Herbie J Pilato talks TV icons in ‘Dashing, Daring and Debonair’
Robert Vaughn and David McCallum are two of the classic TV actors profiled in the new book, Dashing, Daring, and Debonair. (Wikimedia)
Elizabeth Montgomery rarely gave interviews after her show Bewitched ended its run. And David Carradine – the star of Kung Fu – remained aloof for most of his life. But both iconic television stars would talk with Herbie J Pilato. Pilato (“no period after the J in my name”) is the author of several books about the classic age of television. In his latest tome, Dashing, Daring, and Debonair: T.V.’s Top Male Icons from the ‘50’s, ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Pilato takes a sweeping stroll down memory lane as he highlights the careers of such notable stars as Robert Conrad, John Ritter, Adam West and Burt Ward, David Selby, Bill Bixby, John Travolta and Robert Vaughn.
We spoke with Herbie – who has a new show premiering this fall on the Decades network – about his life-long interest in television, and about some of the performers he profiled in his latest book. Dashing, Daring, and Debonair is available in local bookstores and on Amazon.
LAPX: Thank you for taking some time to speak with us about your new book. Leafing through the pages, I’ve found myself eagerly hopscotching from one life story to another. You have the actor bios sectionalized, but a reader can open it in the middle and not miss a beat.
HP: That is so nice to hear, because that’s exactly how I wanted the reader to perceive it. I wanted to produce a book where the reader wouldn’t wonder what they had missed but rather look forward to what they would discover next.
LAPX: Before we get into the book, tell us a little about yourself. Obviously, you are a TV fan. When did you really start to watch television, and what are some of your fondest childhood memories?
HP: I grew up in Rochester, New York – a very cute kid, by the way – and my parents didn’t have a lot of money. So, like a lot of people in the ‘60’s, I embraced television as a form of escapism. I liked the magic shows, I Dream Of Jeannie and so on, but I really gravitated to Bewitched. The character of Samantha fascinated me, because she loved Darrin for who he was, not what he could buy her. She didn’t need him – she could conjure up anything she wanted. That’s not the way women were generally portrayed in those days.
Some years later, when I was a page at NBC, they did a reunion movie of I Dream of Jeannie. I thought they should have done Bewitched first, but Elizabeth Montgomery was not interested in doing that, so that’s when I decided to write a book about the show, and became an author. I followed with books which had a common thread. These books were all about prejudice. Samantha was a witch in a mortal world, Caine was an Asian in a western world and so forth. The show Life Goes On really brought the theme home, so I didn’t want to write trivia books. I wanted to write about how these shows and the actors in them were important. My book, Glamour, Gidgets and the Girl Next Door dealt with the girls in more of an encyclopedic fashion, and Dashing, Daring, and Debonair naturally grew out of that.
LAPX: My next question was going to be, ‘Did you have any favorite shows from the classic era?’ I’m guessing Bewitched was that favorite show.
LAPX: But this book deals with the dashing men of TV. Did you emulate any of these actors when you were growing up?
HP: I think everybody wanted to be Robert Conrad. He was just so cool. I wanted to be Captain Kirk, too. At some point, I wanted to be Barnabas Collins, which was not a good thing.
HP: (laughing) Did you also want to go around biting people when you were a kid?
LAPX: I guess I imagined doing something like that as a kid, though once I started dating, the neck biting took on a slightly different dimension.
HP: (more laughter)
LAPX: But it’s kind of the same idea, to be this tragic, romantic figure.
HP: I also wanted to be Lee Majors. I remember doing those “beep-beep-beep” bionic sounds as I lay under my sheets at night. Growing up, people always asked if I wanted to go to Hollywood. With the way my career developed, I was actually doing just that, but it came with a price. One of my desires was to have my children grow up with the children of my friends. That didn’t happen. While my friends were getting married and buying homes and having children, I was off, following my dreams.
Speaking of which, since the last book came out, I am hosting a new TV talk show.
LAPX: Your talk show?
HP: It’s a classic TV talk show called, “Then Again with Herbie J Pilato”. It will debut later this year on the Decades network. Everything I’ve done with my books and with my nonprofit have led me to this moment. I’m just thrilled. We’ve already shot the first six episodes, with stars like Robert Conrad and Burt Ward. We did a tribute to Garry Marshall with Eddie Mekka, Deborah Pratt, Cindy Williams and Marion Ross, and one to Mary Tyler Moore, with Ed Asner. We also shot a Dark Shadows episode.
That was wild.
Angelique – Lara Parker, Kathryn Leigh Scott who played Josette, and David Selby who starred as Quentin. We were all sitting there on the couch together. It was an amazing thing.
LAPX: Can we assume that you arranged to do that interview on a night when there wasn’t a full moon?
HP: (laughing) I wanted it to be a full moon. Actually, I don’t even know what sort of moon we had that evening. I was just so thrilled to be on the same soundstage with them. They were great – just a wonderful group of people. And David Selby is an amazing actor. He has not stopped working!
Ed Asner is like that too. He always works.
LAPX: Looking through the book, it is clear that a lot of the actors who are still with us, opened up to you. But there is also a good deal of independent research. Please tell us about that.
HP: One of the things, I think, that classic TV show actors appreciate about me is that I try to explore the shows in a non-exploitable kind of way. I never ever set out to do ‘tell-all’ books, and yet, you still want to present the truth. They also know that I know what I’m talking about when it comes to the world of classic TV. There are a lot of things I can’t do but classic TV I know.
Elizabeth Montgomery rarely gave interviews after Bewitched ended, and she almost never talked about the show, but she talked to me. Lindsay Wagner and Lee Majors; Richard Anderson wrote the forward to my book, for gosh sakes. David Carradine didn’t talk to anybody, but he talked to me and wrote the forward to my Kung Fu book, so I brought that reputation and savvy, if you will, to Dashing and Daring.
Let me also say that I’m extremely pleased with my publisher. They did such an amazing job with the book.
LAPX: For a project such as this, there is no substitute for experience?
HP: Heavens no. When I wrote Bewitched Forever, it was more of a fan book, but with Twitch Upon a Star and the Dashing book, you know, the more you do it, the better you get.
HP: (laughing) Yes – hopefully.
LAPX: Did doing the Gidgets book help you out in any way with Dashing and Daring?
HP: Yes! When I did the Gidgets book, each chapter had a biographical section on each actress, and then I had a trivia list. That ate up a lot of space and didn’t allow me to cover the actresses in the same way Dashing and Daring does. Foregoing the trivia allowed me the chance to profile more actors. Plus, with the Gidgets book, I focused on the younger set. With actors, I went across the board and included as many actors as I could.
LAPX: It’s funny you say that you focused on the younger set because in Hollywood, that has long been the reality. Conversely, as Hollywood actors age, they seem to be more in demand. Look at Cary Grant. He was better looking, and arguably more popular when he was sixty than he was at twenty-five.
HP: Well, I wanted to include Florence Henderson, God bless her, and Marion Ross and Isabel Sanford and all of The Golden Girls. So I suspect at some point there will be a sequel – a way to explore the lives of all of the older women.
LAPX: Only you’ll find a better way to say ‘older women’?
HP: (again laughing) Right!
LAPX: Did you learn anything in writing this book that surprised you?
HP: Yes, I did. I was amazed to learn just how much influence the actors had on so many of their fans. I mean, I was certainly inspired by Michael Cole – who struggled in his personal life but triumphed in the end with the help of good friends like Aaron Spelling. But in writing the book, I also learned how many people became highway patrolmen because of CHiPs. Things like that.
I also learned more about tragic figures like George Reeves and Ricky Nelson. I don’t like reporting the way these icons died because that’s the first thing other writers mention.
LAPX: People tend to forget that Ricky Nelson started his pop music career by singing on TV.
HP: You know, I just started watching The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet again for the first time in many years. I really wish I had written more about Ozzie and David Nelson. But even though I had more space in Dashing and Daring than I had with the Gidgets book, I still had to edit the profiles down and pick one representative of the type. I mean, when I did the Gidgets book, I couldn’t do both Laurie Partridge and Marcia Brady, so I picked Marcia.
In some cases, I grouped actors together, like Mike Connors as Mannix and Telly Savalas as Kojak. It was tough. I still left out tons of people. I only had 300 or so pages to work with. If my publisher had given me 700 pages, I’d have filled 701.
LAPX: Did your research change your opinion about any of the actors?
HP: Yes, there were some disappointments, but that is the reality of getting to know people. I certainly don’t hold that against them. I mean, getting back to Elizabeth Montgomery – she was a very complicated person. But I wrote two books about her and included her in the Gidgets book as well. I couldn’t leave out anything, but at the same time, I didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings.
If you present your facts with dignity and integrity, you can write about anything. So yes, there were some disappointments, but I just presented the facts in such a way to highlight the fact that we’re all human.
LAPX: Were there any anecdotes that you left out that you’d like to share with our readers?
HP: Oh, I’m sure there were things I left out purely because of space, but in some cases, I left things out because they went against my brand and the person I am. I formed the Classic TV Preservation Society because I believe that characters such as Marcus Welby influenced doctors to become doctors. That Perry Mason influenced kids to become lawyers. And that families learned to live together better because of shows like The Brady Bunch and The Waltons. It’s not in me to be judgmental. When you’re in the position of an actor or a writer, you’re in a position where you reach people. I pointed out the negatives, but hopefully, I’ve done so in a positive way.
LAPX: In doing the one-on-one interviews, who stands out as the best interview?
HP: Gee, I really enjoyed speaking with Robert Wagner, even though we didn’t talk for too long. I loved talking with Stanley Livingston, and Billy Gray from Father Knows Best. I also enjoyed talking with Tony Dow. He and Jerry Mathers are a bit older than me, but because Leave It to Beaver was in reruns, they were my contemporaries when I watched them. I feel like we grew up together. And again, Michael Cole from The Mod Squad. That was certainly the most inspiring interview.
LAPX: It appears that you do a great job in covering pretty much every genre imaginable. But with just a few exceptions (Hogan’s Heros and Ba Ba Black Sheep), you didn’t really get into the war shows. I won’t ask about Phil Silvers or Jim Nabors, but did you consider actors such as Gary Lockwood, who portrayed The Lieutenant, Rick Jason and Vic Morrow from Combat, or Christopher George from The Rat Patrol?
HP: You know, speaking of Gary Lockwood, he is one of my favorite actors as well. Things sort of petered out later in his career, but what an amazing job he did in portraying The Lieutenant.
I guess in the end, in setting up the parameters that both the actors and their characters needed to be iconic, some great actors got omitted. These were editorial discussions I had with my publisher. We just had to leave certain guys out. I believe I covered M*A*S*H, but like Hogan’s Heros, that show is mostly comedic.
LAPX: You wrote a chapter on Nat King Cole – a marvelous jazz singer whose records still sell pretty well today, but whose TV show is now mostly unknown. Liberace and Andy Williams might fall into that category as well.
HP: Nat was monumental in that he was the first African-American to have a TV show – whether it was thirteen weeks or thirteen years. He had the kind of persona which just appealed to everybody. The audience didn’t have any problems with the show – it was the advertisers.
It was tough for me to exclude Bill Cosby, but I just didn’t want to go there. It’s sad because his show was huge and had nothing to do with him personally – it was about his character as a doctor and a father in what was really a stereotype-breaking show.
LAPX: You included Norman Lear – a household name but not a household face.
HP: Yes, I knew that I had to choose producers like Rod Serling and Gene Roddenberry. How could I not include Norman Lear. He made such an impact with his shows. Danny Thomas was also a producer, though he was an actor as well. That’s why the first chapter is called “Jacks of All Trades”. I wish I could have included Carl Reiner, Garry Marshall, and Sheldon Leonard, but there just wasn’t enough space or time.
LAPX: I assume you’re getting fan mail about the book. Has any one name emerged as someone your readers say they wish you had included?
HP: Oh, yes – Peter Falk. Admittedly, Dashing, Daring, and Debonair doesn’t exactly describe Peter Falk, but that’s the name of the book. You can’t please everybody.
LAPX: It’s sad to leaf through the biographies and see names like John Ritter, Bill Bixby and Bruce Lee – iconic actors who left us much too soon.
HP: Yes, it really is.
LAPX: And yet others, like Bob Newhart and Dick Van Dyke, are still around and acting.
HP: Yes. Who in the heck knows who is running the universe? When John Ritter died, it just seemed so surreal. One of the chief ingredients to any actor’s performance is likeability, so when someone like that is gone, it just doesn’t seem normal.
Now, Larry Hagman portrayed a very unlikeable character on Dallas, but his performance was likeable. You loved to hate J.R., but you didn’t hate Larry Hagman. It’s magical when you can do that, and certainly, when you watched J.R., you didn’t think of Tony Nelson from Jeannie. I mean what a talent, to create two such iconic characters – one good, one evil. Now that’s talent.
LAPX: I appreciate the fact that you mention Clint Eastwood – a major motion picture star who actually became a household name because of a television show called Rawhide.
HP: I wanted to point someone like that out, because along with Clint Eastwood, there were a number of other stars who made the transition. Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds; of course, Rock Hudson was a movie star who had great success in television.
Ron Howard is one who went on to become a Hollywood director. When they did that Mayberry reunion film, he came back to play Opie. How cool is that?
It was the same way when Henry Winkler, as Fonzie, took over Happy Days. Ron didn’t care. He knew it was best for the show. That’s such a sign of integrity. I love when I see a star like Ron Howard do those kinds of things.
LAPX: In attending nostalgia shows, it’s clear some actors thoroughly embrace the characters they portrayed. You get that with Adam West, Bernie Kopell, Kathy Garver, Angela Cartwright and Billy Mumy. But that isn’t always the case, is it?
HP: Well, Adam West wrote the forward to my book, and in it he says that his fans are his real inspiration. But keep in mind, before Nick at Nite and TV Land, it wasn’t cool to embrace nostalgia. When Mary Tyler Moore did her television show, she wanted to leave The Dick Van Dyke Show behind. Jerry Van Dyke appeared on Mary’s show, but Dick never did.
Years later, with the advent of Nick at Nite, and people like Rosie O’Donnell doing nostalgia-themed shows, it was cool to look back. There was also a lot of money to be made by signing autographs at nostalgia conventions. Some care about that — some don’t, but I think for many of these actors, they finally found peace with the characters they portrayed.
Let me just add, that some years ago, Barbara Eden appeared in Australia — at what, seventy-eight? — wearing her Jeannie costume, and the crowd went wild. I’m sure by this time that Elizabeth Montgomery would have also warmed to the idea. Can you imagine the kind of response she would get by appearing in Samantha’s black witch costume?
LAPX: If we may ask just one last question: Do you think Don Knotts would find it amusing to know that he’s been included in a book called Dashing, Daring and Debonair?
HP: (laughing) Yes, but that’s because his character always thought that about himself. Even in the ’80’s, on Three’s Company, his character, Mr. Furley, pictured himself as a ladies’ man. So there was no way I could do a book such as this without talking about Don Knotts.
Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A former reporter at The Washington Herald and an occasional contributor to the Voice of Baltimore, Tony’s poetry, humor and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You’re in Baltimore; Magic Octopus Magazine; Destination Maryland, and Tales of Blood and Roses.