"Will you always be with me?"
Not only is the courtship off...but so's the series. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released The Courtship of Eddie's Father: The Complete Third Season, a 3-disc, 23-episode collection of the well-remembered ABC sitcom's final season. Never a big ratings' winner in terms of actual numbers, Bill Bixby's and Brandon Cruz's The Courtship of Eddie's Father nonetheless seemed poised to run a tad longer than its three short years at the start of the 1971-1972 season. A loss of focus, though, on the show's central premise, and the unwise marginalization of the show's third lead, Miyoshi Umeki--along with some friction behind the cameras between star Bixby and co-star and creator/producer James Komack--reportedly led to the early cancellation of this once-promising series. Too bad...it would have been fun to see Eddie grow up. No extras for these great-looking transfers.
Tomorrow Magazine ("Today's Newspaper Supplement") editor Tom Corbett (Bill Bixby) has his hands full raising his little boy, Eddie (Brandon Cruz). Recently widowed, good-looking, successful Tom, ensconced in a swank two-bedroom high-rise Century City apartment overlooking Los Angeles, is open to meeting new women after the death of his wife, but work and raising Eddie take up most of his time (...at least this season). Eddie, a sensitive, kind boy who sticks closely by Tom, seems to be moving on from the death of his mother, while severely curtailing his matchmaking activities from the previous two seasons. Tom's housekeeper/nanny, Mrs. Livingston (Miyoshi Umeki), loves Eddie dearly, too, and gives him equal doses of guidance and affection (...when she can be found in an episode this season). Back at the Tomorrow Magazine offices, Tom's photographer/writer buddy, Norman Tinker (James Komack), offers up "Age of Aquarius" wisdom and Borscht Belt laughs with his unconventional attitudes, while Tom's secretary, dizzy, daffy Tina Rickles (Kristina Holland), is frequently befuddled by the events in her outer office.
Unfortunately, one of the big misses I had a year or two ago was not being able to review the second season of The Courtship of Eddie's Father, a series I loved as a kid, and one that I was lucky enough to revisit after a long time in 2011 (you can read my review of that season here). It's always frustrating when you're reviewing a series and you can't follow it season to season, to see more clearly the changes and evolutions in the show's progression (or degression, in this case). By this third season, something is definitely off with The Courtship of Eddie's Father (and I'm not talking about everyone having longer hair)...but did that begin here, or were there signs of it in the second season? According to multiple sources, including actor Brandon Cruz, a rift between star Bill Bixby and co-star/creator/executive producer James Komack over the show's direction this third season caused friction that led to the show being canceled. I wouldn't be surprised at all if this were the case, after you look at the episodes this season. However, understanding how television is always a business first, last and inbetween, I'd also have to wonder if ratings weren't also part of the cancellation equation. Facing unbeatable direct competition this season (it got absolutely creamed by the last half-hour of The Carol Burnett Show on CBS, and the first half-hour of NBC's new hit, The NBC Mystery Movie, featuring McMillan & Wife, McCloud, and Columbo), The Courtship of Eddie's Father's numbers continued to trend downward by this point...when it was never a big hit, numbers-wise, to begin with (its youth demos were good, though). For ABC, adding in the lack of Nielsen heat with all that screaming and yelling and door-slamming behind the cameras (Miyoshi Umeki was also apparently quite upset about the show's focus...and rightly so, considering she's largely M.I.A. this season), may have ultimately been the deciding factor for The Courtship of Eddie's Father getting the axe.
Both Bixby and Komack are gone now (as is Miyoshi Umeki), and I don't know if they ever spoke in-depth about what happened, so it's guesswork for anyone at this point as to what, exactly, was the problem between the two. Was it a case of ego, with Bixby, carrying the series as its star and flexing his status by branching out into directing episodes of the series, getting bugged that creator and producer Komack was suddenly popping up on screen a whole lot more than he normally did...including finding Komack at the center of episodes that normally would have been Bixby's and Cruz's alone? It's possible. After all, the central crux of the show was supposed to be widower Tom trying to help his son, Eddie, through their mutual tragedy of losing their wife and mother. Tom was trying to date again, and Eddie was going through the already complicated trials and tribulations of growing up further handicapped by the loss of his mother. Helping Tom out of his grief--while helping himself to a potential new mother--was Eddie frequently playing matchmaker, while Eddie's need for maternal support was supplied by Mrs. Livingston, who gave him a thoughtful kind of love: unstinting, respectful and protective, yet never overstepping too deeply into Tom's territory (a unique, intriguing dynamic compared to other "domestics-as-family members-in-a-sitcom" characters, like Alice on The Brady Bunch, or Hazel ).
Strangely, most of that dynamic seems gone this final season, and which probably was upsetting to Bixby and Umeki, both of whom may have wondered if the The Courtship of Eddie's Father was slowly turning into The James Komack Show. Now, don't get me wrong: I've always found Komack's Norman Tinker a delight, along with Kristina Holland's take-off on Goldie Hawn; they're both funny, quirky characters that add a fun comedic angle to The Courtship of Eddie's Father. However, as much as I like their shtick, it creates a different vibe than what was coming from the show at its beginning, a vibe that played as much like a drama as a comedy, with a sweet, contemplative, gentle tone that's increasingly disappearing this season as "whacky" Norman intrudes. Where are the episodes of Tom dating? After all...the show is called The Courtship of Eddie's Father. I counted two out of twenty-three episodes where Tom actually dates a woman: The Choice, where he falls hard for Dr. Trisha Noble (lucky bastard), and A Little Red, with Russkie Carol Lawrence. And that's it. What must youngish, romantic lead Bixby--a big TV star at the time with a sky-high "Q" rating--have been thinking as the season progressed and he saw that development with his TV image? As potentially damaging as that digression was for Bixby's character in the show, an even bigger mistake was made: where is Miyoshi Umeki this season? Relegated to infrequent, 30-second cameos here and there (many times she doesn't show up at all for several episodes), Umeki's presence is sorely missed in a season where she doesn't even get one "stand alone" story of her own. Not one--a really remarkable miscalculation on producer Komack's part, since Umeki's warm, loving, maternal presence was integral to the show's initial appeal (no wonder Umeki, an Academy Award winner for christ's sake, quit the biz after getting mistreated like this). We may never know the exact details of the internal debates and squabbles that went on at the production offices of The Courtship of Eddie's Father, but there's no question that choices were made that affected big changes in the artistic direction of the show this third season...and they weren't for the better.
The season opener, My Son, the Artist, however, seems like a leftover from a previous go-around. Scripted by the show's most frequent contributors this season, Stan Cutler and Martin Donovan, it's a solid entry that falls along the lines of earlier episodes: Tom has to explain to Eddie why it's okay for Tom to draw nudes in art class...and not okay for Eddie to do the same with his next door neighbor. It's a typically low-key, sensitive outing, light-years away from the crass, vulgar, grotesque manner in which the same story would no doubt be filmed today for a sitcom, with a thoughtful message thrown in at the end: Tom tells the little girl's sympathetically scared father, who feels he has no idea how to be a father, that no dad has all the answers. The Candidate, however, is just the kind of episode this season doesn't need: a rather frantic, obvious story about Tom being pushed by Norman to run for the local school board (why in the world would hippie, anti-Establishment Norman want that?), with little Eddie not at all integral to the plot (it's school-related--they couldn't work in an Eddie angle?). Better is Bob Rodgers' Getting Back on the Horse, where Eddie, beaned by a baseball, learns not to let fear control his life. This episode features the most screen time for Umeki--a tiny little subplot about her giving a speech--which we don't even get to see. And that's pretty much it for her for the rest of the show (criminal). Three steps backwards, though, with Tell It Like I'm Telling You It Is, a grindingly familiar episode involving Lou Jacobi hurting himself in Tom's apartment.
A Very Different Drummer, from Cutler and Donovan, is one of the season's funniest episodes...and perhaps one that initially made Bixby sit up and take notice. Norman, angst-ridden over being a responsible potential legal guardian for Eddie, attacks his own lifestyle when Eddie and Tom stay the weekend at his new pad. Komack is hilarious here; I love his illogical, overly emotional angst (when he shows off his new place, he offers this with a smile, "Do you like it? Let me ask you: is this any way for a grown man to live?"), and his pessimistic view of his own life (when Tina "fixes" his stereo, to screeching feedback, Norman comments on the sound, "Do you realize what that is? It's the sound of my life,"). What with these amusing Woody Allen-ish jabs and the slapstick of the water bed hijinks, A Very Different Drummer is a big success...for The James Komack Show, as Bixby plays a grumpy second-banana. The familiar The Bicycle Theft--Eddie is careless and gets his wreck-of-a-bike stolen, with Tom digging in about buying him a new one--is one of the episodes that obviously should have featured Mrs. Livingston in a more prominent role...and doesn't. Two's Company seems to promise a dating episode for Tom, but alas, he's not interested in his former girlfriend, as this one turns into a Odd Couple episode without enough Eddie featured. Norman strikes again--and Bixby looks noticeably peeved--in Happy Birthday to You, a Norman-centric episode from Cutler and Donovan which finds Bixby again having his Tom character revolve around supporting player Komack, instead of the other way around, with the added insult of having the final "bonding with Eddie" moment that occurs in so many episodes, occur between Norman and Eddie. Just check out Bixby's face to see where this season is going....
Not helping that trend, Cutler and Donovan come up with another Norman-heavy outing (are you sensing a pattern, with the head writers writing to the producer, rather than to the star?) in Or Else, where war is waged between Tom and his employees, Tina and Norman (Komack and Bixby look pretty comfortable playing enemies). The season continues to decline with C & D's Thy Neighbor Loves Thee, where the series decides to add "whacky" new neighbors Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara to the mix--a conceptual mistake for the show (since when does the quiet, sensitive The Courtship of Eddie's Father need this kind of funny but off-point overacting?). As is increasingly the case this season, Eddie's role in the episode is sidelined (another mistake). C & D show their Bolshie sides with A Little Red, where Tom connects with visiting Commie writer, Carol Lawrence (who, for some unknown reason, is made-up to look like Vampira). It's bad enough that there's no scene where Tom corrects Eddie's gleeful declaration that he wants to be a Communist, but when the writers sum up the world's troubles through Mrs. Livingston's assertion--filtered through little socialist Eddie's story about his friends not sharing toys--that the kids with the toys are the real problem, the episode crosses the line into pathetic, inappropriate propaganda (nothing funnier than getting a socialist message from a bunch of highly-paid Hollywood writers). A real low for the series, and not just for the asinine politics.
If I had to guess where in the season that reported fight between Bixby and Komack happened, I'd say it was sometime during A Brave at Natchanoomi, a C & D episode that should have been strictly a Tom and Eddie outing--Eddie goes to camp--but which somehow turns into a "Norman" when he becomes overly worried about Eddie at camp, and he has to be reassured that Eddie is okay. It's a ridiculous construction, with the final insult to Bixby coming at the end when he has to tell Eddie to go over to Norman and make him feel better about the fact that he's not a little kid anymore. Why the hell is Norman the one that needs to hear that? I guarantee Bixby went apesh*t over this latest (and continued) usurpation of his role in the series. Not much of a balm to Bixby is The Blarney Stone Girl, where we think Tom is going to get involved with "kooky" artist Sally Struthers...before the outing goes all vague and fuzzy over Struthers' supposed "unconventional" looks (the episode feels like it was worked over too much, with Norman noticeably missing from the storyline, since Struthers is supposed to be at the office, meeting him). Prince Charming is one we've seen a hundred times--Eddie gets stage fright when he has to kiss a girl in a school play--but what we don't see is a substantial scene with Eddie and Mrs. Livingston, with the loving housekeeper offering her guidance. Tom finally gets a date--which naturally Norman and Tina crash (Bixby couldn't catch a break...)--in The Choice...but Eddie doesn't play matchmaker; he's sick, and stacked Trisha Noble is his pediatrician. Again, why did the series abandon its central format: Eddie as matchmaker?. Martin A. Ragaway comes up with a solid "Eddie" in The Karate Story, where Eddie's and Tom's new hobby, karate, is the catalyst for a bullying story, with a surprise twist: the parents stay out of it and let the kids fight it out for themselves (the good old days of still-tough America). Good to see karate legend Ed Parker here.
Norman is still M.I.A. in Very Young Man with a Horn, an amusing outing from C & D where Tom becomes involved in a noise war (Eddie's playing the sax...badly) with his neighbor, Ivor Barry (shouldn't Norman be there, shouting at Tom about asserting his rights? Well...he's not). Norman is back for The Investors, another misguided attempt to turn the series into a buddy comedy, where Tom and Norman become nervous oil well investors...with little Eddie not figuring into the story at all (ratings were going down because of off-topic episodes like this one). It's All Write With Me is a good "Tom" episode from Alan J. Levitt, where he struggles over choosing his current "safe" life as a magazine editor, and becoming a novelist, like his high-flying friend, Pat Harrington. Bixby's absence from most of A Little Help From My Friend is understandable, considering how poor it is, with guest star Sammy Davis, Jr. failing to make any impression in a seriously contrived episode where he and Norman stay over at Tom's, taking care of Eddie (what has any of this to do with widower Tom dating and raising his little son Eddie?). In the Eye of the Beholder is a sweet outing, featuring Kristina Holland's Tina unknowingly giving Tom a valuable painting as a "love gift" (Holland, as usual, is completely charming here). You probably couldn't get a better summing up of where Bixby and Komack probably were in their relationship at this point than in the scene in Time for a Change--Tom's buying a house--where Tom screams at Norman, "Norman, go back to your darkroom!" to which Norman yells, "You never let me have any fun!" Finally, the series wraps-up on a sad, confused note with the awful We Love Annie, another Stiller/Meara effort (contractual obligations to ABC? Komack desperately trying to prop up the show?), this time playing different characters...to the same lackluster, misguided results. It's a dopey, poorly-written outing (significantly: written and directed by Komack), certainly not worthy of closing out this one-time sensitive, funny, thoughtful little show.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.