It Was Television At Its Best In 1974, TV Fans Had it All
Oh, what Happy Days they were. Such Good Times we had.
Welcome back to TV in the banner year of 1974, when comedy was king — and queen. As the year began, one night in particular offered a classic lineup that we still talk about a half-century later. Strange to think that Saturday night (now a network wasteland) was once a showcase for TV’s hottest, most sophisticated and sometimes controversial comedies, all on CBS: All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show — each a contender for that year’s Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series (M*A*S*H would win) — The Bob Newhart Show and, setting the gold standard for sketch and musical comedy, The Carol Burnett Show.
Life imitated art on 1974’s top-rated show, All in the Family, when Archie Bunker’s union went on strike at the start of Season 5 — and shortly thereafter, Carroll O’Connor (Archie himself) sat out a few episodes because of a contract dispute. He soon returned, though, only for Archie to have a near-death experience. (Writers’ revenge?)
Things were as stable as war would allow on the irreverent M*A*S*H, with a taste of things to come in September’s Season 3 opener when Harry Morgan guested as a wacky general. (He would join the cast in 1975, following the departure of McLean Stevenson’s Henry Blake, now recast as the lovably gruff Col. Sherman Potter.)
A Different Spin
Success begat a new trend of spinoffs, including on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which had become such a beloved institution that the CBS network’s own news sage Walter Cronkite paid a visit to little old WJM in Minneapolis that year. But it was time to say farewell to Mary’s best friend Rhoda Morgenstern, a role that had won Valerie Harper three Emmys when she sought a spotlight of her own, moving back to her roots in New York. Rhoda launched in September and was an instant hit.
As was Good Times, a spinoff of another successful spinoff, starring Esther Rolle as Florida Evans, the no-nonsense former housekeeper on Maude (spun off from All in the Family with Bea Arthur as Edith Bunker’s ultra-liberal cousin). Producer Norman Lear’s latest groundbreaking comedy was notable for its realistic setting, depicting Black family life in a two-parent household struggling to make ends meet in inner-city Chicago’s public housing. But Rolle and her veteran costar John Amos (as husband James) would soon become dismayed when Jimmie Walker, as their clownish son J.J., became the show’s breakout character with his catchphrase “Dy-No-Mite!” rendering the show’s title less ironic than originally intended.
Lear had earlier scored a hit on rival network NBC with Sanford and Son, and Redd Foxx’s cantankerous junkyard owner Fred Sanford was proving to be every bit as popular a fool as Archie Bunker with his ridiculously bigoted bluster. In 1974, Sanford finally found a compatible companion piece on Fridays with the introduction of Chico and the Man, starring the blazing young comic talent Freddie Prinze (gone too soon to suicide in 1977) as Chico, who earns the trust and friendship of cranky widower Ed (Jack Albertson) in an East L.A. garage.
TV was making significant strides in diversity and relevance in the 1970s, but ABC found its comic sweet spot in 1974 with nostalgia. Happy Days, born out of a vignette on Love, American Style, turned back (and rocked) the clock several decades to the 1950s. This American Graffiti-inspired charmer suggested that maybe the kids weren’t quite so innocent as they once appeared on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It to Beaver. This was especially true once Henry Winkler stole every scene as leather-jacketed Brando wannabe Arthur “Fonzie” Fonzarelli, who talked tough but had a soft spot for a square like Ron Howard’s Richie Cunningham and his friends.
Prairie Home Companions
Yearning for an even simpler and much more distant time, fueled by the continued success of Depression-era family heart-warmer The Waltons, NBC’s Little House on the Prairie became a frontier sensation, bringing Michael Landon back to TV a little more than a year since the demise of Bonanza. (The traditional TV Western was on its way out, with the genre’s last long-running remnant, Gunsmoke, in its final seasons.)
The former Little Joe Cartwright was now Charles “Pa” Ingalls, father to Laura (Melissa Gilbert), Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) and little Carrie (Lindsay and Sidney Greenbush) as he and wife Caroline (Karen Grassle) lovingly raised a family on a Minnesota farm. For the next nine seasons, America would watch “Half Pint” Laura grow up, marry and have her own daughter, Rose.
PBS’ Masterpiece Theatre also scored with period drama, albeit with a British accent, in one of the franchise’s biggest hits, Upstairs Downstairs, following the intrigues of an aristocratic British family and their colorful servants in Edwardian London. The show received the first of three Emmys for Outstanding Drama Series in 1974, “an upset winner” according to Variety. (In 2010, BBC attempted a revival, but it was upstaged by the great success of the similarly themed Downton Abbey.)
Hot On The Case
Contemporary TV drama in this era featured its share of doctors, most memorably Robert Young as Marcus Welby, M.D., but primetime was dominated by police and crime stories, with Telly Savalas winning a 1974 Emmy as the intimidating, lollipop-loving Kojak. Fans also happily spun the “Mystery Movie” wheel, alternating between Peter Falk’s quietly cunning Columbo, Dennis Weaver’s fish-out-of-urban-water McCloud, and Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James as the more lighthearted McMillan & Wife.
The case-of-the-week format created new opportunities for veteran TV stars Buddy Ebsen (Barnaby Jones), William Conrad (Cannon) and Raymond Burr (Ironside), and Angie Dickinson’s Pepper Anderson was one sexy undercover Police Woman. Still, it was former Maverick James Garner who made the most lasting impression in the fall of 1974 when private eye Jim Rockford drove his way into TV legend in a Pontiac Firebird. The Rockford Files blended action, comedy and heart with a wit and style rarely matched before or since. Rockford was no superhero, working out of a house trailer and often taking a licking on behalf of his underdog clients. Thankfully, one thing they could never beat out of him was his sense of humor.