It Always Comes in Threes: Suzanne Pleshette, Allan Melvin and John Stewart
You may have heard the adage, “Bad news comes in threes,” and it was never more true for me than yesterday, January 19th, when the entertainment world lost Suzanne Pleshette (70), Allen Melvin (84) and singer/songwriter John Stewart (68), each a unique talent and a personal favorite. In an industry where instant stardom often leads to equally quick disappearances, these performers were in it for the long haul, each working at their chosen craft for decades.
UPDATE: (October 3, 208): Nick Reynolds, a founding member of the Kingston Trio, passed away, Wednesday, October 1st of complications following surgery at a Chula Vista, Calif., hospital. He was 75. His passing leaves Bob Shane as the only living original member of the Trio. The third founder, Dave Guard, died in 1991. For more info, click HERE.
Born January 31, 1937, Pleshette lost her long bout with lung cancer on Saturday evening. Perhaps best known as Emily Hartley on television’s long-running The Bob Newhart Show (1972-77), she also had memorable turns in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) and The Miracle Worker on Broadway. Her television career spanned nearly fifty years, from her 1957 appearance on Harbourmaster to her final appearance as Lois Whitley on Will & Grace in 2004.
Pleshette’s sultry beauty and inimitable voice graced several of my personal favorites, including Walt Disney Productions’ The Ugly Dachshund (1966), The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffin (1967), Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968 ) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976), three of the four beside co-star Dean Jones. She also appeared opposite Tony Curtis in a Disney-related picture (one of the only films featuring extensive interior shots from inside Disneyland), the fun and under-rated 40 Pounds of Trouble (1963), which was also filmed up at the casinos of Stateline at Lake Tahoe’s southern shore. Amidst her large volume of work on the small screen, Pleshette starred in the pilot of The Wild, Wild West and in two early episodes of Route 66, both currently available on DVD sets.
Veteran actor Allan Melvin, who died of cancer Saturday in Los Angeles at 84, made his television debut co-starring beside Phil Silvers on You’ll Never Get Rich (aka Sergeant Bilko and The Phil Silvers Show). Melvin may not be as well-known as Pleshette, but he became a familiar supporting face on two other long-running shows as well: The Brady Bunch (as Alice’s boyfriend Sam, the Butcher) and All in the Family (as Archie’s pal Barney Hefner, a role he continued on the spin-off series, Archie Bunker’s Place). He gravitated to voice acting early, beginning with the role of Sgt. Snorkle on the animated Beetle Bailey in 1963. This led to perhaps his best-known voice role, that of Magilla Gorilla on the eponymous Hanna-Barbera series.
Allan Melvin (right), with Phil Silvers and Harvey Lembeck in The Phil Silvers Show
But it was as Bilko’s reluctant flunky Corporal Henshaw (alongside the late, great Harvey Lembeck as Corporal Rocco Barbella) that I remember Melvin best. Growing up in Northern California, far from mythical Fort Baxter, Kansas (and the New York City television studios where the shows had been shot before I was born), I became hooked on all things Bilko when independent Channel 2 out of Oakland programmed them weeknights at 11:30 pm. When the station considered replacing the show a couple of years later, the late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone himself petitioned to keep it on the air. A 50th Anniversary DVD set came out a year ago, and I was able to relive it all over again, complete with episode intros from Melvin.
John Stewart, who replaced Kingston Trio co-founder Dave Guard in 1961 and went on to a four decade solo career as a singer and songwriter, died early Saturday in San Diego after suffering a massive stroke or brain aneurysm with wife Buffy Ford, his children and many longtime friends at his side. He was 68.
For a man who had played his music for audiences all over the world, it is ironic that his life ended right where it began. Stewart was born in San Diego on September 5, 1939, but his father’s career as a horse trainer took the family to Pasadena when Stewart was young. He began his musical career as a rock-n-roller, cutting a demo single with his high school band (The Furies) in the mid-fifties, but began to write folk songs after hearing the Kingston Trio when they appeared in Los Angeles. He promptly formed The Cumberland Three, who recorded three LPs for Roulette Records. The Kingston Trio had already recorded two of his compositions before he was asked to replace Guard, who had chosen to leave the Trio when it was still the #1 group in America.
Nick Reynolds, John Stewart and Bob Shane of the “Stewart lineup” Kingston Trio (1961-67). Reynolds was reportedly at Stewart’s bedside when he passed away.
Despite the pressure, Stewart (who was called upon to replace Guard’s vocals and banjo work as well as his primary on-stage spokesman cum comedian role) was up to the task, and the Trio released thirteen more original LPs (For Capitol, Decca and Tetragrammton) before the chilly winds of change blew popular music — and Stewart’s career with it — back to rock. When the Trio disbanded for a time in 1967, Stewart began a musical journey which produced scores of songs and albums for several labels, including Capitol, Warner, RCA, RSO, and others (including a few of his own).
He hit it big twice during his post-trio days, twelve years apart. The first was as a songwriter when he penned “Daydream Believer,” a huge hit for the Monkees in 1967 (and one which eventually appeared on his first Warner LP, The Lonesome Picker Rides Again) and the second was as a solo artist when his song “Gold” hit the Top Five in 1979 (it remains his biggest solo hit). The prolific Stewart continued writing, recording and touring through the early 2000’s, and his annual Kingston Trio fantasy camps (he and former bandmate Reynolds created and co-hosted them) provided hundreds of long-time fans a chance to play and harmonize alongside their guitar-slinging heroes.
I saw Stewart live many times during his later solo era, and — whether alone or with a small combo — his sets were always marked by a large number of audience requests and his trademark good humor. His prolific pen and deftness with both a lyrical hook and a live audience will not be forgotten by anyone who experienced them live or on LP.