PBS’ Pioneers of Television is back for its third season this month (now narrated by one of today’s busiest personalities in that business, Ryan Seacrest), with four new episodes devoted to some of the most memorable moments and people in popular TV genres. This season will memorably feature a reunion of the cast of the 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds for the season finale episode about the miniseries genre.
Episodes kick off with “Funny Ladies,” which begins with the first standup comediennes to appear on television, including Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller (whose final interview was for this episode). It also looks at Lucille Ball’s breakthrough on I Love Lucy and the female sitcom stars who followed, including Mary Tyler Moore, Betty White and Marla Gibbs.
Cloris Leachman — one of the funniest ladies in television history, and also featured in this episode — speaks to the nature of being able to make people laugh, versus more dramatic acting roles.
“Each one is important,” she says. “It’s not what I want to do to make anybody feel a certain way. But just to be comedic and then serious is great, great fun. And they’re both easy, I think. The hard thing is if you don’t have a well-written script or role. Then you have to dig inside yourself, and like, ‘What the hell?’”
The next episode is “Primetime Soaps.” This genre began with Dallas and Dynasty in the late 1970s/early ’80s, and was a phenomenon through the last season of Knots Landing in 1993. Interviewees include Joan Collins, Linda Evans, Diahann Carroll, Linda Gray, Patrick Duffy, Michele Lee, Joan Van Ark, Donna Mills and the recently departed Larry Hagman.
Michele Lee, who starred in Knots Landing, recalls the heyday of the primetime soap, particularly her long-running one (which ran 14 years) — and how some of those classic titles still retain their popularity.
“I think at the time that Knots was on the air,” she says, “we had such incredible competition. We had Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law and still maintained [our ratings]. … We have a situation [now] where Dallas was picked up for a second season on TNT. And, you know, the web is filled with, ‘When is Knots Landing coming back?’ and ‘They’re sure to pick up Knots Landing.’ [Fans] go crazy, you know.”
Next up is the “Superheroes” episode, which goes from Adventures of Superman in the 1950s to Batman in the 1960s to Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk in the 1970s to The Greatest American Hero in the 1980s. Adam West, Burt Ward, Julie Newmar, Lynda Carter and Lou Ferrigno are among the interviewees, and Robert Culp of The Greatest American Hero recorded his interview just days before his passing.
The final episode for Season 3 is “Miniseries,” which hearkens back to those days when epic television events like Roots, Shogun and The Winds of War were at least annual staples in broadcast schedules. Among the most popular was the romantic drama The Thorn Birds, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. For that occasion, all of its key stars provide commentary.
“I was a bit … took it for granted, really,” says star Rachel Ward. “You’re 23. Things were coming at me at that point. … I went for it, and Richard [Chamberlain] was there for my next audition. And we got it right. Because then we went — I came back, and we did a screen test, and I must have done something right again. I did get the role. And then I was absolutely thrilled to be part of The Thorn Birds and definitely struggled with it. It was a difficult one, and I was very green, and Richard was less green and incredibly supportive and darling to me. … And I completely — you know, I’d always been in love with Richard actually for years.”
“The miniseries,” says Chamberlain, “the whole structure of the miniseries is really wonderful. Series television is a little too fast, and movies are a little too slow, and the miniseries was just right in the middle, sort of like porridge. The material that we got was so wonderful — The Thorn Birds and Shogun — and extraordinary books like that were just fabulous reads to begin with. So we got to work on wonderful material.”
As a miniseries like The Thorn Birds changed television, it also had the power to change at least two lives. Star Bryan Brown has a special reason for his fond memories of working on The Thorn Birds, as it was where he met his wife — Rachel Ward.
“What was defining for me,” he says, “was I met Rachel. My life changed. I then became — I had to grow up. I became a man that was married, had children, and my life went and became a far more fulfilling life than it had been. It was my turn to change, and she did that for me.”
Season 3 of Pioneers of Television airs on PBS Tuesdays at 8pm ET from Jan. 15-Feb. 5 (check local listings).
Photos: Courtesy of PBS