actors the spotlight that has long eluded them.

In Toobworld, I'm wondering if there's any reason why Lillian Bakerman couldn't be Winifred Gillis' sister......?

Scott said...

I thought I'd miss the old format birthday posts, but I agree with Toby. It's nice to read more in depth appreciations of hard-workin' show folks I've seen and enjoyed so often, but still know so little about.

Just another of the many reasons TDOY is an indispensable corner of the intertubz.