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Series follows trail of TV pioneers

The PBS miniseries will show hundreds of clips from sitcoms, late-night, variety and game shows.

January 01, 2008|Judith S. Gillies | Washington Post

They made viewers laugh, stay up late, sing along and play games.

How personalities such as Lucille Ball, Jack Paar and Merv Griffin influenced the small screen is explored in "Pioneers of Television," a new PBS miniseries that starts Wednesday.

The four programs -- covering sitcoms, late-night shows, variety shows and game shows -- include hundreds of clips and the observations of small-screen pioneers and people who knew them.

There's Andy Griffith talking about how he was ready to bow out after all the yelling at the first rehearsal of his show; Ed McMahon describing what it was like to work with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show"; Vicki Lawrence explaining the lessons she learned from Carol Burnett; and Betty White recalling her experiences on "Password" and her eventual marriage to show host Allen Ludden.

"We wanted to capture the DNA of early television, to show how timing, technology and talent launched the TV industry," said Steve Boettcher, who produced and directed this series as well as 2005's "Pioneers of Primetime."

The series focuses mostly on the 1940s, '50s and '60s -- plus people from later years who were particularly innovative or broke barriers. Although "people are still pioneering today," Boettcher said, "many know they have their roots in those early shows."

Among the trailblazers: Tony Orlando, Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson, members of the pop music group Tony Orlando and Dawn, which became the first minority singing group with a prime-time series.

"I guess I'm one of the people who started something," Orlando said of his variety show (1974-76), "but, at the time, I was too nervous to consider it. Our first guest was Jackie Gleason, and it was just pretty amazing to be in a sketch with him then."

Boettcher said the "Pioneers" project owes a lot to "Mr. Television" himself, the late Milton Berle. Berle, who was influential in the entertainment community as head of the Friars Club in Beverly Hills, championed the project in its early stages.

Boettcher and writer-producer Mike Trinklein are working on another "Pioneers" miniseries to cover TV westerns, science fiction, crime dramas and children's shows.

Trinklein said a lot of time was spent digging through file folders and boxes at places such as the Library of Congress. "A lot of material hasn't been sorted through or categorized," he said.

Boettcher and Trinklein also searched for little-seen footage, unearthing film that hadn't been shown for 50 years.

Most of the 100 or so interviewees enjoy telling their stories, Trinklein said, but "a lot of them don't want to look back. They still think of themselves as working actors -- there are great actors showing up as grandparents on TV -- and they want to talk about the past but also want to talk about the present."

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