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Banner year: ’61

Every fall the broadcast networks unveil their new series -- some will become hits, a lot more will disappear in a nanosecond. The same was true 50 years ago, though the TV universe was a lot smaller.

In 1961, there were only three networks -- ABC, NBC and CBS -- and prime-time began at 7:30 p.m. (and 7 on Sundays) instead of 8 as it is now. Five decades ago, the fall season featured the arrival of several popular comedies, medical series, an acclaimed legal drama and even a circus variety show (you don’t see much of that on TV anymore). Here’s what played big on the small screen then.

Comedy is king

Fall 1961 heralded the arrival of the seminal CBS comedy series “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” created by Carl Reiner, starring Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, a writer on the Alan Brady (Reiner) TV series; Mary Tyler Moore played his capri-wearing wife, Laura; and Morey Amsterdam and Rose Marie were Rob’s fellow writers, Buddy and Sally. Though “Dick Van Dyke” was the sitcom that defined the decade, audiences were scarce that first season and the show was nearly canceled. By the following year, though, it was No. 10 in the ratings. It continued until 1966 and has lived on thanks to reruns and DVD.

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Oscar-winning actress Shirley Booth (“Come Back, Little Sheba”) came to series TV in NBC’s comedy “Hazel,” a sitcom based on Ted Key’s Saturday Evening Post cartoons about the well-organized maid-housekeeper of the Baxter family. The series was an instant hit, and Booth won two Emmys for her performance. The series ran until 1966.

Nat Hiken, the force behind the fabulous “The Phil Silvers Show” in the 1950s, also created the NBC comedy series “Car 54, Where Are You?” It starred Joe E. Ross and Fred Gwynne as clueless New York policemen. Al Lewis, Nipsey Russell and Bea Pons also starred in the slapstick comedy. The series was memorable, but it lasted only two seasons.

The doctors are in

NBC and ABC unveiled new medical dramas that fall. Vince Edwards, known for his tough-guy roles in B movies, became a TV superstar as the gifted, young resident surgeon at a general hospital in ABC’s “Ben Casey.” Veteran character actor Sam Jaffe played his mentor, Dr. David Zorba, and Jaffe’s wife, Bettye Ackerman, played Dr. Maggie Graham. The series became the biggest hit on ABC that season. It continued through 1966.

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An even bigger sensation was NBC’s “Dr. Kildare,” starring uber-handsome Richard Chamberlain as the earnest intern. The character of Dr. James Kildare had been introduced to audiences in the late 1930s in a popular MGM movie franchise starring Lew Ayres. Raymond Massey played his crusty mentor, Dr. Leonard Gillespie. Like “Ben Casey,” “Dr. Kildare” lasted until 1966.

Dramatic chops

The breakout new dramatic series of the season was CBS’ courtroom drama “The Defenders,” which went on to dominate the Emmys, winning for dramatic series, dramatic actor for E.G. Marshall as well as for Franklin Schaffner’s direction and Reginald Rose’s writing. Marshall and Robert Reed, who would later headline “The Brady Bunch,” played father-and-son attorneys. Each week they would be involved in a court case that included such hot-bed issues as abortion, euthanasia and the Hollywood blacklist. The series was based on the 1957 two-part episode of “Studio One” called “The Defender,” written by Rose, which starred Ralph Bellamy and William Shatner as the attorneys and Steve McQueen as their defendant. The series continued through 1965.

Other dramas premiering included “Frontier Circus” (CBS).

Variety shows

Variety was a staple of TV in this period, and perhaps the most offbeat one was NBC’s “International Showtime,” hosted by movie star Don Ameche. Each week he presented European spectaculars, including circuses and ice shows. Though never a huge ratings success, the series continued through 1965.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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And the 1961-62 Emmy goes to ...

Here’s a look at three of the top award winners from a television season now half a century ago.

‘The Bob Newhart Show’

The comedian’s first series (for NBC) won the top Emmy for comedy.

‘The Huntley-Brinkley Report’

The NBC nightly news with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley earned a statuette.

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‘The Garry Moore Show’

The CBS series won for variety; Carol Burnett won for outstanding performance.


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