Thursday, May 28, 2015

Remembering BEACON HILL

Due to the success of both DOWNTON ABBEY and the overall revival of interest in period drama- witnessed by shows on both PBS and cable - NBC gave a bright green light to Julian Fellowes’ THE GILDED AGE - a serialized drama set in late 19th Century New York City and focusing on the rising and plunging fortunes of “the princes of the American Renaissance.” The show was announced in 2012 and Fellowes will finally begin writing it later this year when his work on DOWTON ABBEY wraps up.

This news led me to recall BEACON HILL, what was considered by many to be one of the biggest flops of the 1970s. BEACON HILL was CBS's costly (the pilot reportedly cost a million dollars!) and overhyped attempt to recreate the magic of the original UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS. 

The series dealt with he Lassiter family in 1920s Boston, a wealthy Catholic clan. and their staff of servants. The show opened on Prohibition Eve, January 15, 1920 as The Lassiters celebrated with their last drinks. Subplots dealt with brothels, affairs with professors and dalliances with between Lassiters and their staff.

Rather than filmed, the show was videotaped like a sitcom or daytime soap, much like many PBS imports from England. Ratings for the August 26th premiere were healthy (25.4 rating/44 share), but subsequent episodes nosedived, and despite  John Hawkesworth, the producer of UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS, being called over from Britain to assist.

The patriarch was Benjamin Lassiter (Stephen Elliott, later Douglas Channing on FALCON CREST) - a self-made businessman who dabbled in the corrupt Boston politics of the day.

Benjamin’s wife was Mary Lassiter (Nancy Marchand, later the matriarch of THE SOPRANOS) - an elegant society woman who was past her best years.

The Lassiters had five children:

Maude Palmer (Maeve McGuire, later Countess Elena DePoulignac on ANOTHER WORLD) a conventional mother of four, married to the pleasant Richard, who had an interest in yachting (played by the versatile Edward Herrmann).

Emily Bullock (DeAnn Mears, later Judge Maria Gance on LAW & ORDER) was a caustic, jealous beauty. She was married to Trevor (Ray Cooper) who was "old Boston, old money".

Betsy Bullock (TV-movie stalwart Linda Purl) was Trevor and Emily's spoiled 18-year-old daughter.

Fawn Lassiter (daytime soap graduate Kathryn Walker) was artsy, freethinking and sexually liberated - and engaged in an scandalous affair with an Italian piano teacher.

Rosamund Lassiter (Kitty Winn from EXORCIST 1 & 2) was an “old maid” at age 29 - she had a keen business sense and was sleeping with the family chauffeur (Paul Rudd, later Earl Trent on KNOTS LANDING).

Robert Lassiter (David Dukes, later Joseph McPhee on DAWSON’S CREEK) - the lone male heir - had returned from France after the Great War minus an arm and full of bitterness. In one controversial plot, Robert visited a black brothel.

Arthur Hacker (British Music all star George Rose) was the family butler, and like his UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS counterpart, Mr Hudson, he was a father-figure below stairs.

He was married to  Emmeline (Beatrice Straight, later Queen Hippolyte on WONDER WOMAN) a poker-playing Irish housekeeper.

Emmeline’s niece, Maureen Mahaffey (Susan Blanchard - later Tina in the notorious MR. T. AND TINA) was also employed in the house as a maid.

The Lassiter cook, William Piper was African-American (Richard Ward - who later played Steve Martin’s father in THE JERK).

There was a footman named  Terence O'Hara (played by David Rounds, Mel’s cousin Wendell on ALICE) as well as maids Kate  (Lisa Pelikan) and Eleanor (Sydney Swire).

Also appearing: Ken Kercheval (DALLAS), Robert Prosky (HILL STREET BLUES), Michael Nouri (FLASHDANCE) and Holland Taylor (TWO AND A HALF MEN).

The series was produced by the Robert Stigwood Organization with music by Marvin Hamlisch (A CHORUS LINE). It was never rerun, never syndicated, and never released on home video. The show was put out of its misery after only 11 of the 13 episodes had aired. Let’s hope THE GILDED AGE has a better fate.