Panned by the critics and often on the verge of cancellation, Mr. Belvedere “wasn’t Cutting edge, wasn’t hip,” says Ilene Graff, who played Marsha Owens. It may not have been cool, but it was certainly warm. Enough viewers tuned in to keep Mr. Belvedere gainfully employed.
In 1940, English actor Christopher Hewett fought in the Battle of Britain. Forty years later he fought the battle of the bulge. When he played the veddy proper butler, the 6’3″ Hewett weighed 280 lbs. The producers wanted him to trim down, says the actor, now 78, “but if I’d lost the weight they wanted, I wouldn’t have seemed so…portentous.” Along with his daily dose of doughnuts on the set, Hewett, a London stage star who made his Broadway debut in 1956’s My Fair Lady, had rules. Recalls costar Ilene Graff: “He announced the first day, ‘No gum chewing!’ He’s so big and has such an imposing voice, nobody dreamed of contradicting him.” All the same, castmate Tracy Wells remembers him as “a big, lovable teddy bear.” Before the last season, Hewett helped out budding writer-producer-director Rob Stone, who played Kevin Owens, by starring in his short film about the homeless. “There were no perks,” recalls Stone. “But Chris never complained. He was a huge trouper.” Now retired, the never-married Hewett remains a staunch Briton. He travels to London twice a year to visit relatives. His Hollywood apartment is crammed with a collection of English china and a portrait of Prince Charles. He still sounds like the vinegary butler. “I’m bothered by arthritis,” he says with a sigh. “What can you expect? I’m nearly 80. A friend said, ‘You’ll live to be 100!’ and I thought, ‘Oh, God, I hope not!’ ”
In the middle of the Belvedere run, 16-year-old Tracy Wells, who played the Owenses’ boy-crazy daughter, tooled around L.A. in a red BMW and owned her own house in pricey Coldwater Canyon. But Wells was hardly a carefree teen. In 1987 she was taping Belvedere when her mother, Sylvia, then 45, died of breast cancer. Her father, Allan, now 59, broke the news to her on the set. “We were able to be protective, strong and loving for her,” says Belvedere mom Ilene Graff. The sympathy was invaluable to Wells, 29. “All those people loved me so much,” she says. “I don’t know how else I would have dealt with it.” Financially secure from the show, married eight years to cameraman Erin Cook and a stay-at-home mother of daughter Sarah, 3, and son McKellan, 9 months, Wells doesn’t miss acting—or her Beemer. “Now I have a minivan,” she says. “You can change diapers in the back.”
Documentary director Rob Stone, 37, gets around—Austria, France, Sweden—and gets recognized. “It amazes me,” says Stone. “In Turkey people knew me even though I hadn’t been there before. I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know this person….’ Then I realize.” Belvedere did more than make him famous. Stone forged a close friendship with Brice Beckham (Wesley), who calls him “a big brother,” and the show became a directing workshop. “When I wasn’t in a scene, I was behind the scenes,” says Stone. “Rob has a great work ethic,” says his wife of two years, actress Melissa Chan Stone, 29.”During the show he was also in directing and acting classes at USC.” A decade later, Belvedere still pops up in Stone’s busy life. The LA resident recently produced a mock talk show for the Internet called The Buddy Bolton Show. On one episode, Beckham and Christopher Hewett, Mr. Belvedere himself, came on as guests.
When Tracy Wells found out that she was pregnant with her first child, whom did she call at 7 a.m.? Her TV mom, Ilene Graff. “I just screamed,” recalls Graff, 51. “I was so excited.” Graff, who proudly posts pictures of Tracy’s children in her Studio City, Calif., kitchen, remains a surrogate mother to Wells. “A couple of weeks ago, Tracy and I went out to lunch and sat for hours and gabbed,” Graff says. Her husband of 22 years, musical arranger Ben Lanzarone, 61, agrees that his wife is a born nurturer. “Ilene is a terrific mom” to 16-year-old daughter Nikka, he says. “She brought a lot of herself into the role of Marsha.” Graff—who now sings on cruise ships and at charity events—remembers the cast much more than the show. “That’s the funny thing,” she says. “When people come up and say, ‘You know which episode I like best?…,’ I’m blank. Haven’t a clue.”
WESLEY T. OWENS
As cherubic little mischief-maker Wesley Owens, Brice Beckham was often on the receiving end of Mr. Belvedere’s pithy life lessons. “I’m a very mellow guy.” says Beckham, 24. “I take things as they come. I don’t get worked up about anything. I learned that from Mr. Belvedere.” The extremely shy Beckham, who joined the show when he was 9, was no show-off. “He was never precocious, never bad,” recalls Christopher Hewett. “He always knew his lines.” But acting was not his first love. Beckham, who grew up in Long Beach, Calif., with sister Brooke, 21, and parents, Lutheran pastor Rev. Steve Beckham and Concordia University student counselor Meri, both 47, decided to do Belvedere, he says, to make money for art school. After the show ended, he tried college but soon dropped out. He lives in L.A. with girlfriend of three years, actress Michele Specht, 26, and concentrates on his artwork. “I usually have a reason for doing a picture,” he says. “Either I have a space on the wall or a commission from a friend.” A board member of L.A.’s celebrated Namaste Theater Company, Beckham doesn’t care if he ever does television again. “My main goal,” he says, “is to not make something of myself.”
It was barely a seventh-inning stretch for Bob Uecker, 65, to extend his job as the radio voice of baseball’s Milwaukee Brewers (and star of Miller Lite commercials) to play Belvedere’s wisecracking sportswriter dad. “Those six years were a big part of my life,” says Uecker, who now splits his time between homes in Wisconsin and Arizona. “It’s like the acquisition of another family.” (Uecker and his wife, Judy, 55, have four grown children). Uecker says that he talked to his TV brood “like a father would and helped with the home work.” He also passed along some philosophy. “He’d always remind us not to take things too seriously,” says Tracy Wells, who played his daughter. Costar Ilene Graff recalls, “Bob was the one who would turn up in a dress just for laughs.” When the Belvedere batting average fell, Uecker stepped up to the plate. “If we had bad rating,” says writer-producer Frank Dungan, “Bob would take the whole cast out to dinner.” After the show ended, Uecker filmed two sequels to the 1989 hit Major League, in which he played a sportscaster. And he hasn’t given up his day job. “It’s been a good run,” he says of his 30 years in the Brewers broadcasting booth. “I have no plans to retire.”