Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Classic TV: Benson (1979)

It isn't very often that a spin-off is better than its parent show. Then again, Benson, spun off from Soap in 1979, opted to play out as a traditional sitcom, not a satire of soap operas.

Brainy, brilliant Benson DuBois (Robert Guillaume) left the employ of Jessica Tate (Katherine Helmond) to work for her cousin, governor Eugene Gatling (James Noble), a widower with a young daughter (Missy Gold). Dividing time between being a single dad and running an entire state was taxing enough to the point where Gatling was presented as being often dumber than a tree stump. Benson had been brought in to be put in charge of "household affairs". Apparently, it wasn't politically correct to continue to refer to him as a butler in the governor's mansion. In time, however, Benson found himself promoted onto the governor's staff, first as budget director, then lieutenant governor.

That led to, in the final season, Benson running for governor against Gatling. The series ended with a cliffhanger, as we'd never learn who won the election.

There was quite a bit of turnover in the cast over the course of seven seasons (1979-86). Caroline McWilliams was the governor's secretary, but left after 2 seasons as her character was written out via marriage. Didi Conn ("Grease") took over, but left after season six as her character took a job with NASA after marrying budget director Pete (Ethan Phillips, who also left at the end of the sixth season). Gatling's first chief of staff, John Taylor (Lewis J. Stadlen, son of voice actor Allen Swift) left after the first season, bringing the pompous, adversarial Clayton Endicott (Rene Auberjonis) on board to give Benson someone to bounce his insults off.

What you might not know is that Stadlen wasn't the first choice to play Taylor. David Hedison (ex-Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea), who hadn't done a sitcom before, had been cast in the pilot, which would've been his first TV role in more than a decade. Oy!

The following open is from the first season:

Phillips & Auberjonis, of course, would later find greater success as part of the Star Trek franchise. Auberjonis would play the shape-shifting Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Phillips was plucked from obscurity to appear on Star Trek: Voyager. Didi Conn would return in the children's series, Shining Time Station, after having worked on the animated Fonz & The Happy Days Gang before joining Benson.

Rating: A.


SaturdayMorningFan said...

And don't forget Jerry Seinfeld as courier Frankie in season 2. He was only in a few episodes before he was fired! This show was quite funny from season 2 on and was a hit, it's a shame that it's mostly forgotten today. Sad that only the first 2 seasons ever made it to DVD.

hobbyfan said...

Funny thing was, seeing the reruns in syndication, I don't even remember seeing Seinfeld on the show. True, he wasn't around that long, but he must've ruffled someone's feathers.

SaturdayMorningFan said...

I have read that he wasn't told why he was fired - or even that he was fired until he got to work one day and there was no script for him. But if you watch the 3 episodes, his character doesn't seem necessary and doesn't really fit into the show that well, so it was probably nothing personal. He has since said it was a good thing for his career (and obviously, it was).

hobbyfan said...

And we know the rest of his story, don't we?