Streaks on the china, never mattered before, who cared?
When you drop kicked your jacket, as you came through the door, no one glared,
But sometimes things get turned around and no one’s spared,
All hands look out below, there’s a change in the status quo,
We’re gonna need all the help that we can get,
According to our new arrival, life is more than mere survival,
We just might live the good life yet*
Had television executives Frank Dungan and Jeff Stein decided not to name their popular ‘80s sitcom after the series’ lovable titular character, The Good Life, as the lyrics to the Leon Redbone-sang theme suggest, would have been a suitable substitute.
“I’m grateful for every minute that I experienced on the show as an actor and as a human being,” beamed Ilene Graff in a recent chat with Royal Flush, who played career-minded matriarch Marsha on ABC’s long-running Mr. Belvedere. “It was wonderful to go to work every day and be with my other family.”
Originally created as a vehicle for Bob Uecker, an ex-Major League Baseball player and well-known sportscaster known for his self-deprecating humor and amusing Miller Lite beer commercials, Mr. Belvedere premiered in 1985 as a mid-season replacement with a commitment of only seven episodes. At the conclusion of its maiden run, the fate of the show was very much uncertain. But thanks to respectable ratings and a fervent fan base, a more comfortable 22-episode second season was eventually ordered.
As Rob Stone, who portrayed oldest child Kevin, recalled, the program was not an immediate hit. “It took time but we became more of a people’s show than a critic favorite,” said the actor-turned-documentary-filmmaker. “Once we started getting full-season pickups in the second and third years, we got more attention, and then we saw the growing response from viewers. We had to earn it.”
The show’s premise was simple, yet effective. Based on the Lynn Aloysius Belvedere character created by novelist Gwen Davenport (Belvedere) in 1947 before being adapted into a feature film (Sitting Pretty) starring Robert Young and Maureen O’Hara the following year, the television version centered around British theater veteran Christopher Hewett in the show’s namesake role as an upper crust butler struggling to acclimate to working for the middle-class Owens family in the suburbs of Pennsylvania.
Hewett, who passed away from complications of diabetes in 2001, only had sporadic small screen appearances before landing the sitcom’s lead, with his most notable prior television gig being that of Herve Villechaize’s replacement on the whimsical drama series Fantasy Island. But he excelled in the role and proved to be the perfect foil for both Uecker’s bumbling George, the family patriarch, as well as youngest child Wesley, the precocious, yet mischievous, source of Belvedere’s plight throughout much of the comedy’s course. But while the on-screen relationship between the butler and his young charge was humorously rocky, off-screen, the two were quite close.
“Chris was really great. Even though he came from the stage and had that theater background, I never felt like he resented having to work with a kid in this environment,” said Brice Beckham, who was nine when he landed the role of Wesley. “We got along terrifically.”
Graff, who had previously worked with Hewett in a New Jersey regional theater production of the musical Over Here! in 1976, echoed Beckham’s sentiments. “I saw him at the network audition and we talked about how wonderful it would be if we got to work together again and could hang out – and we did! What a master of his craft. He was a real actor’s actor.”
Tracy Wells played middle child Heather, an intelligent, attractive, and largely typical boy crazy teenager, attempting to weather the constant hijinks of the Owens clan. Having nothing but fond memories of the beloved television butler, she also noted that as kind as Hewett, a devout Catholic, was – known for his habit of doling out Saint Christopher medals and always making time to converse with fans – his penchant for being strict on set was legendary. “He definitely had rules,” Wells (now Tofte) remembered. “You couldn’t cross your legs when you were in his dressing room and you couldn’t chew gum around him. The leg crossing had something to do with being bad luck and he just could not stand gum chewing,” she laughed.
While situational comedies are generally not known for their earnest story arcs, the Owens’ certainly had their share, from “The Contract,” dealing with Kevin’s alcohol problem, to “Pills,” which saw Heather experiment with weight-loss drugs, to “Wesley’s Friend,” in which a classmate of his contracts HIV, to “Kevin’s Older Woman,” about losing one’s virginity, to “The Counselor,” which tackled one of the most delicate issues in the show’s history, Wesley’s sexual abuse by an adult. Mr. Belvedere was in many ways a trailblazer of plots concerning controversial social matters, or “very special episodes,” a term that’s usually sneered at nowadays, but was lauded decades ago during the expression’s peak in the ‘80s.
Another aspect of sitcoms that’s often lacking is profoundly written characters. Whereas hour-long dramas tend to have the freedom to give depth to its central players, 30-minute sitcoms are frequently at the mercy of time constraints and lighter subject matter. But to its credit, there were layers to the characters that evolved throughout their years on the show.
Marsha, for example, started out as a stay-at-home mother but eventually obtained her law degree. “Looking back, I wouldn’t change anything about her,” Graff opined. “They realized she wouldn’t be happy being home all the time and got her into law school. She was treated with respect.”
Heather, while interested in clothes, music, and boys, like any female teenager would be, had firm convictions and wasn’t afraid to speak her mind, in contrast to her friend Angela, brilliantly played by Michele Matheson, whose hilarious constant mispronouncing of Belvedere’s name was one of the show’s best remembered gags (Mr. Bell Pepper, Mr. Butterfinger, Mr. Bumper Sticker, etc.). “They wrote Heather with a strong mind, she was willful, and they let her have her own thoughts,” Wells pointed out.
Even set-in-his-ways George, who felt Belvedere was too proper in the program’s infancy, soon warmed up to him, while Wesley, who went as far as nearly getting Belvedere deported in a meaty episode during the third season, ultimately came to realize the error of his ways and that the family employee was actually his best friend and, consequently, that the two had a mutual love for one another.
As all good things eventually come to an end, Mr. Belvedere was no exception. After getting bumped from its familiar TGIF Friday night timeslot and being moved to Saturdays, its sixth season became its last, as the shift caused a steep ratings decline and the esteemed family situational comedy aired its two-part series finale in the summer of 1990, wrapping up with Belvedere getting married and moving to Africa with his new bride.
The cancellation, naturally, initially caused sadness among the actors.
“My mom passed away from cancer while I was on the show,” Wells revealed. “It was so difficult for me and I was blessed to be surrounded by so many people, including the crew, who loved me and really helped me through it. I became attached to it.” Also challenging for Wells, as well as the majority of the cast, was getting new parts. But the lack of Hollywood opportunities turned out be a blessing in disguise for the talented teen. “I used to watch a lot of HGTV,” she recounted, “and I seemed to understand it and liked it and thought I could do what they did.” Wells went on to get her real estate license and is currently a successful realtor in Southern California, in addition to a mother of two bright, deliberately non-thespian, children (her daughter received her master’s degree in civil engineering and her son is studying astronautical engineering). “I quickly realized real estate has absolutely nothing to do with what’s on HGTV,” she joked, “but it’s my passion and I love it.”
Stone, who always had an interest in writing and directing, was smart enough to spend much of his downtime on the set absorbing whatever he could from the behind-the-scenes crew, frequently sitting in the control booth witnessing firsthand what it took to put the show together. “I had already started doing documentaries when the show ended,” Stone described, “so I was excited to continue with that.” These days, Stone’s Vienna Productions company enables him and his partners to create documentaries on such diverse topics as surveillance technology, extreme sports, photography, and even filmmaking itself. “I interviewed master directors like Quentin Tarantino, Sydney Pollack, Martin Scorsese, and Oliver Stone,” he enthused.
Graff, who’s been married to award-winning composer Ben Lanzarone for over 40 years, was well aware that the likelihood of joining another series comparable in quality to Mr. Belvedere was slim. “I knew lightning probably wasn’t going to strike twice,” she reasoned. “But I started out as a singer so I did that and still do. In fact, I’ve always thought of myself as a singer who got into acting.” A vocal workshop that she teaches with her husband as well as a prominent cabaret show that she performs in with gifted daughter Nikka, who followed her parents into show business, keeps the Queens, NY-bred actress quite busy.
Uecker, of course, is still doing play-by-play for the Milwaukee Brewers, as he has since 1971, a remarkable accomplishment for the spry octogenarian. And despite baseball’s COVID-19-caused temporary hiatus, he’s given no indication of slowing down anytime soon.
As the youngest member of the ensemble cast, Beckham found himself in arguably the toughest position. Barely a teenager when the show concluded, he took a path similar to Stone, and found himself behind the camera as well, writing, editing, and even dabbling in graphic design. In an industry that routinely sees child actors struggle with post-acting life, Beckham credits his good fortune to his family. “My parents didn’t expose me to anything that they thought might put me on a bad path. I didn’t go to wild teen parties before I was actually able to drive myself there and back. And I had my aunt as my on-set guardian for most of the show’s run,” he explained. “I had a pretty normal childhood.”
Devoted fans will recall the manner in which each carefully crafted episode ended – with Belvedere writing in his journal, describing the events that viewers just witnessed, as Hewett narrated. A lesson was undoubtedly learned that would be shared with the audience. It was a sweet, clever, technique that was imitated in other shows, perhaps most notably on Doogie Howser, M.D., as Neil Patrick Harris’ character instead typed his daily thoughts in his computerized diary.
And while Mr. Belvedere certainly managed to deliver a lesson or two in its six-year journey, what stood out most was the trajectory of its approach – an unassuming story of love and laughter, otherwise known as the good life.
*“According to Our New Arrival” written by Judy Hart-Angelo and Gary Portnoy
The cast of Mr. Belvedere recently held a Zoom reunion, reminiscing about the show, taking questions from fans, and raising money for The Actors Fund, a nonprofit organization founded in 1882 that aids entertainment professionals facing various hardships.
To learn more about The Actors Fund, click here.
To learn more about Ilene Graff, including her cabaret shows and workshops, click here.
To learn more about Rob Stone and Vienna Productions, click here.
To learn more about Tracy Tofte Real Estate, click here.
To learn more about Brice Beckham and Drama 3/4 Productions, click here.