ISU Headlines

ISU professor emeritus produces national PBS series on TV’s formative years

Posted January 7, 2008

For 20 years, mass communication professor Mike Trinklein taught his Idaho State University students about television. On Jan. 2, his audience expands to include the entire country. Trinklein’s latest effort is “Pioneers of Television,” a four-part documentary series for the national Public Broadcasting Service that airs on Wednesdays throughout the month.

Trinklein, now professor emeritus, has spent the last two years interviewing some of the pioneering entertainers of early television, gradually piecing together a fascinating chronicle of  many of TV’s first stars. The list of celebrities Trinklein interviewed on-camera includes Dick Van Dyke, Mary Tyler Moore, Andy Griffith, Betty White, Regis Philbin, Phyllis Diller, Dick Cavett, Tony Orlando, Marlo Thomas, Jonathan Winters, Ed McMahon, Bob Barker, Tommy Smothers and the late Merv Griffin, among many others.

“I’d love to get back into the classroom now,” Trinklein said. “I have so many great new stories to tell the students.”

Trinklein added that the biggest lesson he learned was that talent is not the key factor in success—it’s tenacity.

“What shocked me was how often these people were rejected early in their careers,” Trinklein said. “Mary Tyler Moore, for example, explained to me that she had lost 10 roles in a row and was quitting the business—but she figured she’d do one last audition, for ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show.’ Of course, that made her career.”

It’s a point Trinklein made regularly to his students during his 20-years of teaching at ISU.

“The students who succeeded were the ones who realized the need to aggressively pursue their goals outside the classroom,” he said. “A college degree is just the first small step.”

Trinklein added that Monty Hall told a story that every college student should hear. “When Monty was a nobody in his early 20s, he sent a letter to every network executive in

New York—weekly,” Trinklein said. “This went on for months; he had no idea if anyone was reading these things. But the head of NBC appreciated Hall’s tenacity—and gave him his first big break.”

The “Pioneers of Television” series airs Wednesdays in January, at 7 p.m. Mountain Standard Time on PBS, beginning Jan. 2.  Each of the new High Definition episodes focuses on a different genre: sitcoms, late night, variety and game shows.

“SITCOMS,” Wednesday, Jan. 2, 8 p.m.

This episode focuses on the five key sitcoms that shaped the genre: “I Love Lucy,” “The Honeymooners,” “Make Room for Daddy,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show.”

The last remaining Honeymooner, Joyce Randolph, speaks candidly about Jackie Gleason’s distinctive personality. Similarly, Marlo Thomas offers fascinating insights about her father Danny—and the genesis of his sitcom idea.

Andy Griffith typically avoids TV interviews, but he agreed to sit for an extended interview—the result was a rare inside look at the people and techniques that made Griffith’s show work. The episode also includes interviews with both Mary Tyler Moore and Dick Van Dyke—recounting their years together on the breakthrough Dick Van Dyke Show.

Hundreds of sitcom episodes were culled for the most-entertaining tidbits—including lost episode clips unseen for five decades.

“LATE NIGHT,” Wednesday, Jan. 9, 8 p.m.

The distinct contributions of Johnny Carson, Steve Allen, and Jack Paar and headline this episode. Merv Griffin also emerges as a key player on the late-night scene. His interview with Pioneers of Television was his last before passing away. Regis Philbin offers revelations about has years as a late-night sidekick to Joey Bishop. And Dick Cavett and Arsenio Hall provide insight into how their shows broadened the late-night audience.

For the first time, Sigourney Weaver offers personal details about her father Pat—the inventor of “Tonight,” and the most-visionary TV executive ever, according to Trinklein.

This episode is peppered with dozens of never-before-seen clips, including Johnny Carson performing in his early 20s.

“VARIETY,” Wednesday Jan. 16, 8 p.m.

This episode begins with Ed Sullivan’s “Toast of the Town” and Milton Berle’s “Texaco Star Theater” and progresses through “The Carol Burnett Show,” “Smothers Brothers” and “Laugh-in,” among others.

Tim Conway and Jonathan Winters tell hilarious stories about their variety show years. And Tommy Smothers reveals new details about the behind-the-scenes story of his landmark show.

Pat Boone offers a compelling first-hand account of the racist policies that made it difficult for him to book African-American guests. In the same vein, Tony Orlando reveals the back story behind his role as the first Hispanic host of a variety series.

Additionally, this episode includes fresh bites from our earlier interviews with Milton Berle, Red Skelton and Sid Caesar. Clips for this episode include standouts such as Flip Wilson’s Geraldine, and Andy Williams singing “Moon River.”

“GAME SHOWS,” Wednesday Jan. 23, 8 p.m.

This episode traces one of broadcasting’s strongest genres—from its nascent beginnings in radio through it’s heyday in the late 60s.

Bob Barker talks about his earliest work, and Merv Griffin details the eureka moments that led to the creation of “Wheel of Fortune” and “Jeopardy.” Also, Monty Hall recounts his compelling rags-to-riches story. And Betty White remembers her role as the first female emcee.  

In addition, this episode features rare backstage footage of “The Price is Right” —filmed the very day Bob Barker announced his retirement.

Clips for this episode are wide-ranging, and include Phyllis Diller’s first TV appearance—as a painfully shy contestant on Groucho Marx’s “You Bet Your Life.”

For more information, visit: pbs.org/pioneersoftelevision.