Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows

Larry Holzwarth - August 30, 2022

Like any if not most dramas of a personal nature between individuals, those which occur between two people not directly involving the observer seem petty in nature. To the individuals involved they are frequently more important. Among the artists and casts of television and film productions they are not uncommon, and they frequently become fodder for those individuals who live for such disagreements. In some cases, the individuals are able to put aside differences long enough to do their jobs and continue to work together. Their differences thus remain personal, as they should be. Such discretion is however becoming more and more difficult to maintain.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, arguably America’s favorite couple in 1955. Wikimedia

Nowadays, whatever one says or does is apt to appear on social media, known to millions, often in a distorted fashion, within minutes. A disagreement between performers on a film set or television stage, often accompanied by video and supplemented by commentary can appear almost instantly, denying the principals any opportunity to resolve a perceived dispute while it remains private. Privacy has become an illusion. Most of the petty disagreements or disputes reported here remained relatively unknown, and thus petty in nature, for years. Today, they would not. What are called “tweets”, invoking the chirp of a harmless bird, instead resembles the raucous screech of a vulture. Here are some examples of petty drama from the sets of popular television and film sets of the past, which predated the watchful and exposing eyes of social media.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Actress Lucille Ball and husband, Desi Arnaz seated in directors chairs at press conference in Los Angeles, Calif., 1953. Los Angeles Times – Los Angeles Times photographic archive, UCLA Library/ Wikimedia.

The set of I Love Lucy presented a tense atmosphere

From 1951, when it debuted, through 1957, when the program ceased original productions, I Love Lucy dominated American television. Fans, which according to studies were virtually everyone with a television set, watched changes which were in many ways culturally significant, though most of them didn’t know it and didn’t care. Lucy and Desi had an interracial marriage, a Hispanic Cuban exile and an all-American girl. There was little comment, despite the growing fears in America over events in Cuba during the decade. Lucy became pregnant and had her baby on the program, an unheard eventuality in a time when married couples on television were shown as using twin beds, usually separated by a nightstand. Desi’s heavy accent and mangled syntax were a source of comedic events, rather than stereotyping an immigrant.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Little known when I Love Lucy began, Desi Arnaz became a household name during the program’s run. Wikimedia

They lived (in the early years) in a small apartment in New York City, paying their rent to Fred and Ethel Mertz, landlords and good friends. Lucy balked at the role of housewife, desirous of a career in show business like that of her husband. Ethel often helped her in her botched attempts, earning the disapproval of their husbands. Both men expected their wives to keep the apartments, do the laundry, have meals ready in a timely manner, and keep within the budgets they, the breadwinners, established for their household. For some reason, in a day when such behavior and the attitudes it reflects seems barely evolved from the Neanderthals, the program remains immensely popular in reruns, because it is nostalgic for some but more importantly, because it is funny. Yet all was not laughs on the Lucy set. Petty differences divided the show’s stars during production.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
William Frawley’s background included a role with the Keystone Kops (Back row, second from left) in 1914. Mack Sennett Studios

Willian Frawley and Vivian Vance became a problem during production

William Frawley (Fred Mertz) was a veteran of vaudeville, Broadway, and film, when he actively lobbied for the part of Fred Mertz. Desi Arnaz, and later Lucille Ball, both decided he was the best man for the role, though his well-known heavy drinking presented a problem for both. As executive producer of the program, Arnaz installed rules proscribing Frawley’s drinking during working hours, as well as absences from work caused by drinking outside of working hours. Frawley was 64 years of age in 1951, suitable roles were becoming scarce, and he agreed to Desi’s terms. He stuck to them. Throughout the years of production, Frawley was on time, sober, knew his lines, and was ready to work. Before production of the series was over Arnaz, no slouch with the bottle himself, and Frawley had become close friends. It was a friendship which lasted until Frawley’s death in 1966.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Lucy wanted longtime friend Bea Benaderet for the role of Ethel Mertz. CBS Television

For his wife, Ethel Mertz, Lucille Ball preferred her long-time friend, Bea Benaderet, or Barbara Pepper, whom Lucy knew well from their days together in the Goldwyn Girls. Pepper also had a reputation as someone with a fondness for the bottle, Benaderet had scheduling conflicts. Lucy settled on the little-known Vivian Vance, 22 years younger than Frawley, who was to play her husband. During tests and rehearsals, Vance and Frawley displayed an immediate chemistry, including the comedic timing required of the roles. What didn’t show, at least at first, was from almost the moment they met, they loathed each other when not in character. The source of their mutual dislike has been explored by many, with conflicting reasons as to why, but its existence is undisputed. Whether their frequent off-screen barbs reinforced those scripted for their roles remains a source of dispute.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Vivian Vance considered William Frawley too old to realistically appear as her husband. Wikimedia

The feud started with Vivian over resentment over Frawley’s age

Vivian Vance saw herself as a more glamorous and, perhaps understandably, more youthful character than Ethel Mertz. She felt that Frawley’s Fred aged her, once commenting off-set that he should be playing her father, rather than her husband. Frawley somehow got wind of her comments, and they did not sit well. She made other disparaging remarks about her costar, included referring to him as a “stubborn little Irishman”. Their relationship offstage deteriorated to the point they seldom spoke to each other, which eventually spilled over into disputes during script readings and other meetings. Frawley began working with writers to add venom to his in-character remarks regarding Ethel’s appearance. They were tolerated because they got laughs, which for I Love Lucy came from a live audience during filming. According Desi Arnaz, writing in his autobiography A Book, Frawley disliked Vance from the beginning, and didn’t hesitate to say so.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
A publicity still of the Mertz’s and the Ricardo’s shows not a hint of the Vance-Frawley mutual antagonism. CBS Television

The barbs between the Mertz’s became an integral part of the highly successful show, and none of the principals wanted to meddle with a successful recipe. According to Arnaz, Vance had triggered it, but beyond that it was Frawley who would not let it go. After I love Lucy ceased production Arnaz offered the pair their own show, featuring the Mertz’s in what would have been one of television’s early spin-offs. Frawley liked the idea; Vance would have none of it. Instead, she joined Lucille Ball’s new show, though not as Ethel, and he joined My Three Sons, where subsequent reports were that his drinking habits, kept in check on I Love Lucy, re-emerged. After Lucy they never worked together again, and Frawley once told an interviewer, of Vance, “She’s one of the nicest girls to ever come out of Kansas. I wish she’d go back there”.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Desi Arnaz with son Desi Jr in 1974. Wikimedia

The Frawley-Vance feud was not the only issue backstage during I Love Lucy

In 1940, after a whirlwind courtship, B movie performer and chorus girl Lucille Ball married Cuban bandleader Desi Arnaz. Their marriage, which lasted until 1960, was never smooth. Arnaz loved the nightlife, drinking, partying, girls, gambling, and excursions with “the boys”. On more than one occasion Lucille Ball mentioned divorce, each time Arnaz promised to reform. By his own admission he couldn’t do it. In the late 1950s he ran Desilu, their mutually owned studio and production company, dealt with the network and advertisers, produced other hit television programs, and generally avoided going home. His drinking and philandering were no secret in Hollywood, quite the opposite, but to the millions of fans of I Love Lucy, Desi did, as well as their children. But before the program ended, Desi asked Lucy for a divorce, after 20 years of marriage.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Desi freely admitted his philandering ways in his autobiography, A Book, as well as his enduring love for Lucy. Goodreads

According to A Book, Lucy responded, in part, by telling her errant husband, “By the time I get through with you, you’ll be as broke as when you got here”. At his insistence, she initiated the proceedings by filing for divorce, and their considerable fortune and interests were divided amicably. Lucy’s career as a performer and comedienne continued, while Desi chose, for the most part, to remain behind the scenes following the end of their marriage. Both found their fortunes continued to grow following their divorce, in no small part because Desi had negotiated for them to retain the ownership of the I Love Lucy episodes. I Love Lucy became the first television program to be seen in reruns, and it continues to be seen around the world daily, in some cases 70 years after its original broadcast.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Actress Tina Louise in a 1959 shampoo ad. Wikimedia

Gilligan’s Island was home to some ego conflicts

One can be forgiven for wondering how a program with such an unbelievable premise ever made it on the air. Seven castaways marooned on an island less than three hours by boat from Hawaii? Four of them carried extensive wardrobes, while Gilligan, the Skipper, and the Professor were less sartorially prepared for extensive exile. Mr. Howell had enough cash on him to draw the attention of the IRS. It was certainly never confused with high drama, even its comedy routines were low-brow and repetitive. But it was a hit with fans (remains a favorite to this day) and the source of one of the Sixties’ great debates, at least among males of a certain age; Ginger or Mary Ann? The show was relatively short-lived, lasting just three seasons, but it produced considerable tension on its set among some of its stars. Some of those tensions outlived the show, which is still popular in reruns.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Dawn Wells in 1975, one half of the still argued question, “Ginger or Mary Ann?”. Wikimedia

The character of Ginger Grant, played on the show by Tina Louise, was originally supposed to be a secretary by profession, rather than a movie star. Rumors have long suggested that she was not the first actress to be considered for the role, claiming Raquel Welch was the producer’s first choice. They are wrong. Raquel was considered for the show, but in the role of the farmgirl, all-American girl-next-door Mary Ann Summers. Louise accepted the role of the movie star after her agent informed her she would be a major focus of the plots for episodes. Louise was to play the role a la Jayne Mansfield, a sultry seductress, placing her at odds with the rest of the castaways. When that role did not transpire, tensions between Louise, the producers, and directors, emerged, which soon spilled over onto the set between the performers.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Hans Conreid as Wrongway Feldman, one of many visitors to Gilligan’s Island, with Tina Louise as Ginger Grant. Wikimedia

Tina Louise separated from the Gilligan’s Island cast

Louise’s dissatisfaction with her role and subsequent squabbles with production staff soon spilled over to relations with her fellow cast members. During breaks in shooting she isolated herself from the rest of the cast, remaining distant and aloof. During production of the show star Bob Denver intervened with the producers several times for the benefit of his fellow performers, including having the theme song rewritten to include the names of the “Professor and Mary Ann”. Despite Denver’s efforts to ensure all of the actors were treated equitably, Tina’s Ginger quickly became more of a supporting role, contrary to her perception she would be the main focus of the show’s plots. Worried she was in danger of becoming typecast by the show, Tina became increasingly withdrawn, irritating her fellow cast members as she argued for more prominent roles.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Tina Louise was replaced by Judith Baldwin for the sequel TV film Rescue from Gilligan’s Island. Wikimedia

Gilligan’s Island was canceled following the 1966-67 season, without giving the producers an opportunity to resolve the issue of whether the castaways were ever rescued from the island. In 1978 the first of three follow-up, made-for-television movies was broadcast, in which the castaways were rescued only to find themselves once again marooned on the same island. Of the original cast members, only Tina Louise refused to participate in the reunion, nor did she join the cast for the subsequent sequels. Despite her absences, she has frequently downplayed the on-set tensions and her differences with cast and crew. With the 2020 death of Dawn Wells, Tina Louise became the last surviving member of the original cast of Gilligan’s Island.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee as The Avengers. ITV

The Avengers set was tense over money in the mid-1960s

Patrick MacNee boasted a resume which included small roles in several feature films when he agreed to portray John Steed, an agent with murky connections, in the British drama The Avengers, premiering in Britain in 1961. For the program’s second season in 1962 a new character was introduced to work as his partner, Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman. For the rest of the decade MacNee had the enviable task of acting alongside first Blackman, followed by Diana Rigg, and finally Linda Thorsen as his partner in the program, which became a major hit in Britain and a cult favorite in the United States. Blackman and Rigg became pinup favorites for wearing leather outfits, high boots, and haute couture fashions. The Avengers became part of the British invasion, though its audience in America often did not understand much of the program’s innuendo or British topical humor.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Honor Blackman, in leather as Cathy Gale of the Avengers. ITV

After completing two seasons of the program, Honor Blackman left the show to appear as Pussy Galore in the James Bond megahit Goldfinger. During her tenure there had been little discussion in the media regarding her relationship with the program’s producers. After an extensive search for a new partner for Macnee’s Steed, with over 80 actors auditioned, Diana Rigg was selected to play the new role of Mrs. Emma Peel. Contrary to popular belief, Rigg disliked leather outfits and preferred a softer wardrobe than Blackman’s, and her tight-fitting jumpsuits were usually of a stretch material known as crimplene. Diana Rigg also brought a new tension to the sets, which went beyond the intimate tensions intended between Emma Peel and John Steed. While Honor Blackman had remained quiet, Diana Rigg was soon quite vocal about compensation disparities between the program’s stars.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Diana Rigg on the set of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, with George Lazenby as James Bond. Wikimedia

Diana Rigg threatened to leave the show over unfair compensation

Diana Rigg went to The Avengers with a limited resume as an unknown British actor. Virtually overnight she was a national icon, which expanded to international when the program was picked up for American television. Her pay for the role of Emma Peel was less than that per week of her costar, Patrick Macnee, although the discrepancy was not a source of friction between the two. When she discovered that she was paid less weekly than the cameramen on the set it became a source of friction between her and the production team and network. Diana demanded more money for her second season on the show, though she did not demand parity with MacNee’s salary. Her demand became fodder for the British media, as well as talk shows (which the British call chat shows). She was widely disparaged for raising the issue, and for her demands for greater pay.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
A smug appearing Patrick Macnee, with Honor Blackman in a publicity still for the Avengers. Pinterest

Much to her disappointment, she did not receive public support for her stance from her costar. MacNee remained silent on the issue, avoiding controversy. She was also disappointed to receive little in the way of support from other women in the industry. “…I was painted as this mercenary creature by the press when all I wanted was equality”, she told The Guardian in 2019. “Not one woman in the industry supported me…”. In the end the network increased her pay, but her reputation in the industry suffered. She became a pariah on the set to most of the crew and guest stars, though MacNee later claimed they remained friends. After just two years with The Avengers, Diana left as had Honor Blackman, to pursue a role with James Bond. She starred in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, replaced on The Avengers by Tara King.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Spock and Kirk (Nimoy and Shatner) in a publicity still from 1968. NBC Television

Several feuds erupted during the making of Star Trek

Forgotten by all but dedicated fans, Star Trek’s original television series (known as TOS for “The Original Series among trekkers) was only in production for three years. During that time the program suffered from poor ratings, struggled to find an audience, and endured considerable feuding among its cast. William Shatner was the unchallenged star of the show when it entered production in 1966 but among fans and critics, it was Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock who emerged as the breakout character. Shatner’s ego did not accept the challenge gracefully, and a petty feud erupted between the two, mostly driven by Shatner. In one episode, Shatner demonstrated a high school mentality when he hid Nimoy’s bicycle, the latter’s favored means of moving about the set. The feud grew more threatening to the production when Shatner began to demand lines meant for Spock be given instead to Kirk.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
William Shatner, as James T. Kirk, antagonized several members of the cast of the original Star Trek in the 1960s. NBC Television
Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Leonard Nimoy’s Spock was the breakout character of the program during its first incarnation. NBC Television

To Shatner, Kirk, as Captain, represented the all-knowing entity on the starship’s bridge. Eventually the two actors squabbled over access to offstage writers and reporters, competing for interviews and photo spreads, with each desirous of more input to storyline scenes featuring their characters. Their feud died with the program when Star Trek was canceled and during the hiatus between the end of the show and the first Star Trek motion picture their differences were forgotten and they became close friends. They worked closely together in several of the subsequent films, and appeared together at conventions and in documentaries about what became the Star Trek franchise. Shatner later wrote a book about his costar, Leonard: My Fifty-Year Relationship With a Remarkable Man. But their squabbles emerged again near the end of Nimoy’s life, years away from the Star Trek. When Nimoy died he hadn’t spoken with Shatner for several years.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
George Takei (Sulu) and Shatner nursed a grudge in the media for years after their involvement with Star Trek ended. NBC Television

There were other squabbles on the Star Trek set as well

Most of the long-lived feud between William Shatner and George Takei, who played Hikaru Sulu on Star Trek, developed after the show ended, but its roots were in the original series. Their feud is so well-known it is discussed by fans and media with virtually every public appearance involving Star Trek by either party. Both actors have garnered a great deal of publicity from the feud, and continue to do so more than half a century after it began. Takei has often accused Shatner of bringing up the feud to generate publicity for his many projects, telling The New York Times “…whenever he needs a little publicity for a project, he pumps up the so-called controversy between us”. Shatner has frequently responded in kind, including, “…the only time he gets press is when he talks bad about me”.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Members of the crew of Starship Enterprise visit Nasa’s Shuttle Enterprise, with William Shatner noticeably absent. NASA

It began on the set of Star Trek and its roots were in the emerging feud between Shatner and Nimoy, at least according to Takei. It began in 1966 when Shatner, using his contractually guaranteed option, canceled an on-set photo shoot which was to have featured Spock, after delaying that day’s filming schedule for several hours. According to Takei the rest of the cast agreed with him, recognizing Shatner as “…someone who is not a team player…” who “…likes to have the camera on him[self] all the time”. During the short filming of Star Trek the feud remained relatively unknown off set. It emerged among the general public during the run up to Star Trek: The Motion Picture and has remained a major portion of Star Trek lore ever since, with little evidence of it abating in the future.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Commander Montgomery Scott (James Doohan) fills in for Kirk in the Captain’s chair. NBC Television

William Shatner and James Doohan

Both William Shatner and James Doohan hailed from Canada, and there the similarities between the two end. Theirs was the first of the squabbles among the Star Trek cast to appear to the public, and it was among the more bitter. Doohan, who was a bona fide hero from World War II, did not mince his words when he described the relationship he had with his fellow Canadian. “I like Captain Kirk, but I sure don’t like Bill”, he said. “He’s so insecure that all he can think about is himself”. When Shatner wrote his books about the original series and cast, Doohan refused to be interviewed, and for the most part refused to appear with his former castmate at events until near the end of his life. Their differences began during filming of the original series, when Shatner frequently had scripts rewritten to shift lines from Scotty to Kirk.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
A young and then unknown William Shatner circa 1958. Wikimedia

Despite the rivalries and differences between members of the original cast, Star Trek went on to become one of the most successful entertainment franchises of all time. Spock, Scotty, “Bones” McCoy, Uhura, and Captain Kirk are instantly recognizable by name and reputation, even by those few who have never seen an episode of the show. “Beam me up Scotty” is nearly everywhere recognized as an expression of exasperation (though Scotty never said it), while “I’m a doctor, not a (insert profession here) tells of one’s incompetence to deal with troubling circumstances. Troubles and petty differences on the set of Star Trek have become part of its lore and legend. No doubt Spock would call it illogical, though fascinating.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Despite their differences the cast of the original series went on to several successful films together. Paramount

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Politics became a bone of contention on the set of The Beverly Hillbillies. CBS Television

There were problems on the set of The Beverly Hillbillies

The Beverly Hillbillies was one of several programs of the 1960s based on rural themes. Eventually such programs came to include The Real McCoys, The Andy Griffith Show and its spinoff Gomer Pyle, USMC, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Lassie, and others. Nearly all of them featured at least one noted Hollywood star; Walter Brennan in the McCoys, Andy Griffith in his eponymous show, Bea Benaderet in Petticoat Junction. For The Beverly Hillbillies, the star was Buddy Ebsen, a long-time song and dance man going back to the days of vaudeville. He had worked with Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany’s), Maureen O’Hara (They Met in Argentina), and gained a measure of fame during the 1950s Davy Crockett craze after appearing as George Russell, sidekick to Fess Parker’s Crockett, in Disney films. As Jed Clampett, Ebsen was the star of the show featuring a family relocated from the Ozarks to Hollywood.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Buddy Ebsen (center) with Gregory Peck and Broderick Crawford in Night People, 1954. 20th Century Fox
Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Nancy Kulp, who played Miss Jane Hathaway on the program, had a long-running feud with Buddy Ebsen. Wikimedia

One of his costars, though in a relatively minor role, was Nancy Kulp, portraying Miss Jane Hathaway, a spinster secretary to the banker who controlled Jed’s millions, and one of the few sane characters in the series. Kulp also brought an impressive resume to the show, though she did not have the star power of Ebsen, who had been the original Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz before an allergic reaction to makeup hospitalized him and forced his withdrawal from the production. Despite both being seasoned professionals, they soon created a disruptive atmosphere on the set. Noticed by other members of the cast, who avoided their ever-increasing arguments, their disagreements led to a lifelong enmity, fueled by opposite political beliefs during the turbulent 1960s.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Cast photo of the Clampett clan, with Miss Jane and banker Mr. Drysdale, early 1960s. CBS Television

The Kulp-Ebsen feud far outlived the television show during which it began

Both Nancy Kulp and Buddy Ebsen served with the US Navy during World War II, she as a line officer with the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES); he as a commissioned Coast Guard officer aboard the Navy frigate USS Pocatello. Their mutual sea service did not ingratiate them with each other. Ebsen was a right-wing conservative with strong anti-communist sympathies, deploring all liberals as communist sympathizers. She, a liberal, viewed some right-wing activities as anti-American, such as the Motion Picture Association of America and its allied House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Ebsen and Kulp frequently discussed politics between filming on the show, and the result was backstage fireworks including name calling, threats to quit, and other disruptions, noted by other cast members.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett, head of the clan and oil millionaire. CBS Television

Years after the successful program was canceled, part of a purge of rural shows by CBS in 1971, Nancy Kulp ran for Congress in her native Pennsylvania. Buddy Ebsen, who had never lived in Pennsylvania and at the time (1984) maintained his home in California campaigned against her via radio advertisements, informing Keystone State voters that Nancy was “too liberal for me”. She lost, and though she did not blame her defeat entirely on Ebsen, she did remark that his efforts were personal rather than purely political. The Beverly Hillbillies remains a popular series in reruns on nostalgia networks, with fans enamored of the shrewd but illiterate Jed, the animal loving but coy Elly May, (…”fellas can be more fun than critters”), the relentlessly stupid Jethro, and the rest of the out of place hillbillies and their California friends.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
A publicity shot of The Monkees, poised on the cusp of fame in 1966. NBC Television

The Monkees brought both professional and personal differences to the set

When four young men answered an advertisement announcing “Running parts for 4 insane boys, 17 – 21″ in trades magazines in September, 1965 they could not have known that records they would jointly create under the name The Monkees would still be in demand over fifty years later. But they are. The Monkees was conceived as a television program about a fictional band and their daily hijinks, a blatant copying of The Beatles’ success in the films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! What ensued was a band which transcended the television program. The show lasted two seasons. The band it created continued to make music into the 21st century, tour to sell-out shows of appreciative fans, and sell over 75 million records. But the path was far from smooth, with drama over the ability of the musicians, who were hired as actors, to play their own instruments.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Publicity shot for their second album, More of the Monkees, from 1967. Billboard
Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
By the time of this 1969 photo the group was on the verge of breaking up. NBC Television

Music oriented media sneered over the band, calling them the Pre-fab Four, a degrading comparison to The Beatles nickname of the Fab Four. Differences on the set of their program focused on producers and writers, with several of the band members threatening to quit at different times. Michael Nesmith and Peter Tork were both accomplished musicians, and Davy Jones, the band’s teen heartthrob aimed at pre-pubescent girls, had achieved stardom on Broadway prior to joining The Monkees. In one argument over the music to be heard during the show, Nesmith put his fist through a wall. Officially, the band succumbed to the outside pressures, breaking up in 1970, but by the mid-1980s they responded to the demands of classic radio and began working together again in the recording studio. Reruns of their show brought them a new audience, added to the earlier one never really lost.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Peter Tork and Mike Nesmith had a long history of mutual dislike. NBC Television

The Monkees set was often divisive and disruptive

Several conflicts affected The Monkees during the recording of both their show and their music. Both Peter Tork and Michael Nesmith had some training as musicians. But they also shared a mutual dislike for one another. Years after the show was canceled, Nesmith told an interviewer, “I didn’t like Peter and Peter didn’t like me”. He elaborated that his comments referred to musical tastes and direction more than personal feelings, but the two communicated little beyond the lines of the scripts on their show. After the show was canceled Tork was the first to leave the band. Nesmith followed. Eventually both returned, only to leave again, a pattern which continued through the 1980s and 1990s. The success of the television show led its producers to push the group into live performances, which increased their confidence as a band as well as tensions with the producers of the show.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
The Monkees, sans Peter, perform on The Joey Bishop Show in 1969. Wikimedia

The Monkees used their improving musicianship and growing fan base to flex their creative muscles with the television producers, and the tensions on the set mounted. By the end of the 1967-68 season all four band members, the producers, and the network were heartily sick of the show, and polls showed records on radio drew a larger audience than the band on television. The program was canceled. Like many 1960s programs, it is a popular entry on nostalgia television today, though the number of episodes available for broadcast are limited. With the death of Michael Nesmith in December, 2021, only Mickey Dolenz remains from the group as of August, 2022 (Tork died in 2019, Davy Jones in 2012). Their music has survived internal bickering, critical disdain, and shifting tastes to remain popular to this day.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
The cast of Saturday Night Live circa 1977-78. Pinterest

NBC’s Saturday Night has had no shortage of bickering backstage over the years

Although its format has remained unchanged for decades, the comedy program which originated as NBC’s Saturday Night in the fall of 1975 has in some ways been several different shows over the years. Following political, social, and cultural trends, as well as numerous changes to casts and writers ensured it would undergo dramatic changes. At times the show was near cancellation. At other times it has been a cutting-edge presentation of satire and national discourse. Many times over the course of its existence there have been tensions on the set, resulting from differences between cast members, guest hosts, musical guests, producers, critics, and performers no longer with the show. Its longevity is remarkable, being that it began with a cast of unknowns, to considerable controversy, at a formerly unenviable time slot. It didn’t just attract viewers already watching at 11.30 PM Eastern time, it drew in a new audience.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Chevy Chase with former President Gerald Ford, whom Chase frequently parodied. Wikimedia

It did so with controversy, irreverence, and an open contempt for NBC’s censors. To say the original cast had a chip on its shoulder is an understatement. That same arrogance led to innumerable conflicts on set. On of the earliest was a disagreement which degenerated into a full-blown fist fight between Chevy Chase, an original member of the cast, and Bill Murray. Chase had been the breakout star of the show during the first season (1975) and left for what he hoped would be greener pastures in 1977. Murray joined the main cast in 1976, after being an occasional performer during the first year. By 1978 he was one of the cast’s leading lights. That year Chase returned as a guest host for one episode, and personal tensions between Murray and Chase were soon apparent to the other members of the cast, who obviously knew both performers well.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Bill Murray as the lounge singer, a breakout role for him on Saturday Night Live. Pinterest.

There was mutual resentment on the set of the show, now named Saturday Night Live

When Chevy Chase returned to host Saturday Night Live he showed up with what his former castmates perceived as a chip on his shoulder. He demanded a return to the Weekend Update news desk, which he had routinely occupied during his tenure on the show. He also castigated writers, criticized other members of the cast, and argued frequently with Chase. During rehearsals in the week leading up to the show, Murray and Chase exchanged numerous barbs. In one Chase described Murray, to his famously pock-marked face, that he looked as if Neil Armstrong could use it for a landing site (Armstrong had by then landed on the moon among its many craters). Murray had already uttered a salty comment regarding Chase’s wife, with whom the comedian was then experiencing marital difficulties. Heavy drug use among the performers exacerbated the tensions throughout the week.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Chevy Chase hosting Weekend Update on NBC Saturday Night. NBC Television

Finally, minutes before the live program was to begin with a Chase monologue, he confronted Murray in John Belushi’s dressing room. The fist fight was brief, though punches were landed by both. Most of them landed on Belushi, who jumped to separate the two, quickly assisted by other cast and crew. Among them was Murray’s brother, Brian Doyle-Murray. Fellow cast member Laraine Newman later called the scuffle, “…very sad and painful and awful”. Chase left field of conflict to start the week’s program before an audience clueless as to what had just occurred. Years later both combatants acknowledged their roles in the altercation and claimed that although they are not close (Murray is famously reclusively) they are on friendly terms, befitting two stars of Caddyshack.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Steven Seagal antagonized the cast to the point he was banned from future appearances on SNL. NBC Television

Tensions with Steven Seagal led to him being banned from the show

Over the more than fifty years Saturday Night Live has been on the air, more than one guest host has proven to be a flop. But none exceeded the program hosted by Steven Seagal. The week which preceded the show was so fraught with tension between cast, writers, and host, the crew considered cancelling the Under Siege star and presenting that week’s program without a host at all. Seagal alienated writers, cast members, crew, and others involved with the production, refusing to perform in sketches in which he was the subject of humor. Instead, he suggested sketches which typically had him disposing of the performers onstage with him by throwing them across tables, through office machinery, out windows, and into each other. The live broadcast of April 20, 1991, has never been repeated in full, blocked by SNL staff and producers.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Seagal is one of several performers banned from appearing on Saturday Night Live. NBC Television

“The biggest problem with Steven Seagal was that he would complain about jokes he didn’t get”, Tim Meadows later commented. “he just wasn’t funny…” What was worse for the rest of the performers was that Seagal was abrasive, insulting to writers, and critical of performers. The week’s tensions led to a show so bad that Rolling Stone expressed surprise the host didn’t quit in mid-show. Seagal was banned from ever appearing on the show again, a list which is not undistinguished. He shares the distinction with Chevy Chase, Elvis Costello, Sinead O’Connor, Frank Zappa, and several others. Nor was he the only guest host to create a tense atmosphere for the cast and crew of the show, which over the years has dealt with scores of them, magnified by the show being broadcast live.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
The cast of Growing Pains divided over Kirk Cameron’s changed religious views. Yes, that is Leonardo DiCaprio on the left. Warner Brothers

Kirk Cameron introduced considerable tension on the set of Growing Pains

The situation comedy Growing Pains debuted in 1985 and became a hit, with a young Kirk Cameron emerging as a breakout character, Mike Seaver. Cameron was a 14-year veteran of sitcoms and commercials, though a relative unknown to the general public. During the program’s early years he became a teen idol, appearing in the venerable magazines, Tiger Beat, 16, Teen Beat, and others of a similar vein. Cameron later professed to have been an atheist when his fame began, a position he only adopted after having become a self-described “born again” Christian. Following his conversion his newly-found religious beliefs led to changes on the set of the hit program, and tensions with his fellow performers and producers. He rejected scripts, storylines, and eventually the identification of “born again”, preferring to describe himself as having found God.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
The cast of Growing Pains during the days of its greatest success. ABC Television

Cameron slowly withdrew from the show and personal relations with the cast, which had once been close. “Kirk went through a slow-withdrawal – a fade to black”, fellow actor Alan Thicke later said. Kirk insisted on changes to scripts and even personnel, refusing to involve himself in anything which did not line up with his fundamentalist beliefs. That his decisions affected the careers of his fellow cast members was immaterial to him, and the strain on the set was noticed by all. In 1991 Cameron, in a telephone call to the President of ABC Entertainment Robert Iger, referred to producers Dan Guntzelman, Steve Marshal, and Mike Sullivan as little more than pornographers. All three resigned. The following year the floundering once hit program was canceled. Cameron went on to a career as an evangelist and maker of Christian themed entertainment.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Joan Rivers on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in April, 1986. Biography

Johnny Carson banished Joan Rivers from his show, refusing to even utter her name

By the mid-1970s Johnny Carson was the undisputed King of late-night television, a man who made careers simply by inviting performers to sit for a few minutes for an interview. Carson inherited The Tonight Show from Jack Paar, who created much of the program’s format. When Paar had comedienne Joan Rivers as a guest one evening, Rivers was a flop. Consequently it was several years before Carson, who took over The Tonight Show in 1962, had Rivers as a guest. That 1965 appearance was considerably more successful. Carson opined that Rivers would be a big star, and she went on to nearly 100 appearances on The Tonight Show over the years. By the early 1980s she was the regular guest host for the often absent Carson, and there was talk of her taking over the reins of the program when Johnny retired.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Betty White is interviewed by Joan Rivers as guest host prior to her banishment. NBC Television

Several guests of The Tonight Show also had their own talk shows over the years, including Joey Bishop, Oprah Winfrey, Merv Griffin, and others, without retaliation from Johnny Carson. But when in 1986 Joan Rivers signed to host a late night program on Fox, a situation Carson learned of through industry insiders, he was furious. Allegedly his rage was directed at Rivers for not telling him. Rivers was instantly and permanently banned from appearing on his program, reruns of her as host were removed from broadcast schedules, and he refused to allow her name to be spoken within his hearing. Word went out that anyone who appeared on Joan Rivers’ Late Show would never again grace Carson’s stage. When Carson retired in 1992 his successor, Jay Leno, continued to ban Rivers from The Tonight Show, supposedly as a demonstration of loyalty to Carson.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd in a publicity shot for Moonlighting, 1985. ABC Television

Moonlighting was stricken with classic Hollywood star ego clashes

When Moonlighting appeared first hit the airwaves one of its stars, Bruce Willis, was a virtual unknown. Another, Cybill Shepherd, was a famed supermodel, actress, and celebrity. At first, their off-screen relationship was cordial and professional. It deteriorated rapidly. With the success of the show, Willis became a star, and as his fame grew his ego grew with it. Squabbles on the set between the stars of the show grew with each succeeding season. Some were over creative differences, others were petty ego clashes. Willis demanded a dressing room equal in size to that of his costar. Shepherd developed the reputation of a classic Hollywood diva, threatening to fire anyone involved in the production who dared to tell her no about anything. After just the second season of the show, Shepherd frequently used the “my way or I quit” ruse, getting her way time after time.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Bruce Willis went from an unknown actor to a major star, taking his ego and demands along for the ride. Pinterest

By the end of that season the creator of the successful program, Glenn Caron, was the target of her wrath, and he left the program rather than suffer the ignominy of dismissal. Rumors of an off-camera intimate relationship gone wrong swirled on the set and in the tabloids, never confirmed by either star. Filming incidents increased in intensity, growing from arguments to objects flying across the set propelled by one star in the direction of the other. The program lasted five years in first-runs, ending in 1989, and by the end of the production Willis and Shepherd weren’t speaking to each other, on-set or off, except where their scripts required them to do so. In 2005 Cybill Shepherd told an interviewer, “…it had gotten to where we just hated each other.” Both actors have had stressful relationships with fellow performers during other productions throughout their careers.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Problems on the set of That 70’s Show grew over time. Foxs

That 70’s Show set had its share of squabbles among its stars.

That 70’s Show brought together a cast of unknowns to portray suburban teenagers in a glossing over of the 70s in a manner similar to that of the cast of Happy Days representing an earlier decade. When producers assembled the cast of the show one, Topher Grace, was either led to believe or assumed that he was to be the star of the show. First year scripts did focus more on his character and his relationships with school, friends, and family. As other members of the cast began to emerge as stars, some even more so than Topher, his resentment became evident. Grace distanced himself from the off-screen camaraderie displayed by the other male stars of the series, not taking part in the marathon card games and clubbing forays the others enjoyed. Other problems developed during the series eight-year run, and still others emerged after the show was canceled.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
Mila Kunis was just 14 years old, having told producers she was 18, when the show began taping. Fox

Mila Kunis lied about her age to gain a spot on the cast, discovered by the show’s producers too late to cease production and hire a replacement. Lisa Robin Kelly suffered from a miscarriage and subsequent substance abuse issues, even as the show continued to make drug use a major aspect of its background. Danny Masterson was eventually charged with rapes occurring during his time on the program. Tommy Chong, then a regular on the series, faced nine months in jail for his involvement in the sale of drug paraphernalia. Wilder Valderrama appeared on Howard Stern to brag about his personal conquests with Hollywood stars, and rank their performances in the bedroom. When the program filmed its finale, Topher Grace agreed to return in a brief cameo. He filmed his appearance and left without sharing in the farewells between the rest of the cast.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
There was nothing quite like Mad Men when it first appeared on AMC. AMC

Mad Men had a rift over, of all things, advertising

Mad Men broke new ground for television with its depiction of 1960s Madison Avenue advertising executives and their relationships with coworkers, clients, and family. The program was controversial throughout its run. One reason for the controversy was its depiction of antisemitism in American business and society. Another was the influence of big business, such as the tobacco industry and its domination of television advertising. The program made Jon Hamm a star. It also generated considerable controversy over its depictions of alcohol and tobacco use, explicit harassment in the workplace, stereotyping, and glorification of all of the above. It also depicted the influence of advertising on the everyday lives and habits, and how that influence could be extreme.

Petty Drama on the Sets of People’s Favorite Nostalgic TV Shows
The cast of Mad Men opposed trimming the show’s length in order for AMC to sell more advertising. AMC

After its extremely successful first four seasons, which aired on AMC, Mad Men devolved into a controversy between its producers and stars and the network which had made it a success. The bone of contention was two minutes per episode. AMC wanted each episode shortened by that amount of time, in order that it could sell more advertising while airing its popular show. The action also reduced the cast budget per episode, which the cast opposed. Selling advertising to support a show about advertising was to them unthinkable if it had an adverse effect on their income. Fans were unhappy about the show’s delayed production, flooding social media with their complaints. Mad Men returned in 2012 following a negotiated settlement, with real advertising continuing to support fictional advertising for another three seasons.

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“Moonlighting Cast Reveal On-Set Secrets: ‘Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis Were Very Unhappy'”. Article, Closer Weekly. Online

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