Talking TV history


Karen Herman wants Bill Cosby to have his rightful place in history.

TV history, that is.

Herman, a former journalist who is the director of the Archive of American Television in North Hollywood, has wanted to add Cosby’s tale to the archive’s collection of videotaped oral histories for years, but so far no luck. Scheduling problems, it seems.

“He’s so critical to TV history,” she says. “Mel Brooks is another one.” And another one on Herman’s wish list.


“Capturing television history one voice at a time” is the motto of the archive, which contains interviews with nearly 600 key industry figures. What sets the archive apart, though, is that hundreds of hours of those interviews can also be seen on YouTube, to the delight of TV buffs everywhere.

Want to get Jack Larson’s take on what it was like to play Jimmy Olsen in the “Superman” TV series of the 1950s? It’s there. As are Ron Howard’s recollections of working on “The Andy Griffith Show,” William Shatner’s remembrances of “Star Trek” and James Arness’ reflections on “Gunsmoke.”

A glance at the archive’s YouTube channel ( legends) shows that more than 1,900 videos are available online -- that’s about 950 hours of viewing. (A full list of interviewees can be found at emmytvlegends .org.)

“Before, people had to visit our offices to watch the stuff, and now people all over the world” can, Herman notes. Archive videos first went online at Google Video in 2005 but began moving to YouTube in 2007 after Google’s 2006 purchase of the popular video-sharing site -- a transition that is ongoing.

A project of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation -- the charitable arm of the organization behind the Emmy Awards -- the archive was inspired by the videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors conducted by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation founded by Steven Spielberg.

Former Disney Television and UPN President “Dean Valentine brought the idea to the television academy in ‘96, and they sponsored a test project of six interviews,” Herman says. “Then the academy adopted it in ’97 as a full project.” The first interviewees included Elma Farnsworth, widow of TV inventor Philo Farnsworth; Milton Berle; ABC founder Leonard Goldenson; and producer Sheldon Leonard.

Even without Cosby, there are plenty of stars on hand: Betty White, Dick Van Dyke, Jerry Lewis, Barbara Eden, Angela Lansbury, Andy Griffith. Add directors such as Arthur Penn, writer-producers such as Carl Reiner, Steven Bochco and James L. Brooks, producers such as Norman Lear and Grant Tinker, and many others, including composers, executives and makeup artists, and you have a video Who’s Who of American television past and present that’s growing by about 50 interview subjects a year.

“That’s the goal,” says archive manager Gary Rutkowski, who researches the interview subjects and also conducts interviews (as do Herman and a pool of volunteers). “We have a selection committee, and they choose the people we’re going to do that year.”

Interviews are taped (and posted) in half-hour segments and follow a chronological format. Subjects come from the TV academy’s 27 “peer groups,” covering all disciplines. Though Rutkowski says the aim is to keep interviews to three hours, some are considerably longer. Bochco’s, for instance, runs six hours. Dan Rather’s (not yet available online) clocks in at nearly eight.

Working with Lear

Fortunately, you don’t have to sit through hours of video to access some of the archive’s nuggets, as short interview excerpts are beginning to turn up with some frequency.

A recent short clip has Bea Arthur talking about how she got the starring role in “Maude” and what it was like to work with Lear. Other clips have featured George Carlin talking about his stand-up persona and writer-producer Leonard Stern telling how Don Adams came to star in “Get Smart,” even though the show originally was meant for Tom Poston.

ans of classic TV likely will find much of interest in the full interviews, which somehow seem to reveal more than the usual celebrity Q&A;, possibly because the informal video format allows more of a celebrity’s personality to shine through. Van Dyke, for instance, is charmingly Rob Petrie-esque in his 2005 interview, whereas Dick Clark, interviewed years before his debilitating 2004 stroke, reveals his driven, media-entrepreneur side. David Brinkley, interviewed in 1999, shows that he was still smarting from criticism of the Archer Daniels Midland spots he made after retiring from ABC News in 1997. Composer Mike Post tells how his first encounter with producer Stephen J. Cannell nearly resulted in a fistfight -- and also how the men later became close friends and business associates, with Post writing the theme songs for all of Cannell’s shows. Fred Silverman’s lengthy interview provides a rare glimpse of the mind-set of a top network programmer.

“There’s something special about those guys,” Herman says of programming executives like Silverman. “Leslie Moonves is the same way. There’s something in their brains that clicks differently that’s so interesting. And you’re getting it on camera.”

One of the more unusual moments comes in “Brady Bunch” creator Sherwood Schwartz’s 12-part interview. In one segment, Schwartz describes some of the problems he faced while working for the notoriously difficult Red Skelton as head writer of the comedian’s TV show in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

Later in the interview, Schwartz’s wife can be heard off camera giving him the news that Skelton had just died. Schwartz’s response, which manages to be both gracious and humorous, is a touch of the unexpected that’s all too rare in the celebrity interview world.

Such moments are part of the archive’s appeal. Where else could you find Tony Randall taking an interviewer (TV Guide’s Matt Roush) to task over his grammar (“Well, first, I would never use the word ‘impact’ as a verb, transitive.”) or “Star Trek” theme composer Alexander Courage describing science fiction as “marvelous malarkey”?

Unexpected tidbits aside, it’s star power that drives an interview’s popularity online.

“The actors tend to be much more popular than the other ones,” Herman says. “Barbara Eden is always a perennial. Betty White does very well. Tim Conway and Harvey Korman have really been through the roof” (possibly because Conway and Korman couldn’t help going for some laughs in their joint interview).

“The popularity even when we started on Google was really good,” Herman adds. “We had 5 million hits within a couple of years. And now with the shorter clips, of course, we’re getting a lot more.”

Ross Brown, an assistant professor at Chapman University who teaches a TV history class, sees the archive as a major step forward for scholars.

“It’s a quantum leap,” Brown says. “There’s a wealth of history there and also a wealth of inspiration. As a college professor, it’s a much better resource for my students,” since they can access interviews online.

Getting back to Shatner

Though the archive tended to focus on older industry veterans in its early years, Herman says that’s changing.

“When this thing started it was about ‘Let’s get the first 25 years, before these people pass on,’ ” she says. “Now we’re slowly but surely moving into the contemporary. We want to get ‘The Sopranos,’ we want to get things just as they’re happening, just as they’re coming on the air. And go back to people if they have more.”

People like Shatner, for instance.

“When we did William Shatner, he didn’t have the success of ‘Boston Legal’ at all, and now he’s got this entire resurgence,” Herman says. “So we’ll be going back to him. That’s very rewarding to us.”

Also rewarding is finding how early TV history dovetails with modern media.

“Having produced so many of these things, what comes to mind for me all the time now is all this mirroring in the digital world,” Herman says. “When we started the collection it was about getting people who were in early television. And you’re seeing the exact same patterns play out now with the Internet” in terms of monetization and sponsorship.

“We interviewed Mary Kay and Johnny Stearns,” Herman continues. “They were the first sitcom couple. We were talking about story lines, and they said one of the story lines they did was being trapped in an elevator. The more things change the more they stay the same. And that’s what’s really, really cool about this. That there’s nothing new under the sun.”