TV was known as a vast wasteland in the 1960s, yet networks gave time to serious theater such as 1966's production of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," starring Shirley Booth and Hal Holbrook.
The production, which also starred Barbara Loden and the veteran character actor Pat Hingle, will be shown on TCM at 8 p.m. Thursday. An intriguing academic detective story led to the rediscovery of the lost tape of the show, as reported by The New York Times.
Booth, remembered for her TV portrayal of the maid "Hazel" in which she often addressed the flummoxed businessman boss as "Mr. B," would appear miscast as the faded Southern belle Amanda Wingfield, although Jack Gould, pioneering Times TV critic, generally praised the theater veteran's performance.
Jane Klain, the Paley Media Center executive who led the search for the long-lost tape, told the Times that she hated Booth's performance when she saw the show as a teen, and she hasn't changed her opinion. I'll probably give the show a view to see how Booth played the role; she was not known for delicacy.
Before her "Hazel" hit, Booth won three Tonys for Broadway performances, including a memorable turn in William Inge's "Come Back, Little Sheba." She won the Academy Award for her movie performance in the same role as the tortured housewife Lola Delaney. The grim film also starred Burt Lancaster.
The young Holbrook's portrayal of Williams' alter-ego Tom, the sensitive poet working in a St. Louis warehouse, will be worth a look. The veteran actor gained fame for launching the solo performance genre with his "Evening with Mark Twain" productions, and later played Deep Throat in the movie version of "All the President's Men."
Loden, as the crippled daughter Laura, should also draw attention; she was the second wife of Elia Kazan and appeared in several of his projects. She also was the sexy comic foil for Ernie Kovacs on his TV show.
"The Glass Menagerie," Williams' first major hit, is one of the sure-fire classics often revived on Broadway, along with his "Streetcare Named Desire." "The Glass Menagerie" will be on the boards again this winter, with Sally Field taking on the vintage Amanda role.
TCM's showing of the restored tape comes a day after NBC made another foray back to the days of live TV theater, with the broadcast of "Hairspray."
While TV drama fans applaud the rediscovery of the "Glass Menagerie" tape, Klain says she's been disappointed in her search for another well-remembered TV classic, Ethel Merman in "Annie Get Your Gun."
With PBS lost in the swamps of fund-raising schlock, serious theater on TV is increasingly rare. The reshowing of "The Glass Menagerie" will remind us that theater once held a prominent place in American culture.