Mr. Novak Teaches Mr. Harter - and the Rest of Us
A new book about a classic TV series geared toward school life in the early 1960s serves as learning curve for contemporary times, academic and otherwise.
Courtesy Chuck Harter
Courtesy Chuck Harter
Courtesy Chuck Harter
Bear Manor Media
The television drama Mr. Novak originally aired on NBC, 1963-1965, and starred James Franciscus as teacher John Novak, and Dean Jagger as Principle Albert Vane, and later Burgess Meredith as Principal Martin Woodridge.
Author Chuck Harter has chronicled this ground-breaking program in his aptly-titled new book, Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series (BearManor Media, 2016).
Mr. Novak was indeed acclaimed and remains so with Harter's new literate companion book and a soon-to-be-reissue of the series on DVD.
The show featured top quality scripts, actors and production and earned countless accolades during its two year run including a Peabody Award for excellence. This trendsetting TV production was the first to depict both teachers and students in a dramatic and realistic manner and was influential in the educational community.
Harter's new book about Mr. Novak contains exclusive interviews with over 40 of the show's guest-stars including Martin Landau, who wrote the Foreword, and Walter Koenig, who penned the Afterword, while celebrated director Richard Donner, who guided several episodes, offers the Introduction.
The details of how Chuck Harter came to document Mr. Novak and the show's significant place in television history are explored in conversation between Harter and Herbie J Pilato, Founder and Executive Director of the Classic TV Preservation Society nonprofit organization.
Why did you decide to write a book about Mr. Novak?
I was just a young lad when the show originally aired from '63 to '65. It was broadcast opposite the very popular Combat! series and as my Dad was in the Air Force, we watched Vic Morrow's show on our single television set. As a result, I never saw it in the original run.
Novak's star was the handsome James Franciscus, who became a teen idol and was featured in the fan periodicals of the day. The girls in my classroom would bring in their magazines so I was aware of him being the lead in Mr. Novak. The series never went into reruns in the following decades so it subsequently disappeared except for the occasional mention in books on television history.
The show was always referred to as a great dramatic program about high school life with progressive scripts and realistic production. About three years ago a friend in New York sent me a package of DVDs that contained 24 episodes of Mr. Novak. He informed me that as I favored music from the '60s, I would probably like this show.
I hesitated to watch any episodes as I figured they would be dated and wouldn't hold up. Just before I was going to pack them away, I decided to watch at least one as my friend had extended the gesture. I viewed the pilot "First Year, First Day" and was pleasantly surprised to find that not only was the show not dated, but the acting, scripting and production were excellent.
I then watched a second episode, "The Risk" which concerned a teacher who had been a former alcoholic and now wished to return to teaching at Jefferson High School. This was even better than the pilot. It was puzzling to me that such an outstanding TV series had been forgotten.
I attempted to buy a book on the show and found that none existed. After this disappointment, I attempted to find a biography on star James Franciscus and found that there wasn't one. I then decided to write a book about this unjustly forgotten series. It was the superior quality of all aspects of the program that prompted my journalistic journey.
What made Mr. Novak stand out from other TV drama of its time?
The series was the brainchild of writer-producer E. Jack Neuman who had worked for many years in both the radio and television mediums. He was a creative artist who always did his research and strove for the best possible results in scripting and production. Neuman was respected in the industry as a creator of integrity and outstanding talent.
When he and co-creator Boris Sagal conceived the idea of a series set in a high school, they wanted a realistic and dramatic program unlike the previous situation comedies that had been produced. Both Mr. Peepers and Our Miss Brooks had been successful but Neuman wanted to advance the concept to a higher level.
He visited high schools and spoke to principals, teachers and students to find out their concerns in the world of education. Neuman also contacted the National Education Association for advice and requested a five person panel of teachers to oversee future scripts for accuracy. The show was cast with great care and the leads of James Franciscus as teacher John Novak and Dean Jagger as Principal Albert Vane brought genuine integrity to the program.
The other actors, including the rest of the faculty, guest stars and the students were all top level thespians. The Mr. Novak series became a prestige program for NBC. Another outstanding aspect of Mr. Novak was the superior production. The series was filmed at the MGM studios which by 1963 has downsized the number of new productions.
As a result, their A list crew of technicians, who were on salary, had to be put to work. The result was that the cinematography, sound, set design and more were all done by top level film technicians. The result is a series of mini movies as opposed to most of the other programming of those years.
What are some of your favorite episodes of Mr. Novak and why?
In the course of writing the book I was able to view 55 out of the 60 episodes produced and had scripts of the remaining five. There were a couple of subpar episodes but nearly all were very good to excellent. The quality of the series was maintained for its two seasons. There were a few that personally resonated with me, and they included "The Risk" which was mentioned above.
This contained an outstanding performance by character actor Alexander Scourby as the former alcoholic teacher with fine support by Sherry Jackson as his wife with a drinking problem of her own.
"A Single Isolated Incident" is a great show about racial prejudice that is still effective in the current day. It is both realistic and dramatically powerful and Dean Jagger is magnificent as the Principal.
"The Boy without a Country" is the story of a Russian exchange student, played by young Walter Koenig, who has trouble adjusting to the ways of an American high school. He is excellent, and this role, in part, later led to his being cast as Ensign Chekov on Star Trek.
"Death of a Teacher" is another outstanding story which reveals that the fatal heart attack of a popular educator was brought on by the typical overworked schedule of the time. It was expertly directed by Richard Donner, who did several Novaks and went on to a distinguished career in motion pictures.
"Sparrow on the Wire" concerns anti Semitism and features Beau Bridges in one of his first roles as the bigoted student. While these and other episodes feature hard hitting stories with a moral lesson, it was always Neuman's intention to entertain as well as educate. This is yet another reason why the series holds up so well in the modern day.
Did Mr. Novak prove to be a positive influence for viewers? In other words, are there teachers in America who became teachers because they were inspired by Mr. Novak?
Mr. Novak received a total of 47 awards during its two year run [including four Emmy nominations]. The majority of these came from educational institutions such as the National Education Association, California Teachers Association, The National Association of Secondary School Principals and the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award. The complete list of awards is depicted in the appendix of the book.
Many graduates of the day became teachers because of the positive influence of the series. Fledgling teachers became better educators as a result of watching the program.
How does Mr. Novak differ from other school-related TV shows, specifically Room 222?
Mr. Novak was the first program to realistically portray the high school life and therefore was a pioneer. Room 222 followed four years after the cancellation of Mr. Novak and continued the truthful depiction of academic life. Their stories went even further into the realm of dramatic situations because society in America had changed so radically between the mid and late 1960s.
In ensuing years there have been several exceptional programs about the field of education including The Paper Chase and others. Mr. Novak created a template that continues to be refined and exhibited in television programming.
Let's talk about James Franciscus and the entire regular cast of Mr. Novak. What are your thoughts on their performances on the show?
E. Jack Neuman had previously conceived and developed the Dr. Kildare series. His first choice for the lead was James Franciscus who unfortunately was contractually obligated to a pilot. When he was still unavailable, Neuman cast Richard Chamberlain and the new show was a success.
When it was time to cast the young idealistic teacher, Neuman remembered the talented and professional Franciscus and his Mr. Novak came to life. James Franciscus took the role very seriously and was always letter perfect in his dialogue. He became very popular and appreciated the interest of his many youthful fans.
The actor even wrote a series of advice columns for teenagers. His performance grew between the two seasons and he went from the naïve newcomer to a more confident and successful educator. Dean Jagger, who had won an Academy Award for Twelve O'Clock High, was Neuman's only choice for the Principal.
The actor had not appeared in many television programs but was so impressed with the concepts of the series that he agreed to participate. Jagger brought a real air of authority and humanity to his portrayal of the Principal and was extremely popular with viewers and critics alike.
In the middle of the second season, he had to leave the series due to an attack of ulcers and was replaced by Burgess Meredith. The actor portrayed his character of Martin Woodridge as a more aggressive and harsh administrator. Just about the time he began to get a handle on the role, the series was cancelled.
I believe that if the show had continued for a third season he would have reached the heights of Jagger's excellent portrayal.
Jeanne Bal portrayed Assistant Principal Jean Pagano in the first season and became a real favorite with both production and audience. She also brought an air of authority and her part was built up as the first season progressed. Sadly she left the production due to a salary dispute prior to the second season and her comforting presence was missed.
There were several actors who appeared as members of the faculty on a regular basis. They included Marian Collier as Home Economics teacher Marilyn Scott; Steve Franken, Andre Phillipe, Stephen Roberts and Vince Howard, who was the first African American actor to be cast as a regular on a television series two years before Bill Cosby on I Spy. They were all excellent and really brought the faculty to life.
What about the guest stars? How many relatively unknown actors went on to fame after making early guest-appearances on Mr. Novak?
Since Mr. Novak had many parts for students, it was a real source of opportunity for the young actors in Hollywood. It was both an excellent series as well as a prestigious one. Some of the youthful actors who advanced their careers by appearing on the show were Beau Bridges, Tony Bill, Brooke Bundy, Kim Darby, Shelley Fabares, Joey Heatherton and Marta Kristen. Walter Koenig's advancement has been mentioned.
There were other young actors who had been previously working in the industry that grew in stature and experience due to their appearances on Mr. Novak. These included Johnny Crawford, Tony Dow, Don Grady, Sherry Jackson, Tommy Kirk, Beverly Washburn and others.
Among the adult guest stars were such talented professionals as Eddie Albert, Ed Asner, Diane Baker, Lillian Gish, Celeste Holm, Martin Landau, Cloris Leachman, Vera Miles, Ed Platt and Gloria Talbot. The performances on the show are always of a high caliber. This is among the many factors that cause the program to remain fresh and undated in the modern day.
What are your closing thoughts about Mr. Novak the series, and how does your book fully capture the essence of the show?
The show is an unjustly forgotten classic. It ranks with the finest productions of '60s television such as The Twilight Zone, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Defenders and others. In fact, it stands among the best programs in the history of television. It broke ground in the realistic depiction of high school life and maintained its superior quality throughout the run.
The show received dozens of awards and was tremendously influential on both its audience and the educational community. In the course of writing my book I interviewed over 50 people who included actors, technicians, writers, educators and fans of the series. Every single one of them was interested in participating.
In many cases the actors had not seen their respective episodes for over 50 years or had never seen them. Upon viewing the shows, everyone commented on how well the series holds up and that it isn't dated or redundant as can often happen with vintage productions. They all hoped the show would be officially released and it looks promising that Warner Archive is going to release the first season as a DVD set this year.
I feel confident that once people start viewing the show they will appreciate its timeless qualities. My book contains fresh interviews with those mentioned before as well as archival interviews with all of the major players in the production of the series. There is complete coverage of the conception of the series, production, airing, reception and tragic cancellation.
There are hundreds of illustrations, a comprehensive episode guide, a list of all the awards the show won and much more.
Mr. Novak: An Acclaimed Television Series by Chuck Harter is published by Bearmanormeida.com and is available in hardback, paperback and e-book editions from the publisher as well as amazon.com. Check out the book's web site here.
Herbie J Pilato is the author of several classic TV/media tie-books, and is the host of the upcoming classic TV talk show, Then Again with Herbie J Pilato, which will debut on the Decades network later this year. For more information, log on here.