Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ted Bessell: "That Guy" on "That Girl"

It's been a little over a decade since Ted Bessell passed away. On that day, October 5, 1996, the entertainment industry - and the world - lost to a heart attack a beloved and talented human being.

The versatile actor, producer and director was best known as the fictional Newsview newsmagazine writer and boyfriend Don Hollinger to Marlo Thomas' Ann Marie on TV's classic That Girl sitcom (ABC, 1966-1971), which is now available on DVD. But he's also forever remembered as just a great guy.

Shortly before Bessell died, That Girl was scheduled to be honored with an all-star tribute in Los Angeles at the Museum of Television and Radio on October 11, 1996. Instead, the remaining cast and crew from the show, including Bernie (The Love Boat) Kopell (who played Don's best friend and co-worker Jerry Bauman), mourned the loss of their friend whom they affectionately referred to as Teddy.

Bessell (believed to be 61 when he died), was accessible, such that he was unaffected by his celebrity, and came to grips with his Hollinger persona - by which he first felt stereotyped (but which would later bring him sentimental emminence). After That Girl folded, it was a challenge for him to win other roles and be at peace with the character. "Donald Hollinger made me a name but took away the heart of me," he said in 1989, when he labeled the part a creative "imposition."

Yet, with its original renewed interest and affection shown to That Girl on Nick and Nite and TV Land, Bessell began to realize his importance and endearing contribution to television's grand Hall of Fame.

I was scheduled to meet with Bessell with regard to his then-assignment as director of the Bewitched feature film, which at the time was being soley produced by Penny Marshall's Parkway Productions. The first time I telephoned Bessell's office, it was he who answered the phone. I explained who I was and, though he sounded extremely busy, he took the time to chat a little bit about Bewitched, and we set up a time to meet for lunch.

Unfortunately, our meeting never took place. For shortly after our conversation, he was gone.

However, the lingering impression of his complete lack of arrogance lingers on. And I remember thinking at the time, "Well, of course he's down to earth. Anyone who could have played so consoling, warm-hearted and supportive a character as Don Hollinger, with such credibility - would have to be as sincere in real life."

In fact, my fondest memory of Bessell rests with me first seeing his on-screen character's initial meeting with aspiring actress Ann Marie in That Girl's pilot. Thinking she was under assault (when she was actually filming a commercial in Hollinger's Newsview building), Don, with his brief case as a weapon, came along and slammed Ann in the head. After she explains the situation, and seeks to further generate an already-stressful situation, Don realizes his mistake and labels himself, "Captain Dumb Dumb."

The line was priceless, and Bessell's delivery of it was done with all the charm and likability that any one actor could muster. At that moment, Ann fell in love with Donald Hollinger, along with the rest of us.

As Marlo Thomas herself once noted, "Our show was called That Girl, but we all knew that guy was the success."

Had Ted Bessell lived, not only would the Bewitched feature film have taken quite a different turn, but the big-screen adaptation of That Girl - with Bessell and Thomas reprising their small-screen roles, would have become historic: It would have been the first time that a classic TV series would have transferred to the big screen with its original stars - in a sequel format.

And Bessell was very much looking forward to the movie. "I wanted to see happened to those characters," he told me. And though the original Girl sitcom completed its run with Don and Ann engaged to be wed, Bessell envisioned the couple finally exchanging vows. "They would have remained friends," he said. "And I think they would have gotten back together again. He probably would have married, and she might have done well as an actress."

Of the potential motion picture pairing of he and Thomas, Bessell relayed to TV Guide, "As long as we're still alive and kicking, I think it's a mistake not to do it."

Instead, it became a mistake that Bessell left us way too soon.

That Girl may still one day make it to the big screen. But, of course, it just won't be the same without Bessell's pairing with Thomas. And with regard to Bessell's involvement with the Bewitched feature film, his good friend Penny Marshall (a classic TV star in her own right, as one of the brilliant guiding lights of Laverne and Shirley), was devastated upon learning of his death. "He was a great force behind a lot of creative people," she said at the time.

Good souls usually are.


Anonymous said...

Oh, darn. You figured me out. But I find it especially fitting (and wonderful) that today's post is on my ABSOLUTE favorite male actor of all time! I'd marry him... if, well, you know.

I'm a blogger as well... check out and peek in at my life.

And Herbie? I will NEVER, NEVER, EVER forget that famous line: "Will you please pour it as I drink?"

THAT was a classic.

~ Kris

P.S. Thanks for the mention(s) in your book. I missed the second one till Tamara filled me in.

Rob Ray said...

Ted Bessell's contribution to the success of "That Girl" was overlooked for far too long.

I am currently revisiting "That Girl" on DVD after not having seen it since its days on ABC daytime and I'm struck by how good Ted Bessell was. Watching it as a youngster, the show to me was all about Marlo Thomas and Ted Bessell was just a foil for her. Now seeing as an adult, I see how manic Marlo was in the role and how Ted's interaction with her gave Ann Marie a warmth and soul that wouldn't have been there otherwise.

Ted Bessell was the heart of the show and the perfect foil for her hyperkinetic perkiness.

I just watched the episode early in season one in which they stop for a picnic en route to meeting her parents for the first time. It's priceless. In a way, it's a riff on the classic "Bringing Up Baby with Marlo doing a variant on Katharine Hepburn's Susan Vance and Ted calmly reacting a la Cary Grant as he's drenched in mud, falls in a stream, steps on a bee, has to drive with one contact lens due to the whirling dervish-like antics of That Girl. The entire episode was a tour de force for Ted Bessell.

Thanks, Herbie J, for remembering That Guy!

Herbie J Pilato said...

Oh, absolutely, indeed, Rob...that picnic episode is is TB in that segment...

One of my favorites!

And you're welcome.

"Teddy's" contributions were never fully appreciated...

Miss Willa Read said...

Just wanted to recount a story from one of my best birthdays ever...I was at Senor Pico's in SF and there at the next table were Marlo Thomas & Ted Bessell! I was 10 years old and it was my favorite show. They both came over to the table and Marlo gave me her autograph and Ted kissed me on the top of my head and wished me Happy Birthday. I was in a fog for days! What a sweet man!

Herbie J Pilato said...

Miss Willa Read - THAT is what "Hollywood" is "supposed" to be all about. You lived a dream come true, your good graces made it happen - and it doesn't surprise me at all that Marlo and Ted were as kind as they were to you. Thank you for sharing.