21 July 2016

My Abbreviated Career in Television is Here Discussed

I recently changed my tweeter profile to include the following: "You may remember me as the wacky neighbor, Mortimer in the short lived sit-com, “Hey, it's Klaus!”

I’ve been asked about this because there area a lot of people who didn’t see the show while it was on; also it’s never shown on channels like TV Land and is still unavailable on You Tube.

"Hey, it’s Klaus!" aired on CBS during the 1970-1971 TV season. Well for most of it. We were taken off the air after 16 episodes. The main character was Klaus Muller a 15 year old American boy of German parents who lived in a typical American city. Klaus was forever getting into the type of jams that were a staple of sitcoms in that era. The twist was that Klaus’ father was a former Nazi army officer. He was constantly regaling Klaus with stories about the Third Reich. His far right wing views were out of step with Klaus and the times. There were also a lot of gags centered around his misuse of the English language and sketchy pronunciation. His malapropos provided some of show's few genuine laughs.

Klaus’ mother was usually baking pies or cookies or making huge dinners. She never discussed politics or anything that might be deemed the least bit controversial. Her mangling of the English language was even worse than her husband’s and provided still more fodder for the laugh track. Klaus also had a kid sister, the precocious ten year old Betty who had adopted Marxism, partially to tick off her over bearing father. The former Nazi's face would turn beet red when she'd extoll the virtues of the proletariat and worker ownership of the means of production.

I was Mortimer the wacky wise cracking neighbor, forever popping over during meal times. I was always goading the Muller family members into arguing with each other and, as Klaus’ best friend, coming up with hair-brained schemes that were the bread and butter of sitcoms of the time.

I was a first timer to acting but the rest of the cast were all veterans. Klaus was played by teen heartthrob Troy Mackie (he died a few years after the show from a heroin overdose). In the role of the father was veteran character actor and escapee from Nazi Berlin, Oliver Plink. Playing the mother was another vet, Bea Vance who was cast as a middle American mothers for decades. Here she had to affect a German accent which she did with aplomb. Dana Sparkle (nee Lucretia Vanderwessen) was Betty. She had already done a sitcom and two movies by the time of “Hey it’s Klaus!” She retired from acting in 1980 and became a real estate mogul. Ms. Sparkle is currently on husband number five and lives in Beverly Hills.

The show struggled for ratings from the get go. The laughs were few and far between but of greater concern was that some of the dialogue and situations were off putting to audiences looking for light entertainment. Nazism was not skirted around like it was on the smash hit Hogan’s Heroes. Many of the father’s comments and observations about America and recollections of Nazi Germany were blunt and recalled to many the horrors of the Nazi regime. Also, it was the height of the Cold War so viewers were not keen on a cute little American girl spouting communist doctrine.

The show’s nadir was when Klaus brought home his new girlfriend, Beth, who was Jewish. The scornful remarks from the father were over the top for prime time, even cast members were aghast. Newspapers all over the country railed about the episode, the Washington Post called it “cringe worthy” and the Chicago Tribune said that it was a “uncomfortable and embarrassing.” It turned out to be the penultimate episode. Our last episode was more lighted hearted (a bar fight would have been easier to watch than the ‘Jewish Girlfriend ' episode) as Klaus and I got stuck on a roof, with hilarious consequences.

The odd thing about “Hey, it’s Klaus!” was how it was ahead of its time in some ways with cutting edge dialogue about race and politics, and yet how horribly dated it was in other ways, with contrived plot devices and one dimensional, insipid supporting players.

The writers, producers and directors of the show simply moved on to other work in television (although a young Martin Scorsese, who directed two episodes under an assumed name, went on to bigger and better). Troy appeared in a few made for TV movies and after school specials before spiraling into drug abuse and — supposedly — bizarre sexual practices. Dana was on TV and in movies for nine more years eventually legally changing her name to Dana Sparkle. It was the savings from her 13-year career that helped jump start Dana’s real estate business.

Mr. Plink shied away from TV work for the rest of his career, appearing on stage and several films and garnering several Tony nominations and an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor for his role as the commandant in the musical remake of Stalag 17. He died in 1999 at the age of 81 from heart failure. Ms. Vance continued to be a staple on television, eventually segueing into grandmother roles. She committed suicide in 1986 after it was revealed by the National Enquirer that she suffered from syphilis.

As for me I gave up acting and went into interior design where I was an even bigger flop. After a few other aborted careers, I finally found my niche working for the Crime Scene Unit of the NYPD.  I’ve joked for years that I never saw anything on that job as bad as some of the scripts we got on “Hey, it’s Klaus!”

It’s been so long since the show was on that I was finally able to stomach re-watching it recently (CBS graciously provided the prints on the condition that  I swear not to share it with another living soul). Good lord it was awful and it turns out that the San Francisco Chronicle was correct about my performances being “wooden and uninspired.” Yet I can’t help but think that the show broke some ground. Norman Lear credited  “Hey, it’s Klaus!” for motivating him to take chances with “All in the Family” and subsequent programs.

I’m hoping that the show becomes available on DVD or via a streaming service. I think people today would find it…well, let’s say interesting. I suppose some of it will seem tame by today’s standards but it does, in a small way, reflect its time. I used to be ashamed of my association with the show but I’ve decided to just own it. It was a part of my life and I still have cherished memories of clowning around with cast and crew. (I'll never forget my brief fling with the Senegalese script girl.) Those were the days.

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