To see Michelle Lee on stage talking about some of the best shows of all time for Pioneers of Television upcoming PBS series, it didn’t seem like any time had passed. She still looks as fantastic as she did when I first met her in the ’60s. Actually everyone on the interview panel looked great. PBS brought together a stellar group to promote the Pioneers of Television four-part show premiering with “Funny Ladies” Jan. 15, “Primetime Soaps” Jan. 22, “Superheroes” Jan. 29, and “Miniseries” Feb. 5.
As the heart and soul of Knots Landing for 14 seasons, Michelle was there to talk about primetime soaps. Roots star Lou Gossett, Jr. and The Thorn Birds’ Richard Chamberlain, Rachel Ward and Bryan Brown, talked about the impact of miniseries. And from the Mary Tyler Moore Show plus many other sitcoms, Cloris Leachman gave us a few yucks since she was there representing the funny ladies. Currently seen as Maw Maw on Raising Hope on Fox, that gig is just the most recent chapter of Cloris’ television career that dates back to 1948.
Of course none of them would have been there without the executive producer Steven Boettcher and writer/co-producer Mike Trinklein, who combined their talents to honor the breakthrough performers on American television. Their goal for their third season of presenting the Pioneers of Television series is to present the people, the entertainers who conquered the medium and brought joy to millions.
Answering the question about how television compares today to the various programs in the ’70s and ’80s. Are they better or worse? Michele jumped in saying, “I truly believe that some television today is exquisite. It really is. It’s awesome. And when you equate it to the past, it’s very difficult because time changed, the style of the picture itself and how we shoot and maybe the style of acting hasn’t changed so much. Included among great comedies should be Modern Family, which I think really has a finger on the pulse of the time. It has two gay guys who have a little girl they’ve adopted, and it has an older man who is living through another family with a young Hispanic wife and her son. Neither is the quote/unquote, typical family, and there are no typical families anymore. So I love not just the writing and the talent of that show, but what it says about our society. There’s so much good television, you just have to support it.”
Richard Chamberlin went from being Dr. Kildare to the “king of the miniseries,” thanks to the success of The Thorn Birds. But he admitted, “When I originally read The Thorn Birds, I didn’t want to do it, and my agent was very insistent that I go and audition for it. So I went to the audition kind of half hearted, because it was clearly a soap opera, and it was difficult. The dialogue had long speeches with a style that I didn’t feel that comfortable with, but I went for it. And I got it.” And Chamberlain continued to make miniseries history in the ’80s as the star of Shogun and The Count of Monte Cristo.
Lou Gossett, Jr., was the first African American to win an Oscar for best supporting actor for An Officer and a Gentleman. But in television he’s best remembered as Fiddler on the epic miniseries Roots, which to this day remains the most watched drama in television history, likely never to be eclipsed.
Gossett gave credit to the entire cast of Roots, saying, “We all did a hell of a job for what it was worth. We didn’t know how far it was going to go, and lo and behold, we stopped the world. I really would like to see that again in some kind of way because there’s a lot more stories to tell, but that was a door opener, a mind opener and put us on the map. That was a wonderful experience.”
Tune in to Pioneers of Television to learn more about the shows that have made an impact on our lives.