Open Mic

MTV's Tom Freston, Trailblazer Diahann Carroll, Newsman Great Peter Jennings, Cloris Leachman, Composer Earle Hagen, Writer Susan Harris and Game Show Impresario Bill Todman All Inducted Into the Hall of Fame of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences

Hillary Atkin Posted January 24, 2011 at 12:38 AM

Television history from its very earliest days came to vivid life during the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences 20th Hall of Fame induction gala at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

Seven television trailblazers, people who have had a major impact on the industry and American culture, received the lifetime achievement honor. They are now part of an exclusive club that numbers only 133 who have gained entry since the Hall of Fame was created in 1984 by the late John. H. Mitchell, a former ATAS president.

Acting/singing legend Diahann Carroll, cable visionary Tom Freston, composer Earle Hagen, network news anchor Peter Jennings, writer Susan Harris, actress Cloris Leachman and producer Bill Todman were inducted into the Hall of Fame.

The evening was at times funny, sad, poignant and inspirational. Ably hosted by Jeff Probst, he quickly handed things off to comedy god Carl Reiner--who was actually filling in for an injured Dick Van Dyke in presenting ATAS’s highest recognition to the late composer Earle Hagen. Hagen was responsible for the theme song and scoring "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "The Danny Thomas Show," "The Andy Griffith Show," "Gomer Pyle," "I Spy” and 400 other television programs during an illustrious career that began in 1947 with his work in film.

When he transitioned to television in 1953, Hagen was a pioneer of original music created especially for the medium, which at the time was mainly licensed from existing music libraries. In short order, he was arranging, composing and conducting for as many as five shows a week, including "That Girl" and "The Mod Squad," setting a high bar for other TV composers who would follow in his footsteps.

As Hagen’s wife, Laura, stepped to the podium to accept the award for him, Reiner quickly put her on the spot by asking her to sing the Dick Van Dyke theme song, which she skillfully performed--and then gave a moving speech urging the music community to "run with it," as her late husband did.

Probst, who as host of CBS’s “Survivor” has won more prime-time Emmy Awards than any other reality host, said he was blown away by the opening act, yet the ceremony kept reaching new peaks.

Former network executive Fred Silverman, the only person to run programming at ABC, NBC, and CBS, inducted writer/producer Susan Harris into the Hall of Fame. The scope of her work was shown in a video tribute showcasing clips from shows including "Soap," "All in the Family," "Maude," "The Golden Girls," "Benson," and "Empty Nest."

Harris told the audience how she got into the television business out of desperation, after her husband left her for another woman and she was raising a 2-year-old son and looking for work she could do from home. While watching TV one night, she was inspired to write a spec script with a friend. Soon, she was in business with Garry Marshall and Norman Lear, and then Tony Thomas and Paul Junger Witt, whom she married. The three later formed Witt/Thomas/Harris Productions.

Harris gave Silverman a shout-out for sticking with the ABC comedy “Soap,” which launched Billy Crystal's career, when Vlasic pickles was its only sponsor. She also reflected on the groundbreaking nature of the beloved and multiple Emmy Award-winning "The Golden Girls," which tackled sexism and ageism head on by putting older women as the lead characters.

Another of television's grand dames, Florence Henderson, had the honor of posthumously inducting producer Bill Todman. In a trip down television memory lane, she recalled his iconic game shows, produced with Mark Goodson, including “What’s My Line,” "To Tell the Truth," "The Price Is Right," "I've Got a Secret" and "Password." The audience was treated to clips and the surprise delight of seeing contestants like Elizabeth Taylor and Bing Crosby on some of the early episodes.

Todman’s son Bill accepted the honor, recalling that his dad loved packaging new shows—some of which remain on the air today, 50 years later—being in the control room and the manic production schedule required by the Goodson-Todman empire, which at one point had more than 50 half-hour shows on the air every week.

Tom Freston was also a television pioneer, leading the way during the early days of MTV and cable television. He was introduced by Bob Daly, who recalled the financial trouble that Warner Communications had in 1985 with game company Atari and American Express, which led to MTV Networks being sold to Viacom--where it grew into a worldwide cultural phenomenon and spawned new networks like VH1, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central. "We could've had it all," sighed Daly.

Freston had absolutely no industry experience in 1980--he had just returned from eight years abroad in India and Afghanistan--when he got his first job as one of the original team of six people who developed MTV. By the mid-1980s, it was a huge cultural force and Freston would go on to climb the corporate ladder at Viacom, without forgetting that the creative side of the business was the most important to him. He recalled launching "The Real World" in 1992, the progenitor of many reality shows on the air today, saying that one of the reasons was they couldn't afford writers but were strong in postproduction.

Since leaving Viacom a few years ago--dismissed by Sumner Redstone--Freston has become chair of the anti-poverty advocacy group founded by U2’s Bono, the One campaign, and was also instrumental in the recent launch of OWN. "Working with Oprah is a long way from working with Beavis and Butthead," Freston remarked to the appreciative audience.

Hall of Famer Cloris Leachman has been in the entertainment business for nearly 60 years now and the crowd got to see highlights of her early turns on "Lassie" and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" all the way up to her more recent roles on "Joan of Arcadia" and “Two and a Half Men."

But it was Leachman's irreverence--also shown off recently as a contestant on "Dancing With the Stars"--that got the audience rolling in the aisles. Peppered with profanities, Leachman went into a rambling speech that became a comedic motif for the rest of the evening. She concluded by reading a lengthy poem dedicated to one of her ancestors before getting the equivalent of a hook from both the crowd and Probst--all in good fun, and in keeping with the spirit of the evening.

Television news is by nature very serious, but the tribute to ABC news anchor Peter Jennings for his posthumous induction also showed the lighter side of the business. For decades, Jennings and his counterparts at CBS and NBC, Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, were the undisputed kings of network evening news. And both of the latter eminences saw fit to pay tribute to their esteemed colleague via videotape.

Rather talked about Jennings' long career in the field, the dangers he faced and the ratings pressure, while Brokaw reflected that Jennings was born to be an anchor--and joked that the three men, fierce competitors, actually were friends with each other because they didn't see one another very often, yet shared a mutual respect and a commitment to excellence.

Jennings was a mentor to, among many others, ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff, who took the podium to pay tribute to the esteemed anchorman--and to show off some very funny clips, such as his infamous pants-less stand-up. And who knew, until Woodruff told us, that Jennings was a sartorial expert, who would rail on his correspondents about why they chose to wear a certain suit or tie. In Woodruff’s case, it was a phone call to his home after a live shot, warning him to never wear that coat on the air again. Meanwhile, reputable sources say that Jennings would often shine his shoes up to 10 times a day.

Kayce Jennings, Peter's widow, accepted the Hall of Fame honor and talked about how he made a difference in the world of journalism and would be unrelenting in his advocacy of it today--and excited by the new platforms and technologies that were emerging when he passed away in 2005.

Tavis Smiley captivated the audience in his heartfelt introduction of Diahann Carroll, saying that she was the first woman he fell in love with--after his mother, of course.

Carroll began her storied acting and singing career in the mid-1950s with roles on film and on Broadway. But it was her defining role on the television show "Julia," as a nurse raising her young son, that broke racial stereotypes and forged her path as a trailblazer for other African-Americans on screen. She was the first African-American woman on TV to headline her own sitcom wherein the character she played was not in a subordinate role.

To a standing ovation, Carroll took the stage and immediately joked how she felt like Cloris Leachman, talking about her life and career so much that she couldn't take it anymore. She said that like Leachman, talent often does not come in a package of complete sanity. But Carroll did not let the audience down. She reflected on the early days when she was starting out in the business and was welcomed into the television industry when it was so new. She recalled meeting Hal Kanter at the hotel's Polo Lounge in haute couture Givenchy--and him thinking she was dressed as a typical Middle American housewife, and thus perfect for the part in "Julia."

"I had very profound concerns about coming to L.A. [from New York], and I still do," she joked to the crowd, while admitting that she has basically happily resided in the City of Angels ever since.

After all the pressure of being a role model in "Julia," Carroll gloried in her time on "Dynasty," which she lobbied for by saying she wanted to be “the first black bitch on television”--and producer Aaron Spelling immediately agreed. Her beautifully dressed, sinfully delicious character was modeled on a wealthy white male business owner.

Carroll talked about what a hoot the phenomenally successful prime-time soap was and how the actors came to work laughing, trying on clothes--and then, finally learning their lines.

Carroll said she still enjoys her work, recently appearing on “Grey’s Anatomy” and currently starring in USA’s caper drama “White Collar.”

The courage, character and drive she has shown throughout her career--and her sense of humor--was a fitting way to cap a very special evening that paid tribute to some of the industry’s brightest lights.#