Wednesday, October 7, 2015

“Natalie…take a cab!

Back in May of this year, I wrote a review of the DVD release CPO Sharkey: The Complete Season 1—and in my closing remarks, I casually noted that I’d really be excited about the release of the sitcom’s second and final season “if Time Life gets that far.”  Well, guess what?  Time Life did get that far; they brought forth CPO Sharkey: Season 2 on September 22…and thanks to my good friend Michael Krause at Foundry Communications, I was given an opportunity to check this set out.

Both seasons of CPO Sharkey, while also sold separately, will be part of a later release this October 20: Mr. Warmth! Don Rickles: The Ultimate TV Collection, an eight-disc set that also features a compilation (which will be released this October 13) entitled The Don Rickles TV Specials: Volume 1.  This release consists of an ABC-TV special, “The Many Sides of Don Rickles” (which originally aired September 17, 1970) and CBS’ “Don Rickles: Alive and Kicking” (from December 12, 1972).  Michael generously provided me with a screener for this release as well.

As my chum and colleague Andrew “Grover” Leal remarked on Facebook when I announced the blog would be coming back after a long hiatus: “Enough Don Rickles to keep a hockey team in pucks for years!”  Truth be told, I was thoroughly entertained by CPO Sharkey: Season 2, for I have long argued that it was the perfect situation comedy vehicle for the comic known as “The Merchant of Venom” (his 1971 effort, The Don Rickles Show, lasted a scant seven episodes…and his 1993 collaboration with Richard Lewis, Daddy Dearest, was cancelled after a 13-week tryout).  Creator Aaron Ruben used Rickles’ Navy background (Don was a Seaman First Class on the USS Cyrene during World War II) to fashion a series on which the famed insult comic played Chief Petty Officer Otto Sharkey—a twenty-four year Naval veteran driven to distraction by his company of recruits.  The men under Sharkey were various ethnic stereotypes: jive-talking Daniels (Jeff Hollis), Jewish intellectual Skolnik (David Landsberg), Latino Rodriguez (Richard Beauchamp), and Polish Kowalski (Tom Ruben).  Mignone, an Italian character played by actor Barry Pearl, didn’t get his option renewed for Season 2 and he was replaced by the Greek Apodaca (Philip Simms)—who had appeared briefly in a Season 1 episode, “Sharkey Finds Peace and Quiet.”

You take the good, you take the bad...Charlotte Rae guest-stars in "Punk Rock Sharkey" as the mother of a young girl (Lisa Mordente) who becomes infatuated with the Chief after he breaks up a melee in a bar.

The other big casting change in the second season was replacing Sharkey’s commanding officer Captain Quinlan (played by Elizabeth Allen) with Captain “Buck” Buckner, a by-the-book martinet played by veteran character actor Richard X. Slattery.  I suspect the change was made to make Sharkey more sympathetic: he never really confronted the affable Quinlan (perhaps the producers were concerned about him appearing too chauvinistic) in his trademark antagonistic fashion, so giving him a more formidable adversary in Buckner made more sense from a comedic standpoint.  (Oddly enough, Slattery was mostly bombast and wasn’t able to add any comic nuance to the part; perhaps he had become tired of being typecast in the same roles he had played on series like The Gallant Men and Mister Roberts.)   And yet, during Sharkey’s second season, character fave Beverly Sanders (whom I always remember as Dom DeLuise’s married sister Olive on Lotsa Luck!) made for an engaging Rickles nemesis as CPO Gypsy Koch in three episodes.  (Jonathan Daly’s Lieutenant Whipple was also back for Season Dos, but his skirmishes with Sharkey were de-emphasized—he functioned more as a sniveling “yes man” for Slattery’s Buckner.)

Dr. Chatsworth Osborne, Jr. (Steve Franken) and Dr. Howard Sprague (Jack Dodson) guest star in "Sharkey Flies Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

If you’re old enough (*cough*) to remember when CPO Sharkey originally aired I think you’ll find the show a delightful nostalgia wallow.  Not every episode is a gem, of course, but there are some fitfully amusing entries.  “Operation Frisco” features Sharkey having to share cramped submarine space with his aide-de-camp Seaman Lester Pruitt (Peter Isacksen) and the men in a nice little homage to the stateroom scene from A Night at the Opera.  “Barracks Baby” finds a pregnant woman from Mexico hiding out in Company 144 and about to deliver at the same time a no-nonsense Congresswoman (played by the legendary Pat “Bunny Halper” Carroll) is on the base on an inspection tour.  “Sharkey’s Back Problem” spotlights an uproarious performance from the show’s star when he winds up looped on painkillers for a bad back.

Two old sea salts are reunited in "Sharkey the Actor": that's Billy Sands of McHale's Navy fame playing a tailor (Sands was also a cast member on The Phil Silvers Show).

"You son of a gun!" David "Larry Tate" White guests as an admiral in "Captain's Right Hand Man" (with Jane Connell as Mrs. Admiral).
There are some episodes, however, that have become embarrassingly dated due to their dependence on ethnic humor; “Forget Pearl Harbor” is a particularly egregious example (the normally guileless Pruitt uses slurs like “Jap” and “Nip”—even though it’s not in keeping with his character as an harmless, easygoing rube), but “Sharkey and the South American Way” isn’t much better.  Like the first season release, Sharkey 2 features the following disclaimer on the box: “Warning: Some of the jokes and ethnic references heard in these episodes would most likely not be allowed on network TV today and reflect the tenor of the times.”  (We are talking about the era of Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man, to put all this in perspective.)  In addition, four episodes from Season Two exist only in truncated syndication form (a disclaimer before each of them humorously reads: “Back in the ‘70s, some hockey puck in Beautiful Downtown Burbank somehow misplaced the master video tape for this episode”): “Pruitt’s Paradise,” “It Happened One Night,” “Fear of Flying,” and “The Used-Car Caper.”

Rhonda Bates returns as Lester Pruitt's girlfriend Evelyn in "Pruitt's Paradise"...but she's joined by future Hill Street Blues player Betty Thomas, who plays a female recruit who's also warm for Pruitt's form.

I noted in the earlier review that Sharkey creator Aaron Ruben had a tendency to fall back on his former years as the creator of Gomer Pyle, USMC for inspiration (the Sharkey-Pruitt relationship is a mirror image of the one between Gomer and Sergeant Carter—wonderfully exemplified in Sharkey’s “Pruitt, the Russian Flu-Carrier”)—but he also dips into past episodes of The Phil Silvers Show for show fodder as well (Ruben and Bilko creator Nat Hiken also wrote together for radio’s The Milton Berle Show).  “Seven-Eleven Sharkey” is reminiscent of the Bilko classic “The Con Men” (in the Sharkey version, Sharkey takes on a pair of card sharps—one of them played by Jerry Lewis nemesis Buddy Lester—to win back some money Seaman Kowalski lost) and the Phil Silvers Show entry “Doberman’s Sister” no doubt inspired “Sharkey Meets Pruitt's Sister”—which features not only Isacksen in drag but Landsberg playing both Skolnik and his female sibling (someone forgot to do something about Landsberg’s five-o’clock shadow in the latter instance).  (The Pruitt-in-drag is really just a dream sequence; his actual sister is played by Maureen Arthur.)

Included on the Sharkey Season 2 set is a delightful bonus feature in which four of the show’s cast members—Harrison Page, David Landsberg, Tom Ruben and Barry Pearl—get together with star Rickles backstage at one of his Las Vegas bookings in April of 2015.  Rickles is at his best playing Rickles—he asks Page if he’s still acting and when Page answers in the affirmative Don asks “Why?”—but what struck me the most about the reunion was the tremendous amount of affection and respect all of the men have for one another (Don expresses his regrets to Tom Ruben on his father’s passing—Ruben is Aaron’s son) despite the short-lived run of the series.  The stories they swap about working on the show are often funnier than the actual episodes, and each individual is unabashed in their praise for Don and the wonderful opportunity they received in working alongside him.  (Don humorously asks the group if CPO Sharkey is rerun anywhere; Harrison tells him he has seen the show telecast in Europe.)

Don plays monk Brother Gregory in a sketch from "The Many Sides of Don Rickles"; Greg is technical adviser on a film about his life that's directed by longtime Rickles chum Don "Would you believe?" Adams.

Don being Don constitutes the highlights of the two television specials spotlighted in The Don Rickles TV Specials: Volume 1.  The first, “The Many Sides of Don Rickles,” features guest stars in Don Adams, Harvey Korman and Robert Goulet…and the overall production has kind of a laid-back, Love, American Style-feel to it.  (I watched this with Mom, who joked: “Those sets look like the director [Bud Yorkin] handed someone $4.85.”)  Scripted by Jack Riley (who can be spotted in some of the sketches) and Pat McCormick (along with Carol Burnett Show veterans Kenny Solms and Gail Parent), most of the skits are either mildly amusing or fall completely flat.  The show only really comes to life during some “backstage” interludes (where Don and his guests swap show business anecdotes) and at the end when Rickles participates in a “humor roundtable” with three real-life doctors, allowing Don to be his insulting best.

Another sketch from "The Many Sides" features Ann Morgan Guilbert as Don's frustrated wife.

“Don Rickles: Alive and Kicking” is very much an improvement; the sketches are a little better-written (one of the scribes is Arnie Rosen, who wrote many a Sharkey episode) and there are some nice moments as Don sings and dances (yes—and he’s not bad) with guest star Juliet Prowse and performs comedy alongside the late Anne Meara (which made me tear up considerably).  Rickles also does a skit with Harvey Korman that’s similar to the type of sketches the two of them would due on The Carol Burnett Show (even borrowing the punchline).  There are some surprise appearances from some of Don’s show biz friends (I’ll keep mum so as not to spoil them for you) but again, the comic really shines when he participates in his trademark shtick with the audience during the show’s opening…

…okay, I can spoil this much for you—below the mook with the pink shirt and ginger hair you’ll recognize two familiar TV faces.  One is Tim Conway, and the other is McLean Stevenson—one of the many featured performers on Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s Doris Day(s) (which I hope to return to one of these days…and no, I have not misplaced the discs).  Don gets McLean’s series right (M*A*S*H) but he mispronounces his name as “McLean Stevens” (I’m willing to cut him some slack, though, because he describes the top of Stevenson’s head as “chicken fat with a part in it”).

This one's for "Grover": future Barney Miller cast member Steve Landesberg appears in the U.N. sketch in "Don Rickles: Alive and Kicking."

“You know, Ivan—you make these sets sound so tantalizing,” I hear you saying right now.  (At least…I hope that’s you—particularly since my meds prescription ran out last week.)  Tell ya what I’m gonna do: I just so happen to have extra copies of CPO Sharkey: The Complete Second Season and The Don Rickles Specials: Volume 1 on hand…and since it’s been ages since I’ve hosted a giveaway here on the blog, I am going to pass both of them along to some lucky member of the TDOY faithful.  All you have to do is send me an e-mail at igsjrotr(at)gmail(dot)com with “Don Rickles giveaway” in the subject header and something devastatingly witty like “I want to win this contest, ya hockey puck!”  (You don’t have to include your snail mail right away if you’re not feeling lucky but keep in mind that I’ll be able to send out the sets quicker if you do.)  The deadline for the giveaway will be 11:59pm EDT this October 15 (Thursday), which coincidentally is my BBFF Stacia’s natal anniversary (stop by and wish her a happy one—you’ll be glad you did!).  The contest is limited to participants living in the U.S. only because I’ve been to the new Winterville post office and the person doing the strip searches for packages going to Canada is an ex-wrestler named “Gladys.”

Remember: you can’t win if you don’t enter!  (Yes, I know that’s patently obvious—but I couldn’t think of any other way to close this out.)  Good luck!


ClassicBecky said...

I haven't seen the series since it was originally shown, but I remember liking it very much. I like anything that Don Rickles does! Clever, sharp and cuts like a knife! I'm going to try for the giveaway, but even if I don't win, I'll be considering actually spending money for it! By the way, you know, Ivan -- you make these sets sound so tantalizing. (It was me after all.)

hobbyfan said...

A couple of quick tidbits:

Billy Sands also was Pat Paulsen's announcer for Paulsen's short-lived Half a Comedy Hour in 1970. Now, there's something for you to research, if you haven't already done that.

One of the greatest skits involving Rickles---albeit indirectly---was when he was roasted by Dean Martin. Dean brought in radio legend Casey Kasem to play a Hitleresque comedy writer. You'll see what I mean when you see the video, which is, at last check, on YouTube and one of my blogs.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

hobbyfan commented:

Billy Sands also was Pat Paulsen's announcer for Paulsen's short-lived Half a Comedy Hour in 1970. Now, there's something for you to research, if you haven't already done that.

Some time back, I was doing some unnecessary online DVD shopping and I put the Half a Comedy Hour disc in my shopping cart...then removed it for some reason or another. (It was probably for the best; honest to my grandma, I have too many DVDs as it is.)

Sands had a long working relationship with Aaron Ruben. The two of them worked on Bilko, of course, but they also crossed paths on radio's The Milton Berle Show -- Ruben was one of the writers, and Billy took over for Arnold Stang when Stang returned to the Henry Morgan Show in the fall of 1947.

One of the greatest skits involving Rickles---albeit indirectly---was when he was roasted by Dean Martin. Dean brought in radio legend Casey Kasem to play a Hitleresque comedy writer. You'll see what I mean when you see the video, which is, at last check, on YouTube and one of my blogs.

Thanks for reminding me to watch this -- I've been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest, and I don't always take the time to stop and smell the roses, as it were.