A loss of great television legacies

By Paula Hendrickson 

It always seems that death comes in threes, so whenever a celebrity dies, people joke about who the next two will be.  This, time, there have been at least four—and I feel as if I’m missing someone.

News broke Tuesday that Patty Duke died at age 69. The former child star—who won an Academy Award at 16 for playing Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker—entertained generations, but may best be known for playing identical cousins on The Patty Duke Show (1963-1966). She performed in several made-for-television movies, including a 1979 remake of The Miracle Worker, only this time playing Keller’s teacher, Annie Sullivan.

Duke’s personal life was troubled, and in the early 80s she was diagnosed with manic-depressive illness. She wrote about her struggles in an autobiography, and later wrote a book about living with mental illness. She served as president of the Screen Actors Guild in the 90s, but never retired from acting. In recent years, she guest-starred on TV shows including Glee and Hawaii Five-0.

On March 23, legendary sportscaster and former baseball player Joe Garagiola died at the age of 90. I’m by no means a sports fan, so I knew him as the humorous and enthusiastic co-host of the annual Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on USA for several years. Was there any dog he didn’t love?  He was a frequent guest on talk shows and The Today Show over the decades, probably because his regular guy persona made him relatable to fans around the country.

That same day we also lost actor Ken Howard, age 71, who’d continued acting even after becoming president of The Screen Actors Guild 2009. Howard was funny as Kabletown CEO Hank Hooper on 30 Rock, but many remember him as Jordan’s bartender dad on Crossing Jordan or Garrett Boydston from Dynasty and its spinoff, The Colbys. To others, the extremely tall Howard is best remembered as inner-city basketball coach Ken Reeves from the 1978-1981 series, The White Shadow. Perhaps the biggest surprise, for me, was seeing him sing as Thomas Jefferson in the film musical 1776.

Garagiola and Howard’s deaths were followed by news that left the entertainment world shocked by the sudden death of Garry Shandling, who was just 66. Shandling began his career as a writer for shows like Sanford and Son and Welcome Back Kotter before branching into stand-up comedy and eventually becoming an occasional guest host for The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. From 1986 to 1990, he wrote, produced and starred in It’s Garry Shandling’s Show where he broke the fourth wall as a stand-up comedian who knows he’s on a TV show (an homage to George burn’s classic series, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show).

Two years later Shandling revolutionized TV comedy with The Larry Sanders Show, a behind-the-scenes spoof of late night talk shows. Shandling played the title role alongside Jeffrey Tambor (Transparent) as his Ed McMahon-like sidekick, Hank Kingsely. Real-life celebrities played skewed versions of themselves.  The show set the bar for the modern day TV comedies to follow.

In 2014, I had a chance to interview Shandling for an article about past and present Emmy Awards hosts. He was funny and gracious when I told him how much I loved The Larry Sanders Show, and reflective.  While most of our conversation was about various hosts and gags that did and didn’t work over the years, he offered an insightful take on the state of television:

“Television keeps changing. It will probably be obsolete in the not too distant future. I’ve always thought that it’s all going to be in one big package, online, and the word ‘television’ is going to fall out. But that’s okay. I’ll be watching.”

Follow Paula on Twitter: @P_Hendrickson.

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