The best years of our lives were on the TV screen

March 01, 1995|By MIKE LITTWIN

The thing about the '50s, as anyone can tell you who grew up in that decade, is that we're not sure whether we actually lived it or just watched it on TV.

Somehow, that matters. Because since Ronald Reagan, the '50s have become the decade of choice. Of course, Reagan loved the '50s. Why not? He had that cool gig on "General Electric Theater."

Now we've moved beyond simple nostalgia. The boomer politicians have made '50s-envy a matter of national policy.

The only thing certain is that the youngsters of that era, who are now running the country, became the first TV generation. We started out with TV dinners and moved on to breakfast at Wimbledon. TV is our common area of reference.

That's why no one should have been surprised when Dan Quayle attacked Murphy Brown, a TV character, for being a single mother. Quayle made a powerful point -- that you don't have to know how to spell "remote" in order to use one.

And yet, I was a little taken aback when Phil Gramm, a self-styled intellectual who wants to be your next president, came up with his own TV reference. The topic was the surgeon general. Gramm, who doesn't like the current nominee, said we should choose surgeons general who are like Dr. Marcus Welby.

Well, sure. We also can choose lawyers like Arnie Becker and cops like Andy Sipowicz and neighbors like Al Bundy.

But -- and I could be wrong here -- these may not be real people.

Still, Marcus Welby, M.D., is a wonderful choice. He was played by Robert Young, who earlier starred in the archetypal '50s TV show, "Father Knows Best." Father was no angry white male, I'll tell you. Jim Anderson, kindly insurance agent, lived in a time when there was no crime, taxes were low, mom stayed home with the kids and lawns were neatly mowed.

Newt Gingrich is a big admirer of the values of the '50s, although he didn't exactly grow up in a "Father Knows Best" family. He was born to a teen-age mother. He grew up with a stepfather. His sister is a lesbian.

Many Americans didn't quite fit the TV-sitcom-family image. In fact, if you look at the major politicians who grew up in the '50s, you see similar stories. You know all about -- too much about -- Bill Clinton's up-from-adversity trip to the White House. Gramm's parents were each married twice before they met. They were divorced and remarried by the time little Phil hit his third birthday.

The '50s? They were swell. We had hula hoops and Davy Crockett. We saw the U.S.A. in our Chevrolet, or, in some cases, from the back of the bus.

But if you want an interesting little irony -- and, gosh, who doesn't? -- you can check out the lives of the people who played the characters on "Father Knows Best." The young cast of the perfect American TV family all lived in what used to be called broken homes. Now we call them single-parent families.

There was Bud, the teen-age scamp, played by Billy Gray. He grew up wild on the streets of Hollywood, a child actor with virtually no supervision. When he wasn't working, the family lived on his unemployment checks.

Once he got the job on "Father," the money was good. It was so good that, after rehearsal, Gray would retreat with his friends into the canyons of L.A. for a little recreational drug use. Eventually, when the show ended, he would be busted for pot and actually do 45 days jail time.

There was Kathy (also Kitten), played by Lauren Chapin, the cute little girl we watched grow into puberty. She, too, supported her family. Her mother, Chapin once said, turned her paychecks into "beautiful homes, beautiful cars, beautiful parties." In later years, Chapin and her mother would argue over residuals.

It got worse. Chapin married at 16. Divorced at 18. Then came heroin addiction. And prostitution. She, too, went to prison, in this case for attempted check forgery. Eventually, she kicked her drug habit and became an evangelist.

Betty (also Princess), played by Elinor Donahue, was the wise, older sibling. In real life, she couldn't wait to get away from her domineering stage mother. She was so desperate, she would say later, she often considered suicide.

What were the '50s really like? Maybe they weren't exactly like the show. Years after "Father" ended, Gray said: "I look back at the show and see it as a lie, a lie that was sold to the American people."

Which explains, among other things, why Gray never went on to become a politician.

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