Tales from behind the scenes of America’s most popular shows are always interesting, especially if they are told by the legendary stars at the center of the experience. That’s what the Pioneers of Television series offers when it comes back for its fourth season premiering Tuesday, April 15, on PBS.
Viewers can explore the trailblazing moments of TV history with episodes featuring standup and standout comedic actors who landed sitcoms, TV doctors and nurses, and those who broke the color barrier on the airwaves. The Emmy-nominated show has inside stories and fascinating facts about the industry. The new season combines new interviews with legendary stars, such as Ray Romano, Bob Newhart, Robin Williams, Jimmie Walker, Leslie Uggams, Roseanne Barr and Dick Van Dyke, with never-before-seen images and timeless footage that continues to entertain TV viewers decades later.
“We are thrilled to bring another season of Pioneers of Television to PBS,” said executive producer Steve Boettcher, who, along with producing partner Mike Trinklein, has helmed numerous specials and series on television’s breakthrough performers. “From stars that had Americans howling with laughter in front of their television screens, to the ones who broke barriers — and maybe even some who saved lives — this season’s line-up features legends who paved the way for contemporary television.”
At the Television Critics Association’s latest press tour, Donald Thoms, vice president of programming for PBS, held an interview panel to promote the series. This season’s four episodes focuses on the standups who created sitcoms, TV doctors and nurses, standup comedy actors, and the people who broke the color barrier. Five legendary stars came to talk about their contributions: George Takei, the most significant Asian-American actor of TV’s first decades; Leslie Uggams from the “Breaking Barriers” episode; Jimmie Walker, the breakout star from TV’s first black family sitcom; Ray Romano, the stand-up who became a sitcom megastar; and the legendary Bob Newhart who did the impossible twice with two mega-hit comedy series.
On April 15 “Standup to Sitcom” airs and follows how America’s top standup comics made the transition from the comedy stage to the sitcom form. Bob Newhart said he’s not being modest when he says he never thought he would have a long career. He revealed, “Honestly, I thought I might have five years, and that would be it, and that was fine. Then I pictured myself like an elevator operator and imagine people would say, ‘That guy used to be Bob Newhart.’”
The “Doctors and Nurses” episode airs April 22 taking everyone on a journey from Richard Chamberlain on Dr. Kildare, to George Clooney on ER. The “Acting Funny” episode airs April 29, giving a peek behind the curtain to reveal the techniques of our favorite comedic actors. The program examines the manic improvisational style of Robin Williams and his comic predecessor Jonathan Winters, contrasting it to Tina Fey’s highly prepared approach.
“Breaking Barriers” airs May 6, tracing the story of people of color on American television — including the mid-1960s breakthroughs of African Americans Diahann Carroll (Julia) and Bill Cosby (I Spy). Latino landmarks range from I Love Lucy with Desi Arnaz to Miami Vice with Edward James Olmos. Also featured is Asian American George Takei (Star Trek), who details the childhood years he spent in a Japanese-American internment camp. Takei said, “The inclusion of an Asian character was organic to Gene Roddenberry’s vision for Star Trek and for our future. He told us that the Starship Enterprise was a metaphor for Starship Earth, and the strength of the starship lay in its diversity coming together and working in concert. So you saw an African woman and an Asian man. Europe was represented by a Scotsman. And North America was represented by the Canadian Captain Kirk.”
Leslie Uggams stood out as a great talent on Mitch Miller’s Sing Along With Mitch show which was her big break. But she said she got her own musical show thanks to the Smothers Brothers being too political. She explained, “I thought, wow, this is really innovative for this to be happening to me. However The Leslie Uggams Show replaced them to take the heat off what CBS had done. But I made sure we had wonderful diversity in front of and behind the cameras. A lot of groundbreaking things were happening, and I was proud to be part of the change.”