“Pioneers of Television” returns for a fourth season on PBS, and it’s a blast from the past not just for the viewers but for the “pioneers” who appear in the episodes.
And a bit of a shock when they look back at themselves.
“You just think — well, gee, we were younger,” said Jimmie Walker (“Good Times”).
“We were heartbreakingly young,” said George Takei of “Star Trek” fame.
“I like my hair,” said Leslie Uggams (“Roots”). “A lot of different hairdos.”
“When I saw myself,” added Ray Romano (“Everybody Loves Raymond”), “I just thought — that was before I had to color it to look like that.”
Even Bob Newhart had some (fake) hairy memories. Because he used to wear a hairpiece on TV.
“It was a divot,” he said. “It was like a bad golfer would leave a clump of grass like that. And they called it a divot and it fit over my head.
“And now I realize it’s been a number of years since I’ve had to put on the divot with the double-faced tape. It was quite an operation.”
As is “Pioneers of Television,” which continues to not just take us down memory lane with some of our favorite TV stars but put their work in historical context.
And provide us with some great anecdotes.
Ray Romano • “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a hugely successful sitcom, but the show’s star didn’t go into it with great expectations. Ray Romano had pretty much no acting experience, so the studio offered to provide him with an acting coach.
“And I said, ‘Sure,’ ” Romano said.
In addition to the formal acting coach, he got some informal help from his co-star/TV dad, Peter Boyle.
“He comes over to me in the middle of rehearsal, and he just grabs my hand,” Romano said. “And he says, ‘It’s just like water. Just let it flow.’
“And I had no idea what it meant. I knew it wasn’t an actory thing, but just the gesture — just the fact that he would take me in like that and calm me down and he was one of my best friends.”
He also learned from his TV mom, Doris Roberts.
“So you just watched these pros, and you would just aspire to be like them,” Romano said. “They took me under their wing.”
But he said it’s “hard to watch” himself in the series’ first episodes. “I cringe a little when I watch some of those first-year episodes.”
George Takei • Generations of Asian Americans have approached George Takei “and said, ‘I decided to go into a specific area to study,’ because they saw me as a helmsman of a galactic starship,” said the man who played Lt. Sulu, the helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
It was an era when Asian Americans were all but invisible on TV. “One of the most touching things” Takei heard from a Trekker came from Tony-winning actor B.D. Wong, who “said to me, ‘I decided to become an actor because I saw you on television.’ ”
Before “Star Trek,” Asian Americans “were either comic buffoons or silent servants or cold, black-hearted, evil villains and usually playing the Japanese soldier, that sort of stereotype characterization,” Takei said. “And, here, they saw me on ‘Star Trek’ as a full member of the leadership team, the best helmsman in the galaxy.
“And at that time, there was this stereotype about Asian drivers. Well, I saw that that was put to rest,” Takei said with a smile.
Leslie Uggams • Half a century ago, Mitch Miller had to do battle with NBC to get Leslie Uggams on TV. Because Uggams is African-American.
“ ‘Sing Along With Mitch’ put me on the map, because Mitch was the first one that fought for me,” Uggams said. “Because the network was trying to get rid of me because the South would not carry the show. We were blacked out — no pun intended.”
Some NBC affiliates in the South refused to air the show because of Uggams’ presence. And NBC, in turn, pressured Miller to get rid of her.
“They were upset because they weren’t selling their beers and cars to everybody,” she said. “And they kept going to Mitch, the network, saying, ‘Get rid of her.’ And he kept saying, ‘No.’ ”
NBC wanted Uggams in solo segments so she could be edited out; Miller refused.
“And then they said, ‘Well, does she have to touch the [white] sing-along men when she’s performing?’ And he said, ‘She is part of the family and she’s staying on the show,’ which I didn’t know at the time.
“And we became such a big hit that the South was hearing about the show. They changed the policy and then I was on national television every week, but it was quite something back then.”
Uggams went on to star in her own short-lived variety show on CBS, and she had a starring role in the groundbreaking miniseries “Roots.”
“I would like to do television now because there are more roles for women over 60, 50,” said the 70-year-old actress. “I think I could be somebody’s sexy mother-in-law, grandmother, whatever.”
Jimmie Walker • In 1974, Jimmie Walker burst onto the scene with one of TV’s great catchphrases. Certainly one of the great one-word catchphrases, if there is such a thing.
“Dy-no-mite!” made him a star and made the sitcom “Good Times” a hit. But if the show’s legendary executive producer, Norman Lear, had had his way, the catchprase never would have happened.
According to Walker, director John Rich “loved it,” but “Norman Lear detested it. He hated it. He just — it literally made him throw up.”
It became his signature, but Walker himself was skeptical.
“I said, ‘John, you cannot just stand in front of people with no storyline and say “dy-no-mite” in the middle of a room,’ ” Walker said. “People will never buy it. They’re not that stupid.”
“And John Rich says, ‘Yes, they are.’ ”
As it turned out — yes, they were.
Bob Newhart • TV icon Bob Newhart said he never worried about what his next job would be, he only worried about his next line.
“I had, kind of, created an art form of being able to hide most of my lines on the set,” he said. “And so my main concern was — where was my next line?”
An accountant-turned-comedian, Newhart headlined his own variety series, “The Bob Newhart Show” (1961-62), which was canceled after one season but won an Emmy as best comedy. He returned in his first sitcom, also titled “The Bob Newhart Show” (1972-78), and returned again in “Newhart (1982-90).
“But I never thought where I’m going to be [next],” he said. “I’m not being modest. I never thought it would last this long. I have to be very honest with you. I thought I might have five years, and that would be it, and that was fine. That was fine.
“Then I always pictured myself like an elevator operator, you know, when they used to operate elevators. And people in the corner would say, ‘That guy used to be Bob Newhart.’ ”
Season 4 of “Pioneers of Television” airs on four consecutive Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on PBS/Ch. 7. The episodes are:
April 15 • “Standup to Sitcom”
April 22 • “Doctors and Nurses”
April 29 • “Breaking Barriers”
May 6 • “Acting Funny”