So my new thing is watching old television series in their entirety. No, I don't have that kind of time, but when it gets too stormy to run in hilly Derry, I get on the stationery bike and watch these shows. Thus far, over the past few years, I've watched all of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW, THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, I LOVE LUCY (except the hour-long Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour shows), F-TROOP (yes, F Troop), THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (Bilko, You'll Never Get Rich, whatever you choose to call it) and...drum roll, please, AMOS N' ANDY.
So let me get that one out of the way immediately, because I know it's by far the most controversial on the list and I know I ought to be ashamed of myself for enjoying it as much as I did.
But I did.
Hounded immediately by the NAACP upon its 1951 debut, the series echoed the wildly successful radio series of the same name written and performed by the characters' creators, Freeman Gosden ('Amos') and Charles Correll ('Andy'). Initially, Gosden and Correll were going to provide the voices for newly-cast African American actors in the TV series, but eventually sanity prevailed and the actors were allowed to speak their own dialogue. Thank God.
Controversy swirled and the series was cancelled after 78 episodes. It re-appeared in syndication for a while, but then protests re-emerged and, again, it went away. The series has never found its way to legitimate videotape or DVD distribution, but bootleg DVDs of 72 of the 78 episodes can be located if you look for them. I did look. And I found them.
And here's what I found:
I laughed. A lot. Just as I laugh at any well-written, well-performed situation comedy. The plot line rarely varied, but the plot line of Kingfish getting himself in a mess of trouble, involving his friend Andy to make things worse, and Amos helping them both to see the light at the end, provided a platform for good comedy throughout the episodes I saw. Add a whiny wife and ball-busting mother-in-law for the Kingfish (who oversaw the worthless activities of the Mystic Knights of the Sea lodge), and you have the basis for hours of hearty laughter.
So the writing was good. If I am correct, the show was written often by the team who eventually ended up writing LEAVE IT TO BEAVER, which was ALSO a very well-written show, regardless of how much abuse Barbara Billingsley has taken over the years for wearing high heels in the kitchen.
But I save my wildest accolades for the actors. These actors who deserve far, far, far more recognition for what they brought to early TV than they have received.
Tim Moore, who played the conniving, bombastic Kingfish, was a master of working the camera for comic effect. Spencer Williams, who I believe went on to be a film director after the series, played Andy's blissful ignorance blissfully. (No, NAACP, Andy wasn't stupid because he was black, he was stupid because he was STUPID. List the stupid white sitcom characters in your head and stop when you get to 100. There'll still be more.) Alvin Childress was the sane and intelligent Amos, whose performance in the Christmas episode is sweet, charming and memorable. The ladies--Ernestine Wade and Amanda Randolph (her sister, Lillian, was the maid in WONDERFUL LIFE) are perfectly cast foils for Moore, and exude honesty and professionalism in every scene they play. The closest thing to a negative stereotype is the character of Lightnin', played by Nick Stewart (who also billed himself sometimes as Nick O'Demus--whatever). There's no getting around the fact that the writers used this lazy character to get laughs from his slowness, and they would never get away with that today. Maybe they shouldn't have gotten away with that back then, either. But they did. Until the show was cancelled. So maybe they didn't.
Finally, though, I want to throw my Red Sox cap in the air for an actor named Johnny Lee, who played the ambulance chasing lawyer Algonquin J. Calhoun. The commitment this actor made to bringing the comic writing and his character to life is epic in this series. I'm not sure what else this man did in show business after this series (although he earlier did voice one of the lead characters in another no-longer-available piece of material, Disney's SONG OF THE SOUTH), but he electrifies the screen every time he appears in this series. I didn't know who the hell he was, and I should have. He is that good.
So...sue me. I liked the AMOS AND ANDY television series, and I do wish the actors from the show were more fondly remembered.