The first season of the popular ’80s family comedy Mr. Belvedere comes out on DVD on March 17, and Jeff Stein, one of the executive producers and creators of the show, was kind enough to answer a few questions about it. Stein and his writing partner Frank Dungan came from one of the all-time great sitcoms, Barney Miller, where they joined the writing staff in the fifth season and stayed until the end of the series; they wrote the last two parts of the three-part series finale, among many other episodes.
After Barney Miller was canceled, they signed a development deal with 20th Century Fox, but found that there wasn’t much of a market any more for adult-oriented sitcoms in the Barney Miller vein. They finally got a project when ABC expressed interest in having them develop a property that Fox already owned, and which had already been made into two unsold TV pilots by others. “ABC called us in for a meeting and pitched us the idea,” Stein says. “We were a little taken aback, since they already had Who’s the Boss, which was tanking, and we weren’t sure why they would want another housekeeper show. But since we hadn’t gotten anywhere with our adult, Barney Miller type ideas, we agreed to write a pilot and show the network we were team players. Perhaps it was this indifferent approach that led our Belvedere to its rightful place in TV infamy.” The executive producers of the show were Stein, Dungan and another Barney Miller writer-producer, Tony Sheehan. Sheehan directed all of the first season, and all of the second was directed by Barney Miller‘s regular director, Noam Pitlik.
Watching the show again on Shout! Factory’s five-disc DVD set — which includes the first season of seven episodes (it was a mid-season replacement) and the 22-episode second season — I think the reason for the enduring cult appeal of Mr. Belvedere is the fact that it was one of the few family sitcoms of the era where the characters were dysfunctional and openly hostile, within the boundaries of the need to have everyone make up and learn something by the end of the episode. The character of the youngest kid, Wesley (Brice Beckham) was particularly popular with kids because he was an out-and-out brat, a self-described sociopath with destructive urges who is basically evil even when he tries to do the right thing. He really does seem like the prototype for Bart Simpson, especially when you learn in one episode that his parents had to get married because the mom was already pregnant.
Stein says that their approach to writing the show was that “since nobody at the studio or network level was interested in smart, we tried to make it as subversive as possible.”
The most famous episode on this set is “Wesley’s Friend,” where Wesley’s previously-unseen best friend gets AIDS from a tainted blood transfusion. Here is Stein’s explanation of how that episode came about:
Frank and I were managed at the time by the legendary Helen Kushnick. Her son Sam was perhaps the first publicly acknowledged AIDS cases from tainted blood (a transfusion he received as an infant), and we did the episode as a homage to him.
In later seasons, Mr. Belvedere did other “very special” episodes, but those, Stein says, were done with less sincere motives:
Every other “issue” show after that was nothing but a desperate attempt to get a TV guide close-up, which never happened. Not even for the “Wesley gets molested” episode, which still makes my toes curl to this very day.
Perhaps because of the air of weirdness and wrongness that pervaded the show (Bob Uecker as a dad, a running gag about how no two clocks in the house ever kept the same time), Belvedere retained a cult following among people who grew up watching it, and has been frequently referred to in pop culture. The DVD includes two of the most famous: the great Saturday Night Live “Guy Who Plays Mr. Belvedere Fan Club” sketch, with Tom Hanks, Chris Farley and Phil Hartman at their very best, and the Family Guy sequence where Stewie screams the theme song. (Ilene Graaf, the mother on the show, says in the DVD special features that when she heard Stewie do that, she thought “We’ve arrived!”) But perhaps the best and most elaborate of all Belvedere references was in the second season of the show Ned & Stacey, where Sheehan was a co-executive producer and Stein was a consultant. The show did an episode called “Saved By the Belvedere” where Ned (Thomas Hayden Church) gets his idol Mr. Belvedere to be in a commercial, only to find out that the guy (who is never referred to by his real name in the whole episode,) actually thinks he is Mr. Belvedere. “Tony told me the other (younger) writers on staff were huge fans,” Stein says, “and they all hatched this plot together. A very funny episode, too, I thought.”
Stein also clarified a couple of legends that have grown up around this show. One is the “feud” with the ABC show Sledge Hammer!, where the creator, Alan Spencer, kept taking shots at them and continued to do so on his DVD commentaries. “Sledge Hammer made fun of us on-air, so we made fun of them back. (Once, I think) No tires were slashed, or dead roses sent. Pretty tame, as feuds go.”
There’s also a famous urban legend that production had to be stopped when Christopher Hewett (Mr. Belvedere) injured his testicles. This one, it turns out, is no urban legend: “Yes, it’s true. Mr. Belvedere did sit on his own balls. He fell backwards riding in a convertible in the Hollywood Christmas Parade. We had to shut down for a week while he healed. Pat Rickey, our producer, prefaced this revelation with the statement, ‘Now, you can’t tell anybody this…'”
The DVDs appear to have all the episodes uncut (23.5 minutes’ worth of running time, standard for the period), and the special feature is a 15-minute making-of consisting of new interviews with four of the five surviving cast members. (Tracy Wells, aka “Heather,” was the only no-show.)
Thanks to Mr. Stein for taking the time to answer these questions. Here, finally, is his answer to the question of how he feels about this show being revived on DVD: “I think it’s about damn time. Though I won’t hold my breath waiting for anyone to send me a copy.”