Herbie J Pilato is the producer of many documentaries about classic television shows. Herbie is also the founder of The Classic TV Preservation Society; here is a link to his website:
Q: What made you interested in producing documentaries about classic television?
A: I became a producer, not only of classic TV documentaries, but of other television show genres, by way of writing books about classic TV shows. As the author of the original Bewitched Book…which was first published in 1992, and revised with several editions as Bewitched Forever, the E! network approached me to be as a consultant and on-screen cultural commentator for Bewitched: The E! True Hollywood Story. That show aired in August 1999, and became the seventh highest-rated True Hollywood Story in E!’s history. As a result, A&E contacting me for their Biography segment on Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery, and then TLC then hired me as a producer and cultural commentator for their Behind the Fame specials on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Hill Street Blues, and L.A. Law. In the meantime, I was writing more books, such as The Bionic Book: The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman Reconstructed, which lead to my hiring as a producer for Syfy’s Sciography series, which ultimately was a sci-fi-geared edition of A&E’s Biography. But instead of profiling performers, Sciography chronicled the history of classic sci-fi/fantasy TV series, like the Bionic shows, Dark Shadows, and The Twilight Zone. After that, I began working regularly on shows for Bravo, and the TV Guide Network, as well as for Warner Bros., Universal and Sony in their production of documentaries about classic TV shows released on DVD.
Q: What elements make a TV show a classic?
A: That’s a loaded question – and the short answer is “several.” Certainly, like any creative property of quality, for any TV show to be good all the components have to be in place…and it all begins with the script. If you don’t have a good script, you don’t have a good show. The basic premise has to be well thought-out…the dialogue has to be in place…and “sound” right. The characters have to be clearly defined, and in effect, not “sound” like each other. The overall vision and life of the series has to be properly fleshed-out from the get-go, whether the show lasts five years or five days. At the same time, too, the “essence” of a show must remain timeless to be considered a classic. There should not be any reference to contemporary pop-culture which, in fact, was a main objective with series creator Carl Reiner on The Dick Van Dyke Show, which kept time-period references at a minimum – beyond its organic structure. Yes, there are many contemporary pop-culture references on classic shows like The Golden Girls, but in that case, the likability factor of the cast outweighs any dated feel that series…or any series…might present…beyond dated-clothing, wardrobe or set styles. I would say the likable performances of the actors on any show are the most important, even if the characters they are playing are unlikable…which was the case for example with Larry Hagman as J.R. Ewing on Dallas. Hagman’s performance as J.R. was so likable that it didn’t that the character he was playing was so unlikable. Either way, when this likability factor combined with the proper planning and quality writing is missing from a TV show, then there is little chance that it will be deemed respectable or well-made, let alone a classic.
Q: Why do you think people are still interested in learning about the stars of these shows so many years after they were on the air?
A: Many classic TV stars and their shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show, or Father Knows Best, or That Girl, or Bewitched have been on the air and been welcomed in living rooms for decades. The stars, the characters and the shows themselves have been “friends” to the viewers at home. Many in the audience watch these shows as “comfort food,” thus the increasing platforms on which they are presented like the appropriately-named new “COZI-TV” network – which caters to classic programming.
Q: You’ve written a lot about Elizabeth Montgomery. What is it that makes her such a unique subject?
A: Elizabeth is in a class all her own, even nearly twenty years after her demise (from colon cancer in May 1995). She was a charming combination of talent, charisma, beauty, wit, intelligence…and extreme likability. As the daughter of film and television star Robert Montgomery and Broadway actress Elizabeth Allen, she was born into wealth and prestige – and yet she remained down-to-earth and unaffected by her Hollywood bloodline and upbringing. And she magically transferred that essence into her role as Samantha – the witch-with-a-twitch – Stephens on Bewitched. The show originally aired on ABC from 1964 to 1972 – and has remained popular in syndication (and on DVD, the release of which I served as consultant) mainly because of her unique allure. The timing of its debut was certainly important to its success as well. The 1960s was littered with tragedies, traumas, assassinations, wars and race rioting, domestically and abroad. And there was Elizabeth’s Samantha – offering a magical escape with the wriggle of her nose. But the show also bespoke about true love…and advocating against prejudice. Meaning that Samantha and her mortal husband Darrin…a role shared by Dick York and Dick Sargent…loved each other despite their cultural heritage. And Samantha loved Darrin for who he was – and not for what he could do for her or buy her. Whatever he could buy her, she could twitch up something better. So, she wasn’t after his money…she loved him for him. And when many people sometimes don’t see is that it was Samantha’s choice to live the “every-day, mortal way” of a housewife. She could have left at any time…and she respected Darrin’s strong work-ethic…of having to work for something…and that having things without working for them makes them worthless. So, it was a combination of factors as to why Bewitched worked….but Elizabeth Montgomery was the main factor.
Q: Are there any documentaries you wanted to get produced, but couldn’t? If so, which ones?
A: I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to work on projects that have been very special to me and remain close to my heart…some of which now included new scripted TV shows and TV-movies that I am, creating, writing and developing.
Q: What inspired you to start The Classic TV Preservation Society?
A: When I wrote my first book, The Bewitched Book, I began visiting local schools to chat about the positive social influence of Bewitched…and the wonderful life lessons it provided and showcased, specifically with regard to prejudice, which is a core theme of the series. There was one episode, titled, “Sisters at Heart,” which addressed this issue in particular. It had to do with Samantha’s little daughter, Tabitha, befriending a young African-American girl. The episode was co-written by a multi-cultural graduating class of Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, which made it all the more inspiring. So, once I started presenting the initial school seminars, the message and intention of those seminars merely grew into The Classic TV Preservation Society, which is now a formal 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that brings TV & Self-Esteem Seminars not only to schools and colleges, but to community, senior and business centers around the country.
Q: What are some of the functions of the Classic TV Preservation Society?
A: The TV & Self-Esteem Seminars are the core function of the CTVPS…they seek out to prove that there are physicians in the world who were inspired to become doctors because of classic TV shows like Marcus Welby, M.D.…how certain attorneys were inspired by Perry Mason…how some families learned to better communicate because of The Brady Bunch and The Waltons…and how Bewitched teaches all people to ignore their differences and to concentrate on what makes them the same….which is our humanity.
Q: What is Glamour Gidgets and the Girl Next Door about?
A: This book takes the message introduced in my previous books and expands upon it, celebrating the lives, careers and influence of legendary female TV icons from the 50s, 60s and 70s in the process. Those profiled, include Lynda Carter, who played Wonder Woman, Lindsay Wagner, who is best known not only for portraying The Bionic Woman, but for astounding performances in several historic TV-movies. The one and only Farrah Fawcett is also profiled in the book, along with the Jaclyn Smith and Kate Jackson, all of whom were the three original stars of Charlie’s Angels. Overall, the book addresses the empowerment of women – and, in a sense, men, as well…and the importance of mutual respect between the sexes, while celebrating the most iconic female personalities in TV history.
Q: What is the most surprising thing you have learned about a show in the course of your research?
A: Any TV show that has been on the air for any significant time, from one year to twenty, has the power of influence…for the highest and lowest regard for all those concerned…the actors…the producers…the writers…and certainly the audience. That is why it is so very important, I think at least, to present the most positive characters and stories as possible when doing a TV show. Television’s influence on society, whether people admit it or not, is tremendous. So, why not take the high road?
Q: Which shows that are currently on the air do you think will go down in history as classics?
A: I think some recent new classics are shows like Reba, and Frasier, both of which I think are brilliant, address positive core family issues and just plain-out hilarious. I think Downton Abbey, with elegance and grace alone, has had a tremendous affect on the viewers and proves just how great a television show has the potential to be…even if the classic PBS show Upstairs, Downstairs did it first, over 30 years ago. And TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland was an instant classic when it debuted just a few years ago…but certainly, that had a lot to do with Betty White, the beloved actress from The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, as well as other classic TV female icons like Jane Leeves from Frasier, and Valerie Bertinelli…from One Day At A Time, and who just also happens to be one of the iconic females that I’m profiling in Glamour, Gidgets and the Girl Next Door.
Please note; Eliza’s interviews are done by email. All answers are unedited and come right from the lovely fingertips of her subjects:)