Today I am going to return to our earlier discussion of the Civil War on television, looking at the 1970s.
In the early 1970s western television shows started losing their popularity with the viewing public and were gone by the end of the decade. Consequently, the Civil War was seen less and less on television. In fact there were no Civil War based television series between 1967 and 1998.
On the other hand the 70s saw the rise in popularity of two new types of television programing, the “made-for television” movie and “mini-series,” of which the Civil War was often the theme.
One notable exception was The Beverly Hillbillies, The show first debuted in 1967 and was still going strong until CBS, who was more concerned about its image than ratings, cancelled it and several other country/southern themed TV shows including Green Acres and Hee Haw. Pat Buttram, “Mr. Haney” on Green Acres famously called it “the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it.” This purge also led to the end of TV westerns.
One of the show’s most popular characters was Daisy May Moses aka Granny who was Confederate to the core. She thought the South had won the Civil War, Sherman had retreated to the sea and that Jefferson Davis was still president. In one of my favorite episodes she mistook an actor playing Ulysses S. Grant for the real thing. After wounding him by shooting him in the back with Ellie May’s lady fingers, he was treated to Granny’s “medicine jug” (aka moonshine) which helps the two make peace. (A side of effect of the “treatment” is that the actor grows an aching beard overnight!)
The first true Civil War television production of the 1970s was They’ve Killed President Lincoln airing on NBC in 1971. Produced by documentary filmmaker Robert Guenette, this documentary, narrated by Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) told in a style that simulated what a documentary might have looked like in 1865, if the technology had existed. It also strongly suggested that U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton may have had a hand in Lincoln’s death.
Joseph L. Leisch, Jr. played Lincoln in a non-speaking role. A carpenter from Harper’s Ferry, W.V., Leisch was chosen for the part because of his strong physical resemblance to Lincoln.
Leisch reprised his role as Lincoln the next year in Appointment With Destiny-Surrender at Appomattox. This CBS documentary was done in a style similar to They’ve Killed President Lincoln. It was produced by David L. Woper who would do numerous Civil War related programs over the next decades. Hal Holbrook, who would become closely associated with Lincoln by the end of the decade, narrated the show.
Next was The Great Man’s Whiskers which aired on NBC in 1973. Dennis Weaver, best known for his work in Gunsmoke and McCloud played the sixteenth president in this made for TV movie based on the true story of eleven year old Grace Bedell who wrote a letter to Lincoln while he was running for president encouraging him to grow his now famous beard in order to improve his facial appearance. This family oriented film also starred Dean Jones, best known for his numerous appearances in live action Disney films such as The Love Bug.
NBC revisited Lincoln with the six part-six hour miniseries Sandberg’s Lincoln which aired in the fall and winter of 1974-1975. Produced by Woper and based on the Lincoln biographies written by Carl Sandburg, the series focused on Lincoln’s presidency, though one episode was devoted to Lincoln’s years as a prairie lawyer. Hal Holbrook gave what would be the first of numerous portrayals of Lincoln and won a well-earned Emmy Award for his acting in this series.
In 1977 ABC aired Roots based on the historical novel by Alex Haley, tracing the author’s ancestors from Africa to the Reconstruction era. The star-studded mini-series attracted 130 million viewers and was nominated for 37 Emmys, winning nine, including best mini-series. David L. Woper produced the series.
Perhaps more importantly, is what Roots did to American culture. The show led to renew interest in genealogy, especially in the African-American community. It also further popularized the mini-series as a means to adapt novels for the small screen. It also led to a surge of bawdy romance novels set on Southern plantations before and during the Civil War, often involving inter-racial romances, which at the time were all but taboo in some parts of the country.
However, Roots also generated a lot of controversy. Haley’s research methods and results were criticized by scholars, pointing out errors in his claims. These critics often point out that none of Haley’s “ancestors” were field hands and all were house servants. Consequently many Black historians and writers totally dismiss the book as a product of Haley’s imagination.
But the most serious controversy came from Harold Courlander’s 1978 lawsuit claiming that Haley had copied large portions of his novel The African. When the case came to trial, the evidence and testimony supported Courlander’s claim, leading Haley to settle with Courlander for $650,000 and a public statement admitting that he had plagiarized The African.
The success of Roots on TV led to a 1978 sequel Roots: The Next Generation, based on the seven last chapters of the book which were not adapted for TV in 1977, dealing Haley’s family from the Reconstruction era to modern times. Ten years later Roots: The Gift a two hour Christmas movie was made. Both aired on ABC and were produced by Woper.
Though not a Civil War related show, I must acknowledge CBS’ The Dukes of Hazzard which ran from 1979 until 1985 and featured the high flying The General Lee.
The General Lee was a 1968 or 1969 Dodge Charger painted orange with a Square Confederate Battleflag on the roof, and the number 01 in blue on its doors (which never opened.) and a horn that played the first few bars of Dixie. Estimates vary, but 256 to 321 cars were used in the series of which only an estimated 17, in varying degrees of condition, still exist. Clearly a reflection of the toil the series put on the car. For anyone interested, there is a decal kit that you can buy to make your car look like The General Lee.
For the kids, there were a couple of cartoon programs.
Hoot Kloot was a syndicated cartoon series produce in 1973 and 1974 by David H. DePatie and Friz Freling, the latter being the legendary Warner Bros. animator who worked on Bugs Bunny and a host of memorable cartoons and characters. Sadly, this was not one of them. Kloot was a dimwitted Sheriff with a strong Southern accent who rode a Confederate kepi wearing horse.
Kloot was based on a character created by Joe Higgins that first appeared in a popular series of Dodge commercials in 1969. (“Your’e in a heap of trouble boy!” was his popular tag line.) The ad campaign was so successful that Higgins successfully reprised the character for years in television programs and advertising for other products.
1975 saw U.S. of Archie on CBS. The premise of this history-based show, geared to take advantage of the upcoming U.S. Bicentennial, showed how the ancestors of the Archie gang (who looked, talked and acted like their descendants) interacted with famous Americans throughout history. The first episode Underground Railroad featured them working with Harriet Tubman.
This was the least successful Archie series, which had been a major powerhouse for CBS’ Saturday morning line-up in the late 1960s-early 1970s. At its peak, Archie and its spin-offs (The Groovie Ghoulies and Jose and the Pussy Cats) took up two and half hours of CBS’ Saturday morning programing and had spawn some prime-time specials. In 1969 The Archie’s gave America Sugar, Sugar the number one single of the year according to Billboard magazine. By the 1980s Archie would be off the air.
In our next segment we will look at the 1980s. (I know I said part two would include the 80s). Stay tune.