Writer/director Hugh Wilson passed away a while back. I recall him as a soft-spoken Southerner with a wife named Charters. Two things I had never experienced before.
I met Hugh at the Mary Tyler Moore operation, where he co-ran The Tony Randall Show (with Gary Goldberg) and I served as occasional scriptwriter and consultant. (Only on the episodes I wrote. It was a way of making more money without my working full time or the company paying me more for my scripts. Which they admitted I deserved but could only provide via the “backdoor bookkeeping” of consultancy. They said I didn’t even have to show up. But I did, because I would not take extra money for my scripts by not showing up to consult.)
More on our occasional working relationship shortly. (I am saving that for the end, a spontaneous determination that I hope will work out.)
But first, acknowledging mentions of two noteworthy TV contributions, one, because it was one of the funniest moments in half-hour comedy, the other, because it was a spectacular series that lasted one season.
The (!978) “Turkey’s Away” episode Hugh wrote WKRP in Cincinnati.” (Which he created.)
As a promotional extravaganza WKRP’s idiot owner arranges to have a Thanksgiving “Helicopter Drop” of complimentary turkeys. With the expected consequence. Except for the hapless idiot station owner, who ultimately laments,
“As God is my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.”
Memorable for a totally different reason, the short-lived comedy Frank’s Place (1987-88), which Hugh Wilson also created.
Frank’s Place concerned a highly educated African-American professor working at an Ivy League university “up North” who inherits and winds up, not entirely enthusiastically, running a family-owned restaurant/bar way down yonder in New Orleans.
At that time, there were very few sitcoms filmed without a live studio audience. But the nuances and subtleties of Frank’s Place required that more intimate approach. Going its own way technologically, Frank’s Place also provided insight not only into character – which sitcom, superficially or otherwise, doesn’t? – it also provided illuminating glimpses into contemporary culture and race, sometimes – soon to be referred to in the following paragraph – lesser-known racial issues of the “in-house” variety.
In the episode “Frank Joins the Club”, viewers learn that in the New Orleans of the time, distinctions were made in some circles concerning “degrees of blackness” through the auspices of the “paper bag” test, the dividing “Class Line” determined by an individual’s being lighter or darker-skinned than the color of a typical, brown paper bag.
After its cancellation, I made it a point to call up Hugh Wilson and invite him to (a showily expensive) lunch, where I could effusively gush about Frank’s Place in person and bemoan the world’s lacking appreciation of it.
It was a little embarrassing, that lunch. We were not really that close. And yet I had to do it. Somehow, I urgently identified with Hugh’s creative efforts, even if there were no similar, courageous breakthroughs coming from me. I guess I just liked consorting with “brave” and “exceptional.” (Hoping something might rub off.)
Okay, now that other thing, remembered not judgmentally but as a reflection of “Divergence of Cultures.”
We get back from a Tony Randall Show runthrough. It is now time for the arduous rewrite.
Before we get down to business, however, Hugh produces a bottle of… I don’t know what – something alcoholic and Southern.
In what appears to have been a show rewrite-night ritual, Hugh pours generous glasses of this unidentifiable – to me – brown liquid, and all the assembled writers accept one.
I need my brain. And my brain needs to stay clear.
Hugh elucidates on the importance of alleviating the job’s inevitable stress load by remedially “taking the edge off.” I insistently demur, reiterating my need to remain unencumbered by mind-altering inebriates, only a small amount of which, I knew from experience, could put me to sleep or make me aggressively mean-spirited, neither of which would help punch up the script.
“Earl, what do you do?” Hugh curiously inquires, meaning how to I handle the pressure-packed working conditions of network TV.
To which I spontaneously reply,
Looking back, I imagine that suffering was no less an impediment to tackling the grueling business at hand than – totally guessing here – Bourbon.
But that was my way.
And the other was his.
And he came up with Frank’s Place.
And I didn’t.