“Car 54 Where Are You?”

Late one night, I was channel surfing when I saw the “Car 54 Where Are You?” movie was coming on cable in about an hour. Having heard the horrible reviews about it, I was determined not to watch it. I am somewhat protective of the tv shows I like, and tend to be against any remakes from the start, because they almost always never do the original justice. Before heading off to bed, out of total curiousity, I quickly turned over to the movie. My main reason, in addition to the curiousity aspect, was to see Nipsey Russell and Al Lewis, both original cast members, the only ones in the film.

First off, I noticed David Johansen trying way too hard to talk like Joe E. Ross. If he was trying to embody the essence of the loveable and hilarious Gunther Toody, that was not the way to do it. He should have tried another tactic. He was in a scene with Rosie O’ Donnell, who was the bossy, fussy Lucille. She wasn’t too bad, but something was still missing. I did get to see Nipsey and Lewis, who reprised their roles as Anderson and Schnauser. Anderson, who was dispatcher in the series, was now Captain Anderson, while Schnauser was still good ‘ol Leo. I didn’t see his loudmouth wife Sylvia, though. When Leo was in the hospital after a mishap at his birthday party, he was lying in bed watching Grandpa Munster on “The Munsters”. I thought that was a tacky scene. However, the worst was yet to come. In the beginning, Toody was not partners with Francis Muldoon. I didn’t catch the name of his partner. Muldoon showed up for the first time later- and it was a complete disaster. I don’t know who’s idea it was to write him this way. He and Toody had absolutely NO chemistry together. Muldoon had no personality whatsoever. He was the equivalent of a wet mop, mixed with this harsh, annoying demeanor, nothing at all like the original. Muldoon was always a favorite of mine- sweet, shy, with a heart of gold. After about five more minutes, I hurriedly turned off the tv. I couldn’t stand anymore.

 Instead, I began to remember how and why I fell so in love with the tv show. It began almost 20 years earlier, when I was 18. Nick at Nite was brand to me. I was able to watch shows I had only heard about, like “Mister Ed”, “The Patty Duke Show”, The Donna Reed Show”, and “Laugh-In”. Unlike these, I had never heard of “Car 54 Where Are You?” before. Nor did I take to it right away. I would glance at it here and there, mostly in passing. The thing that did catch my attention was seeing both Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis without their “Munsters” makeup. However, this alone did not trigger my attention. One night, I actually sat down and watched part of an episode. I was instantly hooked. The show was unbelievably funny, and brilliantly written, with a very gifted cast. I had fallen in love with the guys from the 53rd Precinct in the Bronx, and just had to see them every night. Toody and Muldoon was always getting themselves into some kind of a hilarious situation, time and time again, often to the dismay of their boss, Captain Block. 

Although “Car 54” was only on the air for two years, it is one of the best shows I’ve had the pleasure of watching. It made its debut in September 1961, ten years before I was born. The real glue and heart and soul of the show was the dynamic chemistry between Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne. The two could not have been more different, both on the show, or in real life. Toody was loud, silly, and not very bright, while Muldoon was very shy, tall, and intelligent. Toody lived with his domineering wife, Lucille. Muldoon still lived at home with his Mother. Meanwhile, Joe E. Ross dropped out of high school, and became a singing waiter before becoming a comedian. Fred Gwynne was a Harvard graduate. During the show’s run, Gwynne was a husband and father, living in Westchester, while Ross was a bachelor who resided in Manhattan. Despite their extreme differences, they clicked beautifully on screen. Their supportive cast was outstanding also. Beatrice Pons, Charlotte Rae, Hank Garrett, Fred O’ Neal, Ossie Davis, Nipsey Russell, Al Lewis, Paul Reed… The perfect group of people to have within their midst.

 Another aspect about the show which really made it stand apart is the presence of actors of various races and ethnicities, a first for a show in the early ’60s. They were not there in a position of servitude, or the butt of everyone’s jokes. They were there because that’s what the real world is like. Everyone was on the same level. According to Fred Gwynne’s biography on the BIO channel, this was one of the things he liked best about working on the show, the chance to work with actors from various cultures. “Car 54” creator and director Nat Hiken won an Emmy for directing in 1962, an honor which was rightfully deserved.

By the time season two had come to a close, “Car 54” was still a top 20 show. However, Nat Hiken was under intense pressure to write, produce and direct, so when the time came, he did not pursue a renewal of the show. He was obviously trying to reduce the level of stress he was already enduring. Therefore, the show was canceled- basically for nothing. It most certainly did not get the opportunity to run its course. I had wondered for years why the show ended when it did. It was disheartening to find this out. A delightful show ending its run prematurely because of this kind of nonsense??? There should have been another solution than this.

 Nat Hiken passed away, due a heart attack, in 1968. His wife claimed the excessive and demanding work on “Car 54” took a toll on his health. Joe E. Ross passed away of a heart attack as well, while performing on stage in the clubhouse of his apartment building, in 1982. Fred Gwynne lost his battle with pancreatic cancer in 1993. Most of the supporting cast have also passed away. As far as I know, the only surviving members are Charlotte Rae, Hank Garrett, and Larry Storch, who was Charlie the drunk.

 “Car 54” is one of those shows not known very well by the general public. It is one of those hidden treasures, and today, it seems even more hidden.  The programming on Nick at Nite today is of more recent sitcoms. However, those hidden treasures are the best of all. The movie does not even begin to compare. I would suggest avoiding it. If you’ve never watched the show, you will get the wrong idea, an inaccurate portrayal. If you have watched the show, you will be disappointed with what you will see. Stick with the original. Pick up the entire series on DVD like I did.

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~ by kmnnz on December 29, 2009.

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