29 January 2004 | cariart
TV's First Popular 'Space-Age' Comedy...
By the early 1960s, as Americans and Soviets orbited the Earth, and the race to place men on the Moon was everyone's favorite after-dinner topic, television had produced a variety of space-oriented shows, mostly stodgy adventures of square-jawed heroes facing the cosmos in fanciful rockets...yet the series that would achieve the greatest popularity didn't feature a human, at all, but a Martian in a crashed 'flying saucer', attempting to 'pass' as human while repairing his spacecraft. Similar in concept to Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet", "My Favorite Martian" was a sweet-natured comedy with low-budget FX, often silly scripts, but one of the most engaging stars in television history, Ray Walston.
At 49, Walston was well-established on Broadway ("Damn Yankees") and had enjoyed success as a character actor in film (SOUTH PACIFIC, TALL STORY, THE APARTMENT), but, despite guesting on television for ten years, he had never starred in his own series, primarily because he didn't have a traditional leading man 'look'. Small, slender, with a mischievous smile and thin grayish blond hair, he was a hard actor to 'type'...which made him the perfect choice to play an extraterrestrial! "My Favorite Martian" was a wonderful showcase for his many acting skills, and, when teamed with young Bill Bixby, cast as 'Tim O'Hara', a reporter who grows to love his 'Uncle Martin' enough to keep his secret, and offer him a cover and sanctuary, there was a magic that almost leapt from the screen.
Bixby, at 29, had been a regular on "The Joey Bishop Show", but seemed doomed to blandly pleasant supporting roles, until "My Favorite Martian" displayed his remarkable comic timing, and, more importantly, his 'likeability' to television audiences. The series would serve as a springboard to a very successful career on the small screen, that would continue until his tragic death from cancer, at 59, in 1993.
As the series grew in popularity, the role of snooping but endearing landlady Laura Lee Brown (Broadway/movie veteran Pamela Britton) would be enlarged and softened, eventually becoming a romantic interest for Martin, and a new regular, Detective Bill Brennan (character actor Alan Hewitt), a veteran cop suspicious of the O'Hara's, and also enamored of Mrs. Brown, would be introduced. Both actors were great fun in their roles, and provided some very memorable moments, during the second and third seasons.
Among Martin's 'powers' were invisibility (whenever he raised the mini-TV antennas in the back of his head), reading minds, and levitating objects with his finger, as well as limited abilities that would appear and disappear whenever he became ill, ate the wrong foods, etc. But his greatest gift was an understanding heart; despite an occasional aside about the human race's primitive nature, he truly loved our planet, and enjoyed watching us 'mature' over the ages. For an alien, he displayed remarkable humanity!
While Walston enjoyed making "My Favorite Martian", he was not devastated when the program was finally canceled, after three seasons. With some of his finest work still ahead of him (THE STING, "Stephen King's The Stand", "Picket Fences", "Star Trek: The Next Generation", and the classic FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, just to name a few), he would be revered as one of the entertainment industry's most beloved and respected actors when he passed away, at 87, in 2001.
"My Favorite Martian" transcends the silliness of it's scripts with the talent and charisma of the remarkable cast. It was, and remains, a well-deserved audience favorite.