I was almost certain that Barbara Eden would mention me in her just-published autobiography, “Jeannie Out of the Bottle.” I mean, I worked with the onetime star of “I Dream of Jeannie” for about 51⁄2 hours back in 2003 co-hosting the Cerebral Palsy Telethon here in the Capital Region. Imagine the hurt upon examining the index; she talks about Elvis, about Johnny Carson, Clint Eastwood, but nowhere my name.
Therefore, as payback, I will reveal that as a telethon co-host, Barbara was a dud. Not a bee-otch like Tom Bosley, but a genuine, certified dud. Now look, I know that, if you live in Southern California, the last place you want to be in January is upstate New York. But if so, don’t take the several-thousand-dollar fee and then play the stiff like Eden or Vicki Lawrence.
However, both of those ladies were real troopers compared with Bosley, who played Richie Cunningham’s kindly old man on “Happy Days.” The “Mister C” we got was anything but kindly during his co-hosting stint, a couple of years before Barbara Eden. He grunted at just about everybody, apparently unaware that “Happy Days” no longer was in first run and his stardom had faded.
My very first telethon co-host was an old-time TV star by the name of Jack Smith, who starred in a whole bunch of black-and-white shows such as “You Asked for It,” a weekly program that answered audience requests to see exciting items like the guy who hand-carved peach pits into artistic scenes. Jack was flirting with age 70 when we first hooked up on the CP show in 1983 but still sported a full head of hair that had been dyed a shade of orange not unlike the Syracuse football helmets. Anyway, the second year that we worked together, I had gained about 30 pounds during my winter hibernation. Jack thought my extra avoirdupois made for a wonderful on-air topic, and after he happily talked about my weight gain for a third time, we came off stage and I happily informed Jack that if he mentioned my girth one more time we would do a whole segment on that not-to-be-found-in-nature color of his hair. It worked real fine.
Most memorable co-host during my 31 years on the telethon? McLean Stevenson was that and more. Stevenson was banging-off-the-walls wacky. I mean, what you saw on “M.A.S.H.” was what you got in living color. And unlike Bosley or one of the others, Stevenson seemed to genuinely care about the Center for Disability Services on Manning Boulevard in Albany and the people there who benefited from the telethon. Credit him with starting the Super Bowl prize packages that raise a lot of cash each year.
Back then, Stevenson was “buds” with Sam Wyche, the coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs, who gave him two seats in the section reserved for NFL folks, and McLean also had some kind of promotional deal with USAir, producing a couple of airline tickets to complete the winning deal. One of those years when the Buffalo Bills crashed and burned, Stevenson called Gov. Mario Cuomo out of the blue and gets the governor to call Bills’ owner Ralph Wilson to come up with two more tickets for a second prize package. Made a lot of dough for a good cause!
There was a teeny bit of a problem with McLean Stevenson; like his character on “M.A.S.H.,” Lt. Col. Henry Blake, he had quite an eye for the ladies. Remember Betsy McCaughey-Ross, the ditzy lieutenant governor who wore thigh-high minis? The first time she made her appearance on the telethon, Stevenson seemed to be salivating, so I quickly slipped out of the frame just as he was telling McCaughey-Ross — and the audience — how they “don’t have any lieutenant governors like you in California.” Wonderful!
Never did see anything egregious happen with McLean and the other sex, but there was one husband, who will remain anonymous, who got dressed and drove to the telethon site to make sure that McLean behaved himself around this guy’s wife. Stevenson was pretty much harmless with an active imagination.
Absolute best co-host? The late John Ritter, for sure. Unlike the rest of these characters, Ritter’s star was again rising when he came to Albany in 2001 for just that one telethon. At the time, he was on Broadway with Henry Winkler in a Neil Simon play and was about to score a hit sitcom with ABC, but Ritter was a real person. The Center for Disability Services offered to send a private jet, if they could scare one up, to pick up Ritter, his wife Amy and their very young daughter. He refused the offer, instead schlepping to Penn Station at 7:30 on Sunday morning for the train trip to Albany. And when he got to the telethon, Ritter offered to do whatever we asked him to do to light up the lights. John Ritter had reason for empathy; his brother, Tom, a successful Los Angeles attorney, was born with cerebral palsy.
Oh, getting back to Barbara Eden’s autobiograpy. She spends a big chunk of the 262 pages listing all the guys who tried to get her to break her marriage vows over the years. Imagine that, in Hollywood? Save the $25. Better yet, donate it to the Center for Disability Services.