by Lew Ritter
In the late ’60s, three networks ruled the airwaves. The Internet and Streaming were not even a gleam in a Sci-fi writer’s eye. Network comedies consisted of rural comedies filled with country bumpkins outsmarting the bumbling city slickers. A big star dominated every show, their gleam illuminated by contrast with a few minor character actors.
In 1967, in the midst of this drought, CBS programmed HE & SHE into the middle of their hit Wednesday night lineup of shows including highbrow fare such as THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES and GREEN ACRES. It would be a smart urban comedy surrounded by the bucolic waste land. It proved to be the proverbial fish out of water, but only lasted one season.
The brilliance of the show was in three areas:
1) Wonderful Theme Music:
A bright bouncy theme with images of the stars racing in Central Park. In those days, the networks cared about having classy theme songs designed to hook an audience. For example, just about any show using the music of Mike Post included HILL STREET BLUES, ROCKFORD FILES and my favorite, MAGNUM P.I
2) Impeccable Casting:
Richard Benjamin portrayed New Yorker Dick Hollister – cartoonist and creator of popular comic strip and TV character ‘Jetman’. His real-life bride Paula Prentiss, with her lovely soft southern accent, played his wife Paula – a city traveler’s aid worker. It was very unusual at this point in television history for a TV wife to be working. It seemed to be a normal part of life. In a way, Paula Hollister broke the mold forever.
The fact that the couple were actually husband and wife also helped the believability. They brought a warmth and realism to the parts. Prentiss with her husky, sexy voice, was the perfect foil for husband Dick. Benjamin had a droll delivery that made even ordinary comic lines into polished comedic gems.
Kenneth Mars was an accomplished character actor from Mel Brooks film THE PRODUCERS. He played Harry, the lovelorn fireman. The joke was that the Hollisters lived next to a firehouse. A wooden plank connected the two dwellings. Harry could glide over into the apartment by walking across the plank.
Hamilton Camp played Andrew, the inept handyman, with the wonderful Boston accent.
The crown jewel of casting was Jack Cassidy as Oscar North. Cassidy was obnoxious, egotistical and hilarious as Oscar North, the star of the Jetman TV show. He stole the show, whenever he appeared. Ironically, he later turned down the role of Ted Baxter on THE MARY TYLER MOORE show. He felt that the character was too similar to the Oscar North character.
3) Slick, Sleek Writing:
The show was written by Chris Burns, Allan Hayward, Dave Davis and others who would go onto write for THE MARY TYLER MOORE and many of the MTM hits of the 70’s. Produced by Leonard Stern (GET SMART), it was smart, and funny in the vein of CHEERS and FRASIER. In retrospect, I should have known that the dialog was so good that the show would never last.
Oh, that dialog!
Landlord: (looking around at the apartment) Its’s wonderful, impressive. We’re going to have to raise the rent.
And, after Oscar North brings the ailing Dick a life-sized stand-up of himself as Jetman:
Oscar: Dick, It’s like having me in your room.
Dick: No, Oscar, it’s better than having you there.
At the end of show, Dick recuperates and Paula told him that Harry is going out to purchase some ice cream.
The show was a hit with just about every critic except Cleveland Amory, TV Guide’s resident curmudgeon. Even Mike Dann, the head of CBS programming program at the time, would call it ” the finest series, I ever cancelled.”
Had HE & SHE been developed just a few years later it might have been part of the MTM stable of beloved and popular comedies. It was unique in the way the writers made the best possible use of its entire cast. The show was filled with actors who could have entire episodes revolving around them instead of just the star. In short, it was the perfect prototype for what we now think of as the Mary Tyler Moore brand of comedy.
Recently, I caught the show in cable reruns and then found some mediocre DVD copies. Even today, it’s top notch.Unlike many shows from the past, HE & SHE definitely stands the test of time.