23 March 2013 | GusF
An utterly charming and very funny sitcom from days gone by
I only stumbled across this classic 1960s sitcom about two months ago, having been vaguely aware of its existence beforehand and only knowing Patty Duke - who I couldn't have picked out of a line-up - as being Sean Astin's mum. After watching the insanely catchy opening credits, I decided to watch an episode of the series for two main reasons: (a) I've always been a big fan of the wonderful character actor William Schallert, who is probably best known for playing Nilz Baris in the classic "Star Trek" episode "The Trouble with Tribbles" and who still occasionally acts at nearly 91 and (b) there was an adorable Old English Sheepdog. Having previously owned one, I'm extremely partial to the breed! I wasn't expecting much, if I'm honest, but I found it to be an utterly charming and very funny series from the get go and began watching it from the beginning. Well, the dog disappeared without explanation about halfway through the first season but otherwise no complaints from me!
The series' premise may be a bit far-fetched but, considering the 1960s produced sitcoms featuring witches, genies and talking horses, it's pretty damn realistic, comparatively speaking. It concerns 16-year-old Cathy Lane (Patty Duke), the daughter of a globetrotting foreign correspondent, going to live with her uncle Martin (William Schallert) and aunt Natalie (Jean Byron) in Brooklyn Heights. Martin and Natalie have a daughter named Patty who is the same age as Cathy and just happens to look absolutely identical to her. The "explanation" for this is that Cathy and Patty's fathers are identical twins, which is quite funny as Patty Duke doesn't resemble William Schallert (who plays Cathy's father Kenneth in a few episodes) even slightly! While the premise is certainly gimmicky, the cousins' resemblance is used as a plot device far less than you might think. It's mostly an excuse for Patty Duke to play two completely different characters, the constantly scheming and slightly crazy Patty and the quiet, polite and demure Cathy, which she does to perfection. I sometimes forget that they are played by the same person. She won an Oscar at the age of 16 and it's easy to see why. Rounding out the main cast are Paul O'Keefe as Patty's wisecracking little brother Ross and Eddie Applegate as Richard Harrison, her gormless but good-natured half-puppy, half-ape of a boyfriend.
Most episodes focus on Patty's dating life or feature her jumping into a new project or scheme with a huge amount of (i.e. too much) enthusiasm, realising that she's gotten in over her head and being rescued by either Cathy or her parents. Cathy often acts as Patty's conscience and puts her back on the right track. The best thing about Patty is that, rather unusually for sitcoms of the era, she was a multi-faceted character who could at turns be kind, manipulative, sweet, egotistical, vulnerable and a fire storm. Cathy is a bit more one note at times but that's okay as she was designed as a foil for Patty anyway. William Schallert and the late Jean Byron are both extremely good as Patty's kind, patient, loving and often extremely understanding parents as they make Martin and Natalie seem like real people. They have fast become one of favourite TV fathers and mothers.
The humour is the series is gentle, generally producing a steady stream of chuckles and the occasional belly laugh in this fan, with many of the funniest lines being delivered (perfectly) by Paul O'Keefe, who was only 12 when the series started, almost all of which are at Patty's expense. It's a shame that he never got another big role (and only a few small ones) after the series ended. From what I can tell, the series is an accurate if idealised depiction of middle class 1960s America with Patty being a typical American teenager of the era, albeit one who faces more farcical situations and less serious problems than her real life counterparts. Overall, the Lanes feel like a real family, which isn't often the case with sitcom families of the era.
One thing that I found refreshing about the series is that quite a few of the extras, particularly in the school scenes, are African-Americans, which again wasn't common in late 1950s and early 1960s sitcoms. Apparently, only one single solitary black person appears in "Leave It to Beaver", which ran for 234 episodes. However, none of them are in Patty and Cathy's circle of friends and in the first two seasons only two black people - one of them being Sammy Davis, Jr. - have any dialogue. Still, it was a baby step in the right direction.
I'm curious to see how well and how fondly remembered the series is by people who watched it while it was originally on from 1963 to 1966. For those of you who aren't familiar with it, I can't recommend it highly enough. The acting, particularly from Patty Duke and William Schallert, and comic writing are both top notch. As an Irish person born in 1987, I'm proof that you don't need to be an American baby boomer to enjoy the series!