Best TV Shows You’ve Never Watched: THE FAMOUS TEDDY Z

14 years before he moved in with Charlie Sheen, Jon Cryer was cast as the star in this TV sitcom on CBS. I remember that there was a lot of hype for this series, created by Hugh Wilson, in the lead-up to its premier, I saw many commercials for it and remember reading lots of positive reviews in various newspapers and magazines, including TV Guide, from critics. So this was clearly expected to be a breakout hit for CBS that season.

Cryer starred as Teddy Zakalokis, a young man from a conservative Greek-American family. As the show opens, we learn that he had recently left the army, and was working in the mailroom of a powerful Hollywood talent agency. This was just a temporary job for him, taken while most of the regular mailroom workers were off during winter vacation, and when it was done Teddy was expected to go work at his family’s bakery, a prospect that he doesn’t particularly look forward to but he doesn’t have many other options and doesn’t want to disappoint his family. Tom La Grua played Richie Herby, the mailroom manager, who hired Teddy specifically because, unlike everyone else who comes to work in the mailroom, Teddy has no ambitions of becoming an agent, so he figures Teddy will take the job seriously while he’s there, unlike the other workers who just view the position as a boring but necessary stepping stone in their careers(the progression seems to be you go from the mailroom, to becoming an agent’s secretary, to becoming an agent).

The Late Alex Rocco played Al Floss, the most successful agent at the agency. One night, Al’s biggest client, actor Harland Kevo (Dennis Lipscomb) is coming back to town and needs to be picked up from the airport. Despite being a major talent, Kevo is known for being extremely temperamental, so Al doesn’t want to do it himself, and Teddy ends up being assigned to go pick up Kevo. Teddy is considered a “safe” choice, since he has no interest in working in Hollywood so Al isn’t worried that he’ll try to steal his client. But during the limo ride from the airport Teddy refuses to back down to Kevo’s egotistical demands, and when Kevo challenges Teddy to a fight, Teddy accepts and punches Kevo in the stomach, knocking the wind out of him. Both shocked by and impressed with the young man, Kevo then hires Teddy as his new agent. So just like that, Teddy, with no experience at all, finds himself the agent of one of the biggest actors in Hollwood, and now he must learn the ways of show-business. Hilarity ensues.

Truthfully, the entire time I watched it I assumed that the character of Harland Kevo was based on Jack Nicholson. And I thought the premise of Teddy’s career was based on David Geffen, whom I know worked in a mailroom before he became an agent. But researching this show for this post it turns out that Kevo was actually a stand-in for Marlon Brando, and the premise is based on a man named Jay Kanter who was actually a mailroom clerk when he became Brando’s agent

Rounding out the main cast was Jane Sibbett, as Teddy’s secretary Laurie. Laurie was initially working in the mailroom with dreams of becoming an agent, and therefore was pretty resentful when Teddy just suddenly became an agent despite not paying his dues, so Laurie was both a rival and potential love interest to Teddy. Milton Selzer as Abe, the good-natured head of the talent agency, who tries to help Teddy (unlike Al, who constantly attempts to undermine him). There was also Erica Yohn as Teddy’s sweet old grandmother, whom he lives with and who still wants him to work at the family bakery, and Josh Blake as Teddy’s teenage brother Aristotle, who also lives with them.

In retrospect, the inclusion of those last two in the main cast may be part of why this series didn’t catch on as it was expected to. I enjoyed it, had every episode taped on VHS, and if I recall correctly it was paired with Murphy Brown, which was a big hit at the time, and it should be noted that Alex Rocco (who ended up winning a Best Supporting Actor In A Comedy Series Emmy Award in 1990 for his role on this series) guest-starred in an episode of Murphy Brown playing Al Floss), but the show ended up canceled after 15 episodes. But while I enjoyed the series overall, I’d say it was at its strongest when it focused on Teddy trying to learn the ways of show business.

In particular, I enjoyed the relationship between Teddy and Harland Kevo. Dennis Lipscomb was a delight as this egotistical and eccentric movie star. He appeared in 5 episodes, and those were some of the funniest. In one, Teddy accompanies Kevo to a meeting with a movie studio that wants to hire Kevo for a new film. As the producers try to pitch their film to Kevo, Kevo appears barely interested and just mutters random comments about “acid rain.” And Teddy, of course, has no idea what he’s doing. And then finally at the end Kevo sits up straight and rapidly lists all of his requirements including approval of script, director and casting, his base salary plus percentage of the gross, etc., and then insists on a $50,000 signing bonus for Teddy for, in his words, putting the deal together. Then he has one more demand where he says “and I want a young boy.” And Teddy gets up saying “I’m outta here!” but Kevo shouts “Sit down, Teddy!” and explains that what he means is he wants someone like “Tom Cruise or Robby Lowe” as a co-star, to attract a younger audience to the film.

A later episode has Kevo nominated for an Academy Award, but he chooses not to go to the ceremony, insisting that he doesn’t care about winning, and instead insists that Teddy go to the show in his place, and to accept the award for him if Kevo wins. Teddy’s excited at first, until Kevo gives a him a written speech that he wants to Teddy to read at the show, in which he basically insults everyone in Hollywood. So now Teddy’s extremely nervous about doing this, and then on the show’s night we see Kevo watching on TV at home and, despite his earlier proclamations, he’s clearly really hoping to win, and is disappointed when he doesn’t, but Teddy is happy to be off the hook.

Another episode has Kevo filming a movie in which the co-star is a trained monkey who’s kind of famous (like Lassie, or Spuds MacKenzie), but he gets mad, feeling that the monkey is upstaging him. He tries to get Teddy to get the monkey replaced, but Teddy won’t do it, and so Kevo decides to secretly poison the monkey. But when Kevo sees the monkey’s trainer drinking the cup that Kevo thought was for the monkey, he gets a look of sheer terror on his face (thinking he may have just killed a man), and as this is happening while film is recording everyone thinks Kevo is just acting, as his character was supposed to be scared in that scene, and everyone congratulations him afterward on how great an actor he is (don’t worry, the man lives).

Another a favorite episode is where Kevo wants to sign with a new agency, and take Teddy with him to continue being his agent. But Teddy feels conflicted because he wants to remain loyal to Abe and stay at his agency, even though Kevo threatens to leave without him, meaning Teddy would now have no clients, and therefore be unlikely to continue as an agent anyway. But when Teddy finally tells Kevo to go ahead and leave without him, Kevo admits that he can’t. It turns out he’s developed some weird co-dependency for Teddy, even though all he does is berate him, and so he refuses to leave without him, saying “at least we’re still together,” to Teddy’s bewilderment.

Likewise, Teddy’s ongoing one-sided rivalry with Al Floss, and his failing attempts to win the respect (and attraction) of Laurie were also bright spots on the show.

By contrast there was an episode where Teddy is asked to house-sit for some other movie star, and he brings his grandmother, brother, and uncle over, just to impress them, and someone ends up breaking the toilet, causing a plumbing emergency that Teddy has to fix before the movie star returns. Episodes like that, involving Teddy’s family, as well as many of the at-home scenes in other episodes, felt out of place, like standard family sitcom fare. I think focusing on the ways of Hollywood, more like what a similarly canceled show ACTION, and the more successful show, ENTOURAGE did later, was the better option for this series.

Still, with a great premise and cast, I feel like the show had much unrealized potential. Unfortunately, it has yet to be released on DVD or Blu-Ray, or made available on any streaming services. Nor is it currently airing on any TV stations, as far as I’m aware. Although you can buy the sheet music for the theme song, if you want.

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