Quick—what’s your favorite episode of I Love Lucy: the candy factory, grape stomping or Vitameatavegamin? Where did Beaver Cleaver live? What statue listened to Dobie Gillis’ parkside soliloquies? Okay, an easy one: What was Ralph Kramden’s blustering threat to his wife?
If memory fails, you haven’t been watching television lately. The answers (Mayfield, Rodin’s Thinker and “to the moon, Alice”) are right there on your dial, often in living black and white. As independent TV stations and cable proliferate and as a generation raised on Gilligan’s Island grows nostalgic, yesterday’s sitcoms have become a lucrative commodity. How lucrative? In the 30 years that it’s been in syndication—the process by which network castoffs are sold to individual stations—I Love Lucy has, earned $300 million. M*A*S*H, in six years, has earned $250 million. Although L.A. station KTLA won’t say what it recently paid for rights to rerun Magnum, P.I. in 1986, the series’ syndicators had asked $100,000 for each of 100-plus episodes.
How the old shows’ stars feel about the renaissance often depends on one thing: whether they have a share of the profits. And that usually depends on two things: whether they own part of the show, and when the show was made. One industry journal estimated that Alan Alda—who, as the star of an extremely successful series, was able to negotiate an enviable contract—may eventually earn $30 million from rehashed M*A*S*H. Dick Van Dyke, who owns part of his old show, has been getting royalty checks for years.
But most of yesterday’s stars haven’t been so lucky. Before 1971, the standard TV actor’s contract made little provision for syndication. The ironic result is that most of the stars of The Beverly Hillbillies, The Honeymooners, Green Acres, Get Smart!, My Three Sons and the rest don’t make a cent from their series’ continued successes. Some are happy enough with memories: “It was so much fun, I would have done it for nothing,” says Flipper’s Tommy Norden. Others are philosophical: Says Dwayne Hickman—once and forever Dobie Gillis—”Even if you made a deal, you would still have the problem of creative accounting.” But many are ironic or blackly bitter. The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Rose Marie believes that “The only way for the actors on that show to get any money would be for the owners—Carl Reiner, Danny Thomas and Dick Van Dyke—to give us a bonus. I am not expecting that to happen.” Says Gilligan’s Jim Backus, now 72 and ailing, “I feel miserable, suicidal.”
To see the stars as they were, turn your dial. To find out how they are now, turn the page…
Reported by Jane Hall and the Los Angeles bureau