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Have We Met? Five Instances of Prophetic Casting from the Days of Classic TV
Perhaps this has happened to you. You think you're introducing two people to each other but it turns out they actually go way back. If the folks are honest, they'll correct your error right away and admit they know each other. Sometimes, though, for whatever reason, they'll decide to play dumb, as Glenn Ford and Rita Hayworth famously did with George Macdonald in the 1946 film noir classic Gilda.
As in life, so too in television. All relationships have to start somewhere. It's just not always the somewhere that you might think. What follows are five examples of casting from the days of classic American TV that put together some pretty famous people. You'll recognize the names in all these match-ups. What you might not recognize are the venues because they all took place before the pairings for which the actors involved are best remembered.
1. Car 54 Where Are You? (numerous episodes) 1961-63
Tall (6'5") Fred Gwynne was a graduate of both Groton and Harvard and the former president of the Harvard Lampoon. All that education didn't stop him, however, from being cast as the dimwitted cop Francis Muldoon on the NBC police sitcom Car 54 Where Are You? which ran from 1961 to 1963.
One of his fellow officers on the series was Leo Schnauzer, played by former Broadway actor Al Lewis, who was just beginning his career the small screen. Gwynne and Lewis would go on of course to star in the creepy-but-not-ookie CBS comedy series The Munsters. Gwynne played Herman, a Frankenstein's monster lookalike, while Lewis played his vampire father-in-law known simply as Grandpa. Lewis became so associated with the latter role that when he ran as a Green Party candidate in 1998 he insisted on changing his name on the ballot to Grandpa Al Lewis so people would know exactly who he was. But before they put on the ghoulish makeup, Gwynne and Lewis were yukking it up as two ordinary guys in the precinct in clips like the one below.
2. "The Project Strigas Affair" -- The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (November 24, 1964)
One of the first big breaks for Canadian actor William Shatner was his role as Alexi in the 1958 screen epic The Brothers Karamazov starring Yul Brynner. At the same time he was quite active on the small screen, though, working so often that he developed a bit of a reputation for taking any role, no matter how unmemorable. Sadly, most of those roles turned out to be exactly that, although there were some exceptions, such as his portrayal of Bob Wilson in the Twilight Zone episode "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."
In 1964 he got a spot in an episode called "The Project Strigas Affair" on the NBC spy drama The Man from U.N.C.L.E., starring Robert Vaughn and David McCallum. In it he plays a former engineer who started an extermination company, but was later recruited to work for U.N.C.L.E. as a civilian.
That's him in the clip below -- but check out the guy who appears at the end of the clip. It's another up-and-comer by the name of Leonard Nimoy, playing a bad guy. Two years later, of course, Shatner and Nimoy would be paired again and on the road to becoming cultural icons, playing Captain James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock respectively in the NBC sci-fi series Star Trek.
Oh, and the menacing-looking bald guy at the beginning? That's Werner Klemperer, about whom we'll have more to say momentarily.
3. "Safe Conduct" -- Alfred Hitchcock Presents (February 19, 1956)
Werner Klemperer immigrated to the United States as a teenager in the 1930s, a refugee from Hitler's Germany. His father was fabled conductor Otto Klemperer, who eventually got a job conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Another refugee from that era was Vienna-born John Banner, who was traveling with an acting company in Switzerland at the time Hitler decided to annex Austria. Being Jewish, Banner wisely decided not to go back, and eventually emigrated to the United States, where he continued to pursue an acting career despite knowing very little English. Until he mastered the language he learned his lines phonetically.
Klemperer and Banner would, of course, go on to play Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz respectively in the CBS sitcom Hogan's Heroes beginning in the late 1960s. But check out the clip below from an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents a decade earlier, where Banner plays a train conductor joined by a monocle-less Klemperer playing a professor at around 7:50 or so.
4. Change of Habit (1969)
This next pairing almost doesn't count because the two actors involved don't share any screen time and there are conflicting accounts as to whether they actually met during production. It's also a theatrical film and not TV. But the casting is still prescient because they do appear within seconds of each other in back-to-back sequences.
Mary Tyler Moore was well-known to viewers of the small screen as Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. (Her first full-bodied series role. Earlier her bottom half had appeared as leggy secretary Sam on Richard Diamond, Private Detective.) By the late 1960s however, Moore had started to venture into theatrical films, making Thoroughly Modern Millie, What's So Bad About Feeling Good? and Elvis Presley's last film, Change of Habit, where she played a nun opposite Elvis' doctor character.
Also appearing in the film, in the bit part of Lieutenant Moretti, was a relatively unknown small-screen veteran by the name of Ed Asner, who would soon skyrocket to fame as Moore's boss Lou Grant on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Through the miracle of splicing, they appear together a year ahead of schedule in the first part of the clip below.
5. "The Case of the Lazy Lover" -- Perry Mason (May 31, 1958)
Neil Hamilton was a veteran of the silent film era who had successfully made the transition to sound films. After World War II, though, he had gravitated to the small screen, first as the host of Hollywood Screen Test (sort of a 1940s-style precursor to American Idol) and later doing guest appearances in various dramatic series.
By 1958 he had been cast as Bertrand Allred in "The Case of the Lazy Lover," one of the last first-season episodes of the CBS courtroom drama Perry Mason. The woman chosen to play Bertie's stepdaughter Patricia Faxon was a 20-year-old former ballet dancer by the name of Yvonne Craig.
Craig would go on to appear with Elvis as well, twice -- in It Happened at the World's Fair and in Kissin' Cousins. (She happened to be dating him at the time.) Her biggest claim to fame, however, would be her casting as Batgirl in the 1967-68 season of Batman. With her flame-red wig, skintight batsuit and motorcycle that was way beyond cool, the lithe Craig was perhaps exactly what the flagging ABC series needed. Her civilian identity was that of mild-mannered brunette librarian Barbara Gordon, daughter of Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon, who had been played for the past two seasons by none other than -- that's right -- Neil Hamilton.
Now let's see . . . The same actors. Essentially the same screen relationship. Nearly a decade apart. The only thing missing from the first version was the Spandex.
Holy dejá vu!
Craig has another pre-Batgirl connection to Batman. She appeared with Cesar Romero (aka The Joker) in the 1961 film Seven Ladies from Hell.
Neil Hamilton passed away some time ago, but Craig, now in her seventies, is still going strong. She voices Grandma in the children's cartoon series Olivia. But the future Batgirl and her dad first appeared together on Perry Mason.