Hey, Hey, It's the Monkees at 50! Part I
It’s The Monkees' 50th Anniversary! The sixth in our series of golden television anniversaries.
When happy music met happy television.
That’s The Monkees TV show in a nutshell.
Originally airing Monday nights on NBC from 1966 to 1968, later added to the ABC and CBS Saturday daytime schedule, and created by Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider, this ground-breaking, Emmy-winning mosaic of a “musical comedy” was an uncommon weekly half-hour hybrid of all-things media that coincided with the popularity the Beatles.
Monkee members Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Davy Jones (who died February 29, 2012 of a heart attack at 66) became nearly as popular as the Beatles.
While the British-born Beatles forever altered mainstream music history, the Monkees managed not only to change the vast TV and lyrical landscape, but added enough sparkle and delight to its horizon to cross all generations, timelines, and hemispheres. The dynamic of each Monkee’s personality also synergistically combined as one unit for the television series, as well as for the band.
According to Rafelson, The Monkees TV series was based on his own life and career as “an itinerant musician,” at the age of 18, when he performed with two friends in Acapulco. “We did odd jobs we were ill-suited for,” he says, “like taking tourists out in glass bottomed boats, photographing impenetrable canyons…generally trying to pay for college.”
He eventually began scripting television dramas in New York, and was later “drafted by Hollywood.”
While working for producer Daniel Melnick (That’s Entertainment, All That Jazz, Footloose), at ABC in New York City in 1960, four years before the Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show, Rafelson conceived a TV pilot about a folk jazz group and their misadventures. “But no one wanted it,” he says.
He subsequently partnered with Schneider to form Raybert, an independent production company, which later expanded and changed its name to BBS, adding Steve Blauner as a producing partner (and which within a two-year time period was either nominated for and/or won 15 Academy Awards, for feature film classics like Five Easy Pieces, The Last Picture Show , Easy Rider, The King of Marvin Gardens, and the documentary Hearts and Minds.
But circa 1965, Raybert shopped The Monkees pilot to Screen Gems, then a successful TV arm of Columbia Pictures.
The studio was “hardly encouraging,” Rafelson says, but he and Schneider persuaded them to fund the pilot. By this time, the Beatles were firmly rooted in the culture, eight years after Rafelson created the initial concept for what eventually became The Monkees television show. Or as he puts it, “The Beatles’ popularity legitimized the concept.”
The studio “had no input in the idea,” he continues, including the casting. “We were free to do what we wanted. I knew what I wanted because I had lived it.”
In the gestation period of Raybert, Rafelson and Schneider had discussed how they would approach working in television which, as Rafelson says, had “no screen definition” at the time. “The images had no depth. [But I] was a film buff and had been influenced by the techniques of the French New Wave.”
Consequently, certain inspired images would later surface on The Monkees, including what Rafelson describes as “balloons with jokes attached to the actors’ mouths, and stop frames” (similar to comic strips in print, and a precursor to similar techniques later known as “Pop-up” graphics, which Mike Nesmith would ultimately bring to MTV as its first series concept years later).
The Monkees TV series also was one of the first to break the fourth wall, as when, as Rafelson explains, “the actors would talk directly to the audience.”
Raybert had hired writers Paul Mazursky and Larry Tucker, “improvisational theater graduates,” to pen the pilot, eventually titled, “Here Come the Monkees,” which was helmed by commercial director Mike Elliot, and featured two songs, and swift camera cuts (a format that was retained throughout the run of the series).
In auditioning actors, Rafelson placed an ad in the newspaper that read, simply, “Must come down for interview,” in person, and not, as the straight-shooting Rafelson clarifies today, “high on dope.’”
Several actors were screen-tested, and Jones, Dolenz, Nesmith, and Tork were selected. “What had endeared them to me,” recalls Rafelson, “was how they told me to ‘screw-off’ in the tests.” That “and their autonomous personalities.”
As Dolenz recalled of his audition, “They were looking for actors – real actors – who could play instruments. There was a lot of improvisation and scene work involved in addition to the music. The auditions went on for a long time.”
Says Dolenz, “I was an entertainer, actor, musician, singer cast into the show, and I took direction. Any grade director, writer, producer will cast people who will bring to the party more and [that] ‘something else.’ And that’s what I did…that’s what all four of us [Monkees] did. That’s why they cast us…to bring something else to the party.”
Once the cast was set, and the pilot was completed, Screen Gems and NBC screened it for a test audience who, according to Rafelson, “had devices with electric wires connected to their hands.”
Unfortunately, the pilot received as Rafelson recalls, “the lowest score ever, confirming the execs’ own beliefs. They said, ‘Let’s not continue to work on it and throw good money after bad.’ Remember this was 1965. The execs were mostly seniors. They saw it as anti-establishment, which it was. The main influence in tone was the Marx Brothers. But with kids!”
But Rafelson was persistent, and it paid off. “I begged them to test it a second time,” he reveals. Three days later, Rafelson was back in the editing room, during which he inserted into the pilot original screen-test auditions of the cast. “Adding the tests was the only change I made,” he says. “It gave people an insight into [who the Monkees] really were.”
Following the second audience testing, “Here Come the Monkees” received what Rafelson describes as “the highest score ever,” and he and Schneider went on to staff the show.
As he recalls, “Of the first 30 episodes all were directed by guys who had never directed before. Bert took over the music responsibilities.”
Rafelson directed “Don’t Look a Gift Horse in the Mouth,” which aired on Halloween, 1966. With this segment, he says, “We had a deal to film on a farm in the San Fernando Valley. But when we arrived, the gate to the place was locked. The location manager tried to reach the farmer. I told the convoy of trucks to run the gate over. We’ll pay for it later. We shot 112 setups. The average for TV at the time was 20.
"Irving Lippman, the cameraman, was an old guy who cared little about framing or style. Speed was what he was about. A glorious human being.
“In that script…the farm episode…there was a pretentious declaration. ‘Film is not Parchment. Bend every rule…just get the stuff on celluloid.’”
The first director hired on the show was Jim Frawley who Rafelson says “trained the Monkees in improv.” As it turned out, Frawley guided the most episodes of any director associated with the series, and received two Emmy nominations, winning for the first segment, titled, “Royal Flush” (the first episode to air), and the second nomination was for “The Devil and Peter Tork .
Frawley also appeared, on-screen as an actor in several episodes. He made a small cameo in a crowd scene for the episode “Son of a Gypsy.” He did the introduction for “Monkees in Paris.” He had a speaking part as Rudy Bayshore in “Monkees Blow Their Minds," and he broke the proverbial fourth wall, and played himself in “Dance, Monkee, Dance.”
Frawley was well-prepared for these appearances, as he began his career as an actor and avant-garde filmmaker from New York. He worked on Broadway and Off-Broadway and, like Mazursky and Tucker, had reveled in Improvisational theater. He was also a member of the Actor’s Studio, founded by Lee Strasberg.
So, it was with significant training and experience that he arrived in Los Angeles with his live improvisational show. During one performance, Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider happened to be in the audience.
As Frawley recalls, “They responded very strongly to me, my humor, and my point of view, and asked me to dinner. We started to talk and realized that we had a lot in common. Each of us were educated, loved avant-garde films like those from Federico Fellini, all such movies from that period.”
Frawley remembers Rafelson and Schneider telling him, “Look, we’re doing this new TV show. And we have four young performers who don’t really know each other very well.
"But if you would spend some time with them, and use your facility with improvisation, and kind of get them to know one another and help them to discover their own characters and personalities…and create a kind of chemistry, we would give you a [television] show to direct.”
Today, Frawley is a legendary director who has helmed countless TV series, historic and new classics, ranging from That Girl, Cagney & Lacey, and Columbo, to Ally McBeal and Grey’s Anatomy, as well as several feature films, such as 1979’s The Muppet Movie.
But back in 1966, when Rafelson and Schneider had initially approached him, Frawley had only completed as he calls them, “little 16 mm, independent films.” So, the chance to direct The Monkees was “a huge deal” for him, and he swiftly responded to Raybert’s offer with resounding enthusiasm. “Hey, great!” he said. “Absolutely…I’d be happy to.”
After the three gentlemen finished their meal, Frawley muses, “I paid the check, which was part of their plan, I think. And I began working with the boys [Peter, Micky, David, Mike), and getting to know them, using what I knew from Improvisational theater, and teaching, acting and theatrical exercises of one kind and another.”
Dolenz, Jones, Nesmith and Tork had also bonded with Raybert on a personal level. As Rafelson explains, “Bert and I weren’t that much older than Mike, Micky, David, and Peter. We hung out together.”
The fine mix of chemistry behind the scenes then bled onto the screen. The Monkees TV show was a hit from the minute it debuted and by the second year of the show, Rafelson says the group’s “record sales exceeded the Rolling Stones and the Beatles combined. They were on NBC for two seasons only, and they have never been off the air.”
It’s the kind of success that Dolenz credits to the entire creative team, behind and in front of the camera.
“There were a lot of very talented TV personalities, producers, directors, and writers that constructed this classic sitcom,” including scribes Mazursky and Tucker, and others like Gerald Gardner and Dee Caruso, the latter of whom Dolenz describes as “huge TV writers at the time.”
Dolenz also credits the show’s success to former child-star-turned-studio-executive Jackie Cooper, who was then head of Screen Gems.
“They all got the tone right, or what is known in television as the ‘spine of the show,’” Dolenz confirms.
“It’s important to remember,” Dolenz continues, “that the television show was about this [fictional musical] group that was struggling to be successful. They were an imaginary band that lived in this imaginary house on the beach.
"It was their struggle with success that endeared us to all generations, which is not uncommon in movies and TV or in Broadway musicals, as well. And within that context…that’s the drama, if you will, of what the show was all about. The comedy came out of the drama, which it always does.”
“This show,” he adds, “was not just an accident or an act of fate. This was a carefully scripted and thought out plan,” strategized by Rafelson, Schneider, Frawley, et al.
“The writers were very smart, and very ahead of their time,” says Frawley. “Bob and Bert brought together a room full of writers who had radio background. They were very collegiate, East Coast, and Broadway educated. So, the writing on the show was very crisp, mature and funny. We tried to make ourselves laugh, and we were lucky that we made young people laugh as well.”
Frawley goes on to remember some “very adventurous things that happened during the making of the show.”
The moment he recalls most vividly appears in “Dance, Monkee, Dance,” in which a displeased Micky “stops tape,” makes a suggestion off-camera with director Frawley, that they need a brilliant idea.
He walks off the set, past the cameraman and over to the show’s offices, to a room marked, “Writer’s Room.” He opens the door, and there are a group of ancient Chinese writers sitting around a table with old typewriters.
Standing over them is a rather large man (played by Mike Nesmith’s stand-in John London), who’s holding a whip. Micky asks them to please come up with an idea for the show. They comply. Micky returns to the set, and he looks at the lines again, and tells the rest of the Monkees, “Man, this is terrible. These guys are really overpaid.” After which Micky crumples up the new script pages.
“That’s pretty far-out,” Frawley says. “And we did that kind of thing all the time. The humor was very sophisticated…very adult…and it was done sometimes to keep us [on the show] amused…which it did.”
“But it wasn’t all just fun and games,” he clarifies. “There was a lot of serious work behind it. While there was extensive improvisation, there was definitely a vision for each episode.”
Dolenz says, “Bob Rafelson once said, ‘We caught lightning in a bottle.’ And that is a very succinct way of describing what happens with any successful artistic project. You look at something like Star Trek. It wasn’t just William Shatner [as Captain Kirk], or [show creator] Gene Roddenberry or any one of the actors or writers [which made that show a success].
"You create an environment, and you bring together a bunch of very talented people, and you keep your fingers crossed that you catch lightning in a bottle. There’s no formula. You can’t predict it. You can’t guarantee it. But you just hope it happens.”
Happen it did for The Monkees, which Dolenz defines as a series about band that wanted to be the Beatles. “That was the arc of the show.” As he recently told the Los Angeles Times, “We were never an American version of the Beatles. We were [playing on screen] four guys who wanted to be the Beatles.”
Still, there was the British-born Davy Jones, who hailed from Openshaw in the United Kingdom, and who became the McCartney-conduit Monkee. As each band member brought their own slightly zany Beatle-like spirit to the table, Jones, at only 5’ 3”, presented a doe-eyed innocence, charm, and vulnerability that appealed to female fans who adored him in droves.
In fact, according to Monkees historian and confidant Gary Strobl, the feeling was mutual. “Davy was a sweet and gentle man, who was dedicated to his fans,” says Strobl, who is finalizing the optimum, literary companion, The Monkees: Reel to Real, featuring commentary and insight culled from over 250 interviews, some of which were conducted via video (including the last public appearance of Jones).
“The Monkees pretty much played themselves,” Strobl adds, “except for Peter. He had the most difficult job, because he is incredibly bright and articulate, and he had to play a kind of country bumpkin.”
If not an educated scholar, the television-Tork was a solid student of life, truth, and honesty. As presented on the show, he could never hurt a fly, and always sought to do the right thing. An inherently likeable sort, the Peter persona became one of TV’s first emotionally-intelligent male characters, striking a chord with the mainstream viewers who, in many ways, also recognized him as the heart of the series.
As Tork told Strobl for his book, "I had developed that simpleton character myself on the Greenwich Village stages as a way of protecting myself against the results of bad jokes, a self-protective kind of thing. I brought that character in and that is one of the main reasons I got the part was because it was a chance for them to have an offbeat guy.
"If it were four guys like Micky, Davy, Mike and another guy just like them, it would have been too bland. My character ranged from ridiculous to pure and wonderful. I mean, from downright stupid, time consuming and wearying to pure in heart and uplifting. They took the character and did things with the character, but that character was my own."
Dolenz, with his animated style of humor, delivered an ideal mix of musical performer, comedian, and actor. He was funny and theatrical when he acted on screen, and poignant at all the right moments while performing Monkee mammoth hits like “I’m A Believer.”
Nesmith, meanwhile, in his legendary green wool cap (and, who was heir to the lucrative Liquid Paper consumer product fortune), brought a calm intelligence and intensity to The Monkees. However, as he muses today, his “…character was written that way. But I had the most fun playing Princess Gwen [in the episode titled, ‘The Fairy Tale']. So, what does that tell you?”
“Overall,” Nesmith says he and his cast/band-mates were “collegial and professional,” but “were never really close friends.” Instead, they were “more like brothers in arms [who] rode some wild roads together in fast cars. And that is a special bond.”
In turn, the audience bonded with the band. As Dolenz once observed, “Many people have fond memories of The Monkees. I fondly remember it, too.”
Along with other hip, music-geared TV variety shows such as Shindig! and American Bandstand, The Monkees “musi-com” paved the path for the music video explosion of manic camera angles and more, while it partially ignited TV’s Solid Gold and The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, which in turn begot similar variety hours and laid the ground-work for boy-bands like NSYNC, and Boys 2 Men in the decades to come.
For more 50th anniversary memories, click here for Part II!
For more 50th Anniversary stories, click here.