Richard Crenna was one of my favorite actors. As a boy I enjoyed his performance as squeaky-voice high school student Walter Denton in the classic Eve Arden comedy, "Our Miss Brooks," which began on radio in the late 1940s, moved to television (1952-55) and finished as a movie in 1956.
Crenna followed that with what would prove to be his most successful TV series, the backwoods comedy, "The Real McCoys" (1957-63), but afterward got down to the business of proving himself one of Hollywood's most versatile and reliable actors, at home in any role, leading or supporting, drama or comedy.
He was even able to overcome the embarrassment of "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home," a much-anticipated 1965 movie comedy that turned out to be the year's biggest bomb.
I had a phone interview with Crenna six months after the movie was released ... and pretty much forgotten. Crenna was trying to drum up publicity for his CBS television series, "Slattery's People," which had managed to survive its first season, despite low ratings. And I mean real low. However, critics had praised the 60-minute dramatic series in which Crenna played a state representative, James Slattery, and was pressure on the network to show faith in an issue-based drama. This was one of TV's few program that featured a politician as its hero.
Crenna was proud of his series, but realistic about its chances. He was perhaps the most realistic actor I ever interviewed.
"Our competition includes 'The Man From UNCLE,' one of the hottest shows in television. And it's in color, too."
[NOTE: Few programs were presented in color at the time; most of those that were could be found on NBC.]
"And there are only 143 stations carrying our show, compared with 193 that carry 'UNCLE.' That means we're not going to get a strong national rating, no matter how well we do in those 143 cities. You just can't spot the opposition 50 cities."
Then Crenna became refreshingly candid, something that rarely happens in an interview of this nature. Since Crenna was promoting his show, he also was expected to boost other CBS series, particularly those presented before and after "Slattery's People." However ...
"We're also saddled with 'The Smothers Brothers' as our lead-in. The word out here is that their show is a real dog. Of course, people said the same thing about 'Petticoat Junction' two years ago and look what happened. But the feeling in Hollywood is that 'The Smothers Brothers' will bomb – and that won't help us at all."
Crenna was right on the money. This particular Smothers Brothers effort was not the variety show that became a big hit. That came along two years later. The 1965-66 Smothers Brothers was a sitcom that had Tommy Smothers playing an apprentice angel who comes down to Earth two years after his death to pester his brother Dick, who played a rising business executive.
Bad as it was, "The Smothers Brothers Show" at least made it through the season. "Slattery's People" was canceled in November. People apparently were not ready for a weekly drama about sex education, child abuse, tax breaks for corporations, capital punishment, electronic eavesdropping and other serious issues. Such things would be freely explored by series 30 years later, though usually through criminal cases handled by police, not a legislative body.
I COULDN'T let the interview end without talking about "John Goldfarb." I had been in Los Angeles a year earlier while the movie was being made, and met several people who were excited about it. Someone even gave me a copy of the script, saying it was one of the funniest things he had ever read.
The film had Crenna as John "Wrong Way" Goldfarb, an American military pilot and former football player notorious for once running 95 yards the wrong way. He crashes his spy plane in the fictitious Arab country of Fawzia, where the ruler (Peter Ustinov) threatens to turn him over to the Russians until he agrees to organize and coach a football team at Fawz University. The goal: beat Notre Dame.
Shirley MacLaine also as an American journalist who went undercover in the king's harem in hopes of writing an expose.
Crenna agreed with me about the script. "It was a riot."
"But," he added, "the film was a victim of misdirection and poor editing. It could have been the forerunner of several movies – like 'Goldfinger' – if it had been properly handled."
Crenna didn't mention it, but many critics said the person most at fault was Ustinov, a notorious scenery cruncher who mistook the film for a one-man show. Notre Dame University was so upset over the film they launched a defamation suit, hoping to prevent its release. This tactic didn't work, but it did delay the film's opening. "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home" wound up losing an estimated $200,000 for Twentieth Century Fox, which had spent $4 million on it. I expect that after the studio peddled it to television the film wound up making a few dollars.
ODDLY, WHILE many folks heaped praise upon it, the script had been rejected a few years earlier when it was written and submitted by William Peter Blatty, who later would become famous for "The Exorcist." Blatty then took his "Goldfarb" script, inspired by the Francis Gary Powers spy plane incident, and re-worked it into a novel that became a best-seller. Abruptly Hollywood changed its mind about the script. Turns out they were correct the first time.
Crenna escaped unscathed, but was well aware he wasn't on anyone's A list of movie stars. Still, he told me, he wondered how such lists are made.
"Rod Taylor is suddenly 'hot,' and I suspect it's because he made a film with Doris Day. I don't know any actor who ever made a picture with Doris Day and didn't come out of it as 'hot box office.'
"I understand there are banks out here who rate movie stars. Some actors are worth a $3 million investment; some are good enough for a $10 million gamble. Maybe there is a formula for these ratings, but I don't know what it is."
For the weeks following our interview Crenna would be concerned with Nielsen ratings, not bank ratings.
"Barring a miracle, our program should finish third in a three-program race."
That, I wrote in my story, "is as honest a statement as you can get from an actor and indicates Crenna, like State Representative Slattery, is a realist. That's one reason his program is so good. Ironically, it's also a reason his ratings are so bad."
CRENNA WOULD continue to have bad luck with television series. His sitcom, "All's Fair," with Bernadette Peters, lasted 24 episodes during its single season (1976-77). He starred with Patty Duke, Helen Hunt and Anthony Edwards in "It Takes Two" (1982-83), which went off the air after 22 episodes. He and James Earl Jones starred in "Pros and Cons" during the 1991-92 season, but that run ended after 12 episodes.
He did have a recurring role in a hit series, "Judging Amy," playing Jared Duff, a wealthy businessman involved with Maxine Gray (Tyne Daly). Crenna's death in 2003 also killed off his character, who had gotten engaged to marry Maxine.
Crenna was brilliant is his other television projects, particularly a series of six movies about New York City police detective Frank Janek, and even more so as deranged Army officer, Col. Frank Skimmerhorn, who ordered the slaughter of helpless Indians in "Centennial" (1978).
Other television movies had him playing Ronald Reagan ("The Day Reagan Was Shot," 2001) and H. Ross Perot ("On Wings of Eagles" 1986).
On the big screen he was featured in such films as "The Sand Pebbles," "Wait Until Dark," "Body Heat," "The Flamingo Kid," and the first three Rambo movies.