The Smith Family cast: Janet Blair, Ron Howard, Darlene Carr, Henry Fonda, and Michael-James Wixted.
Happy 50th Anniversary to The Smith Family
In 1971, a movie star and a future A-list director shared the small screen.
The melodic opening theme music. The movie-stars-turned-sitcom-mom-and-dad. Dragnet meets Father Knows Best. One of TV's first dramedies. Opie Taylor before Richie Cunningham.
The Smith Family, created by Edmund Hartman and Bob Sorrentino, had it all of that and more.
Premiering January 20, 1971, on ABC as a mid-season replacement, this unique half-hour series was part family comedy/part police show. Executive-produced by Don Federson, of My Three Sons and Family Affair lore, and directed by Herschel Daugherty, The Smith Family ran for two years until June 7, 1972.
Renowned and obscure, the series brought cinematic legend Henry Fonda to television on a weekly basis as Detective Chad Smith, who was married to the always pleasant and welcoming home engineer Betty Smith, played by former film actress Janet Blair.
Chad and Betty lived in a quaint Los Angeles suburb with their three children:
Darlene Carr was the practical-minded, college-bound Cindy Smith, Ron Howard was the relatively-rebellious but always respectful Bob Smith, and Michael-James Wixted was Brian Smith, the rambunctious youngest son.
Though Wixted never acted again, Carr would go on to play Karl Malden's TV daughter on The Streets of San Francisco and make several TV guest-star appearances. Howard, in his first major role since The Andy Griffith Show, would enjoy even more pop-culture status in front of the camera on Happy Days.
After the 11-year-run of that iconic series (ABC, 1973–1984), he switched creative gears and became one of the feature-film-world's most prominent, respected, and Oscar-winning directors.
Back on The Smith Family, Howard's Bob Smith aspired to work in law enforcement where his father Fonda worked with future Barnaby Jones co-star John Carter as Sergeant Ray Martin, and Vince Howard as Sergeant Ed Thomas, formerly of Mr. Novak, and Charles McGraw as Captain Hughes.
An impressive list of actors from both the big and small screen worlds appeared in guest-spots or semi-regular roles on the show including A Martinez, film idol John Agar (once married to Shirley Temple), Geoffrey Duel (brother to Pete Duel), Heather Menzies (The Sound of Music, and later wife to Robert Vega$ Urich), Susan Oliver (Star Trek), Butch Patrick (The Munsters), Arthur O'Connell, Sheree Smith, and more.
The Smith Family's home entryway was similar to that of the vestibule on Federson's My Three Sons, while Chad's police work interaction played like Adam-12. Each episode presented two stories. In the first season, most of the A-stories were home-based, and the B-stories were police geared.
By the second season, the lilting opening credit music from the first season, a rendition of "Primrose Lane" (composed by Red Callendar and Wayne Shanklin, and performed by Petticoat Junction's Mike Minor, son-in-law to Federson) was replaced by graphics and visual bites similar to those presented on hour-long '70s detective shows like Barnaby Jones, Cannon, and Mannix.
Before each episode began, the opening credits ultimately reverted back to an abbreviated, similarly-lilting theme (minus any lyrics), as the family exited their home, smiling, as if without a care in the world.
At its core, The Smith Family had a sweetness about it juxtaposed with the harsh truth of a policeman's life and career. The series was ABC and Federson's attempt to keep up with the changing face of television that was being resurfaced by the sitcom-reality programming of the day.
That same mid-season, CBS producers Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin debuted the cutting-edge comedy and drama of their monumental hit, All in the Family. The year before, CBS premiered the character-driven sitcom-gold of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, amidst the infamous "Rural Purge" that saw that same network replacing all of its light-hearted and/or bucolic-themed shows with edgier, more textured series.
ABC and The Smith Family attempted to salvage some remnant of this fast-fading past by paying homage to it with a quasi-contemporary combined-take on traditional programming.
It was the era of The New Dick Van Dyke Show (CBS, 1971–1974), and The New Andy Griffith Show (CBS, January to May, 1971), which essentially sprang from Griffith's first failed TV weekly return with the drama of the short-lived Headmaster (CBS, September to January 1971).
It was of the time when Danny Thomas, another small-screen legend, came back to television in Make Room for Grandaddy (ABC, 1970–1971), a sequel to his original Make Room For Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show (ABC/CBS, 1953–1964).
Into this mix, Henry Fonda's good friend and fellow-former-cinema star Jimmy Stewart found his way on to television with The Jimmy Stewart Show (NBC, 1971–1972). Following the semi-pattern of the day, Fonda, too, then came to TV with The Smith Family, early episodes of which addressed the hippie-culture of the day.
Howard's Bob and Carr's Cindy speak overtly-modern if very self-conscious youth-lingo with frequent references to things like "rapping" (e.g. "discussing") the Vietnam War, the drug scene, or just something as simple as what's for dinner. The conversations are stilted, jarring, and charming, sometimes, all at once, and sometimes voiced in surprising ways by actors otherwise known for playing very different roles.
Prolific performer Paul Peterson, best remembered as the carefree youth Jeff Stone on The Donna Reed Show (ABC, 11958–1966), guest-starred as quite an opposite character in a stirring episode of The Smith Family.
Peterson played Allen Williams, the title role in the episode, "The Ex-Con," which originally aired January 17, 1971. Williams served time in prison and was now making the attempt to resume his place in society. Both Chad and daughter Cindy, who starts dating Allen, try to help him acclimate back into society with a fresh start free from any prejudice and preconceived notions he's confronted with due to his troubled past.
"Doing that episode was an amazing moment for me," says Peterson. "Obviously, I was cast to soften the impact of the storyline. But I was trained to understand my role as a performer."
One scene in the episode, which occurred at the Smith's front door, "...took an edgy quality," explains Peterson. "We filmed it the first time, and in the few moments after the director [Daugherty] yelled, 'Cut!' the producer [Federson] materialized out of the shadows. And in front of Henry Fonda, timidly asked me if I could 'Tone it down a little...take the anger down a notch. This is a family show.'"
Peterson complied at once. "Well, of course, I can," he said. "There are a thousand different ways to play a scene. You want it played differently? Fine with me. I'm an actor. No problem."
As Peterson recalls today, there was "no ego, no artistic crap" involved. A straight-shooter and multi-hyphenate talent, Peterson's vast experience includes other classic TV appearances on shows like Lassie, The Flying Nun, Trapper John, M.D., and the 1967 Disney feature film, The Happiest Millionaire.
Peterson is also the founder of A Minor Consideration, the famed nonprofit organization which has catered to the community of young performers since its inception in January 1991.
In short, Peterson knows his stuff.
"So, we did the scene again," he continues to recall of that pertinent Smith Family moment, "...just the way they wanted it. And after it was in the can, Henry Fonda himself stepped up to me and said, 'I just want you to know that that was one of the most professional things I've ever seen.' And he shook my hand."
"I earned my keep as an actor, and a man I respected did me a great honor."
A similarly stellar episode, "Father-In-Law," this time, from the second season, was first shown on June 7, 1972. Here, Tim Matheson, another former-child-actor-turned-icon, made a guest appearance in the role of Mark, Cindy's new boyfriend.
At first, Chad and Betty are impressed by what appears to be Mark's good-nature, and seemingly a promising future in law enforcement. But in a very short time, he displays his true nature with a very short fuse. So much so, his questionable behavior prompts Chad and Betty to convince Cindy to end the relationship.
With this form of relatively-realistic storytelling, The Smith Family cast the kind of elevated talent that such a platform required. And Matheson, a veteran actor even by then, rose to the occasion, as evident by his continuously extensive and diverse resume. He's run the gamut of everything from having voiced the lead in the inventive animated series, Johnny Quest (ABC, 1964–1965) to starring with Kurt Russell in the short-lived TV western, The Quest (NBC, September to December 1976), and regular roles in the final season of both Bonanza (NBC, 1959–1973) and The Virginian (NBC, 1962–1971).
Darleen Carr had guest-starred on The Virginian and, subsequently, Matheson worked with her again on The Smith Family, and he would meet her TV sibling Ron Howard for the first time on that show.
Each performer was of the new generation at the time; the exact demographic that ABC was reaching for. "With The Smith Family," Matheson says, "the network was trying in some way to pull in the young audience.They wanted a show that was little hip, urban, and to help bridge the gap between generations they brought in a legend like Henry Fonda."
As it turned out, Matheson's pre-Smith Family work included several feature films such as the classic 1968 family film, Yours, Mine and Ours, which starred Fonda and Lucille Ball. The film's premise was similar to TV's The Brady Bunch (ABC, 1969–1973) about two blended broods.
in many ways, Matheson's character in the film, Mike Beardsley, might for may be perceived as the big-screen edition of the Greg Brady, the ultimate boy-next-door as played by Barry Williams on The Brady Bunch.
Matheson's character on The Smith Family, however, was as distant from his role on Yours, Mine, and Ours as was Peterson's part on The Donna Reed Show. But Matheson found working with Fonda on The Smith Family just as enjoyable as it had been on Yours, Mine, and Ours. "He was both real and magnetic," says Matheson of the Academy-Award-winning actor. "He was a star, and I was in awe."
Irene Tsu, another stand-out guest star on The Smith Family, felt the same way. "I was in shock working with Henry Fonda," she recalls.
Like Matheson, Tsu is a heralded veteran performer with has a lengthy list of credits. But she also happens to be a female Chinese-American who faced much prejudice in her full life and career (which she details in her compelling biography, A Water Color Dream: The Many Lives of Irene Tsu.
Against all odds, she's amassed a remarkable body of work on stage, in movies, and on television, ranging from Federson's Family Affair to Lynda Carter's Wonder Woman.
On The Smith Family, Tsu played a rebellious teenager named Nancy in a second season segment, "San Francisco Cop," which initially screened on April 27, 1972. This time, Chad is assigned to help a visiting detective, played by veteran performer Benson Fong (of the Charlie Chan films and TV's Kung Fu) search for a misguided teen who turns out to be his daughter.
The episode is noteworthy for being one of the first of any series in TV history to involve Asian-American actors portraying non-stereotypical guest-characters who just so happen to be Asian-American. From Tsu's perspective, she was "just playing this typical young teenager who thought she knew it all," a wayward soul, ready to "lash-out" at every turn. "I just really liked the part so much," she says. "And I was working with Henry Fonda!"
But that did not register until after the episode completed filming. "I was working a lot at the time," she recalls. "And I didn't have time to be nervous. I had just gotten married and was enjoying my young married life. And then I got the call to do the part, I learned my lines, hopped on the set, and then went, "Wow! There's Henry Fonda!"
"San Francisco Cop" initially aired just a few months after President Nixon was holding historic talks with Chairman Mao in Beijing. As such, The Smith Family came in through television's backdoor with its innovative stories.
"It was definitely a different flavor from My Three Sons and other of Don Federson's shows," says former child-star Ricky Powel who, today, is a positive life-coach and Chief Mindset Officer.
On The Smith Family, Powell made semi-regular appearances as Milton, best friend to Michael-James Wixted's Brian. And while Powell recalls Wixted as "a nice kid," and says "the show, in general, was a lot of fun to work." One particular Smith Family memory of his stands out in particular. "I got work with Ron Howard," he says, "and he was just Ronny Howard back then. And what a great down-to-earth guy he was."
Several years later, when the two former actors ran into each other a Southern California restaurant, Powell was delighted to discover that Howard on his journey "up the ladder" had not changed.
"Ron couldn't have been kinder," Powell recalls. "He asked me how I was doing and then he introduced me to his family. And to this day talking with him at that moment remains one of my favorite Hollywood stories of 'Nice guys don't have to finish last.' He's just awesome."
Herbie J Pilato is the host and an executive producer of Then Again with Herbie J Pilato, a classic TV talk show now streaming on Amazon Prime and Amazon Prime UK. The Smith Family is available on DVD.