“That Guy” on “That Girl” — with a “Bewitched” Twitch…er Twist
A Magical Tribute To Actor/Director Ted Bessell
On Friday, October 4, 1996, I had a phone conversation with actor/producer/director Ted Bessell best known as boyfriend Don Hollinger to Marlo Thomas’ Ann Marie on the TV classic That Girl (ABC, 1966-1971).
Both Bessell and I were excited about his then-new assignment to helm a feature film adaptation of another TV classic: Bewitched. As the author of the original Bewitched Book, a subsequent revision titled Bewitched Forever, and two biographies of Bewitched star Elizabeth Montgomery, namely, Twitch Upon A Star and The Essential Elizabeth Montgomery, I was to serve as a consulting writer on the big-screen Bewitched. This new rendition of the adventures of Montgomery’s twitch-witch Samantha Stephens was to be produced by actress/director Penny Marshall, best known as Laverne DeFazio opposite Cindy Williams as Shirley Feeney on TV’s Laverne & Shirley (ABC, 1976–1983). Marshall, sister to producer/writer Garry Marshall (The Odd Couple, Pretty Woman, etc.), got her start on That Girl in a bit role in one of that show’s famed opening sequences (in which Thomas’ Marie would be identified in some random way by a given character who upon noticing her would yelp, “That Girl!”).
Bessell had yet to cast the leads for his fresh take on Bewitched, but rumor had it that Dabney Coleman (Buffalo Bill, 9 to 5) was considering portraying Larry Tate, advertising boss to Darrin Stephens, a role that was shared by Dick York and Dick Sargent on the original Bewitched TV series. Once again, there was a tie-in to That Girl, as in the first season adventures of Ann Marie, Coleman had appeared in a semi-regular capacity as one of her New York apartment building neighbors.
I’ll never forget Bessell’s exuberance in discussing the possibilities of his vision of a new Bewitched. “Herbie!!,” he screeched. “I’ll be in the Hamptons all weekend, and we can talk on Monday. Looking forward to it.”
“I am, as well!” I replied in like.
But we never talked again. That following Sunday, October 6, 1996, only two days after this initial chat with Bessell, I soon realized it would be our last conversation. He passed away, without warning, the victim of a similar heart condition that would on September 11, 2003, just as suddenly take the life of John Ritter, another beloved-TV-icon.
A short time after Ritter died, and as fate would have it, I was hired as a consultant by writer/director Nora Ephron, who eventually took over Bessell’s rein of what ultimately became the 2005 edition of the Bewitched feature film. The movie would by then have its leads in the guise of Nicole Kidman as a version of Montgomery’s original TV “twitch” persona, and Will Ferrell stepping in as the third Darrin (following in the small-screen steps of York and Sargent).
But Ephron’s Bewitched film was not so well-received by the critics or the audience. And fortunately, she would redeem herself by helming and penning the brilliant feature film, Julie & Julia, in 2009.
But one can’t help but wonder how much Bessell could have brought to the Bewitched table with his own unique brand of classic TV affection, and behind-the-scenes magic and expertise, the latter of which involved off-camera skills that he had honed backstage on TV shows like the Emmy-winning gem, The Tracey Ulman Show (Fox, 1987–1990).
With Bessell now gone, of course, it’s all water under the bridge, as too, Ephron, Garry Marshall and his sister Penny have also now passed away, as have those like Montgomery, York, and Sargent for that matter, along with countless other creative souls. At present, the entertainment industry — and the world — is a lot less eclectic and magical.
The loss of Bessell in particular still resonates in the Bewitched sector of what could have been. He may have been best known as that devoted fictional Newsview newsmagazine writer/love interest on That Girl. But Bessell will also forever be remembered as a great guy in real life.
Shortly before Bessell, died, That Girl was scheduled to be honored with an all-star tribute in Los Angeles at the Museum of Television and Radio on October 11, 1996. Instead, the show’s remaining cast and crew including Marlo Thomas, Bernie Kopell (who played Jerry Bauman, Don’s best friend, and fellow-worker at Newsview), Penny Marshall and others gathered to mourn their dear friend whom they tenderly referred to as Teddy.
Bessell (believed to be 61 when he died), was accessible, such that he was unaffected by his celebrity, and came to grips with his Hollinger persona — by which he first felt stereotyped (but which would later bring him sentimental eminence). After That Girl folded, it was a challenge for him to win other roles and be at peace with the character. “Donald Hollinger made me a name but took away the heart of me,” he said in 1989 when he labeled the part a creative “imposition.”
Yet, with its original renewed interest and sentiment shown to That Girl via Nick at Nite and TV Land in the late 1980s and onward, Bessell began to realize his importance and endearing contribution to television’s grand Hall of Fame.
At the same time, the impression of his complete lack of arrogance lingers on in my memory. I remember thinking after our first and only conversation, “Well, of course, he’s down to earth. Anyone who could have played so consoling, warm-hearted and supportive a character as Don Hollinger, with such credibility — would have to be as sincere in real life.”
But my fondest memory of Bessell rests with my first view of his on-screen character’s initial meeting with aspiring actress Ann Marie in the pilot episode That Girl. Thinking she was under assault (when she was actually filming a commercial in Hollinger’s Newsview building), Don, with his briefcase as a weapon, came along and slammed Ann in the head. After she explained the situation, and sought to further generate an already-stressful situation, Don realized his mistake and labeled himself, “Captain Dumb Dumb.”
The line was priceless, and Ted Bessell’s spot-on delivery of it was done with all the charm and likability that any one actor could muster. At that moment, Ann fell in love with Donald Hollinger, along with the rest of us. As Marlo Thomas herself once noted, “Our show was called That Girl, but we all knewit was really about that couple.”
Had Ted Bessell lived, not only would the Bewitched feature film have taken quite a different turn, but the big-screen adaptation of That Girl — with Bessell and Thomas reprising their small-screen roles, was apparently in the works. That would have been historic. Beyond the Batman theatrical movie of 1966, and many cinematic editions of Star Trek, having That Girl showcased on the big screen with its original TV leads would have marked the first time that such a trans-media event would have taken place within a sequel format.
And Bessell was very much anticipating That movie. “I wanted to see what happened to those characters,” he told TV Guide in 1996. And though the original Girl sitcom completed its run with Don and Ann engaged to be wed, Bessell envisioned the twosome finally exchanging vows. “They would have remained friends,” he said. “And I think they would have gotten back together again. He probably would have married, and she might have done well as an actress.”
Of his potential motion picture pairing with Thomas, Bessell relayed to TV Guide, “As long as we’re still alive and kicking, I think it’s a mistake not to do it.”
Instead, it became a dreadful mistake that Bessell left us too soon.
That Girl may still one day make it to the big screen. But it just won’t be the same without Bessell and Thomas. And with regard to Bessell’s involvement with the Bewitched feature film, his good friend Penny Marshall was devastated upon learning of his demise. “He was a great force behind a lot of creative people,” she said at the time.
Great souls usually are.
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