4 July 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Hackett hacked while Burnett burned
'Stanley' was a short-lived sitcom that ran on NBC from 24 September 1956 to 11 March 1957. It was broadcast live, which was not especially unusual for that time. The show had some interesting credits: it was produced and directed by Max Liebman, the creative genius behind 'Your Show of Shows', and several of the 'Your Shows' scriptwriters were on hand ... including Neil Simon, who co-wrote the pilot episode. The theme song (also called 'Stanley') was poor stuff, but it was written by the same tunesmiths who wrote Bob Hope's great Christmas song 'Silver Bells'.
The most interesting aspect of 'Stanley' was its cast. The lead roles were played by Buddy Hackett and Carol Burnett (two performers whom I've never liked), who at this time were just beginning their hugely successful careers. But Hackett and Burnett were not a good team; their comedic styles did not mesh well, and they personally disliked each other. Carol Burnett was in no position to rock the boat at this early point in her career, but years later she made known her dislike of Hackett, who was a chronic troublemaker notorious for ad-libbing and for 'corpsing' other actors (trying to make them break character on-camera). It's significant that, during the very long run of Carol Burnett's variety show, Buddy Hackett was never booked for a guest appearance ... even though he was a major name at the time.
'Stanley' starred Hackett as Stanley Peck, the manager of a newspaper stall/ticket agency (an unlikely combination) in the lobby of the Sussex-Fenton, a posh Manhattan hotel. This premise was chosen carefully: by making Stanley a character who spent most of his time behind a counter, the show's creators ensured that Buddy Hackett would have to constrain his ad-libs and stay inside the counter, rather than wandering out of camera range during the live broadcast. Stanley was meant to be a nice guy, deeply interested in the personal problems of the hotel's staff and guests. (These problems, of course, were meant to supply the springboards for individual episodes.)
Although Carol Burnett was the female lead, her role was very much secondary to Hackett's. She played his pawky girlfriend Celia, whose mental cluelessness and physical awkwardness were supposed to provide a running source of comedy. Simultaneous to her brief run in this series, Burnett was attracting attention with her guest shots in variety shows on rival network CBS.
The supporting cast of 'Stanley' were also interesting. These included Tom Pedi as a prole friend of Stanley's, and Jane Connell as Celia's friend Jane. (There seems to be some sort of cult following for Jane Connell, whose appeal entirely baffles me.) Heard but not seen was Paul Lynde, snarling sarcastic comments down the hotel's tannoy system as Horace Fenton, the unseen owner of the hotel chain. An obscure actor named Frederic Tozere played Mr Phillips, the manager of the Sussex-Fenton, who was sometimes sympathetic to Stanley's bumbling attempts to be helpful.
The scripts for 'Stanley' were not especially good. This was partly down to budgetary and technical constraints which required the action to take place almost entirely within the hotel lobby. The largest problem (and that's not a reference to his girth) was Buddy Hackett himself. Hackett never stuck to a script if he could avoid it. In 1965, while he was starring in the Broadway musical 'I Had a Ball', Buddy Hackett broke character at almost every performance to speak directly to the audience and perform long comedy monologues that were irrelevant to the proceedings onstage. Reportedly, he tried to pull similar antics during the brief run of 'Stanley'.